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Unity in the Council of Ministers to help us get a new hospital? No chance

Voices | Published:

By Gary Burgess

(23838060)

THE great thing about the end of collective responsibility within the Council of Ministers is that every outcome can be interpreted however you wish.

It’s much like the police’s Christmas drink-drive campaign. If they catch more people, it’s been a success. If they catch fewer people, it’s been a success because it deterred drink-driving.

For the Chief Minister, the recent debate about whether to use Ann Court for social housing or a new States HQ was an excellent case in point.

The External Relations, Housing, Home Affairs, Treasury, Health and Education ministers all opposed the Chief Minister’s cunning plan to biff off long-planned homes at the eleventh hour, while his Infrastructure, Environment, and Economic Development ministers, plus his two assistant chief ministers, backed their boss.

It’s a triumph for a government of all the talents across a divergent range of views, if you wish.

It’s also an example of a split at the top table on an issue (housing) that is meant to be a key priority in this parliament.

One thing that is clear is that the Reform Jersey bloc helped win the day for those in the social housing camp.

In a vote that ended 26 for and 20 against, their support – while entirely expected – was key.

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It’s also one of the first major moments of the ‘class of 2018’ which showed how Reform Jersey having a minister at the top table can make a tangible difference.

Beyond that, what else does it mean? Well, for the ministers (in the plural), who have privately aired their concerns over the Chief Minister’s approach to some big decisions that would appear to involve forming a plan in his triumvirate alongside his two Assistant Chief Ministers before thrashing things out around the Council of Ministers’ table, it all adds to the tetchiness.

There’s also concern, from the back benches to the front, about just how much of the show is actually being driven by the most senior civil servants, rather than by ministers.

There’s the story of one minister being told by a very senior civil servant to ‘just f***ing do it’ when internal debate began on a particular proposition (which has yet to be tabled). Some may argue that’s just robust debate; others worry that the tail really is wagging the dog.

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Then there’s the rumoured upcoming vote of confidence in the Chief Minister. It appears to be just corridor talk at the moment, while those who would rather someone else conduct the political orchestra gather enough support for their plan.

It doesn’t seem likely to me that it’ll happen any time soon. But you never know, these days!

So, for now, the one decision we do have is that social housing will be built at Ann Court.

Next week, the question of where to build a hospital. Again. Again. Again. The debate is essentially whether to axe Gloucester Street as the agreed site and go explore a new shortlist.

Deputy Russell Labey is leading that one, and the Council of Minsters have given their conditional backing on the basis that the gazillions spent so far aren’t completely written off.

That’s the easy bit. The bigger work is finding somebody with enough political mettle to drive through a convincing plan that’s well communicated and has broad public support. For that to happen, even without collective responsibility, the Council of Ministers will need to remain completely united.

And the chance of that happening is somewhere near nil.

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