Liz Truss has been channelling her inner Margaret Thatcher. This isn’t new – from the furry Russian hat worn to Moscow to the photoshoots on tanks. But since the race to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative leader kicked off, her attempted imitation has gone into overdrive. Consider the vocal coaching the Foreign Secretary has clearly had to lower her voice and her refrain that all Britain’s problems can be solved with a smaller state to see the strategy in action.
However, it increasingly seems there’s another Conservative prime minister influencing the way Truss is running her campaign: Boris Johnson.
I don’t just mean the way that Truss, once an ardent Remain campaigner, has reinvented herself as the Brexiteer’s Brexiteer – just as Johnson flip-flopped, writing two articles (one for and one against leaving the EU) before coming down on the Leave side and posing as the poster boy for Brexit. No, it’s the full-scale Johnson approach to awkward situations: deflect, deny and don’t worry about the truth.
Take this week’s row over public sector pay. On Monday 1 August the Truss team sent out a press release declaring she would “wage a war on Whitehall waste to save taxpayers £11 billion”. The bulk of that figure would come from potential savings of “£8.8 billion per year” by introducing “regional pay boards tailoring pay to the cost of living where civil servants actually work”.
It didn’t take long for people to realise that “tailoring pay” based on regional living costs would amount to workers in less wealthy parts of the country – in, say, the Red Wall seats that won the Conservatives the 2019 election – being paid less than their counterparts in London. Moreover, the £8.8bn figure would only be reached if “the system were to be adopted for all public sector workers in the long term”. In other words, you can’t get there simply by slashing civil servants’ pay – you have to cut the pay of other public sector workers too. Like nurses, for example. Or teachers. Or police officers.
We can of course have a debate about whether it’s fair for a nurse paying modest housing costs in Leeds to earn the same as one struggling to rent in London. But that isn’t a debate Truss wanted to have. Fierce backlash to her anti-northern policy from senior Conservatives including Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, prompted a screeching U-turn. By Tuesday lunchtime the policy was no more.
I don’t mean that it had been scrapped – rather, the Truss line was that it had never existed. A campaign spokesperson insisted: “Current levels of public sector pay will absolutely be maintained. Anything to suggest otherwise is simply wrong… There will be no proposal taken forward on regional pay boards for civil servants or public sector workers.” The outcry was branded a “wilful misrepresentation”.
Reporting on a press release is wilful misrepresentation now? While Truss outriders such as Brandon Lewis, the former Northern Ireland secretary, have tried to point to instances where the proposal was presented as a plan to cut pay immediately rather than lower the salaries of new starters, overall media representation of the story has been accurate. The new spin that regional pay boards were never on the cards is, to borrow a quote from the Truss campaign itself, “simply wrong”.
But it doesn’t matter. Johnson spent three years in office twisting and bending and making Hula Hoops out of the truth. The distortions are too many to count. Promising voters an “oven-ready” Brexit deal that was so flawed his own government is now risking breaking international law to get out of it. Insisting that no rule-breaking parties took place in Downing Street when it turns out the place was basically a lockdown Hacienda. Refusing to come clean about the renovations to his flat or who had paid for them. Dodging the question of how many children he has. Sending ministers out to deny he had ever known of allegations against a lecherous Tory MP when there was clear evidence that he had. And that’s before we even mention blaming the costs of leaving the EU – paid by businesses facing extra red tape, lost trade and holidaymakers trying to make it through Dover – on anything and anyone but Brexit.
This post-truth approach to politics worked for Johnson far longer that it had any right to. It won him a landslide majority and kept him in power through numerous scandals that would have floored a leader with more decency. Now Truss is vying to be his successor and it’s clear which lessons she has learnt from past prime ministers. Dressing up like Thatcher might have its merits, but it’s Johnson’s playbook Truss is really following.