“On the performance of the twenty-two men and women round the Cabinet table depends directly the security and well-being of the [now 67.33] million people in the United Kingdom”.
[Peter Hennessy, Cabinet, Blackwell]
The lying and corruption of Boris Johnson was so blatant that Rishi Sunak felt obliged to claim that his administration would be one of integrity, professionalism and accountability. This may be beyond his good intentions, when his own appointments lack the skills and calibre of their forebears.
Cast your mind back to earlier governments of either persuasion and you will find figures at ministerial level who tower over the cyphers we are supposed to respect today: Bevan, Bevin, Carrington, Clarke, Cook, Healey, Heseltine, Jenkins, Mowlem, to name just a few. One and all were serious, bringing experience and expertise, wisdom and weight; their concerns were for society as a whole and not just for party, ideology or self.
Compare to these Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries, Priti Patel, smug self-servers all, with little apparent in their CVs to merit high office. Add Gavin Williamson, a serial ministerial failure. How did he ever catch the eye of a PM as worthy of a cabinet post once, let alone three times; or of a knighthood? Consider Dominic Raab, the playground bully who has twice become deputy prime minister. And Suella Braverman, self-confessed offender against the ministerial code reinstated to pursue a cruel, ideological and unworkable policy for controlling borders. These are supposed to be the best.
Why is the bar set so low?
How did we come to such parlous ministerial quality? All parliamentary candidates are put through assessment processes by their parties. All are exposed to scrutiny in hustings and the media. This should afford some comfort as to their basic understanding of the Nolan Principles for public life, and with regard to their communication skills and personality. New ministers receive a copy of Questions of Procedure for Ministers which spells out expectations of the role.
So far so good. Does this mean that anyone elected to parliament is thereby good enough for promotion to ministerial rank? Surely not. Have new ministers, probably shell-shocked by their new responsibilities, any understanding of the qualities required to lead a substantial organisation like a ministry; or of how to acquire this? Was Johnson, a rogue journalist by background, ever assessed for integrity or given any training before his appointment to the cabinet? Was Truss’s lack of empathy considered? Seemingly not, to judge by events.
With 21st-century Conservative cabinets it is hard to detect that any criterion other than blind loyalty to the leader of the moment has been taken into account in ministers’ appointments.
I’m a celebrity – get me into here!
Today’s world places celebrity on a higher pedestal than ability. Given the backing afforded by the tabloid press, a nonentity can be raised to prominence without the substance which would have been regarded as the minimum requirement for admiration in times past. Instead of a grounding in leadership, professionalism or successful striving, a media profile as a ‘personality’ can lead to irrational popular support viz Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove.
The Conservative Party in parliament is a narrow self-replicating gene pool dominated by the ‘public school and Oxbridge’ tribe. Within it, minority cliques like the ERG ‘wag the dog’ as they demand their places around the cabinet table, merited or not, giving the prime minister a smaller pool of potential ‘talent’.
What’s in it for me (and my mates)?
And then there is personal gain. How many MPs in today’s House of Commons use their position to further their income on top of their MP’s salary or to benefit their cronies? Cash for access, consultancy, lobbying, second jobs won because of their governmental role and contracts for friends. And what about a nice honour, or even a title, to lubricate the future? All these seem quite commonplace today but detract from the proper priority of looking after constituents’ interests and from decency in public life; and would have been taboo to those great figures of the past.
We can do better
Surely the country deserves ministers in its government who do not merely have to show that they have read some rules but also have substance relevant to their political duty: experience which betrays understanding of the wider world; managerial competence relating to teamwork and resources; ethics awareness and real concern for other people’s lives. Is it too much to ask that those in line for appointments are objectively assessed before being entrusted with the security and well-being of our country? Old school ties must be consigned to the dustbin.
Leaders are accountable for the behaviour of those they appoint and lead. The choices Sunak has made make his promise on taking office impossible to deliver. We should demand that selection is undertaken every bit as rigorously as would apply to senior appointments in other professions. Current practice is clearly failing us; with such a dysfunctional and inadequate ministerial team, so is the government.