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Sun 20 September 2020
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With Gavin Williamson facing no repercussions over the exams algorithm shambles, Alex Andreou argues that the more incompetent a minister is, the more likely they are to do well under this administration

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It is supremely ironic for this Government to be so preoccupied with the spectre of unmerited qualifications. For never has a group of such ill-qualified individuals held such high office. Anyone dismissing the dangers of grade inflation needs to look at the current Cabinet as its consequence. 

A clear pattern is beginning to form. Whenever there is a major fiasco necessitating a U-turn, three things happen: Boris Johnson disappears, the minister involved stays put, a proxy is blamed. In time, Downing Street will announce that it “considers the matter closed“.

And so it is with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and the exams scandal.

The convention of individual ministerial responsibility – the notion that if things go horribly wrong in your department, on your watch, you walk – collapsed long ago. Lord Carrington was the last to do ‘the honourable thing’ in 1982 (with the possible exception of Estelle Morris in 2002, paradoxically over an ‘A’ Level marking snafu, much more anodyne than Williamson’s). But at least ministers usually have the decency to make a case for why this was an administrative, rather than a policy, mistake.

These ministers are sandbags of incompetence, keeping at bay a rising tide of moral outrage. Why would those at the top kick them over?

We’ve had no such explanation from Williamson. Asked again and again by interviewers whether he had offered his resignation or even considered his position, he did a Blackadder-trying-to-avoid-the-order-to-advance impersonation. “Sorry, Sir? Bad line. Schnell, schnell, kartoffeln!”

What has been more surprising is how poorly the affair was judged politically. It was instantly obvious, from the moment Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon walked into a press conference and told assembled journalists that using an algorithm had been the wrong thing to do, that Downing Street’s position was untenable and a U-turn inevitable. This has, after all, been a Government of U-turns – three of them within Williamson’s brief.

Yet he opted to carry on blithely for days, allowing the wrong grades to be issued, resulting in a university admissions nightmare, before he appeared on our television sets saying how sorry he was, but blaming everyone except himself. The decision to dig his heels in wasn’t Ofqual’s judgement and it wasn’t a civil servant’s advice – it was him. 

Then there was Williamson’s claim that the first he knew of the problems with the algorithm was last weekend. Indisputable evidence emerged that he was warned of precisely the risks which materialised six weeks ago by a top civil servant and had a meeting to discuss them. 

So the question becomes: what will it take for Boris Johnson to sack someone? 


Integrity and Competence Unnecessary

Part of the problem is a complete lack of moral authority at the top. How can an administration installed in part by nefarious donations sack Robert Jenrick for doing favours to a donor? How can Johnson – fired twice for lying – sack anyone for being less than truthful? How can Dominic Cummings – who drove up and down the country during lockdown – force anyone to resign for breaking the rules

These ministers are sandbags of incompetence, keeping at bay a rising tide of moral outrage. Why would those at the top kick them over? The tide will only start lapping at their incompetent ankles. They are a serpentine series of dominoes, each frantically supporting the tile ahead, because they know what happens if it falls. 

The other part of the problem is that Johnson cannot sack someone for reasons they weren’t hired. Integrity and competence were never part of the brief when it comes to Williamson, who was fired by Theresa May for leaking information from the National Security Council. Liz Truss, one of the most perplexingly over-promoted choices, has taken to deleting trade meetings from the register, as ‘personal’.

Rishi Sunak is much more likely to be squeezed out – for being too good – than Gavin Williamson, for being unremittingly awful.

Priti Patel was elevated to one of the great offices of state, after being sacked by May, for having a series of unofficial business meetings with Israeli officials and misleading the then Prime Minister about them. When her most senior civil servant left the department over her alleged bullying, nobody batted an eyelid. Even Liam Fox, who quit David Cameron’s Cabinet in disgrace, is making a comeback as the UK’s preferred candidate to take over as head of the World Trade Organisation.

The only incentive to sack a Cabinet member is a genuine belief that a replacement will improve the overall quality of the decision-making group. In a Cabinet of nincompoops, headed by a shyster, sacking one less-than-ideal minister, simply advances the next less-than-ideal minister into the crosshairs. A minister knows full well that they need only wait a couple of days before another minister does something outrageous – and they are off the hook.

Three criteria appear relevant for Cabinet eligibility: blind loyalty to the Brexit cause, complete obedience to Cummings, and not being seen as a potential rival to Johnson.

The only prominent Cabinet member forced to resign was the Chancellor Sajid Javid – because he had a high profile and wanted to retain a level of independence. On this calculation, Rishi Sunak is much more likely to be squeezed out – for being too good – than Gavin Williamson, for being unremittingly awful.

Anger and resistance has been built into the calculation. I must have heard ‘surely, Williamson has to go’ a hundred times over the past week. There is no more ‘surely’ with this Government. It is Government by trolling. The angrier we get at it, the more convinced it becomes of its success.


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