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Liz Truss’s “mandate” is a joke

Liz Truss’s “mandate” is a joke


The former PM’s assessment of what went wrong with her premiership demonstrates how undemocratic the Conservative party’s system for choosing a leader is


Like Liz Truss, I am not an economist. I am, though, a journalist. And that means I can spot a phrase of weasel words, one of those slippery formulations that nearly means what you want it to mean, but doesn’t. 

This week, Liz Truss, the former prime minister, made her case for why the deck had been stacked against her. Writing in the Telegraph, she said this:

“I assumed upon entering Downing Street that my mandate would be respected and accepted. How wrong I was.”

And she went on:

“So it was that I won the leadership election with a clear mandate from my party in the country and, by the close of the ballot, the backing of the majority of MPs declaring a preference.” 

I’m James Harding, Editor of Tortoise, and, for reasons you might guess, the whole thing made me laugh. Not funny “ha ha”, but funny “blah blah” – sometimes politicians say things and you wonder: are they joking?

“I assumed my mandate would be accepted and respected” – was this a joke? What mandate? Liz Truss did not enter Downing Street with the support of the majority of the country, nor, in fact, the backing of voters electing the majority party in Parliament. She won the majority support of a small, skewed and secretive group, namely members of the Conservative party. She had the backing of more than half of 0.3 per cent of the population. There are many ways to describe the size of that crowd – let’s say a Wembley, half a Glastonbury, a statistical anomaly – but mandate isn’t one of them.

And, then, let’s revisit the tortured phrase: “by the close of the ballot, the backing of the majority of MPs declaring a preference”. What Liz Truss wants this to mean is that she had the support of the majority of Conservative MPs; but, as she knows and we know, she didn’t. When MPs were asked in the leadership contest last summer to narrow down their preferences to two, she came second – to Rishi Sunak. After that, MPs were not formally asked to choose a candidate again; in fact, the party chose the prime minister over the preference of Conservative MPs, who had been democratically elected, who did, in fact, have a mandate.

This matters. It matters, of course, to us at Tortoise, because we are seeking a judicial review of the Conservative party’s conduct of last summer’s contest to be party leader and the UK’s prime minister. We’re waiting to learn whether the courts will hear the case. Of course, we’ve always said that that system of choosing a prime minister is undemocratic. But the case we’re making is actually about openness and safety; it’s about the party denying it was performing a public function in running that election to be party leader and PM and its secrecy around the electorate and the security of the ballot: what we’re doing is challenging the party over its refusal to answer any questions about the nature of the party members choosing the country’s leader and their system, such as it was, for ensuring that people voting were who they say they were. 

Liz Truss’s 4,000 word self-justification in the Telegraph, though, points to two current reasons that you’d want political parties to think again about the way they elect leaders mid-parliament, that you’d want the courts to ensure that any system for doing so is transparent and secure.

The first reason is this. When you read Liz Truss’s piece, it’s clear that politicians who reach 10 Downing Street are prone to convincing themselves that they have a mandate for doing what they want to do. We need to be much clearer about what a “mandate” is. And we need to be clearer about who gets to be prime minister, who elects them and how.

In the UK, we now have the third British prime minister operating off the same general election result. Each of them has had entirely different agendas – raising taxes and investment to level up, cutting taxes and the size of the state to spur growth, a mix’n’match to restore the party’s reputation for competence. And this month, we’ve seen Rishi Sunak’s Number 10 seeing if, without any manifesto mandate support for this, his MPs, the party and the public would wear the exit from the European Court of Human Rights; as I said, there’s no mandate for that either.

And the second reason is, well, it’s the ghost at Liz Truss’s feast. At no point in her long piece does she consider the arguments for and against the correlation between low taxation and higher growth. She treats a belief like a fact: that cutting taxes will increase GDP. Surely, one of the biggest questions of our times is why European countries – at least some European countries – with higher tax rates are showing higher growth and productivity. But, of course, for that, what you need is a meaningful political debate about the relationship between tax, spending, investment and growth, between what the private sector can do, what the economy needs the government to do. It’s the question that will – and should – dominate the next general election: how does Britain grow, strongly, sustainably and fairly? It’s the argument that should lead to a democratic choice – a considered choice voted on by the public – about the direction the country goes next. What’s known, in fact, as a mandate.