Some thoughts on the appointment of Jo Johnson MP as the head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit.
In terms of ‘big picture’ things, one of the big unknowns is what the Coalition endgame will look like. How will the two parties go about an ‘amicable divorce’ in the run up to the 2015 general election that is due to take place in 2 years time? This is going to become more and more of a public issue as we get closer, when people start asking about party-specific policies. One example of the problems ministers face was illustrated on Newsnight on 23 April 2013 with Education Minister Liz Truss MP – see from 47:40 onwards. In that discussion, Truss wanted to make the point about what her party’s policy was on childcare – something that was inconsistent with Coalition policy. Had Truss been a backbench MP, that wouldn’t have been much of a problem. But being a minister in the Coalition, she is obliged to defend the Coalition line. It’s more of a problem for the Conservatives because they are the majority party by quite some margin.
“Ah – Pooffles! I’ve got an idea! What the government needs is more Etonians!”
I noticed a few right-wing commentators expressing dismay on Twitter at this appointment. It re-enforced the stereotype that only certain people from certain backgrounds can be in the Prime Minister’s inner circle. In the case of Jo Johnson, he was in the notorious Bullingdon Club with George Osborne – as numerous pictures doing the rounds online show. It reminds me of one of the reasons why betrayals in politics are ever so intense – there are many examples of groups of politicians that have known each other since school, if not university. For every favour that one does for another when caught in difficult situations, the greater the bonds are – and thus the greater the force that is needed to break them. By appointing JoJo, Cameron has appointed someone who, in the Westminster Jungle is less likely to betray him because they have known each other for so long.
“Are you saying that he only appointed Jo Johnson because he’s a good chap then?”
Not at all. He’s actually one of the more cerebral Conservatives around, having spent time in postgraduate academia, banking and journalism before going into politics. In Parliament he also doesn’t come across as one of those loud shouty ranty types either. Much more quiet & reserved compared to his more famous elder brother.
One of the things JoJo cannot escape is the shadow of his older brother – in the minds of the media anyway. Will JoJo be able to carve his own niche and be his own man running the policy unit or will people always be looking to compare him to Boris or see him as an uncritical mouthpiece for the Prime Minister?
“What about the Coalition dynamics?”
This is the bit I’m trying to get my head around. JoJo is generally regarded as being on the Ken Clarke wing of the Tory Party rather than on the Bill Cash wing. Hence as far as political disposition goes, he is perhaps the sort of politician the Lib Dems can work with more easily than someone on the opposite wing of the party.
The other part – as Jill Rutter rightly points out, is what sort of accountability JoJo will have towards Parliament. He is currently as assistant whip – with this new role having the title of Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office, a role that is unpaid. (Scroll towards the end here). As far as accountability is concerned, who will JoJo be making policy for? The Conservative Party, or the Coalition Government? If the latter, shouldn’t he be accountable to Parliament in any way? (Is there any precedent for it?). If the former, shouldn’t he be based in Conservative Party HQ rather than in Downing Street whose offices are funded by the tax payer?
For JoJo’s longer term future, I expect he’s en route to ministerial office in a future Conservative administration in the years/decades to come should that be what the voters decide. I also think the same is true for David Miliband – give him 10-15 years and he could well return as a ‘safe pair of hands’ in a future Labour administration – again should that be what the voters decide.
“Yeah, Pooffles, I’m not digging this nepotism and these political families that mix in the same circles”
That is a wider problem with the body politic of the UK. The number of people who studied the same course at the same institution (PPE Oxford) is simply eye-watering. Not only that, it cuts across political parties too.
As an individual appointment, Jo Johnson seems like a reasonable candidate. When viewed in the wider context of the lack of diversity of backgrounds in Whitehall and Westminster, it is a reflection of the problems in politics – something that was discussed at Teacambs this week. As it turned out, we had a number of new faces – most of them women, all of the latter being from non-political and non-public administration backgrounds. The scrutiny that they gave to the representatives from Ipswich Borough Council and Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue was eye-opening. The reason being not because of their questions were specific to their gender, but more around their life experiences. Many of their questions were ones that I’d have never thought of – and it really made those from inside the public sector there pause and think about their current social media approach.
The link to wider diversity issues
This is the wider point about diversity. It’s not about box ticking or hoping that if you have a woman in the room or someone from a minority ethnic background or from a working class background you’ll ‘cover’ those issues you think are in those boxes. Part of the challenge in using social media to engage with the general public, finding out both what they already know but also more importantly what they do not know – & changing your approaches accordingly.
What will be interesting in the run up to the 2015 general election is the levels of openness & diversity all of the mainstream political parties are when it comes to policy-making and formulating their manifestos. The reason being is that over the past few decades, manifestos have been put together by smaller more tightly-controlled cliques. Given the scale of the problems that we are facing, and the pressures from social media users (and the change of expectations), that approach is now obsolete.
One question/challenge that Jo Johnson will face is whether he’s going to focus on the policies, or whether he will look at the structures of policy-making within his own party. Does he have the remit to look at how that can be made more transparent – perhaps similar to how Labour are trying with their Your Britain programme? How much control are those at the top of politics prepared to relinquish to their grass roots?