Britain's Conservative party leadership race is turning into a transphobic spectacle

As the race to replace Conservative party leader and Prime Minister Boris Johnson tightens, candidates have been leaning into culture war issues including transgender rights.

(CNN)Britain's Conservative leadership contest kicked off this week, a weeks-long process that will result in the country's next prime minister. Besides the standard pledges of tax cuts or a slimmed down state, there has also been an enthusiastic promotion of anti-trans positions, potentially marking an intensification of the current government's "war on woke."

Leading the pack of hopefuls is Rishi Sunak, Britain's former Chancellor of the Exchequer whose resignation from the government last week contributed to the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. After the second round of voting among Conservative Party lawmakers earlier this month, Sunak topped the list of the five candidates who remain in the running.
One of Sunak's first policy pledges, after he announced his intention to run, was protecting "women's rights," he wrote in a Twitter post, linking to an article in which an unnamed Sunak ally was quoted as saying the lawmaker was "critical of recent trends to erase women via the use of clumsy, gender-neutral language."
    Sunak will create a manifesto, this ally told British tabloid the Daily Mail, that will oppose trans women competing in women's sport and "will call on schools to be more careful in how they teach on issues of sex and gender."
      Rishi Sunak, who won the first two rounds of the Conservative leadership contest, will oppose trans women competing in women's sport in his manifesto, an ally told the Daily Mail.
      The Johnson-led government leaned into culture war issues during the pandemic as it attempted to play to its traditional, southern Conservative Party base and new northern English voters won over from the center-left opposition Labour party in the 2019 general election. Even if polling suggests culture war issues, like trans rights, do not preoccupy the day-to-day lives of the British public, many of the candidates have taken up the government's mantle, staking their positions in the debate over sex and gender identity.
      Over the past week, Conservative candidates are more likely to have been asked "what is a woman" by British journalists than to have been tripped up by more traditional questions, like the cost of a pint of milk. On Wednesday, Sunak's biggest rival in the race, the once relatively little-known junior minister Penny Mordaunt, was asked if she would continue with culture war issues like trans rights.
      "Let me deal with the issue floating around in the background. It was (former UK Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher who said that 'every Prime Minister needs a Willie,'" Mordaunt said in reference to Thatcher's deputy, William "Willie" Whitelaw. "A woman like me doesn't have one," she added.
        Mordaunt has spent a lot of time this week rowing back on her past pro-trans views. She told online newspaper Pink News in 2018, for example, that "trans women are women."
        In a 10-part Twitter thread posted last Sunday, Mordaunt u-turned, stressing that trans women might be legally female by law but "that DOES NOT mean they are biological women, like me." She added: "I am biologically a woman. If I have a hysterectomy or mastectomy, I am still a woman. And I am legally a woman."
        Penny Mordaunt has come under fire for walking back on her statement that "trans women are women."