Resilience schmesilience

Here in the suburbs we like to think we are not mugs. We know a distraction when we see it. We can tell the difference between a press release and a live policy. Still, we think we’ve been had.

A couple of weeks ago it was announced that our MP, Oliver Dowden, a Cabinet Office minister with a roving brief, would be put in charge of the Prime Minister’s strikes task-force and that he’d be chairing meetings of the government’s COBRA emergency committee to work out a plan of action.

It’s not clear if Oliver Dowden has ever seen the inside of the Cabinet Office Briefing Room

Since then, we assume Westminster’s been quiet for Christmas and we understand he has chaired two or three meetings but it’s hard to tell. It’s always difficult to be absolutely certain about COBRA meetings, since they’re supposed to be secret and minutes won’t be released for decades. There was some minimal briefing about the first meeting and subsequently Dowden was said to be ‘resolute‘. Since then we’ve heard nothing. To summarise:

  • The only concrete action associated with Oliver Dowden’s role managing the government’s response to the strikes that we can find is the drafting in of the military – although that had actually been planned in detail weeks before Dowden got the job.
  • There have been no announcements of any further actions from Dowden’s COBRA meetings (we can’t be sure they’ve even happened).
  • The task-force has no formal status, no terms of reference. It doesn’t have a web page. There isn’t even a press release (nothing to link to at all). No detail of who attends has been published and we don’t know if it will meet again.
  • The strikes have continued. More are now planned for the new year. Dowden’s task-force hasn’t apparently done anything, either to advance negotiations or to mitigate the effects of strikes. It’s what the Americans would call a ‘nothing burger’, a pure publicity confection. In fact, we’re ready to bet that we’ll never hear another word about the strikes task-force.
A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

So, the fact that Dowden, sole proprietor of the government’s non-existent response to Sunak’s Winter of Discontent, has also been put in charge of the government’s longer-term ‘resilience strategy’, is perhaps not as reassuring as the government would have hoped, although the fact that this task actually does have a web page might suggest that it’s a bit more than a nothing burger, that it might actually produce some action.

On the other hand, putting a Cabinet Office minister who has no formal portfolio but at least a dozen other jobs in charge of preparation for disaster instead of, say, a Minister of State, suggests a certain lack of seriousness. Are you reassured to learn that your MP, the part-time Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is responsible for coordinating Britain’s response to, you know, super-volcanoes, drought, bird flu, state cyber-attacks, terrorism?

That this government has routinely cut or scrapped investment in preparation for unfortunate events – including flooding – sat on a 2016 report about pandemic preparedness and actually scrapped a Cabinet committee that was planning for a pandemic six months before the big one might also suggest that they’re not really concentrating.

Dowden resolute

It looks like a compromise with the unions is available but it’s not clear the government wants to take it. Meanwhile The Minister for the Winter of Discontent is on manoeuvres – and the soldiers are preparing for action this Christmas

Lance Corporal Michael Tweedie-Smith swaps his helmet for a Santa hat as he and his fellow Reservist soldiers from the 3rd & 4th Battalions of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment sit down to a treat of a Christmas lunch served in the cook house at Longmoor Camp. The festive fun marked the culmination of the units' final weekend of intensive training for 2022. Who:  3rd & 4th Battalion Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment What: Traditional Christmas lunch served by officers to troops Where: Longmoor Training Camp When: Sunday 4th December 2022
They’re ready

It’s difficult to put your finger on Oliver Dowden’s charm. He doesn’t have the convincing military bearing of a Penny Mordaunt or the “do I look bothered?” insouciance of a David Cameron or the weird magnetism of a Michael Gove. If you were going to pick a Minister to put up against a million furious public service workers who haven’t had a pay rise in twelve years we suspect Dowden wouldn’t be your first choice.

On Laura Kuenssberg’s Sunday morning programme the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster didn’t offer any immediate explanation for how he got the job but we do know he’s a close friend of Rishi Sunak and has a reputation as a diligent ‘fixer’. “I have to say we will be resolute in response to this…” he said, resolutely.

Of course, Dowden won’t be fixing policy himself or negotiating with the unions directly. His job is to provide some kind of contingency response to the strikes – we understand he chaired another COBRA meeting this morning, his third. So far 1,200 troops have been assigned to cover for ambulance drivers and border guards over Christmas, although it looks like this was arranged before Dowden became involved. The Minister’s response to the emergency mostly involves showing up in TV studios on time.

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Captain Dowden is ready for action

Dowden’s main point in the Kuenssberg interview (and in others over the weekend) – that the government cannot move on wages because it must honour the independent pay review bodies’ various proposals – fell apart immediately. We know that the government regularly ignores statutory pay reviews. We can’t think of a good reason to make an exception of the nurses or the school teachers.

