thePipeLine profiles the new Culture Secretary
Heavy metal rockers Spinal Tap had an unfortunate history of losing drummers, and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry suffered an equally high attrition rate in Professors of Defence Against the Dark Arts. In the case of UK Governments there is an equally mysterious, if not so deadly, turn over of Secretarys of State in the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport [DCMS].
The latest manifestation of this trend is the defenestration by new Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Theresa May appointee Jeremy Wright, possibly for the thought crime of supporting “He who must not be named” [Jeremy Hunt] in the recent Conservative Leadership contest, or possibly because he was useless and never wanted the job in the first place*.
*We may never know. Famously the ex Minister for Digital is not on Twitter.
The result of Mr Wright’s sacking is that, if you looked carefully at the pooled video, just before Prime Minister Johnson began his painfully “spontaneous” peroration at the first meeting of his new Cabinet, you might have cought a glimpse of the latest Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan. She is the one at the very far end of the table nearest the window.
Once the cabinet media opportunity was over, Ms Morgan hit the ground running with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. A nationally important gallery which has the distinct advantage of being just a short trip up Whitehall and across Trafalgar Square from the small suite of offices and meeting rooms where the DCMS squats in the corner of the Treasury building at 100 Parliament Street.
After the visit Secretary of State Morgan, or more likely her comm’s team, Tweeted,
“Starting my role as @DCMS Secretary of State as I mean to go on with a visit to @NPGLondon – thank you for such a warm welcome. Look forward to hearing more about the work of our exceptional national museums. “
Of course, Ms Morgan could be forgiven if she had taken a wrong turning as she went in to work as she is possibly more familiar with the Treasury than she is with cultural issues. One of the 2010 intake of MP’s, when she won the marginal seat of Loughborough in the East Midlands, her first significant role in Government was as Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the sixth ranking role in the department, from which she was promoted to be Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the No 5 role.
However, in July 2014 the Oxford educated solicitor achieved a podium finish entering David Cameron’s cabinet as the Secretary of State for Education where she was seen as something as a rising star on the One Nation* wing of the Conservative Party; calling for less emphasis on what the Party opposed and calling for positive messages to win back “aspirational” voters who had defected to Tony Blair’s New Labour.
*One Nation= Not an Anti-European Union Headbanger
However, her Ministerial career came to a crashing halt after the EU Referendum and resignation of David Cameron in June 2016. New Prime Minister Theresa May sacked Morgan, who had voted “Remain” in the Referendum”, and the now ex-Minister retired to the back benches.
Hostilities with Theresa May were renewed during the so called #Trousergate scandal when Morgan criticised the expensive pair of leather trousers which the Prime Minister wore for a photo call. She was in turn criticised for owning an expensive Mulberry hand bag. In the midst of the row Morgan cancelled an appearance on the satirical quiz show “Have I got News For You” and was duly replaced for the recording by, you’ve guessed it, a handbag.
While out of office she took also part in the initiative led by Conservative rebel Dominic Grieve, which forced Theresa May to concede that Parliament must hold a “meaningful vote” before leaving the European Union.
This stance did not endear her to then editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, who called her “wet behind the ears”. Not that this stopped her supporting former Foreign Secretary David Milliband and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in calling for a, so called, “Soft Brexit” in May 2018.
However, on 24 July  she agreed to enter cabinet on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s condition that she was prepared to support a “No Deal” Brexit on 31 October . It remains to be seen if that was a career move, or whether she remains at heart a Remainer/Soft Brexiter and accepted the condition with her fingers crossed behind her back.
This record may be one reason why she was placed in a department which is not in the front line of Brexit preparations, although with predictions of damage from limits to freedom of movement for artists and scholars and in attempts to investigate and prevent cross border trafficking of stolen art and antiquities among other major issues, the cultural sector will no doubt lobby hard to ask her to argue for the softest possible Brexit around the cabinet table and for these issues to be covered in any withdrawal agreement.
Another reason for the promotion to cabinet maybe to bind her by collective responsibility and remove her from her questioning role as chair of the influential Treasury Select Committee which critiques Government economic policy.
During her time as chair the committee succeeded in getting the Treasury and the Bank of England to publish their economic analysis of the EU Withdrawal Agreement ahead of it being voted on in Parliament. A move the Government had opposed. Certainly at the time of writing her website says that she does not support leaving the EU without a withdrawal deal. Although she has been visible as a member and spokesperson of the grouping in the Conservative Party supporting the so-called “Malthouse Compromise” and “alternative arrangements, which aimed to solve the problem of the Irish Backstop, in Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement. That is the need to create a Schrodinger’s border, a border which is both there and not there, between the North of Ireland and the Irish Republic
What her website and other social media does not display is any particular interest in subjects which fall within the remit of the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport. She lists running as one of her hobbies and promotes local cultural events such as art exhibitions and the Loughborough Mela on her Facebook feed, and she is an accomplished media performer, but there is little to suggest any detailed knowledge of wider issues. This is supported by the record of her Parliamentary interventions in Hansard, where aside from a question about local tourism in December 2018, most of her questions and speeches have been related to financial issues and Europe.
