The surest indication that we live in a decadent age is the surfeit of repeats. Hollywood is a franchise machine for producing new iterations of Star Wars and Spider Man. Publishers are more interested in stretching brands than nurturing fresh talent. Pop music is stuck on perpetual repeat. This is Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” gone digital and global. At 4 p.m. Wednesday, it reached the Conservative leadership race when Liz Truss made it to the final two in the race to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister.
It is not unusual for Conservative politicians to admire Margaret Thatcher — after all, the Iron Lady won three elections in a row, restored national pride, and shifted her party (and, indeed, the rival Labour party) in a much more free-market direction. Rishi Sunak, who made it to the final two with 137 votes, also regards himself as a Thatcherite.
Still, Truss takes Thatcher-worship to extremes — not just embracing her ideology but also imitating her sartorial style and personal mannerisms. In the Channel 4 TV debate for the leadership, she copied Thatcher’s big-white bow dress from one of her 1979 TV appearances. During a visit to Estonia she donned military gear and perched on a tank, echoing an image of Thatcher in a tank in West Germany in 1986. Truss’s choice of a Russian hat during a trip to Moscow was modeled on Thatcher three decades earlier. It is as if she were auditioning for a role in a Hollywood sequel — look like the star of the first movie and you will get the part.
How does Truss stand up to the Thatcher comparison that she so willingly invites?
There are certainly some similarities. Truss shares Thatcher’s instinctive belief in individual freedom amplified by educational opportunity. For her, life is what you make it provided that you are given a fair chance. She has no time for whingers who complain that they are oppressed by society while they lie in bed all day, but she’s equally fierce about knocking down unfair barriers to talent. When asked in an interview for her vision of Britain, she gave a rousingly Thatcherite answer: “Free — that means doing what you want, having control over life, not being told what to do. And it’s got to be just. People have got to feel that barriers aren’t being put in their way because they are a woman or because they’re from a low-income background.”
The big difference between her and her idol is that she’s much more of a libertarian. Thatcher was shaped by her father’s Methodism. Truss is a child of the Swinging Sixties — she has consistently voted in favor of same sex marriage and gay rights and against gambling restrictions. She once aroused the ire of members of her constituency party in South West Norfolk because she had had an extramarital affair with a married Tory MP, Mark Field. (Her marriage to Hugh O’Leary, an accountant, survived the controversy.)
Like her role model, Truss has positioned herself as the champion of the right of the party. Thatcher won the Tory leadership in 1975 as the champion of those who were sick of the party’s left-ward drift under Edward Heath. However, Truss has become her ideological successor by a more circuitous route: She campaigned vigorously for Remain, while Sunak was a Brexiteer from the very first. Still, she made it to the final two this week as the right’s favorite: the one who would cut taxes as quickly as possible and bargain with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol as hard as possible. Given the roundabout path of her ambitions, perhaps “prisoner” of the right would be a more apt description than champion.
The other great similarity with Thatcher is Truss’s indomitability: She seems to be capable of overcoming every obstacle and recovering from every setback to reach the top of politics. In his great essay “Politics as a Vocation” the German sociologist Max Weber reflected: “The only man who has a ‘vocation’ for politics is one who is certain that his spirit will not be broken if the world, when looked at from his point of view, proves too stupid or base to accept what he wishes to offer it, and who, when faced with all that obduracy, can still say ‘nevertheless’ despite everything.” The sentiment describes Truss at her best.
But the more you look at the similarities, the more contrived they seem.
Take style: However hard Truss tries to behave like Thatcher, there is one overwhelming difference between the two of them. Truss is simply much odder than Thatcher — or indeed than any politician I have ever met. Her public-speaking is wooden: Recitations enlivened only by her habit of putting inexplicable emphases on certain words. In person, she invades your personal space. She speaks over you. She takes photographs of your food to post on her hyperactive Instagram account.
Or take ideology. For all their similarities, Truss breaks with her idol on the most important issue facing the country. On coming to power, Thatcher prioritized two things: getting inflation under control (even if it meant soaring unemployment) and balancing the budget (the subject of endless homilies about good housewives balancing the household budget). Only then did she unleash the tax cuts that defined the middle period of her premiership.
Truss, by contrast, is throwing good housekeeping out of the window in a rush to cut taxes and, as she sees it, reignite growth. At best, this is Reaganism rather than Thatcherism (although Reagan had the twin advantages of the world’s reserve currency and biggest economy). At worst, it is a cynical ploy to appeal to the 200,000 Conservative Party members who now decide who wins. On taxing and spending, Sunak is closer to the real Thatcher than her self-appointed heir.
The biggest difference between the two, however, is the difference between the original artist and the tribute act. The latter is by definition a second-rater who feeds off other people’s creativity because they have little creativity of their own.
Thatcher’s policies were innovative responses to the most pressing problems of her time: raging inflation, industrial strife, the three-day work week, plummeting national confidence and an over-regulated economy. She repeatedly wrong-footed her more ideological supporters by throwing in fresh ideas such as tackling climate change and working with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Truss’s policies are attempts to echo those greatest hits regardless of their relevance: continue to bash Europe even though Britain’s best interests lie in forming a constructive relationship with its biggest trading partner; and cut taxes even though the country’s most pressing economic problem is 9%-plus inflation.
The malign combination of awkward personal style and a mummified ideology should rule Truss out of serious consideration for the most powerful job in the country. But her chances of coming out on top are better than even. Sunak has singularly failed to turn himself into the overwhelming choice of the parliamentary party in the way that Theresa May once did. He also has two forces arraigned against him: Boris Johnson loyalists who accuse him of betrayal, and Tory radicals who blame him for rising taxes and the cost-of-living crisis.
To her advantage, Truss reminds the party membership of their glory years. There is a good reason why our culture industries produce sequels and remakes in such profusion: The public likes them.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Boris Johnson’s Fall Is Populism’s Latest Act of Self-Destruction: Adrian Wooldridge
Tories Must Decide Between Thatcher and Reagan Leadership: Martin Ivens
The Cruelest Cut in the Tory Leadership Race: Therese Raphael
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”
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