And, it turns out, the independent pay review bodies are not all that independent. They’re issued with detailed instructions by ministers for each annual pay round. The Health Secretary’s latest instructions to the NHS body are pretty clear, for instance: “it is particularly important that you also have regard to the government’s inflation target when forming recommendations.” On LBC Nick Ferrari was gobsmacked to learn that the members of the ‘independent’ pay review bodies are actually appointed by the Prime Minister or by the relevant Secretary of State.

More to the point, the government can and does impose hard limits on the pay increases that may be proposed. The current Conservative government did exactly this, in fact, in 2011 and 2012, as part of the austerity regime. This explains why real pay in the public services hasn’t risen since before the financial crisis.

In the interview Dowden also said that nurses on the lowest grades have been offered a 9.3% rise. It’s actually 5.5%. Other ministers and backbenchers have been using the bigger number too – it actually applies to non-nursing grades. It must be in some kind of briefing pack they’ve been given.

Meanwhile, Conservative backbenchers have noticed that the government seems to be painting itself into a corner on public service pay. Unions have been telegraphing for weeks that their members would probably accept offers somewhere between the current low-ball proposals and their published demands (in Scotland union members are already voting on offers). Jake Berry, like Oliver Dowden a former Chairman of the Party, says the government will have to “improve its offer“. It looks like there’s a political win on the table for the Tories – an affordable offer that acknowledges a decade of real-terms pay cuts and increasing hardship and lifts the threat of a new Winter of Discontent. Is Rishi a mature enough leader to take the opportunity? Does his fixer have the courage to tell him to?

Losing his marbles

Since he was Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has opposed the return of stolen artworks to their owners. But it looks like they might be going home anyway

Some of the Parthenon marbles in their current location in the British Museum in London
The Parthenon marbles awaiting return to Greece

In the last few years Dowden hasn’t missed an opportunity to assert that objects like the Parthenon marbles and the Benin bronzes ‘properly reside’ in the British museums and galleries that currently hold them.

As Minister he refused appeals from institutions and governments who wanted their artefacts back and opposed all efforts by trustees and directors to open negotiations or to transfer artefacts. In a notorious letter sent to heads of national collections in September 2020 he carefully connected removing statues of slavers with returning stolen art – classifying both as ‘contested heritage’ and insisting that Government-funded bodies “should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics.”

A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

More recently, UK institutions have begun negotiations or have actually returned items. The Horniman museum in South London returned six Benin bronzes last month and Cambridge University has agreed to return 116. Both made use of a provision in a new charities law that allows institutions to ‘deaccession’ items when they perceive there is a ‘moral obligation’ to do so. Mr Dowden doesn’t like this provision and has been asking questions about it in Parliament. Dowden thinks that woke museums may be ‘virtue signalling’ when they agree to return looted items to places “…where they may be less safe.”

Meanwhile, national collections (like the British Museum and the V&A) can’t make use of this provision because they’re bound by another law, the British Museum Act of 1963, which explicitly prohibits return of artefacts. When Culture Secretary, Dowden hoped to suppress this kind of worthy posturing by packing boards of trustees and opposing the appointment of anyone with ‘decolonisation’ on their CVs.

One of his appointments was George Osborne, former Chancellor and the man who brought Britain nine years of austerity – including harsh cuts to museum funding – inserted as Chairman of the British Museum’s board in 2021. Everyone’s assumption was that this appointment would mark a change of direction for the museum – with more pride in the museum’s colonial history and less shame about the awkward provenance of its collection. The Guardian called it ‘a startling jolt‘ and wondered ‘can it it really have come to this?’ As recently as November George Osborne asserted that the great collections ‘would not be permanently broken up‘ but did acknowledge that loans of objects might be possible.

Things are obviously moving quickly now, though. Dowden’s been demoted, resigned and promoted again since then and Osborne is showing signs of having gone native at the BM. We learn, from a Greek report quoted by the Art Newspaper, that he’s actually been in secret discussions with the Greek Culture Ministry, which has long campaigned for the unconditional return of the Parthenon marbles. It looks like a permanent loan might see the marbles taken to the Acropolis Museum, where a specially-built, climate-controlled gallery has been waiting (a loan would allow the museum to get around the tricky provisions of the 1963 law). Experts say that the British Museum’s increasingly ramshackle accommodation risks damaging the marbles and a refurbishment means they’ll have to move soon anyway. Some galleries at the museum are in such poor condition that they’ve had to be closed and one of Osborne’s other priorities is to raise one billion pounds (yes, a billion) to fix the leaky roof and crumbling walls.

