Comment

Post-Cummings, the Conservatives look like a team again

The projects unveiled in the last week are in the kind of policy areas a government should be addressing at this stage.

priti patel
Priti Patel: the PM was right to stand by her. Credit: Eddie Mulholland 

It’s almost difficult to remember how messy things were for Boris Johnson this time last week. Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain were out; No10 was in turmoil. This newspaper argued that a reset was needed, and that’s what has happened: in fact, we’ve seen one of the most positive weeks for the Johnson premiership since lockdown began. In just a few days, the Government has announced an ambitious new green agenda and a historic investment in defence. The Prime Minister can’t take credit for progress in the Oxford vaccine trials, but they do offer hope for the New Year. And although Priti Patel has been through the wringer following a report into bullying, she was right not to resign and Mr Johnson was correct to stand by her. The near unanimity of the parliamentary party reflects confidence in Ms Patel, a tough minister in a difficult job – and in the PM’s judgement. The Conservatives are starting to look like a team again.

As Camilla Tominey reports today, leadership and structure matter. Downing Street has witnessed a power shift away from the Cabinet Office, which was beefed up by Mr Cummings, and back towards the Prime Minister’s team, now steered by Lord Udny-Lister as interim chief of staff. The Prime Minister apparently was “better briefed” than ever in a zoom call with northern MPs on Monday, which probably confirmed suspicions among backbenchers that the concentration of power among the former Vote Leave staffers came at the expense even of the PM’s own independence of action.

The projects unveiled in the last week are in the kind of policy areas a government should be addressing at this stage – and they reflect Mr Johnson’s instincts. He is an environmentalist at heart; he believes in innovation; he wants the entire country to benefit from the coming technological revolution; and, like the vast majority of Tories, he appreciates the value of a strong defence, recalibrated for the 21st century. The Treasury – another winner from the shift in political power –  has also not denied a sensibly conservative intent to balance, in part, the massive rise in public spending with a pay freeze for public sector workers. Unions have mooted industrial action in response; the reality is that many workers got a pay rise over the summer, and the Government has to do now what the private sector has already done. It must cut its coat according to its cloth. 

The last thing the country needs is higher taxes. Mr Johnson, who ran for Tory leader promising to reduce them, will hopefully commit himself to holding the line, at least. Savings must be found instead within Government itself, and with the right political leadership this can be turned into an opportunity for reform, even empowerment. A new report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) points out that the real heroes of the pandemic were parents and community groups who stepped in where the had state failed, and that a strategic withdrawal of government responsibility, replaced by local action, can work wonders. The CSJ gives the example of the so-called Wigan Deal, whereby Wigan Council actually saved £115 million via spending cuts, letting go around a fifth of its workforce, while improving social and economic outcomes. Life expectancy increased by seven years in the most deprived areas.

The two immediate tasks facing the Government are to hammer out a Brexit deal and lead Britain through the pandemic. Negotiations might have stalled on Brexit due to a positive Covid test among the EU delegation, but we are starting to see the white smoke of an agreement. As for the virus, the promise of a relative liberalisation over the Christmas period is welcome and the planned vaccine roll out is, again, promising. We all appreciate that this kind of logistical challenge requires some sacrifice and patience, that it must be difficult to reconcile the PM’s abiding philosophy of liberty with what some pandemic measures necessarily entail. But what citizens really value from governments is clarity – and being trusted to do the right thing. Give the public the facts and a wider scope for personal responsibility, then let them get on with it.  That’s been the general, very welcome spirit of the last week, of a Government getting on with things, and the individual citizen would appreciate the freedom to do more of the same.