WALTER CRONXITE on a belated move up Westminster’s greasy pole for a Croydon career politician
In a busy few days for the new Prime Minister, Theresa May obviously found the time to read Inside Croydon.
That’s the conclusion after Gavin Barwell, the Conservative MP for Croydon Central, was named as housing minister and minister for London under Sajid Javid at the local government department in the tranche of Government appointments released late last night.
On Thursday, we wrote: “A senior position for Barwell at DCLG (local government) would be a plus for the government… the new Prime Minister might see Barwell as a way of storing up some political advantage of her own: rather than promoting a Tory from the shires, giving a ministerial job to an MP from a gritty urban London seat, such as Barwell, might help to give some credibility to May’s expressed desire to reach out to all voters”.
Barwell reacted to his new job this morning by saying, “Hugely honoured to have been asked by the Prime Minister to serve as Minister of State for Housing and Planning and Minister for London.
“Look forward to working with councils, housing associations, developers and investors to ensure we build the homes people need and deserve and to working with the Mayor of London to ensure the continued success of our wonderful, diverse capital – and that all Londoners share in it.”
For Barwell, who has spent four years in the Tory whips’ office, this will be regarded as an overdue promotion. But it comes with some obvious consequences for him and his constituents.
No longer will he be able to hide behind his whip’s status for his failure to speak up in parliament on behalf of the people of Croydon.
And being housing minister will undoubtedly call him away from his constituency much more – not the kind of distraction which someone who needs to cover his own back in a marginal seat will enjoy between now and the next General Election.
The London part of his brief, too, will present “challenges” for the Tory MP, as he will be dealing with the new Labour Mayor of London who is making increasingly loud calls for greater devolution to the capital, and its anti-Brexit stance, in contrast to May’s Government, where “Brexit means Brexit”.
How, too, will Barwell reconcile his position as housing minister and the need to deliver tens of thousands of new homes with some of his local campaigning, after he spent the past year as a constituency MP stirring up the people of Shirley to oppose the building of… new homes?
His new job will present Barwell with other problems. His conflicts of interest, apparent during his time embedded on the board of the Whitgift Foundation, when the MP was enthusiastically lobbying for Westfield and their plans for the town centre, could soon recur.
If the latest Hammersfield plans for an enlarged, £1.4 billion scheme, now with 1,000 high-rise homes, does not come through the local council’s planning committee unscathed, there’s a chance of an appeal by the developers crossing the desk of the new housing and London minister.
The new job will also allow Barwell the opportunity to act in his own interests.
It is the communities and local government department which handles the rules about such matters as online polling for a directly elected mayor in Croydon – the job which, prior to this weekend’s appointment, career politician Barwell had started to target for his post-2020 political career. Within the DCLG, it is hard to imagine Barwell not exercising some influence over the powers devolved to a London borough which opts to have a directly elected mayor.
If Barwell is to make a success of his housing portfolio, much will depend on the Treasury’s attitude post-Osborne, and that of his new boss, the previously uncompromising Javid.
As one professional working for a housing association in south London told Inside Croydon this morning, “I fear the ‘dream team’ of Javid and Barwell is not going to be a winner. Assume it will more of the same, inheriting the awful Housing and Planning Act.
“Unless he’s taken seriously by the Treasury, he’ll struggle.”
The 2016 Housing and Planning Act is the new legislation which sees the Tories force social housing providers – charities and housing associations – to make their rental property subject to Right to Buy – a policy which most working in the sector believe will make the shortage of truly affordable homes even more acute. Does Barwell have the balls to be the Tory minister who sets his face against one of the most popular Thatcherite policies?
Barwell might not have to if May’s premiership signals the end of Osborne’s policy of austerity. The Tory chatteratti have been in overdrive since Thursday, offering their interpretations of what the Prime Minister said in her speech on the steps of No10. “Parking her tanks on Labour’s lawn,” has been a common observation. “Exactly the sort of thing Ed Miliband might have said if he had won the 2015 election,” was another.
Tim Bale, who has charted the history of the Conservative Party, was pondering today whether the sort of Keynesian economics which many have been calling for since 2010 might now, in the post-Brexit downturn, have its place under May. There is, Bale suggests, “a growing consensus that fiscal contraction doesn’t, in fact, lead to more sustainable growth… and that it makes an awful lot of sense to borrow to invest in infrastructure and housing when credit is not just cheap but dirt cheap”.
To justify his view, Bale flags up an article published a few months ago on Conservative Home by Nick Timothy, an aide to May at the Home Office and now her chief of staff in Downing Street.
May, remember, is the woman who told Conservatives that theirs was what was known as “the Nasty Party”. And Timothy – a grammar school boy from Birmingham – echoed that when he wrote this year, “The most serious weakness the Conservatives have… is the perception that we simply do not give a toss about ordinary people”.
It is a point of view which surely chimes with Barwell’s outlook in Croydon. Timothy’s “ordinary people” are those “… whose lives are most affected – for better and worse – by politics. They can’t choose to send their kids to a private school when the schools around them are terrible. They can’t opt out of the NHS if they find themselves in a dirty hospital or at the end of a long waiting list.
“They are the ones who find themselves out of work, on reduced hours, or with never-ending pay freezes when the economy goes wrong. They find themselves unable to afford the mortgage when interest rates go up. They have to go without when their taxes rise. They are the people for whom debates about tax credits are not about spreadsheets, headlines or dividing lines but about whether mum can go back to work or not.”
If that does truly reflect the shift in attitude under May’s Government, then Barwell could find himself spending the next three years touring the country to open housing schemes funded in some way by the Government. Such a role could transform a previously little-regarded career politician into a national hero, and that, surely, wouldn’t do Barwell any harm back in Croydon Central, whatever the commissioners do to shift the constituency boundaries before 2020.
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