The man Boris Johnson trusts his biggest political promise – POLITICO
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LONDON – Introducing Neil O’Brien, the ‘COVID Attack Dog’ now tasked with delivering Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s biggest post-Brexit election promise: ‘Upgrade’.
Colleagues say O’Brien, a conservative and politically wacky MP, describes himself as a ‘total obsessive’ about ending the inter-regional inequalities that have plagued the UK for generations.
This long-standing problem is also at the root of the Prime Minister’s so-called leveling agenda, which wowed many mainstream Labor voters in the last election and helped the Tories take a plethora of seats in the ” red wall ”Northern Labor. and Midlands.
Delivering for those voters is seen as crucial for Johnson’s second win. In that capacity, the Prime Minister has tasked the MP for Harborough with making sure that happens.
The Prime Minister has taken the veteran think tank to Downing Street to act as an upgrade advisor, and will produce a white paper detailing a deliverable policy for publication later this year.
Nick Faith, who worked with the MP for Harborough in two think tanks, said there was “no one better suited to take on this role”.
“He can get the ideas and run them through the system.” he added.
The upgrade concept was a vague Tory election promise in 2019, highlighting the need to help struggling parts of Britain catch up with its richer parts. It has drawn criticism for its lack of definition, with some ministers unable to describe exactly how it will be measured once implemented.
The challenge for O’Brien, however, is political: Conservatives must find a way to deliver something tangible to lock in working class votes. “It’s going to have to be appropriate outcomes that people really care about,” Faith said. “Unless Neil can put some weight on the concept of leveling and demonstrate how life has improved under this government, it will be more difficult to keep voters who first backed the Conservatives in 2019.”
This is no small feat: the idea of improving poorer areas is not new, but it has remained stubbornly resistant to political intervention for decades.
Such a tangle shouldn’t be up to O’Brien, a problem-solving expert who can take an abstract concept and squeeze it into something deliverable, according to his colleagues past and present. “He has an incredible brain – like a roaring computer,” said a Conservative MP. One minister said it was “super bright” and “good at a pivot table” – the favorite spreadsheet feature for data enthusiasts.
A big question is whether O’Brien also has the political acumen and influence in Downing Street to fight for results, especially since his tough pro-lockdown stance has angered so many colleagues. His allies say so, and argue his battle with anti-lockdown MPs has shown his ability to use data to win the argument.
O’Brien has spent months in bitter bickering over whether the UK should impose COVID restrictions, clashing with libertarian Conservative MPs and right-wing media outlets on Twitter, launching facts and statistics countering the claims that the coronavirus was exaggerated or the lockdowns doing more harm than good. He create a website to debunk arguments peddled by media polemicists, anti-lockdown academics and – though he never named them – his own Conservative colleagues (like Mark Harper and Steve Baker).
“It was either the bravest thing to do or it was suicidal,” said the Tory MP quoted at the top of this article. “They will all come back to him one day.” Indeed, right-wing magazine The Spectator continues to name it like a nemesis, going up to ask trainee candidates to write essays denigrating him.
Conservative critics say they believe Downing Street made him aware and provided the data. “He has become their attack dog on COVID,” said another MP. “He’s a complete loyalist who is used by No. 10.”
Those who know O’Brien insist he was never asked to fight skeptics and was furious at the misinformation about the coronavirus in the media. “When something is clearly misleading, I imagine it pisses him off,” added the Minister.
His supporters claim it showed that the introverted political geek also had political courage. “I was really impressed and proud of him about COVID – for a Tory MP to be as critical as he was of the Daily Telegraph is pretty daring,” said Danny Finkelstein, a Tory peer who set up the Onward think tank alongside O’Brien. . “It certainly solved the question of whether he was someone who was willing to speak up for what he thought was the right thing.”
Finkelstein added: “If you ask me for the moment I went from thinking he was a good, solid talent to thinking we were dealing with someone of high political skill, that was it.”
Battles with his fellow Conservatives may only be beginning: MPs in traditional Tory seats in the south fear that a renewed focus on the north of England could mean their regions are being overlooked. Downing Street appears serious in supporting O’Brien, however, with the MP addressing Cabinet on his plans this month and meeting with Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Uncomfortable in society
The new job is a dream come true for O’Brien, who has worked on the issue of regional inequalities through his work in think tanks and government for most of his career.
In that vein, admirers wondered why he hadn’t made more progress in this area. “I was struck by the fact that he was someone who was clearly very capable, very brilliant, but who did not immediately get the preference within the Conservative Party,” said Norman Lamb, a former MP. Liberal Democrat who worked with O’Brien on the science and technology committee. “There are many of his contemporaries who are now ministers. And it is not. And is it because he didn’t scream loud enough? Has this had a big enough impact internally? ”
One reason may be his calm nature and allergy to Westminster schmoozing. “He’s not at all socially confident. He’s not going to walk into a room and slap people on the back, ”said a former colleague. “You don’t think you just met Bill Clinton when you just met him. Neil’s skills and character become more visible when you get to know him better. Allies cite his long journey as a behind-the-scenes influencer and the respect he has earned for his mastery of substance.
O’Brien worked on the “Power Plant of the North” – a precursor to the upgrade plan – as an advisor to former Chancellor George Osborne, then advised then-Prime Minister Theresa May on industrial strategy. But Johnson is the first prime minister who owes great results to working class seats in the North and Midlands after helping to win him a majority of 80 seats.
“I think Neil was probably one of those people who identified, before anyone named it, why a leveling was needed,” said Nicky Morgan, a Tory colleague and former cabinet minister, who worked alongside O’Brien at the Trésor.
Indeed, O’Brien wrote about how the Conservatives could convince voters of the hearts of the working class as early as 2012. Morgan said his experience – growing up in Huddersfield where he attended public school – was a vital link to his later work.
Other colleagues agree. “If you’re from a public school in Huddersfield, you must have thought about this,” said a Tory MP. “Obviously something clicked that made him think center-right politics was the right way to approach it.”
It was seeing Huddersfield come out of the 1980s recession that made O’Brien political, said a person who knows him well. He explained how the elements of the takeover were successful, but problems remained as areas were left behind despite what he saw as the triumphalism of the New Labor administration.
Now O’Brien is inside, with the tools to make real change and make his obsession a reality.