“Advisors advise, ministers decide” is a famous saying but one that any minister should never forget. It was one I often needed to remind myself as a minister when facing the obstacles that stand in the way of delivering what the British people elected us to do.
And this is why when it came to weighing up who would be the most likely to give us the freedom and power as ministers (or former minister in my case) to do the vital job of delivering for people, I knew my support would go to Liz Truss.
I am second to none in my admiration for our brilliant civil service. The people I have worked with at all levels are dedicated, professional, intelligent and hard working. But like any system, it has its institutional blind spots. And one of these is getting too attached to its own advice and ways of thinking, and forgetting to look outwards to the people we serve, those who voted for the government of the day, who want politicians to keep the promises they made to voters.
In the Home Office, for example, you are invariably dealing with sensitive, challenging and controversial priorities. For example, tackling illegal migration, making sure disgusting criminals such as grooming gang leaders and people smugglers are brought to justice, and seeing better outcomes for the most vulnerable victims of rape and domestic abuse.
Doing the right thing for citizens means challenging orthodoxies. Every time the civil service produces advice for ministers, it has a standard clause that sets out the risk of legal challenge. In almost every single policy decision we ever took, the risk would be 70% or higher. The Home Office is constantly subject to judicial review across all areas of policy particularly in the asylum and immigration area which has hampered our ability to tackle the root cause of the small boat crisis.
Sometimes this sort of thing gets leaked and everyone gets very excited to read that ministers “overrode” their officials to do this or that. I would smile when I read that – as we have to do this for virtually every single decision. It is not “over-riding” to read some advice that suggests a policy has a risk of judicial review, and then to decide to do it anyway. It is the core job of a minister, to say “thank you for this advice, all noted, but we should still do it”; because we know as elected representatives, tasked with the solemn duty of carrying out the wishes of voters, the risk of NOT doing it is greater than the risk of doing nothing.
To be clear, I do not criticise officials for producing this advice. It is their job. And if they didn’t point out these risks, we as ministers could demand why officials were content for us to make stupid decisions that we later had to u- turn on.
The advice also has a standard section on “public and media reaction”. This usually says something like “the Home Office will be criticised for doing this and the government may be reputationally damaged”. Again, this falls into the category of “we knew this already”. It would be a rare day not to open the papers and find the Home Office being criticised by somebody! But still, our job as politicians is to remember who we are there to represent. The media, the opposition, the campaigners, the vocal voices of criticism – OR the British people who voted for us?
There is no risk free course of action in life. There is a risk in crossing the road. Yet we do it because we need to get to the other side. It’s the same in policy making.
Of course ministers should be held to account, and checks and balances exist in the system. But we have seen business as usual does not stop the small boats or deport the perverts who led the grooming gangs in Rotherham and Oldham.
From working with Liz and seeing her in action during my five years in Parliament, I know she has an appetite for risk, not for its own sake, but for restoring trust in politics. She fully understands that to make an omelette some eggs must be broken. And I don’t
underestimate how daunting this can be for any minister, even the Prime Minister. There are powerful forces on all sides who are only too ready to pounce when a democratically elected politician does something that “experts” say they should not.
But if politicians had listened to these voices, we would never have delivered Brexit. It’s what people voted for, they should get, it is as simple and as uncomplicated as that. I have lost count of the times people say they voted for us to control immigration or lock up heinous criminals and they don’t understand why we haven’t been able to do it. They are not interested in hearing we did not do these things because officials told us it would be too risky, the media would say nasty things, or we would be taken to court. None of these people voted for us.
Liz Truss is the only person who can be trusted to stand firm in the face of this opposition. I know she will empower her government team with the most solemn undertaking to keep our promises to the people who put us in power. And to do those difficult things along the way to get those things done. She will give her ministers confidence to face down this noise and
focus on the silent majority who expect us to do Conservative things.
That is why she has my full support.