Trade Minister Conor Burns takes a thinly veiled dig at Liz Truss, as Cabinet members openly pressure her on welfare spending.
LONDON — Less than a month into Liz Truss’ premiership, some of her most senior colleagues are publicly questioning her approach.
Cabinet ministers have been openly urging Truss, whose Conservative Party is gathering in Birmingham for its annual conference, to abandon plans for a real-terms cut in welfare benefits as she tries to balance the books. The pressure comes just a day after Truss was forced into a major U-turn over controversial tax cuts for high earners.
Another member of her government meanwhile took a barely-veiled sideswipe at Truss’ time running the Department for International Trade (DIT), and talked up one of her defeated leadership rivals as “the future of the party”.
Trade Minister Conor Burns suggested Truss had prioritized presentation over substance at the DIT as he tipped Kemi Badenoch as a future Conservative savior.
Speaking at a fringe event during the Conservative conference, Burns admitted there was “not a huge amount of good news that is going to be emanating from the government in the coming months.”
But he added: “The one department that will have some good news is the Department for International Trade.”
And as he praised new international trade chief Badenoch he also took a swipe at Truss, who became famous for her social media presence during her time as trade secretary under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Some officials took to re-labeling the DIT the “Department for Instagramming Truss” during her tenure.
“Kemi totally gets that trade needs to move beyond Instagram posts about free-trade agreements, and needs to actually focus on delivering for companies the support to unleash the potential that the free-trade agreements open up,” Burns said.
Badenoch ran an insurgent campaign during the recent Tory leadership contest and came fourth overall. Truss appointed her as international trade secretary after the race. Burns said Badenoch was “the future of our party,” amid speculation about whether Truss will survive as prime minister for long.
He added that he was “not a big fan of talking about bigger cakes” — after Truss repeatedly said she was focused on growing the size of the U.K.’s economic “pie” rather than redistributing wealth. However Burns did insist the trade agenda was a crucial element of growing the economy.
He later sought to clarify his remarks, telling POLITICO via a tweet that his comments were “not very controversial.”
“Liz Truss energised the FTA [free trade agreement] ambitions and I was privileged to work with her when she was Trade Secretary and be asked by her to return to @tradegovuk,” he said, referring to the trade department.
Welfare rebellion mounts
Burns’ remarks came as Cabinet ministers Penny Mordaunt and Robert Buckland made clear that they expect the value of welfare benefits to keep pace with inflation.
Truss and her ministers have repeatedly refused to commit to such a pledge, saying only that the policy is under review.
But Mordaunt, a former leadership rival to Truss, told Times Radio Tuesday: “I’ve always supported — whether it’s pensions, whether it’s our welfare system — keeping pace with inflation. It makes sense to do so. That’s what I voted for before.”
And she added: “We are not about trying to help people with one hand and take away with another.”
Buckland, Truss’ Wales secretary, meanwhile told the BBC that his boss is “an extremely effective team player, she’s a great leader. And she’ll continue to listen and act accordingly.”
But he added: “I’m a One Nation compassionate Conservative. I believe in enabling the most successful in our society to succeed, and I believe in the safety net as well.”
Asked specifically by the BBC whether he’d like to see benefits rise in line with inflation, Buckland replied: “Every Conservative government that I’ve been part of has maintained the safety net, and I’m sure this one will do the same.”
Truss downplayed the interventions Tuesday afternoon, telling Times Radio she was “focused on delivering, and the Cabinet is also fully focused on that too.”
“And people do interviews all the time — at party conference, people talk,” she added. “That’s what happens. But the important point is that we’re all unified behind the growth plan and behind what we have to do to get this country back on track.”
This article was updated as the conference continued.