by Peter Franklin
Monday, 7
February 2022
Reaction
10:03

Boris’s challengers are hidden from view

Number 10 won't let us hear what Sunak or Truss really think
by Peter Franklin
The leaders in waiting. Credit: Getty

If Boris Johnson is forced out, we’ll need a new PM ASAP. But how are we supposed to form a judgement as to the best candidate? Take the front runners, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. For all the speculation, we know far too little about where they want to take the country. And there’s a reason for that: they’re not allowed to tell us. 

Ministerial speeches have to be cleared through Downing Street. It’s a filter that doesn’t just remove content that directly conflicts with the official line, but also anything that isn’t a reiteration of the official line. This is consistent with the centralisation of government and the disempowerment of ministers, even those of Cabinet rank. It also arises from the cult of comms — and in particular the theory that government should be seen to be directing the course of events, not commenting upon them. Within this framework, it is the job of ministers to announce, not reflect.

As a result, ministers become mouthpieces and their voices are lost from the public discourse. That matters, because at least some of them are intelligent, thoughtful individuals. Furthermore, they have direct experience of how government works and doesn’t work. Theirs is a unique perspective that should be shared when it matters most, not years later in some dusty memoir.

And then there’s the matter of choosing a new Prime Minister. In opposition, leadership candidates have the time and space to set out what they stand for. But when a party is in power, a new leader — and therefore the new PM — is usually chosen from the Cabinet. We depend on their speeches, most of them ministerial speeches, as a guide to their values and principles. But if every speech is blandified by order of Downing Street, then there’s nothing to go on — nothing from the heart or the imagination. One might as well read the departmental press release, which at least has the virtue of being shorter.

One can always look at what a leadership contender said before he or she became a minister. In the case of Liz Truss we have her forthright contribution to Britannia Unchained — a pamphlet published by the Thatcherite Free Enterprise Group. But that was ten years ago. Cheese-related matters aside, how has her thinking evolved over the last decade? Perhaps it hasn’t, but it would be nice to know either way.

Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, has become the most popular politician in the country. If there’s a vacancy, he’s favourite to become Prime Minister. But how much do we know about his basic outlook on the world? Compared to Boris Johnson, Gordon Brown or just about any other PM-in-waiting, astoundingly little. Perhaps he’s a pure pragmatist, without strong beliefs — but, again, it’s hard to tell.

This the price of obsessive message management. As ministers rise up the ranks, we should hear more, not less, about what they really think. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. 

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
11 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
3 months ago

Sunak has destroyed the economy. We know that. His staff did their best to destroy the Freeports. And they leak all the time.

Matt M
Matt M
3 months ago

As pointed out by Will Lloyd some time ago, Rishi Sunak was a Eurosceptic at age 16 and wrote an article criticising Tony Blair’s desire to bring us into the Eurozone for his school magazine.
That’s good enough for me 🙂

Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
3 months ago

Good points, successfully arguing that ministerial speech restrictions are a real problem for our future leadership discussions, and for me is a problem affecting the quality of public political debate. I would be interested in the writer’s ideas for solving this problem – since of course abolishing collective cabinet responsibility would also have major problems.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
3 months ago

“We”, of course, don’t get a say, so it’s irrelevant whether we know anything about prospective candidates.

The decision is for the Tory Party – it’s their party leader who’s being chosen, after all. Our vote comes at election-time.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
3 months ago

Sunak has a financial brain, intellect, does not need the money, can strengthen our ties with India… and is not intra M25 ” toylitte”… that in itself is enough

Scott S
Scott S
3 months ago

I dont see the relevance of this piece. We won’t get a say until there is an election. Johnson will be gone after (or before??) the May locals, unless he miraculously turns it around. If he does go Tory MPs will select the next leader, not the electorate. Once in place they will have ample chance to put forward their vision, not least in the next Tory manifesto.

John Tyler
John Tyler
3 months ago

Oh, come on! We’ve all seen Yes Prime Minister. We know who really runs the country. (:

Last edited 3 months ago by John Tyler
Susan Bennett
Susan Bennett
3 months ago

Sunak is no longer the front runner. I think Conservative Home polled members and found Ben Wallace, the Defence Minister, is now in poll position. We know our politicians by their actions, worth more than empty promises in speeches. Sunal raised taxes, while Wallace did a credible job of evacuating Kabul while Boris prioritised animals and standing up to Russia while Europe capitulated.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
3 months ago

One aspect of No 10 control. I also think we need to reduce the PM’s patronage by paying all MPs either a part time salary of a full time salary with no uplift for being an officer of the crown. There is a point at which a majority of the cabinet should able to take a stand against a PM without being held back by a loss of earnings.

Andrea Re
Andrea Re
3 months ago

This is collective responsibility for you. Not sure that doing away with it would improve things.

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
3 months ago
Reply to  Andrea Re

No it isn’t. Collective cabinet responsibility implies that the cabinet collectively meets to debate and make major policy decisions together as equals. That hardly ever happens anymore. Fifty years ago, it happened a lot more. But that didn’t prevent senior cabinet ministers such as Roy Jenkins, Anthony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Willie Whitelaw, Reggie Maudling, and Tony Benn from having a much higher public profile and being far more outspoken than their muzzled counterparts of today.

Last edited 3 months ago by Stephen Walshe