Oh dear. It seems that Liz Truss's winning run has come to an end. After a week of riding high, the Foreign Secretary's campaign for leader has hit a bit of a bump in the road. Her campaign last night sent out a press release declaring: 'Truss: I'll wage a war on Whitehall waste to save taxpayers £11 billion.' It promised that diversity and inclusion posts in the civil service will be scrapped and that taxpayer-funded trade union facility time will be curbed too. So far, so good.
But it was the pledge that 'a Truss government will introduce Regional Pay Boards so pay accurately reflects where civil servants work' that has got alarm bells ringing across the country. Her campaign claimed that the government 'could save billions a year' by doing this to 'make it easier to adjust officials' pay' and 'stop the crowding out of local businesses that can not compete with public sector pay.'
Interestingly, the accompanying note to editors is somewhat more cautious, claiming this will apply only to new contracts rolled out over a number of years and 'we would only move to extend this policy if it can be shown to deliver.' Nevertheless, the campaign concludes it could 'save up to £8.8 billion per year' if all public sector workers adopted this – a big if, and one that would mean teachers and nurses being included too.
Unsurprisingly, those northern Tories who are backing Rishi Sunak have seized on this announcement as proof that Truss would abandon the 'levelling up' agenda which they believe is crucial to holding the Red Wall in 2024. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley declared himself 'actually speechless' at the plan, declaring that 'there is simply no way you can do this without a massive pay cut for 5.5m people including nurses, police officers and our armed forces outside London.' Team Sunak claims that dividing Truss's £8.8 billion savings by the number of public sector workers having their pay cut would mean £1,500 less for 5.7 million public sector works.
Richard Holden, MP for North West Durham, argued it would mean pay cuts for everyone from 'Cornwall to Cambridgeshire to the Cotswolds to County Durham' adding it would 'kill levelling up'. Chris Clarkson, MP for Heywood and Middleton remarked that 'I'm not sure a promise to cut people's pay based on where they live will survive first contact with focus groups, let alone reality.' It's not just northern Tories too: Simon Hoare of North Dorset declared it 'drives a coach and horses through the levelling-up agenda' while Steve Double of Cornwall added 'the billions saved would be coming straight out of rural economies.'
All these Tories are supporting Sunak of course but it's noticeable how silent Truss's supporters have been on this announcement. Shades of the dementia tax, anyone?