Liz Truss’s screeching U-turn on public sector pay cuts is the clearest sign yet she’s no Thatcher

This would be funny if it weren’t so serious for millions of public sector staff

August 2, 2022 1:10 pm(Updated 1:11 pm)

As soon as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries came out in support for Liz Truss’s leadership campaign, one former minister visibly shuddered. “It may work for now, but she’ll come to regret having the terrible twins on her side,” they told me.

Securing the backing of two of Boris Johnson’s most ardently loyal supporters, and the Cabinet’s most Brexity Brexiteers to boot, certainly helped the Foreign Secretary swing the influential Right of the party behind her in the MPs’ vote.

It’s also true that the pair have caused difficulties for the Truss camp of late. Dorries’s retweeting of an image of Rishi Sunak depicted as Brutus wielding a knife to stab Johnson’s Caesar was swiftly disowned by the campaign (Truss herself said she’d been “very clear” with her team she wanted a “positive” message).

But it’s perhaps Rees-Mogg who has potentially caused Truss even more damage, thanks to his drive to slash Whitehall and the civil service more broadly. That influence (who could forget his “sorry you were out” notes to those working from home) hangs heavily over her latest policy of regional pay rates for the public sector.

Truss’s big plan is to save £8.8bn a year by scrapping national pay rates and offering a “regional cost of living” rate for “all public sector workers in the long term”. She was so keen on Rees-Mogg’s backing that her campaign issued an updated version of her initial press release to include a quote from him. “I am delighted to see that, as Prime Minister, Liz Truss will continue to spearhead the work I have been doing,” he said.

Moreover, Rees-Mogg was chosen by the Truss camp for their Tuesday media round. When challenged that the plan would mean cutting pay rates of nurses, teachers and soldiers who lived outside London, he said the “focus at the moment” was on civil servants.

But as the criticism piled up – the Sunak campaign said it would mean 5.7m people (especially in the “Red Wall”) facing pay cuts, Labour said it would mean a £7.1 billion hit to local economies across Yorkshire, the North and the Midlands – the screeching U-turn became inevitable.

More worrying was that when the volte-face came, it was laughably executed. Instead of just holding their hands up and admitting they’d not anticipated the backlash, the Truss campaign actually claimed that: “Over the last few hours there has been a wilful misrepresentation of our campaign. There will be no proposal taken forward on regional pay boards for civil servants or public sector workers.”

Unfortunately, those last few hours included when her team sent out that “wilful” press release with an explicit reference to £8.8bn being saved by applying her plan to “all public sector workers over the long term”.

This would be funny if it weren’t so serious for millions of public sector staff. In a bid to woo the Tory grassroots, Truss lifted key elements of a Tax Payers’ Alliance report without thinking through the basic politics. Just as the criticism of her trade deals is that they were essentially “cut-and-paste” copies of previous EU deals, is she now the “cut-and-paste” policy provider?

It also means Truss’s cut-and-paste Margaret Thatcher tribute act risks going badly awry. It was Mrs T who famously said she was “not for turning”, yet this flip-flop suggests a basic lack of competence – followed by attempts to lie about the original proposals – that leaves Truss looking more like Johnson than ever before.

It reminds me that one civil servant who used to work with Truss was appalled to discover she left in her ministerial red box a note on policy briefs written for her: “TLDR” [which teenagers will recognise as “too long, didn’t read”]. That’s a sharp contrast with Thatcher, who not only devoured huge documents at speed but also left detailed notes on many sections of them.

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Meanwhile, Rees-Mogg (who arguably triggered Johnson’s long demise with his plan to protect Owen Paterson) was on the airwaves proving just what a vote-winner he could be for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. When asked “What actually works well in Britain today, can you think of any public service?” he replied: “Our Test cricketers didn’t do too badly against New Zealand. So Test matches are going reasonably well.”

Rees-Mogg had earlier this year demanded that if Johnson was toppled from office there simply had to be a general election for any new Prime Minister to win their own mandate from the people. Strangely enough, he hasn’t yet made that argument for Truss.

Today’s public sector blunder may not worry Tory members much and it’s better to make your mistakes in a leadership race than a general election. But it’s a reminder that Truss’s combustible mix of accident-prone haplessness and shink-the-state instincts may end up burning off a lot of voters come 2024.

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