Think Neil O’Brien. A minister so beige, so younger that even his colleagues don’t know he works with them. At home, it blends in with muted pastel colors. So much so that his family doesn’t always know if he’s there or not. So it’s a miracle he ever became a minister, considering so few have seen, let alone heard of, him. But when the Tory government hits back so often, pretty much everyone gets it at some point. In the current Conservative Party, only the real dead remain on the back benches.
O’Brien first came to prominence when he resigned as a bagman in the compensation department in the final days of Boris Johnson’s regime. Which was new to the convict, who couldn’t remember naming it. But twice lightning struck and O’Brien was invited back by Rishi Sunak to serve in his government in the lowest possible role, this time at the Ministry of Health and Welfare. You have to forget that, because his job was to do as little as possible.
This is what it looked like on Thursday morning. O’Brien just went about his usual routine. His toughest decision is whether to eat a Weetabix or two for breakfast. Then the call came. Would he report to the House of Commons at 10.30am to answer an urgent question about the Michelle Monae PPE scandal, which was published in the Guardian the night before?
No one at Cabinet level could make it because they all lined up for the audience MP of the Year awards the night before. Then Number 10 tried to get someone from the Cabinet Office to do it – UQ was on his way to her office after all – but no joy. Nobody answered the phone.
The same happened in other departments. Until someone happened to mention that O’Brien was still working for the government in some capacity. His schoolboy mistake was picking up the phone. He tried to tell Downing Street he had no idea about Mona or Medpro PPE but that wouldn’t change anything. In fact, he was told that his ignorance was his greatest asset. Less likely to accidentally blame the government. “Take one for the team,” he was told before the caller rang.
So it was a disgusting looking O’Brien who came to UQ. A man who for the past few hours had looked like he would rather throw up than try to prepare any answers. Chair Lindsay Hoyle opened the meeting with a reminder not to mention cases currently under investigation. Labour’s Angela Rayner nodded politely before more or less ignoring him. She didn’t want to let the parliamentary procedure spoil her day.
Rayner began by welcoming O’Brien to the shipping box. Along with the others, she had never met him before and wished him well. O’Brien scrambled dryly to his feet. Rayner was probably the last person he wanted to meet for the first time and responded with UQ. Someone a little less direct, preferably.
Then she got down to business. What due diligence was carried out? How did Medpro get the order for the VIP fast lane? How come tens of millions of public funds ended up in private offshore accounts? Why did the government release their correspondence regarding attempts to get the money back? What Happened in the Randox Scandal? And why was the government spending £700,000 a day stockpiling unusable PPE?
O’Brien tried not to look confused but failed. It was like this. You must have remembered the panic that gripped the world at the start of the pandemic. When governments bought up every item of PPE. Even the bits they didn’t need. And Britain was no exception. So mistakes were made. However, due diligence was carried out. Around 19,000 companies submitted offers and only 2,500 passed the snoop test. Probably because everyone else offered a left glove and threatened money. He did not say why Medpro’s offer was accepted.
But he wanted everyone to know that there was nothing sinister about the VIP aisle. It was just a way to ensure people with access to Tory MPs got preferential treatment. However, they were still subject to the same low standard of care as everyone else. There were no special perks. And it turned out that getting the money back was quite difficult. There was no VIP service for the government to return money received for worthless contracts. The VIP channel was strictly one-way. The way government is reaching out to businesses.
It wasn’t exactly a convincing performance. And it didn’t help that there were only three Conservatives in the House of Representatives who supported O’Brien. And of those, Christopher “Upskirting” Chope might be classed as hostile. Attacking the government for wasting money on PPE that wasn’t fit for purpose. Only Peter Bone and James Wild were helpful. Obviously, unnecessary PPE was better than no PPE. And who cared that some people made money selling junk?
After that it was a lot of work and the SNP. What did Matt Hancock do? Aside from having a midlife crisis Down Under? Why did there even have to be a Tory VIP lane? When will the state get the money back? Remember the nurses who carried garbage bags? Would there be a poll? When it was over, O’Brien looked close to tears. I really want to return to the unknown.
Still, O’Brien wasn’t the only one having a bad day. Dominic Raab has been at the wrong end of his rope with even more bullying complaints – now it would be quicker to find someone he hasn’t bullied – and has been accused of breaching Ministers’ Code by using his personal email for government affairs . Meanwhile, Transport Secretary Mark Harper woke up late to say the government could play a role in resolving the rail strikes. The same was true of Health Secretary Steve Barclay and the nurses’ strike.
We live in a world where government’s first instinct is to do nothing. The Hedgehog Principle: Roll up into a ball and wait for it to pass you. It’s like the end of all days.