At the heart of Downing Street is “The Grid” — the confidential calendar of media announcements that drives the daily drumbeat of government stories. Departments always compete to have one of their policies slotted in as “Story Of The Day”; win over the public and you’re 90% of the way to making sure it gets passed.
However, since Liz Truss became Prime Minister, all this intergovernmental wrangling has ground to a halt. The death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the ensuing period of mourning, was always going to disrupt government communications. But what does that mean for Truss’s new administration?
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There is, of course, an argument that this is a bonus for Truss. One of the immediate challenges for any incoming Prime Minister is to stamp themselves on the public imagination as being “prime ministerial”. What better way to do that than appear with the new monarch, King Charles III, as he travels around the United Kingdom? If you can’t generate attention, you can at least gain some authority.
Yet sometimes, making the best of a bad situation isn’t enough. And Truss’s real problem is that you only get one chance to make a first impression. We know that Team Truss had a “First 100 Days” plan, which they wanted to follow with 12 months of delivery in 2023, and then finally pivot into the election year of 2024. The public would quickly get to know their new Prime Minister by her actions. As Truss reiterated throughout her leadership campaign, she gets things done.
Her recent energy price cap announcement was not a stand-alone event — it was the start of a concerted programme of reform. The intention was to follow up with necessary legislation, information for households, and details for businesses and public services. And then to move rapidly to a “fiscal event” — a “mini-Budget” in old money — where promised tax cuts could be delivered without the threat of any doom-mongering from the Office of Budget Responsibility. This concerted activity and the generous giveaways would provide a powerful sense of momentum. The Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, would be left carping from the side lines about a package of help three-to-four times larger than the one he had proposed last month.
But instead of hitting the ground running, Prime Minister Truss has hit the ground mourning. In the background there has been discussion of government policy, but it has mainly consisted of questions and criticisms around details of the energy price cap. The problem is that her full policy requires legislation, which can only be passed and debated in parliament, when it returns to full sitting in mid-October. If a week is a long time in politics, the five weeks until the House sits again is an eternity.
Now, there is some press briefing going on. The abandonment of the sugar tax, and possibly the entire government anti-obesity strategy has been floated. As has ending the cap on bonuses in the City. These give the flavour of what the 100 Days Plan must have looked like. Sir Lynton Crosby famously talks of “getting rid of the barnacles”: that before a government can campaign effectively, it needs to rid itself of unnecessary distractions. These could be unpopular policies, ungrasped nettles, or unresolved disputes, but the Queen’s death has prevented this, disrupting the Government’s momentum.
Team Truss were clearly planning for a bolder strategy — what you might call the Joe Strummer approach: Cut The Crap. The Prime Minister wants to govern as she campaigned for the leadership. Directly, clearly and simply. She has said she wants a smaller state, and Labour have taken the bait. Without waiting to see any government policy, some Labour frontbenchers have immediately attacked Truss as a Thatcherite intent on cutting public spending. That’s hard to argue in the face of the energy price cap — one of the biggest unfunded public spending commitments ever made by a UK government.
Worse, it showed that some in Labour haven’t been listening to Truss, or taking her seriously. There’s more than one way to shrink the state — and getting out of people’s lives is an effective and popular one. One of the greatest weaknesses of progressive politics is the belief that what the country is crying out for is “more government”. A large part of the fuel that drives the campaign against political correctness is the sense that government is over-reaching, interfering in bits of life where it has no place. Liz Truss wants to tap into that. She instinctively knows that most people want to look after themselves, their families and their communities without government interference.
The other headline announcement — uncapping City bonuses — has trapped Labour too. Missing the wood for the trees, opposition frontbenchers have spluttered in outrage at policies that would benefit fat-cat bankers rather than the general public. The point, of course, is what David Cameron’s team used to call the politics of “aroma”. It is not the specific policy detail that matters; it is the sense of the overall direction. “Hugging a husky” showed a greener, more compassionate, modern Conservative party. Uncapping City bonuses shows a government committed to Go For Growth — no old-fashioned prejudices or well-meaning sacred cows will be allowed to stand in the way. The point is to grow the pie, not, as Labour want, to talk about tax and redistribution of the proceeds of growth.
Is this a risky approach? Yes. Is it a clear one? Absolutely. The trap for Labour is that they adopt the Sunak Strategy. Liz Truss’s ideas are simplified not simplistic; and as Rishi Sunak’s defeat showed, treating the new PM as a simpleton won’t win votes. Truss may not have the right answers, but she has asked the right question. Growth is the only game in town. If Truss manages to keep it on The Grid when parliament returns next month, her lost 100 days might not be fatal.