Sajid Javid is under fire. The Local Government Secretary was already lumbered with the never-popular task of revaluing the nation’s outdated business rates, to the alarm of various Conservative MPs, but now he is under fire from his colleagues for circulating a letter which they allege fed them “distortions and half-truths” about the scale of the changes. The Chancellor has hinted that there might be some reliefs available for small businesses, but for now Javid is left hanging in the wind, the target for negative headlines and interviews by his colleagues.
Ministers proposing controversial policies often come in for criticism, perfectly naturally. But Javid seems to be taking particular flak on this occasion.
Part of that is due to the scale of the changes proposed. But there’s also a personal element.
Take the letter which has angered so many MPs, for example. Javid wasn’t the only signatory – David Gauke, stalwart of the Treasury, also put his name on it. But Gauke is mentioned only in passing, if at all, in the diatribes that have resulted. The Times led its splash with “Sajid Javid accused of misleading his own MPs”, while The Sun had “Cabinet minister Sajid Javid slammed for ‘peddling dodgy figures'” and the Mail devoted a leader column to branding him “petulant”. There’s no suggestion that Gauke bears any greater responsibility for the fiasco than Javid does, but it’s notable who is getting a drubbing for it.
How did he get into this fix?
Fates like this rarely befall a minister overnight – they normally take a bit of working up to, and so it is in the case of the Local Government Secretary. Ordinarily, a politician under fire can expect support and defence from their supporters and perhaps from a patron. In the last 12 months, Javid has lost protection on both fronts.
Think of where he was a year ago. An ardent Eurosceptic who was also an Ayn Rand-reading libertarian, he had a fan base in certain sectors of the Conservative Party who saw him as a likely Leave supporter and either an inheritor of the Thatcherite economic mantle, the person to bring freedom back into the Tory conversation. Some even considered him a possible future leader – certainly he looked likely to be a wildcard when the leadership race eventually came – and plenty of people were willing to stick their necks out on his behalf.
That grassroots armour was battered away by events. We must take his word that the economic argument persuaded him to support Remain, but if so then he hadn’t helped himself by showing more than a little ankle to Leavers before making that decision. In the end, he ended up pleasing neither side by supporting staying in while trying to retain his status as a “Brussels basher” all the same.
That cooled Eurosceptics’ enthusiasm, and the Thatcherites were in for the same experience. Despite his enthusiasm for Rand (and the courtroom scene from The Fountainhead in particular), by April he found himself nationalising part of the steel industry. Again, not only did he lose former fans in doing so, but his handling of the Port Talbot storm didn’t win him any new ones.
The effect of these two events can be seen in our Cabinet League Table – in January 2016, Javid was fourth with a net approval rating of +73.5, but this month he sits in 15th place, his net approval rating having halved to +38.5.
Even then, he still had a powerful patron in George Osborne. Javid was one of Team George, arrayed around the Cabinet table effectively in waiting for the eventual transition of power. The then-Chancellor had considerable clout (we may yet see in the Brexit process the extent to which he still does) – certainly enough to cast a protective shield around his supporters.
But Osborne isn’t in the Treasury any longer – he’s on the back benches, quietly carving out a new role for himself under the new management. Without his patronage, and without the backing of the Eurosceptic and Thatcherite parts of the Tory grassroots, Javid has become more vulnerable. There’s no sign that he is going to be sacrificed any time soon, but the experience is an uncomfortable one nevertheless.
As we have previously written, Javid has a crucial job to do – particularly on housing, which will be an essential test of May’s pledge to those “just-about managing”. To get it done, his position needs to be bolstered.