GUY ADAMS: How can this serial failure be favourite to run the NHS?

How can this serial failure be favourite to run the NHS? GUY ADAMS looks at Dido Harding’s time as boss of TalkTalk when a data leak led to disaster and her Test & Trace scheme being called the most inept public spending programme ever

There’s an old saying to describe the career of highly ambitious but incompetent managers who somehow avoid the sack, no matter how badly they perform, and are instead promoted to ever more senior roles.

It’s known as ‘failing upwards’.

This phenomenon, remarkably common across the public sector, is often used to explain the inexorable rise of Dido Harding, the Tory Peer and former business leader, who Boris Johnson hired last year to create and run Britain’s supposedly ‘world-beating’ Test and Trace scheme.

She first achieved notoriety in the 2010s as chief executive of telecoms group TalkTalk, which on her watch was twice given MoneyMail’s notorious ‘wooden spoon’ award for having the most appalling customer service of any British company.

It was handed record fines by the regulator Ofcom for over-billing (she called these ‘disproportionate’), and in 2015 fell victim to a cyber attack in which 157,000 clients had their data stolen, causing 100,000 of them to skedaddle, company profits to halve and TalkTalk’s shares to lose two-thirds of their value.

‘Failing upwards’ is often used to explain the inexorable rise of Dido Harding, the Tory Peer and former business leader, who Boris Johnson hired last year to create and run Britain’s supposedly ‘world-beating’ Test and Trace scheme

Harding, who had by then been elevated to the House of Lords as Baroness Harding of Winscombe by old university chum David Cameron — an ally of her Tory MP husband John Penrose — was eased out of her £2.7 million-a-year role in 2017, only to be immediately handed a new job chairing the powerful hospital regulator NHS Improvement. 

A Commons select committee greeted this act of patronage by remarking on her ‘complete lack of experience’ in healthcare and recommending that she sit as a crossbencher in the Lords to enable her to properly challenge ministers. She declined.

Although other wealthy board members at NHS Improvement chose to waive their salaries, she soon came under fire when accounts revealed that she was taking home £65,000 a year for a two to three-day week.

Then came another big promotion: last May, the Prime Minister put Harding in charge of Test and Trace, promising that this would help free Britain from the shackles of coronavirus.

Then came another big promotion: last May, the Prime Minister put Harding in charge of Test and Trace, promising that this would help free Britain from the shackles of coronavirus

We are still waiting. Meanwhile, the programme which failed to prevent a second and now, many fear, a third wave of Covid-19, is due to cost the taxpayer an astonishing £37 billion, of which £22 billion has already been spent.

Despite its gargantuan budget, with the 2,500 consultants on its payroll earning an average of £1,000 a day (and some trousering almost seven times that amount), Harding’s organisation has ‘failed to make a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic’, according to a February report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee. 

The grandee Lord Macpherson, former head of HM Treasury, has dubbed it ‘the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time’.

Only this week, a damning National Audit Office report found that Test and Trace is still struggling to get to grips with the basics of its job.

Of the 724,000 patients who tested positive over the winter, for example, nearly 100,000 were not reached to ask for their close contacts.

And only one in seven of the millions of self-testing kits being sent to people’s homes have been registered as used.

As Executive Chair, 53-year-old Harding has been the face of this extraordinary shambles, presiding over a seemingly endless series of PR blunders.

Perhaps inevitably, given her politics, she has consequently become a hate-figure for Left-wing keyboard warriors.

Her last Twitter post, an anodyne message congratulating NHS staff who received awards in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, attracted almost 500 hostile and sometimes deeply misogynistic comments, branding her a ‘selfish arrogant xenophobe’ a ‘cancer in modern society’, a ‘hypocritical Right-wing toad’, and so on.

Yet to the dismay of critics, her stock in Downing Street appears to remain high. Following her departure from Test and Trace in April, Harding was parachuted into another high-profile job running the new National Institute For Health Protection (the replacement for discredited quango Public Health England).

And now we find her poised to take yet another step up the greasy pole of public life.

Last week, Harding applied to replace Simon Stevens as Chief Executive of the entire NHS, which is Europe’s largest employer and boasts an annual budget of about £150 billion.

And the prospects of Harding securing the £200,000-a-year job, despite her track record, are considered rosy. 

