This week, Keir Starmer’s reshuffle and the row over Gillian Keegan’s ‘sweary’ comments set the context for MPs’ return to Westminster. Normally the air would be thick with back-to-school metaphors. Given the week’s events, this time not so much.
Actually, those events tell us quite a lot about the conduct of UK politics, with important lessons for Defra and the food and drink industry.
First, politicians of all stripes are human. Keegan has risen fast, having made a transition from the world of business in the relatively recent past. From the way the row played out, I’d guess she and the schools minister Nick Gibb – regarded across all parties as one of the most able members of the government – have been banging on behind the scenes about the concrete issue for ages. I’ll bet they are frustrated the Treasury ignored or poo-pooed their cries of ‘this will be a big deal’.
The lesson for those watching Defra: sometimes (though not always) ministers and civil servants are vigorously arguing for changes industry wants, but the Treasury says no. When things go wrong, ministers have to use some odd tactics – like saying others are ‘sitting on their arses’ to avoid the blame for something they had been stopped from fixing. Readers should draw their own conclusions as to who was allegedly doing the sitting.
Second, if Keegan really was cross (which I doubt) that the reporter concerned was ‘blaming’ her, she needs to get with the plan. In politics – however ghastly it may be – and in Westminster everyone blames everyone else, and no one can hear you scream.
The key takeaway here is that to survive in the Cabinet beyond your first job, you must be devious and skilled in the black arts. This is Thérèse Coffey’s fourth Cabinet post and her seventh in government. She’s still in the Cabinet despite her previous role as deputy PM to the current PM’s worst nightmare. She has the instincts and track record of a survivor.
Third, the failure to act on risks posed by faulty concrete in public buildings may be a defining issue for this government. It is emblematic of the fact it has been in power throughout all the time those concerns emerged.
More importantly, for those over 60, it brings back a horrific similar case. I was eight years old when in 1966 a slurry tip engulfed a school in Aberfan, south Wales – 116 children and 28 adults were killed that dreadful morning. The Harold Wilson government and the nationalised National Coal Board had been warned about the danger and did absolutely nothing to address the issue. Then they did everything they could to hush up their negligence. It would not be ignoble for Keegan – if she is under pressure – to remind her colleagues of the historic comparison.
Indeed, almost always when politicians remind us of past crises, they are actually sending a clear message to the PM: ‘I’ll take the heat but only so long as you support me. If you don’t, it’ll be clear this is your fault.’ Watch for that moment next time Defra is in the headlights. If a former senior civil servant goes on the airwaves to apportion blame, you’ll know who might have sanctioned the appearance.
Ministers now know the Labour team they will face on the run into and during the general election. My guess is Keegan will be far more worried about Bridget Phillipson than Coffey is about Steve Reed. That might not be the right judgement.
The PM can still make a few changes, possibly around the time of the Conservative Party conference. If Keegan or Coffey – or any other ministers – feel under threat, you can bet they will deploy some of these tricks of the trade. Politics is a rough old business and with a general election campaign starting – at the latest – after the Christmas holidays, it’s about to get a whole lot rougher.