The rumour was that Matt Hancock’s departure became inevitable when the rest of the frontbench refused to go out and support him. Even so, it felt a bit iffy that, of a few words mangled by Sajid Javid, in his first performance as the new health secretary, the first was the prefix “honourable” to the MP for West Suffolk. Dude, nobody’s asking you to go out and bat for the man. You just have to get the letters in the right order.
It was a performance with a difference from Javid, the difference being that he basically said “yes” to everything. Where it wasn’t a yes, it was a hard confirm. He was the TSB of health secretaries, the man who says yes not because you’re his brother-in-law but because he likes to. It will unfold over time what this pile-up of yessing actually means – will he give NHS staff a pay rise? Yes, it will certainly be a “fair” settlement – but before he greeted thirty brisk questions in the affirmative (a pass for Richard Burgon’s, but we’ll come to that), there was the business of his speech.
Nothing at all that we didn’t already know, nothing even that we didn’t know back on 14 June, when we first learnt that stage four of the road map would be delayed. It is still slated for three weeks hence, and if that comes as a surprise to anybody, it’ll be those who now routinely disbelieve everything the prime minister says, and are looking for the angle. In other words, all of us. There is no angle. 19 July remains Freedom Day. Is Sajid looking forward to it? Yes!
Otherwise, vaccines are a huge success and the best way to avoid a disease remains being vaccinated against it. Javid knows this because he’s been to St Thomas’ hospital, once to see the spirit of public service embodied in its staff, once to see the vaccination centre, once to hear directly the challenges it has faced and continues to face. It is unclear whether these were three visits or one, and unclear too whether he knows that we know how close the hospital is to his workplace. He was probably saluting the vaccination clinic from Committee Room 10.
Javid nodded towards his very well-documented Ayn Rand fetish – famously, he reads the courtroom scene in the Fountainhead aloud at least twice a year – when he talked of the restoration of freedoms, “freedoms that save for the gravest of circumstances, no government should curtail.” In other words, we’ll definitely all be free, soon and forever, so long as nothing bad happens. Would he prefer nothing bad to happen? Yes!
MP after MP piled in to celebrate his appointment, and you could see their point, it was definitely preferable to the other option, Hancock remaining in post. But it was all a bit breathy and King Lear, which of them doth say they love him most? For the record, it’s Theresa Villiers. Richard Drax, conservative MP for West Dorset, was the more sonorous (welcoming him to his “rightful place”, like an exiled hero), but Villiers really gave it some welly.
The one Cordelia was Richard Burgon, who pointed out that Javid had done very well from the pandemic, earning a high hourly rate for consultancy, and wouldn’t it be hypocritical if he didn’t award NHS staff a pay rise, in light of his own accumulating riches? It didn’t quite land: not because medics don’t deserve a raise, but because it was one of eight questions asking the same thing. Sure, it’s Westminster and they do things differently there. But haven’t any of these people ever been to a pub? Is there not an argument that, however good your point is, if someone’s already made it, it’s no longer good?
Social care, schoolchildren self-isolating, NHS pay, backlogs in cancer and other care. The same questions came up again and again, and it may only have been noticeable because the health secretary was so fervently in agreement with all of them, but it ultimately reinforced the ritualistic pointlessness of the discourse. Not so much Socratic questioning as the call-and-response you’d get in a panto. Catherine West, Labour’s quiet radical MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, did ask a decent question about outsourcing GP surgeries to American health behemoths. Would Javid reassure her that he intends to keep the NHS public? Be assured, ladies and gentlemen. “It’s something I cherish and will continue to support.” The substance of his very fulsome yesses is a bit more ambiguous than the yes itself.
John Redwood, posing a boring question remotely on air extraction (“Would he encourage work on it to stop disease transmission?” “Why, yes!”), had taken a Zoom tutorial from Dracula, with the camera pointing up into his dark satanic chin, so that cheered things up a bit. An early pioneer of the power pose, he always seemed to embody the worst of modern conservatism, the preening Americanisms, the insultingly basic manipulations. Unfortunately, what came after him, post-Cummings and his hit job, was so very much worse that now Javid looks like an absolute prince. Give it a couple of weeks and this will pass. Which is more or less what he said about the rates of coronavirus.