DO THE DOWNING ST SHUFFLE

Liz Truss DiscoIt’s an interesting dilemma few outside of politics are ever confronted by – you’re sacked, fired from your job, your very important job, a job that came with a great deal of prestige; and yet your redundancy package doesn’t contain a P45 form, but a nice booby prize of three new high-profile jobs you’ll be doing simultaneously. That’s what happened to Alpha Plank Dominic Raab yesterday. Okay, so he’s no longer Foreign Secretary, but he’s now the Lord Chancellor, the Justice Secretary, and the Deputy Prime Minister. Welcome to the strange world of political dismissal, where a demotion is hardly akin to relegation from the Premier League to League Two or a fast-track to the nearest food bank. Yeah, okay – the Cabinet’s very own Chuck Norris no longer holds one of the four Great Offices of State; but stubbornly refusing to whip off the knotted hanky from your head at a moment of international crisis centred on a disintegrating nation thousands of your fellow countrymen sacrificed their lives to democratise doesn’t exactly embody commitment to the post. As Foreign Secretaries go, Raab may have approached the job by following in the proud traditions of Boris himself, but how much has Dominic Raab really lost?

I guess the tired old analogy of rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic has probably already been exhumed to describe the PM’s Cabinet reshuffle, so I won’t recycle it again; but in truth, I can’t really see many of those promoted being quite as bad as those they replaced. Raab was a useless Foreign Secretary as Gavin Williamson was a useless Education Secretary and Robert Buckland a useless Justice Secretary. Nadhim Zahawi’s U-turn on the topic of vaccine passports may have been rightly highlighted of late via the resurrection of his past refuting of their introduction on social media, but many perceive his handling of the vaccine rollout as a relative success; his promotion to Education Secretary, heading a department that arguably failed to tackle the ramifications of lockdown more than any other in government, can only be viewed as an improvement. Ironically, considering the subject of the previous post on here, Michael Gove has indeed lost his job as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, albeit not for something nasty he said as a Tory Boy in the early 90s; besides, becoming the new Housing Secretary doesn’t mean he’ll be signing-on in the near future.

Much will probably be made of Liz Truss replacing Raab, no doubt; only the second woman to be elevated to the post – after Margaret Beckett’s brief stint during Tony Blair’s last year in Downing Street – Truss has often played upon her non-privileged roots ala Sajid Javid. But her roots are only non-privileged in comparison to many of the men surrounding her in government. I remember once reading a Fleet St profile of Truss pointing out she attended a comprehensive school in Leeds as though she’d been running around cobbled streets minus shoes on her feet; the school was in Roundhay, which for those who don’t know is a tad closer to Hampstead than Hackney. Nevertheless, hers is an interesting back-story in that she emanated from middle-class intellectual Socialist stock ala Ed Miliband, and even if she chose the wrong party from her parents’ perspective, Truss occupies a position in that party which appeals to many Red Wall voters disillusioned with Labour; her publicised criticism of Identity Politics certainly struck a chord with those alienated by the opposition’s vigorous embrace of it.

The most recognisable female face around the Cabinet table after Liz Truss will be Nadine Dorries, a Ministerial virgin; the novelist and former contestant on ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ is now Secretary of State for that mixed bag of miscellany known as Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. To me, it always sounds like a department that those without hardcore political ambitions would probably enjoy being handed, the antithesis of the surrogate Siberia that the Northern Ireland job represented on ‘Yes, Minister’. But, in the same way the progression of Liz Truss from Secretary of State for International Trade to Foreign Secretary feels a logical one, appointing someone with ‘broadcasting experience’ and a fairly successful sideline career as an author to Digital, Culture, Media & Sport seems pretty sensible promotion. Like Truss, Nadine Dorries can also serve as a counterbalance to the privately-educated majority in the Cabinet, and she even has a ‘Working-Class Tory’ story to fall back on, being a born-and-bred council estate Scouser. Both women’s promotions appear a shrewd move on the part of the PM.

