One of the contemporary reviews of The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s best-selling “philosophical” novel from 1943, said that “anyone who is taken in by it deserves a stern lecture on paper rationing”. If we were to plot political influence on one axis and sheer philosophical and literary rubbish on the other axis, the books of Ayn Rand would be in the top right-hand quadrant. Rand’s work has few peers in the category of influential trash and a predilection for her half-thought nostrums is always the tip-off that someone is better avoided.
Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, is one of those who needs the lecture on paper rationing. He has said in the past that he was in the habit, until his wife rebelled, of reading the court room scene from The Fountainhead aloud to her every so often. In a plot so contrived that it is hardly worth summarising, the egoistic architect hero Howard Roark is put on trial for offences against the public taste, whereupon he delivers a great rallying cry to the freedom of the individual.
I thought of this scene as the new Health Secretary made a debut in the House of Commons in which he came on like the plucky architect of liberty. Like Roark in The Fountainhead, Javid declared that freedom would ring out on 19 July and to hell with the stubborn data.
The dispute between those cautious Conservatives anxiously poring over the numbers and those impatient to unlock for good is just one of the buried conflicts within the party. The changing composition of the cabinet will be the enduring story of Matt Hancock’s indiscretion and departure. Every reshuffle alters the character of a government. Even the loss of one minister and his replacement by another is a subtle change to the political configuration.
Hancock was one of the few options as an emergency substitute in the event that the Prime Minister fell out with his Chancellor. Boris Johnson is a Conservative without limits. He doesn’t care how much of other people’s money he spends. His profligacy caused Rishi Sunak agonies when he was trying to assemble a vaguely prudent Budget in March. The conflict will not go away and may come to define the government.
Into this argument comes a new Health Secretary who is also an old chancellor. Javid, it is relevant to recall, left the Treasury without delivering a Budget, ostensibly because he fell out with Dominic Cummings, then Boris Johnson’s chief aide, about the identity of special advisers. That battle was, of course, a proxy for control, and the reason the Prime Minister needed to take control was that he wanted to spend money that no fiscally conservative chancellor of the Exchequer would sanction. As usual, an apparent contretemps in the human resources department was a parable for the strategic direction of the whole company. If Javid had entirely agreed with Johnson he would have been a lot less worried about the reporting lines of special advisers.
Sunak seized the main chance and has done the job well, but questions of debt and public spending will return in the second half of this parliament, and it is all but inevitable that they will divide the occupants of Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street.
The continued employment at cabinet level of clear incompetents such as Gavin Williamson (Education Secretary) and Priti Patel (Home Secretary) is explained by the fact that when this dispute bites, the Prime Minister needs people around him who owe him everything. Williamson and Patel would not be even close to high office under any other leader. They are there because when the Chancellor demands spending cuts and the Prime Minister refuses, Johnson has people round the table who will nod when he tells them to. Having a mind of his own was the reason that Jeremy Hunt, a former foreign secretary and long-serving health secretary, could not be brought back into cabinet. Javid definitely has a mind of his own, even if it is a bit overstocked with the work of Ayn Rand.
The argument will not come to a head just yet, not least because Javid has so much to be getting along with, even after the pandemic relents. The necessary focus on Covid has meant that there are 5.1 million people waiting for hospital treatment, of whom 383,000 have already been waiting more than a year. There is a pay dispute brewing. The government offered health workers a 1 per cent pay rise in England in March (Scotland and Wales have promised more); the Royal College of Nursing wants 12.5 per cent and is threatening to strike to get it.
Johnson also needs a new boss for NHS England as Simon Stevens prepares to depart from the role later this summer. Then, Javid has to decide whether he becomes the latest in a long line of health secretaries to promise a solution to social care and scarper before even a Green Paper emerges. Detailed plans have been promised, not for the first time, by the end of the year.
It remains to be seen whether by that time Javid has fought free of the Covid-19 pandemic. The echoes of Rand were audible in his Commons statement; excessive confidence about a 19 July final and complete opening is a needless hostage to fortune. If, in the late autumn, Javid has to renege on his emancipation proclamation after another spike in cases, the error will be traced back to his first outing as Health Secretary. Yet the Covid pandemic will prove to be the least of his worries.
Since the dental charges row of 1951, chancellors have resisted the demands of improvident prime ministers and ambitious health secretaries for more money. Sajid Javid cannot remain friends with both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak for long. The character of this Conservative government will be defined by the side he takes.