What’s the reason for the Conservative lead in the polls? Tory sleaze stories have failed to cut through and now ministers are even optimistic that Dominic Cummings’s tirade against them on Covid failures won’t put a big dent in their lead over Labour.
Tory MPs are quick to put it down to the likeability of Boris Johnson. “He defies the laws of political gravity,” says one admiring colleague. But there’s an argument that if there is one person to thank, it isn’t the prime minister. Instead, it’s down to someone who isn’t even in government — Kate Bingham, the woman who led the UK’s vaccine effort.
Thanks in large part to the early work of Bingham and her team last year securing vaccines and setting up manufacturing capability, the UK is on course to vaccinate 90 per cent of its adult population. It’s hard to overstate the impact vaccines have had on the political picture. Before they were approved, Sir Keir Starmer was gaining support while Tory MPs, angry at indefinite lockdowns, were asking how long Johnson would last. Now they predict another 10 years of uninterrupted Tory rule.
Even Cummings is impressed. When Johnson’s former senior aide spent seven hours this week laying into his former colleagues, he only had positive things to say about Bingham — praising her for having the “strength of character not to be pushed around”. So, as questions over the early decisions of ministers handling of the pandemic build, will the successful vaccine roll-out mean the Government is off the hook? The local elections suggest it might be. If that is the case, it’s Bingham ministers ought to thank.
Only Bingham-mania wasn’t always the order of the day at Westminster. When she joined, the mood in government was bleak. No one was quite sure of the way out of the pandemic. Vaccines were still regarded as a long shot. Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance concluded that if they were to have a chance of success, the Government would need to avoid previous mistakes — and bring in someone from outside with experience and freedom to work.
Bingham was an obvious choice. She knew Vallance previously and already had links with many of the companies developing vaccines from her career as a venture capitalist investing in pharma companies. Johnson was also keen — the pair are old acquaintances, with Bingham married to Treasury minister Jesse Norman, an old school mate of Johnson’s sister Rachel. However, the latter connections meant that it wasn’t long before Bingham’s appointment was linked to Tory cronyism. Matters weren’t helped when it was reported she had spent £670,000 on a PR company, which later turned out to have been contracted by officials. In the face of negative press, allies of Bingham grew suspicious that government figures were briefing against her and complained that No10 failed to adequately defend her.
But while her PR choice made headlines, it is not what she will be remembered for. Instead, it will be key decisions she made — whittling down a list of 120-odd vaccine candidates to just seven based on the likelihood of success and speed of availability. Six of which have now come through. She also led a team that made sure the supply chains were in place for production of the vaccines — including the Oxford one in the UK.
Citing Bingham’s private-sector experience, ministers are already talking up the vaccine task force as a blueprint for future government projects. Given that Bingham personally answered to the PM, it’s also viewed as an argument for cutting away bureaucracy in decision-making. In Bingham’s own words the task force got there by being “nimble” and quick-footed in a way that others, such as the European Commission, weren’t.
But while Bingham’s efforts are now viewed as exemplary, her experience also offers warnings of problems ahead. She left a high-paid job for one with no salary and her supporters believe she may have been convinced to stay longer had it not been for negative briefings. There are questions as to whether the Government needs to be more protective of its staff or look at how they prepare those in the private sector for the scrutiny that comes with such public roles. In many places, it is normal for people to move back and forth between the public and private sectors. In this country, this kind of behaviour can be seen as suspicious — with questions asked about conflicts of interest. If the Government really is serious about bringing in more private-sector talent to help with specific projects, it is going to have to come up with an answer to this problem.