Neil O’Brien: Here are three urgent responses to China’s growing power – which we will soon have an opportunity to make

19 Oct

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Are we, in fact, losing the competition with China?

Consider current events. The IMF predicts China will be the only country with a positive growth rate this year. Since 2004 the UK’s share of world manufacturing halved from four per cent to two per cent, while China’s rose from nine per cent to 28 per cent.

Being a surveillance state has proved handy in the crisis: detecting a dozen Coronavirus cases, the Chinese city of Qingdao is testing its entire population of nine million people for Covid-19 over a period of five days.

Whether it’s the holographic windows on the Beijing subway, or the scary videos of the People’s Liberation Army showing off its new mobile drone swarms, the sense that we are being overtaken is palpable.

So is the increasingly authoritarian and militaristic nature of the Chinese regime. Every day the Chinese press is full of two things. First, ever more lavish praise for Xi Jinping, now officially elevated to “People’s Leader”, and increasingly exercising one-man rule. Second, increasingly dire threats to other countries that dare to cross China.

This week it was the turn of Canada, which was warned not to accept refugees from Hong Hong on pain of having more Canadian citizens arrested in China. There’s a steadily louder drumbeat of threats to crush Taiwan: the other day Xi called on troops to “focus all [your] minds and energy on preparing for war”, and Taiwan revealed it had been forced to scramble jets 2,972 times against Chinese aircraft incursions this year.

A new and not very friendly superpower is emerging.  How should we respond?

In the next month or two we should see the publication of the Integrated Review.  This is a big improvement on previous Strategic Defence Reviews in that it goes wider, to think about economic competition, not just military rivalry.

The Review is a big deal, and in a world with no virus it would be headline news.

Other countries are considering the same issues. The EU now officially describes China as a “systemic rival” and “strategic competitor”, while the US is taking a huge amount of actions (on a cross party basis) to protect its interests from China.

While we’ve had less debate in the UK, we face exactly the same challenge.

In a speech last week, the head of MI5 noted that while Beijing’s espionage efforts typically take the form of “hacking commercially sensitive information or commercially sensitive data, and intellectual property”, UK spies have also detected attempts by Chinese counterparts to influence UK politics. China is “changing the climate,” he said:

“Sometimes our role is to spot the hidden State hand in the pursuit of promising UK companies whose acquisition might dent our future prosperity and security. On China, we need expansive teamwork – a broad conversation across government and crucially beyond, to reach wise judgements around how the UK interacts with China on both opportunities and risks.”

This is sensible. So what should the Integrated Review do on China?  For me there are three big things.

First, we need an Australian style counter-influence unit to combat attempts to meddle in our politics

Like the Australian equivalent, it should be empowered to tackle a range of issues. Top London lobbying firms paid by hostile states for starters.  We wouldn’t have let the Soviet Union hire Saatchi & Saatchi in the cold war, so why don’t lobbyists have to declare payments from arms of the Chinese state now?

Universities could use more oversight and guidance too – witness the Chinese cash-for-influence scandal at Jesus College Cambridge. The same issues apply in think tanks, businesses and even the House of Lords. China is quick to snap up ex-permanent secretaries and even ex-spies. We need a coordinated approach.

Second, we need a new partnership with firms and universities to protect our economic and technology security. 

At the moment, we have a completely one-sided relationship, in which China can help itself to whatever university research it wants from the UK, buy up any interesting technology firm and even get our universities to work for branches of their military – an approach described in Beijing as ‘picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China’.

Through coercive joint ventures and corporate espionage, China can perform a sort of supermarket sweep on the intellectual property of the west.  Meanwhile China bans investment in swathes of its economy, locks up people suspected of leaking industrial secrets and has just passed tight new laws on the export of key technologies.

It’s a modern version of the same mercantilism that saw China guard the secrets of silk-making for hundreds of years, but the real question is why we allow a one way transfer of technology?

A new unit in Number Ten or the Treasury should coordinate relationships with industry to help identify who is sniffing around new technologies – perhaps we need a UK version of the US Business Entrepreneurs Networks which help US government build up market intelligence.

We also need greater transparency on who is working with our universities. At present we don’t even collect data on who is funding them from overseas.  Many firms would love help to counter hacking of their secrets or advice on tie-ups with Chinese firms.  There should be an obvious place to turn to in government to get it.

Third, we need an “Office for the Future”.

China’s growing dominance isn’t just built on exploiting naive western countries, but on a relentless focus on research and industrial strategy which we should learn from. However, in government I felt that the different bodies which are currently supposed to help us think about technology add up to less than the sum of their parts.

Collectively the Government Office for Science, the Council for Science and Technology, UKRI, BEIS the Research Councils and learned societies have many brilliant people, but the system lacks a controlling mind or plan.

Some of this is about the wider civil service, and we should learn from Singapore: the world’s best civil service. Some of it is about our growing our pitiful level of investment in R&D, which has sunk over the decades just as China’s grew.

But we also need a plan. We need some part of government to be aware of the significance of new technologies and emerging firms before they have been snaffled and carted of to China or anywhere else. Research funding in government isn’t industrially-focussed enough. We need a unit to think commercially about where we should concentrate research investment, and where we shouldn’t. To work out what we need to do to be ready to catch the wave of new opportunities, in the way that Beijing is so good at.

In a new book, “The Wake-Up Call”, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge sketch out how the virus has exposed the challenges facing the UK and other western countries, and the scale of the challenge we’re facing.

It reminds me a bit of the late 1970s, when Helmut Schmidt, then West Germany’s Chancellor, declared: “England is no longer a developed country,” and Nick Henderson’s famous leaked telegram highlighted our rapid descent.  Eventually we get angry enough to do something about it, and elected Margaret Thatcher.

This time the problems are different and we are already in government. But the urgency is just the same. Let us hope that the Integrated Review can be part of the wake-up call we need.

Matthew Elliott: Please apply to invest in Britain’s future and win £10,000

19 Oct

Matthew Elliott was Editor-at-Large of BrexitCentral

Coming from the world of think-tanks and campaign groups, I have a strong interest in the policy ecosystem that surrounds political parties.

Ahead of Tony Blair’s victory in 1997, think-tanks such as Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research were established. And in the 2000s,a plethora of think-tanks (Centre for Social Justice/Policy Exchange), campaign groups (Business for Sterling/Countryside Alliance) and websites (ConservativeHome/Guido Fawkes) were launched and play an influential role in political discourse.

As well as playing a role in two successful referendum campaigns (NOtoAV and Vote Leave), I helped set up the TaxPayers’ Alliance (2004), Big Brother Watch (2009), Million Jobs (2012), Business for Britain (2013) and BrexitCentral (2016), so policy entrepreneurship is one of my passions. And even though my focus is now more in the private sector, I still enjoy helping and mentoring new policy entrepreneurs who are setting up the next generation of campaign groups and think-tanks.

