James Frayne: Sajid Javid needs a crisis to show his leadership credentials

Written by James Frayne on 4 July 2018 in Opinion

He may be impressing Tory members but the home secretary hasn't yet shown himself to be a truly top-tier politician.

No cabinet minister wishes for a crisis, but the reality is that Sajid Javid is untested under fire. As the home secretary becomes Conservative party members' first choice for next leader, his biggest challenge is showing he can handle a major political crisis - with an associated media storm - and come out on top. More than anything else, this will convince his colleagues he's ready to lead the Conservative party and indeed the country.

Javid embodies Conservative values. He's got a phenomenal personal story, as the son of a bus driver who made it to university and then into the City where he made his fortune. He's got radical Conservative instincts - as a self-professed lover of Ayn Rand's Fountainhead - that play well with many colleagues and much of the party base. In many ways, he's perfectly positioned to assume the leadership - and his popularity amongst MPs and grassroots grows daily. 

However, to date, he has no proven record of handling crises. Politics is a brutal game and politicians regularly get criticised for things they have little control over, that they could have known little about, or that weren't really their fault. It's unfair, but that's the life they've chosen. And Javid, while realistically not to blame for recent crises, has nonetheless faced criticism for his stewardship of government departments in difficult times.  

As business secretary, his handling of the crisis around Tata's announcement they were planning to leave Wales in the Spring of 2016 was very widely criticised. From the moment it was revealed he was on a holiday in Australia (after a work trip) at the time Tata's board were discussing the future of the Port Talbot plant, there was a perception he was neither in control of the substance of the story, nor the way it played out in the media. And as CLG Secretary Javid was also one of many criticised in national and local government for the failure to rapidly rehouse those affected by the Grenfell fire, and for their policies on fire safety. 

Again, it's unfair to stick the blame for these crises or their handling on Javid. These crises were so serious they ultimately fell under the authority of the prime minister. But the point remains: he hasn't yet shown himself to be a truly top-tier politician.

At the Home Office, it's a near certainty he'll face a crisis soon. This is a department that ends most politicians' careers - with Amber Rudd just the latest in a line of political casualties. But just as it's a department that ends careers, it's clearly a department that can help make them. Theresa May ultimately persuaded her colleagues she was a potential prime minister with her long record of political success there. The same might be true for Sajid Javid. 

When the next crisis comes, Javid has to be ready if not to resolve it then to mitigate it neatly and quickly. He's done a good job dealing with the aftermath of the immigration crisis that saw off Amber Rudd, but he needs to be seen to deal with major problems that arrived on his watch. This is what marks out the really senior politicians from those that only almost made it.

What can be done to prepare? Some of the work that secretaries of state must do here is boring and bureaucratic: horizon scanning; risk registers with "RAG ratings"; and scenario planning war games. While it's not possible to consider every conceivable crisis, it's surprising how many of these crises can be anticipated, and the act of considering these crises and how to respond makes an organisation more effective at dealing with problems as they arise.

The rest of the planning is really down to further honing political skills. This means ensuring he continues to be surrounded by the right spads and policy advisers (and the right civil servants) so he's making the best possible political and policy judgements. It also means ensuring he has a very close relationship with the Permanent Secretary and Directors General in the Department such that when he pulls levers, appropriate action follows.

He's also got to make sure that, the next time a crisis breaks, he really performs at the highest level on the broadcast media. In the past, he's looked way, way over-scripted, excessively contained and ultimately less intelligent and less versatile than he clearly is. He's clearly internalised the point about message discipline but he's taken this too far. He needs to be more relaxed and less formal (even on serious issues).

The Conservative party is lucky to have a rising star like Javid on the verge of a leadership push. If he can prove he's ready to deal with the most difficult challenges he's a genuine contender.





About the author

James Frayne is former policy director at Policy Exchange and founding partner of the public affairs agency Public First.

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