Ten questions for Johnson’s reshuffle

7 Sep

  • What does the Prime Minister do about economic policy?  His instinct is for government to spend a lot; Rishi Sunak’s is for it to spend less.  Boris Johnson would clearly be reckless to lose his second Chancellor in less than two years, and we don’t believe that he will try to move him. Furthermore, it isn’t at all clear who would play Anthony Barber to the Prime Minister’s Edward Heath.  But Sunak’s public pitch for loyalty over social care yesterday only confirmed the tensions between him and the Prime Minister. Johnson will be brooding over the future of the man who is favourite eventually to replace him.
  • Who runs Downing Street?  The Prime Minister frets about the unresponsiveness of the official machine.  He has lost Dominic Cummings.  He is installing a Delivery Unit.  He is beefing up his own political operation.  Does he take the radical option of creating a Prime Minister’s department?  Or the established one of relying on the Cabinet Office?  Either way, who does he put in charge?  Does he keep Michael Gove?  Move in Dominic Raab.  Or else send for Oliver Dowden – just as David Cameron’s former Deputy Chief of Staff is enjoying his own place in the sun in his own department (and perhaps eyeing Education)?
  • What about the Home Office and the Foreign Office?  Some in Number Ten share our panel’s lack of confidence in Priti Patel; Raab has been in place for almost two years.  Gove has been punted for both posts but, for all his talents, there is only one of him.  And if he moves out of the Cabinet Office, who will take the lead on Scotland?  Our bet for Foreign Secretary were the shuffle to come late would be Alok Sharma, now that he has globetrotting experience wearing his COP26 hat.  Will Johnson really promote the Cabinet League Table-topping Liz Truss, who he is bound to see as a potential rival?
  • Who does Johnson bring back and at what level?  John Whittingdale was brought back to support Dowden.  James Brokenshire was returned to help Patel.  When his illness worsened, another former Cabinet member, Damian Hinds, replaced him.  The message is: keep your nose clean, and there’s a way back.  But is the Prime Minister prepared to do the same at Cabinet level – summoning Liam Fox or Jeremy Hunt or Iain Duncan Smith or Geoffrey Cox or Robert Halfon or other members of the Alternative Cabinet?  For given the scale of the foreign and domestic policy challenges, there’s a lack of experience at the top.
  • Which women…?  The optics will be an inevitable feature of the shuffle, whenever it comes.  Johnson will want to increase the number of women at the top table.  Anne-Marie Trevelyan must be top of the list to return, but she only recently started her job as Energy Minister.  The Prime Minister will be keeping a watchful eye on the ambitious Penny Mordaunt.  Kemi Badenoch must be on any list for promotion, but is she ready to run a department?  Look out for Lucy Frazer, a potential future Justice Secretary; Chloe Smith if her health allows and, if media deployment is any guide, Helen Whateley. Will Tracey Crouch return?
  • …Ethnic minority members?… Nadhim Zahawi is being punted for co-Party Chairman, but he could also slot in at Education, where he has served as a junior Minister, or perhaps at Culture.  James Cleverly has been out of the domestic media eye at the Foreign Office and must be due to go back in it again.  Kwasi Kwarteng has only recently been appointed and will presumably stay where he is.  Lower down the ranks, Claire Courtino will go up sooner rather than later; then there is Ranil Jayawardena and, down in the Whips’ Office, Alan Mak.
  • …And Red Wallers…?  If promoting ethnic minority members is playing identity politics, so would be favouring white working class people.  MPs for the new Conservative northern and midlands seats aren’t necessarily working class – nor Red Wallers, strictly speaking – but they are yet another group that Johnson must consider.  Cabinet promotion from the 2019 intake would be drastic, and Johnson is more likely to turn to the trailblazers of 2017.  That might mean, say, Lee Rowley, the Tory Deputy Chairman, but the name most frequently raised is that of Simon Clarke, the former Business Minister.
  • P.S: what about appointment on merit?… Beware, Prime Minister, of the backlash from your average Conservative MP: male, white, and (in his view) overlooked because of political correctness.  “With one exception, those promoted in our intake have been women, ethnic minority members, or gay,” one 2019er complained to ConHome.  What about the Kit Malthouses and Edward Argars?  (The latter has had much to do as a Health Minister during the pandemic.)  Is there a quota on Old Etonians that keeps out Jesse Norman?  What about able backbenchers, such as Richard Fuller?
  • …And communicators?  The Government is short at the top of people who can get on the front foot on TV, if that’s quite the right way of putting it.  There’s Sunak, Gove, the Prime Minister himself, a more relaxed Grant Shapps, and Kwarteng.  And that’s about it.  Which is why Cleverly is due a return, and perhaps Brandon Lewis too.  He would fit in at Housing were Robert Jenrick to be moved, but on balance this is unlikely.  Jacob Rees-Mogg has been confined to the Commons as Leader of the House, and were he appointed Chief Secretary, he would be restricted to the Treasury.
  • What’s the least bad timing?  The infallible rule of reshuffles is that the anger of those sacked outweighs the gratitude of those promoted.  A shuffle this week would refresh the Cabinet before the conference season.  But one later would ease moving Raab, Ben Wallace or both: besides, it isn’t yet clear that Covid has run its course.  We assume when the shuffle comes Gavin Williamson will be moved, and at least two Cabinet members fired.  More, and Johnson will risk a “night of the long knives”.  Fewer, and what’s the point?  P.S: the promotion of the Johnsons’ old mucker Zac Goldsmith is a possibility.

