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The Cabinet Office has put government on war footing to help people get through this winter

Kit Malthouse arrives at Downing Street (Alamy)

4 min read

No less than a "National Winter Mission" will be needed to combat soaring energy bills and other crises in the coming weeks, says Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Kit Malthouse.

Anyone who thought declining Covid numbers would restore life as we knew it is probably feeling bewildered these days. But within government, the cliché that life comes at you fast is nowhere more apt than at the Cabinet Office, where I was posted as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster just eight short weeks ago.

Although most of its work happens behind the scenes, this little-known department is the Swiss Army Knife of the UK government, ready to turn itself to any challenge faced by our country and fielding the balls no other department can catch. This summer has thrown up a lot of them: a record heat wave, wildfires, flash floods, fuel blockades, severe transport disruption and strikes have all crowded the screens of the new National Situation Centre at 70 Whitehall.

Whilst managing this turbulence, we have also put the government on a war footing to plan for the coming winter, galvanising action in critical departments. And meantime there’s been business as usual: reconfiguring our resilience and risk planning to make it more agile and predictive, launching a nationwide emergency text service and publishing a new government property strategy.

This is all on top of building a powerful delivery engine so a new Prime Minister can press hard on the accelerator and get a swift response, especially in difficult policy areas such as small boats, ambulance response times and Covid backlogs, where focus, innovation and drive are critical.

The ability of the Cabinet Office to deliver the Prime Minister’s agenda at speed across government will be pivotal to the future of the country. In the short term, galvanizing Whitehall to embrace a collective “National Winter Mission” that will get everyone through the next few difficult months, while communicating to the public how we can all help reduce our energy usage and lift the burden on the NHS by getting vaccinated against flu and Covid, will be the critical challenge.

Over the summer I have gathered officials and minsters from across Whitehall to identify these pressure points, particularly in the NHS, and address critical operational decisions that should be taken without delay. We have mapped out key moments over the next 18 months where identifiable groups might face significant additional challenges, and formulated options so that decisions can be made swiftly once a new administration is in place.

In the coming weeks, the Cabinet Office will continue its work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make sure that gas and electricity system operators can respond to fluctuations in supply and demand. Work is also underway with international partners to monitor and share information at a time of severe volatility.

While the Treasury will lead on immediate steps to tackle the twin shocks of global inflation and energy prices, jolting the UK economy into growth and avoiding a recession must be priorities. Fiscal choices must balance short- and longer-term outcomes. For example, while the rises in corporation tax and National Insurance should rightly be on the table, along with considering the plight of energy intensive companies, the biggest single brake on growth is surely the ever-growing complexity of the tax system itself. A well-considered but radical simplification drive would secure as much wider benefit as a tax cut.

As part of the national effort to fight global inflation, no doubt the new Prime Minister will want to urgently reopen the spending review, too. We have to examine the affordability of commitments made in very different circumstances.

Since Gordon Brown’s premiership, 10 Downing Street has largely been shut out of this process, which is typically salami-sliced on a departmental basis, confusing overall priorities. But it’s now critical that the Prime Minister sets out clear priorities in the review. I have already started work on a sharp appraisal of capital projects across the board, with a focus on what I have called the “killer whales”: large projects that are so expensive and risky they could surface at any moment and savage the national finances yet further.

Over the years there has been much debate about the effectiveness of 10 Downing Street, and the need to create a Prime Minister’s Department equipped with the levers to drive change. Now is the time for the Cabinet Office to step forward and fulfil that role. After an intensive summer, with a firm grip of events, revamped risk management and a newly configured, vigorous delivery engine, we are primed and ready.

Kit Malthouse is Conservative MP for North West Hampshire and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

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