Conservative leadership contender Liz Truss on Monday claimed she could save almost £11bn a year with a radical shake-up of the civil service, including lower pay for officials who work in poorer parts of the UK.
The foreign secretary, frontrunner in the race to become the next prime minister, declared a “war on waste in Whitehall”, vowing to cut civil service holidays and axe 326 diversity officers working across government departments.
Her comments coincided with the dispatch of ballot papers to more than 150,000 Conservative party members who will choose the successor to outgoing premier Boris Johnson; a result will be declared on September 5.
Truss’s campaign was given another boost when trade minister Penny Mordaunt, who secured the support of 105 Tory MPs in the first stage of the leadership contest, backed Truss’s bid.
Mordaunt offered her endorsement of Truss in a surprise appearance at a hustings in Exeter, attended by party members. Former chancellor Rishi Sunak hopes to use the events to regain momentum in the contest.
Truss’s Whitehall initiative combines a push against what some Tory activists consider a bloated state with an attack on “diversity and inclusion” jobs — another front in the so-called “war on woke”.
“There is too much bureaucracy and stale groupthink in Whitehall,” she said. “As prime minister I will run a leaner, more efficient, more focused Whitehall that prioritises the things that really matter to people.”
Truss wants regional pay boards to tailor pay to the cost of living where civil servants work. She says this could ultimately save £8.8bn if the idea were to be extended to all public sector workers.
Allies of Truss said any new pay scales would apply only to new recruits. She also wants to move more civil servants out of London and to bring holiday entitlement into line with the private sector.
Truss’s team say the idea of cutting pay for officials working in less prosperous areas would stop the public sector “crowding out” the private sector, which struggles to compete with higher wages paid by the state.
But Truss will face questions about how cutting public sector pay in regions like the north would deliver the government’s “levelling up” agenda. There would also be strong opposition from civil service unions.
“If Liz Truss is elected, and if she tries to go ahead with these proposals, she’ll face opposition every step of the way,” said the Public and Commercial Services union, adding: “Civil servants are not a political tool to be used and abused.”
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said Truss would “do well to consider if any chief executive of a private company would think publicly attacking their staff in this way was a viable strategy for long-term success”.
Sunak, who has vowed to cut the basic rate of income tax from 20 per cent to 16 per cent by the end of the next parliament, hopes party members will back him as the candidate to deliver an election victory in 2024. But so far the polling evidence to support that claim is not overwhelming.
An IpsosUK poll found that among members of the public, Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer were neck and neck on 39 points on the question of who would make the most capable prime minister.
On the same question Starmer beat Truss by 41-35 and Johnson by 51-31.
But a separate poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that voters, when asked who would make the better premier now, gave Starmer a 40-33 lead over Sunak but gave Truss a 37-36 lead over Starmer.