OPINION - Liz Truss forced into U-turn on public sector pay after backlash

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 (West End Final)
(West End Final)

You might have expected yesterday, when the first ballots began to drop on Conservative members’ doormats, to be another day of safety-first campaigning by leadership frontrunner Liz Truss.

The foreign secretary has been winning over the selectorate with a combination of tax cuts and her typical boosterism. And indeed the day started well. In another sign of how MPs think the contest is going, she secured the backing of a leadership rival against whom her team stands accused of landing some ferocious blows, Penny Mordaunt.

And yet, it’s been a bumpy 24 hours for the Truss campaign, culminating in today’s U-turn over plans for public sector pay. And now, according to one poll, Rishi Sunak is only five percentage points behind.

So what happened? In short, Truss had proposed ending national pay deals for public sector workers outside of London as part of a “war on Whitehall waste”, with plans to save £8.8bn a year by linking civil service salaries to living standards where they work.

Even putting to one side where that £8.8bn figure came from, the idea was politically fraught. Lots of losers from this policy live in constituencies the Tories won in recent years and hope to keep.

To that end, the Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen (who is backing Rishi Sunak) tweeted he was “Actually speechless,” and warned that it would mean pay cuts for millions of public sector workers outside of London. “So much that we’ve worked for in places like Teesside, would be undone,” he concluded.

The idea was scrapped today with a spokesperson for Truss blaming the confusion on a “wilful misinterpretation” and that suggesting Oceania was ever at war with Eastasia otherwise is “simply wrong”.

It is not as if regional pay deals are intrinsically bad. But it’s all a bit confusing. It leads to questions the Truss campaign would need to answer, such as 1) What would cutting public sector pay outside of London do to local economies? 2) What would that mean for the Government’s core aim of levelling up? 3) Is that still its core aim? 4) How would it manage the consequences of injecting far more complexity into the system? 5) What would it mean for variation in public services, given that it is already more difficult to recruit and retain people to work in rural areas and towns?

It would be tempting to call this Truss’s “nothing has changed moment“. Regardless of whether this has the anywhere near same impact, it is a learning moment. First, because Truss seems to have swallowed a proposal from the TaxPayers’ Alliance without having read the small print or considered whether now is a good time to be floating ideas on how to cut people’s pay.

But also because the impulse reaction of her team was to deny the U-turn and blame the media for its “wilful misinterpretation“. A bold move, given that questions of honesty and integrity were key reasons behind her predecessor’s downfall.

In the comment pages, Defence Editor Robert Fox says America’s cut-and-run from Afghanistan has allowed Afghanistan to once again become a host to al Qaeda. While Homes and Property Editor Prudence Ivey reveals the big danger as Londoners head for the suburbs.

And finally, to feed the mind, start with the stomach. Ben McCormack brings you the best restaurants to eat at near the British Museum.

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