Was she more than pie in the sky?

We all laughed at the former PM, but her radical message might have been right


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I am sleeping even more poorly than usual, and in those fitful hours between my second visit to the bathroom and the buzz of the alarm clock, I am haunted by a recurring thought. What if I was wrong about Liz Truss?

Like everyone else, I winced at the blinky interviews and chuckled at the wilting lettuce. On reflection, perhaps we should have all shown her more respect when we had a chance.

The thing about prophets is that they can’t all be square-jawed smoothies like Mark Carney. Socrates had foul body odour and aggravated the Athenians so much they made him drink hemlock. Isaac Newton was a borderline incel prone to violent rages.

Truss had terrible style, but it is hard to argue with the substance

So it goes with Truss. She may have had terrible style, but it is hard to argue with the substance. Fundamentally, she is right to regard the British state as a sick business in need of a corporate doctor.

Pedants and grammarians teased her for her repeated use of the phrase “growing the pie”. However, no one can argue with the underlying message that radical change is needed if we are to deliver the sustainable economic growth which is the sine qua non of improving public services.

As any management consultant would concur, our public sector has become a bloated conglomerate with too many sub-scale ventures in unfamiliar markets. It needs to spin off non-core divisions and focus on fewer core competencies.

And, like so many businesses, the barrier to change is a permafrost layer of management, who shrug as they see the CEOs of our nation come and go. Where Truss and, for that matter, most other reforming political leaders fail, is in their analysis of how to overcome this resistance.

Policymaking is trapped in an abusive cycle. First, a minister announces a new initiative. Next, that initiative is criticised by a public sector organisation. Then, the same minister impotently rails about “the blob” or “wokery” in a sympathetic newspaper. Finally, some time later, the policy is quietly shelved.

I have been involved in a few company turnarounds over the years — not all of them successful — and I can sympathise with the predicament of policymakers. There have certainly been times when I ended the day in a wine bar ordering a third bottle of Chablis after incumbent middle managers had thwarted a restructuring plan or a badly needed asset sale.

“Don’t worry. We’ll see them out,” is the muttered mantra of the long-servers when faced with any hyperactive new management team. It is easy for impatient CEOs to respond to stalling behaviour with bossy memos, mass sackings or paranoid requests to Group Security to spy on colleagues’ communications.

In the end, changing any organisation requires not just bloody-mindedness but also empathy and ability to build relationships.

The original trouble-shooter, Sir John Harvey-Jones, found TV fame with his gruff demeanour, but he knew that turning around businesses also needed soft skills. “Organisations only change when the people in them change,” he remarked. “And people will only change when they accept in their hearts that change must occur.”

In my experience, what distinguishes the great CEOs is their natural affinity for people. I remember one leader who was always happiest when visiting our M4-corridor call centre. Whilst I would be stifling yawns and pondering the provincialism of it all, he knew the names of every head-set-wearing worker, and he was genuinely passionate about the dull micro-processes for which each person was responsible.

All those smiling selfies and interested questions paid off handsomely. When we eventually had to tell this workforce they were going to be contracted out to an Indian-owned outsourcer, they responded almost with enthusiasm.

By contrast, visits to equivalent public sector facilities by politicians are pieces of performance art rather than genuine attempts to win hearts and minds. Social security administrators and Department of Justice bureaucrats are rarely more than room meat for a picture caption in the following day’s newspapers.

Politicians like to sneer that — with very rare exceptions like John Lewis’ Andy Street — business leaders who try their hands at government fail to prosper because they lack the “common touch” of elected Members of Parliament.

But the truth is that whilst MPs may be passionate about “The People” as an abstract idea, they are often uncomfortable with the real-life flesh-and-blood people they lead.

The only way this country can achieve the turnaround we need is if our sociopathic politicians take the time to learn the lessons in human nature that business leaders can teach them.

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