While the loss of trust in Boris Johnson’s government was personal, Hannah White argues that it is not just politicians as individuals who need to maintain trust – governments also need to build and maintain confidence in their policy- and decision-making processes
One of the oft-cited advantages of the UK’s ‘winner takes all’ first-past-the-post electoral system is the ability of a government with a Commons majority to deliver its manifesto programme. But a key lesson from the Johnson and now the Truss governments is that parliamentary seats are a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective government. In fact winning – or inheriting – a majority can be dangerous if it tempts ministers to push through a programme while neglecting the institutions and processes designed to test and assure the credibility of government plans, and without laying the groundwork for those plans ahead of time.
Trust is much discussed in the context of politics, but many commentators focus on the trustworthiness of individual politicians. What the past week has demonstrated is that trust in the decisions and plans made by those politicians and – crucially – how it is underpinned by institutions and processes is just as important. These aspects of government, constructed and iterated over years, are not just annoying bureaucracy, or the staid voice of orthodoxy – they are crucial in enabling politicians to pursue their objectives.
The events of recent weeks illustrate how rapidly the intangible but essential quality of trust in government can be lost. Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng have made five errors which have undermined their plans for government.
First, in establishing her government, Truss decided to remove internal sources of political challenge – declining to appoint almost any minister to cabinet who had not supported her leadership campaign, and thereby forgoing the party confidence that a broader church would have brought. Having appointed her cabinet she then chose not to consult cabinet colleagues on her most radical tax-cutting plans. This implied a lack of confidence that she was capable of winning political arguments and created a fatal gap where political stress-testing of policies could later have saved her from damaging u-turns.
Second, Truss chose to remove experienced advisers – from civil servants such as Sir Tom Scholar to the political advisers she cleared out of No.10 – despite knowing she was walking into an autumn of crisis. This suggested that she valued energy and enthusiasm over experience of dealing with past crises at a time when a combination of the two would certainly have been the wiser choice. This was illustrated by the government’s apparent failure to anticipate the scale of the market, and subsequent party, reaction to the way it presented its economic plans.
Third, she actively rejected information, data and analysis which she could have used to develop her plans – such as the economic forecast that the OBR stood ready to provide. This decision – very much in line with the derogatory narrative about experts and expertise which has persisted in government since before the Brexit referendum – created the strong impression she was prioritising ideology over evidence. And by choosing to announce tax cuts without accompanying information about how these would be funded she undermined confidence that the government did indeed have a fully worked through plan.
Fourth, Truss has questioned the role of economic institutions, arguing they perpetuate an economic orthodoxy with which she disagrees. In doing so she has conflated the role which the markets see for these institutions – in providing expert analysis of government plans – with the likely result of that analysis. She neglected to recognise the value from the markets’ point of view of the analysis being conducted, even if she had subsequently chosen – as is a politician’s prerogative – to pursue a course they criticised. The seriousness of this mistake has been illustrated by the heavy emphasis that ministers now feel compelled to place on the role of the OBR and Bank of England in future.
Fifth, the Truss government has progressed its plans with unnecessary haste and – in order to do so – deprioritised parliamentary scrutiny. While Truss is justified in saying that she needed to provide quick answers on energy prices, there was no need to announce the details of her tax cuts so quickly without taking the time to analyse their full effects. Choosing to rush out her plans on the last sitting day before the party conference recess, without engaging the normal scrutiny processes around a budget – meant there was no time for her plans to be discussed and debated by MPs. Again this approach implies an unwillingness to subject her ideas to the scrutiny and testing that outside observers would expect to see. Again it undermined confidence in the robustness of those plans. And when she returns to Westminster, Truss will find her lack of trust in Parliament reciprocated by many of her own MPs – who will be more than willing to make their concerns clear.
It is not uncommon for politicians to rail against what they see as the dead weight of bureaucracy and process preventing them from pushing out policy for the good of the country. And coming into government under the pressure of the energy crisis and with just two years to go before the next election, Truss was understandably keen to get on with her agenda. But the story of the past week is a salutary reminder to all politicians that the benefits of making announcements quickly are rarely outweighed by the value of developing ideas thoroughly, building confidence with colleagues and sharing ideas for scrutiny so they can be tested and improved. The institutions and processes that feed evidence into policy-making and allow for the testing of political ideas are the boring but necessary foundations of effective government.