Sajid Javid’s appointment as Home Secretary is yet more Tory fetishisation of “business”

Conservatives prize previous experience in finance over all else, yet it doesn’t translate to a great department of state.

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Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary, and his departed predecessor, Amber Rudd, may differ in gender, ethnicity and social background but they have one thing in common: both had “a career in business”. Rudd left university in 1986 and entered parliament in 2010. She spent 16 of the intervening years running Lawnstone, a private company (now dissolved) that offered “advice on corporate finance and related matters”. Javid worked for Chase Manhattan and then Deutsche Bank after he graduated in 1991, before he too became an MP in 2010.

The Tories make a fetish of “business” and presume that anybody with “experience” of it knows how to run organisations, create wealth and manage people. Yet “business” can mean almost anything. Lawnstone was, in effect, a family company. Rudd took it over from her sister and brother-in-law at the age of 24 and held “strategy meetings” at the London home of her father, Tony Rudd, a stockbroker. Within months of her taking over, Lawnstone bought two finance companies. Both went bust within a year. Since she once told the Financial Times that, before standing for parliament, she was “just keeping my head above water” and needed “to get a grip on my life”, one assumes things didn’t greatly improve.

Javid’s financial career was more mainstream but his job, like Rudd’s, essentially involved shuffling money around or advising others to do so. Before becoming MPs, neither had been elected to anything else or served in the public sector.

The Home Office is a peculiarly complex department where ministers’ decisions directly affect millions of individuals. Perhaps Theresa May should in future look more closely at the skills and experience of those she plans to send there.

Brexit beef

In a recent edition of BBC One’s Question Time from Bury St Edmunds – where 54 per cent  voted to leave the EU – the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas was booed for proposing a second Brexit referendum. I have never heard Lucas, an unusually charming and engaging politician, booed before. But booing has become a regular feature of the programme, with supporters of Remain always the target. In almost every edition – even one from Islington, north London, where 75 per cent voted Remain in 2016 – applause and audience interventions suggest overwhelming support for Brexit.

What is going on? Mentorn, the independent company that produces Question Time, uses a questionnaire to ensure a balance of opinion among audience members. Perhaps Remainers are more diffident, more polite and less passionate than Brexiteers. Or perhaps the latter lie about their beliefs on the questionnaires. The right used to claim that the left got its views over-represented on Question Time (and its BBC radio equivalent, Any Questions?) because it organised its foot soldiers to apply for tickets. Are Brexiteers now organised in similar fashion?

Banking bungle

My first bank account was with TSB, which, after a botched IT upgrade, is still (as I write) denying many customers internet access to their money. At what was then known as the Trustee Savings Bank – founded in 1810 for poor parishioners by the Rev Henry Duncan, a Church of Scotland minister – I was given a passbook that recorded transactions in a cashier’s handwriting. If I needed money, I attended the bank in person and waited in a queue, clutching the passbook, often for half an hour. No chequebooks were issued, and debit and credit cards hadn’t been invented. To the hilarity of my posher friends, I still banked this way when I went to university. The difficulty of getting hold of and spending my money made it impossible for me to be overdrawn.

Now the TSB, which issued its first chequebooks as I left university in 1966, has come full circle. Its technological incompetence creates similar obstacles to reckless spending to those I once faced. Somewhere, I suspect, the Rev Duncan is nodding with quiet satisfaction.

Ailing Grayling

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, intends to order utility companies to put new pipes and cables under pavements rather than our horribly potholed roads. He says this will reduce “long-term damage” to roads, as well as easing traffic congestion. He doesn’t seem to care that it will also ruin pavements. I am neither a motorist nor a cyclist but a pedestrian, walking briskly as instructed by the medical profession. In my experience, pavements in crumbling Britain are in an even worse state of repair than roads. Moreover, they are sometimes impassable because, almost incredibly, owners of vehicles that are parked on pavements, which confuse blind and partially sighted people and obstruct wheelchairs, to say nothing of my shopping trolley, are not breaking the law except in London.

Pedestrians should be given higher priority and May could start by changing Grayling’s title to “transport and ambulation secretary”.

Ditty disaster

After Sainsbury’s announced its proposed merger with Asda, its chief executive, Mike Coupe, was heard singing “We’re in the Money” in a TV studio. The smug singing grocer played into suspicions that, while customers and employees will lose out from the merger, supermarket shareholders in general and Sainsbury’s bosses in particular will gain handsomely. One is reminded of Norman Lamont, chancellor when Britain crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in humiliating circumstances in 1992. At a press conference a week or two later, Lamont, looking too cheerful by half, said his wife had heard him singing in the bath that morning. His career never recovered and, after he quoted Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” when asked if he regretted singing in the midst of economic disaster, he was finally sacked. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right