Victoria Atkins. Photo: Getty
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Theresa May has just taken an unnoticed gamble

Can she get away with it?

When he was chief whip, one of the things Gavin Williamson tended to do was to warn Theresa May against promoting parliamentarians from the 2015 intake. He argued that the second you promote from a fresh intake, two things happen: the first is that everyone else in that intake gets restive and wonders why it wasn’t them. The second is that everyone who has been elected before them starts to worry if their time has passed.

And he wasn’t entirely wrong. While there were political reasons that the 2005 intake – which tended to be slightly to his right on the whole – were more likely than those who came before or after them to grumble about Ed Miliband, one of the factors was that they feared they had been passed over in favour of what one of them dubbed “the Goldenballs generation”: your Rachel Reeveses, your Chuka Umunnas, your Emma Reynoldses and so on.

In her first opportunity to shuffle the deck since moving Williamson himself from the Whips' Office to the Ministry of Defence, May has disregarded that advice to promote Victoria Atkins to the frontbench, making her a junior minister at the Home Office, replacing Sarah Newton, who shuffles up to replace Penny Mordaunt as minister for disabled people, who is promoted to Secretary of State for International Development.

There are two things worth noting here: the first is that it once again belies the meme, common at Westminster and indeed elsewhere, that May has no thoughts of her own. I don’t agree with her former adviser Nick Timothy on much but he is right to say that the idea that he was the power behind May smacked of sexism. (Not least because that narrative tended to erase the considerable influence of Timothy’s female co-chief, Fiona Hill.)

Now that he is no longer employed, May is said to be in the influence of various people: her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, and Gavin Williamson, who was believed to have effectively appointed himself as Defence Secretary. (Next week it will doubtless be the turn of Robbie Gibb, her communications chief.)

This is both done to damn May and to exculpate her. But actually the truth is that the Prime Minister is in the driving seat, not whichever man happens to be next to her in shot. She makes bad decisions because she makes bad decisions. End of.

But the second is that she has, albeit in a way that few have yet noticed, decided to stress-test Williamson’s rule. As I argue in my i column today, the fear of letting Labour in means that May is stronger than many people think. If I’m wrong, we might be about to find out.   

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Photo: Getty
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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.