When the ConservativeHome website published its monthly survey of Tory members’ views of the Cabinet this week, it seemed it’s not only the public who are fed up with this Government.
A record six ministers were given negative ratings by the ConHome panel. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, Business Secretary Grant Shapps and International Development Minister Andrew Mitchell, all got the thumbs down.
Rishi Sunak himself wasn’t hugely popular either, whereas Defence Secretary Ben Wallace won top spot in the Cabinet “league table”, followed by Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt (boosted by a higher profile after her heroic stint carrying a huge sword at the Coronation).
But there was one politician in the top five whose name rarely gets mentioned whenever chatter reignites about future Tory leaders: Steve Barclay. In some ways, that’s not a surprise, given that the Health Secretary is remarkably unremarkable.
Yet a few Conservative backbenchers are starting to notice Barclay and closer inspection reveals a minister who is hiding in plain sight as a possible successor to Sunak. I’ve gone back through all of the ConHome Cabinet rankings for the past three years, and Barclay emerges as the great survivor.
Indeed, the North East Cambridgeshire MP has a unique claim to fame. He is the only minister who has never been out of the top 11 for the past three years. Better than that, amid all the Tory turmoil, he’s the only one who has been in the top five consistently over the past year. Bigger names have come and gone, fallen in and out of fashion, but Barclay is Mr Consistent.
And it’s that consistency, together with his constancy (he’s been very loyal to all the PMs he’s served under), that could prove very useful indeed should he want to go for the top job himself one day. Both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were darlings of the ConHome league table in the past, so it offers some guide to the future.
While the bookmakers scarcely bother to think about Barclay as a future Tory leader (they price him as a 40/1 long shot), he seems to have a deeper well of solidarity among both MPs and party members than some more famous colleagues.
As Boris Johnson’s Covid inquiry row once more proves just how divisive he can be, is there a chance for someone like the Health Secretary to emerge blinking into the spotlight and provide the kind of unity needed for a party thrust into Opposition after election defeat?
Of course, Barclay would have to overcome some pretty hefty hurdles. Not least is the question of whether he’d actually want the job. Jockeying for the leadership, rather than getting on with the day job, has damaged Suella Braverman (just as it damaged Sunak under Johnson) and Barclay is unlikely to make the same mistake.
By nature a loyalist, he nevertheless has the ambition needed to survive in Westminster and is acutely aware that MPs make their own luck in the game of musical chairs that follows Government reshuffles.
Theresa May plucked Barclay from obscurity in 2018, promoting him into the Cabinet as her Brexit Secretary after the resignation of Dominic Raab. It was telling that he survived the debacle of the Parliamentary Brexit wars without upsetting either side much, and Boris Johnson kept him in post until he “got Brexit done” on the stroke of midnight, 31 January 2020.
And Johnson rewarded him when Sajid Javid’s shock resignation as Chancellor required a replacement in the shape of Sunak, who in turn needed to be replaced as Treasury Chief Secretary. Barclay got the nod.
Seen by some colleagues as dull but dependable, Barclay then had a seemingly effortless rise to the Cabinet Office. When Johnson was hit by the Partygate-inspired resignation of his chief of staff Dan Rosenfield, he turned once more to Barclay to steady the ship.
It was while doing that job that Barclay impressed Johnson loyalists inside and outside the “Red Wall”. Notably, I’m told he was one of those urging the PM to resist Sunak’s planned rise in Corporation Tax, believing it would damage the party’s low-tax philosophy and brand.
He was among the few who refused to resign from Johnson’s team even as the Government imploded in the summer of 2022, rewarded with the job of Health Secretary. Crucially, however, he quickly supported his old Treasury colleague Sunak for the Tory leadership and was brought back to Health after Liz Truss’s exit.
As well as being a low-tax Tory, Barclay also benefits from being a Brexiteer, albeit a pragmatic one (as Brexit Secretary, he invited in ex-diplomat Sir Ivan Rogers to pick his brains on how to deal with Brussels).
Like Sunak, he risked his career by coming out for Vote Leave in early 2016, tweeting that David Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate the UK’s membership “did not deliver the game changer we need to protect against further EU integration”.
Critics point out that he is nowhere near as polished on the media or in the Commons chamber as some other ministers. They complain that Labour’s Wes Streeting regularly out performs him, indeed mocks him as the epitome of a tired Tory regime trying to project itself as “new”.
