The announcement first appeared in The Sun at 5.20pm on 13 November, close to the end of Rishi Sunak’s surprise reshuffle. Describing Esther McVey as a ‘common sense tsar’, the paper stated that a ‘Whitehall insider’ had told them she would be “leading the charge on the government’s anti-woke agenda”. Other media outlets quickly picked up the description and no effort was made to change it by any government representative. But when Bylines asked the Cabinet Office for its definition of common sense, no reply was forthcoming.
We asked the government – what is common sense?
Does the government know what common sense is? McVey herself told The Express, “This is a fantastic opportunity to get common sense policies through – the last chance before the election. It means that I can speak up for working people.” This presupposes, however, that it is obvious what working people want.
Several media outlets, including McVey’s recent employer, GB News, have described common sense as being in opposition to ‘woke’ or ‘wokery’, but the government was not able to supply a definition of these either. At the Conservative Party Conference last month, Suella Braverman spoke of supporting a “law-abiding, hard-working common-sense majority, against the few, the privileged woke minority with their luxury beliefs,” but what makes a belief luxurious was not spelled out.
Ought it to be obvious? This is, no doubt, what the government would like us to think. The trouble is that, over the course of history, all sorts of things have been considered common sense, such as the Earth being flat, smoking being good for the health and women being unfit to vote (let alone hold ministerial positions). Just this March, in response to the Scottish government’s appointment of Jamie Hepburn as its Minister for Independence, we were told that it was common sense that a government should not appoint a minister in a purely political role, which makes one wonder, again, what exactly McVey is being paid for.
McVey – not an obvious choice
If one were seeking to appoint a minister to deal with miscellaneous practical matters on which there was widespread agreement, she would not be the obvious choice. She has clearly struggled with common sense in the past, such as the time she claimed that a National Audit Office report showed benefit claimants should be moved onto Universal Credit more quickly when in fact it called for the process to be paused, or the time she bought into a conspiracy theory that all EU member states were going to be forced to join the Euro (despite plentiful evidence to the contrary). Then there was the time in 2019 when she announced, several decades late, that architects had just started working on computers, and the time she claimed that a 17th Century painting depicted the Suffragette movement.
Looking at what other leading Conservatives have said about common sense is not much more useful. There seems to be a common thread of positioning it in opposition to climate change mitigation measures. Rishi Sunak described his decision to shift targets on the phase-out of combustion engine cars as “good conservative common sense”, and Jacob Rees-Mogg has argued that “Common sense dictates that if the Meteorological Office cannot forecast the next season’s weather with any success it is ambitious to predict what will happen decades ahead.”
There is also a clear fear – verging on paranoia – about the safety of this ill-defined concept. “Where a consensus is false, we will challenge it. Where a vested interest is placing itself above the needs of the people, we will stop it. And where common sense is under attack from an organised assault, we will defend it,” asserted Sunak last month. But others see it differently. “My Conservatism is about pragmatism and common sense – it’s about respect for individual rights…it’s not right wing,” said Rory Stewart in 2019.
More recently, Suella Braverman spoke about the need to “get back to common sense policing,” shortly before being challenged by the Met over perceived interference with its operational independence, and being sacked for inciting a ring-wing extremist riot at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day – not what most of us would call common sense.
The high price of common sense
Laying claim to the phrase in Parliament is the Common Sense Group, a collection of backbench Conservative MPs which is sizeable enough to have significant influence over the direction of government in light of the divisions in the party. This is one of the groups which Braverman will be relying on as she seeks to build up enough support to challenge her former boss. It, too, frequently expresses concern over ‘the woke agenda’, which it equates with ‘cultural Marxism’, alluding to a far right antisemitic conspiracy theory which posits, amongst other things, that traditional Western values are under threat from educated people.
McVey, however, is not part of the Common Sense Group. She belongs to Conservative Way Forward, which was founded by Margaret Thatcher and is principally concerned with continuing the Thatcherite project. In 1979, Thatcher pledged to “unite the country by the politics of common sense”, so one might think that, by now, the party would have figured out what that is.
Formally speaking, McVey is a Minister without Portfolio, which means that she is free to pursue quite a flexible brief – and yet, beyond the waffle, no information has been provided as to what her core duties will be. For this, the multi-millionaire politician will receive £31,680 a year, on top of her MP salary of £86,584. If common sense is really something obvious, why are we paying so much for it?