Anand Menon: What does Global Britain mean in practice, and when will the Government deliver it?

1 Mar

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe.

“In leaving the European Union we restored sovereign control over vital levers of foreign policy,” declared Boris Johnson in his speech to the Munich Security Conference. To be frank, that is debatable. The EU’s competence over foreign policy is limited – so membership provided little in the way of constraint on national autonomy.

What is less open to question is the assertion, as the Prime Minister clearly laid out in what was an important speech, that this is a moment of opportunity for British foreign policy. Seizing it, however, will pose several challenges.

Brexit has already allowed the UK to take some actions it would not otherwise have been able to. By 1 January, continuity trade agreements had been signed with 58 countries. The UK moved to impose sanctions on Belarus, while the EU dithered and delayed.

There are costs as well as benefits, though. The new trade deals largely replicate what we had as a member state, and their impact is paltry compared to the negative impact of new barriers to trade with our nearest and largest trading partner. Equally, sanctions are more effective when applied by several states, and autonomy from the EU comes at the price of a decline in influence over what the EU does.

Indeed, it might yet be that the most important foreign policy impact of Brexit turns out to be indirect. ‘Global Britain’ was dreamt up as a way of underlining that Brexit did not mean insularity. And the desire to ensure that Brexit is seen to succeed provides a powerful incentive to make Global Britain real.

Consequently, at Munich, the Prime Minister sketched out an ambitious agenda. He clearly intends to use his convening power to push his agenda. He has used the UK’s chairmanship of the G7 to issue invitations to Australia, India and South Korea to attend the summit in Cornwall in June. This may mark the inauguration of a formalized D10 intended to present a united front against China.

On climate change, the 26th United Nations ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP) on climate change will be the first such event to be held in the UK, presenting a golden opportunity to establish the UK as a continuing big player in global climate diplomacy in its own right.

Yet turning ambitions into reality will require several things.

First, a clarity of vision and ability to make difficult choices. When it comes to the D10, Mr Johnson needs to consider whether it really makes sense to create a grouping of democracies without engaging closely with the EU, whether some of those he is inviting really merit the label ‘democracy,’ and, indeed, what balance he wishes to strike between sanctioning and engaging with China.

It is hard to believe now, but the Prime Minister repeatedly called for a free trade agreement with China. Domestic pressures are going to make that impossible to deliver. And yet an overlooked implication of Brexit is that Beijing can retaliate against UK measures in response to perceived human rights abuses without the need to get embroiled in a wider fight with the EU as a whole.

Dealing with China and – more so – addressing the climate crisis are the work of decades. Success is not a question of quick political ‘wins’, but requires sticking power. For partly understandable reasons related to the pandemic, this is not a Government that has, as yet, shown an aptitude for thinking beyond the short term. If it is genuine about its environmental aspirations, however, it must.

This will involve not only confronting those among the Prime Minister’s own supporters who do not share his liberal international vision, but also building a consensus that can outlive his time in office.

None of which will be altogether straightforward. According to recent polling by the British Foreign Policy Group, while 34 per cent of Britons think ‘Global Britain’ implies the UK being a ‘champion of free trade and globalisation,’ more than a fifth (21 per cent) – including 35 per cent of Conservative leave supporting voters – take it to mean the UK is a nation with strong and secure borders focused on issues at home.

And when it comes to climate, while 68 per cent support the UK taking a global leadership role, Conservative voters appear less supportive and the least willing amongst voters to take individual action to address climate change.

This matters, because tackling the climate crisis involves a combination of diplomacy with action at home. Just as claims to be a champion of a rules-based international order were undermined by a stated intention to contravene international law so, too, the UK’s international climate leadership will hinge in part on it setting an example at home. The Government’s Ten Point Plan of November last year marked a good start, but more will need to be done to meet the ambitious targets set, and a failure to do so will hardly burnish our international climate leadership credentials.

And all this is without mentioning the domestic bases of international influence. It perhaps goes without saying – yet nevertheless I will mention it here – that the UK’s ability to make Global Britain a success will hinge every bit as much on the pace of its economic recovery from both the pandemic and from Brexit, and its ability to retain its unity in the face of separatist challenges.

The year ahead holds real promise in terms of the UK’s ability to finally put some flesh on the bones of its claims about Global Britain. Brexit adds a degree of political urgency to the quest to show the UK continues to wield influence. And the Government has laid out a pretty impressive agenda committing itself to the defence of the liberal, rules based international order. But declarations are merely a start. To deliver on its rhetoric, the Government will need to make hard choices and to show evidence of a clarity and long-term vision that, to date, have been rather notable by their absence. The long-awaited Integrated Review of security, defence, foreign policy and international development will represent an important signal as to whether it is willing to do so.

ConservativeHome and UK in a Changing Europe will be discussing Global Britain – navigating the post-Brexit world this evening with: Liz Truss MP, Secretary of State for International Trade; Katy Balls, Deputy (Chairman). Paul Goodman, Editor of ConservativeHome, will chair the event. Please register via this link.

Emily Carver: Covid has exposed the flaws in our education system. It’s time for a radical rethink.

24 Feb

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Over the course of this pandemic, J S Mill’s “harm principle” has been used to rationalise the decision to lockdown. At first glance this appears reasonable, however, it rests on the assumption that the harm caused by the virus exceeds that of lockdown. It will be many months before we fully comprehend the impact of the restrictions, but the former assumption may be flawed when applied to education.

The Prime Minister has now confirmed that schools will reopen in March, which will no doubt come as a relief to parents up and down this country. But the temporary school closures, and the disruption of nearly a whole year of education, have severely affected children’s well-being and educational progress – the impact of which will be felt for many years.

The toll on mental health is already recognised. In a survey of over 10,000 parents, over half said they had seen a negative change in the mental health of their children since lockdown. The rates of probable mental disorders among children have risen considerably, increasing from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in July 2020. Anecdotally, parents are reporting a rise in disordered eating, anxiety and loneliness.

Far from being a leveller, the pandemic has, inevitably, impacted disproportionately the education of the already disadvantaged. During the first lockdown, primary age children from the richest third of families received four and a half more hours of learning time compared to those from the poorest third of families. This has compounded pre-existing inequities and is nothing short of a scandal.

Months on, children from middle-class households are still, on average, spending considerably more time learning than those from working-class households. Regional inequalities are also stark, with children in London and the South East spending more time on schoolwork, both online and offline, than those in other parts of the country.

The Government plans to give schools a cash boost to fund “catch up” classes during the summer holidays, and to pay staff to work additional hours to support children who have fallen behind. Such interventions are welcome and should hopefully go some way to mitigating the impact of the last year on pupils’ progress.

However, this will be little more than a sticking plaster unless the Government addresses the broader, more structural problems in our schooling system. It is no secret that our education system is failing many children in this country; you only have to look to the international league tables to see that the UK is underperforming compared to Asian countries, as well as a number of European nations. This should be a national embarrassment.

While it is certainly true that our elite schools, in both the independent and state sector, are some of the highest performing in the world, too many are lagging behind. If the Government is as serious about education as it claims to be, there needs to be a renewed effort to address the system’s failings. It is simply disgraceful that somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of our young people may be “functionally illiterate” when they leave school!

So, where do we go from here? A new paper by the Institute of Economic Affairs argues this could be the time for a radical rethink of our education system.

To begin with, why do we insist children start school by age five? This is earlier than in most other developed countries and actually dates back to a time when the majority of children left school at ten. Considering that teachers have reported that significant numbers of children are quite simply unprepared to start school at this age (another scandal), it may well be the case that children would be better off entering school a little later, when they are more ready to benefit from formal education. Of course, this will have an impact on pre-schooling arrangements which, at present, greatly advantage the better off. It also seems inexplicable that we have children entering reception classes with almost a year between the oldest and youngest in the class, which has been proven to disadvantage summer babies.

Longer school days have been mooted by politicians over the years, including by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove, but little has changed. If additional classes help those falling behind now due to the pandemic, why not be bold, and extend this into the future? Not only would this allow more scope for extra-curricular activities – something that has been sorely missed during the past year – but the extra hours would allow for homework to be replaced by supervised class work – a welcome move for those pupils who struggle to work from home and a way to improve the educational outcomes of the less advantaged.

However, such policies could prove difficult to implement. The teaching unions have been very resistant to government policy over the course of the pandemic and could present a rather stubborn obstacle in the way of any radical reform of the school year. In order to pursue any meaningful change, the Government would need to amend the national contract, which is tied to the traditional school year, and which the unions may perceive as an existential assault on their influence. Of course, the majority of teachers are not as intransigent as their union representatives and may be more flexible in their attitude towards change, if well-argued.

Successful academies, independent schools and free schools have provided useful models for a way ahead. Free from the restrictions of the national contract, such schools have been able to innovate with their education provision, experiment with the length of the school day and diversify their curricula. It is interesting that many of these institutions serve less-advantaged children and are led by headteachers who advocate “traditional” methods of knowledge-based learning, discipline and pride in the institution itself. Further academisation may provide the flexibility we need to boost standards significantly.

And why not offer parents more choice? The Government currently pays schools a “pupil premium” to support disadvantaged pupils. This amounts to £1,345 for every primary age pupil and £955 for those in secondary school. However, parents have no say in how this is spent. We know how much private tuition can benefit children’s learning, so why not place more power in the hands of less well-off parents and redirect this money in the form of vouchers, which could then be used to hire tutors or for other educational purposes?

It would be naïve to suggest that there are quick fixes to the myriad of challenges facing any secretary of state for education. However, it is clear that this pandemic has shown up fundamental fault lines in the provision of schooling in this country. If the Government is really serious about levelling-up, there has to be a reconsideration of the way in which we provide education; it is neither moral nor sensible to congratulate ourselves on our elite schools and universities when so many children leave school ill-equipped to enter adult life. It is in the interests of everyone to have a well-educated, workforce at the heart of a successful, vibrant economy.

