Tory lockdown sceptics hail Stephen Barclay's promotion as 'antidote to Michael Gove'

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Former Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay - Toby Melville/REUTERS
Former Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay - Toby Melville/REUTERS

Tory lockdown sceptics have hailed the promotion of Stephen Barclay to Cabinet Office minister, as they claimed he would be more alive to the economic costs of another lockdown this winter than Michael Gove.

With Mr Gove moving to become Housing Secretary, backbenchers opposed to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions believe the composition of the key decision-makers in Government has swung further in their favour.

The recent departure of Matt Hancock as Health Secretary means that two of the most hawkish ministers in favour of tougher measures are no longer in a position to significantly influence the pandemic response.

In their place is Sajid Javid and now Mr Barclay, who as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has assumed responsibility for running the Covid-19 operations (Covid O) Cabinet sub-committee, as well as other smaller working groups.

On Thursday night, one senior Tory described Mr Barclay as the "antidote" to Mr Gove, while another said he would take a "more cautious approach to further lockdowns".

Emphasis on the economy

Allies of Mr Gove have previously hit back at briefings against him, pointing out that his views have been closely aligned with the Prime Minister’s and he was often acting on his orders.

Having previously served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, allies say Mr Barclay also shares the same instincts as his former boss Rishi Sunak and is likely to place far greater emphasis on the economy when decisions are taken.

Mr Javid, who served as chancellor before Mr Sunak, has also been keen to highlight the impact of the pandemic on “non-Covid-19” health problems.

It comes after a number of Treasury figures privately expressed their frustration last year at the makeup of key Covid-19 bodies and the influence being wielded by hawks in Government.

“He’s going to be on the side of pressing on [with opening up the economy],” said a Government source of Mr Barclay on Thursday night.

The antidote to Gove

He is also known for being “forensic on detail”, having been charged with overseeing the spending review and departmental budgets, which lockdown sceptics hope will be turned to interrogating the advice of scientific advisers.

“Steve is a solid hombre,” said one former minister. “What you will get from Steve is the antidote to Gove. He will do the job he’s been asked to do.

“I think there is a scepticism there which will be more in tune with the backbenchers.”

“Steve Barclay is a very safe pair of hands,” a second MP added. “He will have a far more pragmatic and cautious approach to further lockdowns. I’m much happier that Steve is there. I just wish he’d been left with more frankly.”

On Thursday, it was also confirmed that Mr Barclay would also take over responsibility for a newly-formed sub-committee which has been tasked with addressing Britain's lorry driver shortages and supply chain crisis.

However, his departure from the Treasury poses a significant headache for Mr Sunak, who is currently in the middle of negotiations with Whitehall departments over their three-year spending settlements.

His successor, Simon Clarke, arrives with just over a month before the spending review and the Budget are due to take place on Oct 27.

While Mr Clarke is thought to enjoy good relations with the Chancellor, one Government insider has suggested he had been appointed as a compromise to avoid the Prime Minister shuffling Jacob Rees-Mogg into the post.

However, Treasury sources dismissed the claims, adding that the decision to appoint Mr Clarke had been the Prime Minister’s alone.

They also suggested that Mr Rees-Mogg’s decision to openly challenge the decision to increase National Insurance to pay for social care had gone down badly in Downing Street.

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