Boris Johnson does not have the advisers he needs at Number 10, has exposed himself to comparison with the Hungarian leader, Viktor Orban, and is “losing sight of what parliamentarians and the Conservative Party would naturally do and see as right to do”.
These are among the lessons drawn by Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, from last week’s debacle on Commons Standards, when Tory MPs were whipped to vote in support of a course of action which only hours later the Government abandoned.
Ellwood, who abstained in that vote, has sat for Bournemouth East since 2005. He protests at the sacking of Robert Buckland in the last Cabinet reshuffle, and laments that the Government is failing to use the talents of the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs, and indeed has no idea how to set about doing so.
As a specialist in international relations, Ellwood is deeply worried by the lack of resolve shown by the United States in Afghanistan, and by the West’s lack of strategy in the face of Russia and China, but sees opportunities for British leadership.
He warns against allowing the argument over the Northern Ireland Protocol to become a running sore which prevents the much needed defence co-operation between Britain and France:
“There’s a 1930s feel to the world. Weaker international institutions, countries weaponising, the authoritarianism on the Right, lack of western leadership.”
ConHome: “In your Sun on Sunday piece last weekend you wrote,
‘the Government thought it acceptable to overrule the punishment [of Owen Paterson] and rewrite the rules. If this happened in Poland or Hungary, we would not be surprised. But in Britain?’
“Orban is corrupting Hungarian government and society. Is that an apt comparison to make about Boris Johnson and the Government?”
Ellwood: “It’s a warning. It’s to say, ‘Is this who we want to be compared to?’ That itself can’t be a good thing. In that article I mention a couple of times ‘the mother of Parliaments’, how proud we are of the journey we’ve taken over centuries.
“But that journey of advancement has actually almost stopped. We’ve refused to look at further ways we can continue that journey on.”
ConHome: “What are the most dangerous things Number 10 is doing?”
Ellwood: “It’s losing sight of what parliamentarians and the Conservative Party would naturally do and see as right to do. Clearly there was something wrong with this decision. You yourself pointed that out.
“So our loyalty was tested, 250 of my colleagues actually held their noses and walked through those lobbies because they somehow assumed it was in the interests of the party, and clearly it wasn’t.
“So two questions there. Why, first of all, did the executive think they could do this?
“And secondly why weren’t more of my colleagues willing to stand up and say ‘No, this is actually wrong’?
“To give them their due, I can’t actually find a single Member of Parliament who did not express views to the Whips’ Office that this was completely wrong.
“So somehow something went wrong with the reporting mechanism to Number 10, to say ‘Don’t pursue this route’.”
ConHome: “This is part of a wider pattern?”
Ellwood: “That’s the concern I have. It’s part of a wider pattern, of us veering away from sound policy, of explaining to the British people what needs to happen, the difficult decisions.
“And two great examples where you could win over the public, actually I can think of three.
“Firstly to do with Trump and Afghanistan. Much easier to say ‘Bring troops home’ – that’s a vote winner – rather than explaining to the American people why keeping 2,500 troops there is actually in our longer-term interest strategically.
“Bringing troops home shows success, job done. Clearly it’s more complicated to explain to the electorate that keeping troops there, in that neck of the woods, between Russia, Iran, China, not a bad bit of real estate to keep control of, it will take time though, it’s going to take much more patience than we’re currently showing at the moment.
“That’s one example. The other one is DfID, the cuts in that. You explain to the British people, as has been done since that cut was made, that actually we lose leverage, we get replaced by Russia and China with their projects, or extremism then fills in, because of us pulling out.
“The British people would actually say, ‘Well, that’s wisely spent.’ But if you sell to the British people, ‘We’re going to take that money and we’re going to slide it to Red Wall seats,’ well which is going to win?
“Now ultimately the needle has moved on the support for DfID funding, because it’s actually part of our DNA, it’s what we do on the international stage.
“It’s a wiser, more cognitive approach to taking the electorate with you. It’s more complicated, it’s more taxing, it’s not simple, it’s not banner bumper stickers or banner headlines, but it’s what we should be doing.”
ConHome: “You also wrote that ‘at every reshuffle, MPs who have become experts in their fields are demoted or sidelined in favour of the uber-loyal.’ Who were you thinking of?”
Ellwood: “I mentioned Robert Buckland. Everybody was astonished by this decision. Everybody expected him to become potentially Home Secretary or certainly to stay in Cabinet.
“Go back to balance if you like of the spectrum within our party, he’s seen as a moderate, a sound voice, willing not just to toe the party line but occasionally to add another dimension to it.
