Have accountants blown their ministerial chances?by
Accountant-MP Alok Sharma’s move from Secretary of State for Business to focus full-time on leading preparations for November’s COP26 climate emergency conference in Glasgow prompts a brief review of how accountants are faring in Boris Johnson’s government.
To replace the outgoing business secretary, Johnson turned to his fellow former Daily Telegraph columnist, Kwasi Kwarteng. Official sources made it very clear that Sharma’s new role as the UK’s climate change crusader-in-chief was not a demotion. He will continue to be a full member of the Cabinet and will be responsible for ensuring the UK hits its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
But it’s hard to shake off the impression he earned as the most boring man in the government – a label that no one in the accounting profession would like to see branded on one of their peers.
In a field notable for its mediocrity, Sharma surpassed his colleagues with hapless performances at the daily Downing Street coronavirus press conferences. After drawing the short straw and having to present the April Fool’s day Covid briefing, Sharma was characterised by The Guardian as “a man in whom the public can have complete confidence. The downside is that the confidence they have is that he can be guaranteed to know next to nothing about anything.”
He was kept out of the frontline until another inept performance in November, when the clamour started to grow that the seriousness of the climate situation demanded the attention of someone who wasn’t part-timing it as business secretary on the side.
With Kwarteng filling the secretary of state chair in this month’s mini-shuffle, accountant Anne-Marie Trevelyan was appointed to fill his old post of minister for business, energy and clean growth – bringing the profession’s representation in Cabinet to a new high.
Defending ineptitude without the facts
With Sharma taking a lower profile, the most visible accountant in the Cabinet is work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey. She was last seen making a Sharma-like bungle when defending the government’s test and trace strategy by telling the BBC she “just didn’t have” the necessary information about how many close contacts were missed due to the notorious Public Health England spreadsheet mishap.
As a management accountant, it’s astounding that she could even attempt to defend a reporting structure based around an outdated version of Excel. More recently, Coffey was getting hammered in Parliament for the state of Universal Credit.
Elsewhere, accountancy stalwart Nick Gibb could be counted as a safe pair of hands as minister of state for school standards since 2015 and during 2010-12. Gibb is still in place at the Department of Education, but has had a difficult pandemic.
The Daily Express seems to have turned against Boris Johnson and his schools minister in recent months, lambasting Gibb for evasive answers during the A-level results fiasco last summer. BBC Breakfast Time got in on the act too. After Mr Gibb protested that “fairness” was at the forefront of the government’s mind, TV presenter Charlie Stayt commented: “Every step along the way, it appears you and Gavin Williamson have been behind the curve.”
Joining the parade of accountant-minister whipping boys was Kit Malthouse, who spent much of last week trying to explain how hundreds of thousands of criminal evidence records were wiped from the police national computer.
Another member the class of 2010 tipped for great things after supporting Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign was Liz Truss. She had worked her way up the ministerial ladder in Theresa May’s government, holding cabinet posts for environment and justice as well as Lord Chancellor before becoming chief secretary to the Treasury. Under Johnson, she ended up as Secretary of State for International Trade, where her most notable contribution to date has been a staunch defence of Stilton cheese during trade negotiations with Japan.
Our final accountant in government is Helen Whatley, who became minister of state for social care last February – another accountant on the end of a political hospital pass. Like several of her colleagues, she flew into flak over her command of NHS and care mortality statistics last year, this time from Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. Whatley may have come out of the encounter more strongly than Sharma, Coffey and Malthouse, however, after TV regulators received 2,000 complaints about her treatment by Morgan.
They also served
There are a couple of other finance professionals with ministerial experience. Staffordshire MP Karen Bradley was a close ally of Theresa May who she served as culture secretary and Northern Ireland secretary, until she was shown the door by Boris Johnson. In her 19 months as secretary of state for Northern Ireland Bradley frequently dodged questions from the media on power-sharing talks and seemed not to understand the political affiliations of nationalists and unionist parties.
Nick Harper also held ministerial positions during 2012-15, but as a Remain supporter, he doesn’t stand much chance of advancement in Boris Johnson’s otherwise accountant-friendly government.
Surveying the field of candidates back in 2010, Liberal-Democrat candidate Geoff Seeff told AccountingWEB, “I’d hate to think that out of a Parliament of 650 that 50 MPs were accountants.”
I remember taking to the soapbox to challenge his light-hearted quip. Surely politics would benefit from politicians who understood business and were trained to digest, analyse and challenge factual data, I argued.
Maybe I should stay away from political analysis. More accountants hold positions of power now than ever before. Yet a government packed with finance professionals has struggled to gain command of the numbers at its disposal, interpret forecast models and plan adequately for worst-case scenarios.
Having failed to live up to our expectations, our disappointing ministerial representatives have demonstrated that accountancy may not be a great training ground for politics. Lawyers have traditionally wielded the most power and look where that got us. With few professions left that might bring some sanity to government policy, I wonder what would happen if we gave a few journalists a chance?
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AccountingWEB’s interim Editor in Chief has been with the site since 1999 and returned to the editorial hot seat in March 2020 to lead the hunt for a long-term successor... Send a DM if you're interested! When not tending to the needs of AccountingWEB members and geeking out on their technology habits, he devotes much of his time to his oddball...