The week in review
Brexit, Hancock and Covid – this week had a decidedly 2020 feel to it. The Prime Minister appears on the cusp of the greatest achievement of his fledgling premiership in delivering the Windsor Framework, whilst Westminster was abuzz with the revealing of Matt Hancock’s and others’ WhatsApp messages during the pandemic.
Although the European Research Group and Democratic Unionists are pouring over the fine print of the Windsor Framework, it’s landed far better than agreements negotiated by Mr Sunak’s predecessors. Boris Johnson has critiqued the deal, but there is no sense of a sizeable Conservative backbench rebellion, and it was significant that former ERG chairman Steve Baker not only remained in post as a Northern Ireland minister but endorsed the framework in the Daily Telegraph.
The Prime Minister is not required to bring the Windsor Framework to a parliamentary vote but has promised to do so. His success in getting it through the Commons seemed assured with Labour and the Scottish Nationalists pledging to back the deal, but unless the ERG or DUP find something in the fine print of the document, it appears Mr Sunak will not need the support of the opposition parties. His appears to be a dual success – unpicking the Gordian Knot of Northern Ireland as part of a Brexit deal and doing so whilst taking his backbenchers with him.
A word of credit should be directed to the Downing Street communications operation. The No.10 team under Mr Sunak has received its criticism for a lack of experience, but in the last four weeks has seen through the Windsor Framework and a reshuffle without the type of leaks that could have upset either.
The question is whether delivering the Windsor Framework will benefit the Conservatives in the next election. It will undoubtedly help perceptions of Mr Sunak as a competent premier, but the Tories face a challenge in translating success at the negotiating table to public acknowledgement on the doorstep and at the ballot box. Which is where the second big story of the week might prove a challenge in raising questions about the Conservatives’ record in government.
The Daily Telegraph’s ‘Lockdown Files,’ based on thousands of text messages given to them by Isabel Oakeshott, have unsurprisingly revealed disagreements at the top of government during the early days of the pandemic. They have also painted unflattering pictures of former health secretary Matt Hancock, former education secretary Gavin Williamson, and today the cabinet secretary, Simon Case.
There is doubtless more to come, and thus some reopening of debates over the necessity of public health restrictions during the pandemic and government competency during a generational crisis. Comments about trade unions and others are also unlikely to sit well with many voters, who will consider them examples of what the Tories really think.
It’s worth saying the focus has been largely on individuals no longer in government. No.10 is of course and will point to being under new management, although Mr Sunak and others were part of the Cabinet ranks during Covid – so any revelations about those still around the Cabinet table is where the Lockdown Files could get more difficult for the government.
Even the end of the week had a Covid link. Sue Gray, she of party-gate investigation fame, abruptly left her post at DLUHC and was promptly announced as Sir Keir Starmer’s new chief of staff.
The appointment of someone to the role with a background in the upper echelons of the civil service is no surprise. Sir Keir has been long been in the market for a senior mandarin as part of Labour’s preparations for government, and Tony Blair has urged the Labour leader to follow the same path he did when appointing Jonathan Powell.
But Ms Gray’s appointment has prompted fury among the Tory ranks and questions of impartiality. It also presents a test for ACOBA and whether it is in fact toothless, as its own chairman, Lord Pickles has claimed. Could this be a catalyst for a review of the system?
The Prime Minister ends what he will consider a good week and is understood to be close to announcing another deal, this time on illegal Channel crossings, one of his five pledges at the start of the year. Delivery of that will support the narrative of quiet competency and ultimately delivery from No.10, potentially an antidote to the revelations of what happened behind closed doors during lockdown.