Conservative leadership race: How Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss curated their personal image in their bid for PM
By Poppy Wood
Truss has drawn comparisons to Margaret Thatcher in her efforts to channel ‘confident femininity’, while Sunak’s clean-cut suits are part of efforts to paint himself as the fiscally responsible candidate
Liz Truss’s many photo opportunities have drawn comparisons to her idol Margaret Thatcher (Photo: Getty Images)
Ready for Rishi or Liz for Leader? That’s the question the Tory membership will be asking themselves over the next few months as they choose their next Prime Minister. But whichever of the two comes out on top might depend less on their performances on the stump and more on what their catchy slogans hint at: personal branding.
While Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have already dragged each other through the mud since launching their leadership bids, calling each other posh and dishonest respectively, their public images have remained as sparkling as ever.
Mr Sunak has swapped his hoodies for close-fitting suits as he metamorphoses from modern-day Chancellor to statesman. Ms Truss, on the other hand, has opted for an apparent nod to Conservative iconography of the past, echoing her idol Margaret Thatcher in both style and substance.
Mr Sunak is thought to be the wealthiest MP in the UK, with a net worth of £730m, according to this year’s Sunday Times’ Rich List. And he has made no efforts to hide his expensive taste, wearing £490 Prada shoes to a building site earlier this month before stepping out in a £3,500 suit on Wednesday.
But his more polished style is part of a move to paint himself as a City slicker responsible with the nation’s finances, says Dr Pich. In a move that might alienate his more right-leaning colleagues, Mr Sunak has pledged only to cut taxes when the economy has recovered from the pandemic.
Rishi Sunak stepped out in a £3,500 suit earlier this week despite efforts to emphasise his humble roots during the Tory leadership race (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP)
“He’s rich – there’s no point in trying to hide it,” he says. “But he’s probably fine wearing expensive suits – he’s pushing this idea that he’s the embodiment of British business and British aspirations. It might actually hurt him more if he goes around town with a Costa coffee.”
The clean-cut look also appears to be part of efforts to dissociate himself fromBoris Johnson, who was finally forced out as Prime Minister earlier this month after drip-feed revelations of Downing Street parties and Westminster sleaze.
Mr Sunak’s resignation, which was seen by many as a stab in the back for his former ally, sparked a wave of departures that sent Mr Johnson’s premiership crumbling.
But the former Chancellor knows that painting himself as the squeaky clean successor to the outgoing Prime Minister won’t quite cut it on its own.
“He’s very much pushing his passion for the job and his enthusiasm because he knows he can’t match Boris Johnson’s personality,” says Dr Pinch.
Mr Sunak’s campaign for Prime Minister has been buoyed by zippy statements about his vim and vigour for the job. “Guys, we totally smashed it! Well done!” he said to colleagues in a campaign video released on Thursday after making the final two.
It’s easy to forget that at 42, Mr Sunak is only four years younger than his rival in the race for No 10. But while Ms Truss might not share the Coca Cola-powered, Silicon Valley optimism of Mr Sunak, she has carefully curated a personal brand of her own.
In the 10 months since becoming Foreign Secretary, the Government’s official Flickr account has posted an astonishing 1,124 photos of Truss on various trade trips. Truss in New Delhi, Truss in Riyadh, Truss at the Sydney Opera House – like a series of knock-off Tintin books.
There are photo albums of the Cabinet minister waltzing through palaces, jogging over the Brooklyn Bridge, and more often than not towering over male counterparts.
Even Priti Patel, who has made good use of the photo opportunities provided by dawn drug crackdowns in her time as Home Secretary, has only featured in a measly 188 photographs on the Government’s Flickr account.
Perhaps the most notable of Ms Truss’s many and varied official photographs are those that pay more than a passing resemblance to her hero, Mrs Thatcher.
On a visit to Estonia last November, she channelled a picture of the Iron Lady in West Germany by donning a military helmet and posing in a tank. Ms Truss also drew comparisons to a famous photograph of Mrs Thatcher in the Soviet Union in 1987 by wearing a black furry hat on a visit to Moscow earlier this year. That’s not to mention her frequent appearances in pussy-bow blouses.
Liz Truss channeled Margaret Thatcher on a trip to Estonia last November (Photo: Getty Images)
According to fashion consultant Lucia Restani, Ms Truss’s allusions to Mrs Thatcher are attempts to tout her “confident femininity” in a traditionally male field.
“Sunak tries to be a little more contemporary – his trousers are shorter, he wears trainers. Truss is colourful and lively, but she’s a little more conservative,” she says. “Whether or not it’s copied from Margaret Thatcher, who knows.”
Ms Truss herself has dismissed sartorial comparisons to Mrs Thatcher, insisting that: “I’m my own person.” But her promises to channel Thatcherite principles if she becomes Prime Minister suggest otherwise.
Unlike Mr Sunak’s emphasis on “fiscal responsibility”, Ms Truss has already pledged to make £40bn worth of tax cuts if she’s elected to office. Similarly, Mrs Thatcher chose to reduce income tax, deregulate the financial industry and privatise state-owned assets soon after becoming Prime Minister in 1979, despite soaring inflation.
“She might be trying to emanate those images associated with Margaret Thatcher – that image of a strong and determined woman taking on Westminster sexism,” says Dr Pich.
But which of the two will woo the Tory membership is still hard to tell at this stage. Truss is currently leading the polls, but as the political theatre of the past week has demonstrated, the tables can easily turn.
“Sunak represents finance and elegance. Truss comes across as warm,” says Ms Restani. “They’re both balancing it well. I can almost do statistics from professionals I’ve worked with over the years – there is almost an exact equation between how much effort people put into their look and how trustworthy they will be in their job.
“Plus, they both appear well on the international stage. Europeans do read style a certain way, and often if someone doesn’t really look the part they feel unsettled.”
So what to expect over the next two months, as the rivals battle it out before a new Prime Minister is selected on 5 September?
A big, fat package of personal branding, if their track record is anything to go by, perhaps wrapped up in a delicate pussy-bow.
“Expect some carefully choreographed photos of them showing their ‘human side’ in the coming months,” says Dr Pich.
“Maybe not Rishi riding a horse bareback like President Putin, but we’re going to see lots of walks up and down Whitby with an ice cream.”