When all else fails, shoot the messenger.
As Liz Truss’s plan to save £8.8bn by paying civil servants less outside London and the south east provoked a furious Tory backlash, her team pressed the panic button.
In the preamble to the inevitable screeching U-turn, a spokesperson for Truss told journalists: “Over the last few hours there has been a wilful misrepresentation of our campaign.”
This was, alas, copper-bottomed nonsense.
The press release issued yesterday by the Truss campaign announcing the policy makes it crystal clear that replacing national pay bargaining with “regional pay boards” would mean smaller salaries for those in less-affluent areas.
It said: “This will make it easier to adjust officials’ pay, ensuring it accurately reflects where they work and stops the crowding out of local businesses that can not compete with public sector pay.”
And in case anyone was in any doubt that this new policy would apply to the likes of nurses, teachers and the police as well, the release explained: “This could save up to £8.8 billion per year. This is the potential savings if the system were to be adopted for all public sector workers in the long term.”
Unsurprisingly, this went down badly with Red Wall Tories like Ben Houchen, the party’s mayor in Tees Valley, who said: “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.”
Experiencing the first serious mis-step of her leadership campaign, Truss later recorded a TV clip insisting that while her policy had been “misrepresented”, she was going to abandon it completely.
She said: “I never had any intention of changing the terms and conditions of teachers and nurses.
“But what I want to be clear about is I will not be going ahead with the regional pay boards. That is no longer my policy.”
Rishi Sunak’s campaign, who have been on the back foot throughout the contest, wasted no time in taking advantage of their rival’s humiliation.
Pointing out that Truss had supported regional pay boards four years ago when she was chief secretary to the Treasury (CST), a source on Team Rishi said: “This wasn’t a mistake, Liz wanted this in 2018 as CST. The lady is for turning.”
That last sentence, echoing a famous line in one of Margaret Thatcher’s party conference speeches, was designed to twist the knife.
It’s far too early to say Truss’s mistake means the outcome of the leadership contest is back in the balance. She remains the clear favourite to succeed Boris Johnson.
But she’ll know better than anyone that any further slip-ups could be fatal to her hopes of entering Number 10.