Where is Britain’s Liz Cheney?
Alexandra Hall Hall explores the worrying trajectories of the US Republicans and the UK’s Conservative Party
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I was very sad to hear of the defeat of Congresswoman Liz Cheney in her bid to be re-selected as the Republican candidate for Wyoming to the US House of Representatives.
I had got to know her quite well on a personal basis when I worked for her from early 2003 to mid-2004 in the US State Department, where I happened to be assigned on secondment from the Foreign Office. She was a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Middle East Bureau, where I was embedded for one year, as an advisor in the section promoting democracy in the Middle East.
She turned out to be quite different in person from the hawkish caricature painted by her detractors, particularly those who strongly disliked her father, Vice President Dick Cheney. I didn’t necessarily agree with her brand of conservative politics, but I found her to be a good person to work for. She was hard-working and professional, and always kind and supportive to me.
Above all, I found her to be a good listener – particularly when she was engaging with civil society activists and human rights defenders in the Middle East. She listened intently and patiently to their remarks, and conveyed real sympathy for the challenges they faced. She was also surprisingly humble in her manner (again, given the more brash reputation of her father), and ready to acknowledge the limitations of US power and occasional failings.
When I ran into her again last year at a think tank event, despite being the guest of honour, she made time to come over and chat to me and reminisce about our work together. She remained warm and friendly, but there was a new steeliness and determination in her manner, no doubt forged by her experiences over the past two years.
Cheney seems to represent a dying breed of politicians willing to put principle and loyalty to their constitution and country before their own personal interests or party.
The main reason she lost her primary competition to a candidate backed by Donald Trump is because, for the past 20 months, she has stood out – almost alone among Republican members of Congress – in strongly condemning Trump’s unpresidential behaviour in office, his claims that the 2020 Presidential Election was ‘stolen’, and his incitement of the mob which attacked Congress on January 6 2021.
Cheney was one of only 10 House Republicans to vote in favour of impeaching the former president. She is one of only 2 Republicans serving on the House select committee investigating the circumstances of the attack on Congress.
She has paid a heavy price for her alleged ‘disloyalty’ to the Republican Party – the loss of her seat in Congress; potentially the end of her political career; a torrent of abuse from supporters of Donald Trump; and so many violent threats to her and her family that she was not even able to campaign openly in Wyoming, but could only attend small, private events, many not advertised in advance.
In her remarks conceding defeat, she again made clear her determination to prevent Donald Trump ever becoming president again, because of the danger he presents, in her view, to American democracy. To that end, she has not ruled out speculation that she may even mount a presidential campaign next year – not with any realistic prospect of winning herself, but in the hope that she can peel off enough votes from Trump if he decides to run again. The aim being to prevent him either from becoming the Republican Party’s nominee or defeating whoever the Democrat candidate is. She has also warned of the dangers of allowing a “personality cult” to take hold in the Republicans.
Listening to Liz Cheney’s comments, I could not help but be struck by the parallels between what is happening in the Republican Party in the US, and the Conservative Party in the UK.
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Just as Donald Trump has tried to mould the Republicans in his image, so in the UK, a dangerous personality cult seems to be growing around Boris Johnson – as exemplified by the attempts of some Conservative Party members to allow him to compete in the ongoing leadership campaign to replace him.
Whereas just a few short weeks ago it was hard to find many Conservatives publicly willing to defend him, now there is increasing talk of him having been unfairly ousted.
Newspapers like the Daily Mail have claimed he was “cast out” by a party “in the grip of collective hysteria” under pressure from “embittered foes and ambitious rivals”. The hashtag #bringbackboris is trending on Twitter. Johnson himself argued in populist fashion, before finally agreeing to step down, that he had some sort of special mandate from the people – despite the fact that the UK is a parliamentary, not a presidential, system.
This growing cult of personality around Johnson is one of the reasons Liz Truss appears to be the frontrunner to replace him – because she is perceived to have been more loyal to Johnson by staying on in the Cabinet and repeatedly defending him in public.