“That’s just one of many examples. I’ll just mention another. A Cabinet member, now doing brilliantly, but it took 11 years to get there. What a lot of patience you have to go through. How many sycophantic, underarm-bowling questions do you have to ask?
“What often happens is that people lose patience with the machine itself.”
ConHome: “Are we not recruiting enough high-grade candidates? Because this will put good people off.”
Ellwood: “It will put good people off. I won’t make a judgment about not recruiting them, because I think we’ve got some really good talent on our backbenches.
“But they’re not utilised. And the difference between this new intake that’s just come in, particularly as we suddenly got all these Red Wall seats, so these are people who are running businesses, they’re doing, you know, exciting things.
“If they are not utilised, you know, they’ve come in to be part of politics, to represent their constituents, but to affect the political agenda.
“And if all they’re doing for years is just ask simplistic questions which are just handed out by the Whips’ Office, that’s not really utilising their strengths that they bring to the Chamber.
“So what I’m suggesting is this, which I think there would be a lot of appetite for. You come in and you’re invited to suggest a spectrum of interest for your career.
“It might be local government, it might be health and social services, it might be education, it might be science, it could be in my case international affairs.
“And within that spectrum there are things that you could do. Not necessarily being a minister, but certainly things which will allow you to advance and progress with an interest, and to influence policy.
“But no. There is no HR. There is no managing of anybody’s career whatsoever.
“So you end up, and this leads into the very topical debate at the moment, with people finding outside interests, and that also affects how this place looks.”
ConHome: “Were you thinking of yourself? You’re an expert in your field, you were a minister, you’re now not a minister.”
Ellwood: “No, not at all, because being on a committee is another great way in which you can affect the agenda, hold Government to account, and come up with ideas.
“And certainly being the chair of that. If you are a round peg in a round hole you are very, very lucky indeed.”
ConHome: “Can Johnson revive his Government, though. He’s just had a reshuffle. But can he revive it without sweeping changes in his team, both his team in Cabinet and in Downing Street, to take more account of what the backbenchers are now thinking and saying?”
Ellwood: “I think we do lack some serious expertise, people with political acumen, over in the Number 10 machine. It’s a tough gig, but you need to have your political antennae about what does and doesn’t work.
“Now on the actual team of the reshuffle, it’s that wider picture of making sure you take advantage of the skill sets that you actually have.”
ConHome: “Fundamentally, do you have confidence in Boris Johnson’s leadership?”
Ellwood: “I worked for Boris Johnson in the FCO, and he brings an element of energy and vibrancy to the party which I’ve not seen for a long time.
“And in today’s cut and thrust of 24-hour news that’s actually important, that he’s actually inspired a lot of people to vote Conservative, in a way that many other leaders have actually failed to do.
“But you need to be supported then by genuine strategy, when it comes to policy formation. For me there’s a gap in the market in the area I’m particularly interested in. What is Britain’s place in the world? What does global Britain mean?
“There is a leadership role, I think, that the world is calling out for.
“He needs the team around him to support the energy he provides.”
ConHome: “After David Amess was murdered, you said that MPs should pause holding face to face surgeries. Do you think that pause should now cease, and if not, when should it cease?”
Ellwood: “I look from a security and defence perspective. Clearly the situation has changed, we can reassess, and everybody has taken stock of their own situation, so it’s right that we can then downgrade or reassess the situation.”
ConHome: “You’ve been a soldier, and soldiers have to confront danger and death, but you’ve had two very personal encounters with it.
“You wrote last weekend about shaking hands with the Taliban, who were harbouring the group who killed your brother. What effect did his murder have on the way you think about security?”
Ellwood: “I don’t go past a barrier now outside the gates here without thinking about the wider security environment. I think the sadness of the 9/11 anniversary with all those documentaries we saw again – we are no better at tackling extremism, if we’re honest about it.
“We’re no better at dealing with the ideology that encourages somebody to put on a suicide vest to kill themselves, to kill westerners in the belief that they’re going to be rewarded with a place in paradise.
“And until we deal with that – and that’s not for us so much to deal with the interpretation of the Koran, that’s actually a wider theological challenge for the Islamic world to deal with too, but until we’ve done that then I’m afraid ISIS-K, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda, they will continue to be able to recruit.”
ConHome: “You also fought to save the life of PC Palmer.”
Ellwood: “That happened in 2017, it was a reminder again. Bali was 2002, 9/11 2001, David Amess 2021. There is a correlation between all those events, which link myself and indeed other people in our community together, and shows you what an enormous challenge still exists.
