Liz Truss has said she never had “any intention” of cutting the pay of nurses and teachers, despite announcing plans to pay public sector workers in cheaper parts of the country less.
The frontrunner in the Tory leadership contest announced on Monday night that she would save £8.8bn by introducing regional pay boards as part of a “war on Whitehall waste”.
But on Tuesday morning, Truss abandoned the plan in the face of a huge backlash from Tory MPs.
Rishi Sunak’s campaign said the only way that amount of money could be saved would be to cut the pay of millions of public sector workers outside of London and the south east of England.
Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday afternoon, Truss claimed her policy had been “misrepresented”.
“I never had any intention of changing the terms and conditions of teachers and nurses,” she said.
“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.”
In response to the suggestion it was an error of judgment, Trus said: “I’m being absolutely honest, I’m concerned that people were worried – unnecessarily worried – about my policies and therefore I’m being clear that the regional pay boards will not go ahead.”
It is unclear why Truss believes her policy had been misrepresented, given her campaign had stated that up to £8.8bn could be saved by extending the plan to all public sector workers.
Allies of Sunak seized on the both the initial policy and the U-turn as evidence Truss should not be leader.
Former Tory chief whip Mark Harper told Truss to stop “blaming journalists – reporting what a press release says isn’t ‘wilful misrepresentation’.
“So this U-turn has wiped out £8.8bn in savings. Where are these going to come from now?” he said.
Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen said he had been left “actually speechless”.
St Austell and Newquay MP Steve Double said: “This is a terrible idea and would be hugely damaging to public services in Cornwall where we already struggle to recruit NHS staff.”
North West Durham MP Richard Holden, another supporter of the former chancellor, said the policy would have “kill levelling up”.
Simon Hoare, the Sunak backer who chairs the Commons Northern Ireland Committee, said it was a “totally bad initiative” that would result in “levelling down”.
Institute for Government programme director Alex Thomas argued that the “complicated and controversial” move would mean nurses and teachers being paid less or receiving slower pay rises than others.
“This is not war on Whitehall, it’s more like war on Workington,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.