Number 10 won't let us hear what Sunak or Truss really think
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.
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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.