The Tory frontrunner has stoked outrage with claims of ‘creeping antisemitism’ inside government. Adam Forrest looks at whether the controvesy is a sign of things to come
It appears Liz Truss was getting a little bored of talking about terrifying energy bills and the nation’s economic woes. The Tory leadership favourite has had little new to say about tax cuts and government “handouts” for several weeks now.
The foreign secretary has some very different set of questions to answer in the days ahead, having managed to take the contest into culture war territory with an astonishing attack on “creeping antisemitism” in the civil service.
Truss sparked outrage with the single strangest press release of her campaign to defeat Rishi Sunak and succeed Boris Johnson. Her team said she would “change woke civil service culture that strays into antisemitism”.
The FDA and Prospect unions which represent Whitehall said Truss’s comments were “insulting and abhorrent”, and have written to her campaign to demand she produce some kind of evidence for her claims.
Government staff said they were puzzled and appalled, while the Jewish Labour Movement decried a “desperate and divisive attempt by Liz Truss to drag Jews into her campaign to win over the Conservative membership”.
But it is not the kind of outrage the frontrunner is likely to be uncomfortable with, having set out her stall as a happy combatant in the culture wars.
Boris Johnson, despite his history of deeply unpleasant remarks, was reluctant to wallow in hot-button topics such as pronouns, trans rights or footballers taking the knee for Black Lives Matter.
Truss, on the other hand, appears only too willing to pounce on the kind of things which send Piers Morgan and the right-wing commentariat into professional apoplexy. Could she be our very first “war on woke” prime minister?
Earlier this week she won the unofficial backing of her former leadership rival Kemi Badenoch, beloved by the kind of Tories who prefer getting angry about lefty academics and “cancel culture” than arguing about Treasury forecasts.
The former equalities minister said Truss was a “maverick” who would bring “unpredictability” to government (she meant it as a compliment). Truss, in turn, hinted at a top role in the cabinet for Badenoch – describing her as “absolutely brilliant”.
Badenoch recently praised Truss for “empowering” her when they were both in the equalities department, after plans to make it easier for trans people to change their legal gender were scrapped.
Meanwhile, Iain Duncan Smith, also tipped for a role in government after backing Truss, said this week legislation aimed at banning gay conversion therapy must be “looked at again” – despite years of delays on ending the highly controversial practice.
Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon advocated the idea that politics lives “downstream” from culture, and so to win and keep political power you have to fight over cultural issues.
Truss may not consciously be on board with the Bannon ideology. But she appears far more comfortable with the US-style culture wars than any previous leader or would-be leader in British politics.
The Tory leadership fight has not been pretty to watch. But the adoption of the antisemitism issue in Truss’s out-of-the-blue attack on the civil service is an ominous sign of even uglier political battles to come if she wins out with Tory members this month.