Alex Morton: How Sunak can save £30 billion a year

21 Oct

Alex Morton Head of Policy at the CPS and a former Number Ten Policy Unit Member.

Today, the Office for National Statistics will announce the provisional figures of Government borrowing for the first six months for 2020/21. They will be truly dire. We know because borrowing in the first five months alone were bigger than the previous annual total, and by August this year the national debt was larger than the UK economy, rising by over 10 per cent from 2019/20’s total.

Putting aside the ongoing – and crucial – debate about the nature of lockdown restrictions, it is clear even on the most optimistic forecasts, and with the best decisions, the UK will end the pandemic with a serious debt and deficit problem. Even assuming higher borrowing for years, something must give.

For that reason, the Centre for Policy Studies today publishes the paper Saving £30 billion: Nine Simple Steps, which discusses, on rough but plausible estimates, nine savings to cut £30 billion a year from the Government’s spending without jeopardising frontline services, or asking the politically impossible.

The Government is in the middle of a Spending Review, and we believe that now is the time for proposals to stop the threat of tax rises which will both hit growth and hard-pressed workers, companies and families. None of the savings would impact frontline delivery and none of them ask for MPs to vote through what would be political suicide.

Government efficiency

Despite the arguments made that austerity means no further reduction in spend is possible, we find significant potential savings across a wide range of areas, none of which impact frontline delivery. The first group of savings are thus about making the state more efficient.

  • We analyse the number of Government administrative staff versus the private sector and find initial convergence but significant disparities in reductions in recent years, with the private sector slimming down this group more effectively. We therefore propose benchmarking Government administrative staff totals to the private sector and reducing these in the public sector once a post-Covid recovery gets underway.

We also propose –

  • To abolish some quangos and to bring all quangos under the control of a relevant department. Each department should create a single body to manage HR, marketing, and other administrative functions for all quangos it oversees. This should also make bureaucracies more accountable and improve public sector productivity.
  • Pushing toward greater use of back office function sharing in local government, as occurs between Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea. There is no need for 350 councils to have distinct IT or press or procurement teams. The Housing and Local Government Department should publish data on the administrative costs for each council to push forward action. This should enable many of the savings around unitarisation without the massive political rows.
  • Improving e-procurement and data sharing, noting that other countries such as South Korea or Estonia have significantly improved productivity and reduced costs through this route, and agreeing with critics of the existing Government procurement systems.
  • Since the state owns land and property worth a staggering £1 trillion, we call for an inventory of all non-operational land followed by a sale and leaseback model across all this non-operational land, rather than past Spending Review’s top down land targets for each department. Just selling off the Network Rail arches gained £1.4 billion while boosting growth, and Covid-19 has changed office work patterns, so this should raise serious sums.

Ensuring a fair state

The second group of savings are about ensuring that the state does not give excessively to one or other group, and create a state focused on the core tasks of government. We propose:

  • Replacing the triple lock with a dual lock, which still gives pensioners the best of inflation or wage growth, and removing the tax anomaly of the Winter Fuel Payment and just treating as taxable income like other benefits.
  • Sell and replace high-value council properties when they fall vacant with a less expensive nearby equivalent. It is deeply unfair there are million-pound council properties in many parts of London and this is not what making sure people have a roof over their heads is about. This doesn’t even mean anyone has to move – just no more new expensive tenancies.
  • Roll child benefit into the child tax credit system with a further taper that reduces the top 10 per cent or so of households (essentially capturing those with two fairly high earners to bring them into line with a single high earner household).
  • Cut overseas aid to 0.5 per cent, still placing the UK in the top 10 donor countries and moving on from 2005 when this target was set at 0.7 per cent at a time when India and even China were legitimate UK aid recipients, not emerging economic superpowers. It would be both immoral and politically toxic to make the other savings while protecting a budget overseas that has nearly doubled in recent years.

Taken together, these savings would help bring down the deficit to an acceptable level. They involve some hard decisions and confrontation of vested interests, but not impossible ones, and all should pass through the Commons, even in its new rebellious state. The alternative, ever higher borrowing, or even worse, ever higher taxes, is unthinkable if we are to achieve what the CPS believes the number one priority post-pandemic must be – restoring sustained economic growth. We call on the Government to investigate and takes forward these ideas as part of the Spending Review process.