At the beginning of my career, I was helped by the entrepreneur and philanthropist Stuart Wheeler, who sadly passed away at the end of July. I was 25 when we launched the TaxPayers’Alliance. I didn’t know any potential financial supporters, so I wrote to the signatories of a Business for Sterling advertisement with my ‘Strategy Plan’.

I thought, if they like BfS, there’s a good chance they’ll like the TPA. Stuart was one of the people who very generously sent a contribution which, along with some other donations, gave us the resources to cover my salary for three months, giving me the confidence to leave my position as a researcher to the Conservative MEP (now Lord) Timothy Kirkhope, and go full-time with the TPA.

Seventeen years later, I now find myself in a different position. My most recent project – the news website BrexitCentral – sent out its 1,085th and final daily email bulletin to the tens of thousands of subscribers we had accrued on February 1, the day after the UK formally left the European Union.

Alongside those essential morning emails put together by the indefatigable Jonathan Isaby and his team, we had published more than 2000 articles by over 500 authors, including the current Prime Minister and many of his Cabinet, not to mention Erin O’Toole, the man who was elected leader of the Canadian Conservative Party over the summer.

We are now in the final stages of winding up the company – a task which has been somewhat delayed by babies and Covid-19 – so, along with Georgiana Bristol, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the show on the road, we are left with the issue of what to do with the last remaining funds.

When we were discussing the matter, I thought about the support that Stuart Wheeler and other donors had given me as we launched the TPA, and we decided that it would be very fitting to use those remaining funds to support the young policy and campaigning entrepreneurs of today – people with the ideas that will tackle the policy challenges of the coming years.

We have two cheques for £10,000, and we would like to hear from people under the age of 35 with an exciting idea or contribution to policy debate. It could be:

  • A campaign group or think-tank you have set up, or are hoping to set up;
  • A book proposal that you want to take a sabbatical from your current job to research and draft;
  • A think-tank report you want to take time off from your current position to write;
  • A website or podcast you want to establish, or a short film you wish to make.

That is not an exhaustive list – we are interested in all ideas, the more innovative and entrepreneurial the better. And because Brexit was supported by people from across the political spectrum, we are open to proposals from all policy positions.

To stress, we are not looking for proposals relating to Brexit or Britain’s future relationship with the European Union – we are looking for submissions on any issue, policy or subject that you feel passionate about.

Entries should be emailed to policyentrepreneurs@brexitcentral.com by midnight on Sunday 8th November 2020 and should cover (on no more than two sides of A4) an outline of your plan an dhow you hope to execute it. All submissions will then be sifted and judged by a panel comprising Jonathan and I, plus Kate Andrews, Peter Cruddas, Helena Morrissey, Jon Moynihan and Mark Wallace. And the two winners will be announced by the end of November.

Since I became active in politics, the barriers to entry for policy entrepreneurship have been massively reduced thanks to the Internet. When I interned at the European Foundation whilst at university, it had an office in Pall Mall, it had copies of its European Journal and European Digest professionally printed, which were then posted to subscribers and the opinion formers in Westminster, Whitehall and Fleet Street that it was trying to influence. It sent press releases out by fax, business was conducted on the telephone or by post, and all these costs were before the general overheads and payroll costs that also needed to be covered.

Fast forward twenty years, and the cost of campaigning has fallen significantly. From setting up a website to using social media, broadcasting ideas and opinions to the world is so much cheaper. But there are still financial barriers, so I hope that this small project will help two policy entrepreneurs of the future, just as Stuart Wheeler helped me with the creation of the TaxPayers’ Alliance all those years ago.

I look forward to reading your entries and announcing the recipients later this year.

This article was originally published on ConservativeHome on Monday October 19, and we are re-publishing it during each weekday this week in order to advertise this project.

Ed McGuinness: A lesson for democracy in Europe from an abandoned airport in Cyprus

13 Oct

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City and contested Hornsey & Wood Green during last year’s general election.

In the middle of the Mediterranean atop the Mesaoria plain lies a major European international airport. There is a terminal, a runway, baggage machines and even a first class lounge as you would expect.

What is missing are passengers and the passage of time. The Nicosia International Airport is abandoned in the Cypriot Neutral Buffer Zone between the Greek-Cypriot part of the Island in the South and the Turkish occupied territory in the North.

This no man’s land (though it actually contains several populated villages) was said to have been drawn on a military map in 1963, with a wax pencil, by a British general commanding the peacekeeping force on the island in the wake of the Turkish invasion. In recent times, it has become one of many explanatory points in the EU’s ever increasing complex foreign policy proposals.

Almost two and a half thousand miles away on an brisk autumn day in Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen was delivering her first State of the Union address, amidst the backdrop of a huge coronavirus stimulus package, on-going migration crises and foreign policy dilemmas over Belarus and China.

As it stands at the moment, essentially in order to enact lasting change, the EU requires every member state to agree on such significant issues as economic sanctions. When effective, the result is the world’s second largest economic bloc exerting a hefty punch.

But more often than not, this bureaucratic behemoth ends up in months off stalemate, compromise and early morning solutions – not very conducive to effective law-making. Von der Leyen, frustrated with this, suggested that, for human rights and sanctions implementation, the bloc should move to a “qualified majority voting” whereby 55 per cent of member states (15) comprising 65 per cent of the population can vote for such measures.

The reason why this issue has come to the fore is the failure of the bloc to come up with unanimous sanctions against Belarus and its despotic leader, Alexander Lukashenko, following his blatant rigging of national elections and violent suppression of pro-democracy protests as a result.

The EU is seemingly united on the issue: indeed, all member states agreed to impose sanctions on their immediate eastern neighbour – all, that is, except Cyprus.

Cyprus, that small country in the middle of the Mediterranean amongst other forgotten Southern European countries, is still in a “cold” war against the Turkish invaders to the North. Their air forces engage in mock dogfights, and even their navies have quite literally run into each other.

Cyprus however, has less than two per cent of the population of Germany and just 0.25 per cent of the EU population.  So it has, whilst in an on-going state of conflict with Turkey, to stand by and watch Germany lead on negotiations with its rival over a migration crisis that is, in relative terms, more important to Angela Merkel than it is to the Cypriot people.

As a result, Nicosia has exercised its only real influence over Brussels to allow its people to be heard over what is its most important foreign policy dilemma – a mechanism that would much less effective under the changes proposed by vvon don der Leyen.

Ironically, von der Leyen is indeed correct. The only way to prevent endless vetoes, continuously circling the issue and ending up with watered down solutions is to adopt a voting system based on a simpler majority, but in doing so she fundamentally breaches the “universal value of democracy and the rights of the individual” within the Union – a phrase she uttered in the same breath as her comments on voting reform.

The confusion at the heart of the matter is this: the operative aspect of the EU is in persistent conflict with its aspiration – in short, it is suffering from an identity crisis with limited escape routes. It is trying, and failing, to be both an economic union and at the same time, seemingly whenever it choses, a political union, with both aims simultaneously mutually exclusive and co-dependant.

