We’re sending out the LGC Briefing early today. Normally we send it out at tea time but our only window to write it today is mid-afternoon and everything may have changed by 5.30.
The last 24 hours have been extraordinary, even by recent standards. At the time of writing two cabinet ministers have quit, as well as a host of junior ministers, after the government finally secured its Brexit agreement with the EU. Theresa May is still fighting to save her deal and her job, and both remainers and ardent Brexiteers are emboldened, seeking to capitalise on her weakness.
We remain locked in a three-way wrangle in which every side falls significantly short of a parliamentary majority to get its way. The coming days are likely to determine whether we enter the territory of a full-blown constitutional crisis.
Let’s step back from the madness for a minute and consider the ministers nearest and dearest to us. Dare we say it that the current crop at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government is certainly not the worst we’ve had this decade? As all hell rages around him James Brokenshire is the epitome of calm and his six-month spell as secretary of state has signalled a more constructive engagement with the sector. He has also overseen the triumph for the councils that is the end of the housing revenue account borrowing cap. The trouble is nothing seems permanent these days. Although the odds are on James Brokenshire staying on in his current post, it’s worth remembering that he’s just about the PM’s biggest ally. Ms May could decide that when there are so few ministers she can trust, Mr Brokenshire is too valuable a commodity to remain in a relative low-ranking cabinet job.
We also have Rishi Sunak as local government minister. He is evidently one of the brightest and boldest minds to hold the council finance brief in recent years. Local government should, however, be on red alert that Mr Sunak could be on the move. On one hand he’s talented and surely destined for great things, making him a prime candidate for promotion. But on the other he’s a committed Brexiteer. As recently as January last year Mr Sunak wrote about how the UK should be compared to Andorra, Turkey and San Marino if it makes the “mistake” of remaining within the customs union after leaving the EU. And now we’re doing just that until 2020, under Ms May’s agreement. Mr Sunak was this morning out and about promoting improved public/private partnership schemes – but one might query whether that will be his greatest action within the coming days. Should Mr Sunak depart, it hardly bodes well for the fair funding review, or indeed the ministry’s broader pitch for funding to the Treasury in advance of next year’s comprehensive spending review.
Let’s hope housing minister Kit Malthouse stays put. He’s only been in the housing role – the ultimate ministerial revolving door – since July. Housing needs some stability. Local government may derive some amusement in the fact that his predecessor Dominic Raab’s mere 191-day stint as housing minister (as calculated by LGC) was dwarfed in its brevity by his 129 days as Brexit secretary, which came to an end this morning.
Like Brexit and housing, the Department for Work & Pensions is another epicentre of ministerial churn. Esther McVey’s resignation this morning paves the way for the department’s sixth secretary of state since 2010. It’s just as well universal credit is all going so swimmingly.
While the government has generally been characterised by ministers struggling to make their mark before being reshuffled elsewhere, this cannot be said about Michael Gove. This may not necessarily be a popular thing to say but Mr Gove, still environment secretary at 2.46pm, has certainly made his mark (following an agenda emboldened by David Attenborough, of course) by urging a reduction in plastics pollution. This was all supposed to culminate in the government’s forthcoming publication of a waste strategy. Alas, at the time of writing, it’s speculated Mr Gove could be plugging a Dominic Raab-shaped hole at the Department for Exiting the EU. Should this happen the strategy will inevitably be postponed.
One thing that won’t be delayed is the social care green paper, Caroline Dinenage insisted to the National Children and Adult Services Conference this morning. She told delegates: “As far as I know I’m still the minister of state for care.” Ms Dinenage said the paper would be “extremely green” and address “multiple and multiplying challenges”. The trouble is that one might question the purpose of a green paper if no minister has the longevity in office to translate the long-term thinking set out in a green paper into lasting legislation. The green paper is already, at the time of writing, being overseen by the third minister in its short life. If no one expects the current crop of health ministers to survive, why should one expect any green paper to be followed up by ground-breaking legislation and the non-ducking of tough decisions about resources?
In one sense the latest madness engulfing the parliamentary Conservative party is a step forward. The fate of the Brexit deal will determine whether Ms May’s administration is toast or triumphant. Our money’s on the former. She will either become stronger or someone else will take over. However, it is hard to believe that anyone who could conceivably replace her will be able to bring about stability. Britain will continue to be torn between leave and remain while its two main parties will continue to be divided, even were one of them to win a more significant majority after a general election.
In most countries paralysis at a national level would be the making of local government: the centre cannot govern so the local must seize the initiative. Shorn of power and money our councils face an uphill struggle to do this. But nevertheless any political actor faces an uphill struggle to do anything in Britain right now. It might as well be councils who get us out of this mess.
Let us end this LGC briefing with a nostalgic glimpse back at a tweet from David Cameron, the man who brought about the Brexit referendum, from the eve of the 2015 election.
“Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice - stability and strong government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.”
Things would have had to have been really bad under Ed.
Nick Golding, editor