Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.
The latest Cabinet ratings in the ConservativeHome survey showed some sharp falls in popularity over the last month. It’s true that many of the rankings remain high, with Dominic Raab on a new satisfaction level of 69 out of 100, the Prime Minister on 63 and Matt Hancock on 62. The Chancellor, so far just seen giving out money to offset some of the pandemic damage, remains at an unprecedented 91.
The survey is, of course, of Conservative members, who want their team to do well and take a more positive view of the Cabinet than the public at large. They seem to rate people in the news a lot above those who have less opportunity to be seen, but also to cut the ratings of those with most exposure when they disappoint. It is important to ask why the sharp slip and what can be done to stop it becoming a habit?
The Prime Minister was one of the biggest fallers last month, alongside the Health Secretary and the Home Secretary. It tells us something about the Government as a whole. It took place against the background of Labour moving away from letting the Government be a national one managing a crisis, to being a more normal opposition.
The party resumed criticisms of key decisions and worked with mayors, councils and devolved governments to make the task of central Government more difficult. Some of the fall from grace is a return to more normal politics and more normal levels of approval for an incumbent government. Some of it, though, reflects growing doubts about elements of Government policy. There is also worry about the economic impact of the measures, and the time it is taking to bring the virus under full control.
At the Home Office, Priti Patel is widely liked by members for her no-nonsense defence of law and order, backing for the police and wish to see proper control of our borders. Her fall of 12 points is no expression of disapproval at where she wants the country to head, but a cry of concern that the official Home Office and wider Government are not delivering the agenda.
Daily pictures of people traffickers getting away with their profitable and evil trade are unhelpful to confidence. Outbreaks of violence and criminal damage in the name of a good cause are also unfairly held at the door of the Home Secretary, who clearly wishes it to be otherwise.
At the Health Department, Matt Hancock has won plenty of friends for his high work-rate, absolute commitment to overcoming the virus emergency, and his own rapid recovery from the disease. He has succeeded in pushing the system into delivering many more tests, and into buying more protective clothing for the vast workforce he directly controls and influences in the health and care sectors. So why was he down 13 per cent last month?
The changes of advice and disagreements among the experts over test and trace, lockdown, social distancing and schools have not helped. The decision to assume more responsibility for care homes that are private businesses with their own supply chains was caring but left the Heath Secretary apparently responsible for institutions he did not manage or even finance in many cases.
The delays and negative stories that parts of the NHS generated about valiant efforts to get more protective clothing delivered and more tests secured also unfairly did some damage to the man who was trying to get more and faster action.
One Minister to note who did not go down was Liz Truss. Members are pleased to see her making progress with trade deals with the rest of the world. I suspect an important part of the Prime Minister’s continuing high level of overall support reflects the enthusiasm for David Frost as our EU negotiator and his famous letter at last setting out a strong and sensible UK view which we need to stick to. This has now become the most crucial pillar of this Government’s support from its own members and closest allies.
In order to avoid another month like the one just gone, the Government as a whole needs to show good progress on winding down the anti-pandemic measures and starting to restore life to the economy. It is going to take a huge package of measures to kick start the economy into decent life, and to prevent the large debts many businesses and self-employed people have taken on from becoming bridges to bankruptcy rather than to recovery.
The Home Office needs to implement policies which control and deter people trafficking and casual violence on our streets. The Health department needs to show it does now have smooth supply chains for protective clothing, plenty of testing, and build up good data on the incidence and transmission of the virus so it can control it without lock down. That’s easy to write, but difficult to do. No-one said senior Government jobs were easy.
Meanwhile the Government will get a boost from its supporters if we let the deadline for an extension of EU negotiations pass without asking for one, and a much bigger boost when we leave on time with no new damage to our independence, our fishing grounds, our law making and our borders. That was what the Government was elected to do. No health crisis must get in the way of that mission. Once done there are many more opportunities to invest, to promote growth and trade and to level up, as also promised.