A Cabinet of housing ministersPosted: July 16, 2020
Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on July 16.
We have become so used to lamenting the revolving door for housing ministers that it’s easy to miss the fact that Boris Johnson Cabinet is now full of people with housing connections.
That thought was prompted by the realisation that less than a year ago the man who could very well become our next prime minister was still on the most junior rung of the ladder at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).
Rishi Sunak has won widespread praise for his performance and chancellor during the pandemic and currently seems hot favourite to be the next Conservative leader if the Tories go through another Dr Who-style regeneration ahead of the next election.
In July 2019, though, the current chancellor was still answering questions about council reorganisation in Northamptonshire, anti-social behaviour and non-domestic rates as parliamentary under-secretary for local government.
But he had already boosted his career prospects significantly by signing a joint letter with two other new-ish Tory MPs giving early backing to Boris Johnson as party leader. Appointed chief secretary to the Treasury a year ago next week, he was joined in the Cabinet by the other signatories: housing secretary Robert Jenrick and culture secretary Oliver Dowden.
Previous housing secretary Sajid Javid became the new chancellor but within seven months he resigned in a row with Dominic Cummings over special advisers and Mr Sunak stepped into his shoes.
Within another month, the lockdown began, the new chancellor was doling out the cash and Brand Rishi was building its glossy momentum.
His own ties may be more to the LG end of the MHCLG brief but look around the rest of the Cabinet table and you cannot move for former housing ministers.
Taking them in order, Grant Shapps (May 2010 to September 2012) was the first and longest-serving housing minister under this round of Conservative-led governments and the architect of much of post-2010 housing policy as shadow minister before that. Now he is back at the Cabinet table as transport secretary.
Brandon Lewis (July 2014 to July 2016), though fairly forgettable in the housing brief, is now Northern Ireland Secretary.
Alok Sharma (June 2017 to January 2018) took over as housing minister just days before the Grenfell Tower fire and is now business secretary.
And Dominic Raab (January 2018 to July 2018) is now the most senior of them all as foreign secretary, Mr Johnson’s designated survivor while he was in hospital and one of the other main contenders to succeed him as Tory leader.
That still leaves Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who is now seen as one of the powers behind the throne but was shadow housing minister before Mr Shapps.
Add Mr Jenrick and that means around a third of the Cabinet have housing or MHCLG connections and they serve a prime minister with his own direct experience of housing provision as a former mayor of London.
The housing minister post used to be seen as a bit of dead end – and current incumbent Chris Pincher may yet suffer the same fate as Kris Hopkins and Mark Prisk – but for the moment it seems more like a staging post on the way to bigger things and I doubt there has ever been a Cabinet with stronger housing connections.
All of which should mean that many of the people taking key decisions in the wake of Covid-19 and Brexit will at least be familiar with the issues as far as housing and homelessness are concerned.
But whether that is good news or bad news very much remains to be seen.
If it reflects housing’s new salience as a political issue, that may not produce the answers the housing sector wants since the main government agenda seems to be to liberalise the ‘socialist’ planning system.
Look too at the way that Mr Sunak’s Summer Statement last week introduced a £3.8 billion stamp duty holiday that will overwhelmingly benefit buyers (and so ultimately sellers) in London and the South East but also cut the cost of house purchases for buy to let landlords and second home owners.
The main intention may be to get money into the economy as quickly as possible, regardless of the impact on house prices, but there were choices embedded in its implementation that speak to Westminster’s priorities.
The measure in England triggers additional resources for devolved administrations and the Welsh Government has just announced a tax holiday for purchasers of main homes that excludes landlord and second home buyers and includes a boost in investment in social housing.
And what if the gaggle of former housing ministers with their feet under the Cabinet table merely reflects the lack of talent at the top of a government purged of opposition to Mr Johnson and a hard Brexit?
With due respect to Brand Rishi, is it surprising that a group of politicians who failed to make a dent in our multiple housing crises are collectively making such a ‘world beating’ horlicks of the response to Coronavirus?