“Saj = bog standard = chasing headlines + failing = awful for NHS”
So tweeted Government troll Dominic Cummings following the announcement that former Chancellor Sajid Javid was set to take over from outgoing Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Javid was considered by some to be the dark horse in the race to replace Hancock, having abruptly left the Cabinet in shock fashion only 16 months ago. On the news of Hancock’s resignation, many had assumed that the top, somewhat unenviable, job at the Department of Health would go to Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi, or even that former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt might be brought back in to steady the ship. Lest we forget that Javid was just six months into his tenure as Chancellor, and less than a month away from delivering his first budget, when he quit in a Whitehall power struggle with Cummings following his refusal to sack his team of advisers and come under the control of No.10.
Some will speculate as to why Javid got the nod with many politicos, including Cummings, suggesting it was in no small part influenced by his close friendship with the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie Johnson. Whatever the reason, he’s got the job. But what should we expect from the new Health Secretary? Since his appointment, lockdown sceptics on the Conservative backbenches have been keen to suggest he’s one of them, and that his arrival could mark a significant shift in Cabinet make-up in favour of easing restrictions thick and fast. As a former Chancellor, they say, he is vastly more conscious of the impact continued restrictions will have on the economy than Hancock ever was. Certainly, he’s taken a more bullish tone since entering office, telling MPs that in spite of the surging Delta variant, “No date we choose comes with zero risk for Covid” and “We cannot eliminate it, instead we have to learn to live with it.” Music to the ears of the self-titled Covid Research Group.
But what we also know from his former career in banking and time as Chancellor is that Javid is a numbers man, whose decisions are often driven by the data. If cases continue to soar exponentially, he’ll find it hard to ignore what the evidence is telling him, even if he doesn’t like it. Not to mention the fact that he will quickly become acquainted with Whitty, Vallance, et al. who remain highly influential in Number 10. Surely, he won’t want to start his tenure by alienating respected scientific advisers, who have retained much of the public’s trust whilst that in our elected officials has dissipated. Nor will he want to agitate the massed ranks of the NHS, the power of which has only grown over the course of the COVID crisis.
The Saj has a thin line to tread. Undoubtedly with a return to Cabinet he’ll be eyeing another leadership run, and as such won’t want to estrange himself from the parliamentary party who could make him leader. But nor does he want to disaffect the electorate, who polling shows want freedom, but not at any cost. The first three months as a Secretary of State are often the most difficult, and it is likely that in the coming months his success will come to be defined by two areas – the introduction of a vaccination booster campaign, and effectiveness in addressing the huge NHS waiting list backlog that has built up over the course of the pandemic.
Over the course of his political career, Javid hasn’t often stayed in roles long enough to leave a lasting impression. As Secretary of State for Health during a public health crisis, the role could be the making or breaking of him.