If you haven’t heard of Thérèse Coffey, then this will be — to her — a sign that she has been doing something right.
As Work and Pensions Secretary she has had to sign people on to benefits faster than anyone who has held the position before. If this had gone wrong during lockdown, she would be as infamous as Gavin Williamson. But the system, Universal Credit, managed 1.5 million claims in four weeks. Many things have gone wrong for the government over the past few months, but the welfare system has (so far) held up. Coffey has kept her anonymity.
‘My main task has been making sure that DWP runs effectively. Being in the news would probably be a sign that it wasn’t,’ she says over lunch in The Spectator’s boardroom. ‘I’m a great believer in the DWP being boringly brilliant — or brilliantly boring.’ After just 13 months in the job, she has already lasted longer than her last five predecessors.
Some 5.6 million people now claim the benefit, and her next job is to help them back to work. Coffey believes retraining the workforce could be the solution. She thinks that the aviation industry — from cabin crew and pilots to engineers — is ripe for this given 'the industry themselves think they are going to struggle for a few years and won’t be back into full normal elements until 23/24 at the earliest'. ‘I want to encourage them to perhaps go into teaching or go to college and to be the people who train the next lot of people who are going to do those jobs,’ she says.
And she thinks the social care industry could benefit from workers experienced in customer care such as air hostesses. ‘How do we help draw out of them the transferable skills that they have and that could be working in social care? It may not be their dream job for the rest of their lives. But it may well be very useful: they get more money coming in than if they’re on benefits and it can also provide something really valuable and rewarding so there are those sorts of things where we are going to try and help people think through what it is they can do, even if it is only for the next two to three years.'
She also supports Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for air hostesses to become nurses. ‘I’m sure other cabin crew as well who are male could make equally good nurses. It’s just whether or not people want that as a complete lifestyle change.'
One of the Tories’ big failings in the 1980s was to trap people in an unreformed welfare system, compounding the pain of the initial unemployment hit. As the furlough scheme winds down, Johnson’s government is braced for unemployment to double by Christmas, and some estimates point to four million on benefits. But Coffey isn’t convinced.
‘The Office for Budget Responsibility predicted by now we’d be at 9.1 per cent unemployment and we’re not, we’re at 4.1 per cent. A big difference,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to sound complacent, but we’ve been doing a lot of measures to avoid the levels of unemployment — of three million plus — from 30, 40 years ago.’ The Tories, she says, have learned. ‘We know that investing in people now, trying to help them get back into work — with skills, lifelong learning — all these things will help avoid the really big numbers that others are bandying around.’
In the 1980s she was a teen in Liverpool. Her parents were both teachers and initially ‘immune from that sort of challenge of unemployment directly’. But the antics of the council — Derek Hatton and Militant running loose with redundancy notices — is what pushed her toward the Conservative party. ‘I just thought: what the hell is going on? I was pretty young when all that happened, just 13. But it made me realise who ran your council, who runs the country,’ she says. ‘Margaret Thatcher was doing a great job in the rest of the country, unlike my Labour loony-left council, and I decided she was going to be the lady for me.’
The Tories, now, have a new look. One of Coffey’s tools is a £2 billion Kickstart plan, to get young benefit claimants into work placements. She launched the scheme with Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor. He wore one of his trademark hoodies — this time branded with the Kickstart logo. She ended up doing the same. ‘I hadn’t worn a hoodie for a long time, let’s put it that way,’ she says. ‘I have a slightly different figure to Rishi.’ The hoodie currently sits in her department.
The job of work and pensions secretary has often been viewed as an undesirable one within the Tory party, but it matches with her conservatism. ‘Helping the poorest in society is one of the core missions of the Conservative party,’ she says. As a practising Catholic who has missed mass on a Sunday only six times in her life, Coffey is more relaxed than most politicians when it comes to discussing faith. One of the upsides of lockdown, she says, was online church services: ‘We just basically did a tour of the UK. I’ve become quite fond of St George’s in Taunton, the St Gerard Majella in Bristol — very nice priest there. Northampton Cathedral is pretty good. A church crawl is a bit different to a pub crawl, isn’t it?’
But she can hold her own in a pub too and has a reputation among her colleagues for holding raucous karaoke parties. I ask how she is finding the 10 p.m. curfew. While she says it’s a ‘perfectly acceptable way of doing it’, when probed she adds: ‘I think you ought to probably speak to Matt Hancock about the big rationale behind it.’
She is the second-longest serving Tory work and pensions secretary, but would need to last until the next election to take first place from Iain Duncan Smith. There’s a rumour she confronted the Prime Minister a few months ago at cabinet about reshuffle reports in the press — he told her she wouldn’t be moved anytime soon. When I mention it, she blushes and won’t get into the details of what was discussed, but she does say rumours of hirings and firings are unhelpful, especially in a department where the lifespan of a Secretary of State is measured in weeks and months.
‘I think it’s fair to say if civil servants are constantly seeing that there might be a change in leadership then… it’s not that they down tools, they just might not put quite so much emphasis on some of the latest initiatives,’ she says. ‘And, you know, the truth is, actually, I think the PM has been really good on this. We’ve got a job to do. Let’s get on with it.’