The Lady is For U-Turning
Max Colbert reflects on the political chaos and the string of U-turns during the Truss campaign and premiership
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The parliamentary chaos following a Labour vote on a fracking ban left even the most seasoned political commentators lost for words. But frenzied briefings and counter-briefings have become symbolic of Liz Truss’ leadership so far: this is a Prime Minister whose short career in office has been dominated by U-turns.
The U-turn linked to the fracking vote focused on whether or not there was a three-line whip ordering Conservative MPs to support the Government. The evening vote had been sold to them as a vote of confidence in the Government – until it wasn’t.
At the close of the debate, MPs were told that this was not a vote of confidence, causing confusion in the voting lobby and threats of resignation from the whips. At 1.33am, another U-turn emerged: this time reporters were told it was a confidence vote. By the Thursday morning, the story had changed again – with Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan saying it was not a confidence vote.
Confused? This is the latest of a series of political and ideological U-turns from Truss, who despite her fondness for mimicking Margaret Thatcher, has shown herself to be a lady for turning.
From Fracking to Free Markets
Even the decision to whip Conservative MPs against a vote on fracking was a U-turn. In advance of the vote, former Energy Minister Chris Skidmore tweeted that, having “signed net zero into law, for the sake of our environment and climate, I cannot personally vote tonight to support fracking and undermine the pledges I made at the 2019 General Election”.
The 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto imposed a moratorium on fracking, with the promise that “we will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”. However, Truss has sought to pursue fracking – as well as compromise the country’s legal commitments to achieve net zero by 2050 with her support for North Sea Oil and gas drilling.
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Before the chaos of the fracking vote, Truss took to Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday to say that she was “completely committed” to the triple-lock protection on pensions – after journalists were briefed that morning that the Government could not guarantee that pensions would rise with inflation.
Of course, the biggest U-turns since Liz Truss became Prime Minister six weeks ago have been on her economic promises.
The mini budget announced the scrapping of the 45p tax threshold – a policy that Truss U-turned on by the time she gave her first party conference speech as Prime Minister. Ten days after the conference ended, her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng had been sacked, and three days after that, almost all of his fiscal policies had been dumped.
The new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt reversed “almost all” of the cuts outlined in Truss’ initial economic plans in a bid to stabilise worried markets. The BBC’s Political Editor Chris Mason described it as showing that “the Truss programme for Government is dead”.
The economic U-turns included: no cuts to dividend tax rates, no cut to the basic rate of income tax, no freeze on alcohol duty rates, no new VAT-free shopping scheme for tourists, and the reversal of off-payroll working reforms.
Hunt further announced that the energy price cap – repeatedly cited by Truss in the Commons – would now be reduced to just six months, something Labour had already laid out in its economic plans. He also announced plans to raise corporation tax, despite Truss running on the promise to do the opposite.
The Government is, however, sticking to a reversal of the Rishi Sunak-era rise in National Insurance, introduced only this April, which Labour has also opposed for over a year. As well as its plans to scrap the cap on bankers’ bonuses.
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During the Conservative leadership race, Liz Truss had referred to direct support for households struggling to pay fuel bills as “hand-outs”, suggesting she was not in favour of interventions to help people cope with the cost of living crisis.
This changed in September when she set out her plans to “do all she can to help struggling households”. The Queen’s death rather overshadowed the announcement of her energy price cap.
But, even before she was confirmed as Prime Minister, Truss was dogged by flip-flopping on policy issues during the leadership race. Truss U-turned on plans for regional pay boards, which would cut Civil Service pay outside of London, claiming her plans had been misunderstood by the media.
And that’s before you get to a lifetime of changing political positions – from Remainer to true-blue Brexiter, from anti-monarchy Liberal Democrat to hard-right Conservative.
It is hard to recall a political leader in modern times who seems so indecisive about their policies. Which, following the multiple U-turns that characterised much of the Theresa May and Boris Johnson eras, is saying something.