Way Down In The Hole
This week: it’s reshuffle-a-go-go! Also, I take a trip to visit what will one day be the UK’s largest new railway station, but is currently, well, a hole.
In October 2008, barely a year into a financial crisis that in many ways has not yet abated, Peter Mandelson returned to Cabinet as business secretary. One unnamed minister described Gordon Brown’s decision to resurrect one of his nemesis’s closest allies as “a bold masterstroke politically – and it might even work electorally”.
Strangely enough, though, the elevation of Baron Mandelson of Hartlepool to the peerage did not save the government from political annihilation just over 18 months later. In retrospect, his late return to the Cabinet table has rather the feeling of a circle being closed, of the exciting return of long-written out lead characters for the thrilling final season of New Labour. The move looks less like a fresh start for a newly united party than the beginning of the end.
Anyway, with a maximum of 440 days to go before the next election1, Rishi Sunak has enobled another former series lead. (You can almost see the “And DAVID CAMERON as FOREIGN SECRETARY!” bit at the end of the credits.) This, too, was a bold political masterstroke, in the sense that nobody had the faintest idea what it might mean and so it distracted us from Suella Braverman for nearly a whole day.
But it seems unlikely that this will be paying electoral dividends either. For one thing, Cameron is – another parallel with Mandelson, alas – not actually remotely popular. YouGov polled the public when the new foreign secretary first hinted at an interest in the role back in 2018: it found that the public objected to the notion by 53% to 22%. Today, the same pollsters’ tracker shows him with lower net popularity than John Major, Theresa May, or even Boris Johnson, and on a par with Rishi Sunak. (He does, at least, roundly beat Liz Truss, but so does syphilis.)
This is not especially surprising. It was Cameron’s government that laid the groundwork for everything that’s gone wrong these last few years, wrecking the state through slump-inducing austerity, calling a ruinous referendum to settle an internal party argument, and accidentally handing Johnson a ladder in the process. He’s even implicated in some of the problems that hit the health service during the pandemic via, yes, austerity once again. The new foreign secretary may look almost statesman-like compared to those who followed, because he led the Conservatives when they were still a party of government, rather than a sort of random culture war grievance generator. But nonetheless, the country’s in a mess because of him: we are all suffering from Long Cameron.
Sacking Braverman, and bringing back Cameron, are clearly moves calculated to make a pitch for the centre ground the party has largely abandoned (to park its tanks on Labour’s lawn, as the papers nauseatingly prefer to say). And Sunak has finally fulfilled one of his five pledges, as inflation has fallen below 5%. It seems likely we are in for another of those “Whisper it, but some think the Tories might do it” narrative shifts that a lobby bored out of its mind by the prospect of another year of waiting likes to inflict on us every couple of months.
But it seems just as likely that, as with the last few Rishi Revivals, this is not going to show up in actual polling any time soon. Prices are still up 16% in two years, food inflation remains over 10%, and mortgage rates are through the roof: “Your standard of living is falling at a slightly slower rate” is not an election winning pitch. The government is in a hole – and it’s going to take more than bringing back the guy who dug it in the first place to get them out of it once again.
Schrodinger’s Rail Terminal: A trip to Old Oak Common
Would I like to visit the site of Old Oak Common railway station, currently under construction in the wilds of darkest west London? asked a recent email from HS2 Ltd. Yes, I would like to: I would like to very much. Site visits are fun, and donning high viz, steel toe capped boots, a hardhat and so on makes me feel like my dad. More than that, when I visited a tunnel boring machine then gnawing its way through Buckinghamshire in the autumn of 2021, I had something akin to a religious experience at the scale of the human ingenuity on show under the Chilterns. Obviously I would like to. I didn’t even have to think about it.
And so, on a freezing rainy day last week, I pulled on my glad rags, and began the long trek across the capital to visit the capital’s most exciting new construction project.