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15 October 2022

Will Liz Truss really drop Boris Johnson-era policies?

The PM has hinted at a rethink of her predecessor’s policy commitments. As parliament returns, which are at risk?

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Last week, Liz Truss hinted that she was considering all Boris Johnson-era policies.

Asked to clarify whether she was “starting from scratch on everything”, the Prime Minister implied that this is exactly what she was doing. “We have made certain commitments,” she told TalkTV, “but we are going to have to look at things differently as we move forward.”

One member of Johnson’s cabinet has vocally opposed any rethink. Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary who backed Truss in the race against Rishi Sunak, tweeted in response: “We have no mandate from the people to do this.”

Some of Dorries’ biggest policies, such as the bill to privatise Channel 4 and a review of the BBC licence fee, now look uncertain. She wrote on Twitter that the “Conservative Gov[ernment was] elected on [the] basis of a manifesto, it’s how democracy works. People voted in [2019] on the policy promises we made (and for Boris). If we don’t want to deliver on the deal, [and] the promises [we made], we need a fresh mandate.” Dorries had also tweeted that “if Liz [Truss] wants a whole new mandate, she must take [it] to the country”, suggesting that the Prime Minister should call a general election.

But which of the Conservatives’ previous “commitments” will Truss stand by and which will she drop? Here are some of the policies at play.

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Online Safety Bill

One of the most important pieces of legislation from the Johnson premiership that looks likely to survive is the Online Safety Bill, introduced by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Dorries, Truss’s ally-turned-critic. On 7 September, the Prime Minister told parliament that the government “will be proceeding with the bill”, though “there are some issues that we need to deal with”.

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The bill aims to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online while defending free expression”. It puts the onus on search engines and sites that host user-generated content to protect the public from material including child sexual abuse, terrorism and, most contentiously, “legal but harmful content”. Extra measures must be taken by platforms to stop children using their sites from seeing “legal but harmful content” – including depictions of self-harm and eating disorders. Guidance on how platforms’ new duties will be policed is to be drawn up and regulated by Ofcom, which will be able to fine those not adequately enforcing the requirements.

[See also: Kwasi Kwarteng makes a cautious retreat]

However, that “legal but harmful” clause is at the heart of concerns that MPs and activists have about the effect the bill may have on free speech – an interpretation that Truss has acknowledged. “What I want to make sure is we protect the under-18s from harm, but we also make sure free speech is allowed, so there may be some tweaks required,” she told parliament. The bill is currently at the report stage, the level before MPs debate and vote on its contents for the third and final reading – which is scheduled to take place this autumn.

Raising benefits in line with inflation 

A government pledge that looks less certain to survive is the raising of benefits in line with inflation. The commitment was made by the former chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has since lost his job. Truss refused on several occasions to confirm that next year’s payments, which are due to change in April, will match September’s Consumer Prices Index inflation rate of 9.9 per cent. Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng will unveil his plans for Universal Credit in his second “fiscal event”, which is scheduled for 31 October.

Last week, the Work and Pensions Committee wrote to Kwarteng asking for assurance that he would uphold Sunak’s pledge. “Without it,” said the committee chair and Labour MP Stephen Timms, “countless families risk being pushed further into crushing poverty as they are forced to stretch the same money over higher prices.”

The shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves also strongly condemned Truss and Kwarteng’s stalling: “The idea that the government can afford to give tax cuts to the wealthiest, but not uprate benefits in line with inflation… is grotesque.” As for the Tories, the former the leadership candidate and Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt said it “makes sense” to increase benefits in line with inflation.

The health disparities white paper

The future of the government white paper on health inequalities looks uncertain too. A plan to tackle regional, racial and other disparities between the rich and poor in the context of health, which was so exposed during the pandemic, was meant to be published “in spring 2022”, MPs were told in February by Sajid Javid, the then health secretary.

But like Sunak, the MP for Bromsgrove resigned from his post in Johnson’s cabinet. His successor, Thérèse Coffey, reportedly U-turned on its release, with insiders telling the Guardian that the white paper is “dead”. The Department of Health and Social Care, however, has since breathed life into the prospect of its publication, and described reports of its scrapping as “inaccurate”. It added that “no decisions have been taken” on whether it will be published.

Health experts reacted with dismay to reports of the white paper’s cancellation. Sarah Clarke, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said that in order to reduce pressure on the NHS, the government needs “to tackle the root causes of ill health”. “We need,” Clarke added, “a clear commitment to prioritise health inequalities and deliver the health disparities white paper as planned.”

[See also: Liz Truss is a morbid symptom of British capitalism’s long crisis]