Chris Whiteside: Why Britain’s first new coal mine for decades should open in the ward I represent

23 Feb

Chris Whiteside MBE is County Councillor for the Egremont North & St Bees division of Cumbria County Council, and also Deputy chairman (political and campaigning) of North West England region of the Conservative party.

ConservativeHome readers will know of the controversy over proposals for Britain’s first new coal mine for decades, in Copeland, West Cumbria.

I am county councillor for the division which includes most of the application site.

Almost to a man and woman people in the vicinity are in favour, while almost all the opposition comes from people living many miles away. The most vocal opponents live on the far side of the deepest and longest lakes, and the highest mountain, in England.

Copeland

Copeland moved from the red to the blue column two years before the rest of the former “red wall” seats, but is typical of traditional communities in Northern England which voted Labour for generations but finally lost patience with that party while it was led by Jeremy Corbyn.

When elected to Cumbria County council, I was the first Conservative councillor in history to represent parts of my division. Voters in West Cumbria who elected Conservative councillors like me, and Conservative MPs like Trudy Harrison and “Workington Man” Mark Jenkinson, lent us their votes. We have no more automatic right to their continued support than our Labour predecessors had. Local people expect us to fight harder for them than those predecessors did.

We will.

The historical context

I was a student during the 84-85 miners’ strike. With Iain Dale, I was a ringleader of a campaign to sack a Labour student union president who misused used union resources to support the strike.

I now have more sympathy for comments made to me in 84-85 by students from traditional mining communities – like the area I now represent – than either I or those who made them would have imagined possible at the time. Particularly about affluent middle-class people from many miles away trying to take jobs from a less affluent community which they knew little about and probably couldn’t find on a map.

Woodhouse Colliery is expected to provide 518 jobs and fifty apprenticeships in a community which includes some of the worst pockets of deprivation in Britain. Spending will also boost the local economy and supply chains, on ONS multipliers providing a further estimated 380 jobs.

The facts about the mine

The proposed mine will not produce coal to burn for energy. It is specifically restricted, in the proposal itself and planning conditions, to mining coking coal to make steel, mainly for the British and European steel industries.

If you want more renewable energy, you need steel – It takes lots of steel to make a wind turbine. Britain needs steel for many other purposes too.

Currently there is no economic way to make new steel without coking coal. More than 85 per cent of scrap steel in Europe is already recycled so there’s limited scope to increase the 39 per cent of steel currently coming from recycling.

Ironically, the same Lib-Dem MP who leads opposition to the mine also calls for more steel to be made in Britain. Only a Lib-Dem could so comprehensively face both ways at once as to call for more steel to be made here while effectively working to ensure it’s made with imported coal. Most coal used by British and European steelmakers today comes from the USA or Russia.

Technology will change. There may be improvements which remove need for coal: or in carbon capture technology to use coal without damaging the environment. But the steel which this country needs in the immediate future will be made with metallurgical coal.

Better to make that steel in Britain and Europe with coal mined in an environmentally sensitive way here, than to use steel made with coal from Russia and America, often strip-mined in the Appalachians and shipped over the Atlantic.

Council votes about the mine

Councillors have voted for the mine three times: all three votes demonstrated cross-party support among Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dem and Independent councillors. Two votes were unanimous. At the third meeting, one councillor from each of the three parties went against but there was a four-to-one margin in favour including majorities of votes cast from each party.

It’s nonsense to suggest that councillors who voted for the mine hadn’t considered the environment, didn’t know what they were doing, or can’t be trusted to make the decision. Such comments are an attack on local democracy.

The council’s officers went through the proposals in exhaustive detail during a process which lasted literally for years. Each report to committee ran to hundreds of pages describing all the objections and every imaginable issue, including lengthy consideration of the impact on Britain’s carbon footprint. A hundred conditions were attached, including a time limit of 2049, the year before Britain’s target to go carbon neutral. Another condition limits greenhouse gas emissions.

Before voting on the plans, councillors listened to hours of presentations from officers and representations from objectors and supporters.

Most of those who attack the committee sound like the bloke in the pub who, because he’s read an account in a tabloid newspaper of a court case lasting weeks, is confident he knows better than the jury who sat through the whole thing.

The latest developments

When Robert Jenrick declined to “call in” the mine and said the decision should rest with Cumbria County Council, most people expected permission would swiftly be granted in line with the October decision. Instead the council is putting it back to committee for a fourth time.

The objection the council received to granting permission is public domain because the group responsible, South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) – published it on its website.

SLACC argue the decision should be revisited because, since it was made, the advisory committee on climate change published proposals for the UK’s sixth carbon budget.

That document comprises recommendations to ministers, as those who study it will quickly find. Although anyone reading the letter from SLACC’s solicitors who didn’t know better might get the impression that it’s already legally binding, it isn’t.

Fifty Conservative parliamentarians and local government leaders, including most of the MPs representing Cumbria, the mayors of Copeland and Tees Valley, and many “Northern Research Group” MPs wrote to the Leader of Cumbria County Council on 18th February supporting the mine. Their letter made a convincing case that SLACC’s arguments misrepresent the sixth carbon budget.

