Last December, at a London government event at the House of Lords, Paul Scully was congratulated by a fellow speaker for emerging from successive bouts of Team Tory government turmoil still in the post of minister for London.
That spell would would stretch to three-and-three-quarter years before ending unexpectedly this morning by Scully being replaced by his fellow London MP Greg Hands, who yesterday was relieved of his much larger duties as Conservative national chairman.
In view of the string of calamitous by-election defeats his party had sustained during his tenure, the letting go of Hands might as aptly be described as a merciful release from further punishment as a sacking. But why has he now been put in Scully’s place? And what will Hands do in his new role?
The tasks of ministers for London are a little nebulous and the position was scrapped by David Cameron – remember him? – when he became Prime Minister in 2010, but revived by his successor Theresa May in 2016. That six-year period coincided with the latter six years of Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor of London. It ended a month after the election of Sadiq Khan to City Hall.
Should that timeline suggest to you that Tory ministers for London have existed at least in part to provide their line manager – currently Michael Gove, the ongoing “levelling up” secretary – with intelligence about and partisan perspectives on a Labour-run City Hall, you would not be alone.
That said, it hasn’t been all adversarialism by stealth. May’s first appointee, Gavin Barwell, got on well with Khan’s first deputy for housing, James Murray, and City Hall were pleased with both the amount of affordable housing money they negotiated with him and the scope they were allowed to help fund new homes for rent.
Scully sat on the London Recovery Board formed during Covid and led by Khan and London Councils chair Georgia Gould. True, it might have been odd if no representative of national government had been on such a body, but Scully and Khan have been on the same page as central London business groups in calling for the return of VAT-free shopping for international visitors.
The government has not obliged, and in September Scully broke rank in public about the issue. That came after his extraordinary exclusion from the Tory mayoral candidate shortlist in June. Perhaps the MP for Sutton & Cheam won’t be too dismayed at being relieved of his Londonwide duties. Perhaps he’ll welcome having more time to devote to defending his rather marginal seat.
City Hall sources have privately said different things about dealing with Scully, ranging from “he’s a decent bloke” to “he’s a terrible bloke” – and that was just one of them. It is tricky to imagine such ambiguity being felt about Hands.
He regularly put the boot into Khan during his nine months as party chairman and had just valiantly returned to the exacting mission of saying how marvellous Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall is after seeming to impose a period of quarantine upon her following her blundering remark at the Tory conference about Khan’s relationship with London’s Jews.
Hands has, in fact, been minister for London before, for six months from June 2017. This time will be different. The current government is in desperate doldrums and an election for London Mayor is approaching. Hands has already announced on X/Twitter that he will “scrutinise Mayor Khan very closely”. How can his re-appointment by Rishi Sunak be anything other than antagonistic? Will he be a minister for London or a minister for Susan? They aren’t the same thing.
Meanwhile, Hands’s own parliamentary seat, Chelsea & Fulham, doesn’t look entirely secure. Back in 2006, he was hailed as one of the architects of the Tories taking control of Hammersmith & Fulham Council for the first time since 1968. By this time next year, he might be expunged from the political map of London completely.
Update, 20:45: Greg Hands’s Labour challenger for Chelsea & Fulham, Ben Coleman has responded to his appointment as minister for London:
“Presumably this is his reward for having chaired Shaun Bailey’s failed mayoral campaign, best remembered for holding a ‘jingle and mingle’ party during Covid lockdown for which the police fined 24 people. Let’s hope he doesn’t appoint any of the 24 to Susan Hall’s campaign.”
X/Twitter: On London and Dave Hill. Threads: DaveHillOnLondon. Photograph from Greg Hands X/Twitter. If you value On London and its coverage of the capital, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to Dave Hill’s personal Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return, you’ll get a big, fab weekly London newsletter and offers of free tickets to top London events.