“We’ve now absented ourselves from Afghanistan, handing the country back to the very insurgents that we went in to defeat. When I met the Taliban it was very, very clear why they are trying to still pursue a ruthless, quite a tough interpretation of Sharia law, because if they didn’t they would actually haemorrhage more people to ISIS-K.”
ConHome: “You’re an interventionist, both for security reasons and for moral reasons: you’re helping to spread and sustain liberal democratic values by intervening.
“Do you feel that you’re part of a beleaguered minority now – that the trend here in Britain as in America has been to withdraw, to try to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world?”
Ellwood: “We’re feeling very, very bruised. It’s been provoked by Covid as well, our retreat from global exposure, becoming more isolated, more protectionist.
“Populism also is on the rise – why should we have a responsibility for what’s going on abroad? Let’s look after ourselves. Times are tough here.
“From where I sit, we’ve got a bumpy decade ahead. There’s a 1930s feel to the world. Weaker international institutions, countries weaponising, the authoritarianism on the Right, lack of western leadership.
“On top of that you’ve got three other factors. Climate change, which is going to bring its own scale of problems. Biblical movements of people that are displaced.
“Advances in technology that then allow non-state actors to incite real harm onto communities. And the rise of extremism.
“And if Russia wants to harm Britain, it can just play with the gas taps and watch the prices ripple through and cause problems.
“Look how that one ship caught in the Suez Canal caused problems across the world. I tried to get my lawn mower repaired the other day, and they couldn’t get the parts. They said, ‘You take your choice, it’s either Covid, Brexit or it’s that Suez Canal blockage.’
“How easy it is to cause harm to economies using non-military means.
“And there’s a gap in the market for international leadership. We’ve seen America retreat slightly, give up essentially in Afghanistan. This was the biggest military alliance arguably ever formed and we were defeated by an insurgency armed with AK-47s and RPGs, and we just decided to go home.
“So where is America’s commitment? If they’re not going to step up, we had to do it a couple of times in the last century. Different circumstances, I recognise that.”
ConHome: “What about NATO?”
Ellwood: “I was in Norfolk, Virginia only two weeks ago, headquarters for NATO in the US, scratching their heads, what is their purpose?
“We don’t do out of area operations any more. So there is a purpose, you go to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, they’ll say absolutely, NATO is critical. NATO itself will retreat to what it knows best, dealing with the old Cold War-esque challenges.
“Putin has a strategy. President Xi has a clear strategy on the international stage. The West lacks one. We don’t have a strategy. We have an attitude towards China, towards Russia, but we don’t have a strategy.
“And again, this is Britain, going back to Boris Johnson and what Britain can actually do, this is where we normally have an insight and an understanding, a means, a desire to help shape the world.”
ConHome: “Our relationship with France is currently extremely bad. We and the French are the two military powers in Europe. How bad is it and what should we do about it?”
Ellwood: “So this is a great example of us enjoying an old rivalry that goes back centuries. What we forget is that as we fail to reconcile our differences with continental Europe, our adversaries are enjoying this blue-on-blue, which is essentially what it is.
“We and the French are not working together to recognise what Russia is doing in the Arctic, what China is doing in the South China Sea, and AUKUS was a great illustration of how things could have been done better.
“Absolutely right for Australia to move from diesel electric to something better, you’re offered a Ford Focus and suddenly you see a Ferrari, which one are you going to take?
“You’re going to go for the upgrade nuclear deal, nuclear powered, so France should accept that. But if you want a strategy to deal with the South China Sea, finally standing up to what they’re doing in that neck of the woods, which is pretty concerning, then include Japan, India, include the United States, Britain and France, and that’s the quad that should be invited, allowing AUKUS to be a procurement process.”
ConHome: “If we’re going to have a better relationship with the French, is that really consistent, given the French view of themselves as one of the guardians of the integrity of the EU, with moving Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol?”
Ellwood: “You then move into a very awkward space. This was always going to be a problem. I served in Northern Ireland and it’s not until you go there that you realise how critical trade of the entire island is in keeping the peace and helping both economies.
“We need to make sure we solve this, because it’s turning into a sore, which is then used by other countries to prevent us drawing a line and finally moving forward and advancing, where we don’t then say I’m a Brexiteer or I’m this, but this is the norm.
“We are still in transition, I’m afraid. And as long as that is the case, it will poison discussion on other, bigger issues, such as our reflections on international security that we need to be having with our continental partners.”