Of course, to be fair, most Culture Secretaries have been non Specialists and Cultural, Tech Industry and Sporting bodies are well used to delivering DCMS Brief 101 every time a new Secretary of State is appointed.
In the case of Nicky Morgan they would probably do well to emphasise the economic as as well as the community value of the sector.
As the MP for a marginal seat with a large University full of student voters they would also do well to emphasise the damage that will be done to the sector by an EU withdrawal that puts up barriers making student exchange and research more difficult.
They might also be keen to disabuse her of the thought that Arts and Humanities subjects which form the intellectual bedrock of much of the cultural sector, are courses school pupils take if they do not know what to do, or who did not feel like taking subjects which are seen as more difficult, such as mathematics and physics.
This concern arises from a speech which Ms Morgan delivered on 10 November 2014 at the launch of the “Your Life” campaign which set out to increase the number of teenagers taking STEM subjects [Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths].
The then Education Secretary told her audience,
“But if you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do, and let’s be honest – it takes a pretty confident 16-year-old to have their whole life mapped out ahead of them – then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful for all kinds of jobs.
Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths.”
However, it should be added that such a functional and transactional view of what subjects are most useful to the economy is not unusual in modern discussions of education. While there is also anecdotal evidence that at least at a constituency level Nicky Morgan is highly supportive of local arts and cultural activities.
On a wider canvas the Register of Members Interests which records the outside activities of MP’s, the activities they declare that is, reports that in addition to media work and speeches and panel discussions for corporate clients, including a payment of £2,550 in July 2018 for the preparation and delivery of a speech for leading private healthcare provider HCA Healthcare UK, Nicky Morgan is an unpaid director of the leading Think Tank, the Social Market Foundation. Rated B for transparency on by Who Funds You, and once regarded as John Major’s favorite Think Tank, then associated with the Blair Government, the SMF is seen as broadly centrist supporting a mixed economy of public and private service providers and has also attracted the involvement of Labour MP Stephen Kinnock and for this week at least, Liberal Democrat Chukka Umunna.
Aside from direct payments from the BBC for appearances on Any Questions, Hat-trick Productions for “Have I Got News For You” and the Guardian/Observer, most of Nicky Morgan’s corporate work is paid through the talent agency Tidy Management, which is also based in the East Midlands.
Meanwhile, while she seems to have monetised her status as an MP much less than some Westminster colleagues, perhaps more controversially, the web site “They Work for You” records that Nicky Morgan generally voted against extensions of Gay Rights and other Human Rights and Equal Marriage. She has also opposed attempts to legalise assisted suicide. These votes may be an expression of Ms Morgan’s faith. She is a member of the non-denominational Conservative Christian Fellowship. It is also fair to say that she is on the record as saying that, were the vote to be repeated, she would not oppose equal marriage and her record on such social issues is matched by a number of other members of the Johnson cabinet.
She also broke ranks with the bulk of the Conservative Party to vote in favour of an elected House of Lords.
If she is given time to instigate policy at the DCMS [and that is a big if given how Brexit is currently the only game in Whitehall and will be for the next three months at least] it may be that she will also run foul of Prime Minister Johnson’s anti “Nanny State” instincts. As a back bencher Nicky Morgan opposed the delay in introducing controls on “Fixed Odds Betting Terminals” stating, “It is the case that the government has prioritised the preservation of jobs in the gambling industry over the addiction of those who suffer from these machines.” adding “The trouble with that very rational analysis […] is that it doesn’t really help the expected 300 people who may end up taking their lives, suffering mental health problems from gambling addiction.”
This issue is within the remit of her new department.
Of course, in the same video of that first meeting of the new cabinet, another former Treasury Minister turned Culture Secretary, Star Trek fan Sajid Javid could be seen sitting at the Prime Minister’s left hand. Now Chancellor of the Exchequer, his career seems to offer further proof of the status of the DCMS within the Government and the Whitehall machine. That is, it is a department where Ministers are parked for a year or two while on the way up, or on the way down.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Johnson’s Government lasts long enough to establish the trajectory of Ms Morgan’s career, or whether, before too long, the arts and cultural sector will be getting to know another Secretary of State.
History suggests it is more likely she will indeed spontaneously combust, or run foul of Boris Johnson’s deadly Horcrux, the No Deal Brexit.
Meanwhile in other news from the DCMS, while former Minister for Digital, Margot James leaves government, allegedly to help plot the downfall of Boris Johnson/No Deal Brexit from the back benches, Heritage Minister [and Remain voter but don’t tell Boris Johnson] Rebecca Pow remains in post.