When he stood against Boris Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019, Sajid Javid talked up his credentials as a Thatcherite free marketeer who had fought his way to the top. As the son of Pakistani immigrants, he has battled prejudice throughout his life because some people at his school, in the City and in the Conservative Party decided his face didn’t fit. “When I got racially abused by the toughest guy in school, well, rightly or wrongly, I punched him,” he recalled at his campaign launch.
Johnson later discovered first-hand that Javid was prepared to stand up for himself, whatever the cost. In February 2020, Javid derailed Johnson’s first major reshuffle when he resigned as chancellor, after Dominic Cummings demanded that he fire all his Treasury aides. “They wanted his balls in a jar,” said one Javid ally. “He is rather attached to his balls.”
Now Javid is back in the cabinet as Health Secretary, he’s the one holding Johnson’s fate in his hands. He must deliver on the Prime Minister’s promise to fix the backlog of 5.5 million postponed NHS procedures in England, and overhaul elderly care, or risk voters concluding that the manifesto-busting 1.25 per cent National Insurance rise was an unjustified and unforgivable betrayal.
While it might seem reckless for Johnson to outsource his own destiny to a former rival, the two men trust each other and maintained good relations while Javid was on the back benches. They also have a helpful mutual friend in the Prime Minister’s wife, Carrie Johnson.
The biggest risks for the government are whether Javid has what it takes to deliver his huge task, or whether he really believes in the policy at all. On the face of it, there are few who can match the Health Secretary for competence. He is now heading up his sixth Whitehall department without major mishap and has held two of the four great offices of state: chancellor and home secretary.
Yet even among Javid’s own supporters there are persistent whispers about his record, which, for all his experience, remains unproven. He has moved roles so frequently – at a rate of almost one new cabinet job per year since 2014 – that he hasn’t spent long enough in any ministry to leave a legacy on which to be judged. An arm’s-length and powerful NHS bureaucracy will not be easy to manage.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to Javid’s success is the question over his belief in Johnson’s higher-tax, bigger-state project. In a cabinet of many Thatcherites – including Kwasi Kwarteng, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel – Javid is arguably the most ardent. He regularly studies the courtroom scene from Ayn Rand’s hymn to individualism, The Fountainhead, and has a portrait of Margaret Thatcher hanging in his office. “It’s just a piece of tat,” said one person who has seen too much of the picture. “I think he bought it at some Tory fundraising auction.”
Javid’s task exposes the core of the Tory party’s identity crisis. That an arch Thatcherite is now overseeing the NHS is a vital test of the durability of Johnson’s project to redefine the Tories and cement their appeal in the north and the Midlands. For decades, voters in these regions hated Thatcher’s party because of what her governments did to their communities.
Prior to the 2015 election, when the NHS and the economy regularly topped voters’ lists of concerns, Thatcher’s legacy was still poisonous in much of northern England. But after these areas voted to leave the EU in 2016, the picture appeared to change. When YouGov asked which prime minister of the past 30 years people would choose to lead Brexit negotiations in 2019, Thatcher won easily, including with 42 per cent support among respondents in the north (and 47 per cent in the Midlands and Wales). Then Labour’s red wall crumbled.
Time, Brexit and the arrival of another larger-than-life Tory who is able to transcend party tribes have softened attitudes towards Thatcher, both in former Labour heartlands in England and among free marketeers. Conservatives also blame Jeremy Corbyn’s populist, big-state manifesto in 2017 for dragging voters – and the Prime Minister – to the left. The cabinet’s Thatcherites are still trying to work out how to respond.
For now, Javid has chosen to keep faith with Thatcher’s pragmatism rather than her pugnacity. Even tempered, with an instinct for deal-making, he will want to show he’s succeeded as Health Secretary, despite having little natural affection for the challenge, according to one who knows him well. “At his heart he is a City boy – he believes that free markets and meritocracy are the best way for people to advance,” I was told. “In a way, health is almost the worst possible job for him because it is the one part of government where you just can’t apply that. You would be burned at the stake for suggesting there could be other ways to do healthcare better.”
But the struggle isn’t over. The Thatcherites are mobilising. Javid and the free market club in the cabinet remain quietly committed to their cause, which Johnson will ponder as he plots another reshuffle. Some 60 Tory MPs, including several senior ministers, are launching a new Free Market Forum to champion their brand of economics. The Telegraph (which Johnson allegedly refers to as his “real boss”) is angry about the tax rise, claiming the government is no longer even conservative.
Some on both the left and the right are already calling the Health and Social Care Levy Johnson’s poll tax because it hurts poorer workers in the north and Midlands most of all. If Javid stumbles, the price for the Prime Minister may be high. There will be no shortage of Thatcherites ready to offer an alternative medicine.
This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor