BIRMINGHAM, England — Britain can’t say it wasn’t warned.
The U.K.’s new prime minister used to be a center-left Liberal Democrat. Now she’s a Thatcherite Tory. In 2016, she campaigned to stop Britain leaving the EU. Now she’s a diehard Brexiteer who’s not even sure if neighboring France is ‘friend or foe’.
And the shifts from Liz Truss just keep coming. In the three short months since Truss launched her campaign to lead the Conservative Party, she’s already performed five high-profile U-turns. On a seismic — some would say cataclysmic — day for the fledgling Truss government, POLITICO walks you through the growing list.
The curious case of the energy ‘handouts’
Truss and her leadership rival Rishi Sunak spent much of the summer being asked how they would help Brits struggling with soaring energy bills. Quizzed by the Financial Times on what help consumers could expect from her government amid the cost of living crisis, Truss said: “Of course I will look at what more can be done. But the way I would do things is in a Conservative way of lowering the tax burden, not giving out handouts.”
The “handouts” line was quickly seized upon by Team Sunak, who argued Truss was setting her face against a major intervention in the energy markets.
By late August, Truss was telling the Daily Mail she would in fact unveil an emergency budget to “ensure support is on its way to get through these tough times.” And when the package of “handouts” came, it was huge — a multibillion pound program of state subsidies to reduce consumer and business energy costs that had some of Truss’ backers in libertarian think tanks shaking their heads.
The public sector pay shake-up that we all imagined
Truss ran a tight campaign for the Tory leadership, with few missteps. But the first major policy disaster came when she boldly announced that the government would link public sector pay to local living costs — a policy that Tory MPs outside of London quickly clocked could spell pay cuts for public servants in their patch.
This particular U-turn was rapid. By noon on the very day of the announcement, Truss’ spokesperson was praising frontline staff as “the bedrock of society” and promising “there will be no proposal taken forward on regional pay boards for civil servants or public sector workers.”
The campaign also took a swipe at “wilful misrepresentation” of its position, which was news to journalists who just hours before had been sent a release promising Truss’ government “will save up to £8.8 billion a year by replacing national pay boards with regional pay boards.” Funny how quickly things can change.
The chief of staff’s totally normal employment terms
In a highly unusual move, Truss’ Downing Street opted to employ its new chief of staff, Mark Fullbrook, through his lobbying firm, rather than making him a direct employee of the state.
The controversial arrangement, which only came to light thanks to dogged reporting by the Sunday Times, raised a host of questions about access to government, even as Fullbrook made clear the company — which as recently as this summer represented clients including Libya’s controversial parliament — was currently dormant. He also denied that the setup had offered him any tax benefit.
Days after the Sunday Times story, Team Truss was in climbdown mode. Downing Street announced that Fullbrook would in fact be made a normal government employee “to avoid any ongoing speculation” — a move it repeated after more No. 10 staff were revealed to be employed via the same convoluted arrangement.
After putting a major squeeze on the state in the early 2010s, the Conservatives have lately shied away from big pronouncements about cutting public spending. Truss’ predecessor Boris Johnson won big at the 2019 election with a pledge to invest in left-behind parts of Britain. His government also promised that social security spending would this year rise in line with inflation, amid the ongoing income crunch.
Although a longstanding free-marketeer, Truss at first looked set to continue on the trajectory set by her predecessors. On a campaign trip to Peterborough over the summer, she confidently declared: “I’m very clear, I’m not planning public spending reductions.”
Yet in the wake of her government’s disastrous mini-budget, Cabinet ministers have been openly talking about the need to “trim the fat” in Whitehall and have repeatedly refused to commit to increasing benefits on the same scale.
Grilled by the BBC on Sunday, Truss declined multiple times to rule out public spending cuts, instead promising “value for money” for the taxpayer. So that’s all very clear.
The disappearing tax cuts for the rich
It sounded like a great idea at the time. Scrap the top rate of income tax for Britain’s highest earners in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. Yet somehow this guaranteed vote winner didn’t survive contact with reality for more than two weeks.
Unveiled just 10 days ago to much fanfare, the ditching of the 45p tax rate — part of a debt-funded levy-cutting package aimed at turning around Britain’s sluggish economy — helped trigger market turmoil and a precipitous drop in the Conservatives’ poll ratings.
Truss and her ministers spent a week defending the package, as the pound tanked and government borrowing costs soared. The prime minister was telling broadcasters as late as Sunday that the issue with her plans had been one of communication, not substance. “I do accept we should have laid the ground better,” she said, while firmly sticking by the package.
Come Monday morning, the policy was gone, with Truss’ Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng — hours away from giving his first major speech in the job — saying the pair were “in agreement that we wouldn’t proceed with the abolition of the rate” as the issue had “become a distraction.” Expect plenty more ‘distractions’ in the weeks ahead.