When Nick Hurd was introduced as the longest-serving charities minister
at a reception at the Institute of Fundraising convention last week, he muttered something enigmatic about how much longer it would last. Whether under pressure or otherwise, it seems likely he had already knew by then that he would be going.
Any pressure he felt may well be linked to his position on the HS2 rail link. Hurd is an environmentalist representing a west London constituency affected by the government’s plans, is opposed to them in their present form and abstained in the recent Commons vote that backed them. He is attempting to secure increased compensation for his constituents and an expensive extension of a tunnel that at the moment is due to emerge in Ruislip and carve through the Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre. Local media have quoted him saying that if he doesn’t get the changes he is campaigning for, he will vote against the project at the next stage.
But he may well also have felt that six years of close engagement with the voluntary sector was enough, and said in one of his farewell tweets that, although he loved it, it drove him nuts sometimes. He was the shadow charities minister for 18 months before being appointed as the Minister for Civil Society when the coalition government came to power more than four years ago, so his involvement is extraordinarily long, even in a government of hitherto minimal reshuffles.
His job may have had its dispiriting side, too. He often said he didn’t come into politics to make cuts, but that has been his fate in the years of austerity, hacking back or axing many programmes brought in by Labour. As a result, he faced constant complaint and protest. And he sometimes had an uphill struggle getting the rest of Whitehall to understand the voluntary sector and give it due consideration. Aspects of the Work Programme, the “philanthropy tax” that was eventually withdrawn, and the lobbying act appeared at times to put his loyalty to the government under considerable strain. And he never seemed entirely comfortable fronting David Cameron’s concept of the big society.
There was plenty of money available for him to get the National Citizen Service under way, but in other respects he has had to make the most of diminishing budgets for a series of initiatives including the community organisers programme and various funds to prime the pump for social investment, which was a passion of his – possibly because of his background in banking before he was elected in 2005. The launch of Big Society Capital was a high point for him.
To some extent it is puzzling that Hurd did not make greater progress in government. His father Douglas held senior Cabinet positions in the Thatcher government, and when he was appointed one sector luminary predicted that he too would be in the Cabinet before long. Factors that ,ogjt have counted against him have been that he was another old Etonian in a government that already looked over-privileged, and that he is a moderate, one-nation Tory at a time when the right is gaining ground.
Alternatively, or in addition, he may not have harboured significant ambitions, and his repeated protestations that there was no other job he would want in government might have been genuine. He is now getting his life back, and has a large family to spend more time with, including four children from his first marriage, and a second child on the way from his second marriage.
Unlike some predecessors, Hurd never gave the sector the impression that he was just passing impatiently through. Although things became repetitive and combative sometimes, there was little doubt that he believed in the fundamental importance of voluntary action in a healthy society and was genuinely engaged and interested in the detail of the work. The sector will be lucky to get a replacement prepared to get inside the skin of the sector to the extent that he did.