Thursday 10 March 2022

Can dancing solve Johnson's problems?


In 1976, the UK suffered a severe and prolonged period of drought. Eventually, things got so bad that the PM at the time, James Callaghan, appointed a Minister for Drought, Denis Howell, who apparently, amongst other things, was ordered by Number 10 to do a rain dance on behalf of the whole UK. Three days later, it started raining, the UK suffered widespread flooding – and he rapidly found himself ‘promoted’ to Minister of Floods. I’m sure that I’m far from being alone in suspecting that neither his appointment nor his rain dance (if he ever did it) had much to do with the change in the weather. (In three days, the civil service had probably not even managed to find him an office or staff, let alone research the detailed etiquette of a rain dance.) However, appointing a minister to take specific responsibility for a problem area on behalf of the government has become something of a fall back position ever since. Apart from anything else, it gives the PM someone to blame instead of having to take the flak himself.

In the light of the appalling mismanagement, confusion, and downright lies surrounding the handling of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, Boris Johnson has this week resorted to the same sleight of hand. Despite the headline, he hasn’t created a new minister at all, merely appointed one; whatever his own wishes on the matter, creation isn’t part of his powers even under the royal prerogative. It’s come at a heavy price to him – by choosing someone outside parliament to take on the role of Minister for Refugees, he’s been forced to ennoble yet another of his mates, further expanding the unelected house of parliament. No doubt the new minister will need time to settle in, be found an office, desk, and a few staff, and determine his terms of reference as a new sub-department is carved out at Westminster, and all that before getting down to the job in hand. Somehow, I doubt that he will turn out to be quite as lucky as Denis Howell; with or without a ministerial dancing act, this is not a problem which is going to resolve itself in three days. Still, things could be worse – Johnson could have appointed an existing peer, such as Baron Lebedev of Siberia, to take on the role. Now that would have shown Putin that he means business. Whose business is a whole other question.

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