The UK’s new Prime Minister is surrounding herself with hardline figures who were previously on the fringe of the Conservative movement, reports Adam Bienkov

After Boris Johnson’s departure as Prime Minister, there was a real opportunity for his successor to show that she is a serious operator who is determined to tackle the deep and complex crises now facing the UK.

Within hours it became clear that Truss is not going to take that opportunity. 

Even if she had done nothing else with her first day in office, her decision to appoint Jacob Rees-Mogg as the man responsible for business, energy and climate policy, demonstrates beyond any doubt that she is not a serious figure and this is not a serious Government.

On tackling climate change, Rees-Mogg is a well-known and longstanding denier, who has previously suggested that the overwhelming scientific consensus demonstrating a link between rising levels of carbon dioxide and rising temperatures is in fact “much debated”. In the past he has urged the Government to end its “environmentalist obsession” with tackling the problem, saying that it is “unrealistic” and “unaffordable” to do so. Instead, he has suggested that the UK should concentrate on “adapting” to the changes, by doing things like “dredging rivers on the Somerset levels”.

He is an opponent of renewable energy and a champion of fossil fuels, saying that he “would like my constituents to have cheap energy rather more than I would like them to have windmills”. In recent years he has also suggested the Government should drop its commitment to Net Zero, which he has labelled the biggest obstacle to removing European regulations after Brexit.

The source of Rees-Mogg’s opposition to tackling climate change is open to debate. However, it is worth noting that he has held close ties to organisations and companies with connections to the fossil fuel industry.

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In 2014, Rees-Mogg was referred to the Parliamentary Standards regime after he repeatedly spoke in the House of Commons chamber in support of the oil and gas, tobacco and mining industries without first declaring that he was the founder and director of Somerset Capital Management, which then held millions of pounds worth of investments in those sectors.

In 2017 he also met with the former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon, whose website Breitbart News has championed those who deny the science of climate change.

During the Conservative leadership campaign, there was some bemusement from commentators about Truss’ apparently obsessive dislike of solar farms, which she repeatedly committed to clamping down on, while committing to start fracking in the UK instead.

By appointing Rees-Mogg to this brief, it is clear that this was not just a statement of a personal bugbear but a clear signal of the damaging direction she intends to take the country.


Slashing Workers’ Rights

On Rees-Mogg’s other areas of responsibility, the signs are, if anything, even more worrying. After Boris Johnson appointed him to the position of Brexit Opportunities Minister, Rees-Mogg soon made it clear where his priorities lay, telling The Times that he wanted to look at reducing both workers’ rights and food standards.

On workers’ rights, Rees-Mogg told the paper that the Government wanted to now “see who needs protection and who doesn’t”.

“Frankly, most people working in the City of London do not need a lot of protection from their employer,” he said, insisting that instead “sometimes the employer would think they need more protection from the employee”.

He added that it’s wrong to assume “that absolutely everybody needs the same level of [employment] protection, because they don’t”.

By appointing Rees-Mogg to this role, Truss has given a clear signal of the direction she intends to take the country. His appointment also follows reports that she is planning her own “bonfire” of workers’ rights, with working hours extended and the right to rest breaks reduced.

However, it’s not just workers’ rights that Rees-Mogg wants to slash, but protections for consumers too.

By becoming Prime Minister in the way that she has, Truss is now wholly dependent on the wing of the party that put her there.

Earlier this year he suggested that checks on food and other goods entering the UK could be stripped back. Referring to regulations which require the quality of tuna imported from Thailand to be checked, Rees-Mogg suggested that only 1% of such shipments should now be checked in future.

This is all part of a broader agenda related to Britain’s exit from the EU. Rees-Mogg has previously stated that he believes that Brexit is an opportunity to radically strip back all Government regulations, telling a select committee in 2016 that any regulation which was “good enough for India” should be good enough for the UK.

He also believes that this radical deregulation should be extended to Government, with the state stepping back from providing certain services at all.

He wrote in the Telegraph last month that the real opportunity from Brexit came from slashing the size of the state.