An example of which may be advocating for voting reform and lowering representation in one sentence, and espousing the democratic rights of its citizenry in another. Stating it stands up for the rights of its smaller nations, whilst its bigger nations club together to secure powers and influence over their own interests.

The EU is now attempting a slow death of democracy which will concentrate power and wealth in the north-western countries to the detriment and federalisation of the southern nations. It is no wonder that pro-sovereignty movements have taken hold there.

The EU faces a stark choice, which will upset a significant bloc either way.

The first course is to follow their stated aim of continual political integration, which is clearly the option favoured by the President and larger countries who will benefit given their scale.

The second is to recognise the value of devolution, and endeavour to support those countries on the periphery of the Union.

A final option is to simply do nothing…and allow these problems to continue to build in a state of perpetual crisis. As with much in the EU, some mixture of choices two and three is most likely followed by an undemocratic push into option one, sometime many years from now.

The result may well be a smoother machine, but will be a further drain on the power, influence and already low democratic representation in the smaller capitals of the Union who are trapped by economic shackles to the centre.

The UK, and Canada, at the time of writing, have enacted sanctions on Belarus, Lukashenko and his senior lieutenants, and have worked swiftly with the US on multiple occasions this year to act on aggression from Chinese and Russian abuses of the rules based international order.

The “take back control narrative” which prevailed in the UK in 2016 has begun to deliver on those promises. The EU, on the other hand, remains confused about its own democratic values and whether it actually works for all its member states, or only does so when it wants to, or when it benefits its larger members.

Ultimately, the smaller countries in the EU will be the losers in the reforms proposed by von der Leyen, echoed in a recent tweet on by Guy Verholfstadt suggesting “unanimity was killing the EU”.

Well, Guy, it will continue to hold back the EU – or else the EU will end up killing its smaller members. The President of the European Commission ought to visit the abandoned airport in Nicosia. There she would see the land that time forgot which would perhaps spur her, and her colleagues, to remember how easily democracy can die.

Rehman Chishti and Knox Thames: Freedom of religion is under threat. Trans-Atlantic efforts can combat that.

12 Oct

Rehman Chishti is an MP and the former UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on FoRB. Knox Thames served as the US Special Advisor on Religious Minorities at the State Department for both the Obama and Trump administrations.  

The United States and the United Kingdom have worked closely on joint efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) worldwide. It’s a reflection of our shared values, and the partnership presents a unique opportunity for joint action. And the time to act is now.

Religious repression is at all-time highs, with the Pew Forum reporting 84 per cent of the global community lives in countries with high or very high restrictions on faith practices. That’s not to say everyone is persecuted, but that the space for freedom of conscience is shrinking. People of all faiths and worldviews are affected by these trends, which have implications beyond human rights, including international security and the growth of violent religious extremism.

Solving a problem this large requires diverse coalitions. Through our work, we recognised the substantial advantages of partnerships with like-minded governments. Thankfully, there is unprecedented interest in a new trans-Atlantic effort to promote this fundamental freedom.

In the UK, the Truro report, launched the day after Christmas in 2018 by Jeremy Hunt, the then UK Foreign Secretary, specifically examined persecuted Christians. The report found troubling examples of Christian persecution, but noted that other communities also suffer, and recommended Her Majesty’s government do more to assist all persons persecuted for their beliefs. I (Chishti) was tasked with setting the 22 recommendations into policy, getting 17 into place before leaving office.

In the US, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 created a special ambassador at large on the issue and office, as well as required the annual reporting on religious freedom conditions worldwide. During the Trump administration, the State Department convened two ministerial-level summits that elevated the issue and launched a new Alliance to bring together the most committed countries on advancing religious freedom for all.

We both believe that holistically advocating for everyone’s right, as opposed to singularly focused on just one community, is the best approach. We grounded our activities in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of conscience, the right to change faith or have no faith, meet alone or with others for worship, and share one’s religious views. While, of course, we should speak out when individual groups face persecution, we must do so in the context of advocating for the right of religious freedom for all. A balanced approach focused on the right will ensure space for all beliefs.

Why? We’ve seen that it’s the most durable path to guaranteeing the right over the long haul. Environments where every individual is free to seek truth as their conscience leads is one where every community can thrive. In contrast, narrowly focused efforts, such as Christian persecution by Hungary or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s concentration on Muslim persecution, will most likely fall short of their long-term goals. It’s not that Christian and Muslim persecution isn’t happening – it most definitely is, and we must speak out.

But an environment providing freedom of conscience for all will ensure that individual communities can survive in the future. Otherwise, we risk creating religious Bantustans of special exemptions or carve-outs benefiting specific groups.

Working closely with Sam Brownback, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, we instilled this approach into the new International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and its founding charter. Alongside our Dutch and Brazilian counterparts, the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed, and key civil society experts, we helped build an organisation of 30+ nations from different regional, political, and religious backgrounds. Of course, none of these countries are perfect, but they all agreed to uphold their Article 18 commitments at home and abroad, including contentious issues like conversion and free speech.

Working together with those committed to the same principles can meet the challenges of today. For instance, the Alliance devised new strategies to advocate for all, such as a statement on Covid to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t become a pretext to limit religious freedom. Another vital network we participated in with Canada – the International Contact Group for FoRB – was also grounded in this religious-freedom-for-all approach.

In the face of new challenges and opportunities, progress will depend on North American and European leadership. The challenges facing religious freedom are beyond the capabilities or influence of any one government or organisation. Fortunately, our common understanding creates a platform for coordinated and elevated activity. Now, in addition to the US and UK envoys, others exist in several countries and organisations: Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, EU, the Netherlands, Norway, OSCE, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the United Nations.

The time is right for a more assertive trans-Atlantic approach, but parliamentarians and governments must demonstrate a lasting commitment to the right. Freedom of thought, conscience, and belief isn’t a conservative or liberal value or some sideshow to other issues, but a fundamental human right relevant to people of all faiths and none worldwide. It deserves the full attention of the international community.

Pressing repressive governments toward reform will not be easy or costless. China is playing hardball, with its persecution of UighursTibetansChristians, and the pressuring of countries daring to speak out. Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy law is in overdrive, while India is taking a wrong turn against minorities. Burma’s genocide against the Rohingya grinds on, while Christians in Nigeria suffer from Boko Haram.

In response, networking efforts among like-minded allies can share the burden and multiply the effectiveness of bilateral engagements. For instance, sanctions and other corrective measures like the Magnitsky act, which our countries have implemented, can create political leverage to encourage change. Hopefully, others in Europe will follow. Speaking out on specific cases is another example, such as on Yemen or blasphemy laws. To further elevate, our countries can use our UN Security Council seats to press for reforms. We can share data and train diplomats. All European and North American countries can immediately response to atrocity crimes, including genocide, or establish early warning systems.

More action is desperately needed. Governments must take this human right seriously and incorporate concerns across their policies. People of faith must speak up for persecuted believers (and non-believers) from other communities, to stand in solidarity with the repressed. Religious leaders should tackle this issue head-on, using their pulpits to advocate for soul freedom of all.

