Dido Harding: a failed state in microcosm

May 30, 2020 78 Comments

I thought I recognised the name Dido Harding, when her name popped up on the news recently.  After all, Dido isn’t the commonest of names.  There’s Dido, the excellent singer, and Dido Twite, the heroine of Black hearts in Battersea and other stories by Joan Aiken.  And, of course, the original, wonderful and tragic Dido, Queen of Carthage, abandoned by her lover Aeneas when he discovered a higher destiny than loyalty to her.

Dido Harding, by contrast, is no singer, heroine or forsaken queen.  Instead, she’s a perfect embodiment of the irremediably corrupt political system the UK now enjoys.

Her name reappeared when she was announced by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, on 7 May 2020 as the person appointed to direct the new ‘world-beating’ (B. Johnson) coronavirus ‘test and trace’ system in England.  In his session with the House of Commons Liaison Committee on 27 May, Boris Johnson called her a ‘senior NHS executive’.  This is not true.  Harding is not a member of NHS staff, but a businessperson, drafted into the NHS originally as ‘chair of NHS improvement’.  And the test and trace system isn’t run, as you might expect, by the NHS or another public body, but by Serco, the company that has benefitted from innumerable privatisations and public contracts.  Serco has built a strong reputation over the years for inefficiency, money-wasting and law-breaking (it has already illegally released the email addresses of some of its Covid-19 contact tracers).

How the UK government let this large contract is a mystery.  There seems to have been no transparent process of competitive tender.  Equally mysterious is how Dido Harding came to be in charge of the operation of the project, which includes the ill-fated Covid-19 app, swab and antibody testing, contact-tracing, and national surveillance and immunity certification. 

And yet, at the same time, there’s little real mystery, when you start to uncover Harding’s background and history.

She had a handy start in life.  She is the daughter of the late John Charles Harding, 2nd Baron Harding of Petherton, an Army officer and hereditary peer.  She went to a private school, and the University of Oxford, where one of her friends was David Cameron.  A Harvard MBA prepared her for a series of jobs in large businesses, before she was appointed as CEO of TalkTalk in 2010.  Not content with this post she gathered several others: in 2014 she became a non-executive director of the Bank of England’s Court (she chairs its Remuneration Committee), and a director of the Jockey Club, which runs Cheltenham Racecourse. 

During her time in charge of TalkTalk, in October 2015, the company ‘lost’, through hacking, the personal and banking details of about four million of its customers.  Harding was severely criticised for her ignorance about the hacking issue and her incompetent response to this disaster.  The Information Commissioner’s Office imposed a record fine of £400,000 on the company for ‘abdicating its security obligations’.  TalkTalk lost £42m and over 100,000 customers.  Any ordinary CEO would have been withdrawn to a less damaging position.  But Harding had little to fear from failure.  Her friends and contacts would protect her.

By this time her old friend David Cameron had elevated her to the House of Lords, as Baroness Harding of Winscombe, in September 2014.  She took the Conservative whip.  (In 1995 she had married John Penrose, Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare since 2005 and a junior Minister from 2010 to 2019.)

In May 2017 Harding finally left her job at TalkTalk and five months later, despite her disastrous performance there, she emerged, after an open recruitment process, as the Minister’s ‘preferred candidate’ for the new post of Chair of the Board of NHS Improvement (salary: £62,000 for 2-3 days a week).  The House of Commons Select Committee on Health, which examined her appointment, commented on her complete lack of experience of the health world, and was worried enough to express the curious ‘hope that Baroness Harding will show her full commitment to the NHS while in this role in her own personal decision-making’.  It also recommended that, in the light of her new position, Harding should give up the Conservative whip in the House of Lords.  This she failed to do.

One of the many failures of the Johnson government in managing the Coronavirus crisis was the decision to delay lockdown.  For two weeks in March it allowed the virus to rampage through the country.  The decision to allow mass gatherings of people to go ahead almost certainly helped to spread the disease faster.  The largest of these was the Cheltenham Festival, which attracted over 250,000 people between 10 and 13 March 2020.  The Jockey Club’s selfish and disastrous decision not to cancel the Festival will rank as one of the worst examples of ignoring the obvious danger and putting people’s health at risk.  Presumably, as a director, Harding had a part to play in the Jockey Club’s decision, and possibly in its earlier lobbying of the government to allow the Festival to proceed.  (She has remained silent on the matter).

