Spare a thought for Neil O’Brien. A minister so beige, so junior, that not even his colleagues know he is working with them. At home, he merges into the muted pastel paintwork. So much so that his family aren’t always aware if he’s there or not. So it’s a wonder he even became a minister, given that few had ever seen him, let alone heard of him. But when the Tory government ricochets as often as it does, then almost everyone eventually gets a go. Only the actual braindead remain on the backbenches in the current Conservative party.
O’Brien first came to anyone’s notice when he resigned as a bag carrier at the Department of Levelling Up in the dying days of the Boris Johnson regime. Which came as news to The Convict, who couldn’t remember appointing him. But lightning struck twice and O’Brien was invited back by Rishi Sunak to serve in the most junior possible role in his government, this time in the Department of Health and Social Care. There to be forgotten, as his brief was to do as little as possible.
Which was how things stood on Thursday morning. O’Brien had just been going about his usual daily routine. His weightiest decision whether to have one or two Weetabix for breakfast. Then came the call. Would he report to the Commons at 10.30 to answer an urgent question on the Michelle Mone PPE scandal that had broken the night before in the Guardian?
No one at cabinet level could possibly do it as they had all been up late at the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards the previous evening. Then No 10 had tried to get someone from the Cabinet Office to do it – the UQ had been directed at their office, after all – but no joy. No one was answering their phone.
The same had happened in other departments. Until someone happened to remember that O’Brien was still working for the government in some capacity. His schoolboy error had been to answer his phone. He had tried telling Downing Street he didn’t have a clue about Mone or Medpro PPE, but that had cut no ice. In fact he was told his ignorance would be his greatest asset. Less chance of accidentally incriminating the government. “Take one for the team,” he had been told before the caller rang off.
So it was a queasy-looking O’Brien who turned up for the UQ. A man who looked as if he had spent the previous couple of hours throwing up rather than trying to prepare some answers. The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, got the session under way with a reminder to the house not to mention cases currently under investigation. Labour’s Angela Rayner nodded politely and then went on to more or less ignore him. She wasn’t about to let parliamentary procedure spoil her day.
Rayner began by welcoming O’Brien to the dispatch box. Along with everyone else, she had never met him before, and she wished him well. O’Brien gave a dry heave. Rayner was about the last person he wanted to face for his first time answering a UQ. Someone a little less direct, preferably.
Then she cut to the chase. What due diligence had been done? How come Medpro had been granted a contract via the VIP fast lane? How come tens of millions of public money ended up in private offshore accounts? Why wouldn’t the government publish its correspondence regarding attempts to reclaim the money? What was going on in the Randox scandal? And why was the government wasting £700,000 a day on storing unusable PPE?
O’Brien did his best not to look clueless, but failed. It was like this. You had to remember the panic that engulfed the world at the start of the pandemic. When governments were buying up every item of PPE. Even the bits they didn’t need. And the UK was no exception. So mistakes had been made. But due diligence had been done. About 19,000 companies had submitted bids and only 2,500 had passed the sniff test. Presumably because all the others had offered one left glove and demanded money with menaces. He didn’t say why the Medpro bid was accepted.
But he did want everyone to know there was nothing sinister about a VIP lane. It was just a way of making sure that people with access to Tory MPs were given priority treatment. But they were still subject to the same low levels of due diligence as everyone else. There were no special favours. And getting money back was proving quite tricky. There was no VIP service for the government to reclaim money that had been obtained for worthless contracts. The VIP channel was strictly one-way. The government’s way of reaching out to business.
It wasn’t an exactly convincing performance. And it wasn’t helped by the fact that there were only three Tory MPs in the chamber to back O’Brien up. And of them, Christopher “Upskirting” Chope could be classified as a hostile. Attacking the government for wasting money on PPE that was unfit for purpose. Only Peter Bone and James Wild were helpful. Useless PPE was better than no PPE, apparently. And who cared if some people had made a profit selling rubbish?
After that it was a Labour and SNP pile-on. What was Matt Hancock doing? Apart from going through a mid-life crisis Down Under? Why did there even need to be a VIP lane for Tory mates? When would the government get the money back? Did they remember nurses wearing bin bags? Would there be an inquiry? Come the end, O’Brien looked on the verge of tears. Desperate to get back to obscurity.
Still, O’Brien wasn’t the only one having a bad day. Dominic Raab was on the wrong end of yet more bullying complaints – it would be quicker now to find someone who hadn’t been bullied by him – and allegations that he broke the ministerial code by using his personal email for government business. The transport secretary, Mark Harper, meanwhile, belatedly woke up to the fact that the government might have some part to play in settling the rail strikes. The same went for the health secretary, Steve Barclay, and the nurses’ strike.
We live in a world where the government’s first instinct is to do nothing. The hedgehog principle: roll into a ball and wait to be run over. It feels like the end of days.
A year in Westminster with John Crace, Marina Hyde and Armando Iannucci
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Read More: Tories run for the hills rather than face Labour over Michelle Mone and PPE | John Crace