Alex Morton: How Sunak can save £30 billion a year

21 Oct

Alex Morton Head of Policy at the CPS and a former Number Ten Policy Unit Member.

Today, the Office for National Statistics will announce the provisional figures of Government borrowing for the first six months for 2020/21. They will be truly dire. We know because borrowing in the first five months alone were bigger than the previous annual total, and by August this year the national debt was larger than the UK economy, rising by over 10 per cent from 2019/20’s total.

Putting aside the ongoing – and crucial – debate about the nature of lockdown restrictions, it is clear even on the most optimistic forecasts, and with the best decisions, the UK will end the pandemic with a serious debt and deficit problem. Even assuming higher borrowing for years, something must give.

For that reason, the Centre for Policy Studies today publishes the paper Saving £30 billion: Nine Simple Steps, which discusses, on rough but plausible estimates, nine savings to cut £30 billion a year from the Government’s spending without jeopardising frontline services, or asking the politically impossible.

The Government is in the middle of a Spending Review, and we believe that now is the time for proposals to stop the threat of tax rises which will both hit growth and hard-pressed workers, companies and families. None of the savings would impact frontline delivery and none of them ask for MPs to vote through what would be political suicide.

Government efficiency

Despite the arguments made that austerity means no further reduction in spend is possible, we find significant potential savings across a wide range of areas, none of which impact frontline delivery. The first group of savings are thus about making the state more efficient.

  • We analyse the number of Government administrative staff versus the private sector and find initial convergence but significant disparities in reductions in recent years, with the private sector slimming down this group more effectively. We therefore propose benchmarking Government administrative staff totals to the private sector and reducing these in the public sector once a post-Covid recovery gets underway.

We also propose –

  • To abolish some quangos and to bring all quangos under the control of a relevant department. Each department should create a single body to manage HR, marketing, and other administrative functions for all quangos it oversees. This should also make bureaucracies more accountable and improve public sector productivity.
  • Pushing toward greater use of back office function sharing in local government, as occurs between Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea. There is no need for 350 councils to have distinct IT or press or procurement teams. The Housing and Local Government Department should publish data on the administrative costs for each council to push forward action. This should enable many of the savings around unitarisation without the massive political rows.
  • Improving e-procurement and data sharing, noting that other countries such as South Korea or Estonia have significantly improved productivity and reduced costs through this route, and agreeing with critics of the existing Government procurement systems.
  • Since the state owns land and property worth a staggering £1 trillion, we call for an inventory of all non-operational land followed by a sale and leaseback model across all this non-operational land, rather than past Spending Review’s top down land targets for each department. Just selling off the Network Rail arches gained £1.4 billion while boosting growth, and Covid-19 has changed office work patterns, so this should raise serious sums.

Ensuring a fair state

The second group of savings are about ensuring that the state does not give excessively to one or other group, and create a state focused on the core tasks of government. We propose:

  • Replacing the triple lock with a dual lock, which still gives pensioners the best of inflation or wage growth, and removing the tax anomaly of the Winter Fuel Payment and just treating as taxable income like other benefits.
  • Sell and replace high-value council properties when they fall vacant with a less expensive nearby equivalent. It is deeply unfair there are million-pound council properties in many parts of London and this is not what making sure people have a roof over their heads is about. This doesn’t even mean anyone has to move – just no more new expensive tenancies.
  • Roll child benefit into the child tax credit system with a further taper that reduces the top 10 per cent or so of households (essentially capturing those with two fairly high earners to bring them into line with a single high earner household).
  • Cut overseas aid to 0.5 per cent, still placing the UK in the top 10 donor countries and moving on from 2005 when this target was set at 0.7 per cent at a time when India and even China were legitimate UK aid recipients, not emerging economic superpowers. It would be both immoral and politically toxic to make the other savings while protecting a budget overseas that has nearly doubled in recent years.

Taken together, these savings would help bring down the deficit to an acceptable level. They involve some hard decisions and confrontation of vested interests, but not impossible ones, and all should pass through the Commons, even in its new rebellious state. The alternative, ever higher borrowing, or even worse, ever higher taxes, is unthinkable if we are to achieve what the CPS believes the number one priority post-pandemic must be – restoring sustained economic growth. We call on the Government to investigate and takes forward these ideas as part of the Spending Review process.

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.

Julian Brazier: The future of the Army – and why Haldane’s approach remains the best.

