The Government is gearing up for the comprehensive spending review, which could cull 12% of civil service staff, while still facing crises on multiple fronts writes Paul Montague-Smith.
August. The time when ministers try and get a break before Parliament returns briefly in September ahead of the annual party conference season. All of them praying a crisis involving their department won’t hit, ruining the precious time with the family that they all too rarely get.
The pressures of being a minister are intense, even in normal times. For many, they have been far more so during the pandemic. Last August it was the A-level results fiasco that hit. This year, all seemed to be going comparatively well. True, Gavin Williamson was in the spotlight again, this time over exam grade inflation, but while Tory backbenchers complained, no parent was going to be unhappy about their kids getting more A*s. Environment secretary George Eustice may have been more concerned, under fire for signing a death sentence for Geronimo, a bovine TB infected Alpaca.
Now, of course, the tragedy playing out in Afghanistan has exploded. This time foreign secretary Dominic Raab was accused of lying on the beach when he should have been on a plane home and making an important call, rather than delegating it while the situation on the ground rapidly became more harrowing and difficult for the government to manage by the hour.
As of writing the UK has evacuated some 15,000 people, including Afghans who worked with the military and others at risk. Inevitably many will be left behind. Unlike last year’s exam fiasco though, public support for the Government is unlikely to be affected by how things play out over the days ahead, however grim for those involved. There appears to be a reluctant acceptance that we are at the mercy of US decision-making in this instance – however bad it may be – and that the circumstances on the ground are nigh on impossible to manage.
The fall-out of these events will dominate Parliament’s return on 6 September, as will pressing domestic issues. Supply chain issues haven’t abated and are expected to get worse. Firms are cutting production or product lines in response. The availability and prices of goods, particularly in areas like construction, has become a real issue. As a constraint on recovery and growth, it is something the Government must be concerned about, but they have yet to take the action needed to meet industry group demands.
What will happen with Covid as we head into winter remains highly uncertain. The current weekly death rate is running at around 40,000 per annum – far more than you would see in a bad flu season. A vaccine booster programme needs to be finalised. It looks set to be targeted on the most vulnerable and immunocompromised, but the recent Zoe Covid Study suggesting vaccine effectiveness could go down to 50% after six months is increasing pressure for a comprehensive roll-out. Evidence that fully vaccinated people who catch the Delta variant can be as infectious those who are unvaccinated also undermines the case for the Government’s already fragile plans for vaccine passports for nightclubs and large indoor events.
The Government machine is also gearing up for the Comprehensive Spending Review, expected at the end of October, which will determine departmental budgets for the next three years. The Treasury has told departments to identify cuts in day-to-day spending, including through reductions in headcount. Civil service numbers increased significantly to manage Brexit and the pandemic, and the Government is looking to get back towards the same size it was at the end of the coalition government, which would require around a 12% cull.
Meanwhile there has been more disappointing, if not unexpected, news for Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer. The largest trade union, Unite, elected left-winger Sharon Graham as leader on a 12% turnout, rather than Sir Keir’s privately preferred candidate who came last. Unite’s retiring General Secretary, Len McCluskey, was a Corbynite left-winger and no fan of Sir Keir either, so no change – which many would say is Labour’s enduring problem.