Andrew Murrison: There can now be no question about the Government’s timeline for opening up. June 21 must stand.

9 Jun

Rt Hon Dr Andrew Murrison MP has been leading military vaccination teams in London and the South West.

The vaccination programme has been truly awesome. It’s been a privilege to be involved at the coalface, leading military vaccination teams that have protected thousands of people. So successful has the national programme been, there can now be no question about the Government’s timeline for opening up. June 21 must stand.

It’s been a struggle reconciling Dominic Cummings’ select committee download with a series of NAO reports on the Government’s handling of the pandemic. God they’re dull, but there’s useful stuff between those beige pages for those that can be bothered to look. By the time the full public inquiry comes around workmanlike scrutineers like the NAO will have likely made all the learning points. Hopefully this government and the next will have actioned them. The only thing for the inquiry will be to send out the tumbrils. That’s what the media, opposition and some figures on the government benches are slavering over like Pavlov’s dogs.

Meanwhile government will be broadly content with the “learnings” published by the NAO last month in the latest of its pandemic handling series. But privately ministers will have been less pleased with the rusty old tool box they opened 15 months ago. On that at least – the absence of state preparedness in the UK and across the western world – Cummings is right. To their credit, ministers have been retooling public health institutions at pace to deal with infections – the old enemy that never went away.

Happily, I’ve spent 10 weeks well away from our barely functioning parliament giving and supervising thousands of jabs in London and the South West. I have some learnings of my own, none of which feature in the NAO report.

First, we need to decide what price in lives lost from a particular cause is societally acceptable before kicking off a war economy with all its downside in liberty, livelihood, health and the future of young people. What triggers future government intervention on the unprecedented scale endured since last March?

We have some figures that help frame the debate. Six years ago we lost over 28,000 to seasonal flu. Don’t remember? Me neither, and I can’t find any reference to it in Hansard for that year. We haven’t – at least up to now – locked down or even done the hands, face, space thing as seasonal flu sweeps through each winter.

There’s an even bigger figure that society is apparently willing to tolerate. As the Chief Medical Officer pointed out last month we lose in excess of 90,000 each year to smoking. That puts a huge, completely avoidable, burden on health services whose protection we were told was one of the prime imperatives at the start of this crisis.

Indeed, protecting the NHS was the reason for restrictions incalculably more onerous than a ban on the poison tobacco. Chris Whitty did not say, save lives, protect the NHS, ban smoking, but he might have done because that’s where his logic leads.

But we have closed down society for more than a year to save the same sort of numbers. Here’s where logic rubs up against political reality. In tackling the most agonising question, we don’t “follow the science” at all. No politician can possibly do so.

I love experts. I used to be one. But it’s in their nature, singularly and collectively, to lay it on thick. Their industry depends on it. They play it safe – none of them wants to be caught understating risk. Wider societal and economic downside is not their prime consideration and “could” is one of the most mutable words in the English language.

Chief among experts to be handled with care are behavioural scientists who have been second guessing how people might react to government interventions. Their product – project fear, nudging – verges on the sinister. Furthermore, empirically on the light side, it has a habit of misfiring. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with anecdote, only that it has to be properly weighed and balanced.

Chatting with people while vaccinating in East London, for example, shaped my thinking about why some groups were proving harder to reach than others. A general scepticism of the State’s good intentions is in play mixed with distrust of the pharmaceutical industry – what readers of John le Carré’s novel set against medical trials in developing countries might call The Constant Gardener effect.

We need to harness the volunteer spirit that has been such a positive feature of this pandemic. The yellow vested volunteer stewards at test and vaccination centres putting themselves at risk and out in all weathers have been fantastic. I have seen medical students drafted in like it’s the 1940s and lay people – St John’s volunteers and combat soldiers – taught to vaccinate. But the crisis teaches us that above all we need trained medics held at readiness.

