Q: What do lanyards have to do with delivering public services? A: Absolutely nothing

Esther McVey's EDI crackdown is a fake war, against fake enemy from a minister with a fake job title
Esther McVey. Photo: Amanda Rose/Alamy

By Dave Penman

17 May 2024

Despite the huge furore over Esther McVey’s speech, some of you may not yet have had the chance to listen to the full 22 minutes of it. Maybe as “left wing, politically correct woke warriors” – yes, that’s how she described some civil servants – you were too busy running a diversity network to listen to her sermon. As the old saying goes, I did so you don’t have to.

It was, shall we say, a wide-ranging speech. A whistlestop tour of all the issues that we had lost our way on. She revelled in the mantle of ‘minister for common sense’, then sought to aggrandise her role as minister without portfolio while reminding everyone – in case they thought that was the made-up job title – that Ken Clarke and Peter Mandelson had held the role before. ‘See, I really am important’ was the vibe.

She then spent the next quarter of an hour criticising the last 14 years of Conservative rule. It’s a novel approach for a serving minister, but we were treated to criticisms of HS2 (Tory idea), net zero commitments (Tory idea) or “gold-plated net zero” as she liked to call it – you can just see her speechwriters high-fiving each other in a small meeting room in 70 Whitehall when one of them came up with that phrase. Universities were criticised for accepting foreign students to help subsidise their costs (Tory idea), we had attacks on record migration (under Tory govt) record illegal migration (under Tory govt) and the rise in working age inactivity (under Tory govt). So the common sense fightback, as she kept calling it, was to undo the terrible ‘woke’ legacy of 14 years of Conservative rule.

I missed her speech first time around, as it was my birthday and I was walking in the Essex countryside with my son. A pleasant experience, increasingly interrupted by incredulous texts from a variety of journalists. In particular, the exchange with Henry Riley from LBC was making the rounds. This focussed on one of the few actual things she said she was going to do as part of this common-sense fightback, ban civil servants from using their own lanyards. She said they “shouldn’t be a random pick and mix. They should be a standard design… Working in the civil service is all about leaving your political views at the building entrance. Trying to introduce them by the back door via lanyards should not happen”.

Henry Riley asked her about this and gave rainbow lanyards as the example. I think it says a lot about Esther McVey’s world view that she views rainbow lanyards as political activism of the sort that undermines a civil servant’s impartiality. They are a statement, but one of pride or solidarity with the LGBT community. They are not party political, but part of a welcome progression of social attitudes that allows LGBT individuals to be open about their identity, or enables allies to show support and acceptance to LGBT people. The rainbow flag is not an imposition of ideology, but an expression of freedom. It transcends party politics, as the response to her comments has shown.

No.10 eventually reigned that bit in, after initially saying they fully supported her comments, but the damage was done. When confronted about this by Channel 4, McVey tried to deny she had ever talked about banning them. Common sense would normally have dictated that if you don’t want to be quoted, don’t live stream a speech.

The speech ultimately had very little substance. Her claim that new guidance on impartiality and banning external equality and diversity spend marks “a major delivery milestone on public sector reform and underpins my work to drive efficiency across all areas of government” suggests she really needs to get out more. The TaxPayers' Alliance and Institute for Economic Affairs might think it’s all civil servants do, but I’m not sure the civil servants I know will notice much of a difference.

It was a fake war, against fake enemy from a minister with a fake job title. It was as detached from the reality of delivering public services as it was possible to get. Record waiting lists in hospitals and courts, a war in mainland Europe, the housing crisis, the productivity challenge – all the real-world issues that civil servants are trying to grapple with and this is what we get from a government minister. Serious government it is not, but then that’s not why the minister with the made-up job title is actually there, is it?

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