Liz Truss packed her cabinet with “cronies off the backbenches” rather than competent ministers with a range of views, and appeared to have no coherent plan behind her mini-budget, Michael Heseltine has said.
The ex-deputy prime minister and former senior Conservative, who sits in the Lords as an unaffiliated peer after being suspended from the party in 2019, also predicted that Truss’s chances of winning the next election were “looking pretty bleak”.
Speaking at a fringe event on Monday at the Conservative conference in Birmingham, Heseltine said the prime minister’s plan for rapid economic growth would never work, castigating what he said was a curse of short-termism.
“Only the prime minister can stop it,” Heseltine said, speaking alongside the former justice secretary David Gauke, who lost the Conservative whip under Boris Johnson.
“And also by appointing ministers who know what the heck they’re doing, and have an agenda. There is just too much chopping and changing, and allegations that their friends are all in the cabinet.”
Heseltine added: “This party which I served my life in is a very sophisticated political machine. It is a coalition of many different strands.
“It is very important that what the prime minister should do is take the talent off the backbenches, not the cronies off the backbenches.”
Heseltine said the mini-budget that sparked political and market turmoil 11 days ago appeared to have been based on a hoped-for outcome – faster growth – rather than a route to get there.
“But what was the plan? They either had a plan – in which case, why don’t they publish it? Or the OBR [Office for Budget Responsibility] had a plan, which we’re told they did, so why didn’t they publish that? Or perhaps there was no plan. And that is serious.”
Contrasting Truss’s approach with that of Margaret Thatcher, in whose cabinet he served, Heseltine warned that there were “no short-term miracles to growth”.
“The great difference Liz Truss faces, and I can’t see how to deal with this, is she’s got two years, and to change anything significantly, to get results, is not possible in a two-year timescale,” he said. “I think you’ve got to tell the British people the truth about the situation.”
Asked about Truss’s election prospects, Heseltine said they were “looking pretty bleak”. He went on: “It will require a pretty impressive feat of political leadership. And has to start today. Like this afternoon.”
Gauke, who also said he felt Truss’s cabinet “has been defined on loyalty”, argued that the method by which Conservative party members could select a new leader did not work when it was in power.
“Is the membership choosing the leader of the party, when that party is in government, a good system? Absolutely not,” he said.
“There’s the long period of time where you’ve got uncertainty, I think it’s dangerous. And I also think that MPs are better qualified to make a judgement from party members. Apologies to party members, nothing personal, but I don’t think you should get to decide.”