Minister for Flannel

Ministers are regularly required to show up and look credible before the various committees of the UK Parliament

Do us a favour, watch this short clip from Oliver Dowden’s appearance before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday and see if you can figure out what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s ‘propriety and ethics’ team (22 people, we learn) actually does.

We’ve watched it half a dozen times (for we really do need to get out more) and can honestly say that we still have no idea. Grade-A flannel, almost perfect obfuscation (and much disingenuous use of the “I wouldn’t want to prejudice the ongoing inquiry…” defence).

Oliver Dowden – peak Parliamentary flannel

Dowden so effectively frustrates the efforts of the committee chair William Wragg and senior member John McDonnell to find out what that 22-person team would actually do in the event of a ‘flag’ being raised about a Minister’s conduct (like, for instance, if the HMRC alerted the previous Prime Minister to an incoming Minister’s off-shore tax arrangements) that they’re driven back to questions about ‘departmental efficiency’ in no time.

We’ve pointed out many times in the past what a good soldier Dowden is. He can be sent into a situation like this, fraught with political peril, and emerge unscathed, brushing down his suit and moving briskly on to the next messy situation.

We continue to think that a loyal consigliere like Dowden is not cut out for a role at the very top of politics but he could easily continue to circle around the leadership – cleaning up after ministerial indiscretions and digging metaphorical graves – indefinitely (or until the revolving door beckons). A survivor.

The rest of Dowden’s testimony to the committee concerned cost cutting in the civil service (yes to that, apparently), the declining happiness of civil servants (yes to that too). They’re miserable, mainly because their salaries have actually gone down in the last 11 years – strikes are planned. Karin Smyth grills the Minister and his Permanent Secretary on civil contingencies (disasters, terrorism etc.). It is claimed that there’s a new approach to risk so the next time the balloon goes up there’ll be less administrative panic.

The Coronation Claims Office comes up – someone has to be responsible for the comicbook anachronism of Crown ceremonial – and it is Oliver Dowden. He has some more flannel about the obligation of the state to fund the upcoming coronation, apparently forgetting that for almost the whole history of the British Monarchy coronations were not state affairs and required no government money.

The department’s annual report and accounts was scrutinised – and in particular a big increase in costs. Chisholm pins most of the extra cost on big events – Cop26 in Glasgow, a G7, the Grenfell Inquiry etc.

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

We learn that Dowden, on taking up his new role, led an ‘open session’ with civil servants at which he invited them to share their concerns about pay and conditions (just trying to imagine what it was like to attend that open session is making us twitch).

John McDonnell raises some pretty grim data about poverty amongst the lowest-paid civil servants (8% have used a foodbank). Dowden insists that there will be no improvement to this year’s 2% pay increase.

There’s an entertaining vignette illustrating the way the current government’s effort to push back against ‘woke culture’ in the civil service is failing. Ronnie Cowan (SNP) quotes one of Dowden’s predecessors in his role (Jacob Rees-Mogg no less) insisting that all training involving the words ‘diversity, wellness and inclusion’ be cancelled. Permanent Secretary Alex Chisholm responds: “the diversity and inclusion strategy is a core part of what the government does and has indeed been renewed twice by subsequent ministers.” The blob pushes back.

  • Useful Cabinet Office explainer from the Institute for Government.
  • The digital team inside Parliament is famously good. Their online coverage of Parliamentary debates, committees etc. is really exemplary. An important window on the operation of government and legislature.
  • The House of Commons Library has just published a fascinating research briefing about coronation history and ceremonial.

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.