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.

Hinds’ return to government sends a signal to ex-Ministers. Keep your nose clean and there’s a way back.

13 Aug

Boris Johnson has a way of bringing back former Cabinet Ministers to a lower rank in government.  Consider the case of fellow-Vote Leaver John Whittingdale, dismissed as Culture Secretary by Theresa May in 2016, but returned by the Prime Minister to his old department as a Minister of State in 2020.

The former Chairman of the Culture Select Committee knows the political aspects of media policy inside-out, and his specialist knowledge will have been considered to be a useful support for Oliver Dowden.

The circumstances of James Brokenshire’s return were different.  He left the Cabinet voluntarily in 2018 as Northern Ireland Secretary after requiring surgery for lung cancer.  Johnson brought this former Home Office Minister back in 2020 to provide Priti Patel with the same kind of experienced back-up that Whittingdale is giving Dowden.

Last month, Brokenshire was forced to stand down again because his recovery is taking “longer than anticipated”, and we wish him well.  Today, Johnson has replaced him with another former Cabinet Minister, Damian Hinds.

Unlike Whittingdale and Brokenshire, Hinds is not returning to his former department.  But his return serves two main purposes.  First, appointing from outside the Government keeps changes to a minimum.  Second, it is a signal to former Ministers that if they are fired, but then keep their nose clean, there is always a chance of coming back.

So it is that the Prime Minister first dismissed Hinds as Education Secretary in 2019…and has now brought him back.  He will knuckle down to the heavy responsibility that comes with being the Security Minister.

Brady v Goodwill. The 1922 Chairman election isn’t just about the contenders. At its heart will be Tory MPs’ view of Johnson.

21 May

Graham Brady was always likely to win the election, near the start of this Parliament, for the chairmanship of the 1922 Committee’s Executive.

This was because the intake most eligible to vote was that year’s: the brand new intake of 107 Conservative MPs.  Flung into a new life, eligible vote as backbenchers, and busy with new duties, most will not have given the contest much thought.

Offered a choice between a candidate who had previously chaired the committee and one who had not, many will reflexively have plumped for the former.  It will be different this time round.

In a few weeks, Brady is set to face Robert Goodwill in a ballot for the chairmanship.  The distinctions between them are arguably ones of degree: both are men, both experienced Parliamentarians, and both northerners.

Michael Gove, in the mischievous spirit that sometimes possesses him, once floated a Wars of the Roses leadership contest between Damian Hinds (Lancashire) and Gavin Williamson (Yorkshire).

You want such an election?  Here is one. Goodwill sits for Scarborough and Brady for Altincham & Sale: both are natives of their counties.  Hath not thy rose a canker, Brady?  Hath not thy rose a thorn, Goodwill?

Above all, neither are exactly founder members of the Boris Johnson fan club.  Brady has not been appointed a Minister by Johnson.  Goodwill was actually sacked as one.

For all that, this contest will be an important one for the Conservative Party, given the Prime Minister’s habit of veering from disaster to triumph, or sometimes the other way round, and Tory backbenchers’ one of lurching between complacency and panic.

And despite the distance between both men and Johnson, each would be likely to handle him, and the post itself, differently.  Brady is a break from convention.  Goodwill would be a return to it (at least, if what his friends say is right).

The former’s recent predecessors were Michael Spicer, Archie Hamilton, Marcus Fox and Cranley Onslow.  All were essentially loyalists (though Fox’s patience with the party leadership was tested by the Maastricht row).

The point about Brady is that behind his smooth front are steely views, strongly held – for example, on grammar schools, over which he resigned as Shadow Minister for Europe when David Cameron’s Conservatives were in opposition.

Once they were in government, he rebelled not only over EU policy, but against a badger cull, HS2, tobacco packaging, and various pieces of constitution and parliament-related business.

The change from Cameron to May brought no change: indeed, Brady was instrumental in the stately manoeuvering that forced her out of office.

Nor did that from May to Johnson.  If anything, he has become rebel-in-chief, for the simple reason that there’s only been one political game in town during the past year or so: Covid.  And Brady has been a public critic of lockdowns.

Goodwill has a different flavour.  It would not be quite right to say that he has smooth views behind a steely front.  But he is a former Chief Whip (of the party’s former group of MEPs), and iron tends to enter the soul of those who do that job, in any form.

He was also a Jeremy Hunt voter – which may help to explain why he was purged, given the Prime Minister’s long memory for political slights.

Add that to his support for Remain during the EU referendum campaign (Brady was a Leaver), and it is tempting to pigeon-hole him on the centre-left of the party, facing an opponent on its centre-right or, more straightforwardly, its right.

But pause there for a moment.  In 2005, Goodwill plumped not for David Cameron, or even Ken Clarke, in that year’s party leadership contest.  He supported the most right-wing of the candidates, Liam Fox.

And Brady has some unexpected views.  When it comes to the constitution, most Conservatives are, well, conservative.  But he wants “radical reform – by removing the Executive from Parliament, freeing Parliament from patronage and control of government”.

