One of the major mistakes made by the Truss Government was the decision to over-turn the convention of publishing the OBR’s economic forecasts alongside the mini-budget. This was widely criticised as being reckless, and an un-costed “dash for growth”.
In 2020, during the pandemic, an Ipsos poll found the public favouring government acting speedily over having a complete evidence base “in a time of crisis” (provided it showed all the evidence it had). The same source suggested that government U-turns need not necessarily be confidence-sapping. Deciding to change course isn’t always bad decision-making and can signal a positive willingness to listen.
Such sentiments were not simply a product of their time. The extremely challenging Coronavirus pandemic prompted several changes of direction. But the Johnson Government became famous for U-turns on topics as diverse as sewage, banning Huawei, taking the knee, Parliamentary standards and corruption, a windfall tax on energy companies and the national insurance rises that Truss sought to reverse.
The Ipsos survey found a plurality of the view that politicians make decisions more on what they think is right than on evidence, rather than vice-versa. There is a sense that politicians pay too much attention to the wrong things including their own principles, experiences and media, too little to expertise, the lived experience and evidence of what works.
Liz Truss’ apology was a final throw of the dice. She told the BBC’s Chris Mason she was “…sorry for the mistakes that have been made…we went too far and too fast” (having previously said “we get it and we have listened”). This had echoes of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s famous “Move fast and break things” moto which came to encapsulate entrepreneurs’ attitude towards disruption as a positive force. Business has changed though, edging away from the idea that risk-taking is always fine.
Mistakes are probably part of the rough and tumble of government and politics particularly as frazzled governments and political systems find it difficult to address ‘wicked’ policy problems in an era of polycrisis. This might necessitate fast action which is difficult particularly against the background of instant clamour and judgement of a shrill, cynical and unforgiving social media.
Winners and losers are made and unmade at warp speed. According to Rafael Behr, Britain has had a peculiar and prolonged period of permanent campaigning with successive referenda or elections having the effect of drip-feeding black and white positions to the public, generating controversy to win arguments, squeezing out nuance and consensus. This seems a long way from the post-war period of “Butskellism” consensus founded on ‘MEWS’ (the mixed economy and welfare state) and substance over style.
The Truss Government moved fast and broke things. It challenged orthodoxy and pitted principle and aspiration against due diligence and pragmatism.
To take risks at the scale it did requires three things it didn’t have; political capital (it lacked a mandate and a united party behind it), ‘brand purpose’ (the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’) and astute leadership (enough said). Instead, it pursued a ‘growth’ project disconnected from public opinion and took risks with the economy, of all things, during a cost-of-living crisis.
The Truss Government lasted just 44 days before the Prime Minister resigned. According to Ipsos, Labour has taken the lead as the party with the best policies on the economy for first time in 15 years. The Conservative Party’s poll share is 20% on a good day.
The new Government and Prime Minister will need to move fast and mend things. A lot of things.