Conclusion

This saga raises deeply concerning issues. It shows how vulnerable Britain’s planning system can be to high profile, articulate pressure groups even if they have negligible local support.

Anyone who has a serious objection to a proposal should be entitled to have their concerns properly investigated, once. But when similar points are brought up again and again, there comes a point when we are witnessing the attempt to frustrate a democratic decision through delay.

But delay is not the best way to decide whether planning proposals should go ahead. Delay from those who can’t win a democratic vote but use every trick in the book to obstruct what they cannot defeat is the worst of all.

Guy Mansfield: Now we must work with the EU to make Britain more safe and secure

19 Feb

Lord Sandhurst is a member of the Conservative European Forum (CEF) Justice and Home Affairs policy group. He is a past Chairman of the Bar of England and Wales (as Guy Mansfield QC), and current Chair of Research of the Society of Conservative Lawyers.

As Conservatives, it is our duty to ensure that the UK is neither less safe nor less secure outside of the EU. Both parties must think again and strengthen cooperation.

Understandably, political and media attention has been focused on the trade elements of the deal agreed between the UK and the EU on Christmas Eve. Now that we have left the European Union, it is time to review carefully all aspects of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to ensure it satisfies all of UK’s needs, beyond simply trade, tariffs and quotas.

My paper published by Conservative European Forum’s Justice and Home Affairs policy group – The Trade and Cooperation Agreement: The Justice and Security challenges ahead – examines, in detail, part three of the TCA, which covers UK-EU security cooperation.

Regardless of one’s view on Brexit, we can all agree, especially as Conservatives, that we do not wish to see the UK less safe or less secure as result of our changed relationship with the EU.

The paper raises a number of concerns. The statement released by the Home Office immediately following the agreement was optimistic. In fact, since 31st December 2020, the UK has been at a disadvantage. We have lost tools ‘to tackle serious crime going forwards’ and to ‘bring criminals to justice.’ The new extradition system will be less efficient.

First, the UK no longer has direct, real time access to two important centralised databases – SIS II, which holds records of stolen identity documents and wanted people, and VIS, which stores fingerprints and digital photographs of those applying for a Schengen visa. In 2019, UK police checked SIS II no fewer than 603 million times. These databases have been vital for UK police forces, notably enabling them to check if anyone is wanted or missing across the EU.

Secondly, we have lost our membership of Europol. As a consequence, the UK’s police forces have lost real time access to its databases. In fighting crime, speed is crucial. Crime and criminals are constantly evolving to evade detection. The UK will no longer be a member of Europol’s management board; it will not be able to exert the same influence over its future focus or prioritise areas of threat. As a non-Member State, the UK has lost the right to initiate operations such as Joint Investigation Teams.

Thirdly, the UK has left the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). This will result in slower and more complex extradition processes. Henceforth UK and EU member states can, if they choose, refuse to execute an arrest warrant for a number of reasons:

  • In non-terrorist cases, on political grounds (the ‘political’ exception);
  • On grounds that the requested person is a national of that executing state (the ‘own national’ exception).
  • On the ground that the crime for which the UK seeks extradition is not a crime in the state from which extradition is sought (‘double criminality’). For such countries to agree to extradite, the crime must be an offence in that jurisdiction.

The political exception may well be an improvement. Not every member state is scrupulous in ensuring that decisions to prosecute are free from political interference.

But the reintroduction of the own national exception is bad news. Germany, Austria and Slovenia have already indicated that they will not extradite their own nationals. There are potentially a further 13 Member States which may likewise refuse to surrender their nationals. The UK will, in such instances, have to provide its evidence to such Member State, which (alone) will then decide whether to prosecute. Any trial will be conducted, if at all, in the Member State.

The double criminality requirement will slow down and even stop extraditions to the UK where the issue is raised. That too is bad.

It is not all bad news. The UK will continue to receive Passenger Name Record (PNR) data in advance of all arrivals by air. We shall continue to enjoy access to the Prüm system (which makes accessible to EU Member States and the UK all national databases which store DNA profiles, fingerprints and vehicle registration data) and the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), which permits access to criminal records of individuals on national databases across the EU. These are not gains; they simply maintain the status quo.

It is important to emphasise that the losses in security cooperation disadvantage the EU too. This is not a one-way street. The UK’s diminished role in Europol will create reciprocal dis-benefits to the EU. The UK’s loss of access to the EU systems means the EU loses access to the UK’s systems.

Our conclusions are intended to be constructive. However, it is plain that we have lost important tools for tackling crime. Looking to the future, the UK and EU member states must address further the security needs of our populations to go about daily lives free from avoidable harm. I urge both sides to continue to work together to strengthen security cooperation. The price of failure is too high, not just for the UK, but for the EU as well. This is not a debate about sovereignty, trade or tariffs. It’s about security. As Conservatives, the security of the UK and its citizens must always come first.