Despite his hugely important jobs, some have seen Barclay as the Invisible Man of the Cabinet, moving from post to post without much to show for it. Each promotion was greeted with the question “Steve Who?” as MPs privately joked he “wasn’t a household name even in his own household”.
But Tory MPs tell me Barclay’s biggest asset is that he’s “solid” and, unlike “flip-flopper” Keir Starmer, everyone knows what he believes in. A grafter who grew up in a working class home, he’s seen as in tune with traditional Tory values of cost-cutting, extending individual choice and reforming public services.
When he was accused of “bullying” civil servants recently, several backbenchers saw that instead as a badge of pride, a minister who was willing to be robust with Whitehall. His push to use “modular” or “prefabricated” construction to speed up parts of the hospitals building programme is seen as another plus by MPs.
Some MPs also like the way Barclay handled the health unions over strike action, driving a hard bargain but willing to compromise with a one-off cost-of-living pay hike that won’t harm the Treasury’s wider pay restraint.
The scale of Barclay’s task was underlined by two encounters with the public he has endured since he took office. Last summer, an angry pensioner told him: “Are you going to do anything about the ambulances waiting? […] Twelve years and you’ve done bugger all about it.” In December, the mother of a sick child told him: “The damage that you’re doing to families is terrible.”
Yet there is even a hope that Barclay can somehow pull off the seemingly impossible and at least neutralise the NHS as an issue at the election.
When he last week finessed Johnson’s pledge of 40 “new” hospitals by 2030 (delaying some, fast-tracking others, admitting some were refurbs or new wings), Tory MP after Tory MP praised him for the investment in their constituency. As with “levelling up” money, Labour knows that pork barrel politics works if voters see cash coming to their local area.
From “Blue Wall” Norfolk and Buckingham to “Red Wall” Keighley and Pendle, Barclay’s largesse has been the equivalent of a “rubber chicken” circuit whereby ministers visit key areas to boost their support. If he marks the NHS’s 75th anniversary next month with the long-awaited workforce plan to address huge staff shortages, Labour may even be robbed of its big election weapon.
The most important issue, however, remains tackling waiting lists. And although it will be difficult, it’s not impossible that Barclay could deliver on Sunak’s New Year pledge that “waiting lists will fall”. Although the overall list edged up to a record 7.2 million recently, the Institute for Fiscal Studies thinks it may plateau this year and start to fall next year – just in time for an autumn election.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard has already set a “stretch” target that by April 2024, no one will wait longer than 65 weeks for treatment. Despite Covid, flu and strikes, the NHS has already seen a 40 per cent fall in 65 week waits from last October to this March.
With Sunak’s other key pledges to stop the boats, halve inflation, lower debt, grow the economy all in danger, the irony is that Barclay could possibly, maybe hit the toughest target on the NHS with at least some waiting lists falling.
It will take a lot more to convince the public the NHS is safe in Tory hands, but what looked like a hospital pass of a Cabinet post could win him support among MPs and party members.
There is also a precedent of a young but grey-haired (nay a “Silver Fox”) Cambridgeshire MP proving a dark horse in a Tory leadership race. John Major came out of nowhere to win in 1990, the safe pair of hands who won the blessing of his predecessor.
Now, as then, his rivals may just have too many negatives while he displeases no wing of the party. As Professor Tim Bale, of Queen Mary London University, points out, Tory MPs may be reduced to such a rump after the next election that Suella Braverman’s supporters may be wiped out, along with Penny Mordaunt (in her marginal seat).
James Cleverly, the other outside bet, may suffer from being seen as not hawkish enough on China. Kemi Badenoch, in some ways the favourite, is under fire not just for her watering down of the EU Retained Law Bill but her wider lack of clubbability among colleagues. Neither is a problem for Barclay.
Indeed, in an echo of the TV show Succession, Barclay could turn out to be the Tom Wambsgans of the Tory party: an ambitious “interchangeable suit” born without a silver spoon in his mouth, the ruthless middle manager who is the butt of the jokes yet ends up having the last laugh.
Steve Barclay as Leader of the Opposition may all sound like fantastic politics, in the sense that it is the fantasy of a few backbenchers. But given that stranger things have happened over the past year, it may end up looking not that strange at all.