For the best part of two days the Prime Minister was tweeting his new appointments, starting with the Cabinet and working through the dozens of junior office holders. The voluntary sector was on tenterhooks: who was going to be the charities minister? It wasn’t among the early announcements, which fed speculation that the Office for Civil Society might even be dissolved as part of a Cabinet Office reorganisation. It has, after all, become less active in recent times.
Towards the end of the second afternoon, there was still no announcement. The speculation shifted towards the incumbent staying in the job; and sure enough, at the last knockings, when the sense of excitement was fading, word finally came out that Rob Wilson was indeed going to continue. It didn’t qualify for a Cameronian tweet: it just sort of happened, in a low-key, slightly uninspiring manner. The leaders of the sector bestirred themselves into customary welcomes, saying how much they were looking forward to working with the minister; and Wilson announced that he was delighted with his re-appointment.
So those who thought that Wilson was a caretaker minister, put in the post to bridge the gap between the fall of Brooks Newmark and last week’s general election, were mistaken. The MP for Reading East will be in the driving seat for the foreseeable future, and the sector is currently scratching its head and wondering what to expect from him.
So far Wilson has been a circumspect, unspectacular performer, which is probably just what the government wanted after the torrid Newmark episode. He has set up Access, the new capacity-building and loans fund intended to complement Big Society Capital, continued to talk up social investment and took part in the canny pre-emptive reappointment of William Shawcross as chair of the Charity Commission in advance of the election.
A glimpse into Wilson’s political instincts came the day after the election when he told a protester about homelessness in Reading not to be a bad loser – a remark that earned him a petition for his resignation and was explained as a hasty reply after 30 hours without sleep. Otherwise, he has played a fairly straight bat. The sector’s main complaint is that the long-promised Local Sustainability Fund has not materialised, which might have more to do with the Treasury than the Office for Civil Society.
So what’s on Wilson's to-do list? The Conservative manifesto pledged continued promotion of the big society (in all its elusiveness), expansion of the National Citizen Service and three days of paid volunteering for everyone who works in a company with more than 250 staff. Most controversially, perhaps, it also promised extending the right to buy to tenants of housing associations, which could well involve a protracted scrap involving charity law.
There’s enough there to keep most junior ministers busy. But what the sector will probably be hoping for most is a sense of real commitment to its affairs and interests that appears to have been rather held in reserve hitherto. Now that it is no longer possible to characterise Wilson as a caretaker, perhaps he will feel liberated to come out and show his real mettle.