Julian Gallant: Politics can support the arts without disturbing the artist

12 Feb

Jullian Gallent is a conductor, composer, pianist, impresario and Treasurer at Conservative Friends of The Arts (Instagram; Facebook).

I’ve been actively involved in Conservative campaigning since 2013, fought the 2019 GE as candidate for Ealing Central and Acton and am currently a Londonwide candidate for the GLA. My profession, though, is music and I’ve never quite understood the stranglehold the left has had on the arts, ever since “left” and “right” have been political concepts.

Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro was certainly considered subversive; the star of the opera is a servant, not a prince. Beethoven’s belief in The Rights of Man, which he grandly expressed by setting Schiller’s Ode to Joy in the Ninth Symphony, probably raised the aristocratic eyebrows of some of his patrons. But this is nothing compared to the outright socialism espoused in the 20th century by artists like Frida Kahlo, John Steinbeck and Ken Russell. It became the thing to be “left-wing” as if the right was too interested in money-making, moralising and nationalism to care about the true, humanist religion of art.

The arts are the product of a natural urge to create in the abstract and a hunger for more than we see lying around us. It is hard to imagine a world without art yet, as Oscar Wilde said in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is quite useless”. People die if they don’t eat, therefore food production is bankable. Illness must be treated, so doctors must be paid. The same for teachers, soldiers and lawyers. And politicians?

Music starts with a heartbeat, a voice and then other voices; rhythm, melody and harmony. Some of the world’s greatest paintings are the ancient ones on the walls of caves. Fine, but professional music, theatre, writing and painting must be rewarded if they are to thrive and this is always uncertain. The first commercial opera theatre opened in Venice in 1630, yet opera and capitalism have never happily coexisted. Handel in the 1720s famously had to seek regal patronage because the fees of Italian opera stars exceeded the entire box office take. I’ve experienced the same when putting on a world famous classical singer in a major London hall.

And don’t think you can just increase the ticket prices; that skews the image of the venue and they won’t have it. People will pay up but they won’t pay over the odds, even at the Royal Opera House. Stall tickets are eye-wateringly expensive for the big shows, yet other seats are sold at much lower prices. On the cost side, there can be over a thousand souls working on one operatic production, all quite rightly expecting a reasonable wage.

So there must be an extraneous financial input, which means some combination of donation, commercial sponsorship and state subsidy. In the USA state subsidies are negligible; donating is at once the main source of funding for big arts organisations and a measure of your social standing. In Germany and France state subsidy is the mainstay. In Britain, it’s a more even distribution of all three; the fundraising departments, known euphemistically as development offices, work overtime.

The gap between ticket income and cost creates opportunities for interference, especially in our big-state era. It’s pointless to cite a smooth transition from rich sponsors like Tchaikovsky’s Nadezhda von Meck (whom he famously never met) to state largesse. The rich patron wants to outlay on creating something beautiful, hence Paul Sacher’s commissioning of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste in 1936. The state wants something back, in the form of allegiance or national glorification or worse.

In the brave new world of the young USSR, artistic freedom and modernism was encouraged. By 1930 the picture was very different; professional writers, painters, actors and musicians had to join All-Soviet Unions. One of my heroes is the composer Nikolai Roslavets, who was published widely in the 1920s. By 1932 he had been forced into obscurity because an unpleasant and ideologically “sound” organisation called RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) thought his music was decadently complicated. He was accused of spying! Dmitri Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony from performance, aware of Stalin’s prudish criticism of his erotically charged opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The composer feared for his life.

All of that still happens, without the threat of the gulag of course. Artists are interfered with, because they do or don’t sign up to this or that ideology. And one of the worst of these ideologies is that public taste is vulgar and the enemy of true creativity. That wasn’t true for Beethoven or Debussy or Prokofiev, who were all big stars and marvellously original in their thinking. The state should carefully determine what needs support and then get out of the way, much easier said than done.

Politics has a constructive role to play, supporting artistic creativity without interfering with content, and there are some good things a-happening. Witness cross-party interest in establishing a 90-day touring visa for UK performing artists in Europe and vice-versa, which were debated in Parliament on February 8, 2021. That should transcend any post-Brexit blame game.

The APPG for Music, chaired by David Warburton, a former composer, has the largest membership of any such group. There’s another APPG for Music Education: one call I was on was attended by over 250 stakeholders nationwide. A £1.5 billion grant by this government, supporting arts organisations during the covid pandemic, puts the lie once and for all to the idea that true Tories are somehow closet Philistines.

I’m part of the recently-founded Conservative Friends of The Arts. We meet once a month to talk about the arts and to share short performances. One such was a recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnet No.18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) by Giles Watling, which sounded bizarrely wonderful over Zoom. I got the impression that day that Shakespeare had no idea at all where the line lay between high art and superb entertainment!

Tony Smith: Covid and border control. As a former Head of the UK Border Force, here are my urgent recommendations.

9 Feb

Tony Smith CBE is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

A day rarely goes by without me receiving a call from UK broadcast media asking me for my thoughts on Covid and the UK Border. Why didn’t we close the border last year? Why are we doing it now? How will the Border Force manage it? Can hotel quarantine stop new strains getting in? Do we need vaccination certificates to travel? What about our summer holidays?

