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How will Boris Johnson’s digital team impact the tech sector? | Startups

How will Boris Johnson’s digital team impact the tech sector? | Startups

Boris Johnson’s cabinet cull dwarfed the record set by Harold Macmillan in 1962. The ministers with digital portfolios were not exempt from the purge, but the most significant appointment for the tech sector may be in Johnson’s new team of advisers.  The digital overhaul started at the very top of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Boris Johnson’s cabinet cull dwarfed the record set by Harold Macmillan in 1962. The ministers with digital portfolios were not exempt from the purge, but the most significant appointment for the tech sector may be in Johnson’s new team of advisers. 

The digital overhaul started at the very top of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) with the sacking of the secretary of state Jeremy Wright. The Kenilworth and Southam MP had only been in the role for one uneventul year and may have paid the price for his support for both Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s rival to succeed her.

© iStock/DZarzycka
© iStock/DZarzycka

Wright was promptly replaced by Nicky Morgan, who had been chairing the Commons Treasury committee since the last election.

The Loughborough MP has had little direct involvement in digital policy but supported a campaign to achieve better broadband in her local constituency. She will now lead the daunting task of achieving Johnson’s pledge to bring “fantastic full-fibre broadband sprouting in every household” by 2025, eight years ahead of the government’s target deadline.

Morgan is a remainer but gained allies within the leave camp after backing the “Malthouse compromise”, a plan to bridge the Brexit divide in the Tory party by replacing the Irish backstop with a free trade agreement that would avoid border checks. 

In her previous ministerial position of education secretary, she supported the introduction of free schools and expansion of academies led by her predecessor Michael Gove before then-Prime Minister Theresa May sacked her in 2016. Morgan went on to back Gove in the Tory leadership contest, despite her opposition to Brexit.

Her voting record on TheyWorkForYou reveals her opposition to increasing the tax rate for income over £150,000 and her support for raising the threshold at which people start to pay income tax, reducing the rate of corporation tax, and stronger enforcement of immigration rules. 

Read next: Will Prime Minister Boris Johnson be good for tech?

Morgan’s views on immigration will likely receive a mixed response from a startup sector concerned about access to talent after Brexit.

She has praised the Conservatives for bringing “immigration back under control, whilst continuing to attract the brightest and the best who contribute to the economy” while advising the government not to “undermine the UK’s reputation as a desirable destination for international students.”

Morgan has suggested removing student numbers from net migration targets and appealed for continued access to EU funding for science and research for UK institutions. To fill the skills gap left by any reduction in immigration, Morgan has recommended better training of young people for the future labour market. She has repeatedly encouraged more young people in general and girls in particular to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

During her time at the treasury, Morgan commended the government’s efforts to digitise public services, proposed greater R&D tax relief for startups, and touted the benefits of improving digital infrastructure on the UK’s notoriously weak productivity.

Morgan summed up some of her views on technology in a speech responding to the 2017 budget.

“On the industrial strategy, the chancellor is absolutely right to have identified the technology revolution and to say that Britain is at the forefront of it,” he said. “He is right to identify the need for more young people to learn maths and computer science to a higher level.

“We have to find a way of exciting everyone in this country – the next generation, and their parents and grandparents – about the technology revolution. We need them to be confident that they have the skills that will meet the demands of the future labour market, rather than frightened by change in the 21st century. This key part of our plan for a fairer Britain will unlock prosperity.”

The new DCMS team

Joining Morgan at DCMS is Nigel Adams, the new minister for sport, media and the creative industries – whose responsibilities include oversight of departmental plans on Brexit, data and cyber security – and Matt Warman as parliamentary under secretary of state for digital and broadband.

Both have more far more digital credentials than most of their fellow MPs. Adams skipped university to pursue a career in telecommunications and by the age of 26 had founded his own business – Digital Telecom Limited – supported by a £20-a-week grant from the Enterprise Allowance Scheme introduced by the John Major government.

Read next: Digital secretary Jeremy Wright reveals plans for data ethics centre

Adams sold the business in 1999 and went on to acquire NGC Networks Limited but remained a shareholder. In 2017, he had had to apologise for failing to declare his interest in the company while taking part in parliamentary inquiries relating to the telecoms industry, although a Commons committee found that he had no intention of concealing his interest.

He became an MP in 2010 and has a similar voting record to Morgan on tax and immigration, but unlike his new boss, Adams is a Brexiter and a close ally of Boris Johnson. He has previously expressed support for the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme in Wales and the Superfast North Yorkshire broadband project and has urged the government to ensure that every part of the UK gets access to superfast broadband.

Warman’s digital experience is from his time as a journalist covering technology for the Daily Telegraph from 1999 until 2015, when he was elected MP for Boston and Skegness, and promptly made a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee.

He voted remain in the EU referendum and has also co-chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Broadband and Digital Communication and Pictfor (The Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum).

