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.
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.
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.