Last week, Harding applied to replace Simon Stevens as Chief Executive of the entire NHS, which is Europe’s largest employer and boasts an annual budget of about £150 billion

The NHS board is chaired by Lord Prior and contains Mike Coupe, the former boss of Sainsbury’s, one of Harding’s former employers. Coupe was in September hired by Harding to run the ‘testing’ element of Test and Trace.

What’s more, the final say on the appointment rests with her old — and now embattled — mentor Matt Hancock, with whom she shares a love of horse racing. 

‘He wants someone very loyal, who won’t cause problems for the Government, and for the sake of appearances he wants it to be a woman,’ says an insider. ‘She ticks both boxes.’

Another adds: ‘They probably feel she’s more controllable than someone with medical experience who’s going to point out all the things that are going wrong.’

It all feels very cosy. Some might say indecently so.

Indeed, critics who reckon the whole thing reeks of cronyism are apoplectic that Harding’s Tory MP husband John Penrose — with whom she has two teenage daughters — currently has a side job as Boris Johnson’s anti-corruption ‘tsar’. 

Little wonder that in the higher reaches of the NHS, her potential arrival in the top job is regarded with hostility.

Critics who reckon the whole thing reeks of cronyism are apoplectic that Harding’s Tory MP husband John Penrose (pictured) currently has a side job as Boris Johnson’s anti-corruption ‘tsar’

One senior NHS source says: ‘Test and Trace has been an utter failure, and the impact of that can be measured in terms of the lockdowns and the human suffering that has occurred as a result.

‘But don’t forget what it has also meant for NHS staff… although Test and Trace had nothing to do with the NHS, they decided to call Harding’s programme “NHS Test & Trace” to give it the cover of our brand. Its dire performance then completely trashed the brand.’

Against this backdrop, revelations in a Sunday newspaper that Harding’s pitch for the Chief Executive role will involve a promise to challenge the ‘prevailing orthodoxy’ that it’s better to recruit NHS staff from overseas have gone down like the proverbial lead balloon.

‘It’s a daft thing to say when one in seven of the roughly 1.3 million people who will work for you, should you get the job, are foreign. How do you think hearing that will make them feel?

‘It’s a serious blunder and she hasn’t even started yet.’

Even allies, who insist that she is a ‘hugely passionate supporter’ of the NHS, accept that her recent messaging has been underwhelming. 

‘The point Dido was trying to make when she spoke about overseas staff was that Britain needs to invest more in training doctors and nurses, rather than just importing them,’ says one. 

‘Obviously it wasn’t interpreted that way, and she accepts that’s her fault and she made a mistake in saying it. Lesson learned.’

They add that Harding is ‘remarkably resilient’ but has been surprised by the degree of hostility that she has recently attracted.

‘Dido isn’t doing these jobs for money, or to pursue some political agenda. She didn’t appoint herself at Test and Trace, but was asked to help the country, at a time of national crisis, and put her heart and soul into it,’ adds the friend.

So who exactly is this lightning rod of public criticism?

Former colleagues invariably remark on Harding’s thick skin and supreme self-confidence, though many caution that her energy and ambition may outweigh her talent.  

Standing at just 5ft 2in, she has compared her managerial style to that of a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week ‘Energiser Bunny’, after the long-life batteries.

Former colleagues invariably remark on Harding’s thick skin and supreme self-confidence, though many caution that her energy and ambition may outweigh her talent (picture, Harding at a Downing Street press conference in July)

There were long queues at some Covid testing sites, such as this one in Southend-on-Sea, but others were deserted despite people struggling to get screened in September

Harding, who was raised on a pig farm in Dorset, often claims inspiration from her grandfather, Field Marshal Lord (John) Harding, who left school at 16 but went on to command the Desert Rats in World War II and later became Governor of Cyprus.

‘He taught me that if you try hard enough, almost anything is possible,’ she once remarked.

Says a former colleague: ‘He certainly had an amazing effect on her life and taught her to run at every challenge, be your best, do your best, for your country and for your life, but I think she’s got a drive that is beyond her ability.’ 

After taking a first in PPE at Oxford, rubbing shoulders with Cameron, George Osborne and Ed Vaizey, Harding gained an MBA at Harvard and then began her career at McKinsey, the management consultants who, in a neat act of symmetry, were last year hired at a cost of £560,000 to come up with the ‘vision, purpose and narrative’ of Test and Trace.

