Being forced out of the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer has emboldened a “much braver” Sajid Javid to “make his mark” as Health Secretary, according to friends and colleagues.
As one of the Cabinet’s most experienced ministers – and a lockdown sceptic – his surprise appointment as Matt Hancock’s replacement looks set to tip the balance in favour of fully lifting the coronavirus restrictions on July 19.
While his predecessor was one of the most “dovish” members of Boris Johnson’s top team, Mr Javid, 51, is best described as a “hawk” who has expressed doubts over shutting down the economy from the very beginning.
It was telling that the MP for Bromsgrove on Sunday made a point of insisting his “most immediate priority” would be getting the country “out of this pandemic,” as he released his first statement in his new post.
According to one well-placed source: “He’s a real lockdown sceptic. He’s convinced that in a few years time, with the economic costs so high, everyone will be thinking ‘Why the hell did we do that?’. The tilt in the cabinet has just shifted quite considerably.”
While Dominic Cummings wasted no time in twisting the knife, boasting on Twitter of having “tricked’ the Prime Minister into ousting Mr Javid as Chancellor in 2020 and claiming Carrie Johnson was behind his latest appointment, sources insist he isn’t actually that close to Downing Street’s “first lady”.
“He’s on good terms with Carrie,” said one insider. “But this is more about his relationship with Boris. He just felt he couldn’t say no to the Prime Minister at a time of national crisis. Boris knew on the night Sajid resigned that he’d made a terrible mistake and he has been apologising for it ever since. They’ve been in regular contact and now he’s given him arguably the second biggest job in government.”
With the coronavirus recovery programme just one part of a overflowing in-tray, Mr Javid will also have to get to grips with NHS pay, the Government’s ambitious hospital building programme, and the thorny issue of social care.
So where does the man famous for his power stance stand on the key policy areas?
It seems unlikely Mr Javid will be pulling any punches when it comes to lifting the lockdown restrictions next month, with Freedom Day already having been delayed by a month.
As one Tory colleague pointed out: “The guy gave up the Chancellorship; what’s he going to lose now? But he’s facing the biggest challenge of his life. I can’t think of any other cabinet job that’s harder. Thankfully he likes a challenge.”
But just how much will be challenging the status quo, amid criticisms Downing Street has fallen victim to scientific “group think” over lockdown?
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His recent experience chairing a Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) Commission on child sexual exploitation (CSE) is likely to have a huge bearing on Rochdale-born father of four’s approach.
“When he oversaw that CSE report, he saw in real time what the impact Covid has had on those most struggling,” said a source who worked on the project with him. “He saw the issue being described as saving lives versus saving the economy, when what he was trying to say was, it was about saving lives versus saving other lives. He’s seen the damage caused by lockdown and will not want to prolong it.”
It also helps that he has the support of most of the backbenches, who respect him for his dignified departure.
Although Mr Javid has said nothing publicly about masks, with cabinet colleagues like his successor Rishi Sunak and George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, admitting they want to ditch them as soon as possible, the new Health Secretary is likely to favour a more discretionary approach moving forward.
“He’ll listen to the scientists but he’ll be much more practical and much less officious,” said a fellow MP who knows him well. “I think he thought Hancock was too commandeering.”
Another source familiar with his modus operandi said he would not be afraid of expressing his view, even if it is contrary to the No 10 consensus.
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“I think he’ll be bolder now,” they said. “I think he realises he had been a bit too cautious as a politician. I found it interesting that he was one of the first people to back Biden. He used to go with the wind a bit but he went against the grain during the last US election and called it early. I think we’ll see more of that sort of independent thinking.”
A friend, who confirmed that Mr Javid had taken the job even after Laura, his wife of 24 years, had expressed reservations, agreed: “He’s a lot wiser than he used to be. He’s also learned that there are a lot of bastards in politics. I think he’s less the businessman than he was and he’s now far more canny.”
Furlough and the economy
Mr Cummings claimed on Saturday that had “useless” Mr Javid still been Chancellor, the Treasury would have had "no furlough scheme".
While sources insist he would not have been opposed to furlough, the former vice-president of Chase Manhattan Bank and Deutsche Bank has made no secret of his long-held belief in Thatcherite fiscal discipline.
A Tory supporter since the 1980s, in 1990 he got into trouble for handing out leaflets opposing the decision to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism. When he was elected as an MP in 2010, he reportedly gave up a £3 million salary to earn just under £66,000 a year. His bus driver father Abdul Ghani-Javid arrived in the UK in 1961 with a £1 note in his pocket.
Having described George Osborne as a mentor, he cut his political teeth in the Treasury, where Sunak was once his protege.
So will he be minded to meddle in economic policy?
According to one former minister: “His focus will be on NHS and getting funding for NHS. He will see matters like furlough as Rishi’s turf.”
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When the Chancellor delivered the spring budget in March, Mr Javid urged his successor to look at the scope for spending cuts. "The faster our economy can bounce back, the easier it will be to manage our debt in the future," he said.
Yet with one insider revealing he is “worried about interest rates”, it seems unlikely he would support any further extension of the furlough scheme beyond September.
“He’s very nervous about the cost of Covid mounting and making borrowing unaffordable in the future,” added the source.
Mr Javid was Communities Secretary when he was given less than 24 hours notice that Theresa May was including the so-called “dementia tax” in the Conservative Party Manifesto in 2017.
Along with Jeremy Hunt, then the Health Secretary, the two men responsible for social care were kept in the dark over the disastrous plan, which would see the costs of residential and domiciliary care taken from the estates of pensioners bar a final £100,000.
It proved so unpopular with the public it was changed within four days, but it still ended up costing the former Prime Minister her majority in the Commons.
While Mr Javid gained a reputation for getting the Treasury to cough up cash that year, famously securing £28 million for Housing First, a homelessness project, he is more aware than most of the pitfalls of launching a big reform in the middle of a parliament.
According to one former colleague: “While there is no doubt Sajid will look to do a number of far-reaching reforms, I think he’s of the opinion we are at completely the wrong stage of the parliament now to suddenly launch a new social care strategy. He thinks the Tories need another election victory so they’ve got another four or five year term to do it properly.”