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?

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.