30 Sep

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Much of the public discussion around the Integrated Review of security and defence is focused on one issue – the size of the Army. Here on ConHome, Allan Mallinson recently asked a critical question: What is the Army for? It’s a good question – for too long we have been shaping our forces around “defence planning assumptions”, despite the fact that many of our wars and campaigns have been wholly unexpected; the First World War, the Falklands War and 9/11’s triggering of the Afghan campaign are examples. While the purpose of the Royal Navy and RAF are obvious, with Russian incursions into our air space and territorial waters and Chinese threats to our shipping routes, the Army is more like an insurance policy: there for when you need it.

Richard Haldane was the last minister to ask the fundamental question. Field Marshal Haig – not a man known for humility – wrote in 1918, six years after Haldane’s tenure ended:

‘… the greatest Secretary for War England has ever had. In grateful remembrance of [Haldane’s] successful efforts in organising the Military forces for War on the Continent…’

Haldane believed that Britain, with her commitment to a strong Navy, could never afford a peacetime Regular Army large enough to be sustainable in a major war. So, first, he honed a highly professional regular expeditionary force as a gallant vanguard. Then, he brought together the various reserve elements which Field Marshal Wolseley had built up (and drawn on in the Boer War) into a Territorial Force twice the size of the Regular Army. This ‘Second Line’ would be a vehicle to mobilise the nation.

That Second Line delivered surprisingly fast. Sir John French, our first commander in France, commented that:

‘“Without the assistance which the Territorials afforded between October 1914 and June 1915, it would have been impossible to hold the line in France and Belgium.”

Haldane’s vision extended further. Alongside the Territorial Force, he developed OTCs and cadet forces in universities, schools and communities, all positioning the Army closer to the wider public. Hitherto, cultural isolation had encouraged notoriously little public support for soldiers. Unlike the Navy, with a merchant marine (then) visible in ports in most of our great cities, the Army badly needed citizen advocates.

In the Second World War, Territorial units fought in every theatre. Some of our most innovative leaders, from Bill Slim (Birmingham OTC) to David Stirling (pre-war Guards reservist), came through “Haldane” routes rather than regular officer training.

Today this is the model across the English-speaking world. The National Guard and USAR – America’s twin volunteer reserve forces – together number the same as her Active Army. The Canadians and Australians also have a higher proportion of volunteer reserve units in their armies than we do. In autumn 2002, one fifth of our forces in Iraq and one eighth in Afghanistan were – simultaneously – from our small reserves. The Americans used much larger proportions.

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Army was well over a million – today it is under 250,000, but Russia can still mobilise an enormous army. One Russian soldier captured by the Ukrainians was a tractor driver from Siberia in his day job.

The Regular Army needs high professional standards (which it has), good quality training (currently hampered by Covid), modern equipment including digitisation (far more to do), decent conditions of service (housing is the Achilles’ heel) and a command structure able to operate at levels above its actual strength. We have just two divisions, but we need to think and plan for corps and armies, in war. They won’t, mostly, be regulars.

Some say what is needed is technology rather than mass, but digitisation is far ahead in the civilian world. It is no accident that Defence’s best cyber defence unit – as measured in the top US competition – is an Army Reserve unit. More broadly, mass will continue to be critical in the messy business of land warfare. The concrete urban sprawl which covers so many of the world’s trouble spots can suck up brigades to the acre, as recently seen in Mosul. Our present structure, 80,000 regulars and 30,000 reservists, is small.

The good news is that the Army has made progress in integrating reserves. A philosophy of backfilling regular units, rather than using formed bodies which build leaders and comradeship, had wrecked the Territorial Army by 2010. The smallest ever reserve officer intake to Sandhurst dwindled to just seven cadets. Last summer all 100-odd places were filled, with more turned away.

Capability is rebuilding too. Reserve battalions have started covering the Cyprus UN commitment again, a reserve light recce squadron is currently patrolling the Russian border in Estonia and, nationwide, reserves have been visible manning Covid testing stations.

At a time when some are questioning our ability to operate armour affordably and at scale, the one reserve armoured regiment, the Royal Wessex Yeomanry has progressed from backfilling individual crew members for regular regiments to exercising regularly at squadron level. The Army Reserve remains exceedingly small, as a basis for regeneration, but the direction of travel is right.

