Former foreign secretary Liz Truss has won the Conservative party’s leadership contest and beat former chancellor Rishi Sunak in the race for the top job. For the third time in Britain’s history, a woman will lead the country.
But that doesn’t mean that the country will necessarily become a better place to be a woman under her leadership. In fact, if her current policy proposals are anything to go by, it could actually become a more hostile place.
This autumn brings a litany of catastrophes, which, five years ago, would have seemed unthinkable, but, today, make up the bulk of the daily news bulletins.
Britain’s economy is shrinking and teetering on the verge of a recession according to new figures. At the same time, living costs are spiralling because of rising inflation which, according to Goldman Sachs, could hit 22% next year. Energy bills for a typical household will rise to £3,549 a year on the 1st October, when a new price cap is introduced. And there is a very real chance that there will be blackouts this winter because Russia has turned off its gas supply to Europe in response to the sanctions imposed on the country following its invasion of Ukraine.
We currently face the worst economic crisis in a generation but the new prime minister has little in the way of practical solutions which would help those who are most affected: women and low-income young people.
Truss is a fan of tax cuts which would disproportionately help men as well as the wealthy, according to analysis by the Women’s Budget Group. These same tax cuts will only save the poorest households 76p per month, and she favours tax reforms for parents, which could – wait for it – actually encourage women to stay at home instead of return to work.
“Young people on low incomes are already more likely to be going without essentials and to be in arrears with their household bills," Rachelle Earwaker, a senior economist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, told me while reacting to the news of Truss’s win. "They're also facing skyrocketing rents in cities like London, where the rental market has exploded, and in the private rental sector, homes are more likely to have poor energy efficiency ratings meaning higher energy bills.
Truss, so far, has announced no policy ideas which suggest that she plans to help younger renters, which is a bit like being the captain of the Titanic, seeing an iceberg, and ploughing towards it anyway because evictions are already up by 39% in the last three months.
People are already running out of options. And, to extend the metaphor, trying to live a normal life right now is like having a (very expensive) champagne dinner in the first class dining room of the Titanic while it slowly sinks.
Women are worse hit by the economic catastrophe that is unfolding because they generally earn less than men to begin with and are more likely to be primary caregivers, Mary-Ann Stephenson of the Women’s Budget Group explained over the phone, speaking shortly after Truss’s win was confirmed.
“We know that women are being hit harder by the cost of living crisis, both because they were poorer going into it with lower levels of savings and higher levels of debt, which means they have less flexibility to deal with rising costs,” she continued.
Truss might be keen to cut taxes but the economic problems we face are not only about rising costs but the fact that incomes are too low. Women are more likely than men to be low earners and Stephenson says this is something Truss needs to address.
“Women are the shock absorbers of poverty,” Stephenson continued. “They tend to be the main managers of budgets in the poorest households. And they are the people who are more likely to go without in order to make sure that their children have food on the table, and clothes on their backs. It's mothers skipping meals, for example, to feed their kids.”
“On average, for the average woman, Liz Truss’s proposed tax cut would save £263 a year,” Stephenson added. When you consider that in the context of rising energy bills, it won’t even touch the sides.
And that’s before we even think about the fact that a lot of the sectors which will be hit hard by rocketing commercial energy bills – such as retail, hospitality and the care sector – are female-dominated. “As we go into the winter, there is no price cap for these businesses who face energy bill increases of 400-600%,” Stephenson concludes. “We are going to see large numbers of business closures and these are sectors which employ women.”
Perhaps it’s facile to expect a woman to care more than a man might about the fact that things are harder for women and people with children right now. But, at the very least, you’d hope that a woman prime minister wouldn’t oversee a society in which things actively get worse for them.
But, unless she changes tack, things are going to get worse under Truss – a lot worse by all accounts – before they get better.
Whenever a woman prime minister sits in 10 Downing Street, Britain seems to find itself in a state of crisis. Theresa May was selected by her party to clear up the mess of Brexit, and, not since Margaret Thatcher came to office have spiralling living costs caused by inflation been such a problem. Truss takes over at a time which is equally defined by chaos and uncertainty.
Liz Truss is a seasoned politician who has served in cabinets under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, but her affinity with Margaret Thatcher is inescapable. Not only has Truss, at times, quite literally appeared to dress up like Thatcher for photo opportunities (remember the blouse, never forget the tank), but also, she will have an economic crisis on her hands to rival that which confronted the Iron Lady. When Thatcher was elected, she promised to reduce inflation which, at the time, was running at around 14% after periods of 20% plus earlier that decade. Truss will be the first prime minister to encounter such high levels since.
These are worrying times. We need a rigorous and compassionate leader who can adapt and abandon their ideas if they don’t fit with the rapidly changing economic reality. Liz Truss has not shown us that she is that person by virtue of the fact that she remains so wedded to tax cuts despite expert warnings that they won’t work and could cost up to £50bn a year to implement.
Truss has promised to “turbocharge the economies of places like Norwich, Great Yarmouth and across East Anglia, by unleashing the private sector with tax cuts and better regulation” but said nothing about how she plans to help people pay their rent, afford their childcare or meet the soaring energy bills. If she doesn’t act fast, Earwaker told me in no uncertain terms that people will fall into debt, get behind on bills and end up behind on essentials this winter.
Against that backdrop, the words “cost of living crisis” are starting to sound like a sick philosophical joke which alludes to existential angst and not a phrase that’s meant to be shorthand for the reality that growing numbers of people – in particular women and low-income young adults – cannot afford to run their homes and feed themselves.
A new leader may have been chosen to replace Boris Johnson by the Conservative party, but it still looks as though the country is without a proper leader.