Voices: Sunak wants to be taken seriously – so why has he hired the least serious man in Westminster?
Looking never more like Emperor Palpatine about two fifths of the way through his transformation into Darth Sidious, BBC chairman and freelance loan advisor Richard Sharp was in Westminster on Tuesday morning to tell MPs that he absolutely definitely hadn’t done anything wrong. That to be asked for advice on how someone might make an eight hundred grand loan to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, is all pretty ordinary. And to emerge, two weeks later, having been appointed by the prime minister as the brand new chairman of the BBC, is mere coincidence.
Over the road, a few men and women were going through the ritual of walking in and out of 10 Downing Street to be given new cabinet jobs, as Rishi Sunak – one of Sharp’s underlings at Goldman Sachs, back in the day – did his level best at rebooting a government that is already as tainted by sleaze and general incompetence as the incompetent, sleaze-tainted ones he was meant to be replacing.
Sunak has decided to rearrange the business, trade, science and technology aspects of various departments, creating new cabinet positions that are more or less identical to those which were abolished in 2016. Energy is no longer part of the business department anymore, just like it never used to be. Now the new energy secretary, Grant Shapps, can worry just about how to create a future of sustainable energy, just like the Lib Dem leader Ed Davey used to do for David Cameron.
The Department for International Trade no longer exists, it’s back inside the Department for Business, exactly where it was in 2016, before Theresa May created it, having decided the only way she could look serious about believing in Brexit was to create a big shiny new department solely responsible for signing big new shiny trade deals, but which turned out to be legally impossible to do for her entire time in office. Rishi Sunak now thinks he looks sensible by getting rid of it, because it was always pointless. But unlike Theresa May, he actually thought Brexit was a good idea, so it’s not altogether clear where today’s tacit admission that it was indeed a waste of time leaves us.
So what? Most people don’t care and those that do are very nearly past caring. But what people do care about is the endless cacophony of sleaze and scandal that erupts in fortissimo everywhere he turns. Rejigging Whitehall so it suits your priorities – and hoping to see returns in advance of an election in 18 months time – isn’t going to happen.
But one thing you can do, maybe, is do it in such a way so that it dials down some of the endless scandal. There’s not a lot you can do if the chairman of the BBC is having to answer questions about what he did or didn’t have to do with an eight hundred thousand pound loan to Boris Johnson. And there’s not a lot you can do if your other predecessor, Liz Truss, has decided to do a whole round of interviews to remind people that you would have to be deranged to leave the Conservatives in charge of a pet goldfish, never mind a country.
But you can, for example, take this opportunity to quietly remove Dominic Raab from the Department of Justice, given that you will almost certainly have to very noisily remove him in a few weeks time, what with all those allegations about how he left various staff members feeling suicidal.
And another thing you could think about doing is maybe not appointing Lee Anderson as deputy chairman. If you want people to think that things have changed, that you’re a serious party once again, maybe the guy who wants to make people accused anti social behaviour have to live in tents and pick potatoes and be given a cold shower with a hosepipe every morning, is not someone you should be dragging yet further into the daylight. One of the most important roles of the deputy chairman is to organise the party in preparation for an election campaign.
Anderson is already well known for his role in the last election campaign. That was when he achieved real fame. He took Channel 4 News out canvassing with him, and secretly arranged for them one of the random doors they knocked on to actually be his mate’s house. But rather than say glorious things about Lee Anderson, prospective parliamentary candidate for Ashfield, his friend instead decided to tell Michael Crick that – he were are again – people done for anti social behaviour should be made to “wear a pink tutu and get the cat ‘o nine tails.”
It’s not clear whether Sunak is himself even serious about winning the next election. One imagines he is. But it is hard not to conclude that it will not have been made easier, by hiring the least serious man in Westminster.