As the old saying goes – “The only three certainties in life are death, taxes and Philip Ozouf causing another government scandal.”
We are barely half a year into this term of office and the Chief Minister has just performed two spectacular U-turns in a fortnight, and now risks ending her political honeymoon because so many questions remain unanswered.
Here’s how it started -
Upon taking office as Chief Minister, Deputy Kristina Moore announced she would be appointing Deputy Ian Gorst as Minister for Treasury and Deputy Philip Ozouf would take his old job as Minister for External Relations and Financial Services. However, given Jersey and our finance industry face a very important assessment later this year from Moneyval, she planned to shift the Financial Services portfolio to the Treasury Minister so Deputy Gorst could continue to provide stability in the political leadership for this area.
Because of legal bureaucracy, it would take a while before this could be formally done, so Deputy Ozouf would temporarily head up the portfolio in the meantime. This wasn’t ideal but was probably unavoidable.
After months of silence on this, two weeks ago the Deputy Gorst dropped a bombshell in a public Scrutiny hearing and revealed that this transfer of portfolio would no longer be happening, and Deputy Ozouf would retain the Financial Services brief. The Chief Minister then published her letters to the ministers which confirmed this. The first U-turn.
Now, many would be prepared to give the Chief Minister the benefit of the doubt here. Even though she had made the commitment to shift this portfolio at the start of her term, sometimes the view from the outside looking in is different to how it appears once you’re in power. If she felt that changing her mind was in the Island’s best interest, it couldn’t really be something to hold against her.
Fast forward two weeks and this plan lies in tatters, again.
Following three months where Deputy Ozouf has been summonsed to the Petty Debts Court three times, the media began to question the Chief Minister on what she would do about this.
On 2nd February, the Chief Minister said “Ministers should be judged on how they perform in their official role, and Deputy Ozouf is doing an excellent job as Minister for External Relations and Financial Services – improving our relations with the UK, France and beyond, preparing for our Moneyval assessment and promoting our financial services industry.”
Just three days later, she announced he would no longer be responsible for Financial Services and said “Ministers must uphold and be seen to uphold the highest standards in all aspects of their lives… this change ensures that we have strong leadership and focused Ministerial teams for both external relations and financial services in this important year for the Island.”
What changed in the meantime?
One day the Petty Debts Court issue was a private matter and Deputy Ozouf should be allowed to continue with Financial Services because he was providing strong leadership. The next, the Petty Debts Court issue was an issue affecting the perceived ability for him to do this job, and a change was necessary to provide strong leadership.
There are major inconsistencies in the statements which have been put out by the government’s Communications Unit, letters between ministers and things said in the States Assembly and media interviews.
On 20th January, a letter from the Chief Minister said that Deputy Ozouf would be keeping the Financial Services portfolio because he provides strong leadership. On 5th February, she said that Deputies Gorst and Millar would provide strong leadership.
In her statement on 5th February, she said she was moving this portfolio “having received a letter from the External Relations Minister”, which clearly suggests it was his proposal. But in Deputy Ozouf’s letter to the Chief Minister he says “Thank you for your time earlier today” referring to an earlier conversation. In the States Assembly sitting on 7th February, the Chief Minister said this was “her decision”. Did Deputy Ozouf resign this portfolio or was he told to resign it (aka, was he sacked)?
In that same States sitting, the Chief Minister said her position changed “over a cup of tea with the Deputy Chief Minister”. What does this mean? Did the Deputy Chief Minister convince her to do this? If so, who is really in charge of our government?
There are lots or rumours circulating in political circles about what else could be at play here. There are suggestions that more claims in the Petty Debts Court are on their way. I had heard one rumour that the national media had been looking into this story before the reshuffle. It was notable in her ITV interview that the Chief Minister did not rule out dismissing Deputy Ozouf from government if further claims are made. Does she know something we don’t?
It's a mess.
One thing is clear – this Chief Minister is for turning.
The public perception of this saga has not been good for the government. The inconsistent statements and shameless spin which has been put out have left many feeling that perhaps this new government isn’t so different to the one it replaced.
Credit where it is due though, the media have done a good job in shining a light on this. From the BBC’s chronicling of Deputy Ozouf’s residency in the Petty Debts Court, to ITV’s Paxman-esque interview with the Chief Minister, at least they have not let this slide.
Sadly, we can’t say the same for the States Assembly. As usual, only Reform Jersey members had the guts to challenge the Chief Minister on this. Most of the Questions Without Notice period to the Chief Minister (our equivalent of PMQs) was taken up with friendly questions which timed out a long list of more robust ones we had planned. I bet the Chief Minister couldn’t believe her luck.
Lastly, the Chief Minister said “when doing business, one should pay one's bills quickly”. Given the reports of government suppliers not being paid due to problems with the new procurement service, this quote could be one she comes to regret…