Everyone speaking up for everyone, even outside their belief system, is most impactful for the global effort. By working together, as rights-respecting communities on each side of the Atlantic, we can make a difference.

James Frayne: Do voters care about breaking international law, and if so, how much?

15 Sep

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

How much of an electoral risk is the Government taking by threatening to break international law? There hasn’t, to my knowledge, been much published polling on the issue and I haven’t seen any qual either. I’m not sure how revealing any opinion research would be at this point, anyway. Not only is the issue highly complex, but the Government hasn’t communicated a settled position on its intentions – and, in turn, the issue has not been played out properly in the media or in Parliament.

The public have only seen complex snippets. It’s therefore extremely unlikely the Government’s threat to break international law will have had much of an impact on public opinion at all so far. This isn’t to say the issue isn’t important or won’t have an impact in time. But it’s much more useful to consider how opinion might change and what might change it. How might we anticipate this change? Six questions come to mind.

Will this just split down Leave-Remain lines? As we know from the 2019 election, most people are bored to death by never-ending negotiations to leave. As we also know, almost everything on the Brexit process splits down Leave-Remain lines. There’s almost no crossover, where Leavers take the side of Remainers on an issue and vice versa. The well has been poisoned; you just have to take the occasional peek at Twitter and see otherwise normal people spewing bile at each other over Brexit.

ConservativeHome has taken an unusual position here: it’s associated with Leave but has encouraged MPs to vote against the Government. How common will ConservativeHome’s position be? This is the crucial question. Until significant numbers of Leavers (particularly Conservative Leavers) come out and join ConservativeHome, it seems most likely that Leavers will tacitly back the Government. Public opinion would shift if more Leavers follow the Editor’s advice.

Will this just look like Brexit chaos? The entire Brexit negotiation process has been a massive fiasco. From the morning after the referendum, government on this has been a shambles. One of the reasons so many people wanted to ‘get Brexit done’ was because they wanted the chaos to go away. I wonder therefore whether many will just write this off as being just another cock-up. Government opponents will need to explain why this is a special case. At present, they haven’t yet been able to do this effectively, although the arrival of more senior Conservative politicians into the fray might change things somewhat.

Can the public ever be made to care about international law? International law is complex, of course. But my sense is that it can’t be simplified in the way those hostile to the Government’s threat are seeking to do. People like Blair and Major are talking about how Britain’s moral standing will be adversely affected and so on. While a reasonable point, there are two reasons this won’t work.

Firstly, because, Brexit partisans aside, and rightly or wrongly, most people still consider Britain to be a moral actor in the world; this alone won’t undermine that. Secondly, more importantly, because many believe other countries break international law all the time. That said, opinion would surely change if and when the public are confronted with the prospect of another country unilaterally changing a treaty they had agreed with us. (It’s also worth adding the straight reality that Tony Blair is hardly the best advocate for international law.)

What is the reputation of the law more generally? My very strong sense is that the English public have also lost respect for ‘the law’ more generally. They believe  the law no longer reflects natural justice and, that word again, fairness. Respect for the law has been slowly eroding for many years now, but it has been eroding very quickly in recent years. Increasingly, people have not only heard stories about pathetically weak sentencing, but they’ve also heard, in their eyes, perfectly reasonable Government policy decisions being unpicked by the courts.

The Establishment Left has claimed this shift in opinion amounts to a swing against an independent judiciary and the beginnings of a march towards a more political legal system. It’s nothing so thought-through; rather, people think the law no longer reflects right and wrong and therefore the accusation levelled at Britain – as being a law breaker – simply doesn’t have the same power that it once might have done

What do the public think about the EU’s behaviour during negotiations? It would be an exaggeration to say the mass of the public have followed Brexit negotiations closely. But, to the extent they have, my sense is that they think the EU has behaved with hostility towards Britain.

Varadkar, Barnier and Juncker seemed to revel in Britain’s difficulties during negotiations. The pro-EU British media liked to praise these politicians for this, on the basis they were teaching about the reality of its new position. But it was always going to be pointlessly destructive because it stored up English resentment that, when the time came, the Government would be able to tap into – as it now might well do.

Will the public cut slack to the Government over Northern Ireland? It’s important to consider the merits of the Government’s stated case – or, rather, what the public will think of these merits.

At one level, the Government has a very strong argument: it’s perfectly reasonable to argue Northern Ireland, as much part of the UK as England, should not be treated differently. The problem, of course, is that the Government initially said it should be treated differently and that it had secured a winning agreement.

Will the public rally behind Northern Ireland if the Government makes a case that the agreement is having unintended consequences, or will they think Northern Ireland isn’t worth the bother? There’s no question that unionist sentiment has faded in recent times; not because of a surge in English nationalism, but because of a sense that Scotland, particularly, wants to go its own way. The UK doesn’t seem the country it did even 10 years ago. Will English Leavers think the Government should therefore dig in in the way it seems to be planning?

What does all this mean? My sense is that, on current trajectory, the Government’s opponents will not be able to make this an issue the public care about (Covid obviously towers above everything at the moment) in time. The only way this will change is if Conservative Leavers are mobilised en masse – and if perceived historical allies start to question this behaviour too, mostly from the US, but also Canada and Australia. As it stands, it’s mostly been anti-Brexit voices who have made the running on this issue, which, as I note above, makes it look like just another day in BrexitLand.

Bernard Jenkin: If necessary, we must pass legislation that will nullify the direct effect and direct applicability of EU laws

11 Sep

Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee, and of the ERG Steering Group. He is MP for Harwich and North Essex.

The Bill to regularise the trade of goods and services within the UK is part of taking back control from what is still regulated by the EU, while we are in transition to full independence. The UK Internal Market Bill was published yesterday.  All it does is to legislate for the uncontroversial principle that all goods produced in any part of the UK should be treated equally.

However, it also sets out to protect this principle from potentially damaging interference from the EU, and makes provision for the UK to insist on the right of UK self-government and an end to the application of EU laws in the UK.

The Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) provides that Northern Ireland would remain subject to the EU’s customs laws and procedures and large parts of its internal market laws, under threat of enforcement by the EU Commission and the Court of Justice of the EU (ECJ). The EU’s rules on state aid would also continue to apply.

This clause could be interpreted widely, allowing the EU to impose their state aid regime on any UK policy which they consider impacts, in any way, on goods which are traded between Northern Ireland and the EU.

This applies not only to Northern Ireland, but also to goods originating from GB. The economy of NI is integrated with the rest of the UK, so there is nothing to prevent this clause being interpreted by the EU and its Court to continue imposing EU policy on large areas of the economy of the whole UK – a country that has formally left the bloc.  For example, if Westminster provided state aid to a manufacturer or farmer in England, which shipped some of its goods to Northern Ireland, then the EU could declare that support to be illegal.

The Protocol requires that customs and regulatory barriers would be imposed down the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – a damaging division (as well as lots of red tape) between what are two parts of the same country.  This is at odds with the Agreement, which states that the UK should constitute “a single customs territory”.