The three primary functions of border control are the protection of national security, public policy, and public health.

On security, we conduct thorough multi-agency checks on everybody entering the UK both at point of booking and at point of entry. We are rather good at that.

On policy, the ending of free movement has given us a new Border Operating Model, a new points-based immigration system, and a new UK Border 2025 Strategy – all published in the course of the past year. It will take us time to implement the new systems and processes at the border. We aren’t so good at that yet – but we will get there.

But bottom of our report card is the protection of our national health. On that, we must try harder.

Once upon a time, we had a Port Medical Inspector (PMI) in every port of entry. Immigration Officers (as we were then) could refer any passenger to the PMI if they were perceived to be a health threat. PMIs were empowered to issue us with a form “Port 30” which gave us grounds to refuse leave to enter on medical grounds. New migrants coming to settle in the UK were routinely checked for communicable diseases before a visa was issued.

As passenger numbers grew, PMIs were gradually removed from our ports of entry on grounds of “efficiency”. We stopped checking health credentials as a condition of entry. The greater threat was not the importation of disease; it was of importation of dangerous, harmful, or non-compliant people and goods. Health checks fell off our radar.

Between January and April 2020 Singapore, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand all systematically introduced strict border controls to mitigate the importation of Covid at their borders. Travel to those countries is now restricted to their own nationals and family members only; and 14-day quarantine at a designated location is mandatory on arrival. These countries have managed to control the spread of the virus much more effectively that has been the case in other countries, including the UK, Europe, and the US.

Although we introduced strict quarantine measures for passengers returning on evacuation flights from Wuhan in January 2020, no measures were introduced for flights or arrivals from other destinations, increasing the risk that the virus would be imported from other countries.

In June we started to ask inbound passengers to complete an on-line passenger locator form (PLF) to “self-certify” quarantine; but enforcement was “light touch” and there was no requirement to undergo a test, either before travel or upon arrival.

My previous recommendation to require airlines, ferry companies and rail companies to check health credentials for all passengers boarding flights, ferries, and trains to the UK (as they do with passports and visas) was finally implemented in January 2021, a year after Covid was first detected in Wuhan.

This new requirement requires the production of a completed PLF, and evidence that a negative Covid test had been taken within 72 hours of travel. Boarding should be denied to anybody unable to meet this requirement – but as yet no compliance framework has been set up between to establish whether or not this has been done. Meanwhile we are seeing all kinds of “test certificates” turning up at our ports in various languages and scripts, some of which are clearly fake.

The new requirements have put an additional strain on the Border Force. Officers must now check PLF and negative test forms as well as passports; interview all passengers to determine travel history and purpose of travel to the UK; and now – where they identify a case of a UK citizen or resident arriving from a “red list” location who must self-isolate – liaise with local authorities and health agencies to enforce mandatory quarantine in nearby hotels.

Although the UK government published its UK Border 2025 Strategy on December 17 2020, this did not focus specifically upon the pandemic. Many of the transformations therein are relevant (for example shifting to upstream intervention) – but it does not specify how this would be done with regard to health checks.

The Government must now develop a Counter Pandemic Border Strategy (CPBS) to manage the second and subsequent waves of Covid-19, drawing upon lessons learned in other countries, as a matter of urgency.

This should include the following factors:

  1. The protection of Public Health is a key requirement of the UK Border, alongside the protection of National Security and Public Policy.
  2. Departments should establish clear lines of effort between them to implement the CPBS.
  3. PMIs and facilities should be reinstalled at UK ports of entry, to work in tandem with the UK Border Force in implementing the strategy.
  4. “In country” pandemic threat levels should be translated into similar response levels at the Border, as they are for national security.
  5. The Government should work with international carriers and organisations to develop a new form of health pass which would meet internationally approved standards and would certify the health status of all international travellers at point of booking and check-in, in the same way as it does for passport and visa data.
  6. The Home Office should conduct an urgent review on pre boarding / pre-clearance capabilities with international carriers to ensure they comply with requirements to check health credentials prior to boarding, building upon the existing international liaison officer (ILO) network at key source and transit airports.
  7. The Government should establish a cross Departmental Project Team to implement mandatory quarantine requirements for passengers arriving at UK ports of entry including tests for symptoms, safe and secure transport to designated locations, and in-country enforcement.
  8. The Government should conduct an urgent review of exit checks to ensure a co-ordinated response between UK Border Force, local police and carrying companies on requirements to check outbound travellers for permission to travel, and how this will be enforced in practice.
  9. The Home Office should establish a national critical incident command and control infrastructure which can be stood up at short notice to respond to current and emerging health threat levels at the UK Border. This should include regular tests and exercises.

The UK Border Force is the envy of many countries around the world. And we will get through Brexit, in the end.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic raises significant new challenges for the UK Border. As we begin to turn the tide on this virus, it will be important for us to learn lessons on how to make better use of border controls to protect public health. On this, we must try harder.