Armed Forces Reserves, the special constabulary and retained fire service offer models to pick from. I admire my colleague Alan Mak’s attempt through his private member’s bill to create a NHS reserve. I’d sign up in a heartbeat. We need to capture the recently retired and those clinicians currently in non-patient-facing roles whose skills need little updating.

Many of them tore their hair at a re-engagement process so achingly Sir Humphrey that many just gave up. Without too much drama we could have a light touch annual online check and update for those leaving frontline service so that they could quickly be drafted in when required.

NHS staff typically retire in their mid 50s with many workable years ahead. Many, and one hopes their professional and regulatory bodies – even their trade unions like the BMA that are not listed among the heroes of this crisis – would see continuing engagement as part of the duty that comes with membership of altruistic professions.

If we had had the framework and human resources to undertake proper old-style contact tracing and isolation, the sort of thing that dominated public health until antimicrobials and vaccination did for TB, we might have been able to mount the lockdown busting, intensely local early intervention seen in parts of East Asia but which we had to ditch almost before it started. Building that capacity has to be a priority in preparation for the next big one. For that you need a workforce that can be mobilised fast.

Mobilisation reserve service has bookended my parliamentary career – in Iraq in 2003 and in the pandemic Great Patriotic War. It has been a massive privilege to serve in uniform on the front line of the century’s biggest geopolitical events. The military has emerged from two starkly different engagements with its public reputation enhanced.

This time, much of the military’s work has been in communities where these days it is rarely seen, even regarded with suspicion. But the warmth of the public’s reaction to soldiers. sailors and airmen who have been truly awesome as vaccinators, porters and test site marshals has been humbling. Despite a deliberately low profile approach taken by the MoD, I suggest Operation Rescript has done more for civ-mil relations than any number of Armed Forces days.

In the breach whatever the threat, the Queen’s men and women belong to the public they serve. That sense of proprietorship is healthy in any democracy. There’s no doubt it’s been advanced during this crisis.

Alan Mak: The NHS Reserves will be a permanent, positive legacy of this challenging year

30 Nov

Alan Mak is MP for Havant, Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party and Co-Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board.

In 1944, it was a Conservative Health Minister, Henry Willink, who first set out a blueprint for a universal, free, health service. And for over 40 of the 72 years that the NHS has been in existence it has been under the care of Conservative Governments.

Nonetheless, at every general election Labour, like a broken record, falsely portray the Conservatives as enemies of the NHS. Last December, for example, Jeremy Corbyn’s dodgy dossier claimed the NHS was “up for sale” in UK-US trade talks.

Our modern NHS is very different from the Health Service of 1948, not least because it now employs ten times more doctors and four times more nurses, often in much more specialist roles than their counterparts from yesteryear.

But key to ensuring that our NHS continues to deliver on its founding principle – high quality care for all regardless of wealth – is the reform and innovation that has often been driven by Conservative Ministers. From Sir Keith Joseph leading the NHS’ first major re-organisation in 1973 to William Waldegrave’s Patient Charter in 1991 (later the NHS Constitution) setting out hospital waiting time targets and patients’ rights, Conservatives have steadily modernised the Health Service and put patients at its heart.

Our most recent Conservative Health Secretaries have continued that trend, with Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock both championing the digitisation of the NHS. They acted to meet the rising expectations of patients used to accessing data and services quickly on their phones and tablets. I’ve been proud to contribute towards that work, including last year successfully bringing forward legislation that resulted in the ban on NHS bodies using outdated fax machines and pagers.

Just as new technology is having a transformative impact on how our NHS operates, so too is the on-going Coronavirus outbreak.

This year has tested the NHS like no other in its long history. Our inspirational doctors, nurses, paramedics, and non-clinical NHS staff can be proud of the contribution they have made in the fight against Coronavirus.

But alongside them are the remarkable volunteers from every community. Over 750,000 people have signed up to become NHS Volunteer Responders this year, and they have collectively completed over a million tasks, from delivering prescriptions to making friendly phone calls to shielding patients. In addition, 80,000 people were already volunteering across all acute NHS Trusts in England.

We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build on the foundations laid by these NHS volunteers by launching the NHS Reserves – a new, permanent reservist system for our Health Service modelled on the proven Armed Forces reserves and police special constables.

Last week, I introduced the NHS Reserve Staff Bill in Parliament to create the NHS Reserves, backed by the Health Secretary. The NHS Reserves would provide a formal structure – and a uniform – for some of the volunteers already working within the Health Service. It would also provide a route for retired NHS staff and recent leavers to continue contributing, and welcome new volunteers with relevant clinical and non-clinical skills that the NHS might need during periods of high demand. These would include public health emergencies, seasonal increases in demand, large public events and protests, industrial action, and critical incidents such as terrorist attacks or major accidents.