UK-mainland based businesses trading in goods with Northern Ireland would have to pay tariffs at the EU Common External Tariff rate, if the EU considers them to be “at risk” of travelling on to the EU.  The EU alone could decide what constitutes an adequate customs check between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, what might be an illegal state aid, or what goods might be “at risk” of travelling on to the EU.

Why should the EU have a monopoly of wisdom over what this Agreement means?  These are not sustainable terms for the long-term relationship between a sovereign state like the UK, and the EU.

The only legitimate pretext for the Protocol to exist at all is to sustain the Northern Ireland Peace Process and the open frontier between the North and South.  It is reasonable for the EU to insist that this open border should not be used as an open back door to the EU for non-compliant goods or the evasion of EU tariffs.  However, if the UK can protect the Peace Process, to keep the border free of checks, while protecting the EU internal market, how can the EU justify their right to enforce their laws on the UK?

The UK Internal Market Bill seeks to address this, and this has reignited old feuds about Brexit. Specifically, it provides powers for ministers to ask Parliament to override any EU ruling, if the EU unreasonably seeks to impose these unnecessary provisions on the UK against our will.

If we end the year without a new trade agreement to supersede the Withdrawal Agreement, Brexit will not be “done”, because we would remain bound to the EU by the Withdrawal Agreement.  The UK signed the Withdrawal Agreement making clear that it should be superseded by a trade deal similar to the EU-Canada FTA.  The EU’s insistence that the Court of Justice of the European Union should continue to have direct jurisdiction over parts of the law of the United Kingdom should be seen for what it is: an inability to move on.

It is part of a an unreasonable pattern of EU behaviour.  The former UK diplomat to the EU, later John Major’s Press Secretary before becoming Tony Blair’s Ambassador in Washington, Christopher Meyer tweeted: “Article 184 of the Withdrawal Agreement commits the parties to negotiate on the future relationship ‘in good faith and in full respect of their respective legal orders’. It’s more than arguable the EU is already in breach on state aids and fish. ‘Trust’ works in both directions.”

Who in their right mind can consider that the Withdrawal Agreement offers any prospect of stability in the long term?  Agreeing to continued ECJ jurisdiction with direct applicability and direct effect could not in any way be considered as taking back control of our laws – the promise made both by Vote Leave and by the 2019 Conservative manifesto.  This would tear open the referendum divisions all over again.

Eurosceptics like me only voted for the Withdrawal Agreement to help the nation out of a paralysing political crisis. We made clear that it remains only the best of a bad job. We were assured that it was just a starting point for negotiations; that it would be superseded by a full FTA and, if needs be, could be repudiated.

This reassurance is buttressed by Section 38 of the Withdrawal Agreement Act. This makes clear that “the Parliament of the United Kingdom is sovereign” and so can repeal any “directly applicable or directly effective EU law”.  The House of Lords voted for that with hardly a squeak of protest.  The EU Parliament ratified the Withdrawal Agreement in full knowledge our Parliament had put this clause into the Bill.  The Prime Minister and our 2019 manifesto both made clear we will “take back control of our laws”, but it is becoming clear the EU may still not accept this and perhaps never intended it.

The UK should first try to re-negotiate the Agreement, but if the EU continues to be unreasonable, the Government is right to develop options.

The first is to enact domestic legislation that will nullify the direct effect and direct applicability of the EU laws.  The UK Internal Market Bill provides for this possibility.  If the EU still insists on applying the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement beyond what is reasonable, then the Parliament must be ready to use these powers. I hope it is not necessary, but if it is the only way to achieve UK prosperity and the kind of sovereign independence which is the democratic right of any nation recognised under the UN Charter, then so be it. And most other nations would respect us for that.

I was a bit surprised when the Northern Ireland Secretary so boldly announced that the Bill “does break international law”. This may be good tough talk, but it does not engender respect.  (Who told him to say that?)  His exact words are not even factually correct.  The key clauses themselves create no breach with EU law.  Even if the Government legislates to “disapply[ing] or modify[ing] the effect” of EU law, the Government may well be able to argue, while contrary to EU law, it is justified and therefore not a breach of international law.

What might be construed as a minor breach of some highly technical provisions of an international agreement does not mean a breach of “the law”, as it is understood under our constitution.  “The law” is the law passed by Parliament.  International law is a mixture of politics, diplomacy and the texts of agreements.  Trade agreements in particular are frequently disputed and dishonoured by illegal protectionism or punitive tariffs without justification.

The EU is a past-master at this.  Such agreements are not enforceable by our own courts in our own law unless Parliament says it should be so.  No self-respecting sovereign state would allow a foreign power the sole right to determine how to interpret and to enforce a bilateral treaty. Parliament has the inalienable right to enact laws to defend our national interests.

Bernard Jenkin: If necessary, we must pass legislation that will nullify the direct effect and direct applicability of EU laws

11 Sep

Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee, and of the ERG Steering Group. He is MP for Harwich and North Essex.

The Bill to regularise the trade of goods and services within the UK is part of taking back control from what is still regulated by the EU, while we are in transition to full independence. The UK Internal Market Bill was published yesterday.  All it does is to legislate for the uncontroversial principle that all goods produced in any part of the UK should be treated equally.

However, it also sets out to protect this principle from potentially damaging interference from the EU, and makes provision for the UK to insist on the right of UK self-government and an end to the application of EU laws in the UK.

The Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) provides that Northern Ireland would remain subject to the EU’s customs laws and procedures and large parts of its internal market laws, under threat of enforcement by the EU Commission and the Court of Justice of the EU (ECJ). The EU’s rules on state aid would also continue to apply.

This clause could be interpreted widely, allowing the EU to impose their state aid regime on any UK policy which they consider impacts, in any way, on goods which are traded between Northern Ireland and the EU.

This applies not only to Northern Ireland, but also to goods originating from GB. The economy of NI is integrated with the rest of the UK, so there is nothing to prevent this clause being interpreted by the EU and its Court to continue imposing EU policy on large areas of the economy of the whole UK – a country that has formally left the bloc.  For example, if Westminster provided state aid to a manufacturer or farmer in England, which shipped some of its goods to Northern Ireland, then the EU could declare that support to be illegal.

The Protocol requires that customs and regulatory barriers would be imposed down the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – a damaging division (as well as lots of red tape) between what are two parts of the same country.  This is at odds with the Agreement, which states that the UK should constitute “a single customs territory”.

UK-mainland based businesses trading in goods with Northern Ireland would have to pay tariffs at the EU Common External Tariff rate, if the EU considers them to be “at risk” of travelling on to the EU.  The EU alone could decide what constitutes an adequate customs check between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, what might be an illegal state aid, or what goods might be “at risk” of travelling on to the EU.

Why should the EU have a monopoly of wisdom over what this Agreement means?  These are not sustainable terms for the long-term relationship between a sovereign state like the UK, and the EU.