The other two services have a long way to go. Unlike the Americans and Israelis, the RAF still discards its expensively trained pilots (£13 million for a fast jet) when they finish full-time service. Fixed wing transport apart, it has no flying reserves. The opportunity to run-on Tornados in reserve formations was lost. There is hope, however, as the RAF Board have appointed their first reservist – with a successful military and civilian career – to join them.

The picture in the Naval Service is mixed. The Navy has a highly cost-effective Reserve Flying Branch – manned by ex-regulars. In contrast, the Royal Marines Reserves are expensive (e.g. regular Lieutenant Colonels commanding company-sized reserve units), unscalable because they have almost no young officers – instead being run by a generous scale of costly regular permanent staff – and are now hamstrung by slashed training budgets.

One development would have Haldane turning in his grave. The property and advocacy for the reserves and the management of the cadet forces are handled by an independent set of regional institutions called Reserve Forces and Cadet Associations (County Associations, when Haldane established them). These attract high grade people onto their councils who serve unpaid; one regional chairman, for example, is both former chief executive of a major power company and a former reserve major general, another owns his own 500-person business. The small, locally embedded, staffs they employ are far more efficient than the wretched organisations who ‘manage’ MoD’s estate.

In a fit of institutional hysteria, MoD is seeking to turn these RFCAs into a conventional quango – the first shots were fired against this in an excellent House of Lords debate. This idea should die.

That great historian and Territorial officer, Richard Holmes, used to say that anyone who designs reserves around defence planning assumptions has forgotten what a reserve is for. We need to extend that view to the Army as a whole, and Haldane’s approach remains the best: a high quality regular leading edge, with reserves providing both depth and integration with the nation as a whole.

Tom Tugendhat: It’s time for the Government to stand with its allies – and stand up to Iran

26 Aug

Tom Tugendhat is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Tonbridge and Malling.

Israel is losing its reputation in the Middle East. For decades, it played the role of chief villain with nations around the region blaming Mossad for every mishap. Today, Jerusalem is a partner with the United Arab Emirates – just the latest of many to build ties to Jerusalem and seek cooperation.

Jordan and Egypt are about to be joined by some or all of Bahrain, Oman, Sudan. Even Saudi Arabia, while insisting that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative remains the basis of its policy, is making sympathetic noises. Arab popular opinion may still find Israel a difficult issue. But the higher-level dynamics are changing, as new interest-based alignments emerge blinking into the light of day.

Tehran is seeing to that. Over the past decade or so, Britain’s friends and partners have focussed on one thing – the threat of violent Iranian subversion and perhaps direct attack.

From Syria to Yemen, Arab states know well the danger that Iran poses. Militias paid for by Tehran and controlled by the Revolutionary Guard Corps have turned tension into conflict, and fuelled wars that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed whole countries.

That makes the UK’s recent UN vote even more surprising. On 14 August we, along with France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia, abstained on a motion to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran. Only the United States and the Dominican Republic voted in favour.

As Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, put it: “the result of the vote in [the UNSC] on arms embargo against Iran shows—once more—the US’ isolation.” It’s hard to argue that’s in Britain’s interest. Even less so, given how many of our regional allies are counting on us to hold the line.

Should the embargo end, the next step is clear: Iran will be looking to buy Russian or Chinese air defence weapons to put around the nuclear plants that it has long believed is essential to the regime’s survival. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already confirmed that Iran has increased its low-enriched uranium stockpile to more than 300 kilograms, enriched uranium to a purity greater than 3.67 percent, stored excess heavy water, tested advanced centrifuges, refused inspections into suspected nuclear sites and may be concealing more undeclared nuclear materials and activities.

It will seek to accelerate the development of its ballistic missile programme, particularly in the area of guidance systems. It will become even more aggressive in cyberspace. And it will redouble its political and material support for the Shia militias that are corruptly colonising Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Again, it’s hard to see how that helps Britain.

Over the past four years, the approach of the Trump Administration can hardly be described as diplomatic but, despite its tone, its respose to the clear violations of the Iranian regime is based on the actions it’s seeing in Tehran. The UK, by contrast, seems to have an Iran policy more focussed on remaining close to European allies (with a disdain for the current US administration) than on the actions of the dictatorship in Tehran.

That decision to abstain puts us even further apart from our most important security partner and regional allies – undermining a global approach, and pushing us firmly back towards the EU we have just left. Worse, it risks raising questions about the veto that none of us would like to have posed.