Overall, this reshuffle appears to have been relatively well-received after what has been another difficult couple of weeks for Boris. Not only has he suffered the death of his mother, but the most recent YouGov poll concerning voting intentions saw Labour overtake the Tories for the first time since the beginning of the year – 35% to 33%; this came in the wake of the tax increases via National Insurance contributions being announced, supposedly to be invested in social care and the NHS. Why anyone imagined taxes wouldn’t be raised at some point soon after well over a year of the ‘magic money tree’ furlough scheme is a mystery, but no governing party with a reputation for low taxation was going to be able to dig its way out of this one. Sure, there were the usual backbench grumblings, but the Government won the vote to approve the move fairly painlessly. Therefore, the timing of the reshuffle was convenient in terms of taking attention away from an unpopular (if inevitable) manifesto-breaker, but it also has the feel of assembling a fresh team with one eye on the next General Election, which many reckon will only be a couple of years away. However, there’s always the argument that Cabinet reshuffles are little more than superficial short-term fixes, a temporary shot of Botox rather than a full-on facelift.

In an increasingly-rare appearance on GB News – the station he has now officially walked away from as its main anchor – Andrew Neil yesterday made the point that reshuffles are often detrimental to government in that Ministers routinely fail to achieve anything in their jobs because they’re not given enough time to turn around the fortunes of their departments. Perhaps only football managers are expected to perform miracles in a shorter time span than someone bussed into a Ministerial post that has been failing to deliver under its previous stewardship. It’s a valid point, but so much of politics today is dependent on instant results, and if the same tired old faces don’t appear to be doing the business after several years in office the electorate associates them and the administration as a whole with failure; bringing in fresh faces may well be applying a plaster to a wound in need of surgery, but change tends to generate the impression of improvement overnight; and if the new face fails as well, just bring in another.

If Boris Johnson’s first phase at No.10 was defined by Brexit and the Parliamentary turmoil that accompanied its final stages in 2019, the second has undoubtedly been defined by Covid; with both Brexit and the pandemic having claimed the lion’s share of attention at the expense of other pressing issues over the past couple of years, it could be said this is the moment at which Boris is preparing for both the ‘post-war’ era and the next opportunity to give the country a say. Right now, I don’t think even a crystal ball is capable of showing where we’ll be in 2023 or ’24, so it’s impossible to predict if this reshuffle will play its part in deciding whether or not the Tories will be in a fit enough state to pull it off yet again. I suspect a great deal will remain dependent upon the condition of the Opposition as much as anything else. And that’s another piece of challenging guesswork that will make the brain hurt.

© The Editor

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GAVIN IN STASIS

I must admit, it is hard to attribute anything approaching a heroic act to a member of Theresa May’s Cabinet; one cannot avoid being suspicious and seeing self-promotion as the motivation behind every move made in public. ‘Will it help make me look good before the electorate and boost my impending leadership bid if I’m photographed alongside an autistic adolescent in pigtails who has somehow become the poster-girl for climate change?’ and so on. It’s so difficult not to be cynical about politicians today that even when one of them might actually have done something for purely selfless reasons, crediting them with it is a tough call tinged with suspicious reservations.

The sacking of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has been officially justified because he was named as the source of the leak surrounding the National Security Council’s discussion over the Chinese Government’s telecommunications wing, Huawei, being invited to get its feet under the UK’s online table. Williamson denies this rather serious allegation whilst Jeremy Hunt has become the latest Minister to undermine the PM’s (non)authority by suggesting a police investigation wouldn’t be out of the question, contradicting Mrs May’s own decision not to pursue the matter beyond firing Williamson. If the ex-Defence Secretary is guilty, why did he do it when he must have realised the potential damage it could do to his political ambitions? Could it actually have been that extremely rare Westminster beast, a case of conscience over career?

Let’s face it, Gavin Williamson is not an easy man to warm to; then again, name me a member of the Cabinet who is. I know we’re all born with the face God gave us, but Williamson’s ego does seem to be etched on his smug countenance; I may be doing him a disservice, but to me he has the arrogant air of an office-worker celebrating promotion with a trip to a lap-dancing bar, where he probably waves a wad in a young lady’s face in expectation of a blowjob. His attempts to cultivate a Mandelson-like ‘Dark Arts’ image have been cringeworthy from the off. From his pet tarantula to his ‘ooh, you’re hard’ boast that he had ‘made’ Theresa May and could therefore just as easily ‘break’ her, Williamson’s role as the mastermind behind May’s leadership election and then organising the bribery of the DUP gave rise to his reputation as Kingmaker, and he appeared to be a man May couldn’t manage without – until now.

