August 2, 2022 - 2:00pm

There’s no doubt about it — Liz Truss has stuffed up. Indeed, her announcement on public sector pay is a double blunder that might sink her whole campaign. 

At first sight it looked like she was trying to save £8.8 billion a year by cutting civil servants’ salaries outside London and the South East — the justification being that living costs are lower in the rest of the country. But as Sam Freedman points out, the total civil service wage bill is £16.5 billion. So how can trimming it through regionalised pay structures yield such an enormous saving?

The answer, of course, is that it can’t. Somewhere in the briefing process someone had confused civil servants with the much larger category of public sector workers. But as the policy details became clearer, so has the full extent of its political toxicity. 

What Truss was actually proposing is a pay cut for millions of people employed in our public services. So that’s nurses in the North, soldiers in the South West, teachers on Tyneside — you get the idea. A gleeful Labour Party has called it “a fantasy recipe for levelling down”, but it’s worse than that. Truss’s proposal wouldn’t level anything, but further increase the regional imbalance in average earnings. It would also make it much for harder for schools and other vital services in left-behind areas to attract key staff, which is exactly why similar proposals were rejected years ago. 

But then that’s the trouble with Truss — she’s in the habit of seizing on hare-brained schemes under the misapprehension that they’re both new and effective. Her policy of scattergun tax cuts to revive the economy is another key example — in particular her determination to reverse Rishi Sunak’s policy on corporation tax. 

As Sunak forcefully explained at last night’s leadership hustings in Exeter, the Conservatives — under David Cameron and George Osborne — have already tried to boost the UK sluggish productivity by cutting business taxation. But it didn’t work — hence Sunak’s decision to use the tax system to provide better-targeted incentives for the real investment that this country so desperately needs. 

If the Tories know what’s good for them, this week could be the turning point of the whole contest. As well as Truss’s pay policy fiasco, there’s the polling that shows that Rishi Sunak stands a better chance against Keir Starmer. And no wonder, because as the Exeter hustings made clear, Sunak is by far the best communicator. 

It wasn’t that Truss did badly last night — she now knows what to do with herself on stage. And yet while she just blasts her way through her stump speeches, Sunak’s performance is dynamic — he can engage with and react to an audience in a way that she just can’t.  

So, if the Conservatives want a Prime Minister who can kill it on the campaign trail, then there’s only one choice. In a general election, Truss’s sincere determination will only work if the country is already convinced of her message — or, indeed, anything a Tory says these days. Sadly for her, Boris has rather queered that pitch. Therefore the Tories need a leader with the emotional range to win people back — and, again, that is Sunak. 

Before the Truss campaign’s spectacular act of self-sabotage, the big splash of last night was supposed to be Penny Mordaunt’s surprise endorsement. But today, I suspect that a very different penny will be dropping with the party faithful. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.