sThink of Neil O’Brien. A minister so shabby, so junior, that even his colleagues don’t know he is working with them. At home, he merges into muted pastel paintwork. So much so that his family does not always know whether he is there or not. So it is surprising that he even became a minister, given that very few people had ever seen him, let alone heard of him. But when the Tory government ricochets as often as it does, almost everyone eventually finds a move. In the current Conservative Party, the only real braindead remain on the backbenches.
O’Brien first came to attention when he resigned as a bag bearer in the Department for Leveling Up in the dying days of the Boris Johnson regime. Which came as news to The Convict, who didn’t remember appointing him. But lightning struck twice and Rishi Sunak invited O’Brien back to take up the most junior role in his government, this time at the Department for Health and Social Care. should be forgotten there, as his brief was to reduce it as much as possible.
Things were like this on Thursday morning O’Brien was just busy with his normal routine. One of his weightiest decisions was to have a Weetabix or two for breakfast. Then the call came. Will he report to the Commons at 10.30 to answer an urgent question on the Michelle Money PPE scandal, which broke in the Guardian the night before?
No one at cabinet level could possibly do this as they all turned up late at the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year Awards last evening. Number 10 then tried to get someone from the Cabinet Office to do so – the UQ was directed to his office, after all – but with no joy. No one was receiving his phone.
The same happened in other departments as well. until someone remembered that O’Brien was still working for the government in some form or another. It was her schoolboy’s fault for answering her phone. He had tried to tell Downing Street he had no knowledge of Mone or the Medpro PPE, but to no avail. In fact he was told that his ignorance would be his greatest asset. Less chance of accidentally blaming the government. “Take one for the team,” he was told before the caller rang.
So it was a jittery-looking O’Brien who came to UQ. A man who looked like he’d spent the last few hours vomiting instead of trying to formulate some answers. The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, opened the session with a reminder to the House not to mention matters currently under investigation. Labour’s Angela Rayner nodded politely and then more or less ignored him. She was not going to let parliamentary procedure spoil her day.
Reiner began by welcoming O’Brien to the dispatch box. Along with everyone else, she had never met him before, and wished him well. O’Brien heaved a sigh. Reiner was about the last person he wanted to face to answer the UQ in the first place. Someone a little less obvious, preferably.
Then he followed. Was due diligence done? How was Medpro awarded a contract through the VIP fast lane? How did crores of public money end up in private offshore accounts? Why doesn’t the government publish its correspondence regarding efforts to recover 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 tried his best not to look clueless, but failed. It was like this. You have to remember the panic that gripped the world at the beginning of the pandemic. When governments were buying every item of PPE. Even the pieces he didn’t need. And the UK was no exception. So mistakes were made. But due diligence was done. About 19,000 companies submitted bids and only 2,500 passed the sniff test. Probably because everyone else had offered a left glove and demanded money with threats. He did not say why Medpro’s bid was accepted.
But he wanted everyone to know that there is nothing wrong with being in the VIP lane. It was a way of ensuring that those with access to Tory MPs were given priority. But they were still subject to the same low level of due diligence as everyone else. There were no special favors. And getting the money back was proving difficult. There was no VIP service for the government to recover the money received for the worthless contracts. The VIP channel was strictly one-way. The government’s way of reaching out to business.
It was not exactly a convincing performance. And it was not helped by the fact that there were only three Tory MPs in the chamber to support O’Brien. And among them, Christopher “Upskirting” Chopp can be classified as hostile. Attacking the government for wasting money on PPE that was fit for purpose. Only Peter Bone and James Wilde were helpful. Obviously useless PPE was better than no PPE. And who cares if some people have made a profit by selling garbage?
After that it was a Labor and SNP pile-on. What was Matt Hancock doing? Besides going through a down mid-life crisis? Why was there even a need for a VIP lane for Tory peers? When will the government get the money back? Did they remember the nurses wearing bin bags? Will there be an inquiry? By the end, O’Brien was on the verge of tears. Desperate to go 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 – now it would be quicker to find someone who wasn’t bullied by him – and alleged he broke ministerial code by using his personal email for government business. Meanwhile, the Transport Secretary, Mark Harper, has woken up belatedly to the fact that the government may have some role to play in handling rail strikes. The same happened 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. Hedgehog Principle: Roll into a ball and wait to be run over. It seems like the end of days.