James digital minister as Hancock steps up

Margot James is the government’s new digital minister, as incumbent Matt Hancock steps up to become secretary of state in the same department, as a result of the ministerial reshuffle by Theresa May. Julian Blake reports.

matt hancockIt’s not quite the managerial merry-go-round of football’s premier league, but the tenure of UK government ministers continues to be worryingly short – with policymaking and network building sure to be affected. Just as a minister starts to grasp their brief, they’re off.

Take this week’s ministerial reshuffle, which sees Matt Hancock, digital minister since 2016, step up to the cabinet as culture secretary. He replaces Karen Bradley at the top table, as she in turn moves over to Northern Ireland. Both had been in office barely 18 months.

Bradley was seldom heard talking tech, apart from when she unveiled the government’s delayed digital strategy early last year, allowing Hancock to lead on digital.

Given his short tenure and limited room for manoeuvre, Hancock was reasonably regarded in digital circles, following on from work by his predecessor Ed Vaizey. Most recently, Hancock led the introduction of a green paper on internet safety, proposing a code of practice for social media, and pressed for more investment in broadband, with the work of his team feeding through into November’s budget.

As digital minister, Hancock was also a supporter of tech for good innovation, and his control of the culture department overall may at least offer some continuity in that space. “It’s great to have someone who’s championed the digital sector so strongly joining cabinet,” tweeted RocketSpace London chief Priya Guha.

Margot James, Hancock’s successor as digital minister, arrives from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where she was small business minister for 18 months. MP for Stourbridge since 2010, James was previously a local councillor in Kensington & Chelsea.

James is well respected in business circles, with her entrepreneurial background as co-founder of public relations and clinical trials business Shire Health Group. Her company was bought by WPP Group in 2004, with James becoming head of European healthcare for WPP subsidiary Ogilvy & Mather. She campaigned to remain in the EU referendum.

margot jamesIn her previous role, James was government champion of the industry-led Scale-Up Taskforce, including keynoting at the launch of Sherry Coutu’s annual Scale-Up Report in November. That experience, alongside her own business life, gives her firm grounding for the digital startup world.

As minister of state with a portfolio covering digital and creative industries, James will have a full in-tray, including looking at what government can do to help overcome the major trust deficit in tech business that is moving to the top of the political agenda.

James has a strong charity background. As well as looking after corporate responsibility in her last ministerial role, she is a former trustee of African women’s charity Abantu, where over 10 years she trained women from 40 countries in communications and lobbying skills. She has also mentored for The Prince’s Trust and Young Enterprise.

But how long will James and Hancock get in their new jobs? Given the political instability of the minority government, it could be only a matter of time before the next shift. Labour’s shadow digital minister, Liam Byrne, will be ready to step into James’s shoes should the opportunity arise. For a bit of continuity, perhaps the prime minister should put the merry-go-round brakes on for a while.

Reshuffle in full.