My Bill has secured wide-ranging support from across our Parliamentary Party. Backers included Sir Graham Brady, Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, Damian Green and Hunt, now chairman of the Health Select Committee, as well as 2019 intake ‘Blue Wall’ MPs including Dehenna Davison, Simon Fell, Stuart Anderson, and Brendan Clarke-Smith. All have all become NHS Reserves Champions for their constituencies. Lord Ashcroft is also a supporter and an early proponent of a reservist system for the NHS.

More MPs are becoming NHS Reserves Champions, and working with our councillors, activists, and members to promote the NHS Reserves at a local level.

I know from my role as Party Vice Chairman how active our members have been in helping with the community response to coronavirus. In many cases this has involved leading local groups delivering food or medical supplies, caring for vulnerable neighbours, or volunteering with the NHS. I hope our Party members can help spread the word and encourage friends, family and colleagues to apply when the NHS Reserves system is up and running properly.

As a Conservative family, we should be proud of our Party’s stewardship of the NHS. I hope the creation of the NHS Reserves will show that once again it is us Conservatives that are leading the way when it comes to thinking about how our Health Service adapts, innovates, and thrives in response to new challenges. Whilst the Covid-19 outbreak has brought so many negatives, the new NHS Reserves can serve as permanent and positive legacy that we can all support with pride.

Mak is co-Chair of the new Conservative Party Policy Board

24 Nov

ConservativeHome wrote recently about the appointment of Neil O’Brien as a new Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party, and Chair of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board – a promotion with wider implications.

We weren’t alone in doing so. The news about our columnist got a lot of publicity, including an interview with him in the Times.

But what has not been evident so far is that there was already a Vice-Chairman of the Party responsible for policy.  Step forward, Alan Mak.

That most missed his own earlier appointment isn’t surprising, since these Vice-Chairmen have a way of rapidly coming and going.

At any rate, Mak is still there – and this site is told that he will co-chair the Board with O’Brien.  The third MP who will sit on it is John Penrose, who chairs the Conservative Policy Forum.

Another member will arguably carry more weight than any of them: Munira Mirza, the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit.

Her presence on it, and that of Joel Winton, her deputy, is a sign that the Board should be taken seriously.  Iain Carter, who heads up the Conservative Research Department, will also be a member.

And there are to be Parliamentary Party representatives – which raises the question of who these are to be.  ConHome is told that the intention is that they be selected. (By whom, exactly?)

We suspect that Graham Brady and the 1922 Committee Executive will have something to say about that.  The ’22 had its own elected policy committees during the run-up to the last election.

Unlike O’Brien, Mak has neither run a think-tank nor served as a SpAd – let alone as a senior one in George Osborne’s Treasury.

Nonetheless, he is no policy slouch: see his pieces on the Fourth Industrial Revolution for this site.  And he was agitating about about ending child hunger almost 18 months ago – well before the Marcus Rashford push.

The twin-hatting arrangement seems awkard to us, and we doubt it will last long.  “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere, / Nor can one England brook a double reign, / Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.”

One or other of these gentlemen will presumably be wafted heavenwards in a blaze of glory during the New Year reshuffle that must surely come…

…Unless Boris Johnson has second or third or seventy-seventh thoughts, and puts the whole thing off until after the spring’s local elections.

How to ensure that disadvantaged children are fed when schools are closed

26 Oct

When Theresa May was Prime Minister, Conservative MPs stopped voting, for a time, against Opposition Day motions.  This had two upsides.  First, they were no longer assailed in their constituencies for trooping through the lobbies against motions that could be read to be innocuous.  Second – and even more to the point – one can’t lose a vote if one doesn’t vote at all.

The downside of not opposing those motions was that, once they passed and the Government then ignored them, Ministers were open to the charge of holding the will of Parliament in contempt.  In any event, Labour then unearthed a device that the Government couldn’t bypass – the Humble Address.

We mention this to-and-fro from the last Parliament in the wake of a vote in this one.  Tory MPs are raging about being whipped to vote against last week’s Opposition Day motion on free school meals – especially those newly-elected last year.  They feel that the Whips’ instruction has made them targets in their seats.

Angela Rayner’s disgusting cry of “scum” may be part of the reason: over 100 Conservative MPs say that they and their staff have been the targets of abuse and threats.  Some Labour MPs have form in this way: remember John McDonnell’s notorious remark about lynching Esther McVey.