Now that the US has lost the vote on renewing the embargo, the White House will, no doubt, use the so-called snapback mechanism to reimpose sanctions as agreed in a 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution (SCR). This poses a problem for us.

The snapback mechanism included in SCR 2231 allows participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal’s full name) to reimpose sanctions unilaterally. In 2018, the US withdrew from the deal, so some – Russia and China, no doubt – will claim that Washington can no longer trigger the snapback. UK, France, and others will have to decide: is the deal worth it?

Blocking or even abstaining on the likely vote against the US’s determination to trigger a snapback would undermine the alliance and weaken the UN. The temporary relief of allowing the Iran deal to continue, with the UK standing alongside European allies against the Trump White House, would be overwhelmed in coming years, since no US administration could accept being bound into a UN system without a veto.

“Iran continues to conduct ballistic missile activity that is inconsistent with SCR 2231.” Karen Pierce, our Ambassador to the United States, said in June 2019. That hasn’t changed. But nor has the UK’s posture. We continue to try to perform the diplomatic splits – denouncing Iran, but at the same time remaining committed to a JCPOA that has been consistently violated by Tehran and effectively abandoned by the US.

Iran continues to hold British hostages, most notably Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, and spread terror in the region. In Iraq, its militia allies are assassinating young activists – female and male – with impunity.  They are rocketing Baghdad’s Green Zone and bombing military convoys, with the aim of humiliating the new Prime Minister, Mustafa al Kadhimi, and showing him he cannot depend on the US – or any other Western power – for his survival.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah clearly thinks it will not be held to account for the assassination of Rafiq al Hariri in 2005 or for the massive recent explosion at Beirut’s port.

In Syria, Iran has saved the murderous Bashar al Assad and will want rewarding. Some of the militias it has deployed there recently held a public event in Mashhad to advertise their successes, and announce that Jerusalem was their next target.

And now Tehran is offering Beijing privileged access to its energy resources and perhaps also a trading and naval base on the Indian Ocean. None of this is in our interests. But instead of siding with our allies and giving ourselves more leverage over a dictatorship that respects nothing but strength, we are remaining wedded to a deal that has become irrelevant to the two principal signatories.

The time has come for us to change policy. Even under the Obama administration, it is far from certain the JCPOA would have endured as US strategic interests – no matter who is in the White House – lie with regional allies, not the Iranian autocrats, and it seems unlikely that a new Democratic administration would attempt to breathe life into the deal.

The UK should now be joining the US in calling out the real threat to peace in the Middle East and standing with our friends in the region—from Abu Dhabi to Jerusalem. We need to defend the principles of international cooperation, not see them used as a fig leaf for human rights violations, war and nuclear proliferation.

If we’re going to convince allies around the world our place at the UN Security Council works for them and defends our common interest in a world based on agreements, our policy on Iran has got to change. Abstaining shows we’re not prepared to stand up for our friends and won’t stand with our allies – and that weakens everyone, but most of all us.

Tom Tugendhat: It’s time for the Government to stand with its allies – and stand up to Iran

26 Aug

Tom Tugendhat is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Tonbridge and Malling.

Israel is losing its reputation in the Middle East. For decades, it played the role of chief villain with nations around the region blaming Mossad for every mishap. Today, Jerusalem is a partner with the United Arab Emirates – just the latest of many to build ties to Jerusalem and seek cooperation.

Jordan and Egypt are about to be joined by some or all of Bahrain, Oman, Sudan. Even Saudi Arabia, while insisting that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative remains the basis of its policy, is making sympathetic noises. Arab popular opinion may still find Israel a difficult issue. But the higher-level dynamics are changing, as new interest-based alignments emerge blinking into the light of day.

Tehran is seeing to that. Over the past decade or so, Britain’s friends and partners have focussed on one thing – the threat of violent Iranian subversion and perhaps direct attack.

From Syria to Yemen, Arab states know well the danger that Iran poses. Militias paid for by Tehran and controlled by the Revolutionary Guard Corps have turned tension into conflict, and fuelled wars that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed whole countries.

That makes the UK’s recent UN vote even more surprising. On 14 August we, along with France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia, abstained on a motion to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran. Only the United States and the Dominican Republic voted in favour.

As Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, put it: “the result of the vote in [the UNSC] on arms embargo against Iran shows—once more—the US’ isolation.” It’s hard to argue that’s in Britain’s interest. Even less so, given how many of our regional allies are counting on us to hold the line.

Should the embargo end, the next step is clear: Iran will be looking to buy Russian or Chinese air defence weapons to put around the nuclear plants that it has long believed is essential to the regime’s survival. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already confirmed that Iran has increased its low-enriched uranium stockpile to more than 300 kilograms, enriched uranium to a purity greater than 3.67 percent, stored excess heavy water, tested advanced centrifuges, refused inspections into suspected nuclear sites and may be concealing more undeclared nuclear materials and activities.

It will seek to accelerate the development of its ballistic missile programme, particularly in the area of guidance systems. It will become even more aggressive in cyberspace. And it will redouble its political and material support for the Shia militias that are corruptly colonising Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Again, it’s hard to see how that helps Britain.

Over the past four years, the approach of the Trump Administration can hardly be described as diplomatic but, despite its tone, its respose to the clear violations of the Iranian regime is based on the actions it’s seeing in Tehran. The UK, by contrast, seems to have an Iran policy more focussed on remaining close to European allies (with a disdain for the current US administration) than on the actions of the dictatorship in Tehran.

That decision to abstain puts us even further apart from our most important security partner and regional allies – undermining a global approach, and pushing us firmly back towards the EU we have just left. Worse, it risks raising questions about the veto that none of us would like to have posed.

Now that the US has lost the vote on renewing the embargo, the White House will, no doubt, use the so-called snapback mechanism to reimpose sanctions as agreed in a 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution (SCR). This poses a problem for us.

The snapback mechanism included in SCR 2231 allows participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal’s full name) to reimpose sanctions unilaterally. In 2018, the US withdrew from the deal, so some – Russia and China, no doubt – will claim that Washington can no longer trigger the snapback. UK, France, and others will have to decide: is the deal worth it?

Blocking or even abstaining on the likely vote against the US’s determination to trigger a snapback would undermine the alliance and weaken the UN. The temporary relief of allowing the Iran deal to continue, with the UK standing alongside European allies against the Trump White House, would be overwhelmed in coming years, since no US administration could accept being bound into a UN system without a veto.

“Iran continues to conduct ballistic missile activity that is inconsistent with SCR 2231.” Karen Pierce, our Ambassador to the United States, said in June 2019. That hasn’t changed. But nor has the UK’s posture. We continue to try to perform the diplomatic splits – denouncing Iran, but at the same time remaining committed to a JCPOA that has been consistently violated by Tehran and effectively abandoned by the US.

Iran continues to hold British hostages, most notably Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, and spread terror in the region. In Iraq, its militia allies are assassinating young activists – female and male – with impunity.  They are rocketing Baghdad’s Green Zone and bombing military convoys, with the aim of humiliating the new Prime Minister, Mustafa al Kadhimi, and showing him he cannot depend on the US – or any other Western power – for his survival.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah clearly thinks it will not be held to account for the assassination of Rafiq al Hariri in 2005 or for the massive recent explosion at Beirut’s port.

In Syria, Iran has saved the murderous Bashar al Assad and will want rewarding. Some of the militias it has deployed there recently held a public event in Mashhad to advertise their successes, and announce that Jerusalem was their next target.

And now Tehran is offering Beijing privileged access to its energy resources and perhaps also a trading and naval base on the Indian Ocean. None of this is in our interests. But instead of siding with our allies and giving ourselves more leverage over a dictatorship that respects nothing but strength, we are remaining wedded to a deal that has become irrelevant to the two principal signatories.

The time has come for us to change policy. Even under the Obama administration, it is far from certain the JCPOA would have endured as US strategic interests – no matter who is in the White House – lie with regional allies, not the Iranian autocrats, and it seems unlikely that a new Democratic administration would attempt to breathe life into the deal.

The UK should now be joining the US in calling out the real threat to peace in the Middle East and standing with our friends in the region—from Abu Dhabi to Jerusalem. We need to defend the principles of international cooperation, not see them used as a fig leaf for human rights violations, war and nuclear proliferation.

If we’re going to convince allies around the world our place at the UN Security Council works for them and defends our common interest in a world based on agreements, our policy on Iran has got to change. Abstaining shows we’re not prepared to stand up for our friends and won’t stand with our allies – and that weakens everyone, but most of all us.