The only legitimate pretext for the Protocol to exist at all is to sustain the Northern Ireland Peace Process and the open frontier between the North and South.  It is reasonable for the EU to insist that this open border should not be used as an open back door to the EU for non-compliant goods or the evasion of EU tariffs.  However, if the UK can protect the Peace Process, to keep the border free of checks, while protecting the EU internal market, how can the EU justify their right to enforce their laws on the UK?

The UK Internal Market Bill seeks to address this, and this has reignited old feuds about Brexit. Specifically, it provides powers for ministers to ask Parliament to override any EU ruling, if the EU unreasonably seeks to impose these unnecessary provisions on the UK against our will.

If we end the year without a new trade agreement to supersede the Withdrawal Agreement, Brexit will not be “done”, because we would remain bound to the EU by the Withdrawal Agreement.  The UK signed the Withdrawal Agreement making clear that it should be superseded by a trade deal similar to the EU-Canada FTA.  The EU’s insistence that the Court of Justice of the European Union should continue to have direct jurisdiction over parts of the law of the United Kingdom should be seen for what it is: an inability to move on.

It is part of a an unreasonable pattern of EU behaviour.  The former UK diplomat to the EU, later John Major’s Press Secretary before becoming Tony Blair’s Ambassador in Washington, Christopher Meyer tweeted: “Article 184 of the Withdrawal Agreement commits the parties to negotiate on the future relationship ‘in good faith and in full respect of their respective legal orders’. It’s more than arguable the EU is already in breach on state aids and fish. ‘Trust’ works in both directions.”

Who in their right mind can consider that the Withdrawal Agreement offers any prospect of stability in the long term?  Agreeing to continued ECJ jurisdiction with direct applicability and direct effect could not in any way be considered as taking back control of our laws – the promise made both by Vote Leave and by the 2019 Conservative manifesto.  This would tear open the referendum divisions all over again.

Eurosceptics like me only voted for the Withdrawal Agreement to help the nation out of a paralysing political crisis. We made clear that it remains only the best of a bad job. We were assured that it was just a starting point for negotiations; that it would be superseded by a full FTA and, if needs be, could be repudiated.

This reassurance is buttressed by Section 38 of the Withdrawal Agreement Act. This makes clear that “the Parliament of the United Kingdom is sovereign” and so can repeal any “directly applicable or directly effective EU law”.  The House of Lords voted for that with hardly a squeak of protest.  The EU Parliament ratified the Withdrawal Agreement in full knowledge our Parliament had put this clause into the Bill.  The Prime Minister and our 2019 manifesto both made clear we will “take back control of our laws”, but it is becoming clear the EU may still not accept this and perhaps never intended it.

The UK should first try to re-negotiate the Agreement, but if the EU continues to be unreasonable, the Government is right to develop options.

The first is to enact domestic legislation that will nullify the direct effect and direct applicability of the EU laws.  The UK Internal Market Bill provides for this possibility.  If the EU still insists on applying the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement beyond what is reasonable, then the Parliament must be ready to use these powers. I hope it is not necessary, but if it is the only way to achieve UK prosperity and the kind of sovereign independence which is the democratic right of any nation recognised under the UN Charter, then so be it. And most other nations would respect us for that.

I was a bit surprised when the Northern Ireland Secretary so boldly announced that the Bill “does break international law”. This may be good tough talk, but it does not engender respect.  (Who told him to say that?)  His exact words are not even factually correct.  The key clauses themselves create no breach with EU law.  Even if the Government legislates to “disapply[ing] or modify[ing] the effect” of EU law, the Government may well be able to argue, while contrary to EU law, it is justified and therefore not a breach of international law.

What might be construed as a minor breach of some highly technical provisions of an international agreement does not mean a breach of “the law”, as it is understood under our constitution.  “The law” is the law passed by Parliament.  International law is a mixture of politics, diplomacy and the texts of agreements.  Trade agreements in particular are frequently disputed and dishonoured by illegal protectionism or punitive tariffs without justification.

The EU is a past-master at this.  Such agreements are not enforceable by our own courts in our own law unless Parliament says it should be so.  No self-respecting sovereign state would allow a foreign power the sole right to determine how to interpret and to enforce a bilateral treaty. Parliament has the inalienable right to enact laws to defend our national interests.

Profile: Erin O’Toole, the genial and reassuringly dull Conservative who could soon be Prime Minister of Canada

9 Sep

When the editor of ConHome, swift to discern a new trend, commissioned me to write a profile of Erin O’Toole, I confess I had no idea who he was talking about.

Brexit has prompted a renewed interest in the politics of Australia, New Zealand and Canada, previously seen as countries from which the United Kingdom had diverged.

But of those three countries, Canada has so far attracted the least coverage, and O’Toole’s election on 23rd August as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, so as Leader of the Opposition and perhaps within a few months Prime Minister, was pretty much ignored in the British press.

Even in Canada, the result did not cause wild excitement. For although the Prime Minister since 2015, Justin Trudeau. has led, since last October’s general election, a minority government, which means there is a strong possibility of new elections, perhaps next spring, which the Conservatives might win, O’Toole’s manner is unexciting.

He a calm, genial, avuncular figure, and although, at 47, he is a year younger than Trudeau, he has the decency to look and sound a generation older.

If Canadians want someone who will stand up, in a stalwart but good-humoured way, for old-fashioned good manners against liberal iconoclasm, they will turn to O’Toole.

Here is a passage from his acceptance speech, delivered in the middle of the night after he won the leadership. He refers to his wife, Rebecca, and speaks quite often in French, while apologising for his English accent:

“Je suis né à Montréal et j’ai grandi en Ontario. J’ai appris mon français dans les Forces Armées Canadiennes. Et oui, je parle comme un anglo… mais un anglo qui respecte les francophones et qui est fier du français dans notre pays. Je suis en politique pour me battre pour tous les Canadiens et nos deux langues nationales.

“Like millions of Canadians, Rebecca and I have been juggling a lot of jobs lately. With our kids at home, COVID has made us appreciate teachers more than ever before.

“My mother, who passed away when I was nine, was a teacher. And, throughout my life, I have wished she was here to give me advice.  Right now, I wish she were here to see her child succeed.  But, I know she is here tonight because I can see her in my daughter who shares her name.”

O’Toole’s father worked for General Motors for 30 years, and from 1995 to 2014 was a member of the provincial assembly in Ontario.

This was an example of public service which the son decided to follow. But first he joined the Canadian air force, in which he hoped to serve as a pilot, but instead found himself selected to be navigator on “an old, antiquated helicopter”, rising to the rank of captain.

“You learn more from your setbacks than from your successes,” he said afterwards.

He loves the armed forces, and that indispensable extension of the armed forces, the Merchant Navy. While glancing down O’Toole’s Twitter feed, I came across a message from a few days ago adorned by the Canadian flag and the Union Jack, which said in English and French:

“Let us always remember the courage and determination of our Merchant Navy. We will never forget those we have lost and the service and sacrifice of our brave women and men in uniform.”

