Penny Mordaunt has given a damning assessment of the state of the UK, where she said many people feel things do not work for them and the poorest think the system is rigged against them, arguing that democracy and capitalism are hanging in the balance.
The former rival to Rishi Sunak to lead the Conservative party, and now a cabinet minister, said trust would only be won back “when people feel understood”.
The leader of the House of Commons set out her views in a speech at the Institute for Government conference in Westminster, saying her role in government would be to make parliament the most effective in the world.
But she made a series of much wider points about the challenges facing the UK, where she said the “jigsaw pieces have been thrown up in the air” by a combination of geopolitical challenges, technological changes and Covid.
“Many people think things don’t work, at least for them,” she said, adding that “for those with the least, the whole system can seem rigged against them”.
She said many people regard “Fair Fuel, Which? and Martin Lewis” as their protectors, rather than the state.
She also claimed: “Young people are fixated on rewriting or tearing down the past because they don’t believe they have a future. Older people believe their world has been Amazoned, their values trashed and the high street hollowed out.”
Mordaunt said Sunak understood the importance of “trust as a metric”, but she also said: “The very continuation and success of capitalism and democracy hangs in the balance.”
She did not address the fact that the Conservatives have been in power for 12 years but said she regularly set out the achievements of successive governments in her Thursday morning speeches from the dispatch box in the Commons.
Asked about the gloominess of her assessment, Mordaunt said: “I want to focus on the future, and people like me should be focusing on things we want to improve. Despite everything we have been through, we have achieved a huge amount, even during the pandemic … There’s a huge amount that has been done … so I’m not remotely depressed about the situation.”
In terms of reforms to parliament, Mordaunt said she was considering introducing proxy voting for MPs who were severely ill, and using technology to reduce the strain on MPs who are new parents.
Pressed on why so many MPs had been censured over ethical issues in recent years, she said people needed to step back and ask why this had happened. Mordaunt cited huge pressures and stresses of political life, and suggested there should be more collective responsibility between parliament, the Cabinet Office and political parties over ethical issues.
Mordaunt said she was keen to restart the process on the restoration and renewal programme for parliament, which stalled under her predecessor, Jacob Rees-Mogg. The works could cost up to £13bn if parliamentarians move out of the Palace of Westminster, or about £22bn if they are carried out while MPs and peers remain in situ.
The Commons leader said she would present the options within the next 12 months and “arrive at what we damn well need to do”. She said some work might be possible while parliamentarians carried on their normal business, and if they did have to move out, they would look at how to “squeeze that down to the minimum period of time”.
She said there might be opportunities to trial technology while MPs and peers were away from Westminster and to use the move to get around the country and “generate a bit of excitement”.
Mordaunt was followed by Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, who gave her own analysis of why the country is facing so many challenges.
Nandy said “every major challenge comes down to one thing” – the government having “written off the talent, the potential and assets of most of our people in almost every part of Britain”. She said it was a “social crime”, as “no part of Britain can succeed unless we grow ourselves in every part”.
She said the “waves of political upheaval” felt in the UK had been “the sound of people demanding to take charge of their own destiny”.
Nandy said Labour’s mission would be “ending a century of centralisation”, which she described as “at the heart of whether this country has a future”.
Instead of the government’s “vague” levelling up targets, she said Labour would look to establish an independent advisory council drawn from every part of the UK to monitor the government’s progress against metrics which deliver tangible outcomes.
These metrics will be based on principles including resilience, connectivity to education, training, work, healthcare, family and friends, sustainability, and wellbeing.
She said the “time for excuses is long past” and decentralising the economy was the “only route out of the national malaise”.