LONDON â€” A time of crisis, former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown once said, is â€œno time for a novice.â€ If thatâ€™s the case, then coronavirus came at a bad moment for Boris Johnsonâ€™s Cabinet.
Despite the Conservative Party having been in power for 10 years, the average member of the ministerial team leading the U.K. through its worst public health crisis in a century has just 19 months of Cabinet-level experience. Fourteen out of the 22 have been in Cabinet less than a year, and only one â€” the influential Whitehall fixer Michael Gove â€” is a veteran of David Cameronâ€™s first Cabinet a decade ago.
Such inexperience is unusual in a government led by the same party for so long. One of the main causes? Brexit. The Tory Partyâ€™s civil war over EU membership and the Brexit deal ended or derailed the political careers of a string of senior politicians who in less fractious times would â€” in all likelihood â€” still be in top jobs.
But while Tory MPs and former ministers have expressed disquiet at the â€œsheer inexperience of the Cabinetâ€ (as the conservative commentator Simon Heffer put it in the New Statesman) others question whether experience is everything. After all, the minister who, opinion polls say, is doing the best job in the eyes of the public is Chancellor Rishi Sunak, with just four months of Cabinet-level experience under his belt. And with huge economic and social changes predicted post-pandemic, fresh perspective might be just whatâ€™s needed.
But with the governmentâ€™s actions during this crisis likely to be scrutinized intensely over the coming months, defining Johnsonâ€™s premiership and chances of eventual reelection, questions will continue to be asked about whether he was wise to put his faith in a new-look team at the top.
â€œWeâ€™ve interviewed a lot of former ministers and they always say that going into the job, in whatever conditions, is like moving onto a fast-moving treadmill,â€ said historian Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank. â€œItâ€™s a huge learning curve whenever you take on the job. If you take on the job in crisis conditions, those pressures are going to be far greater.â€
For the government’s critics, the danger of an inexperienced Cabinet is that it invests too much power in too small a team: namely Johnson, his chief adviser Dominic Cummings and a few trusted allies from the former Vote Leave campaign. That concentration of power and strategizing can lead to good ideas not being heard, and bad ideas not being checked.
â€œThe issue is that new Cabinet ministers rarely want to challenge groupthink or indeed the prime minister,â€ said one former secretary of state, speaking on condition of anonymity. â€œAnd you need that to stop mistakes being made.â€
An editorial in the Financial Times last week â€” in the wake of the scandal surrounding Cummings’ alleged breaches of lockdown rules â€”Â accused Johnson of presiding over â€œa bunker of close allies surrounded by a lightweight, supine and largely ineffectual Cabinet chosen mainly for their commitment to Brexit or their loyalty to Mr Johnson.â€
It is not just the relationships within the top team but those with a department that can be tricky in the early days of a Cabinet minister’s tenure, said Haddon. â€œKnowing how everyone around you â€” private office, permanent secretary, your department â€” can help you, thatâ€™s really important,” she said. â€œA crisis is only going to increase the learning curve.â€
But experience isn’t everything, she added: â€œMore important than experience is the ability of a minister to actually learn, and learn rapidly, about their department, about their policy areas, and how to do the job. If you can do that no amount of experience is going to make up for that.”
Or, as one government aide put it, “experience and years served” didnâ€™t help Theresa May and her Cabinet secure a Brexit deal or win a parliamentary majority â€” as Johnson et al. managed in less than a year.
Big beasts on the back benchesÂ Â
Itâ€™s also not unusual, of course, for governments to have totally inexperienced Cabinets when a new party (or parties) takes power after a long time in the wilderness. Cameronâ€™s 2010 coalition or Tony Blairâ€™s 1997 government had next to no actual governing experience anywhere in their ranks (although neither faced a situation as serious as the coronavirus in their first year).
But the inexperience of Johnson’s Cabinet is unusual for a party that has been in power for so long. Brownâ€™s 2010 Labour Cabinet had four ministers â€” including the prime minister himself â€” who were in Cabinet in 2000. Margaret Thatcherâ€™s 1990 Cabinet had three veterans of 1980, including the prime minister and her deputy. Among Johnsonâ€™s team, Gove stands alone of the original 2010 team.
The other Tory big beasts of the 2010s â€” most of them former Remainers â€” have either left front-line politics, or been consigned to the back benches.
The influential Cabinet Office minister has more than seven years of full Cabinet service under his belt, twice as much as the next-most experienced figures, Liz Truss and Natalie Evans. Six members of the Cabinet, including Sunak and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, have just four months of Cabinet experience, accrued since their appointments in February. Another eight â€” including prominent figures like Business Secretary Alok Sharma, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick â€” secured their first full Cabinet jobs under Johnson, who became prime minister in July last year (with two years’ Cabinet experience as foreign secretary from 2016 to 2018).
Meanwhile, the other Tory big beasts of the 2010s â€” most of them former Remainers â€” have either left front-line politics, or been consigned to the back benches.
Cameron quit parliament after the referendum; George Osborne left to become editor of the Evening Standard; May went to the back benches after failing to secure support for her Brexit deal last year; and Jeremy Hunt suffered the same fate after coming second to Johnson in the Tory leadership race.
A number of ex-Cabinet and ex-junior minister Remainers ousted by Johnson â€” like Hunt, Greg Clark, Mel Stride, Tobias Ellwood and Caroline Nokes â€” are now plying their trade as chairs of parliamentâ€™s scrutinizing select committees. Tellingly, of the 22 Conservative MPs that chair these committees, 16 are ex-Remainers and 11 used to serve in government. Under Johnson, they had nowhere else to go.
Cabinet aides pointed out that some of Johnson’s team of ministers â€” such as Grant Shapps and Brandon Lewis â€” have previously held positions that allowed them to attend Cabinet, while not being full Cabinet ministers. Others have had alternative experience at the pinnacle of government; Dowden, for instance, served as Cameron’s deputy chief of staff before becoming an MP in 2015.
As for Gove, his exceptional level of experience (relatively speaking) has seen him rewarded with several key roles at the heart of the government machine as it responds to the pandemic. This week it was announced he will be chairing a new Cabinet committee â€” known as C-19 Operations â€” which will be responsible for putting into action the instructions of another new committee â€” C-19 Strategy â€” that will be chaired by Johnson.
The role mirrors the one Gove held during the governmentâ€™s preparations for a possible no-deal Brexit last year. The fact he has made himself so valuable to Johnson despite betraying him during a previous Tory leadership contest in 2016 goes to show how useful it can be to have a minister with deep knowledge of how Whitehall operates.
Experience, it seems, counts for something after all.