There are two qualities essential for being a successful Cabinet Minister – 1. how effectively you roll out the policy of the government in your department, and, 2. How well you respond to the inevitable but unpredictable crisis that will hit you, demand an immediate response and will help determine your reputation. This weekend the International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, is facing the first crisis of her Cabinet career.
Britain’s UK aid budget is a politically charged subject. UK aid, increased by David Cameron when Prime Minister, is equivalent to roughly 70 pence of every £100 of public expenditure. There are some who think it is too much and others not enough. There are good reasons of principle and value why the UK should spend such money, to help those who are vulnerable and weak is surely the sort of thing most would think the UK should do. There are good reasons of national security and defence of the realm too why money spent effectively on aid overseas helps to keep us safe here at home. Nevertheless there are some Conservatives who do not approve.
When the crisis involves some of our best known charities the matter becomes more complicated. In recent years big charities have become big businesses. Overseas, and indeed here at home too, big charities distribute and deliver a huge number of services and projects. ‘Business bad, charities good’ goes the fashionable, but lazy, mantra. When a big business hits trouble an enormous fuss ensues. When a charity is in trouble….it’s interesting to see who does and does not make a fuss. Nevertheless this weekend Oxfam is clearly under close scrutiny and it falls to Penny Mordaunt to lead the government response.
Often Cabinet Ministers duck and dodge. Civil servants and process are hidden behind. Fudge, delay characterise a response that most people simply do not comprehend – compounding the sense government is not on our side. That, or the shouty, populist, knee-jerk response, designed to attract a favourable tabloid headline. Penny Mordaunt has not succumbed to either of these responses. From the start she responded swiftly, clearly and sensibly, making a series of announcements and ‘doing Marr’. Oxfam have been summonsed in first thing tomorrow for a meeting without coffee to explain themselves. A trained Royal Naval Reserve Officer and the daughter of a paratrooper Ms Mordaunt is a thoughtful but tough operator. Not given to either over or under-responding she has a steely streak to see the job through. So far she has shown a willingness to lead from the front rare in current politics. Oxfam, and other charities in a similar position, need to have good answers if they are not to lose the Minister’s confidence.