New year message: If a minister can't even organise a Zoom...

Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner in 2019 speaking at a Labour Party rally in Hastings, Ea

Barry Gardiner MP. - Credit: PA/Gareth Fuller

If I hear one more government minister utter the word “unprecedented” I swear I will scream!

When asked what the biggest challenge was of being in government, former Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan famously remarked: “Events, dear boy; events."

Unprecedented is not an excuse, it is what government is all about.

The mark of a competent administration is how they deal with unprecedented situations. Did they prepare for significant risks; Floods, Epidemics, Brexit, Wars, Environmental disasters? Then when the unexpected did strike; how did they handle it?

The public should not blame politicians for situations they cannot prevent, but should judge them on how they deal with those situations. It would be unfair to blame the government for the deaths caused by Covid 19.

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But it is not unfair to hold them responsible for excess deaths caused by the failure to replenish the national stockpile of PPE before the pandemic struck.

Yet when MPs have pointed out where government have failed to get things right ministers appear to have been instructed to respond by accusing them of “playing party politics”! This is nonsense.

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It is perfectly fair to challenge government ministers about why South Korea can put in place a competent test and trace system but they apparently cannot. It is not party politics to point out that we need a system that coordinates a central technical app with Local Public Health directors across the country.

As I write this on December 23 I have just come off a two-hour Zoom meeting for MPs with the minister for health. It did not go too well. First the meeting had to be cancelled and restarted because the Zoom account would not allow more than 100 MPs to join the call. Then it ended after 45 minutes and had to be restarted once again, because the government minister had used a free account that limited the time. The irony is that the minister who could not organise a Zoom meeting for more than 100 colleagues, is the same minister who is in charge of organising the roll out of the vaccine! It did not inspire MPs with confidence.

Yesterday I received a letter from the prime minister. It is a truly great thing to live in a country where the head of government feels obliged to reply to an MP – there are countries where such democratic accountability would not be expected. But the letter I received was in response to a letter I had sent him on the July 31. I did not blame the prime minister for what were the disappointing contents of the letter; but I sure blamed him for the incompetence in taking five months to respond. Now you may say that the prime minister has had quite a few other things on his mind - true - but he also has a few thousand civil servants to write his letters for him!

So what do people require of their politicians?

Let’s face it; politicians as a group have no special training. We come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some of us have been in business; some of us have worked on the factory floor; some of us have been unemployed; and some of us have been born with a silver spoon in their mouth; some left school at age 16 some have doctorates  -- and there is no job specification. You just have to convince enough people that you will honestly represent their views when it comes to passing legislation to improve their lives.

Some of the letters I receive, make me wonder if people imagine that as an MP I have a magic wand.

“My daughter is trapped in Peru.”

“My son needs a new passport because I booked the flight before I realised his old one had run out.”

“My company was taken over, but I was off sick, and now the new company won’t furlough me.”

These are all actual requests which I have dealt with this year – each one successfully I am pleased to say.

As we approach the new year and the challenges of leaving the European Union, forging new trade treaties with the rest of the world, hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow and presiding over the G7 we must not expect the impossible from our politicians. But what we have a right to expect is competence.

  • Barry Gardiner is MP for Brent North.

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