Dido Harding to head the NHS? Her position would be untenable | Polly Toynbee

She presided over the test-and-trace debacle. But it seems Boris Johnson is hellbent on embedding Torydom

They can shrink the state with fiscal austerity, but they can diminish it, too, by imposing state-shrinkers on its controlling heights. Not since the Victorians abolished patronage with open competition has any government so ruthlessly ushered its placemen into every nook and cranny of the public realm. To appoint Dido Harding as NHS England chief executive – she told the BBC’s Woman’s Hour that she’s considering applying – would signal a slide back to the dark ages of influence.

With a Downing Street nod, she’s in the running. From the world of business, with no NHS experience, she was made chair of NHS Improvement, overseeing all trusts. Again, without contest, she was put in charge of the test-and-trace project, possibly the most notorious public administration disaster in living memory.

When Simon Stevens, the current NHS England chief, departs in July, he will leave a gaping hole as a powerful health service defender. With the institution in crisis, with epic waiting lists and workforce shortages, the government needs someone in charge who’s guaranteed not to rock the boat. The upcoming health and care bill abolishes the NHS chief’s independence, giving the health secretary ultimate powers, including a veto over NHS appointments. The minister can ensure compliant allies run the new integrated care systems controlling local services, and all trust boards. That will require an acquiescent chief executive.

The cost of Harding’s test-and-trace fiasco is an extraordinary £37bn. The public accounts committee blasted “the unimaginable resources thrown at this project” that failed to make “a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic”. Scientists on the government’s Sage committee found test and trace made no more than “a marginal impact on transmission” of the virus.

While Boris Johnson promised a “world-beating” programme, its shambolic failures are too well-known to reprise – neither testing nor tracing, nor supporting enough of the infected to stay home. Shunning experienced local public health tracers, Harding’s primal pro-business reflex instead gave huge contracts to Serco and others, with consultants paid £1,000 a day.

How much is £37bn? Gordon Brown has said it would cost £22bn this year and next to vaccinate the world. He puts the the UK’s share at just £1.3bn. To raise NHS pay by 5% instead of the miserable 1% on offer would cost £1.7bn.

The public inquiry into the pandemic will ask how Covid contracts were awarded, along with the notorious PPE contracts, to friends on the government’s VIP list. When Harding was appointed to test and trace, without competition, she was best known for being the chief executive of TalkTalk when it was fined £400,000 for a massive personal data breach in 2015. Harding, an Oxford friend of David Cameron (who gave her a peerage), is married to a Tory MP and sits on the board of the Jockey Club in Matt Hancock’s Newmarket constituency: the pair go riding together. Horse owners and trainers are generous donors to Hancock.

When appointed chair of NHS Improvement, Harding failed to resign the Tory whip despite a warning from the health select committee. So how compliant would she be? In the Lords she has never voted against the government. As Hancock added to her roles as interim head of the new National Institute of Health Protection – again with no contest – criticism by the public appointments commissioner, Peter Riddell, was ignored.

Some NHS insiders say the test-and-trace fiasco was not all her fault – but even if she is unjustly traduced, the background to her appointment makes her position untenable. Kate Bingham, appointed to run the vaccine programme with a similar nepotistic taint as wife of a Tory MP, has been stunningly successful by using the NHS, not contractors – but succeed or fail, chumocracy is inherently corrupt.

Public appointments under the Johnson regime now screen for political acceptability – cleansing and purging the independent-minded. None with un-Tory blemishes need apply. The greatest threat of all is Downing Street’s attempt to shoehorn the Daily Mail’s editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, into the vacant chair of Ofcom, the powerful broadcast and telecoms regulator. The selection panel reportedly found him “unappointable”, so now Downing Street demands a rerun. Julian Knight, chair of the culture select committee, has this week called for a purge of former BBC employees from Ofcom’s board.

The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, threatens cultural boards, vetoing the reappointment of an academic to the Royal Museums Greenwich board and causing the chair to resign in disgust. In April, he ousted two female members of Channel 4’s board.

Dowden had warned museums not to take “actions motivated by activism or politics”. But all he means is the wrong sort of politics: with no qualifications, James Wharton, an ex-Tory MP, was made head of the Office for Students by a panel devoid of higher education expertise.

Below the radar, political appointments are embedding Torydom. Riddell says the government recently “actively sought to appoint allies to the boards of public bodies” by “packing the composition of interview panels with allies”.

Johnson’s 52 new peers appointed in his time as prime minister include his brother, only ever a junior minister. He ignored the Lords Appointments Commission’s objection to Peter Cruddas, accused of soliciting party donations for prime ministerial access. Cruddas ponied up £500,000 three days after taking the ermine.

There are too many outrages to list here. But why bother, when not enough people are outraged? The paraphernalia of checks and balances, commissioners and watchdogs turns out to be toothless. Even the National Audit Office can only report scandals such as test and trace, while powerless to act. Why bother with “independent” boards overseeing departments, when over half their members are special advisers and allies?

Britain has become unshockable. Corruption barely raises voters’ eyebrows as political self-identity trumps honesty. But this can’t last forever: one day, Johnson’s purging of dissent will go too far.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist


Polly Toynbee

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