It’s safe to say that Dowden’s bluster in the media and public bullying of the institutions haven’t really paid off. The galleries don’t want to be recruited to the Culture Wars and the momentum for return is building. There’s a British campaign group working to return the Parthenon marbles, more museums are opening negotiations and influential Parliamentarians are applying pressure. Lord Vaizey, also a former Culture Secretary, is pursuing a campaign through the House of Lords. Let’s face it, it’s about time.

COBRA assembles

It has begun. Yesterday, Captain Dowden marched into the COBRA situation room – for there is a situation

As we reported last week the PM has put Oliver Dowden in charge of his Winter of Discontent Task Force. Dowden assembled his first responders in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms to begin the fightback against the wretched nurses and posties. The committee will meet once more this week.

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Captain Dowden is ready for action

Sounds like there wasn’t much to discuss. Dowden doesn’t have many options: how to deploy a maximum of 2,000 troops available to him and whether civil servants and agency workers might be persuaded to break strikes. Well over a million workers will strike or are balloting to strike in December and January – rail workers, ambulance drivers, Eurostar crews, bus drivers, highways workers, baggage handlers, postal workers, nurses, driving examiners and civil servants – so the government’s emergency measures will be mainly symbolic.

A photo of the secret UK government Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms beneath Whitehall, showing a large conference table and a wall of monitors. This is the only photo that exists of the facility - released by the government in response to a FOI request in 2010.
The only photo that exists of the secret Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms

We know that 600 military drivers have been asked to “familiarise themselves with vehicles” so they can drive ambulances for the 21 and 28 December strikes. 10,000 drivers will be on strike on those days and they have promised to continue to provide emergency cover so it’s not clear how much the troops will be able to help – probably mostly photo opportunities. Dowden’s press team has been sending out robust quotes, of course. He’s ‘straining every sinew’ apparently (in Scotland there’ll be no strike because nurses have accepted an average 7.5% pay increase).

We’re in the phase of the crisis when Ministers stamp their feet and talk tough. On the BBC’s Today programme this morning, Transport Minister Mark Harper insisted that rail workers must accept what he euphemistically calls ‘reform’ while also insisting that the negotiations are nothing to do with him, guv. Justin Webb tried to get Harper to confirm a Financial Times story that he’s been blocking a deal that was acceptable to the unions. The Minister flannelled manfully but essentially accepted the assertion (and used the word ‘reform’ 15 times as he did so). ‘Reform’ is a persistent theme across all the current disputes, of course – the Uberisation of postal services that Simon Thompson proposes, the privatisation of NHS services that Sunak and other Ministers continue to advocate. Pay and conditions are not the only things on the table this Winter.

Meanwhile, it might – or it might not – reassure you to know that, in his Cabinet Office role, Oliver Dowden is also responsible for the government’s wider resilience planning – you know, plagues, energy crises, Winter weather. He answers questions in Parliament on the subject and says things like: “The national resilience framework will be the first iteration of our new strategic approach. It will strengthen the systems, structures and capabilities that underpin the UK’s resilience to all risks.” The new framework was actually first announced back in August by the previous incumbent Kit Malthouse. It’s difficult to know how much confidence to invest in a new ‘resilience framework’ from the people who brought you over 200,000 Covid deaths, a near-death bond market crisis, Michelle Mone and an epidemic of child poverty. Perhaps we should wait and see.

Dowden’s Fusiliers

Our MP has been in his new job for six weeks. He’s the most senior minister in the Cabinet Office and he has an epic to-do list. His first big battle is with hundreds of thousands of striking workers

Dad's Army
Don’t panic

The government’s website lists the many responsibilities of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: driving delivery of the Government’s priorities, oversight of all Cabinet Office policy, oversight of civil contingencies and resilience (inc. COBR), national security including cyber security, oversight of Cabinet Office business planning, oversight of major events, propriety and ethics, oversight of cabinet work on science, technology, and innovation, including oversight of the Office of Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS), public appointments, honours and the GREAT campaign.

This long list will suit Oliver Dowden. It’s evident that he likes to be in the thick of it and, during his years in various bagman roles for his party, he’s developed a reputation as a ‘fixer’, an operator. He’s the new Michael Gove.

Now that the balloon’s gone up

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Captain Dowden is ready for action

Dowden’s first combat mission sees him taking command of the Prime Minister’s new industrial action taskforce. There’s nothing on the government’s website about the taskforce yet so we can’t be 100% sure what it’s called. The Daily Mail is calling it a Winter of Discontent Unit while trade paper Personnel Today has gone with Strike Response Unit. Either way, it’s obviously a high-risk job – and more evidence that Dowden is ready to get his hands dirty. You really don’t want to carry the ‘Minister for the Winter of Discontent’ label around with you for the rest of your career if it goes badly.

