Leaked audio reveals Liz Truss said British workers needed ‘more graft’
Exclusive: Tory leadership frontrunner suggested Britons lacked ‘skill and application’, in echo of ‘idlers’ row.
Liz Truss, now the Tory leadership frontrunner, launched an astonishing broadside against British workers, saying they needed “more graft” and suggesting they lacked the “skill and application” of foreign rivals, the Guardian can reveal.
In a leaked recording, the then No 2 at the Treasury also risked pitting Londoners against the rest of the country by attempting to explain the difference between the capital and other regions in the UK.
Truss, who has put patriotism at the heart of her leadership campaign, suggested the disparity was “partly a mindset or attitude thing”.
The comments were made when Truss was the chief secretary to the Treasury, a post she held until 2019. In the recording she intimated that there seemed little desire to change the working culture so that the UK could become more prosperous.
The highly disparaging remarks echo a controversial passage about British workers being among the “worst idlers in the world” in the book Britannia Unchained, which she co-authored in 2012 when she was a new backbench MP seeking to make her mark as a neo-Thatcherite.
In the first televised head-to-head Tory leadership debate last month, Truss claimed she had not written the offending chapter and blamed her fellow author Dominic Raab instead.
She told the BBC presenter: “Each author wrote a different chapter. Dominic Raab wrote that chapter – he’s backing Rishi Sunak.”
Raab later claimed that the authors, who also included Priti Patel and Kwasi Kwarteng, had taken “collective responsibility” for the book, adding: “It’s up to Liz to explain why she’s changed her view.”
In the leaked recording, Truss claimed that the book had been “mischaracterised” at the time of its release a decade ago, but gave no detail as to how she felt the passage had been misrepresented.
Truss’s remarks about the productivity of workers outside London could be particularly damaging as earlier this month she was forced to make a U-turn on plans to cut civil service pay outside the capital after a furious outcry from Conservative MPs.
She claimed there had been a “wilful misrepresentation” of her policy – despite her campaign having published specific details – but confirmed she was abandoning plans for regional pay boards for civil servants or public sector workers.
London had the highest productivity level of any UK region in 2020, with output per hour more than 50% higher than the median, according to the Office for National Statistics.
However, this is widely believed to be the result of large multinationals being based in the capital, higher engagement with research and development, the size of firms and the level of exports, and the transport infrastructure.
In the leaked recording, Truss began: “I once wrote a book about this which got mischaracterised – British workers produce less per hour than … and that’s a combination of kind of skill and application.”
She went on: “If you look at productivity, it’s very, very different in London from the rest of the country. But basically … this has been a historical fact for decades. Essentially it’s partly a mindset and attitude thing, I think. It’s working culture, basically. If you go to China it’s quite different, I can assure you.”
The minister, who had close oversight of public spending, added: “There’s a fundamental issue of British working culture. Essentially, if we’re going to be a richer country and a more prosperous country, that needs to change. But I don’t think people are that keen to change that.
“There’s a slight thing in Britain about wanting the easy answers. That’s my reflection on the election and what’s gone before it, and the referendum – we say it’s all Europe that’s causing these huge problems … it’s all these migrants causing these problems. But actually what needs to happen is more … more graft. It’s not a popular message.”
Truss was questioned about the Guardian’s revelations during a Tory leadership hustings in Perth, and appeared to confirm she still believed British workers were not as productive as they should be.
Asked by Colin Mackay, STV’s political editor and chair of the hustings, whether she stood by those remarks, Truss said: “I don’t know what you’re quoting there [but] what we need in this country is more productivity and we need more economic growth.
“The thing is we don’t have enough of is capital investment, which why it’s important to get more investment in the whisky industry and North Sea.”
The shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “With wages shrinking thanks to Tory failure to bring inflation under control and years of lacklustre growth, it’s grossly offensive for Liz Truss to effectively brand British workers lazy.
“I would have hoped she had moved on from the days of her Britannia Unchained fiasco, but it seems that is the blueprint for her prospective government. Workers across the country are working all hours to keep a roof over their heads, put food on the table and provide for their families. Liz Truss should be helping working people to cope with this cost of living crisis, as Labour this week outlined we would do, not peddling this offensive nonsense.”
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