At the firm, she also met Penrose, who became MP for Weston-Super-Mare in 2005.

The couple divide their time between a Thames-side apartment block in Pimlico, where properties fetch upwards of £2.5million, and a Grade II-listed bolthole in Dorset that was at the centre of an ugly planning row in 2016 when villagers complained at the building of an ‘ugly and massive’ 19-metre pool complex in the garden, saying its grey zinc roof spoiled views of the Mendip hills and a 15th-century church next door. 

Awkwardly, Penrose had recently called for greater protection of historic views.

But we digress. Harding’s other great passion is horse racing and as a young adult she was an accomplished amateur jockey who came second in the Foxhunter, the top amateur event at Cheltenham, in 1996. 

‘The thing about race riding is the adrenaline,’ she once said. ‘The first time you ride in a race you decide you can’t get enough of it or you never want to do it again.’

In her mid-20s, Harding took out a £7,000 bank loan to buy a horse called Cool Dawn, which five years later won the famous Cheltenham Gold Cup (this time with a professional jockey).

Following various accidents, including one in which she somersaulted from a horse at Larkhill and had to be strapped to a spinal board (she nonetheless made it to a work conference in Thailand the next day) she made a promise to Penrose that she would quit as a jump race jockey on her 40th birthday in 2007, though she continued less dangerous forms of equestrianism. ‘Racing, hunting, horse riding — those are my passions,’ she once told an interviewer.

She remains a director of the Jockey Club, according to the Lords’ register of interests. Awkwardly, given subsequent events, the organisation decided last March to stage the Cheltenham Festival despite spiralling Covid-19 cases.

Harding’s other great passion is horse racing and as a young adult she was an accomplished amateur jockey who came second in the Foxhunter, the top amateur event at Cheltenham, in 1996 (pictured, riding in the Magnolia Cup in 2017)

On the professional front, Harding left McKinsey and rattled through jobs at Thomas Cook and Woolworths (both of which have since gone out of business) before joining Tesco in her early 30s, where she rose to the post of ‘development director’ before moving to Sainsbury’s to run its convenience stores.

After just 18 months in that role, in 2009, she was headhunted to take on the top job at TalkTalk. 

It would catapult her into the public eye, though not always in a good way. In 2011, TalkTalk was fined a record £3 million by the telecoms regulator Ofcom for ‘breaching consumer rules’, and ordered to pay £2.5 million to affected customers.

Harding chose to describe the sanction as ‘disproportionate’. Following the 2015 cyber-attack, she endured a series of toe-curling media interviews, including a monstering on the Today programme. The fallout is reckoned to have cost the company the thick end of £60 million.

‘In person, she’s very nice, very charming, quite funny, and self-effacing. Not arrogant at all,’ says a colleague from that era.

‘Underneath it all, she’s also quite chippy, fighting to be a woman in what she perceives as a world that is predominately filled by men in senior jobs.’

The problem, adds the colleague, is that her sharp elbows don’t always make things a success. ‘The only thing she’s run of any scale is TalkTalk.

‘The NHS is an organisation that is infinitely bigger and has much bigger problems to resolve. I think the argument has to be she’s just simply not qualified to do it.’

Her stint running Test and Trace has hardly convinced the doubters, with a string of mis-steps, from delays to the much-vaunted NHS Covid App to appearances before MPs when she seemed unable to say what proportion of tests were returned within 24 hours.

In her defence, Harding recently told Woman’s Hour that public expectations were ‘too high’ in believing Test and Trace to be a ‘silver bullet’ that would stop the pandemic, arguing that her organisation has conducted more tests than rivals in any other country

In her defence, Harding recently told Woman’s Hour that public expectations were ‘too high’ in believing Test and Trace to be a ‘silver bullet’ that would stop the pandemic, arguing that her organisation has conducted more tests than rivals in any other country.

Be that as it may, her performance will be pored over at the Government’s forthcoming Covid inquiry, a prospect that deeply concerns potential future colleagues at the top table of the NHS. 

‘Imagine if Harding’s chief executive of the entire NHS but gets monstered by the inquiry,’ says an insider.

‘The NHS is facing a critical period with huge challenges and can’t afford to have its boss tied up in something like this.’

It follows that putting Harding in the saddle at the NHS would, to use racing parlance, be one hell of a punt. 

But if she does end up being unseated, you’d have to be brave to bet against her finding a way to fail upwards.

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