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All cameras on the new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid


By Tim Le Couilliard

Sajid Javid has been appointed as the new Health Secretary following Matt Hancock’s resignation. In political terms, it is a neat solution to a problem Boris Johnson did not seem to want to have to deal with. It was clear from his exchange of letters with Hancock that the Prime Minister had no intention to sack him and had not pushed him to resign. Bringing back Javid from the backbenches avoided the need for a wider reshuffle that moving people already in government would have caused.

It has not gone altogether smoothly however and it would seem that the Prime Minister is trying to rewrite history over Hancock’s exit. Johnson today said that he had “read the story on Friday and we’ve got a new Health Secretary in post on Saturday, and I think that’s about the right pace to proceed in a pandemic.” Decisive action, you would think. But this is quite the distinct change in tone from Friday morning’s “it's a private matter” and Friday afternoon’s “matter closed” lines. It is also in writing that the Prime Minister had said he was “sorry to receive” Hancock’s resignation on Friday.

Followers of Dominic Cummings on Twitter will no doubt have seen his take on the shenanigans, with the Prime Minister now being referred to as “the trolley” and the suggestion it was “89 Carrie texts p/hour” that led to the U-turn that sees Hancock gone. Cummings has a lot to say on the matter and is being typically anti-Carrie, suggesting that it was her appointment, and playing to the idea of her pulling the strings – or “pushing the trolley”. And yet it is Javid who returns to the government, with Cummings very much still on the outside. Whether or not it was Carrie who suggested the appointment of Javid, it won’t have harmed that Carrie is a close friend of his, having formerly been an adviser to Javid whilst at the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Leaving such speculation aside, the Prime Minister needed a new Health Secretary, with the role about as high profile as it has ever been. For Javid, it is a political rehabilitation after his dramatic resignation as Chancellor last year. Javid left the government suddenly in February 2020, six months into the job and weeks away from delivering his first Budget, following a spat with Cummings who had demanded in the reshuffle that he would need to remove all his special advisers to stay in post, something Javid refused to do on principle. In another of his tweets over the weekend, Cummings explicitly said that he had tricked the Prime Minister into including the clause in the reshuffle that ultimately meant Javid left government. If true, this suggests that the Prime Minister did not want to get rid of him at the time – and Javid probably knew this.

Given the background to Javid’s exit, and that Cummings has moved on (ish), it had been expected for some time that Javid would return in the next reshuffle. He had kept his head down while on the backbenches – the clearest sign of any that he wanted to get back in. That said, he would likely have been placed elsewhere other than Health had he come back in more normal circumstances although now would likely expect to stay in the post until at least the end of the pandemic (whatever that means), and also oversee the health and social care reform required following the last year and a half.

In terms of COVID, Javid’s appointment is being seen as a move away from Hancock’s cautious re-opening approach. Javid said over the weekend that it was his immediate priority “to see that return to normal, as soon and as quickly as possible” and has doubled down today saying that “it is going to be irreversible – there is no going back”. He is certainly optimistic, which is not altogether consistent with his new Department, which went as far as watering down his initial quote in a press release over the weekend. Regardless, Javid’s appointment is being taken as a clear sign that the 19th July ‘freedom day’ will not be moved again, and that he is keen to be guided by the economic as well as the health impacts of this stage of the pandemic. That is no surprise given his former role as Chancellor, but adds a significant and different dynamic to the split of opinion in the core group of ministers making the key decisions on COVID. Javid is to make a statement later today in the House of Commons, when he is expected to set out his stall on COVID unlocking.

That said, much of what Javid is expected to say has already been briefed by his appointee, the Prime Minister, who has said that the roadmap is on track for 19th July. Speaking earlier today, Johnson said that “we think it's sensible to stick to our plan to have a cautious but irreversible approach, use the next three weeks or so really to complete as much as we can of that vaccine rollout”. He went on to say, “and then with every day that goes by it's clearer to me and all our scientific advisers that we're very likely to be in a position on July 19 to say that really is the terminus and we can go back to life as it was before Covid as far as possible.”