New UK prime minister Liz Truss ‘must mend relations with civil servants to meet historic challenges’

By on 06/09/2022 | Updated on 06/09/2022
UK foreign minister and candidate to become prime minister, Lis Truss, sits at a desk before a microphone.
Truss was announced the UK's new prime minister on 5 September 2022 after a long leadership contest this summer. Photo by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street via Flickr

The UK’s new prime minister Liz Truss will need to rebuild the government’s relationship with the civil service to be able to deliver her pledges at a time of global turmoil, according to experts.

Convening a day after Truss’s leadership was announced, an Institute for Government (IfG) panel discussion explored the priorities and policy challenges the new PM would likely face in her first months in office.

Alex Thomas, programme director for policy making and the civil service at IfG, said that Truss would benefit from reversing the “antagonistic” approach taken to running the civil service by her predecessor, Boris Johnson.

“It will be interesting to see the tone that Truss takes. If her focus is on ‘delivery, delivery, delivery’ [as in her leadership acceptance speech yesterday], then she’s going to need to find a way to get the machine on side and to use the machine,” he said.

However, he said that Truss’s strong political convictions could help the civil service by giving it a clearer sense of direction.

In the days ahead, the prime minister is expected to take action on rising energy prices, and Thomas said that the key task for Truss was “about communicating the decisions that the prime minister has made out to the rest of the machine, rather than the slightly more chaotic approach that I’ve seen before”.

Areas of the relationship with officials that Truss will need to manage include the outgoing government’s plans to reduce the size of the civil service by 91,000 posts.

Thomas said that while he saw “absolutely nothing wrong with pursuing a smaller civil service”, he believed Truss would be wise to drop the “superficial” tactics used by the Johnson government to reign in officials. Such tactics include recent comments made by the UK minister for efficiency Jacob Rees-Mogg, who in July hinted that civil servants still working at home could be at increased risk of losing their jobs.

A panel discussion on the challenges faces Liz Truss as prime minister at IfG
Speakers on the panel (left to right) Nick Davies, programme director of the public services team, Emma Norris, director of research, Dr Gemma Tetlow, chief economist, Alex Thomas, programme director of the civil service team, Dr Hannah White, acting director and Tim Durrant, associate director for the ministers team

The plan to reduce the civil service by around 20% was announced by Rees-Mogg and Johnson in May this year as part of the government’s goal of returning civil service headcount to 2016 levels. Former senior officials told Global Government Forum at the time that the reductions would hinder the delivery of frontline services and hit the civil service’s ability to recruit.

Read more: UK minister hints work-from-home civil servants could face job cuts

Words to the wise

Speaking to Global Government Forum after the event, Thomas said Truss needed “to use [the civil service] in the best possible way, and it won’t respond as effectively as it might if it feels like it’s constantly being battered”.

He also said Truss faced an important choice between cutting the civil service “in an intelligent way that matches the ambition of the government” versus continuing the previous government’s “ad hoc” plans for across-the-board headcount reductions across departments.

Read more: Exclusive: experts on the impact of 91,000 job cuts in the UK civil service

“My advice would be to scrap the headcount targets, focus on money and budgets, and set the civil service the objective of saving money on its running costs and administration costs, rather than getting rid of people,” Thomas said.

Speaking at the event, Thomas said he hoped the rumoured government Spending Review would “build on the mechanics the government has already got” to square its priorities with its resources. With a note of apprehension, he said Truss’s plan to launch a complete review of European law in the wake of Brexit would be an “absolutely enormous distraction” for civil servants at a crucial time for the country.

“I would advise her to pick her priorities on that, and focus on the opportunities around European legislation, rather than to do this pointless, superficial exercise of reviewing the whole law.”

Read more: Liz Truss branded ‘abhorrent’ for accusing civil servants of antisemitism

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

One Comment

  1. Eric Young says:

    ‘….Truss would benefit from reversing the “antagonistic” approach taken to running the civil service by her predecessor, Boris Johnson.”

    ‘…Truss would be wise to drop the “superficial” tactics used by the Johnson government….’

    I’m not sure this an appropriate way in which to communicate one’s personal opinion of the outgoing prime minister. It reads as a judgement call, with no supporting explanation or clarification (this may have been provided but omitted from the summary) – and the target of the accusation has no right of reply. Surely better to remain professional and impartial?

    ‘….rather than to do this pointless, superficial exercise of reviewing the whole law.’

    If Mr Thomas wishes to influence the new prime minister’s priorities through objective and balanced debate, then all well and good. There are legitimate means through which this can be achieved. A personal opinion expressed by emotive and unhelpful language might not be the most appropriate method.

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