We believe that Tory MPs can’t simply run away from Opposition motions.  But we also feel that those unhappy backbenchers have a point.  For the simple truth is that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the departmental ministers concerned could scarcely be handling this issue worse were they trying.

One can grasp the scale of the problem by pondering the arguments that Conservative MPs have been deploying against making free school meals available during the Christmas holidays.  The problem is not that there are none.  It is that there are too many.

On the one hand, it was said last week that the taxpayer can’t afford it.  It’s true that we are losing a sense of what the Treasury can afford as the Coronavirus bills pile up.  But if the Government can afford Eat Out to Help Out, why can’t it afford Feed Kids to Help Out?

On the other, it was also said that the Government is spending millions on feeding poorer children.  True again.  But the money is divided up between a mass of programmes – support to local authorities, the Universal Credit uplift, the holiday activities and food programme, Fareshare, Magic Breakfast, and more. That’s a mouthful to communicate.

Conservative MPs point out that the last Labour Government didn’t make free school meals available during the holiday period.  Correct: but Gordon Brown’s failed administration is beginning to become a bit of a distant memory. They say that parents should be responsible for feeding their children, not the state.

Quite so – up to a point.  But if the principle were extended to its logical conclusion, there would be no free school meals at all.  What about sudden unemployment after furlough, to strike a timely note?  Or disability?  And what about state policy that frustrates families – complex childcare schemes, high energy bills, food taxes?

When a Tory MPs can claim that vouchers for meals are being spent on crack dens and brothels, without being able to produce hard evidence, one can hear the bottom of the barrel being noisily scraped.  If vouchers are such a bad idea, why did the Government make them available over the summer holidays in the first place?

There is a hint of the Thatcher era about what is happening now.  Some will say that she won three elections, and the moral of those victories is: ignore the protesters.  But there is a new dimension – even if you don’t believe that the loss of reputation for compassion came back to haunt the Party once it lost its reputation for competence.

It is that while Labour MPs and the hard left are one thing, local businesses, charities and football clubs are quite another.  All these, and more, are queuing up to offer help to disadvantaged children.  Do you warm to the idea of the Big Society?  Well, here it is in action – with the Conservative Party on the wrong side of it.

Reports today suggest that Downing Street knows that it has dug itself into a hole, and must now start to dig itself out.  That would be best attempted by finding a plan that’s better than Labour’s (or Marcus Rashford’s) communicating it, implementing it – and then campaigning for it.

Fortunately, there is one to hand.  If you think about it, schools are not the right venue for delivering help to poorer children during the holidays – for the obvious reason that, by definition, they are then closed.  And the exceptional circumstances of the spring lockdown are now, we all hope, behind us.

Nor do vouchers guarantee “healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink”, to quote from Government guidelines – which, in the case of food, is better delivered hot.  These are best provided in a formal setting.  Which is precisely the aim of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme which we mentioned earlier.

This is a £9 million programme in its second year of pilots.  This summer, it supported up to 50,000 disadvantaged children across 17 local authority areas at a cost of some £9 million – providing at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August 2020.

The speech of last week’s debate came from Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Clevelys (Blackpool itself, by the way, has eight of the ten most deprived areas in England).  “My view is that we need a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support stream to deal with the trials that have occurred,” he said.

Maynard is not alone in understanding the issues: see Alan Mak’s work, for example, on Magic Breakfast. But he was right to suggest that the pilots have been too slow.  As he said, the issue “is the ultimate example in politics of where something must be done. That is very different from saying that anything should be done”.

Exactly so, and two different groups of people ought to read his speech with special care.  The first are Ministers, the Downing Street apparatus, the Treasury – and a handful of backbenchers.  There is no more matter more primal than food – and getting fed, especially if one is going hungry.

This debacle is a fearful warning to Boris Johnson, Downing Street, the Government and CCHQ: in all things, let alone any matter so emotive, one needs a policy, a message – and the capacity to campaign on it.  In each of these areas, they have been found wanting.

They will have to raise their game on continuing the Universal Credit uplift, and responding to the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s report on food strategy.  Why didn’t they, in this case?  Perhaps because, amidst all the focus on the Just About Managings, they are missing a point: social justice matters in the former Red Wall, too.

The second group of people concerned are the Rashford campaigners.  Some Tories complain about the footballer.  We aren’t joining them.  After all, if it wasn’t for him, we might well not be writing this morning about the issues he has highlighted.

But he should surely see that vouchers, dispersed to parents in a mass of homes, are not a substitute for nutritious meals, delivered to children who are gathered together in a formal setting – just as in term-time.  If Ministers offer such a programme on a bigger scale, he should jump at the chance to embrace it.