Like an episode of The Truman Show, mixed in with portions of Family Guy, Friday Night Dinner and House Of Cards (UK or US versions, you decide; I couldn’t possibly comment), the falling out of previously respectful work colleagues Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss is now playing out across our screens in their dash to grab the keys to No 10.
In between the brickbats and at times, quite telling televised squabbles which owe their venom to the prize that awaits the winner, the clearest policy divide is between each candidate’s tax and spending plans.
Sunak is painting himself as the financial continuity candidate, keeping commitments to current levels of spending and future corporate and personal tax increases. As the previous Chancellor, this comes as no surprise. Neither do Liz Truss’ attempts to put clear blue water between her and her rival’s record as occupant of No 11, with her promises to reverse NI and tax increases immediately on taking office.
With Truss forecasted to win amongst the Tory electorate to become Prime Minister for possibly two years or more, how will she pay for her tax-cutting strategy?
A clue can be found in the current public musings of Kit Malthouse. As part of Johnson’s exit reshuffle, Malthouse was promoted to the Cabinet as Chancellor to the Duchy of Lancaster. With experience of serving in London local government, and having acted as Deputy Mayor in charge of enterprise and business to Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London, Malthouse has taken on the role of the auditor of large public projects. As a trained accountant, he seems perfectly well suited for the job.
Whether appointed by Boris to wrap up a pile of steaming dog turds in silver paper to leave as a present on the replacement Prime Minister’s desk at No 10, or self-appointed to angle to be a key player in the new administration going forward, Malthouse is out on the oceans looking for trouble like Quint the hunter of the killer beast in Jaws. For this current government, the oceans are the UK’s rising seas of debt and the trouble is anything labelled ‘spending’.
Initial reports on Malthouse’s findings and the language he used may make scary reading for firms who deliver large contracts on the government’s behalf, especially in infrastructure and transport.
In a recent interview Malthouse warned that the next Prime Minister faces “killer whales”, which he explained as “big projects that sit out there below the surface, waiting to breach above the waves and rip your arm off”. He added, “Big projects with big money involved, often take quite a lot of sophisticated leadership and management. And we need to just make sure that we’ve got the risk assessed properly on that for a new Prime Minister.”
He also made sure that everyone knew the type of thing he was talking about when he turned the sights on his harpoon to the UK’s largest construction project. “HS2 is a big project and it’s definitely on the list” of so-called “killer whales”.
As if to emphasise the point, a recent poll of Tory voters urged the new PM to scrap HS2. Though successive Conservative administrations have looked at ways of thinning it, the project is too far down the line and too important to Brand Britain to be moved into the sidings.
Where else could savings be potentially made?
On the same day as the confidence vote in Boris that led to his departure, a £2bn rail link as part of HS2 to Glasgow was scrapped. Some tenders due for release over summer 2022 have had their publication dates pushed back into the autumn, probably because current/interim departmental ministers cannot sign off on expenditure and are waiting to find out which candidate for Prime Minister will be in charge of these existing and new ‘whales’.
With Truss favourite to be the new Prime Minister, will large procurement projects be harpooned to pay for her promised tax cuts?
Lots of money is being spent on delivering Net Zero Commitments and both candidates say they are committed to it, but with very little energy or vision beyond that. Net Zero is a legal requirement so any wiggling on target dates – and last week the government lost a High Court case on whether its zero carbon plans were detailed enough – may play well in speeches, but less well in court.
There is also the new Procurement Bill* making its way through the House of Lords, ready for scrutiny and votes in the House of Commons ahead of becoming law in 2023. It promises to make procurement more accessible and tenders more winnable by SMEs and social enterprises.
This all leaves those who lead on delivering government strategy through public sector procurement, and especially in charge of Malthouse’s killer whales, in a bit of limbo until the new Prime Minister is announced on Monday 5th September.
If Liz Truss wins, we may all need a smaller boat.
* For more details on the new Procurement Bill and opportunities for SMEs, see Urbano Speaker Panel Breakfast and Networking Event on 08/09/2022, hosted by Trowers & Hamlins LLP (more details here).
Image 1: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – Conservative Party Members of Parliament and Prime Minister Leadership Candidates 2022 / Image 2: Kit Malthouse – Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Captain Quint – Shark Hunter, Jaws Movie (Universal Pictures, 1975)If Tru