Whether Harding will make a success of her current job is open to doubt.  Most observers think that the virus is still circulating so strongly that the test and trace system, even if it works, will not have a large effect.  How ready will people contacted via the system be to self-isolate, after the Dominic Cummings affair?  The associated app, trialled on the Isle of Wight and criticised for its data insecurity, has disappeared without trace.  Early reports suggest that Serco’s practical arrangements for recruiting and training trackers are chaotic.  This is yet another example of the government’s ideological preference for top-down national English schemes, reliant on failed companies like Serco and G4S, instead of making use of public health professionals in local authorities and elsewhere.  (It’s true, of course, that the government has deliberately weakened the ability of local government to operate public health schemes.)

If she fails, Harding is unlikely to be impeded in her effortless sweep through the public world*.  Her story is a perfect case study in how those who control contemporary Britain maintain their power, wealth and connections, at the expense of the interests and even the health of most other people.  The main lessons she teaches to the eager ranks of young Tories lining up behind her are: make good use of the education and social connections your parents have bought you; exploit your networks ruthlessly; collect as many jobs and other positions as you can, even if they conflict; ignore failure and criticism; never apologise; make yourself indispensable to those in authority; and, last but not least, always behave as if your good fortune is the result of your natural genius.

*Update, August 2020. It was reported on 17 August that Dido Harding has been appointed by the UK government to lead the body that will replace both the soon-to-be-scrapped Public Health England and the existing ‘NHS’ test and trace system.

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  1. Jean Williams says:

    Incredible, but alas, not surprising.

  2. Zoubida says:

    Article sums up what went wrong in dealing with COVID19. Very interesting. Thanks

  3. Geoff Hill says:

    Excellent exposé – but two additional points:

    1. Not only is Dido a Director of the Jockey Club, it’s website describes her as: “Racecourse committee director at Cheltenham Racecourse and director of Racecourse Holdings Trust, which later became Jockey Club Racecourses.” So she had direct influence over the Cheltenham Festival as well as indirect via the Jockey Club.

    2. You mention her connection with David Cameron at Oxford University. Also, Boris Johnson and Sir Simon Stevens (CEO of NHS England) were presidents of the Oxford Union in 1985-86 and 1986-87 respectively: Dido was at Oxford Uni too (1985-88). I wonder how may of them studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics?

    • Jim Stearn says:

      Boris did not study PPE; he read Classics, the posh boys’ soft subject, and scraped a 2.1

      • Stuart says:

        Can you supply the evidence that he only ‘scraped a 2.1’, please.

      • Leofranc Holford-Strevens says:

        It wasn’t a soft subject in my day, when you had to know the languages and couldn’t get by on literary criticism.

        • Well said Leofranc! I have had an interest all my life in classics although it was not taught at the school I attended. The histories of Greece & Rome provide a huge area of research for sociological,anthropological & economic study as well as plenty of philosophical,mathematical, medical legal and literary works for students to get their teeth into.It also makes one aware of the history of the peoples they came into contact with, especially Persia, the empire of which was conquered by Alexander the Great. This was preceded by the Assyrian & Babylonian & Hittite empires and the knowledge of these has been increased over the last 150 years and make for fascinating reading.Remember Hippocrates of Kos and the oath named after him. The most famous doctor 600 years later was Claudius Galen and a large corpus of his medical works has survived to this day, some of which is due to early Arabic scholarship translating them.

          • Peter Wolstenholme says:

            and all absolutely useless in the modern world. Probably the reason why so many politicians and ministers are useless at doing their jobs properly. No-one in any ministerial position should be appointed without appropriate qualifications and experience.

      • Edward Mitchell says:

        Classics at Oxford (unlike most undergraduate courses) is a four-year course, famous globally for its intellectual rigour. It requires a deep understanding of the language, literature, history and philosophy of the ancient world; and is considered by many to be an excellent preparation for senior roles in our public life.

