Five of the last secretaries of state (Shailesh Vara, Brandon Lewis, Julian Smith, Karen Bradley and the late James Brokenshire) were in office during periods when the assembly/executive weren’t—for one reason or another—functioning.
Chris Heaton-Harris joined that list around 8pm on Tuesday evening. And while I don’t want to rain on his parade too early, I’m not expecting things to change for him anytime soon.
He starts with a slight disadvantage: he wasn’t the first choice for the job. To be honest, I’m not even sure he was on the original list of possible contenders. Indeed—with SoSNI already scheduled to take parliamentary questions just after 11.30 on Wednesday morning—by 8pm on Tuesday it was getting to the point at which Liz Truss was probably prepared to appoint the next person who crossed her eyeline (other than Conor Burns and Julian Smith, obviously).
But we are where we are and he is where he is. He made a decent enough fist of his first outing at the dispatch box: dull, nuanced, cautious and unprovocative. Exactly what he needed to be. No bricks dropped and no hostages to fortune left in his wake. According to both Simon Coveney and Jim Allister (who knew him when they were all MEPs) he’s fairly easy to get on with and that affability should come in handy when he begins his round of party meetings over his first few days in office.
It wasn’t, of course, a particular surprise that Liz Truss had a problem finding a new secretary of state. A solution to the ongoing stasis may not exist, making the role an unattractive one for someone wanting to earn brownie points and secure future promotions within the cabinet (where SoSNI is officially ranked 17th in importance).
That said, Julian Smith managed to bamboozle the DUP and SF back to work in January 2020, after a three-year hiatus, and his reward was - absolutely nothing, actually. Rather, he was punished for success.
So, in one sense Heaton-Harris has nothing to prove. I don’t think anyone in London, Dublin, Belfast or Brussels is expecting anything of him (and I don’t mean to be insulting when I say that, by the way). His main task at local level is to ensure that all the necessary channels of communication are kept open and every practical option is explored. Fair enough, the chances of a breakthrough are not high, but finding a way of cooling heads and underpinning everyday civility between the parties is, in itself, particularly important.
Meanwhile, what of his boss? Watching her at the podium in Downing Street on Monday teatime was like déjà vu from different perspectives. I was reminded of David Cameron on the morning of May 8, 2015, celebrating the first Conservative majority since 1987. He set out the future of the United Kingdom under his government. Just over a year later—following his defenestration of himself—Theresa May stood at the Downing Street podium and set out her version of the future. Then, three years later, Boris Johnson sprawled across the podium and roared his version of the future. Finally (although that may be too optimistic a word to use) Liz Truss darted up between showers and squeaked her outline of the future.
Four prime ministers from the same party, providing the lynchpins for each changing government and cabinet and each offering personal versions of the future. Truss’s list included a ‘bold plan’ for the economy and rebuilding the NHS. Hmm. I’m fairly sure the other three promised to do that, too. Her biggest immediate problem is the energy and cost-of-living crisis and her strategy appears to consist of doing all the things she told various leadership hustings audiences over the past few weeks that she wouldn’t do. Again, hmm.
In her victory speech on Monday she praised Johnson for getting Brexit done. In her first official speech as prime minister she thanked him again for getting Brexit done. Had the NI Protocol Bill—which she was responsible for introducing back in June—crossed her mind, she might have mentioned that Brexit hadn’t, in fact, been done. That she and every single one of her inner team and prospective cabinet/ministerial colleagues had voted for the protocol. That in so doing she and they had been responsible for changing the nature of the relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
But no, she didn’t think that was worth mentioning or acknowledging, let alone including as a priority of any kind. And I think that’s because she doesn’t regard it as a priority.