Ed Jones: A Five Eyes partner and a bulwark to China. Our relationship with Australia is about even more than trade.

17 Jun

Ed Jones is Chair of Conservative Friends of Australia and was Chief of Staff to Jeremy Hunt.

The free trade deal between the UK and Australia follows fine, patient work from Liz Truss and the team, and is a hugely welcome boost to one of our most important international partnerships. It now needs to be a step on the journey to a wider renewal and deepening of the great friendship between our countries.

From scrapping tariffs, to routes for professional services and greater procurement access, this deal is an impressive addition to an already significant economic relationship. The terms will hopefully have overcome the protectionist instincts which found voice on both sides, and which were well reported here in the UK. We cannot be a country or an economy which lacks the confidence to compete fairly in global markets.

Particularly welcome is the new commitment that Brits under the age of 35 will be able to travel and work in Australia more freely. We must also hope that the ongoing travel restrictions in place in Australia do not foster a country which is more economically isolated and culturally distanced from the UK. And in the UK, we cannot allow our wider ties with Australia to be neglected in favour of other countries and causes which are deemed by some to be more fashionable or worthy. Conservative Friends of Australia was formed to ensure the uniqueness of this relationship was properly celebrated and promoted.

We are not talking here about ties based on colonial history, cricket fixtures or soap operas. Australia’s importance to the UK as a Five Eyes intelligence partner, a military ally and bulwark to China in the region, and a cornerstone of the Commonwealth, are critical assets to rank alongside any trade deal. They are part of what protects our prosperity, freedom and security from states and movements who do not share our values and do not wish us well.

Whether working to confront security threats or unfair trading practices from China, pushing to drive shamefully overdue trade liberalisation globally, tackling climate change, or reforming the Commonwealth so that it delivers its true potential, the UK-Australia partnership has real unfinished business.

More recently, the Covid-19 experience has exposed the fragility of many supply chains for goods we now recognise to be essential, and the “tilt to Indo-Pacific” referenced in the Integrated Review 2021 will need to deepen cooperation with our strongest local partners. In the near term, this new FTA must pave the way to UK membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTTP), a free trade area worth £9 trillion comprising eleven Asia Pacific nations, including Australia.

None of this cold reality on prosperity and security challenges should cause us to forget the unique cultural, emotional and political ties which are shared by so many citizens in Australia and the UK. Whether through travel, trade, sport and culture or ancestry, the people of our two countries have common ground and common stories which are unlike those between almost any other countries.

This commonality and affinity is evident in everything from our parliamentary systems of government to the sporting and cultural passions we share with mutual good humour. In many ways, it is in these rivalries that the strength of our friendship and cultural ties revealed. Whether in cricket’s Ashes, Rugby World Cup finals or Lions Tours, the shared values and cultures are part of the fierce competition between our sporting heroes.

These are bonds which few other countries share. Heightened economic, military and technological competition globally has not made them any less meaningful. These bonds are what motivate and enable our two countries to go further, together, on the core security and economic issues. They lie behind the impressive fact that Australians have more trust in the UK than any other country. And today, with centre-right governments in place on both sides, and a landmark trade deal freshly signed, we have the perfect moment to seize on this and ensure a major renewal of this critical friendship right across the board.

Ed Jones: The Government must grasp the nettle of social care reform

14 Oct

Ed Jones is a healthcare consultant. He was Chief of Staff to Jeremy Hunt, and Special Adviser at the Department of Health and Social Care from 2013-2018.

Another party conference and another promise to sort out social care funding. I drafted a few of those promises myself, all of which sadly proved empty.

The Prime Minister must now break the deadlock and set down a new social care settlement as a cornerstone of his “new Jerusalem”. But it won’t happen until government confronts the political choices previous leaders have ducked.

This is the opposite of the usual pleas from those of us who self-identify as centrists and policy wonks. Self-reported experts and moderates normally demand “evidenced based policy” in all things. We tend to criticise decisions motivated by naked politics or crude ideology.

But there are some issues which will only be resolved if you start with the politics, and the urgent need to sort sustainable social care funding is one of these. We failed in my time in government because we never truly faced up to the stark political choice needed, or we were unwilling to see it through.

Hearing talk about “cross party consensus” and “removing the politics” makes me worry that this Government hasn’t faced up either.

Finding more funding, from somewhere, is a moral and economic priority. The evidence on this is clear. Moreover, it is also about human dignity. But the possible solutions (the shape of the offer) and the question of funding (who pays for it) are intensely political choices and it does nobody any good to pretend otherwise.

My own years in government saw an inability or unwillingness to confront those choices. Endless options appraisals and reviews, expert contributions, industry consultations, and academic exercises were undertaken but we never formed a view, with conviction, about who we were actually willing to upset in order to get this sorted.

This is one area where a Prime Minister has to start with a clear political choice, and work back from that to the policy mechanism which delivers on it. Simply passing around the same slide decks and evidence reviews which have circulated through Whitehall for more than ten years, expecting a new and easier way through to emerge, is futile. A political call must be taken. One political constituency will have to win out over another.

This has proved particularly problematic for Conservative governments as the stark political choices divide the party. In the memorable “trilats” we had with the former Prime Minister and Chancellor to agree a resolution for health and care funding, Theresa May and Philip Hammond’s views neatly exposed this divide. Hammond argued the purpose of saving and building assets in life (whether in cash, property or other forms) was to be self-sufficient in old age. Treasury officials pointed to the nearly half a trillion pounds amassed in the property assets of older people.

In contrast May, burned by the failure to deliver the original 2017 manifesto reforms on social care, argued that hardworking people who paid taxes all their lives and did the right thing did not deserve to lose the value in their homes. Both of these positions have a conservative ethos in some respects, but they are contradictory. Meanwhile the Treasury rightly oppose simply adding to government spending/debt, and the public oppose new taxes on income, especially if those taxes are targeted at particular age groups.

The 2019 election adds a further complication perhaps: that the Red Wall electorate, in areas where housing stock is less valuable, has less to gain from the Dilnot-style cap which many in government had recently favoured. Furthermore, the impact of Covid-19 will have right prompted more fundamental thoughts in Government about reform of the whole sector.

Indeed, a sad consequence of our unwillingness to confront the choice on funding is the failure to significantly progress the wider reform agenda, from technology adoption to care quality and consumer rights. Our 2018 Green Paper, never published, outlined reforms in these areas but was held up by our failure to get collective agreement about the one chapter on funding.

So, enough of wheeling in the same weary academics and experts, asking them to repeat the assessments they have given to all the previous politicians they saw come and go. Let’s draw a line under forlorn attempts to seek cross-party agreement with the Opposition (the clue is in the name). The definition of political leadership is to strike out with conviction and make a choice when the options are unenviable and the path ahead is dimly lit, and then to take people with you as best you can.

This Prime Minister is better equipped for the task than many others. But we have yet to see this, which can only mean that either the Government hasn’t yet faced up to the choice, or they don’t think the public is ready to hear it.