Symbol of the sickening Tory chumocracy

Published by The i paper (21st June, 2021)

If you want an example of so much that is wrong with our country, consider this fact: Dido Harding has applied to become chief executive of England’s National Health Service. She thinks she should run our most cherished, complex and arguably important institution, the biggest employer in Europe, at this time of immense crisis.

It faces a vast backlog of cases in wake of the pandemic that has left staff drained, while many existing problems such as dire mental health provision, poor patient outcomes, a culture of cover-up and reliance on a shattered social care system have been inflamed. And despite her dismal track record in both private and public sectors, she might just get the job.

Clearly Baroness Harding of Winscombe is not the best person in the world to lead the salvaging of a post-pandemic health service and forge a new path for its future. Yet it is worth considering her candidature. For she exemplifies the breathtaking arrogance of the governing elite, the insouciance of those who think they are born to rule over the rest of us, the inequality that bedevils our nation, the cronyism and tribalism that stymies progress, the casual contempt for the little people who fund their activities and the disturbing ability of a few well-connected folk to thrive despite persistent failure.

Harding is the grand-daughter of a general who was given a hereditary peerage after being linked to a series of horrific colonial atrocities in Cyprus, Kenya and Malaya. She is very much part of the Tory chumocracy – married to a Tory MP, made a life peer by her pal from Oxford University, David Cameron, friends with the Health Secretary Matt Hancock through their shared love of horse-racing. Indeed, she is a director of the Jockey Club, which infamously pressed ahead with last year’s Cheltenham Festival despite the looming first lockdown and recently lost its chief executive over bullying and racism incidents.

She met her husband at McKinsey, one of those self-serving consultancies that has burrowed its way into Whitehall like knotweed in a suburban garden despite having to pay out massive fines for ties to a destructive corruption scandal in South Africa and its toxic role in the opioid addiction crisis devastating the United States. 

After stints at Tesco and Thomas Cook, she came to public notice as chief executive of TalkTalk, fined for billing customers for services they never received and winning the wooden spoon award for worst public service two years in a row – the first firm to achieve the unwanted double. “In the past, a winner has taken the wooden spoon as a wake-up call and improved its customer service,” noted one business writer.

She stood down 18 months after the firm suffered a damaging cyber-attack, after her pay package had doubled despite the incident costing the company £60m and more than 100,000 customers. The firm was lambasted for weak security and its share price fell almost one-third in a year, but Harding dismissed the attack as “ancient history” and spoke breezily about focusing next on public service.

Lo and behold, she was appointed head of the NHS Improvement Board a few months later despite her lack of health qualifications. This body is meant to bring together all the disparate parts to improve patient safety, yet the NHS has been scared by a series of recent horror stories. Certainly I have noted its shameful silence during my own investigations into the abusive detention of people with autism and learning disabilities in psychiatric hospitals.

Then Hancock handed her the key job of leading the Test and Trace programme in the pandemic, saying with tragic lack of self-awareness that he could not “think of anyone better than Dido”. The result was a testing system that almost collapsed as last autumn’s second wave took off, a tracing system that failed to trace anything like sufficient number of people and an astonishing bill for taxpayers of £37bn for the programme’s first two years – including hundreds of consultants from firms such as McKinsey pocketing up to £6,624 a day. Three months ago, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that, despite spending “unimaginable sums”, it still was not clear if Test and Trace was working effectively.

Harding – who defended rates paid to consultants equivalent to more than £1.65m a year as “very competitive”, which shows the sort of world she inhabits – admitted last year “with the benefit of hindsight the balance between the supply and the demand forecast wasn’t right”.

Yet having staggered from failure to failure, she arrogantly thinks the entire NHS with its £150bn budget should be placed in her hands. She says she will even resign from the Conservative Party if she gets the job. And to press home her case with our grimly populist government, she is spewing out its nationalist creed with “friends” telling a Sunday newspaper she will end the NHS’s reliance on foreign doctors and nurses.

Certainly it would make sense to train more medics, although it would be costly in the short-term while many may take their expensively acquired skills abroad. But this is dog-whistle politics – a display of xenophobia insulting to all those foreign-born people who have propped up the NHS since its birth and in recent months risked their lives to perform heroics during the pandemic. It also panders to the myth of the brain drain. Studies show medical migration can transfer money, skills and technology to developing countries, thus is far more effective than most of our aid policies in assisting poorer parts of the planet.

The job of NHS chief is not to preach politics but to sort out a dysfunctional system, reduce waiting times, improve management and protect safety. The idea that the candidature of someone such as Harding is even being taken seriously shows only the problems that plague our politics, our system of government and our wider society. She is part of the sickness, not the cure.

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