Some of Brady’s supporters are painting Goodwill as a Johnson stooge, claiming that Downing Street is waist-deep in plots to find a less critical 1922 Committee Chairman.  “Two MPs have already refused the poisoned chalice that Robert has picked up,” one told this site.

Goodwill’s backers counter the charge, pointing out not only that the Prime Minister sacked their man, and that as Transport Minister he dismissed Johnson’s “Boris Island” plan with a flea in its ear, or rather his.

And add that Stanley Johnson was evicted from his Camden home, while Goodwill was in post, in order that HS2 could go through it.  Though there is no suggestion that he might seek to remove the Prime Minister from Downing Street.

“Robert believes that the 1922 executive should be loyal in public but speak the truth in private,” says one of the challenger’s friends.  That sets the election up nicely.

For all the lefty-righty, Leavy-Remainy stuff is ultimately a distraction, or will be treated as such by most Tory backbenchers, at any rate.  At the heart of this election will be their view of Johnson.

Do they think he should be kept under public restraint, like one of those handcuffed suspects one sees hauled off in photos featuring Priti Patel?

Or do they believe he should be allowed to run wild through Alpine-type meadows, in the spirit of Julie Andrews during the opening of The Sound of Music?

If they lean to the former, they will back Brady; if the latter, they will go for Goodwill.  One experienced hand says that “Brady will win easily: backbenchers hate the idea of a Downing Street stooge being foisted on them.”

But a well plugged-in member of the 2019 intake isn’t so sure, claiming that Brady is a remote figure to his intake, and that many of its members want someone less ready to ruffle the Prime Minister’s feathers.

The election is due before the summer recess.  And there it is – unless a third contender comes along.  Or more.  The Parliamentary Party’s centre of gravity isn’t 2005, when Goodwill was elected, let alone 1997, when Brady was.

Most Conservative MPs have been elected since.  Even 2010, the start of the Cameron era in government, seems a bygone age.  Don’t rule out more twists and turns.

Frank Young: Educational Long Covid. Why the collapse of schooling over lockdown will haunt the poor for years to come.

3 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

If the Marcus Rashford affair has taught us anything, it is that the Government is in urgent need of a poverty strategy to plug the hole in thinking when emergency measures come in.

Until recently, being Education Secretary was the Cabinet job everyone wanted, and for good reason. Number crunchers at the Department for Work & Pensions worked out some years ago that, for a poor child, failing at school was the number one predictor of staying poor in adult life. It’s as simple as that.

Well before state schools were closed down last spring (with private schools moving almost entirely online), the so-called educational attainment gap persisted as an annual reminder of this particular pathway into future poverty. Disadvantaged pupils are particularly prone to low levels of literacy and numeracy – and this in turn leads to low pay, insecure jobs and unemployment.

If we really want to ‘build back better’ when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, we will need to tackle educational inequalities of outcome, in much the same way that we need to build houses.

More than half a billion school days have been missed since March, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds having less contact with their teachers and less work marked than wealthier children. In the first month of lockdown, private school children were twice as likely to take part in daily online lessons as those in state school.

The full impact of school closures on children’s outcomes is not yet known, but the closures are likely to have worsened the attainment gap. The exam fiasco over the summer will have further disrupted education for children at a critical time in their studies. This is a form educational Long Covid that will have an impact on already disadvantaged lives for many years to come.

We seemed to have stopped talking about the ‘root causes’ of disadvantage as we chase our tail to lockdown, bail out and subsidise our way out of the pandemic. Any poverty strategy will need to take a long hard look at where the educational disadvantage starts – and that is in the home. Between the ages of four to 16, a typical British child will spend only 15 per cent of their time at school. Damian Hinds got this when he described family life as the last educational “taboo”.

Home environments marked by multiple transitions, disrupted attachment to a parent and frequent conflict increase the likelihood of children displaying externalising behaviour problems, leading to poor engagement and attainment at school.

The experience of lockdown has only increased made the situation worse. In response to the escalating education crisis, we spend £26 on catch-up schemes for every £1 we spend on reducing conflict within families. That’s an argument for increasing the £1 – not decreasing the £26 that is desperately needed.

Our nursery sector is teetering on the brink following an extended, enforced shutdown. It is too soon to tell how many will shut their doors, unable to make running a nursery work but as ever this will hit the poorest hardest. At just 3 years old, disadvantaged children are almost 1.5 years behind their more affluent peers in their early language development.

Once attainment gaps arise, they are hard to close. Children who attend high-quality settings for two to three years are almost eight months ahead of children who attend none. This is exactly where we need to focus a renewed push to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Schools are receptacles of disadvantage – whether it is a dysfunctional home life or a terrible start in life. We can now predict longer term educational underperformance from the earliest days: when Frank Field looked at this issue he found more than half of children in the bottom 20 per cent of attainment in school at school will remain at the bottom when they take their GCSEs.

As Robert Halfon has said on this website, we need a poverty strategy. The money set aside for catch-up should be rolled into the next spending review to give schools a permanent pot for focused, back-to-basics tuition in literacy and numeracy.

