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It is standard practice for politicians to send out news stories to the media “under embargo”, and they include a time at which the embargo can be lifted. Normally that time is half past ten at night. They do this because they want the story to be in tomorrow’s newspapers, and to be discussed on tomorrow’s morning news, not rushed out straight away.
But it can lead, very occasionally, to remarkably discombobulating scenes. Like on Monday afternoon, for example, when a press release containing a new policy announcement from Liz Truss landed in my inbox, and it was so breathtakingly stupid it was very hard to believe it could possibly be real.
If this were breaking news, you’d have the luxury of going online and seeing if everyone else is thinking what you’re thinking. But embargoed news is not like that. And when it’s something as staggering as Liz Truss sent out yesterday, you begin to doubt yourself. That it can’t possibly be as absurd as it looks because no one would ever possibly do or say anything that stupid, entirely on purpose and without provocation. That you must have misunderstood it.
In a room with no one around me, in a house with no one else home, I may even have emitted a kind of barking noise.
But no. I really hadn’t misunderstood it. It really was that bad. In the middle of the most terrifying cost of living crisis anyone can remember, Liz Truss really was breezily announcing that she was going to save £9bn a year by lowering the wages of public sector workers, and specifically public sector workers outside London.
It may not strictly be possible to count up all the ways in which it is stupid. There are far too many and it would also make for a particularly depressing reworking of a much loved Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem. But we can start with a few. Liz Truss is, theoretically at least, wanting to be the next leader of the Conservative Party.
The one that won an 80-seat majority by promising to level up the country, and in so doing convinced a very large number of very safe Labour seats in northern towns to vote for them for the first time ever.
Now, levelling up may very well have been nebulous rubbish, which deliberately had no meaning at all. But it should be pretty easy to understand what levelling up doesn’t mean, and it definitely doesn’t mean saving billions of pounds a year by paying people in the North less money to do the same job as people in the South.
This is a kind of political Brewster’s Millions. As if someone had told Liz Truss she now had to throw away the Tory leadership contest which before this point she had effectively already won. And if she somehow won it anyway, then she was at least doing everything she possibly could to make sure she couldn’t win the next general election.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, within a few hours of being out from under embargo, the policy has now been cancelled. And, to make things a bit more fun, the statement that followed accused the journalists who faithfully reported the press release’s contents of “wilful misrepresentation”. There has been no such misrepresentation at all.
Her own press release clearly states that the policy could save £8.8bn, a figure drawn from analysis that involves big pay cuts to almost every public sector worker outside London. There has now been a second statement that says the “there will be no proposal taken forward on regional pay boards for civil servants or public sector workers”.
In other words, the policy they announced last night was scrapped this morning, because a large number of people had the temerity to be absolutely staggered by it.
It may seem worth reminding Truss, and her spokesperson who has accused people of “misrepresentation” that this leadership contest is only happening because the public made the correct calculation that they could no longer believe a word that came out of the current prime minister’s mouth. His spokesperson, a taxpayer-funded employee, had to apologise to large numbers of journalists for knowingly lying to them about parties in Downing Street for months.
Still, maybe Truss is a strategic genius. There are, last time I checked, about 20,000 Tory members who’ve signed a petition demanding the right to vote for Boris Johnson. They hate Rishi Sunak because he took down their hero. Maybe making hopeless policy announcements, then scrapping them and getting your spokesperson to be flagrantly dishonest about it all is a play to get them on board, given how much they self-evidently love that kind of thing.
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But it’s arguable it doesn’t bode well. This has been the worst moment of her campaign thus far by a considerable margin. And it doesn’t help that it came straight after the second worst moment, which happened at the Tory leadership hustings in Exeter on Monday night, when she announced that the “best thing to do with Nicola Sturgeon is ignore her. She’s an attention seeker”.
She’s also the democratically elected first minister of Scotland, who really does not need to be handed any more ammunition to assist in her mission to blow up the UK.
Liz Truss still reckons she’s continuity Boris Johnson. But she has now started to look rather a lot more like a different Tory leader, and that would be Theresa May, who rather famously scrapped her most important policy – the so-called dementia tax – then stood on a stage repeating the words, “nothing has changed, nothing has changed”, and hoping that just by saying it enough times it would become true – when it clearly wasn’t.
For Theresa May, everything probably changed in that moment. She lost her majority a few weeks later. Everything could still change for Liz Truss too. And as of now, it is only going in one direction. She has levelled down her own campaign. She’ll just have to hope she hasn’t done it by enough.