Universal Credit is one of the few clear success stories of the Coronavirus crisis – a point on which Conservatives and non-Conservatives agree.
By our calculation, the Government has held 86 late afternoon press conferences since March 16, each fronted by a Cabinet Minister.
So one would have thought that Downing Street, which controls the appearance rota, would have wanted to trumpet Universal Credit’s record.
How often has Therese Coffey been given the opportunity to do so? Three times, say – the restricted number of appearances granted to Priti Patel? Two? Even one?
No. The answer is…zero. None. The more one thinks about it, the more significant her absence is. For it casts a bleak light on the way Cabinet Government is currently working.
Obviously, some Ministers are more likely than others to front the press conferences, which have recently been dropped at weekends.
Number Ten is reluctant to give them up altogether because the weekly ones attract an audience running into millions, which allows it to attempt to control the news agenda.
So it is that we must expect to see a lot of Matt Hancock, if only because he is the Minister most likely to be across the detail of Government Covid-19 policy as whole.
But one would reasonably expect the Work and Pensions Secretary to front a press conference at least once, and not only because of Universal Credit’s sturdy performance so far.
After all, her department is responsible for delivering the bulk of the social security system – at a time when, as we learn this morning, growth is plunging (by a record 20 per cent in April) and unemployment soaring.
It will doubtless be argued that Coffey isn’t one of the Cabinet’s strongest performers, and that she blundered when allowed out last month, saying that Ministers may have made policy mistakes “if advice was wrong”.
Though if you think about it, she simply provided a textbook example of Daniel Hannan’s definition of a gaffe – “a statement of the obvious by a public person”.
A better way of seeing the Work and Pensions Secretary’s words was as a preview of the Government’s defence when the inevitable inquiry into its handling of the Coronavirus comes.
At any rate, the nub of the issue is that either Boris Johnson has confidence in his most senior Ministers or he doesn’t.
If he does, they ought to be capable of handling a press conference at least once. If he doesn’t, they shouldn’t have been appointed in the first place.
Coffey’s non-appearance is part of a wider picture. She was promoted last year after another inevitable event – the resignation of Amber Rudd from the Cabinet over Brexit policy.
She had voted for Johnson and thus passed the loyalty test. It is the first of three qualities that Downing Street requires from Cabinet members – the other two being not briefing against the Prime Minister, and competence.
But as ConservativeHome wrote earlier in the week in the wake of the schools debacle, competence is beginning to look more like compliance.
The way we put it is that “Gavin Williamson was given his marching orders, and told to like them or lump them” – in effect, to deliver Johnson’s goal of all primary schools re-opening by July.
This has proved impossible to square with cutting class sizes in half. The problem can only be solved by waiving that instruction.
The Prime Minister is reportedly planning a reshuffle in July. He doesn’t simply need to change the personnel – a matter to which this site will return.
More broadly, he needs to rebalance the relationship between Number Ten and his Ministers. In 2010, David Cameron set up an activist Downing Street but he also appointed strong Ministers with able SpAds.
Think Duncan Smith and Philippa Stroud, Eric Pickles and Sheridan Westlake, Theresa May and the Nick Timothy/Fiona Hill combination, George Osborne and Rupert Harrison…
…Francis Maude plus Simone Finn and Henry Newman, and (roll of drums) Michael Gove with Henry de Zoete and, eventually, Dominic Cummings.
That energy and enthusiasm is harder to find under a fourth Conservative-led government than a first. But Johnson’s pro-Brexit Government is effectively a break from the previous three.
Or so voters believed when they returned him to Downing Street last autumn with a thumping majority of 80. If he doesn’t have confidence in his Ministers, why should anyone else?