As the Conservative Party leadership race enters its final stage, frontrunner Liz Truss and self-professed “underdog” Rishi Sunak this week struggled to hit the headlines with policy ambitions to match the early days of the contest.
Nevertheless, Truss’ social-care vision will have been a big feature on the Department for Health and Social Care’s radar, and Sunak’s observations on the weight ministers gave to opinions from government scientists in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic will not have gone unnoticed.
Staff at HM Treasury and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities have also been presented with crystal-ball visions of what the political leadership of their departments might look like after polling closes next Friday, ahead of the winner being named on September 5.
Elsewhere, officials at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office were able to attract more attention for concerns about their 2022-23 pay offer than might have been the case if their boss was someone other than Liz Truss.
Civil servants were also treated to an ambiguous answer on how complaints against ministers might be dealt with in future.
Social-care funding plans prompt NHS raid fears
Policy-wise, this week’s most significant announcement from a leadership candidate has been Liz Truss’ pledge to provide local authorities with £36bn of funding to help deal with the nation’s social-care crisis, despite scrapping the National Insurance rise introduced to fund it.
On Tuesday she told a hustings event in Birmingham that the funding, originally earmarked to come from the so-called Health and Social Care Levy changes to NI, would be provided from general taxation – but essentially diverted from NHS funding.
Although the long-term ambition for funds raised via the levy is to pay for social care improvements, most of the £36bn ringfenced for the next three years was expected to go to the NHS to aid its recovery from the pandemic.
Matthew Taylor, a former adviser to Tony Blair who is now chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said if Truss’ proposal was implemented the funding shortfall would leave health-service leaders with “impossible choices” on what to prioritise for their patients. “Health leaders agree strongly that social care desperately needs more investment,” he told the Times.
“However, this should not come at the expense of funding that has been already committed for the NHS.”
Team Sunak predicted a U-turn on the policy.
Sunak rues empowerment of scientists during pandemic
Former chancellor Rishi Sunak said he regretted the extent to which the government – of which he was one of the most senor members – allowed itself to be led by scientists in relation to lockdown decisions during the coronavirus pandemic.
In an interview with the Spectator, Sunak said the balance between the long-term impact on the economy, schools and the NHS should have been given greater consideration.
“We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did,” he said. “And you have to acknowledge trade-offs from the beginning. If we’d done all of that, we could be in a very different place.”
Meet the new bosses at HMT and DLUHC?
The weekend rumour mill gave HM Treasury and DLUHC much to chew over in relation to their future political leadership if – as currently expected – Liz Truss is chosen to succeed Boris Johnson as Tory leader and prime minister.
Current business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was tipped to become chancellor in a Sunday Times piece. The story noted that Truss and Kwarteng, who are neighbours in south-east London at present, are in “constant dialogue” and expected to remain so in Downing Street.
The Sunday Times also tipped Jacob Rees-Mogg as a future DLUHC secretary of state, although wider questions remained about the unabashedly posh Old Etonian becoming the figurehead for levelling up.
The paper noted that a Truss victory would effectively end Michael Gove’s time in government, on the grounds of the “hate” she has for the former levelling-up secretary, Cabinet Office minister, justice secretary and education secretary.
For his part, Gove came out in support for Sunak on Saturday and suggested he was stepping back from front-bench politics.
Constructive ambiguity on standards
Losing a second standards adviser in less than two years was another chink in the armour for Boris Johnson in the weeks before he was defenestrated by his own ministers.
Truss took an ambiguous stance on whether she would recruit a replacement for Christopher Geidt, who resigned as the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministers' interests in June. Lord Geidt said he had been put in an “impossible and odious position” after being asked to consider a “deliberate and purposeful breach” of the ministerial code.
At a hustings event, Truss refused to commit to appointing an independent ethics adviser, suggesting it might be unnecessary because she understands the “difference between right and wrong”.
However, that will not help civil servants looking to raise complaints about other ministers with a less certain moral compass – or the cabinet secretary, whose job it is to undertake the role in the absence of a dedicated adviser.
Case asked to launch Chevening probe
With uncanny timing, Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain on Tuesday called on cabinet secretary Simon Case to investigate whether Truss had broken the ministerial code by using Chevening House in Kent for a campaign event.
The grace-and-favour country house near Sevenoaks is made available to the foreign secretary by convention. However the ministerial code states that ministers who hold personal events at residences should do so at their own or their party’s expense, with no cost falling on the public purse.
In her letter asking Case to investigate, Chamberlain said: "It would be wholly inappropriate for the foreign secretary to be using her official residence for campaigning purposes at the taxpayer's expense.”
The Cabinet Office confirmed it had received the MP’s letter and said it would reply to the Lib Dems.
Further levelling-up questions
FCDO staff also used the Conservative Party leadership race to raise questions about levelling up within the department, at least according to one newspaper.
The i reported on complaints about the department’s failure to align pay for staff, nearly two years after it was formed in a merger between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.
It said a document sent to civil servants showed that plans to equalise pay for staff from the two departments have been abandoned, noting “the decision last year to maintain our headcount means the FCDO does not have the funding to ‘level up’ (pay in the department)”.
The i reported one unidentified staff member saying: “Liz Truss can’t even level up her own department, let alone the country.”