Small is beautiful when it comes to catch up – and we can lock this into our efforts to rebuild from the pandemic. Teachers make the difference, and getting the best teachers into schools with disadvantaged catchments should be a big priority. High-quality teaching is particularly transformative for disadvantaged pupils. Over a school year, these pupils get 1.5 years’ worth of learning with high-quality teachers; they lose half a year’s learning when taught by poorly performing teachers.

Don’t overlook family support, hidden away in the Department for Work & Pensions. The Reducing Parental Conflict programme now has three years of evidence based interventions to stabilise family life. It is much an education issue as it is a poverty issue for the department doleing out welfare payments. We need action now to tackle children going without – but we also need a plan that tackles disadvantage early on.

“Huge concerns”…”I cannot support this policy”…levelling over green fields with concrete”. Tory backbenchers on the Goverment’s housing plans.

9 Oct

“This is not levelling up. It is concreting out,” Bob Seely wrote yesterday morning on this site about the Government’s White Paper on planning reform, and his Commons debate on the subject later in the day.

His article criticised the algorithm that sets out how many houses are needed in which places – which was originally brought to public notice by our columnist Neil O’Brien.

Would Seely’s colleagues agree with him?  Here are some snap extracts from speeches by Conservative backbenchers who spoke yesterday.

  • Theresa May: “We need to reform the planning system….But we will not do that by removing local democracy, cutting the number of affordable homes that are built and building over rural areas. Yet that is exactly what these reforms will lead to.”
  • Philip Hollobone: “The Government are being sent a clear message by Back Benchers today that they have got this wrong and they need to think again.”
  • Jason McCartney: “I have huge concerns about the supposed new housing formula or algorithm. I think we have all had enough of algorithms this year.”
  • Neil O’Brien: “Ministers should fundamentally rethink this formula so that it actually hits the target. Yes, we should build more houses, but we should do it in the right places.”
  • Chris Grayling: “I regret to say that, even as a loyal supporter of the Government, I cannot support this policy in its current form.”
  • Jeremy Hunt: “In short, I am concerned that these proposals do not recognise serious risks…The Government must think again.”
  • Damian Green: “This will not be levelling-up; it will be levelling over green fields with concrete.”
  • Damian Hinds: “I encourage [the Minister] and the Government to think again about some of these important matters.”
  • Caroline Nokes: “The Housing Minister and I were first elected in 2010 on a manifesto that committed to no more top-down housing targets, and this algorithm looks suspiciously like a top-down target.”
  • Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: “The real flaw in the White Paper is that all it does is concentrate building in the south-east and central south of England”.
  • Clare Coutino: “I seriously worry about centrally designed housing numbers which do not take into account a local area’s capacity to deliver.”
  • Luke Evans: “I am also concerned that the formula does not take into account infrastructure, as has been mentioned, or future plans for generations.”
  • Karen Bradley: “How can it be the case that the Government are now considering any form of central target, because that is exactly what the algorithm looks like?”
  • Laurence Robertson: “As things stand, I think that the housing numbers will take precedence. That is wrong and it goes against what we stand for as a party.”
  • Crispin Blunt: “The presentation that the Government have made is potentially catastrophic for delivering the wider objectives of Government policy.”
  • Harriet Baldwin: “Let us move away from the Gordon Brown approach and the top-down imposition of Stalinist housing targets.”
  • Gareth Bacon: “I urge the Government to heed the words of hon. Members in this debate and to revisit the proposals.”
  • Kieran Mullen: “Why are we going down a route that is likely to cause upset and tear up some local decision making when we could tackle the issue through that existing route?”
  • Laura Trott: The White Paper…says that the green belt will be protected, and that is right, but we see no evidence that this is being taken into account in the algorithm.”

That’s 19 backbenchers critical of important aspects of the proposals.

Furthermore, Scott Mann referred diplomatically to “some challenges within the White Paper”; Gareth Johnson said “it is essential that we bring local authorities with us in proposing these targets”; William Wragg wants to ” abandon the notion that planning is something that is done to communities”, and Richard Fuller, while saying that the Government “is on to something”, also said the targets for his local area are unmanageable.

Only James Grundy spoke from the Tory benches without any criticism of the plans.

No wonder that Andy Slaughter, from the Labour benches, gleefully pointed out that “there are 55 Conservative Back Benchers hoping to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker”.

Chris Pincher, the Housing Minister, pointed out that the proposals are out for consultation, and reiterated (as in his recent ConservativeHome article) that “over the past two months my Department has actively engaged with the sector and is listening to feedback. Many right hon. and hon. Members will know that I too have been listening and discussing carefully”.

In short, he was distancing himself and the Government from the algorithm numbers.  But we think it worth grabbing some highlights from yesterday’s speeches because, on this showing, opposition on the Tory benches is not confined to the algorithm.  Ministers will find a central feature of their plans, top-down housing targets for local authorities, very difficult to get through the Commons, at least as presently constituted.