The Tory Chair of the Defence Select Committee, Dr Julian Lewis, was one Williamson ally speaking up for the deposed Minister last night. Dr Lewis pointed out that Williamson wasn’t the only member of the Cabinet to express reservations over the wisdom of awarding contracts to corporations answerable to a Communist regime not averse to keeping tabs on its citizens. Unsurprisingly for someone who has enthusiastically embraced any form of internet snooping since her days as Home Secretary, the PM was in favour of allowing Huawei to play a part in this country’s 5G network – something no other western leader has even contemplated; by all accounts, Williamson was appalled by this development and appears to have risked his role in Government (and possible rise all the way to the top job) by passing on his concerns to Fleet Street.

I would hesitate to call the information leaked a ‘sensitive state secret’; it appears to be more a case of where the information was leaked from – a body established during Cameron’s tenure, somewhere Ministers and officials could discuss clandestine topics free from the public gaze; and what could be more clandestine than offering the Chinese a chance to buy into Britain’s internet system? No wonder they wanted that one kept under wraps. But, as Julian Lewis rightly stated, the nature of the information Gavin Williamson is alleged to have leaked hardly places him in the same treasonous league as Kim Philby or George Blake. What Williamson has done – if indeed, he has done it – is to spill the beans on just how shamelessly willing our senior elected representatives are to flog anything to the highest bidder, free from any principles or sense of scruples; as long as they can make a mint from outsourcing, they’ll do it. Just look at who replaced ATOS with the contract for the notorious DWP disability assessments – an equally loathsome US corporation short on sympathy for the ill and infirm called Maximus; and the less said about Grayling’s ferry fiasco, the better. Should ISIS put in a bid to run all primary schools in England and Wales, they’d probably be in with a shot if their bid was juicy enough.

Williamson’s promotion from Chief Whip to Defence Secretary seemed to begin the process of his gradual detachment from the PM’s inner circle, especially when he became a tad prone to the odd gaffe and earned the nickname of ‘Private Pike’ among some of his less generous colleagues. If he was responsible for the NSC leak, it’s hard to see what he had to gain from his actions being uncovered other than alerting the rest of us to the seriously worrying shit that goes on behind closed doors at Downing Street, as opposed to the silly in-fighting and backstabbing we’re used to hearing about. And, if that was what happened, he deserves credit – however begrudgingly we give it him.

Another Tory MP, Adam Holloway, made a wider point in relation to Williamson last night, stating how he believed contemporary politicians just aren’t up to it, whatever the challenge presented to them might be. Ministers find themselves in positions of power they simply aren’t qualified to do justice to, lacking both leadership skills and any talent beyond generating sufficient hype around them in the manner of a band desperate for a record deal; how else can we explain so many ‘name’ MPs who have risen without a trace in the past decade? A former military man, Adam Holloway said most of the current Cabinet would be ‘very unlikely to rise to the rank of General’; it’s certainly hard looking across both benches in the Commons and seeing anyone with the heavyweight clout of a Benn or a Thatcher. Or perhaps past politicians were forged in different ages that deserved different leaders; despite the grimly serious issues facing the country, we appear to have reaped the harvest of the 90s, when style triumphed over substance in all facets of public life.

The fact a figure as friendless as Theresa May can fire someone who was once such a vital ally suggests the embarrassment of this particular leak must have been acute for the Prime Minister, even when one considers the Cabinet Office has shown itself to have the consistency of a sieve over the last couple of years. Williamson’s dramatic dismissal and possible breach of the Official Secrets Act may well be as ‘unprecedented’ as media folk kept claiming yesterday, but the leak is merely emblematic of a chaotic Cabinet environment with a grasp of authority reminiscent of St Trinian’s. The timing of this latest unwelcome headline from the PM’s perspective, on the very eve of possible obliteration in the local elections, suggests Williamson’s alleged crime is a little more serious than some that have resulted in sackings of late; but yet another enemy on the backbenches could be just one more nail in the Maybot coffin. Not all bad news, then.