        • Den Carter says:

          Who are the many who consider this to be a relevant qualification for public life? If it requires any of the things you claim, then Alexander de Ffeifel undoubtedly paid someone else to gain that qualification for him. He has not got the capacity for any rigorous thinking – which is why he leaves it to Cummings. Bumbling incoherently and throwing in some pig Latin now and again is not the mark of someone capable of deep thought…….

        • Pleiades says:

          I’m hoping you are being sarcastic here, since ‘Classics at Oxford’ would be the worst possible preparation for a senior (or any other) role in public life, since it’s manifestly irrelevant. What a waste of 4 years that could’ve been spent studying something actually useful. British education is a joke…

        • Peter Thomas says:

          > [Classics] requires a deep understanding of the language, literature, history and philosophy of the ancient world.

          And how exactly is that relevant to the modern world?

          > …and is considered by many to be an excellent preparation for senior roles in our public life.

          The ‘many’ being those who have studied classics at Oxford of course.

          Jobs for the boys.

  4. Dick Hartley says:

    Another example of siphoning public money to private entities in all probability to fail! Can you imagine if a local authority or a university had undertaken this sort of appointment process? Government of the people by the rich for the rich!

  5. SIAN DICKENS says:

    She’s no Dido…. nor an Elissa… it’s pure affectation
    plain old Diana Mary Harding ….. perhaps she calls hubby Penrose the Tote ‘Aeneas’ during their passionate moments.
    Little Miss National Velvet… not to be trusted with confidential personal data.

  6. DAVID DAYKIN says:

    It’s this kind of anti-democratic preferment which is sickening. She was useless at Talktalk. She has done nothing to warrant her ennoblement and now presides over Serco’s failed track and trace scheme, with no previous experience in the health sector

  7. Iwan ap Dafydd says:

    Ti ar dan efo’r erthygl ‘ma Andrew – ti o blaid annibyniaeth i Gymru rwan?

  8. Rob Froud says:

    Good work. We need more of this.

  9. Jonah Jones says:

    One titbit to add. I quote from Wikipedia: Penrose sits on the advisory board of think tank ‘1828’, which ‘calls for the NHS to be replaced by an insurance system and for Public Health England to be scrapped’

    • Mike Potter says:

      Good heavens! There was me thinking that the NHS IS an insurance system and that I’ve been paying my premiums called (ironically enough) National Insurance for about 45 years. Silly me.

      • Patricia Jenkins says:

        If the UK were on an Insurance system you would not only pay monthly premiums but also an excess which would have to be met before your insurance started paying for any treatment or service provided by your GP/Lab/Hospital AND it’s generally an 80%/20% split, so you’d still be responsible for 20% of whatever the charges were. If you had to have a hip replacement the cost in the UK is anywhere between £8,500 and £16,800 so you could be paying anywhere between £1700 and £3400. It’s astonishing that Dido Harding was appointed to the Board of NHS Improvement when she is working to abolish that very organisation!

        • Howard Dare says:

          I would rather pay the 20% than be in unremitting pain for the several years it takes to get to the top of the list. You need your muscles to make a quick recovery or a full recovery. NHS waits are reducing the value of hip surgery. This isn’t the nasty Tories or the even nastier Labour but the fact that we don’t make a contribution. The actual cost to the NHS is around 20% of what you pay privately. In France you pay a contribution for which you take out private insurance.

          We are asking more and more from the NHS. When it was conceived there weren’t joint replacements or gender swaps. These are now regarded as essential.

          I would far rather pay more for immediate service than wait stoically for the system to catch up. Whether that’s an extra 2p on income tax or a percentage of treatment costs I don’t really care.

          Managing waiting lists and manipulation of performance to meet targets has a cost too.

      • Ian says:

        Not the right type of shareholder return for Tories in N.I.

        • Iain Dickie says:

          It’s worth remembering also that conditions which pass the insurance renewal date count as pre-existing so are no longer covered by the premiums.

  10. Peter Wright says:

    That person at her side in the pic is John Penrose MP. Her partner and Tory MP. The UK has become a banana monarchy.