“When I was appointed minister for Brexit opportunities and Government efficiency, I said that the two adjacent responsibilities were one and the same”, he wrote.

“Our departure from the European Union necessitates a re-thinking of the British state. This means going beyond ministers looking for fiscal trims and haircuts and considering whether the state should deliver certain functions at all.”

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Hard Right Institutional Capture

None of this would matter as much if Rees-Mogg were somehow a fringe figure in Truss’ Government, or if his known views were completely out of line with her own.

However, Truss’ senior appointments suggest that far from being an aberration, Rees-Mogg is in fact the beating ideological heart of her Government.

Mogg is just one of several senior figures from the hardline European Research Group of Conservative MPs who have made it into her Cabinet.

Other ERG figures in Truss’ top team include her new Home Secretary Suella Braverman, as well as Chris Heaton Harris, who she has made Northern Ireland Secretary. Former ERG chairman Steve Baker has also been a vocal media cheerleader for Truss in the days following her victory.

Truss’ close advisers follow a similar mould. Her senior appointments include her chief economic adviser Matt Sinclair, who is the former Chief Executive of the shady radical libertarian pressure group the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Sinclair is on the record as opposing some government initiatives to tackle climate change, and is the author of the book Let Them Eat Carbon which is described as a polemic on “the burgeoning climate change industry.”

Sinclair also backs Rees-Mogg’s plan to radically shrink the size of the state and has previously proposed huge cuts to departmental budgets.

Other senior appointments made by Truss in the past 24 hours have included figures who previously worked for other notable hard-right pressure groups, including the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute.

While Truss’ predecessor also courted many of these same figures and organisations, he mostly kept them on the fringes of his Government. While Rees-Mogg may have been one of Johnson’s most visible media cheerleaders, the former Prime Minister only ever gave him token positions. As Leader of the House, and then Brexit Opportunities Minister, Rees-Mogg was never given any real departmental responsibilities.

For all his flirting with the hard-right fringe of his party, the most senior figures in Johnson’s government were almost all serious figures. Whatever the criticisms of politicians like Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, these were both substantial figures from the mainstream centre of the Conservative Party. The same cannot be said for Rees-Mogg or Braverman.

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A Creature of the Right

Johnson was mostly able to keep the hard right of his party at a relative distance for the simple reason that he had his own power base among the British public. By winning such a large majority Johnson was able to keep his own party on board, even while pursuing centre-ground policies on issues like the environment, public sector spending and welfare. It was only as his position with the public weakened towards the end of his premiership, that he became more reliant on the sort of fringe ‘Culture War’ issues that so obsess the right of his party.

By contrast, Truss has entered Downing Street without any strong support base among either the public or her own party. In the leadership election, she won the lowest level of support from her own MPs of any successful candidate ever, as well as the lowest level of support among party members of any candidate elected under that system.

That she is Prime Minister at all, is only because she managed to position herself as the lead candidate of the right of her party. By doing so she managed to scrape into the final round, after which she was always likely to win a majority of the party’s overwhelmingly right-leaning membership.

Yet by becoming Prime Minister in the way that she has, Truss is now wholly dependent on the wing of the party that put her there. It is this central weakness of her position which is now likely to dominate her premiership.

This weakness can already be seen in the makeup of her Cabinet, which is overwhelmingly dominated by figures who backed her candidacy while excluding many senior figures who instead backed her opponent Rishi Sunak.

This dependency on the hard right of her party will make her deeply vulnerable, both within her own party and among public opinion.

While in better times, being a pet creature of the right of the Conservative Party may have been survivable, in the current crisis it will inevitably lead her into making bad and unpopular decisions.

There are already signs of this, with senior figures in her team briefing that she planned to make the public payback energy bill support over decades while refusing to levy any new taxes on oil and gas companies.

Public backlash to that proposal already appears to have triggered a partial U-turn, with the plan now likely to be financed by general taxation rather than a new energy bill levy.

However, her repeated ruling out of any new taxes, even on those companies making hundreds of billions of pounds’ worth of unexpected profits from this crisis, shows that her dependence on a hardline right of the Conservative movement is likely to cost her dearly by the time of the next General Election.

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