Sajid Javid has faced calls to stand down as the business secretary if a buyer is not found for the Port Talbot steelworks after admitting he was caught unaware by Tata’s planned withdrawal from the UK.
The cabinet minister said on Sunday he had not realised Tata’s board in Mumbai would make such a decisive announcement. The timing of the decision, which came while Javid was on a trade trip in Australia, exposed the government to accusations it had failed to acknowledge the scale of the crisis.
Once the number of jobs at risk became clear, Javid was forced to cut short the visit and abandon plans to stay on for a holiday with his teenage daughter.
Defending his handling of the crisis, Javid held out the prospect of government support for potential buyers of the Tata’s UK steel assets, suggesting help with pension liabilities and power costs could be on offer.
It emerged over the weekend that German industrial conglomerate ThyssenKrupp is a potential buyer. It was also reported on Sunday evening that Sanjeev Gupta, a steel magnate and the boss of Liberty House Group, had begun preliminary talks with Tata.
Despite having been involved in behind the scenes talks with the company, Javid told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “When they made their announcement we didn’t anticipate they would go that far with the news.
“The strength of their announcement and how far they went, particularly in terms of timing, was much further than we expected. And that’s why I turned around. I came straight back and my first visit was to Port Talbot.”
The business secretary also rowed back on previous statements completely rejecting nationalisation of the Port Talbot steelworks, saying it was “rarely the answer” but nothing was ruled out.
The admission has led to criticism of the business secretary from Tory backbenchers and among Labour grandees, who have called for David Cameron to sack him for “incompetence and laziness”.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said it was “shocking” that Javid knew about the Tata board meeting but failed to understand the seriousness of the situation putting about 40,000 jobs and entire communities at risk.
“The prime minister needs to get a grip of this situation as the government are in total disarray,” he said. “We have a business secretary who says he knew about the Tata meeting in Mumbai and still wanted to go to Australia.
“He is clearly making it up as he goes along. We need leadership and direction and so do steelworkers, their families and their communities. Sajid Javid should consider his position or David Cameron should consider getting someone in who can actually do the job. Too much is at stake for incompetent, confused and lazy leadership at this critical time.”
Anna Turley, a Labour MP whose Redcar constituency suffered the closure of SSI’s plant last year, said Javid “cannot be very bright” if he did not anticipate the seriousness of Tata’s announcement as the writing had been on the wall for months.
Javid has also been criticised for opposing calls last month to scrap a regulation known as the “lesser duty rule”, which would have allowed the EU to radically increase tariffs on Chinese steel beyond the current 9%. He dismissed this criticism as misleading, pointing to separate moves by the UK to support some other increases in tariffs.
Some Welsh Labour MPs are also unhappy with the business secretary for initially sending Anna Soubry, a junior business minister, to meet them about their concerns and then mounting a drive to stop them speaking out about the crisis, which one party source described as an attempt at “muzzling” them.
They were also frustrated that he appeared to find time to speak at a US conference organised by a rightwing libertarian thinktank at a time they were seeking a meeting with him to press their concerns about the future of Tata steel.
While there were no government ministers in Mumbai for the Tata meeting, Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon, travelled there with trade union representatives to plead with Tata bosses for the future of the Port Talbot steelworks.
He warned Cameron in the House of Commons that there was a critical meeting of the board of Tata in Mumbai before it happened.
Kinnock said he though Javid should stay in his job and fight to find a buyer for the Tata plants but face the sack if he cannot achieve this goal.
“He is out of the entire cabinet the most free-market Milton Friedman, hands-off, laissez-faire, ideologically free marketeer of all of them, which makes him the least qualified person you could possibly think of to be managing this crisis, which is about government intervention,” Kinnock said.
“Sajid Javid believes in the free market and a key element is performance related conditions. He is in that job now and the most important priority is to find a buyer and make sure we continue to make steel in Port Talbot. If he is able to deliver on that, I think he should be able to keep his job.
“But if he isn’t, then I think he has to go. But I would also say it is the prime minister’s decision about whether he has the best man in the job right now. So the prime minister has to weigh up the impact of moving him at a time where it really is all hands to the pump.”
A number of Conservatives rallied round Javid after the Labour criticism of his performance, including Soubry, who has led much of the government’s response to the steel crisis. She said calls for Javid to go were “unfounded and misjudged”, as was Labour’s push for temporary nationalisation.
“Thanks to Sajid Javid, we have been supporting our steel industry and delivering on their asks,” she added. “We are actively seeking a buyer and willing to support a deal to create a sustainable UK steel industry.”
However, some other Conservatives were more critical, with Peter Bone, a Tory MP and prominent EU leave campaigner, saying ministers have “floundered around issuing contradictory and meaningless statements” on the steel crisis.
Bone said it was time to heed the calls of the steel industry body and consider the“nuclear option” of temporarily blocking the flood of Chinese imports from entering Britain – in defiance of EU rules.
This article was written by Rowena Mason and Ben Quinn, for theguardian.com on Sunday 3rd April 2016 18.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010