One of the government’s biggest strengths is that it U-turns so often. One of its biggest weaknesses is that it has to. Jacob Rees-Mogg has all but completed his reverse ferret over his new voting system. MPs who are shielding because they are at a high risk from coronavirus have already been granted the right to vote by proxy, and now MPs who are shielding because they have caregiving responsibilities will, too.
It means the net effect of Rees-Mogg’s changes is to create a system that makes it easier for Conservative backbenchers to make trouble, easier for the opposition to cause headaches for the government, and makes life trickier for sitting ministers. It was sensible politics to U-turn to avoid the issue becoming more embarrassing for the government. It was sensible timing politically, too, that the U-turn was done shortly before PMQs, avoiding it coming up again in the chamber and discomfiting Boris Johnson.
But the U-turns have the same cause: the incompetence of Rees-Mogg. These problems were ones that organisations and think tanks, from the Hansard Society to University College London’s Constitution Unit to the Institute for Government, warned against. It’s not the first time that the government has had cause to regret Rees-Mogg not being on top of the detail; it’s one reason he was essentially confined to his constituency after a disastrous interview about the Grenfell tower fire at the start of the 2019 election campaign.
Incompetence, or perhaps more accurately a lack of grip on the brief, are also part of another government U-turn: on the return of children to schools. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, never got to grips with the big logistical challenges of reopening schools, instead preferring to have an arid back-and-forth with the teaching unions.
It’s good that the government has U-turned. In both cases the relevant minister did not have sufficient grasp of the issues and pressing ahead would not have worked. The big question is, what does Downing Street do next? Conservative MPs are increasingly grumpy in private about these competence issues and want things to change. Some blame the PM himself, some blame his ministers.
In normal times, governments often get away with having a less-than-competent Leader of the House of Commons, particularly when the government has a majority, which is why successive prime ministers have tended to use it as something of an antechamber between the front line of politics and the wilderness. If you’ve proven to be a less than competent administrator, there’s really a limit to how much damage you can do as leader of the House.
Some politicians are able to use the post to enhance and change perceptions of them, as Andrea Leadsom did. She not only did well among her own side due to her frequent tussles with John Bercow, but impressed MPs and staffers from the other parties due to the seriousness with which she approached allegations of bullying and sexual harassment at Westminster.
Now some Conservative MPs think that Johnson should recall Leadsom – whom he first promoted to be secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy before sacking in February – to the post of Commons leader that she held under May.
They think there’s a good chance that parliament will be observing a degree of social distancing for some time, and even with a majority of 80, the government’s life will be easier with a more ebullient Commons Leader.
The other benefit is that, unlike other sacked ministers, Leadsom has been scrupulously loyal since returning to the backbenches. Several MPs think it would “send a signal” for her to be returned to the cabinet. One reason rebellions are becoming more and more commonplace is the perception among MPs who aren’t yet on the ministerial ladder, or who have been pushed off it, that they will never return to it. A symbolic return for someone who has behaved well as a backbencher will ease that difficulty.
Are they right? Well, perhaps, perhaps not. The chatter speaks to a problem Downing Street does need to find a fix for: that its parliamentary management isn’t as good as it could be. It should use the next reshuffle to strengthen the government’s position among Conservative MPs, whether through bringing back a few well-behaved ex-ministers or by appointing fresh blood. Either way, the grumbles about incompetence are only going to grow if the concerns of Tory MPs aren’t addressed.
The big advantage of the government’s willingness to U-turn is that it avoids painful collisions with the electorate or policy reality. The big question is whether they are capable of weeding out the competence issues that cause the U-turns in the first place, or if those issues will simply remain part of the government’s MO.