Effective cabinet ministers are ones who work out what they want to do in a department on arrival, and then stick to that very small set of priorities whatever the political winds and storms. Michael Gove had this approach in the Education department, setting himself three priorities and then focusing on getting them delivered. Not only did he then replicate this approach in his subsequent Whitehall briefs, but he also inspired other ministers to do the same. Jeremy Hunt, who largely modelled himself on Gove when he became health secretary, also gave himself a small list of things he wanted to do in his time overseeing that brief. Now, it seems Sajid Javid is following suit too.
Today the recently appointed health secretary told MPs what his three priorities were (I'm not sure Gove or Hunt ever talked about theirs in public). Speaking at health questions in the Commons, he said:
“It is an honour to be here for my first oral questions as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and I thank the Prime Minister for bringing me back from furlough. I accepted this role because I love my country and the NHS.I know that I join this department at a pivotal time, and I have three pressing priorities for these critical few months. The first is getting us on the path out of this pandemic. The second is busting the backlog of non-Covid services. The third is putting social care on a sustainable footing for the future.
He also insisted to Labour's Liz Kendall that the third priority would involve the government setting out 'a full plan later this year' after the shadow care minister worried aloud that he might avoid detail in favour of a general sense of direction. It's quite a big ask for any government to set out a full plan to reform social care — as the past few decades of failed attempts have shown — let alone while still dealing with a pandemic as its first priority. But the biggest challenge for Javid will be ensuring that this plan actually ends up on the statute books and enacted.
There have been many, many plans published before. Some have even been voted into legislation. But all have been abandoned for one reason: social care is an expensive and unpopular thing to reform because unless voters have someone they love in the system, they tend to think it is free, and so any proposals end up being deeply unpopular with the electorate.
In this context, each of Javid's three priorities dwarf anything that Hunt or Gove faced when they were in their most successful roles. For him to set them out publicly suggests he has hope he can achieve them — or that he hasn't really thought about the consequences of failing so publicly.