I was brought up on such sentiments. How wonderful to find them being expressed in 2020, by the man who might be the next Prime Minister of Canada.

On leaving the air force, he read law, and was soon profitably employed as a lawyer. In 2014, Bev Oda, the first Japanese Canadian MP and Cabinet minister, resigned her seat in Durham, north-west of Toronto, after being found to have made unacceptable expenses claims.

O’Toole’s father still represented Durham at provincial level. The son won the by-election to represent Durham in Ottawa.

He was soon made Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, his predecessor having infuriated the veterans. The new minister, who had taken a close interest in the welfare of veterans and had set up a mental health charity in that field, calmed things down.

In 2917, when he was still ordinary enough to pretend not to be a career politician, O’Toole ran for the Conservative leadership. He came third, but gained respect for declining to hurl personal abuse at his rivals, and was rewarded with the foreign affairs portfolio.

Andrew Scheer, victor of that contest, failed in 2019 to overthrow Trudeau, and was forced to stand down. O’Toole stood again, struck an angrier note than he had before, obtained the endorsement of Jason Kenney, the celebrated Premier of Alberta, and won by positioning himself as a True Blue Conservative who made right-wing noises without, generally speaking, committing himself to anything so inconvenient as right-wing policies.

He has, however, for several years been a firm supporter of CANZUK, the projected alliance between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

And he is in favour of eliminating the budget deficit, increasing child benefit, cutting and simplifying taxes, building the pipelines which are such a divisive issue in Canadian politics, and taking a hard line on China.

Conrad Black, one of the few Canadian pundits of whom readers of ConHome will almost certainly have heard, said in a recent piece for The National Post that O’Toole

“has the minor distinction of being the first holder of his position since John Bracken, who led the Progressive Conservatives in the 1945 general election, that I have never met. But I think his chances of success are quite promising, for several reasons. First, he is a confident man and has a largely self-made career… In addition to self-confidence and tactical skill, O’Toole appears to have an intuition about where the voters are… He is a bit ordinary, but so are most people (and most politicians).”

To get a better idea of O’Toole, and what might be called his dull quick-wittedness, it is worth watching his accomplished performance on Maclean’s 60-second challenge.

And here for purposes of comparison is Trudeau.

Which will the Canadians prefer? One can’t help feeling that Boris Johnson, so keen to cultivate his Australian contacts, may have missed a trick by failing to send his congratulations to O’Toole.

Stephen Booth: With four months left to get a Brexit deal, state aid is the major stumbling block for the UK and EU.

3 Sep

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

At this delicate stage, predictions of whether the Brexit negotiations will conclude with a trade agreement or not are bound to be no more than guesswork. With only four months until the end of the Brexit transition period, the chances of a UK-EU trade deal being ready for January 1, 2021 are in fifty-fifty territory.

The EU’s “parallelism” policy – blocking progress in one area as long as there isn’t progress elsewhere – means that Michel Barnier is refusing to discuss British proposals on fishing until the UK moves on other issues, including the most difficult of them all: the EU’s desire to establish a “level playing field” for state aid. It could be argued that Brussels’ insistence on solving the difficult issues first prevents rather than permits progress.

Ultimately, fishing is not likely to be the deal-breaker. The eight EU member states with significant fishing fleets will completely lose access to UK waters if there is no deal at all, so cutting a deal is clearly better than the default, even if it falls well short of the desire for “relative stability” for existing EU quotas.

At the start of the summer there were reasons for optimism about a deal. The EU had signalled a willingness to water down its most ambitious demands on fishing and state aid and the UK had acknowledged the EU’s concerns about the overall structure of the agreement.

However, the mood appears to have turned and the last negotiating round yielded very little, according to the readouts from both sides. This week Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister, cited the “intransigent and frankly unrealistic attitude” of the UK for the lack of progress. Barnier yesterday gave a speech outlining the continued areas of disagreement. Equally, recent media reports suggest the UK is preparing the ground to walk away from the talks if the stalemate continues much longer.

State aid is the major stumbling block. The impasse would appear to be a bigger problem in theory than in practice. UK orthodoxy has seen past governments refrain from major interventions in the economy. According to the European Commission’s “State aid Scoreboard”, the UK spent state aid equivalent to 0.34 per cent of GDP in 2018, compared to an EU average of 0.76 per cent. Meanwhile, France spent 0.79 per cent, slightly above the EU average, and Germany spent a much larger per cent.

The perception in Brussels is that this UK Government is different. David McAllister, the German MEP who chairs the European Parliament’s Brexit committee and who is close to Angela Merkel, has said the “UK’s interest in subsidising sectors”, such as steel and cars, would have “direct consequences for EU industries and jobs if these goods have ‘duty-free, quota-free’ access to the single market”.

This precise fear of the UK turning to a historically continental strategy of promoting “national champions” may be wide of the mark. Nevertheless, it is clear that some members of this Government view industrial policy and strategic investment as important levers at its disposal.

In this area, the devil will be in the detail. In the post-Covid world, it is difficult to predict what will be required of the state and nimbleness may be critical. Therefore, it is understandable that the UK would not want to find itself bound permanently by treaty into the EU state-aid regime, much of which is “temporarily” suspended in any case due to the pressures of the crisis on national and regional governments.

Little headway appears likely until the UK sets out its blueprint for domestic state subsidy control, which is expected to be later this month. At a minimum, the UK will need to comply with WTO rules, but these fall far short of the requirements of the current EU regime.

WTO rules only apply to goods, while the EU rules apply to both goods and services. The EU rules are prescriptive in what and what is not permitted, whereas, in practice, WTO rules set a high threshold because complainant countries must demonstrate that disputed aid is harmful in its effect.

The EU appears to have walked back from its initial position – clearly unacceptable to the Government – that the UK should continue to be bound by EU state aid rules into the future, with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) having the final say in respect of enforcement. In contrast, the EU’s agreement with Canada simply uses the WTO model as a basis and expands it to services, but there are limited options for enforcement.

A possible compromise would be for the UK to implement domestic legislation, adopting some aspects of the status quo, enforced by an independent UK authority and subject to review by Parliament and the UK courts (not the ECJ). Subject to dispute settlement, set out in the UK-EU trade agreement, the EU (and the UK) would retain the right to adopt countermeasures, such as tariffs, against any state aid deemed to be trade-distorting.

Whether this would be acceptable to the EU remains to be seen. The essential objective from the UK’s perspective is to depart from the EU’s desire to micromanage the UK’s subsidy policy by treaty. However, the UK would need to accept the principle that the EU could deal with the consequences of UK subsidies with countermeasures such as retaliatory tariffs.

A bust up in September or October does not necessarily preclude a deal at the last minute. Weighed against these important, yet technocratic considerations, is the prospect of no agreement at all.

A trade agreement, with no tariffs on UK-EU trade and regulatory cooperation, would better enable the UK to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol in the light-touch way the Government has outlined.

