One of the ways in which Theresa May has changed government for the better is that she doesn’t try to create news for the sake of it. Tony Blair honed the art of trying to dominate the weekly news cycle, beginning with the Sunday papers and TV shows, and inserting himself into stories which were none of his Government’s business – such as a campaign to free a Coronation Street character from prison. David Cameron continued the practice of the man that some in his circle called The Master – stepping before the cameras in person, for example, to deliver a tribute to David Bowie. It is hard to imagine his successor doing the same.
But if this Government is going back to the future in one respect, it is not doing so in another. In one sense, the Prime Minister is running a traditional administration, in which greying Ministers discuss and debate policy in revived Cabinet committees. (May is doing away with the cult of youth: the two most powerful Ministers in her Government, Phillip Hammond and David Davis, are 61 and 68 respectively.)
But in another, she is not. The grip of Downing Street on government announcements that Blair tightened is not being loosened. If anything, it is being restored. Under Cameron, strong Ministers who wanted to shape policy would sometimes simply by-pass Downing Street (and the Liberal Democrats). This is how Dominic Cummings operated under Michael Gove at education. Cameron’s government was packed with reforming Ministers who liked to make their own way – two of the most prominent being Iain Duncan Smith and, yes, May herself, whose SpAds irritated Number Ten so much that one of them was fired and another barred from the candidates’ list.
There is no chance whatsoever of those SpAds, now transformed into the Prime Minister’s co-Chiefs of Staff, letting their successors do the same. The control that Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy exercise over this government is legendary. But one of its consequences, though a plus for the Government as a whole, is turning out to be a minus for individual Cabinet Ministers.
Glance at today’s papers and you will see that Theresa May is scarcely them at all – or, rather, that Number Ten has briefed little out to make headlines. There’s nothing wrong with that: there’s no point in announcing news if there’s no news to announce. But this austere approach to media management has a knock-on consequence for the Prime Minister’s team. If she isn’t to get in the papers, then other Ministers won’t get in them either – at least, by way of pre-planned announcements. The poachers turned gamekeepers in Number Ten will see to that. We pick an example at random. If you google “Justine Greening” and “news”, you will find two recent items from the Times Educational Supplement near the top of the list.
One is a story promising that qualified teacher status will not be scrapped (a move that Gove flirted with) and another an opinion piece that the story is based on. In it, the Education Secretary sets out her view – referring, in passing, to a new independent college for teaching. Some readers will remember Charlotte Leslie, our former columnist, pushing this cause on ConservativeHome.
Our point is not whether scrapping QTS would be right or wrong. It is, rather, that if news of what Ministers are up to gets confined to the specialist press, two consequences follow. The first is that they will spend time reacting to news rather than shaping it. Today’s Sunday Times says that there is a Trojan horse-style plot, of the kind claimed in Birmingham, taking place in an Oldham school. Today’s Mail on Sunday reports that the Government’s Equality Office pays its male civil servants almost six per cent more than female colleagues. Greening is also responsible for the office. So both stories are, so to speak, on her beat.
The second is more direct. It is that voters start asking what the Cabinet Ministers do all day. This is nearly always unfair: most Ministers have their heads down and work hard. But that doesn’t stop the question being put. Peter Oborne asked it in Saturday’s Daily Mail. He is one of the first, but he won’t be the last (he also cited Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid, Damian Green and Chris Grayling).
A recent theme in the comments on our monthly Cabinet League table is that readers don’t know enough about those in question to vote. May’s distate for filling TV screens and newspaper space – let alone taking a Donald Trump-style approach to Twitter – is a plus for government and an antidote to hysteria. But it will have many of her Ministers biting their nails.