© The Editor

THE FIRST LINE OF DEFENCE

If Jacob Rees Mogg is a 60-year-old eighteenth century gentleman trapped in the body of a 48-year-old twenty-first century politician, Gavin Williamson is…well…what? Doubtless few of us had heard of the MP who was the Tory Chief Whip until today, though we may have picked up stories of the anonymous Westminster resident who keeps a pet tarantula in his Commons office to manufacture a Bond Villain image worthy of former Machiavellian veterans like Peter Mandelson; yes, that’s him. I saw a photo of this prat earlier; he’s only 41, but he has the gait of a much older man despite possessing the same oddly unnerving boyish countenance that made Michael J Fox cute in his 20s and a bit creepy-looking once he reached his 40s.

Williamson is now Defence Secretary, a speedy promotion for someone with no previous Ministerial experience, and one that has apparently left a few more seasoned Cabinet colleagues a tad miffed at being passed over following Michael Fallon’s resignation. Let’s face it, though; it’s not as if Theresa May had an outstanding talent pool from which to select a successor – and she owed Williamson a favour, what with him having organised her campaign to replace David Cameron last year (is it only last year?) and playing a key part in buying DUP favours in the aftermath of the General Election. One of Williamson’s motivations in offering his services as May’s campaign manager during the leadership race following the EU Referendum result was an avowed intent to prevent Boris grabbing the keys to No.10; Williamson’s sudden promotion is therefore bound to make a few Ministers more than a little uncomfortable. He could well have an eye on the top job himself.

The office of Chief Whip is especially important to the governing party at times such as these, and though it’s not traditionally regarded as a stepping-stone to greater things, we shouldn’t forget Ted Heath held the post under both Eden and Macmillan. And whereas Cabinet reshuffles are straightforward enough in normal circumstances, these are not normal circumstances; the PM’s position has been perilous ever since June 9 and her authority has been so undermined by running a minority administration (let alone persistent leaks to the media by those with an eye on her job) that it’s taken a high-profile resignation to force her hand. Had she been able to command any sort of authority, Boris wouldn’t still be Foreign Secretary, for one thing.

Gavin Williamson appears to have opted for a tarantula over a sports-car as a means of solving his midlife crisis, though this cultivation of the unusual as a presumed attempt to make himself moderately interesting contrasts with his predecessor’s determined and – until this week – successful efforts at portraying himself as terminally dull. If there are no more ‘revelations’ to emerge from Michael Fallon’s closet, I find it hard to believe his sole reason for resigning was a drunken fumble over a decade ago, particularly when the recipient of his wandering hands herself regards that reason as ridiculous. Williamson’s predecessor clearly regarded his behaviour fifteen years ago as unsuitable for holding a leading Ministerial job in 2017, yet perfectly suitable for remaining a Tory MP; maybe as long as his constituents don’t mind the fact he once touched Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee, he no longer has to consider the outrage of the rest of the electorate.

Although his name will forever be linked with a sex scandal, it’s worth remembering John Profumo resigned as Minister for War (the more honest title that preceded Secretary of State for Defence) because he lied to the Commons over his affair with Christine Keeler; that was regarded as far more unforgivable amongst his peers than the actual affair with a prostitute dividing her favours between Profumo and a Russian spy. Ten years after Profumo’s resignation, another Tory MP, Antony ‘Lord’ Lambton quit as a Junior Minister following an exposé by the News of the World that he also paid for the company of ladies (photos were forthcoming).

Exactly ten years after that, the revelation that Margaret Thatcher’s Trade and Industry Secretary Cecil Parkinson had impregnated his secretary Sarah Keays provoked another resignation, though Parkinson’s apparent disregard for his illegitimate daughter – who has learning disabilities – in the years thereafter should cast a far more malignant shadow across his questionable character than the affair that led to her conception. As for John Major’s motley Ministers – where to start? Another post, perhaps.

When placed next to these scandals, Michael Fallon’s activities seem very lightweight indeed, even if they uphold the belief that any scandal leading to a resignation when the Tories are in power is sex-related whereas with Labour it’s always money-related (John Prescott’s loose zip not withstanding). Maybe it’s an indication of how seriously the morose (ex) Minister takes himself that he views what he did as being on a par with Profumo, Parkinson and Lambton; then again, it could just be a depressing reflection of how times have changed and how even the most innocuous of ‘sexual assaults’ can inspire such vociferous online ‘off with his head’ hysteria that the accused has no option but to walk the plank.

© The Editor