Amy Yiannitsarou is a Senior Consultant at FTI Consulting and Conservative council candidate, writing in a personal capacity.
It’s been a week since the result of the London Mayoral Election that saw Sadiq Khan win back City Hall convincingly. Since its conclusion, the rumour mill has been churning potential prospects for his new team.
Perhaps most interesting, is the report covered by the BBC, the New Statesman and so on, that former Labour Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, may be about to jump ship from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to head up Khan’s transport policy – a move which would leave the Chancellor slightly red faced.
Back in October 2015 at Conference, Osborne took the stage and declared a political coup: a former Labour Secretary of State rescinded a place on his Party’s benches to head up a Commission for the national good.
Indeed, it was upon this Commission that the Chancellor rested his flagship infrastructure policy that was to define the Tories as the “house builders” and the protectors of future generations. As he said then:
“We have got to be the builders, the people with the new ideas, the people with the plan for the future, I’m not prepared to turn around to my children or indeed anyone else’s child, and say: I’m sorry, we didn’t build for you.”
As we know, with his eye fixed firmly on the top position in government, Osborne is fond of appearing as a man of action. Having already committed to spend £100 billion over the next five years his infrastructure plans, encapsulated in the National Infrastructure Commission, mirror his own grand ambitions.
Yet the NIC’s establishment raised a few questions. Firstly, could the NIC be emboldened enough to make proposals that conflict with current government policy, say, over the future of Hinkley Point or HS3? If so, will Ministers or the Chancellor listen?
Secondly, what is the true purpose of this Commission? Osborne is nothing if not a tactician. Curiously, the NIC’s first ‘priorities’ were to find affordable ways to complete some of the policies central to the Chancellor’s own ambitions: namely connecting the cities in the North together in order to build his Northern Powerhouse.
Fast-forward just eight months, and one might have trouble believing that Adonis would leave this “independent” national commission for what many would perceive to be a step down.
The mere fact that this is being rumoured is that Lord Adonis, a well-respected man across party lines, may be unhappy at the NIC. For a political operator desiring to have a real, immediate impact and esteemed for his integrity, commitment and work ethic, Adonis hasn’t been given a sufficiently clear, meaningful, or independent role.
The basis of the Commission is to engage with industry and help drive governments to make the right policy decisions in the long run. It is a body intended to avoid the stifling political short-termism, that curtails productive and expedient infrastructure policy, which has impaired consecutive governments.
But the non-binding nature of the guidance the Commission provides could leave someone of his stature wanting for more influence, making a move to City Hall seemingly attractive. So let’s say Adonis takes a role in Sadiq’s new team. Where would that leave the NIC?
As the leader of a senior team with big names and plenty of credibility, Adonis is the icing on the cake – the person that ties it all together and makes it make sense. A loss of leadership would certainly leave the NIC in a very difficult position.
Would the Chancellor then choose a successor outside the Commission? Would he perhaps give the top job to Lord Heseltine, already a member of the Commission and possessing the political respect needed?
Whatever the outcome it would certainly spell embarrassment for the Chancellor in what hasn’t been a great few months for the leadership of the Party.
Osborne’s flagship infrastructure policy could be facing a rocky start. The grand rhetoric hasn’t quite developed into meaningful policy: the Chancellor has already frustrated investors through proposals in his recent Budget and the government was given a good fight by the Lords on the Housing Bill.
Should this continue, will Osborne really have the legacy he wanted? Will the Conservative Party really be remembered as “the builders”, or could it all fall apart at the seams?