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Liz Truss blaming the deep state is an excuse for failure

Liz Truss's deep state delusions are undermining any serious argument she might make.

Liz Truss on stage at the IfG
After her unsuccessful tenure as prime minister, Liz Truss now blames "the establishment" for her failures.

The former prime minister’s warning about ‘ten years to save the West’ will be a dud if her main argument is to blame institutions for the collapse of her premiership, says Alex Thomas

Liz Truss’s claim that her micro-premiership was undermined by the “deep state” actors working as “barriers to our plans” might seem too obviously off-beam to need a response. But it does raise an interesting question about why a section of the Conservative party is so frustrated after 14 years in office.

Deep state paranoia is not new, nor is it confined to the right. Different parts of the political spectrum rage against the enemy within depending on who feels most exasperated at any one time. But the quickest to blame sinister forces are those making excuses for their own political failure. “Little did I know the establishment was about to use every tool at its disposal to fight back”, Truss complains in her new book. But she was not blocked by the mighty Treasury or the Office for Budget Responsibility. There is no cabal of civil servants and bankers who pulled the plug from the finance markets that ended her time in office. And she was not defeated by the “fundamental forces” she blames for ending her premiership. Liz Truss was unsuccessful at being prime minister and her party decided that her failure was so bad that it justified her removal.

Changing a country is not meant to be easy

Making change happen is hard, but it is possible. Attlee, Thatcher and Blair did it to a greater or lesser extent. But before a politician can govern in a way that changes the country, they first need to win. They need to have a platform to make a case, with enough people listening to find a hearing. Then they need to win the argument, in the country, and in a political party. They need to hold political power, to achieve and maintain a majority in parliament, not just support for the governing party but a majority for a set of proposals for change. They must develop a programme for change that is capable of being implemented, that grapples with the world as it is. And finally, they must master the craft of governing, translate a programme into plans, milestones and organisational structures, and to work out when to co-opt institutions, when to reform them and when and how to sideline them.

Governments need to find and pursue projects that work. This sounds flippant, but what transforms relationships inside and outside government is working together on something successful. One of the reasons behind the sometimes toxic relationships in recent governments is that opposing camps have ended up blaming each other for failure rather than wanting a piece of a success. When ministers or civil servants who worked on Sure Start, same-sex marriage, early privatisations, devolution or the response to the financial crisis are asked about their time in government they tell – whatever the merits of the policy – a positive story. Those stories have recently been too thin on the ground.

The best leaders pick battles but understand constraints and bring the system with them

Truss and her allies have adopted a thin conception of democracy, one that subjugates all the complexities of governance to the will of an elected politician. This strain of thought argues that unless some arm of the public sector is under the complete control of a democratically elected minister it is illegitimate.

There is truth to this. In the UK, an elected government must be in overall control, for as long as it holds a majority in the House of Commons. Prime ministers need better support to set direction. The government should be able to put proposals to change the law to parliament, and to prosecute its plans through the administration of government. It should be able to appoint qualified people to lead public bodies and expect that those bodies will properly implement government policy. Civil servants who block or go slow on government policies should be dismissed.

But that is not the whole picture. The government is deliberately constrained in all sorts of ways. Ministers – like the leaders of all large organisations – require skill, persistence and good judgement to master the bureaucracy. Ministers who complain about bureaucracy or the ‘blob’ are right to be frustrated when unnecessary or outdated process is holding things up. Improvement and reform of the civil service and other institutions is essential. But they also need to understand that bureaucracy exists because government is highly complex with multiple moving parts. Getting things done is not purely about winning a battle of ideas. It is about marrying ideas for change with the mechanisms to deliver that agenda.

Time and political reality are also limits. If, for example, the government and parliament wanted the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, then the UK would leave it. Unless and until that happens, the government is bound by its international obligations. If a previous parliament has legislated for a particular state of affairs, then it should take some political and practical effort for a government to change that state of affairs.

Elections are not the only means of accountability

Those who want to improve how the state works, and who are frustrated by supposed ministerial impotence, would be better off making the wider case for more accountability. Failures in the state and poor decisions sometimes happen because of a lack of democratic input. But elections are only one means of holding the state to account. Democratic oversight by elected ministers is a means to hold officials accountable for their decisions, not to direct everything themselves. The power of the ballot box is strong but it is blunt – it cannot determine every decision.

Far more often problems arise because of a lack of other forms of accountability. Public sector leaders should feel the heat of scrutiny. They must respond to forensic questioning to explain and justify their decisions. It should be clear who is responsible for decisions, with blurred lines of accountability straightened out. That is the case reformers should be making.

Blame is seductive, and sometimes necessary. However, Liz Truss’s deep state delusions have undermined any serious arguments she might make. Deliberate, incremental improvements to the way we are governed are too important to be left to the conspiracy theorists. 

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