Any disruption attributed to a no deal exit, however transient, would give Keir Starmer ammunition in his continued attack on Government competence. Against this, the Government is in a much stronger position than it was in the autumn of 2019 when renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement.

Failure would have economic and geopolitical consequences for the EU too. The UK may only be Germany’s seventh largest trade partner, but it ranks second in contributing to Germany’s trade surplus.

It is notable that Tom Tugendhat MP has on this site recently called for the UK to break with EU policy on Iran to adopt an approach closer to the United States. In the event of a breakdown in the trade relationship, Brussels should not be surprised to encounter a more muscularly independent UK in other fields.

We are now approaching the end game. The technical negotiations have probably achieved as much as they can at this stage. It will soon be up to the politicians on both sides of the table to make the big call about whether to make the deal or not.

Paul Maynard: Here’s why I believe as an ex-Minister that a hard rain may indeed be coming for the civil service

31 Aug

Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

When an early morning call from Number 10 is scheduled on reshuffle day, then the writing is on the wall. The only question is where you want to be when you are asked to “step aside” from Government. Clearly not my Commons office – like the rest of the estate, mobile reception is at best intermittent.

I sat Portcullis House, but then thought better of being dumped in front of passing colleagues, so I strolled down the Embankment a little to receive the inevitable. The Prime Minister was friendly and had perfected the art of the rueful rejection. No-one will ever describe it as pleasant – unless they had pre-planned their departure.

Rather than head straight back to Parliament, I strolled across Waterloo Bridge in dismal drizzle. Never has the location felt so far removed from the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset. I certainly wasn’t in paradise, and rather hoped that the only sunset wasn’t that of my political career. From that bridge, I could gaze upon the Whitehall skyline as if it were some hermetic village, peopled by a priestly caste who floated high above my constituents’ supposedly more mundane concerns, and start mulling over my conclusions about how government does and doesn’t work.

More time in my Commons office then lockdown gave me an opportunity – and how we ex-Ministers seek them – to reflect on whether I felt I had achieved much in office, and whether the machinery of government is best equipped to help ministers do what they both wish and need to do to achieve their lofty ambitions.

Indeed, I felt I had achieved, though others may disagree with the footling nature of my supposed achievements. HS2 anyone? I looked back fondly on my promotion of the “sunflower” lanyard across the transport sector as part of the Inclusive Transport review I oversaw when first a transport minister.

That was until I read Michael Gove’s recent and insightful lecture to the Ditchley Foundation – “inclusive lanyards” came in for a bit of stick as a poor substitute for achieving radical change. The sight of so many such lanyards in supermarkets now has given me pause for thought also.

Gove made so many points which did resonate with me though. Not the least was the need for greater specialism by both ministers and civil servants. As the Major Rail Projects Minister, I literally begged to be sent on some course that might enable me to do a better job of holding delivery bodies to account – yet it was always “just around the corner” until the axe fell.

Excellent officials populated all my three differing ministerial stints, yet many seemed to be in perpetual motion as they moved from role to role, barely staying long enough to finish a project they started. There were exceptions – and they were all the more effective for it.

Ministers are often advised to pick three things to achieve within their average 18 month tenure, but even that degree of longevity seems optimistic these days – so fast is the hamster wheel of ministerial life. You realise things are dysfunctional when you find that you know more about an issue than the officials briefing you, or when you seem to be scheduling farewell drinks for someone in your private office every couple of months.

Individual civil servants are sincere, capable and enthusiastic. I was one of those ministers who knew we were just hot air without people to turn our vision into reality. They are easy targets for ministers lacking that subtle art of both listening and hearing.

However, I remember with enthusiasm that, in opposition, think tanks were a steady stream of innovative policy ideas. In particular, I recall Oliver Letwin’s pamphlet on the conveyor belt to crime – but the conveyor belt of fresh ideas seems to have gradually slowed down.

Within Downing Street, we need to reach out and ensure the hothouse of talent can be harnessed better. We have started to shy away from difficult complexity in addressing our policy challenges on the occasions we do decide to try and deal with them.

But for too long, whichever party may be in government, as a nation we have failed on some of the grand challenges. As a party, we have great ideas and insights, but they fail to see the light of day when they come to be put into practice.

I know ministers are often frustrated that they don’t feel they get the guidance they need as to what the centre wants. Involvement only seems to come when something goes wrong. In Canada, on appointment, ministers receive a “mandate letter” setting out what they are expected to achieve by the Prime Minister. Such a move would be both radical and positive, I believe, in this country. In addition, Canadian ministers don’t have to locate themselves in a departmental silo. The team of officials is built around their briefs – relatively narrow briefs which change as political priorities wax and wane.

So we need to try much, much harder to burst the departmental silos. Whilst some ministers sit across government departments, and the Cabinet Office has at times acted as an enforcer of key themes, on some of the really big thematic underpinnings of policy, Whitehall has not been able to effectively co-ordinate.

Ministerial committees are flabby, too full of a mix of posturing and defensiveness, as ministers defend the turf or score points off colleagues rather than collaborate to achieve. They always struck me as akin to the “boardroom” section of The Apprentice. It isn’t enough just to have someone in your private office picking up the phone to a distant department a small part of whose remit you hold the brief for, if only in theory. Build the structure around the minister’s mission.

That’s why I think we should appoint a pair of cross-government thematic ministers based in Cabinet Office, with the right to attend cabinet, focusing on social justice, infrastructure or inter-generational solidarity – as a test-bed for a new way of structuring Whitehall.

Is the answer to relocate Civil Service decision-making, as some suggest? If it is a case of aping the BBC and transplanting the denizens of Barnes to equally affluent Bowdon, modish Hackney to already-gentrified Hale, then the answer is no. Was the sole reason it was mooted sending the Lords to York was because senior civil servants had found some highly desirable Victorian villas they could afford in Harrogate?

If it is locating, not just processing, PIP claims to Blackpool (hundreds are already here), but those who come up with the processes and financial provisions within which those decisions have to be made, then yes. It needs to be more than a sop to the newly-won constituencies. Indeed, we’d be happy to host the Lords in Blackpool’s magnificent Winter Gardens ballroom where so many of them once strutted their stuff at party conferences.

History is littered with temporary bursts of enthusiasm for reforming the machinery of government or replanting clumps of civil servants in stonier ground. Often this is because it is seen to be an end in itself, rather than measured by whether the fundamental outputs change. Maybe this time will be different – the very scale of the challenge we now face with Covid will force through some radical innovation.

My knowledge of the Wade-Giles romanization methodology for Mandarin doesn’t allow me to confirm whether the Chinese characters for “crisis” and “opportunity” are in fact one and the same, as one endlessly-repeated ‘fact’ that is trotted out states. But even if they aren’t, it has to be how we approach the coming years.

The machinery of state has shown itself to lack the bandwidth and agility required to deliver complexity at pace. A hard rain may indeed be coming, if only because there is no alternative. Far worse, perhaps, would be the ‘spits and spots’ of precipitation beloved of BBC forecasters. Do it properly or not at all.