United Kingdom: Liz Truss – Rishi Sunak, a duel placed under the sign of Margaret Thatcher

United Kingdom: Liz Truss - Rishi Sunak, a duel placed under the sign of Margaret Thatcher

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Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak: one of these two political personalities will enter 10 Downing Street on September 5 in an inflammable social context. The two contenders for the post of Prime Minister want to be firm on the question of strikes, like in his time a certain Margaret Thatcher from whom they have largely drawn inspiration in recent months. Explanations.

The social summer was hot in the United Kingdom, marked by multiple strikes in many sectors: rail, dockers, postal services, garbage collectors… And the temperature could even rise in the fall, in the coming weeks : Britain’s main unions want more coordinated moves to maximize the impact of strikes and ultimately “win” the fight for inflation-linked pay rises.

The return to politics is also shaping up to be eventful: on September 5 we will know which of Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will succeed Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street. The only certainty: the two conservative contenders for the post of Prime Minister have shown in recent weeks their closeness to Margaret Thatcher and their desire to put down the social movement underway across the Channel.

“Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak moved to the right during the campaign (this summer, editor’s note) to please conservative adherents – who have fond political memories of Margaret Thatcher”, explains Sarah Pickard, lecturer in contemporary British civilization at the New Sorbonne.

>> To read also: in the United Kingdom, the specter of a general strike to say no to inflation

These 160,000 members of the Conservative Partywho vote from the beginning of August until September 2 to decide who will be the next British Prime Minister, present a singular profile, according to the specialist in the United Kingdom: “They are rather white men aged over 50, are come from the middle classes and live in the south of England. They don’t have the profile of the British voter as a whole: they are more to the right than Tory MPs and the general population.”

And Margaret Thatcher represents what these voters love: traditions, national pride in being British, hard work and neoliberalism.

Political references more in form than in Thatcherite substance

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have a political interest in following in the footsteps of the “Iron Lady” – a nickname given to Margaret Thatcher because of her resistance to several social movements in the 1980s (notably that of the British miners in 1984 -1985).

The two candidates for the succession of Boris Johnson assume, each in their own way, a part of the Thatcherist heritage. Liz Truss has taken care of appearances on several occasions. The Minister of Foreign Affairs was notably photographed in military uniform in a tank during a trip to Estonia, in November 2021. Thirty-five years earlier, in 1986, Margaret Thatcher had been photographed in the same circumstances during a visit to British troops stationed in West Germany.


More recently, in mid-July, Liz Truss seems to have borrowed dress codes from the “Iron Lady” – black jacket and white blouse with a bow tie – during the first debate between the candidates for the presidency of the Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher wore a very similar outfit on an election show in 1979 – the year she became Britain’s head of government.

“Liz Truss borrows more from Thatcherite form than substance,” explains Raphaële Espiet-Kilty, lecturer in the English studies department at Clermont-Auvergne University, while adding that she “wants to reduce taxes ( like Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s, editor’s note), which is a great battle horse of the conservatives”.

Sarah Pickard notes, for her part, a fundamental difference between the current candidate and the “Iron Lady”: “Margaret Thatcher had an ideology, a politics of convictions. It was not at all the opportunism that we sees with Liz Truss, who is more of a political chameleon.” The Minister of Foreign Affairs, before becoming a fervent defender of Brexit, was indeed a time opposed to the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU – with which Margaret Thatcher had a rocky relationship.

Rishi Sunak also assumes part of the Thatcherite heritage, as a supporter of the budgetary discipline advocated by Margaret Thatcher.

Politico media recalled in early Augustunequivocal remarks made by the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer in political praise of the “Iron Lady” at the start of his term as Prime Minister: “If you remember his first budgets – and, in fact, of what we had to do as a country at this phase – even if it was difficult, she understood that first we had to control inflation and control public spending and borrowing (…) . It’s exactly the same path that I want to follow”.

“Reconnect with the image of a party that has a clear direction”

The two candidates in the race for 10 Downing Street assume a certain closeness to the “Iron Lady”, marking a break with what the Conservative Party has initiated since the beginning of the 21st century.e century. “With Theresa May and David Cameron, in particular, there was a desire to distance themselves from Thatcherite conservatism, which was considered toxic. There was even talk of a need to ‘detoxify’ the Conservative Party to make it more compassionate , nicer”, explains Raphaële Espiet-Kilty.

This return to the past underlines the ideological and political crisis which agitates the Conservative Party after 12 years in power and the recent controversial mandate of Boris Johnson.

In this November 20, 1990 file photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attends the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.  A few days later, she resigned after 11 years as chief executive.
In this November 20, 1990 file photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attends the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. A few days later, she resigned after 11 years as chief executive. © Lionel Cironneau, PA

As Prime Minister (from 2019 until September 5), “BoJo” divided his party – especially with the series of “Partygate” scandals – to the point of being forced to resign at the beginning of July, while the departures were linked within his own government. The departure of Boris Johnson revealed the fragmentation of the Conservative Party with no less than eight candidates initially vying to succeed him.

That Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak then follow in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher is not trivial in this context, according to Raphaële Espiet-Kilty: “She nevertheless governed for eleven years, was elected three times in a row and embodies the image of a conquering party which succeeded and which was united. There is so much dissension at the moment within the Conservative Party that running (in the footsteps of) Margaret Thatcher can be a way of reconnecting with the image of a party that has a clear direction.”

In addition to the ambition to unite his party around himself, the next tenant of 10 Downing Street will above all have to manage a large-scale social movement across the Channel. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak promise more firmness against the current strikes if they are appointed Prime Minister… like a certain “Iron Lady”.

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