  11. Ruth Clark says:

    Not just ‘jobs for the boys then!’
    At the time I was convinced there had to be a connection with the Government re: Cheltenham. It now makes sense. Thank you

    • Marlene Deans says:

      Perhaps this is not the right place to say this, but I can’t find anywhere else to comment.

      I agree the Cheltenham Festival should not have gone ahead,, but Nicola Sturgeon allowed a rugby match between France and Scotland to go ahead, knowing full well there were Corona Virus cases in Edinburgh

      • Margaret Telfer says:

        And…? Nicola Sturgeon has no financial interest in the Six Nations rugby championship. The point if the article surely is the continued conflict of interest of people such as D Harding. Let’s not divert attention from that. The time for politicising the should be when the entire country can report zero deaths and not just Scotland.

    • Josh Davis says:

      Please please please – give it its due – we are no longer in 1950. The Conservative Party offers opportunities to incompetents equally nowadays – in future please refer to “Jobs for the Boys and Girls”… Get with the programme….

  12. Alan Smithy says:

    During her tenure at TalkTalk the following things also happened.

    -The share price tanked from about £5 to around £1.
    -The network congested, resulting in slow broadband for some customers.
    -Corporate debt grew massively.
    -The company consistently won the Daily Mail wooden spoon award for worst customer service.
    -Residential customers left en mass.

    • Christine Wilson says:

      ..and a consideral number of TalkTalk customers were defrauded by the hackers who used their personal details to con them out of their savings. A friend of mine lost £4000. There was no recompense.

  13. Julian Roach says:

    Yes, like the whole Johnson crew she is vile specimen of self-seeking amorality, impermeable smugness and gross incompetence. But who put this crew in power? You might think from the comments that they simply took up the reins by privileged option, but they are there because large numbers of the uneducated and xenophobic at the bottom of the economic heap decided to vote, with consummate stupidity, as they did, handing a huge majority to the very people who have always so royally shafted them. We can blame the Labour Party that should have won their votes, for offering, as the only alternative, the raspingly rebarbative Jeremy Corbyn and his clique of Stalinists. This triumph of privileged corruption is democracy at work, proving that it doesn’t work very well.

    • Liz Barnard says:

      Oh dear! That is seriously worrying!

    • John Allison says:

      Well I can’t disagree with your sentiments and far be it for me to foster revolt in the ranks of anti-Bojos but I do feel your comments about the electorate are somewhat patronising and downright disagreeable but are sadly typical of what passes for Debate in Social Media. I’m glad you’ve clearly read Iris Murdoch however, and like Toby in The Bell, cherish the use of the word rebarbative. It is one of the paradoxes of my life how often people who argue on the same side as me are so smug and arrogant. With the greatest respect of course.

    • I think, “the uneducated and xenophobic at the bottom of the economic heap” who “decided to vote, with consummate stupidity” only did so because they were “shafted” by the Bojo-Cummings-Farage populist lies delivered by Cambridge Analytica. One might argue that people were only responsive to that propaganda because they already had xenophobic natures, but xenophobia is a consequence of poor education, and they were only uneducated (and “at the bottom of the economic heap”) due to ongoing shafting and propaganda.

      The Tory Party knows it’s not enough to be the party for the privileged; they also have to keep the underprivileged uneducated and scared of what will happen if they don’t keep voting for them.

      Also, Jeremy Corbyn was trashed not only by the same Tory machinery, but by a disgusting faction of Labour actually willing him to fail so they could give the leadership to someone less dedicated to reform. He soldiered on manfully and ethically as best he could, but inevitably lost confidence, trying to find the best compromises. This was a mistake, listening to the calls to be less radical. When he spoke freely he was immensely inspiring. It’s something of a mystery how he became a former shadow of himself, at least on mainstream media.

      It’s so mystifying and the powers-that-be are so demonstrably corrupt that my best guess is he was nobbled. I feel sure he would have tackled the corruption head on, refuted the claims against him and exposed the sources of it unless someone had mentioned how pretty his family was and how it would be a shame if a tragic accident should befall one of them. I spend a lot of my time debunking conspiracy theories, but it’s hard to explain his descent into hopeless lack-lustre other than as a) some kind of neurological disease, or b) whispers given to him of a price he wasn’t prepared to pay for a better country.

