Business lessons - from the cabinet in-tray

There is a growing chorus of voices calling for clarity on an ‘exit strategy’ from the current crisis. As Government increasingly turns its attention to what such a strategy will look like, businesses are understandably keen to ensure they end up on the right side of this crisis when the dust settles. So what clues are there as to what the future holds? A sensible place to start is to look at the issues that leading Cabinet members are currently tasked with resolving.

The Chancellor is concerned about jobs and the economy. The Education Secretary represents a group of people who, while statistically unlikely to fall seriously ill from coronavirus, are falling behind on their education. The Business Secretary is the voice in Government for a range of sectors that are paralysed by the lockdown and crippled with fear and uncertainty. The Work and Pensions Secretary is responsible for ensuring a welfare system – in the midst of a difficult reform – is not overwhelmed by a huge increase in claimants. Each of these Cabinet members are currently making the case for the lockdown to be amended so that normal economic life can begin to resume

On the other side of the table, the Health Secretary is responsible for the health of the public and the adequate functioning of the National Health Service. His ongoing primary focus is to deal with this crisis, restore the nation to health, and to ensure that there is not a further significant outbreak later in the year. Something that lifting the lockdown measures too soon may precipitate. At present, he benefits from significant public support for his position, so while outnumbered in Cabinet he is able to hold his ground. For the time being.

For some onlookers, this is the correct functioning of Government. For others, it reflects narrow, siloed thinking at a time of national crisis. Either way it is entirely predictable and therefore the process by which it will play out can be predicted with a reasonable degree of confidence too.  Governments can seldom quickly deliver detailed policy. Businesses on the other hand can act first and help shape the debate.  Contributing to the country’s’ needs in the short term, they can focus on the years ahead.  But to do that companies will need the public on their side and have the trust of their own workforce.  Being well positioned will help add authority and help them to guide public policy so that they can be stronger financial position in the wake of the crisis.

Below is a summary of what lies in front for the principal political players and what businesses can glean from this.

Prime Minister

For a man who was accused of being lazy and not across detail, Boris leadership and strategy has been broadly well received – getting messages out to the public and suppressing the urge to use his humour at a time of national crisis. He quickly became the centre of the UK response, with addresses to the nation each night, but scrutiny started to mount about decisions and the country’s preparedness.  That was until he contracted the virus himself. His illness in a time of crisis has humanised him and reminded the public of the dangers of this disease.  His heart-warming praise of the NHS and, in particular the two nurses that stayed with him in his most difficult hours, has re-connected him with the population.

Next challenges:

  • With Cabinet ministers digging in and mindful of their own silos, the PM will have to adjudicate on what a sensible augmentation of the current lockdown arrangements looks like.
  • As well as the substance, he will have to rule on the other key question: timing.


It’s hard to believe that until little over two months ago Rishi Sunak was hardly known. This crisis has changed all of that.  His ability to make the Treasury respond quickly to the unfolding events saw his popularity surge above all his colleagues. He has worked closely with business and third-sector organisations to deliver announcements on economic support, but policy details have had to follow and in some cases are still being ironed out..

Next challenges:

  • Ensuring the details of the schemes are turned into reality
  • Resolving the financial meltdown and turning the corner when the OBR is estimating that the UK economy could shrink by 35% with 2m job losses
  • Winning political support for the battle of “who should pay” for the long-term cost of Covid-19
  • Agreeing the infrastructure plan to build the UK out of recession
  • Preparing the public for the shock of potentially higher inflation and interest rates (for the first time in decades)

Health secretary

Before January, Matt Hancock was known for his enthusiasm and ability as a competent media performer, often taking on difficult communications challenges. However, his colleagues widely believed he was still untested and young, which together with his views on Brexit, held him back in the leadership contest last year. He has been one of the frontmen of this period showing his self-awareness and humanising messages. His return to the frontline post illness, brought credibility back to government messaging at a time that it was under strain.

Next challenges:

  • Getting testing kits to the front line will be the ultimate challenge. He has gambled on large targets for the end of this month that have yet to come close to being achieved
  • Answering difficult questions the UK death toll rises above other European and global nations, not least the additional figures outside of hospitals
  • Ensuring that care home workers can access safety equipment and that care home deaths are properly recorded
  • Knowing when to move from defending the science, to making long term judgements that will reflect on his handling of the crisis in the NHS

Foreign Secretary

Dominic Raab has come from the shadows and into the full beam of the public since this crisis began. The early weeks saw his office and officials overseas criticised as families found it difficult to return to the country and boarders closed.  The repatriation of 300,000 UK citizens from across the world, was met with complexity, delay and a lack of communication. However, in stepping into the large shoes left by the PM while ill, a more personable approach has emerged, and he has started to grow into the role.

Next challenges:

  • Raab has the least immediately problematic Office, but a forthright style and principled stand has caused him to take unpopular stands. So will this return?
  • His handling of the Harry Dunn case, may be less relevant today, but could still return to cause him diplomatic issues in a period that US/UK relations will be needed

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Michael Gove has had one of his quieter periods in Government. Known for being across the detail and having staffers that know all the dark arts, Gove has not had the limelight that he would usually expect.

Next challenges:

  • Gove sits in the Cabinet Office, the department responsible for ensuring cross-Whitehall co-ordination. Listening to departmental issues and flagging the most problematic will take skill.
  • He is also respected and trusted (on matters of policy, if not politics) by the PM. These factors mean that he is likely to be key to brokering agreement between those who are more worried about the nation’s economy and those who are more worried about its health.
  • Keeping a focus on Brexit and the next steps in the negotiation.

Home Secretary

The beginning of the crisis helped move the news agenda away from several difficult weeks for the Home Secretary. She has hardly been seen throughout this period and she is unlikely to be asked to front many of the briefings in the coming weeks. Despite getting on very well with the PM, she was hardly used in the 2019 general election, despite terrorism in London, and journalists will be keen to test her on facts after being unclear on her numbers over the Easter weekend.

Next challenges:

  • Keeping law and order if the restrictions become unpopular in the coming weeks
  • Ensuring a strong response post the spike in domestic violence over the lockdown
  • Assessing whether border control arrangements are suited to the current situation
  • Ongoing legal case about bullying in the home office