Liz Truss is doing a good job of making a clean break from her predecessors, and from prevailing economic orthodoxy. But Hannah White argues her approach to government also reflects a change from accepted norms of good government
Liz Truss is a prime minister in a hurry. Whether the deadline she is looking to is an election in 2024 (as she has previously indicated), or the dramatic tax give-aways in Kwarteng’s first budget signal an intention to go to the country more quickly, she is moving extraordinarily fast to get her key policy initiatives in place.
In response to the energy crisis, this is understandable – necessary, even. The Conservative party faced heavy criticism over the summer for leaving the country in a vacuum of governance as energy prices escalated while it took its time selecting Boris Johnson’s replacement. By September, the public and businesses were crying out for reassurance over soaring energy bills, so a swift response on energy was appropriate.
Truss has framed her rapid response as a sign of her focus on delivery. But beyond energy policy, the exceptional speed of Truss’s policy pronouncements after little more than a week in the job (discounting much of the mourning period) has done more to worry observers and concern markets than to convince them of her credentials as an effective prime minister. All new leaders are anxious to make their mark, but Truss risks being marked out as reckless.
Beginning her premiership in September meant that Truss was never going to have much time to discuss her new policies in Parliament before MPs departed for their party conferences, and the Queen’s death compressed the time available still further. In this context it is dispiriting that she decided to go ahead with three sets of major policy announcements – including a ‘fiscal event’ which by any normal standard would have been an enormous budget – knowing there would be minimal time available for parliamentarians to scrutinise them.
Parliamentary scrutiny of fiscal measures certainly has its limitations, but it is an important discipline for ministers to subject themselves to the questioning of their colleagues who may sometimes identify significant flaws or offer improvements to proposals that have been brought forward. A budget would normally be debated over five days before the implementing legislation was introduced, but Kwarteng’s dramatic proposals were discussed for just two hours. This lacuna must be filled as soon as MPs return to Westminster in October.
Other than a wish to reassure her supporters that – despite announcing an enormous tranche of state support to see households and businesses through the winter energy crisis – she really was the tax-cutting, small state conservative they thought they had elected, there was no reason Truss’s tax cuts could not have waited for a regular budget later in the autumn. Implemented then, with the benefit of an OBR forecast, her plans would have at least been independently assessed. Instead, the widespread suspicion is that Truss and Kwarteng acted quickly because they feared their plans would not stand up to such scrutiny – suspicion fed by the OBR’s assurance that it had prepared a forecast that it could have provided, but the government had not asked.
Concern about Truss’s approach to government has been fuelled by wider evidence of her disdain for independent advice and preference for relying on her own judgment. During the leadership campaign she rejected the idea of appointing an ethics adviser on the grounds that “one of the problems we have got in this country in the way we approach things is we have numerous advisers and independent bodies, and rules and regulations... I am somebody who has always acted with integrity […] and that is what I would do as prime minister.”
Personal judgment, and confidence in the exercise of that judgment are important qualities in any leader, particularly a prime minister. But no prime minister should exercise their judgment across the incredible breadth of their responsibilities, without the benefit of expert advice or recourse to evidence. That is the point of an impartial civil service and the various independent institutions established over time across different policy areas. Politicians are not expected to follow advice blindly, political considerations will always play a part. But rejecting the opportunity even to consider evidence such as that which the OBR would have provided before taking a decision seems unnecessarily reckless.
In the same vein, the abolition of the independent Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) is perplexing, particularly from a government that claims to be interested in tax reform. Asking all Treasury civil servants to focus on simplification is valid for a government focused on reducing administrative burdens. But mainstreaming such activity across a set of officials focused on other challenges is no substitute for an independent expert body focused specifically on this task. The OTS may not have been the most high profile body in recent years but its offence is hard to discern, unless perhaps its agenda posed too much of a challenge to the tax changes the chancellor wanted to introduce on Friday. Kwarteng’s ‘tax reforms’ do not merit their billing as yet – they have done little to simplify the UK’s tax regime, apart from save some very rich people a lot of money.
Liz Truss is cultivating an image as an iconoclast, prepared to move fast and break things to achieve her goal of growth. Her tax policies demonstrate her willingness to break with economic orthodoxy, but what is also worryingly evident at the start of her premiership is her willingness to break with expected standards of scrutiny and evidence-based policy-making.
- Supporting document
- how-to-be-tax-reforming-chancellor.pdf (PDF, 615.8 KB)
- Truss government
- HM Treasury
- Institute for Government