Below please find key take-outs from our November 13th panel with Lord William Hague, Former Foreign Secretary and Teneo Senior Advisor; Camilla Tominey, Associate Editor of The Daily Telegraph; Dr. Philippa Whitford MP, Scottish National Party MP for Central Ayrshire; Vernon Bernard Bogdanor, British Research Professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History at King's College London; and chaired by Principal of Teneo’s Situations and Politics practice and former Downing Street Director of Politics and Communications, Craig Oliver.
- The departure of Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings has been the shock news rocking Westminster this week. Whilst the pair, along with the broader vote leave cohort, were unrivalled campaigners the panel recognised a different skillset was required for running the complex machine that is Government and they failed to make the transition. At the same time, we should remember we have heard stories about Cummings’ departure before. We don’t yet know whether he will step back completely or continue to serve in another, potentially more informal, capacity. Two suggestions this morning are that Cummings could retain “a hot desk” in No.10, and that he may have his eye on running the “ARPA-style” advanced research organisation he has been pushing the Government to establish as part of its increased investment on R&D. But equally, a fresh face may decide against taking forward Cummings’ pet project, after all it requires significant funding and there is already a UKRI capability.
- Whilst the divisions in Downing Street have generated some difficult headlines for the Prime Minister, this move could provide the “reset” moment Boris has been looking for. Ministers will now feel free to do their jobs without interference from the centre. It is notable so many MPs (including Ministers and the Cabinet) are delighted with the news of his departure, and there is hope amongst backbenchers that a decline in the influence of the “Vote Leave” group within No.10 and some positive reconciliations could now improve relationships with the parliamentary party, as well as ensuring MPs have a better chance of being listened to. With a reshuffle expected in the spring, the panel suggested the PM could cement this by bringing back some of the party’s moderates, including Jeremy Hunt, back into government as well as harnessing the expertise of senior Conservative backbenchers like Iain Duncan Smith.
- Whilst the pandemic has clearly strained relationships in Downing Street, more worrying is how it has tested the Union. Nicola Sturgeon has notably improved the SNP’s poll ratings for her handling of the pandemic, and the tenor, tone and timing of her announcements has sought to send a clear signal of the differences between her and Boris Johnson. The panel heard that on test and trace, procurement and the role of the NHS, the SNP felt things should have been done differently.
- But the impact on the Union extends beyond Scotland. The Covid-19 crisis has given renewed profile to regional politicians, most notably Andy Burnham. Whilst the panel felt the steam had been taken out of the devolution agenda since George Osborne left No11, it is inevitable we will have a significant debate about our constitutional settlement – especially in the run up to and following next May’s Scottish elections.
- The panel were optimistic Joe Biden’s election could rekindle a spirit of globalism and international co-operation. Whilst the travails of Brexit have created an impression the UK is withdrawing from the world, the panel were unusually optimistic this could change as we approach COP26. One member of the panel even highlighted the opportunity for multi-lateral engagement with China in the run up to the conference as they are due to host the U.N biodiversity summit later this year.
- Finally, we heard the events of the last couple of months have had one very unpredictable consequence. Last week saw Lord (William) Hague, Lord (Ken) Clarke and Lord (Michael) Howard all voting the same way on a question about Europe, against the government, during the House of Lords debate on the Internal Markets Bill. If Boris can bring these three grandees together on Europe, surely, he can bring his party together post Cummings.