Sajid Javid. Who doesn’t know the rags-to-riches backstory? The immigrant parents, the local comp and FE college, the BA in economics and politics at Exeter, the stellar career in international banking, the 98% pay cut to become an MP, the rapid ascent of the ministerial ladder, culminating in his becoming home secretary and then chancellor – only to resign when he was done over by Dominic Cummings.
But now that “The Saj” (does anyone ever really call him that?) is back in the great game, replacing Matt Hancock as health and social care secretary (not officially one of the so-called great offices of state, though after the past year and a half it surely should be) what should we expect? Ayn Rand or Florence Nightingale? A neo-Darwinian who’s hellbent on opening up the economy come what may; or a humanitarian numbers-nerd intent above all on saving lives?
To hear some of the early chatter, especially in those Tory-supporting newspapers whose neoliberal ideology (along with their advertising-based business models), has seen them continually urging Boris Johnson to go further and faster in easing restrictions, the new health secretary is very much in their camp. Cue the proverbial “well-placed source” telling the Daily Telegraph that “he’s a real lockdown sceptic …the tilt in the cabinet has just shifted quite considerably”.
Certainly, Javid’s initial public pronouncements could be readily spun in this “hawkish” vein. He might have begun by dashing the frankly absurd hopes of some Tory backbenchers in the self-styled Covid Recovery Group for an even earlier end to what they see as the nanny-state equivalent of martial law. But, by all but confirming full reopening on 19 July in spite of the recent surge in cases driven by the Delta variant, Javid’s words must still have been sweet music to their libertarian ears: “No date we choose comes with zero risk for Covid,” he told the Commons. “We cannot eliminate it, instead we have to learn to live with it.”
The fact that he then went on to declare that “my task is to help return the economic and cultural life that makes this country so great” can only have added to their mounting excitement, especially given that his rider – “while of course protecting life and our NHS” – appeared to have been added almost as an afterthought.
Those already inclined to worry about Javid’s appointment will also point to the fact that, be it during his initial rise to the top or his subsequent 18 months in the relative wilderness, he appears to have demonstrated no great interest in any of the issues for which he is now responsible. Indeed, they could very well argue that, as a former Conservative chancellor (and an ex-junior Treasury minister under George Osborne), the man now charged with finding the resources to tackle the enormous backlog of procedures and pressure for pay increases facing the NHS, is at his happiest when saying “no” rather than “yes, we can!”
Yet this might be premature. For one thing, Javid isn’t the cardboard cut-out Tory austerian he’s sometimes made out to be. In 2019, he was not slow to acknowledge the case for promising a significant increase in health spending in the Tory manifesto that year. For another, not only is Javid more of a pragmatist than people give him credit for, he knows that the minority community from which his own family comes has been hit harder than most by Covid-19.
As a result – and because he is also one of the few ministers around the cabinet with a genuine affinity for numbers and data – Javid is no more likely than the much-maligned Hancock to ignore whatever the evidence seems to be telling him, even if he doesn’t always like it.
In any case, in the end, no health secretary is an island. Javid may be in a virtually unsackable position right now. But he will not want to start by alienating his top scientific advisers, or the massed ranks of the NHS and its powerful policy community – not if he wants to make a success of his new job.
Javid is also an elected politician. He’s bound to fancy another tilt at the leadership some day, so of course his parliamentary colleagues – many of whom are lockdown sceptics – matter. But so too do the voters. And polls show that, while most of us are looking forward to more freedom, we don’t want it at any price.