She has also pitched herself as the natural successor to Johnson, who will defend most strongly the Brexit which he allegedly ‘delivered’ – despite the fact that she actually originally campaigned to remain in the EU. By contrast, Rishi Sunak is portrayed by many of his critics as having stabbed Johnson in the back, and of being softer on Brexit than Truss – despite having actually campaigned during the referendum in favour of leaving the EU.
Liz Cheney was defeated by a candidate hitching her fortunes to that of Donald Trump and his legacy. And, in similar fashion, far from representing a decisive break from Johnson, the campaign to succeed him appears to be favouring the candidate trying most to ride in on his coattails.
And just as the Conservative Party is in danger of emulating the Republicans’ thrall around the persona of one man, so the party is also in danger of emulating the Republicans’ denial of the damage Trump caused. Where his supporters continue to spout ‘the Big Lie’, so Johnson’s supporters continue to spout the big lie that Brexit has been a great success – despite substantial (and in Brexit’s case, growing) evidence to the contrary.
Cheney has argued that Trump’s lies and actions were so damaging that they amounted to an attack on the very integrity of America’s institutions and democracy. Some might argue that I am making a ludicrous comparison by suggesting Boris Johnson presented anything remotely as dangerous to UK democracy.
And yet, where Trump encouraged his supporters to attack Congress, so Johnson unlawfully acted to prorogue Parliament. Where Trump heaped abuse on journalists who criticised him, judges who ruled against him, staff who tried to constrain his worst impulses; so under Johnson we have seen the BBC attacked as biased, judges and lawyers labelled ‘enemies of the people’ and civil servants accused of being part of a “deep state” determined to thwart government policy.
Imagine if, as America has been able to establish a committee to investigate the January 6 attack on Congress, an equivalent committee of investigation was established in the UK to investigate the circumstances around the 2016 EU Referendum and its implementation.
Where the US commission has produced powerful imagery of Trump egging on his supporters, I believe it would be easy for an equivalent commission in the UK to expose the gaps between what Brexit supporters claimed leaving the EU would achieve, and what has in fact resulted.
Where the US commission has shown the powerful testimony of staff who worked for Trump exposing his wild behaviour behind the scenes, perhaps a British commission could finally compel all the civil servants who worked behind the scenes in No 10 to report honestly on how policy-making has happened there.
At some stage, just as America needs to reckon with the truth over what happened on January 6, the UK needs to have an honest reckoning over the implementation of Brexit.
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However, what I find most sad about Liz Cheney’s lonely stance is that she has been abandoned – not just by diehard supporters of Donald Trump, but even by many of those who privately agree with her criticisms of him but have chosen to put party loyalty before country.
A politician from Wyoming who has known her from childhood was recently quoted as saying “I’ve known her since she was eight years old, she’s never changed a lick”, describing her as a person with integrity, and saying he no longer recognises the party which he joined.
Cheney’s problem seems to be that, where she has stayed constant to her principles, many in her party have shown themselves increasingly willing to abandon them for political expediency. There appears to be no one like her in the UK’s Conservative Party.
Liz Truss’ numerous U-turns and policy shifts over her career are in stark contrast to Liz Cheney’s steadfastness. Where Liz Cheney has chosen to speak out to expose Trump’s flaws, too many in the Conservative Party have kept their heads down and even now remain reluctant to criticise Boris Johnson’s many failings.
Where Liz Cheney has not been afraid to criticise those policies of Trump which go way beyond traditional Republican orthodoxy, very few Conservative MPs have dared to challenge the existing Tory orthodoxy around Brexit. Where Liz Cheney was prepared to stay on and fight, even at the cost of losing her own seat, too many Conservative MPs have either chosen to give in or retire from politics altogether.
Liz Cheney has been a brave, principled, but very lonely voice in the Republican Party. Of the 10 House Republicans, including Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Capitol insurrection, only two remain candidates for re-election. The others have bowed out or, like Cheney, have been defeated by Trump-backed challengers.
But at least Cheney has continued to provide an opposition. And as long as she still fights, she gives hope to those in the Republican Party who are equally appalled by its trajectory in recent years and long for a return to decency, honesty and loyalty to the constitution.
Where is the British Liz Cheney?