“We’ve instituted full no deal planning within the NHS already, and I would like to see the whole of government going to that position because it’s the responsible thing to do.”
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) December 17, 2018
“Obviously, I can’t comment on what will be discussed in Cabinet tomorrow, but we all want to make the necessary preparations.” That’s more or less what a Minister would usually say, if cornered by a media enquiry, about today’s discussion on No Deal plans.
But these are not normal times. Some Ministers, like Penny Mordaunt today, lean towards a managed No Deal – if that’s possible – when Theresa May’s deal fails to clear the Commons in January, assuming that to be the case. Others, like Greg Clark or David Gauke, want an indicative vote and a second referendum. Amber Rudd who, seemed recently to be all for Norway Plus, may have joined them.
Matt Hancock’s breaking ranks over No Deal preparations must be seen in that light. He ordered the NHS to go to full No Deal planning last week, thus taking matters into his own hands at a time of paralysis at the top. (Downing Street would have been consumed by the leadership ballot challenge.)
“We’ve instituted full No Deal planning within the NHS and the department already, and I would like to see the whole of Government going to that position – because its the responsible thing to do,” he told Newsnight. He said that he doesn’t want No Deal to happen, but that it might happen, so government must be prepared (a point we made yesterday).
The Health Secretary’s allies say that he didn’t want to make a fuss about the decision – which is why it didn’t become public last week – and has only spoken on the record because news of it leaked very recently. The Prime Minister has now decided to step No Deal preparations, they add, so he wasn’t speaking out of turn by being interviewed yesterday.
Be that as it may, getting ahead of the game won’t do Hancock’s standing any harm, either within the Party or out of it). In a recent profile of him for this site, Andrew Gimson wrote that he inspires “a mixture of admiration, amusement, astonishment and frank dislike, and rival theories abound to explain how he got where he is today”.
But “beneath the laughter could be detected a note of respect,” the profile continued, and this is the key to cutting through those theories. The Health Secretary has made the transformation from an integral ally of George Osborne to the Prime Minister’s Cabinet table through hard work, puppyish enthusiasm and administrative grasp. The tech-enthused Hancock has only just turned 40.
He has kept his head down over Brexit and his fingerprints off any plots. A former Remainer, the Health Secretary has steered clear of anything to do with a second referendum, and hasn’t done anything so definitive as taking a clear position on the Canada-versus-Norway question. More broadly, he sees himself as a keeper of the modernising flame.
“Hancock’s car keeps pitching up outside Number Eleven Downing Street,” Liz Truss said during her joke-crammed speech at the Spectator recently. He is believed to have his eye not on Number Ten but the Treasury, which would suit an economist who cut his teeth at the Bank of England before moving on to become Osborne’s Chief of Staff.
Certainly, he is no fan of Philip Hammond – suggesting in Cabinet that the latter is a “stubby-fingered accountant” in a clash about immigration and wages. The Chancellor had complained that a restaurant in his constituency couldn’t hire enough staff from abroad. The Health Secretary replied that it should pay higher wages to attract British staff. He is a healthy fourth in this site’s Cabinet League Table.
Hancock is far from being the only Cabinet member pushing for full no deal preparations. Sajid Javid has been pushing very hard. The Cabinet members who voted Leave make up the mass of others taking the same view. One Minister who sits at the top table said that planning at DEFRA and Transport is relatively well advanced.
At any rate, May finally seems to have got the message that moving to full No Deal preparation is not only a prudent move to make, but might just persuade the EU to move. But as ever it will be worth searching the small print of whatever is announced today.