Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Where is ‘strong and stable’ now?

In the midst of the memes, mockery, and ministerial resignations, we must remember that strong and stable government really is in our national interest, writes Jack May

Grant Shapps, Mark Prisk, Kris Hopkins… Brandon Lewis? Then I think it was Gavin Barwell. Maybe Alok Sharma as well? Definitely Dominic Raab, and then finally Kit Malthouse.

Trawling through the (lengthy) list of housing ministers since the Tories came to power in 2010 is uncannily reminiscient of trying to digest Saturday night’s escapades in Heaven after a heavy Pride. Who were they all? How long did they stick around? Did any of them have a meaningful impact?

While the list of Shapps (May 2010 – September 2012), Prisk (September 2012 – October 2013), Hopkins (October 2013 – July 2014), Lewis (July 2014 – July 2016), Barwell (July 2016 – June 2017), Sharma (June 2017 – January 2018), Raab (January 2018 – July 2018) and Malthouse (July 2018 – ?) may make for amusing reading, it goes to show that Conservative attempts to solve the housing crisis – such as rebranding the department for communities and local government as the ministry of housing, communities and local government – are little more than window dressing.

Housing is a crucial challenge for government: the number of homeless people has risen in England for the seventh year running; the average house price stands at at least 7.6 times the annual salary – more than double what it was 20 years ago – a typical deposit in London is now over £80,000; millennials are now spending three times more of their income on housing than their grandparents, and most experts agree England now needs to build around 300,000 new homes a year. But even that may not stem the unaffordability tide.

When the scale of the problem is so monumental, the housing job in government needs to be more than just a waiting room for promotion. Changing the guard so frequently is not just making a mockery of the issue, it is an outrage. This has got to be done with an eye on the next ten, twenty, and thirty years – not merely with an eye on when the next cabinet grandpa will move over to give Shifty and Sinister a go at the big time.

That is much of the problem with yesterday’s farce of government jump-shippery. Between Boris Johnson, David Davis, Steve Baker, and some parliamentary private secretary or other – not to mention the departures of Michael Fallon (defence, November 2017), Priti Patel (international development, a week later), Damian Green (cabinet office, December 2017), Justine Greening (education, January) and Amber Rudd (April, home) – this stuff matters, and it needs a government with a little more sticking power.

David Davis’ departure is yet another spanner in the works of a negotiating process that looks increasingly like a bad remake of Oliver Twist asking please sir, may I have some more. Only this time we are lacking the heartwarming David-versus-Goliath, triumph-of-the-little-guy symbology we seem to mistakenly codify as part of our national mythology. We are just a sad, small body asking for the unearned benevolence of a bigger one.

To be fair though it is unlikely to make much difference.  Davis has only managed about four hours of actual face-to-face negotiation time with his European counterpart, Michel Barnier so far, and if Love Island has any significant lessons for the Brexit process it is that you need a lot longer to develop a deep and special partnership, even if you want to crack on with someone else for better (trade) deal.

On the international stage, too, this turbulence does us no good. How many other countries treat the role of their chief international emissary so lightly? Perhaps it is a flaw in our increasingly presidential system, in which foreign affairs are treated as the intellectual domain of the prime minister while the foreign secretary merely serves as the errand boy (or, shamefully only once in our history, girl), but the fact remains: diplomacy relies on relationships, naturally built up, developed and supported over time.

While admittedly, the most Boris knows about meaningful relationships may be the one he has with the photographer hired to take insta-ready shots of him signing his resignation letter – steely and determined for the Telegraph, pensive and pale for the Express – sending in someone new to bat for Britain is unwise when our ability to sustain friendships with our international partners is already a bit of a sticky wicket.

Similarly, Matt Hancock leaves his job after only eight months (another that has been a revolving door, with eight incumbents since 2010) with not much to show for it beyond a self-promoting app and a chunky tranche of memes (maybe the real secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport was the Matt Hancocks we made along the way).

Meanwhile, of course, the pressing questions Leveson 2 would have raised of a problematic and largely unreformed media are still going unasked. Elsewhere in the brief, the crippling effect a hard Brexit for services (the endgame of the Chequers ‘deal’) would have on our world-leading creative industries, one that on average generates £5 in taxes for every £1 invested in subsidy, a better return than the automotive, oil, gas, aerospace and life science industries combined, remains a cause without a champion. On perhaps the most basic level, there is still the fact that we are out here claiming to be a hip, cool, modern, functioning, with-it, on-trend nation (or #Uber-riding, #insta-using, #Deliveroo-eating megalopolis as the performance artwork that is Liz Truss’ instagram account would put it) while average broadband speeds in the United Kingdom are well below those of most of Europe, and over a million of us still don’t have internet fast enough to stream anything that might normally fill the void of a Sunday evening.

Meanwhile, we lose perhaps one instance of longevity in the job almost starting to do some good. Jeremy Hunt, having sprung from the ludicrous starting gun of wanting an insurance-based, mostly-private healthcare system in 2005, has not only grown to the point of seemingly shutting up about the so-called seven day national health service – a nonsense founded on shoddy data, pithy soundbites and a sadistic urge to further overwork the health service’s already overstretched staff but has also, it would seem, realised that doing national healthcare on the cheap for an ageing population in the midst of astonishing but expensive new drugs and techniques, is not going to work.

Maybe if he had stayed a little longer, his immersion in the subject matter and its inevitable IV drip of realpolitik may have led to the realisation that the £20bn he, to his credit, fought for is not so much the operation that heals the patient but the first bandage applied in the back of the ambulance.

In sum, I agree with Jeremy. When we are faced with such grave and severe challenges – like how do we set out an extra place at the table for football when it comes home, or, you know, Brexit – as he said: ‘For the good of this country and its people, the Government needs to get its act together and do it quickly and if it can’t, make way for those who can’. (At this point, full disclosure would cast aspersions over Corbyn’s own 103 resignations, but let’s sidestep that for now.)

David Cameron was right, too, in that chef’s-kiss-ageing tweet from 2015 – ’stability and strong government’ is something that appeals. Theresa May was also right. The British people (particularly but not exclusively Brenda from Bristol) crave strong and stable leadership in the national interest.

Are we really reaching for the stars by asking for someone – anyone – to offer some?


Jack May is a Progress columnist. He tweets @JackO_May


Photo: by Arno Mikkor, licensed under CC BY 2.0 

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