“For me, 19 July is not only the end of the line, but the start of an exciting new journey for our country.” Sajid Javid began his new career as health secretary with one of the upbeat travel metaphors that has become a verbal tic of this government.
Yet while Boris Johnson once talked of coming out of an Alpine tunnel and seeing “the sunshine and pasture ahead of us”, Javid’s more prosaic tone meant it felt like he was describing a bus replacement service. You get to the railway terminus then, er, you have a whole new journey by another means. Kinda.
When Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London in 2016, he joked to Javid: “You wait ages for a Pakistani bus driver’s son to come along, then two come along at once.” Javid has certainly proved politically very patient in waiting his turn for a recall to cabinet, and his Commons update on Covid was all about keeping the government show on the road.
Sounding much more bullish than Matt Hancock about the final end to lockdown, he upgraded recent caution about the Delta variant, revealing that he had seen the very latest data (on Sunday) and “I am very confident” about that date July 19. Tory backbenchers sounded mighty relieved that at last they had someone in post who was neither as preachy as Hancock, nor as trigger happy with the lockdown gun.
Javid even gave a valuable hint that he was as fed up as millions of parents with the current policy of sending whole classes of kids home after one positive test. Pointing to a more risk-based scheme of daily testing rather than isolation, it was a key clue of where he prefers to put his finger on the freedoms-restrictions weighing scales.
The new health secretary lacked the rhetorical polish of Hancock, but one got the feeling from MPs on all sides that was no bad thing. The danger, as his shadow Jonathan Ashworth pointed out, was that with cases rising to scary levels on Monday, any kind of bold confidence about the timetable for removing all restrictions could feel “hubristic”. We have been here before, of course.
Ashworth was putting down a marker that if things take a turn for the worse again, he’ll have said ‘I told you so’. As it happens it was Boris Johnson himself who sounded like ‘Captain Hindsight’ on Monday, not least when he implied that he had sacked Hancock this weekend. He read the story on Friday, Hancock was out by Saturday and that was “about the right pace, he said”.
Of course, this jars with No.10 having told us on Friday the matter was “closed” after Hancock’s initial apology. As tempting as it is to ridicule the PM’s revisionism, insiders say there was more than an element of Johnson making clear on Saturday he was leaving a pearl-handled revolver and a glass of whisky for his health secretary to pick up.
Let’s see if he’s more explicit when Keir Starmer inevitably mocks him in PMQs for his failure to act quickly and fire Hancock on Friday. Starmer has to maximise the sense of chaos and “one law for them, one for the rest of us”, even if the very next day the voters in Batley end up shrugging their shoulders and voting Tory (or Galloway).
The ministerial interchange from Hancock to Javid may once again prove the value of Johnson’s tactic of political hypnosis: look into my eyes, not around my eyes, this is a brand new government, with brand new ministers. Having asked the voters to forget that the Tories have been in power since 2010, he may now ask them to forget Hancock was running health since 2019.
And once lockdown is lifted (alongside a decent England Euros run?), there could well be a bounceback boom that will help sustain that Tory polling lead. The downside is that Javid is himself a re-tread. With the rare distinction of having been a cabinet minister under Cameron, May and Johnson, he could act as a reminder to the public that the same old faces have been in power for quite a long time now.
The scandals may change (Windrush, Snog-gate), but the personnel don’t really change in the Tory game of musical chairs, Labour may well argue. Javid himself may also suffer from being seen as a jack of all trades, but a master of none (critics ask whether he actually left a mark in any of his previous five cabinet posts). The slow-burn scandal over cronyism and transparency may yet cause some damage.
Still, there was a ruthlessness about the Tory party on Monday which many Labour MPs may envy. When Jeremy Hunt said of Hancock “the country is in his debt”, there was a deafening silence on the Conservative benches. Few Tory MPs were active allies of the former health secretary, and their loyalty seemed to be to the office, not the man.
As Keir Starmer starts to reset his own leadership this summer (read my in-depth piece on the party’s mood ahead of Batley), the lessons may not be lost on him. If he can ram home the idea that this is a tired government, he may inject some energy into his party’s morale. So far, the voters show no signs of wanting to sack the Tories any quicker than Johnson sacks his ministers.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.