“You guys should get outside London and go to talk to people who are not rich Remainers’.” (Dominic Cummings, September 2019.)
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Britain’s political and economic model from Margaret Thatcher through Tony Blair to David Cameron had roughly the following in common.
A dominant capital city, London, with its south-eastern hinterland. A flourishing City of London. An economy based on services rather than manufacturing. A high level of immigration, at least recently, to service its needs – both internally and externally. Pressure in this wider South East on schools, hospitals, roads, rail, cohesion, and especially the price of housing.
An Ascendancy class of civil servants, lawyers, journalists, academics, and media workers doing well out of this system, whichever of the main parties governed. Government focus on message and spin to feed the London-based newspapers and media. A recent Ministerial and Whitehall preoccupation with Parliament, reflecting the unwillingness of voters to elect a government with a strong majority since 2005 – and the increasing rebelliousness of backbenchers. A currency that some believe to have been overvalued (further reinforcing this system).
Outside this greater South East, a provincial Britain in relative or sometimes absolute recession. A growing gulf between its view of this system’s success and London’s. A sense that it has done less well out of the growth of the capital city, the universities, the media, services, the law – and infrastructure spending. A less favourable view of immigration. Less expensive housing but also lower wages. Skills and employment gaps.
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All this is about to change – at least, if a new post-Brexit Conservative Government based broadly on Thursday’s results, serving at least two terms and with Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings in place, has its way.
Perhaps wrongly, I read the briefing in much of Sunday’s papers about the new Government’s intentions as Classic Dom. In the short to medium term, expect to see the following:
- Less of a focus on Parliament and the media. Johnson has a majority of the best part of a hundred. He won the election despite, even arguably because of, intense media scrutiny, opposition and pressure. I suspect that the Prime Minister won’t care much what Labour, which is likely to vanish into chaotic opposition for the best part of a year, or the Liberal Democrats, who have just lost their leader, do or say in the Commons, at least for the moment. Furthermore, Philip Hammond, Rory Stewart, David Gauke, Amber Rudd, Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve* and his most persistent critics are no longer there. And Cummings won’t be remotely flustered by what’s said on a Today programme or a Newsnight or by an Andrew Neil that, in his view, only the Westminster Village bubble is bothered about.
- A Government restructuring to concentrate on delivery. Johnson and Cummings thus won’t worry too much if Ministers flounder in the Commons or TV studios – at least in the early part of this Parliament. They will want delivery, delivery, delivery for the new blue seats in the Midlands and North. That will mean tearing up the Government reshaping undertaken by Nick Timothy for Theresa May and starting all over again. Briefing that Business and Trade will be amalgamated; that the Environment and Climate Change, a Johnson and Carrie Symonds preoccupation, will again have its own department, and that the Foreign Office will absorb much of DfId sounds about right. A post-January post-Brexit reshuffle will reveal all.
- Ministers appointed to govern rather than perform. Monday’s reshuffle will see gaps filled at Culture – which will have an important role with regard to digital and the media – and Wales. I expect the bigger January shuffle to see Cabinet Ministers appointed who Number Ten expects to work with outsiders to transform Whitehall. There will be a big emphasis on NHS spending, police numbers, border control, northern infrastructure, skills and, maybe especially, Cummings’ spoor: the words “Invest in Science”.The sort of names to look out for include Matt Hancock, Rishi Sunak, Oliver Dowden, Robert Jenrick, Jesse Norman, maybe Chris Skidmore and the rehabilitated Michael Gove.
- Expect the unexpected. All those are men. Johnson will want to appoint a lot of women – an intention made all the more intriguing by the fact that many of the Ministers currently being tipped for the sack are female. The most senior women outside Cabinet itself are Esther McVey, Caroline Dinenage and Lucy Frazer, who could easily slot into one of the Law Officer posts. But there is no way of knowing what Johnson, Cummings, Downing Street and the Whips will come up with. And other names in the mix include Victoria Atkins, Anne-Marie Trevelyan and a revitalised Penny Mordaunt. Cummings’ instinct will be to bring in good outsiders as Ministers and promote quickly from the massive new intake of Tory MPs if necessary – over the head of convention and perhaps advice.
There are some oddities about bits of the briefing, or at least parts of what’s being written. For example, if a new department for Borders and Security is to be set up, what becomes of the Home Office – which under the Theresa May/Timothy reforms became a department for security and borders? Is it to be amalgamated once again with the Justice Department? Might Johnson want to mull reviving an updated Lord Chancellor’s department?
And if the SNP is to campaign for a second independence referendum, with Northern Ireland undergoing huge post-Brexit change, wouldn’t it make sense to have a Secretary of State and department for the Union – perhaps headed by the ubiquitious Gove? What becomes of the traditional power of the Treasury?
Finally, Johnson could do all the restructuring and appointing available to him with his near three-figure majority…and find that the economic and political model he inherited is too entrenched to be shifted. Because the commanding heights of our culture have so big a stake in it that they won’t willingly let it go. Buy your ringside seat now for the clash between the Ascendancy’s instincts and Cummings’ plans. With Johnson refereeing.
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* Mr Grieve…we’ll see what he is right about.” (Cummings, August 2019.)