      • Sandow says:

        Corbyn went down because of his failure of leadership and lack of an effective strategy and for no other reason.
        He has always been in favour of Brexit which hobbled the labour party acting as an effective opposition. He gave the Tory press a series of field days over anti-semitism. He spent all his time pandering to his supporters in the Momentum wing of the party instead of the wider membership so no wonder the red wall in the north deserted him.
        He gave Boris a get out of jail card by allowing a general election. In his hubris he failed to recognise that the Tories had all the cards and went down to a huge defeat. Even then he failed to learn anything and clung on to the leadership in an abortive attempt to assure a Momentum successor which would have condemned the Labour Party to even longer in the wilderness.

  14. Richard says:

    Diolch Andrew. Gwaith ardderchog!

  15. John Doughty says:

    This is frightening she is so incompetent she does not even realise it.

    • Julian says:

      I expect you have heard of Dunning Kruger syndrome. It afflicts most of the cabinet. A level of incompetence combined with arrogance means that they have no idea that they are incompetent and that there is any remedial action needed.

  16. William Rhidian Griffiths says:

    Diolch yn fawr Andrew – huawdl ac arswydus!

  17. Alan Butland says:

    In what way has she made herself ” indispensable to those in authority?”

  18. David says:

    So we are all perfect and are ready to throw the first stone?

    • Alison Richards says:

      Thanks for your contribution on this topic, Mr Cameron.

    • Damian says:

      I’m not perfect, and also know my limits. I have not pursued the company of CEOs and arrogant Tory politicians, as I know we’d not get on. But I’m fed up of people who do not know their intellectual and organisational limits thinking that they are entitled. This starts from the so-called “top” down, ie the Monarchy and Parliament. These people just do not understand how ridiculous they are, or maybe they do and so they only inhabit worlds populated by other similar monsters. It’s not good.

  19. Philip says:

    Great piece of work Andrew it shows just how this old school set up works for it’s own ends. Let’s hope they will be found out before it’s too late

  20. Peter Webb says:

    I’m speechless, appalled, angry. The article is most enlightening and subsequent comments by readers right on target. The connections made by Mr Green are sickening. So this is modern Britain? The property and playground of the privileged few? I’m glad I’m at the end of my life, rather than the beginning. I’ve spent my working life in – what I thought was – public service, but was in fact some sort of feudal bondage serving the aggrandisement of wealth and privilege.

    I do not like modern Britain, or should I say England. To all intents and purposes Britain no longer exists, Brexit saw to that. It’s beginning to feel very feudal, and only nominally democratic. Boris is at the centre of this disaster, sucking up to his avaricious cronies. Andrew Green’s article confirms my worst fears. Over and out.

    • Sandra Quinn says:

      Peter – I agree with every word you say. I too am glad, in a way, that I won’t live long enough to see much more of this, but I worry about my grandchildren. Thank you for your intelligent comments.

    • Paul Gloyens says:

      I totally agree with every word. I no longer live in the UK. Born and bred in the East End of London. Served in the Merchant Navy, back in the days when we had one. I despair to see the country that I love(d) being destroyed by these overprivilaged, self righteous people who only live to gain more wealth and privileges at the expense of the ordinary citizens. I too am in the twilight of my life and I feel so sad that my grandchildren will most likely not have any future to look forward too.

  21. Stella O'Connor says:

    Don’t forget the Serco connections… CEO is Soames – brother of the MP & grandson of Churchill. Favouring the buddy system indeed. Isn’t there some connection between Cummings’ wife & Dianne Mary too !

  22. Mark says:

    Criminal cases should be considered for this level of incompetence and serial dishonesty but daddy will be dining with judges, I guess. I’m a peasant so what would I know?

  23. Robin Adams says:

    Thank you Andrew. A forensic piece of work, peeling back the layers of this deeply unpleasant and self-serving administration.

  24. Gail Gyi says:

    “Out,damned spot!” from Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare 1564-1616

  25. Ian says:

    Excellent clinical analysis. If only it could hold the government to account.