Sammy Wilson: The Northern Ireland Protocol needs to be replaced, not repaired

8 Feb

Sammy Wilson is the Democratic Unionist MP for East Antrim, and is Director of the Centre for Brexit Policy.

As the full implications of the Northern Ireland protocol begin to be manifested, it is clear that this arrangement, which was designed solely to protect the EU’s Single Market, has destroyed the UK’s internal market.

It is damaging Northern Ireland businesses, denies tens of thousands of Northern Ireland consumers the ability to purchase all manner of goods from suppliers in Great Britain, has resulted in the rigorous applications of petty EU rules, and has caused tensions which threaten to spill over into violence on Northern Ireland’s streets.

All of this was totally predictable. The Nothern Ireland protocol contains 70 pages of lists of EU directives and regulations which have to apply to Northern Ireland.  These rules require customs declarations are for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and cover everything from container loads of food destined for supermarkets to items worth a few pounds ordered over the internet from Amazon for personal use. Health inspections, certificates and border checks have added to time delays and increased costs.

Petty rule enforcement means that goods carried on wooden pallets which don’t meet EU standards, but that are perfectly safe and legal across the UK, are being turned away. Machinery being brought into Northern Ireland from Great Britain is refused entry if there is any soil residue on it. Indeed, since January 1st, British soil is now deemed  a danger to the safety of EU horticulture and therefore plants cannot be brought into Northern Ireland from Great Britain in case Northern Ireland becomes the Ho Chi Minh trail for infiltrating the EU market with horticulture devastation.

And all of this is occurring while we are still in the period of grace – whereby the most damaging requirements of the Protocol are not being enforced. So the potential for further economic damage and constitutional destruction hasn’t even begun to be felt. Under the protocol, Northern Ireland is required to follow thousands of EU rules from the past, and all future EU Single Market rules – into which no one in Northern Ireland will have any input. Adherence will be enforceable through the European Court of Justice.

Despite the clear damage that the Protocol is doing and will do to the Northern Ireland economy, and the place of Northern Ireland within the UK, there are those who demand its full implementation because it is an internationally legally binding  agreement.

Of course, the EU has now shown that it don’t see the Protocol in that way. In order to escape the wrath of citizens across the EU who are angry at the bungling ineptitude of the EU commission over the purchase and distribution of Covid vaccines, the EU was prepared to scrap the most important objective of the Protocol, and set up checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The fact that it swiftly withdrew this proposal after outrage was expressed by the Irish government is neither here nor there. They didn’t even apologise – and have reserved the right to do the same again if they believe it is necessary.

Now is the time to replace this discredited agreement. The answer is not further grace periods as Michael Gove has suggested: after all, the damage being done at present is occurring during a grace period. The answer is not to beg the EU for some minor derogations. A workable alternative is needed.

The Mutual Enforcement proposal put forward by the Centre for Brexit Policy meets the EU demand for protection of its Single Market while protecting Northern Ireland from having to be included in that market – thus avoiding the constitutional and economic damage which this does.

Put simply Northern Ireland firms exporting into the EU would be required to meet all EU standards and pay any EU taxes on the goods which they export. The export declarations which they make would have to show that they were doing so, and would be confirmed by regulatory bodies in Northern Ireland.

Ann exporters that do not comply can then be pursued on both sides of the border. The same arrangements would be in place in the Republic of Ireland. There is no need for border posts, which can be easily avoided anyway. A mutual enforcement structure implies constant enforcement on both sides of the border, so the EU would benefit from the protection of the UK enforcement authorities as well as its own.

The solution is not to tinker with this flawed and ruinous agreement. Instead, it needs replacing with a workable alternative.

George Freeman: The industrial strategy reforms I led helped to deliver Britain’s vaccine success. Now for the next phase.

1 Feb

George Freeman is a former Minister for Life Science and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18). He is co-author and editor of the 2020 Conservatives book Britain Beyond Brexit.

The combination of Covid-19 and the Crash of 2008 have left this country facing the most serious crisis in our public finances since 1776. Unless we make the post-Brexit, post-Covid recovery a transformational renaissance of enterprise & innovation on a par with that unlocked by Thatcher Governments of the 1980s, we risk a decade of high debts, rising interest rates and slow growth.

We have a truly unique opportunity before us. As a science and innovation superpower, with the City of London now outside the EU’s rules for the first time in nearly fifty years, we can unlock a New Elizabethan era of growth – with Britain a world-leader in global commercialisation of science, technology and innovation. It is what our entrepreneurs have been crying out for. Now is the moment to make it happen.

That’s why I’m delighted to have been asked by the Prime Minister to help set up the new Taskforce for Innovation and Growth through Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) with Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers.

Reporting directly to the Prime Minister & the Chancellor’s Cabinet Committee on deregulation, and supported by a secretariat in the Cabinet Office, the Taskforce will consider and recommend “quick wins” to use our new regulatory sovereignty to unlock high growth sectors of the economy to drive post-Brexit post-Covid recovery.

