If you are not “in the story”, you’re not doing your job. This is a fact of modern political life, and today’s papers offer three examples – variously displaying the futility, dangers, opportunities and necessities of so doing.
Example One comes from the Sunday Telegraph, which is now free, after a courtroom struggle, to report a medley of disgusting stories about Philip Green. Penny Mordaunt must be in the story – she is Equalities Minister, after all – and take a view on non-disclosure agreements.
Frankly, she has little to say of any import. “The UK government will launch a consultation to hear from those affected and understand whether there should be more limitations on confidentiality clauses so that workers cannot be intimidated into silence and to find out what needs to be done to ensure that workers are clear about their rights.” One can almost hear the groaning of Government lawyers as they square up to the task to seeking to define in law when workers do and don’t sign non-disclosure agreements of their own free will.
Example Two also comes from the Sunday Telegraph. Up pops a piece from Amber Rudd about company directors who plunder their companies’ pensions funds. The article is shy, indeed silent, about context, but this site notes that in 2017 Green came to a settlement with the Pensions Regulator under which he paid £363 million to aid the BHS pension scheme.
The Work and Pensions Secretary is at least proposing concrete measures. “I am going to make ‘wilful or reckless behaviour’ relating to a pension scheme a criminal offence, with jail terms of up to seven years for the worst offenders,” she writes. “We’ll also give the courts powers to levy unlimited – yes unlimited – fines.” It isn’t clear how she has reached this decision, what caused it, what wider effects if any on pension fund such legislation might have, when it will introduced and whether it could pass this no-majority Commons.
Finally, we have example three from the Sun on Sunday. Matt Hancock is at the eye of a kind of media Storm Erik. The social media giants are huge, vastly-used and distrusted – all at once. Not so long ago, the immediate cause of alarm was child pornography. Then (and still), content from terrorists. Now there is a spate of alarm over self-harm material and tragic teenage suicides.
The Health Secretary has threatened legislation, but must know the nightmares it would pose in this essentially hung Parliament, and the potential consequences for the Government if new legislation went wrong. It would be tricky to write laws that distinguish between content that promotes self-harm, seeks to explain the phenomenon, and tries to curb it. No wonder, in his interview, he seeks a voluntary approach – “a handpicked cyber-squad to oversee the removal of self-harm pictures from Instagram”.
Of our three examples, Hancock’s is the most challenging, public-facing and sensitive, at least in terms of pure politics. It is part of a wider story of a gradual shift in healthcare provision from physical to mental health, and the tech-savvy Health Secretary is striving to produce a policy response to a culture change that will work.
Rudd’s poses a lot of questions – there is a trade-off between a populist crackdown on unscrupulous directors and invoking the law of unexpected consequences – while Mordaunt’s is almost content-free.
But all three are faced with Ministers’ Dilemma. Think calmly, move carefully, pause before acting – and you risk being labelled “out of touch”. Rush in, take snap decisions, get in the story, and all you may achieve is bad decisions that will catch up with someone else later (if you’re lucky) or you sooner (if you’re not).
A run of cocked-up initiatives, and even plain bad luck, and the two Adjectives Of Death will be attached to you: “embattled” and, worse, “beleaguered”. The media will haul you, Grayling-like, to the stocks. This morning, our three ministers will be crossing their fingers.