  26. William Ellis says:

    England voted for this system. Why should the other nations in this unequal union accept people like this and a government who promotes this type of person. You get what you vote for except for the other three countries who are ignored. The UK is not a country like the Unionist promote it as, it is a undemocratic union and the quicker we are out of it the better.

  27. Stuart says:

    In an article in last Monday’s Times written by a member of SAGE, the writer says that SAGE gave the wrong advice to delay the lockdown and that Boris followed that advice. Can you provide evidence that SAGE recommended the lockdown earlier??

  28. Ieuan Einion says:

    Dildo Hardon (as we call her in my house) was asked after the Talk-Talk debacle whether her customers’ data was encrypted. Her reply, in the light of the current debacle, was revealing: “The awful truth is that I don’t know.”

    (Source: Rebecca Scully, City AM 28/10/2015)

    • Samuel Johnson says:

      To be exact, she said

      Gosh, do you know, the awful truth is that I don’t know.

      So, she agreed to appear on Radio 4’s Today programme without having ascertained basic facts, including the first thing a competent CEO would want to know, and spoke like child.

      She later claimed the loss was the work of a sophisticated professional cyber attack, because of course that sounded good and could be something hard to defend against. Anything for a little exculpation.

      Unsurprisingly, it turned to be nothing of the sort; just a kid in his bedroom with a friend.

  29. Charlotte Peters Rock says:

    That’s why it’s a National Insurance System, which is fully comprehensive in its cover, from pre-birth to death. It has always previously functioned to ‘let no-one fall’.. and although it often falls short of that aim, it basically works well. The minute commerce is brought into such a situation, profit becomes the only driving motive. At one time the NHS was its own procurer and supplier; our National Universities did the research which brought it forward, in treatment an drugs, but the greed of proceeding years has made a mockery of what we nationally pay for, hauling it limb from limb in front of us.. to little adverse comment.

  30. David Guiry says:

    The evidence of Boris Johnson’s educational achievements are scattered all over the internet but I’ve used study International.

  31. E. Hinchcliff says:

    My understanding is that tho Dido is in charge of NHS improvement her husband belongs to a group that is seeking to privatise the NHS. Interesting convos in that house or perhaps they both agree to not improve the NHS but allow it simply to decline

  32. Sven says:

    According to an acquaintance (I dont have consent to say who but a bit of investigation into this would surely corroborate this) who works for the contact tracing telephony team (under the Serco umbrella) in more than a month on the job they’ve made just one phone call, and that to a voicemail. The ‘colleague of the month ‘ in their team made one completed phone call. The team and other employees are admonished to ‘click continuously’ throughout the day – I.e. click the call button/mouse multiple times a second in order to keep the organisation’s click rate up or something, I suppose so it looks like they’re doing something. Now and then They watch a pointless sales (?) training video or do a quiz. They are really not contacting people at all, no exaggeration – this is all they are doing. The shifts used to be 12 hours long, just now shortened to 6 or 8. So months of demoralised civic-minded staff with carpal tunnel syndrome – that’s the value taxpayers are getting from the affair, saying nothing of the extra NHS hand clinic costs later on…

  33. Alan Smith says:

    Hi Andrew. Stumbled upon this most excellent of blogs. A minor point, but your August “update” should surely read 2020 and not as stated 2021.
    Perhaps a ‘crystal ball’ moment though.

  34. Peter T says:

    The ultimate rony of all this is the ad for SERCO, “Bringing Service to Life”, Really? You couldn’t make it up

  35. Ben Leach says:

    I was both a shareholder in and a customer of TalkTalk. As with managers of football teams so it seems with CEO’s, particularly of quangos funded by the taxpayer; nothing succeeds like failure.

  36. Dafydd Pritchard says:


  37. Bonzo says:

    Dido, an “excellent singer”? Your attempt at wit failed and your article lost all credibility at that point.

  38. Geoff Smith says:

    This all proves that an invisible barrier exists between the ‘establishment’and the rest of us. The barrier is as hard as a brick wall. It defends against commonsense and superior solutions from below. It ensures the arrogant survival of incompetence.

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