Warman’s most notable contributions to tech policy are his campaigning for better broadband speeds and criticisms of internet service providers making misleading claims about their connection speeds.

Completing the new leadership team at DCMS are new minister for civil society Baroness Barran MBE and Rebecca Pow MP, who keeps her role parliamentary under secretary of state for arts, heritage and tourism after supporting Johnson’s leadership campaign.

Beyond DCMS, Andrea Leadsom has replaced Greg Clark as secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, while Oliver Dowden has been promoted from minister for implementation to minister for the cabinet office and paymaster general. His previous position gave him oversight of the Government Digital Service and a replacement in the role is yet to be named.

Changes at GDS

The Johnson administration has also wasted no time in making changes at the top of the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Cabinet Office unit in charge of driving digital transformation within government.

MP Simon Hart was given ministerial responsibility for GDS after he was confirmed as minister for implementation, succeeding Oliver Dowden, who was promoted to the position of minister for the Cabinet Office.

Hart’s other responsibilities include oversight of cyber security, the Geospatial Commission, public appointments and Civil Service HR.

The Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MP and served as chief executive of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance before entering Parliament in 2010. He voted remain in the 2016 referendum and went on to back both Theresa May’s Chequers plan and the withdrawal agreement, but nonetheless endorsed Boris Johnson in the Conservative leadership race.

Hart has little IT experience and has rarely mentioned technology in the Commons, but he does sit on the Digital, Culture Media and Sport Committee, where his most notable contribution was grilling Epic Games representatives on the need to measure the impact of screen time on Fortntite players and the risks of video games addiction.

Read next: The major milestones of the Government Digital Service (GDS)

Joining Hart at the GDS summit is Alison Pritchard, who was appointed interim director general of the unit after her predecessor Kevin Cunnington was chosen as head of the newly created International Government Service.

Pritchard was director for EU exit and transformation at GDS prior to taking on her current role and has also served as ‘director of transformation’ at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

She set out her aims for GDS in a blog post, in which she emphasised the need to accelerate momentum on existing work, including all the essential work on EU Exit, and securing the unit’s future by pushing “data analytics, digital identity and embedding of innovation”.

Her efforts will play a key role in the future of GDS, which has lost a number of responsibilities and senior staff members in recent months.

In July, the Science and Technology Select Committee released report on GDS recommending that the government clarifies its role and its relationships with other departments. The committee suggested giving it a dual role: “To provide advice to departments when needed, but also to devise and enforce minimum standards to be applied consistently across government digital services.”

It will be up to Hart and Pritchard to apply these recommendations and shape the future of GDS.

Behind the scenes 

Those searching for the true digital direction of Johnson’s government might have to look more closely at his unelected team, most notably in the appointment of Dominic Cummings as a senior adviser.

Cummings is best known as the digitally savvy mastermind of Vote Leave, where he coined the campaign’s “vote leave, take back control” slogan, won a referendum and became the central character in a TV thriller, but was also found to have broken electoral law by overspending.

In March, Cummings was ruled to be in contempt of Parliament after failing to appear before a House of Commons committee investigating the role of disinformation during the EU referendum campaign.

Cummings made data a fundamental part of the Vote Leave campaign and has repeatedly accused the government of failing to effectively use data-driven decision-making.

He has also made some powerful enemies during his stints as a political advisor. He called then-Conservative leader Ian Duncan Smith “incompetent”, former Brexit secretary David Davis “thick as mince” and “lazy as a toad”. He said that David Cameron’s chief of staff Ed Llewellyn was a “classic third-rate, suck-up-kick-down sycophant” and Cameron himself “a sphinx without a riddle”. Cameron responded by describing Cummings as a “career psychopath”.

He has a better relationship with Michael Gove, who appointed Cummings as his chief of staff in the Department for Education and will be a key ally in their efforts to work with the civil service on Brexit.

Cummings was a prolific blogger prior to joining the government and his lengthy posts are crammed with references to technology, data, startups and the importance of STEM education.

He has a track record of working with startups and has praised seed accelerators such as YCombinator for welcoming European talent in California, “while the EU’s regulatory structure is dominated by massive incumbent multinationals like Goldman Sachs that use the Single Market to crush startup competitors.”

He has also attacked GDPR as “a legal and bureaucratic nightmare” and American regulation as reflecting “the interests of powerful companies”, while Brexit gives the UK “a chance to regulate data better than either”.

Cummings’ appearance on his first day in his new job gave a hint of what to expect. While suited politicos took centre stage, Cummings was photographed lurking in the background of the corridors of power wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of artificial intelligence research company OpenAI.

The next day, a story in the Guardian gave a taster of what to expect. It revealed that the Conservatives had already posted hundreds of Facebook ads to test the political messaging for a general election that may be mere months away. That election will be a decisive test of Cummings’ digital skills but the true impact of Johnson’s digital team will likely remain unknown until after the result.


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Susan E. Lopez

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