With union membership climbing, public support for strikes at its highest level for decades and the public service workers comfortably on the moral high ground, there’s a chance that Captain Dowden will find himself supervising a chaotic retreat. Remember, only one government in UK history has been brought down by industrial action and it was a Tory government during a cost-of-living crisis. Just saying.

A few ideas for how to deal with runaway strikes have emerged so far and there are some old chestnuts. What are Dowden’s options in his battle with the nurses, border guards, ambulance drivers and fire-fighters?

The military option

At any one time no more than a few thousand soldiers are available to cover for striking workers. Even fewer are qualified to do specialist jobs like driving ambulances or nursing the sick. There’s some hurried training going on but a lot of people are going on strike (at least 100,000 RCN nurses for a start). It’s hard to know what impact the soldiers can have across the whole public sector. History shows that bringing the army in is mostly about the symbolism. Incidentally, according to the Independent, the government’s crash course apparently takes in non-military volunteers, so if you’d like to add ‘strike-breaking’ to your CV, you might want to drop Oliver Dowden a line. Perhaps there’s a VIP lane.

Soldiers fighting a fire in the 1970s

The military option is risky. Nothing says ‘crisis’ better than pictures of soldiers fighting fires and staffing A&E departments on the TV news. And when they’re covering for workers who have high levels of public support there’s a strong chance it’ll make things worse, dialling up the tension and antagonising ordinary people. Captain Dowden might fancy himself at the head of a column of green goddesses, or saluting the troops as he strides purposefully into a hastily erected field hospital, but Britons don’t generally like to see the military on the streets unless it’s a parade.

Making it harder to strike

In this country we routinely talk about the right to strike – and it’s a meaningful phrase but in Britain there’s no such right. No law protects the right to withdraw your labour and, in the absence of a written constitution, there’s no resort to fundamental rights. This is why it’s so easy for governments to withdraw or diminish the ability to strike.

We think of the Thatcher era as the golden age of anti-worker legislation – between 1980 and 1993, Conservative governments passed six acts of Parliament limiting workers’ power to go on strike – but the last 100 years in Britain have seen an almost uninterrupted succession of efforts to contain and frustrate the freedom of workers to take action. From the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act, which stopped ‘sympathy strikes’ (and also made it harder for unions to give money to the Labour Party), to Barbara Castle’s 1974 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, which introduced compulsory strike ballots, to Tony Blair’s Employment Relations Act that was supposed to guarantee union recognition but actually did nothing of the sort.

A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

More recently, the present government’s 2016 Act introduced new obstacles to calling strikes and was meant to make moments like this impossible. If these rules had existed during the original Winter of Discontent many of the strikes would have been illegal. An awkward fact for the government is that the unions have risen to the challenge – administering hundreds of votes across multiple employers, complying with all of the new rules to the letter and winning big majorities for action. In the most recent RMT vote the turnout was 71% and 89% voted to strike. The Royal College of Nursing had to run separate postal votes for over 200 NHS trusts plus other providers and even where votes did not reach the threshold for action huge numbers of nurses voted to strike. This was not supposed to happen and if decent wage offers are not forthcoming there’s every prospect of future strikes in areas that voted not to on this occasion.

The government’s response, of course, is more legislation. A bill to provide for ‘minimum service levels’ will reach Parliament in the new year and it may be expanded to ban ‘blue light strikes’ all together. The concern for Sunak must be that suppressing the expression of workers’ anger and desperation by banning strikes can do nothing to improve his electoral prospects. Unhappy workers are unhappy voters.

Agencies and strike-breakers

Legislation that allows employers to bring in agency workers to cover for strikers was hastily introduced earlier this year but the government has now said that commercial health companies will be invited to provide cover too. Both tricky, of course, especially in schools and the NHS, where there’s grass-roots support for strikers and where agency staff may find they’re unwelcome. Some agency suppliers have said they don’t want to be involved in strike-breaking and private hospitals may not want to see pickets in their leafy grounds. Strike breaking in Britain is part of the folk memory, of course. A ‘volunteer police force’ was got up to suppress strikes in Liverpool in 1911. During the General Strike The Times rallied volunteers to join an oddball group of toffs and fascists called The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, which sounds kind of like Dad’s Army in black shirts.

Anyway, in case the Minister is planning to make his name by recruiting a volunteer force of his own we’d like to put it on record now that it ought to be called ‘Dowden’s Fusiliers’.