From Kemi Badenoch on toilets to Rishi Sunak’s war on ‘clumsy’ language, the would-be PMs are using a minority group’s right to exist as a tawdry talking point in their popularity contest
Let’s do a quick recap on the swill of anti-trans posturing that has stunk out the Conservative leadership contest. Yes, it will be depressing, but I’ve just had it with being sprayed with this poison and expected to brush it off and go about my business.
Kemi Badenoch launched her campaign at a venue with gender-neutral toilets, but by the time her team arrived, handmade paper signs saying “men” and “ladies” had been stuck on the doors – underlining the point that, with her in charge, no one would ever have to suffer the indignity of the unisex toilet again, so God help them if they ever got on a train. Penny Mordaunt referenced Thatcher’s “every prime minister needs a Willie” remark, giving it a new twist: “A woman like me doesn’t have one.” Her supporters found this clever, even while, back against a wall, could anyone explain what it means? Was she reassuring conservative members that she is not trans, which nobody thought she was? Or soothing them with memories of Margaret? It’s the kind of baffling half-message you might whisper to someone while they are asleep, just to mess with their dreams. Liz Truss wowed an audience of Leeds Tories by telling them “a woman is a woman”, while Rishi Sunak pledged in the Mail on Sunday that he would reverse the “recent trends to erase women via the use of clumsy, gender-neutral language”.
Even if we park (and I’m loth to) the sheer, cynical unkindness of using a minority group’s right to exist as a talking point in a popularity contest, it’s a bit terrifying, isn’t it? Many things, from the economy to the climate, have taken an extremely dark turn. How could any person of serious intent be concentrating on “clumsy, gender-neutral language”?
Maybe it doesn’t matter what I think, since I’m not choosing the next prime minister; except you know who agrees with me? Tory members. The pollsters Opinium did salience research on a 500-strong sample of Conservative members, to find out which issues they were most passionate about. Trans issues, which had been posed as two separate questions (participation in sport and rights more generally), came in at 26th and 27th, in a list of 28. Is it because they have already been whipped into a frenzy about migrant crossings – the second biggest issue – and voters, like milk, can’t be frothed twice? Or is it because there is a cost of living crisis – by far the subject of greatest concern – with such serious hardship looming that not even the triple-locked are viewing the coming months with anything but dread? Who on earth do these politicians think they are, that they can steer this country into the rocks and then make the wreckage look more festive with their spiteful fireworks?
Duh, my mistake. They are not trying to distract their own voters; there likely won’t be a vote on the leader anyway. Rishi Sunak, if his flustered chatter and petrified fake laugh were anything to go by on Monday’s Today programme, will have conceded within a week, leaving Liz Truss to be anointed. It’s just a tawdry play to divide the left, so that instead of building a coherent critique of this shambles of a government, instead of laying out a platform on which they are united, Labour MPs are signing open letters to each other about drivel. Let us know when we can eat any of these confected controversies, or warm our hands setting fire to them.
Sun Tzu doubtless puts this more pithily, but progressives, everywhere: if you are chasing a stick Liz Truss threw for you, you are chasing the wrong stick.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist
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