Rest assured: there will also be no big report or a thousand pages of footnotes to wade through. We will be crowd-sourcing the best ideas from the business community and the entrepreneurs and innovators who are the engine of our economy.

The Prime Minister has asked me to bring my career experience in business starting & financing high growth bioscience technology companies as well as my experience as Minister in Health, BEIS and Transport leading our groundbreaking Industrial Strategy for Life Science which has paid such dividends this year.

The reforms I led in our Industrial Strategy – launching Genomics England, the Early Access to Medicines Scheme, MHRA and NICE reform, Accelerated Access procurement have been fundamental to our ability to lead the world in developing a Covid vaccine.

We now need to make Brexit & Covid the catalyst for bold reforms to unlock big UK opportunities for recovery & GlobalBritain across a range of high-growth sectors such as those I have worked on extensively as both entrepreneur and Minister:?

  • LifeScience: harnessing the potential of the NHS as a research engine for new medicines, unlocking digital health & innovative approaches to Accelerated Access, clinical trials & value-based pricing.
  • Nutraceuticals: health-promoting “superfoods”, cannabis medicines.
  • AgriTech: smart clean green twenty-first farming technology like the blight resistant potato banned by the EU.
  • CleanTech: new biofuels, Carbon Capture & Storage & digital “smart grids” to reward households & businesses for generating more and using less.
  • BioSecurity: harnessing the potential of Porton Down and UK vaccine science for plant, animal & human biosecurity.
  • Digital: removing barriers to UK digital leadership outside the EU GDPR framework.
  • Hydrogen: using the full power of Gov to lead in this key sector as we did in genomics.
  • Mobility: making the UK a global test-bed for new mobility technologies,

Before being elected to Parliament, I spent 15 years working in life sciences around the Cambridge cluster, financing innovation. I saw time and time again how the best British entrepreneurs and their companies struggled to build business to scale here in the UK.

So often we have invented the technologies of the future and failed to commercialise them effectively.

After several years working as the Government Life Science Adviser, I published my report for the Fresh Start Group on The EU impact on Life Sciences: Avoiding the Global Slow Lane.

Three years before Brexit, the report was the first to highlight the growing hostility of the EU to ‘biotech’ and the increasing tide of ‘anti- biotech’ legislation – driven by a combination of the German Green Party, Catholic anti-science and lowest commons denominator regulation by the “precautionary principle” which was having a damaging effect on the Bioscience Economy and risked condemning the EU – and by extension the UK – to the global slow lane in biotechnology.

The report set out how the genomic revolution was beginning to offer untold opportunities across medicine and agriculture to help generate huge economic, social and political dividends for mankind. Billions of people were being liberated from the scourge of insufficient food, medicine and energy. The main threat to that? The EU’s hostile regulatory framework.

This was seen clearly in numerous case studies. At the time, the EU’s hostility to GM led German-based BASF and major U.S firm Monsanto to announce their withdrawal from Europe in agricultural research and development. My report argued that unless something was done soon, other companies would follow suit, with dire consequences for the UK Life Science sector.

The report recommended a shift away from the increasingly widely used risk-based ‘precautionary Principle’ and greater freedoms around data protection, using public healthcare systems to help accelerate early access to medical innovations, and for the UK to be able to ‘go it alone’ in designing appropriate regulatory frameworks for GM crops.

The UK’s departure from the laws and requirements of the EU provides us with a once-in-a-generation chance to redesign and improve our approach.

This new Taskforce, therefore, is emphatically not another long-term Whitehall de-regulation ‘initiative’. Neither is this is about cutting workers’ or environmental rights that we rightly guaranteed in the 2019 election manifesto.

It is of vital importance that the UK maintains the high regulatory standards that we have consistently championed. In some of the fastest growing new sectors like Digital Health, Nutraceuticals and Autonomous Vehicle Tech, clear global regulatory standards are key to investment confidence. By setting the new global standards here in the UK we can play a key role in leading whole new sectors.

But we must think innovatively about supporting businesses to start and grow, and make the most of the cutting-edge technologies and sectors we nurture in our universities for global impact. For example, why don’t we use our freedom to pioneer new disease and drought- resistant crops, and use our aid budget and variable tariffs to help create new global markets for UK Technology Transfer?

We won’t unlock a new era of the UK as an Innovation Nation generating the technologies and companies of tomorrow with technocratic tinkering. We need bold leadership, clear commercial vision and reforms to support innovation and enterprise. The two go hand in hand. We won’t unlock an innovation economy without an enterprise society. So we will need to look at tax and regulatory incentives for high risk start/ups like the “New Deal for New Businesses” I proposed back in 2010 to drive recovery after the Crash.

This is a once-in-a-generation moment. Together we must seize it.

David Gauke: The UK, the EU, vaccines – and future relations. Here, jingoistic politicians. There, Trumpian ones. Bodes badly.

29 Jan

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Will the new, post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU run smoothly? Will the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) provide a foundation on which a closer relationship is constructed (albeit still much more distant than the one we had), or will it provide the means by which the UK diverges from the EU?

The first few weeks after the transition period have confirmed many of the predicted difficulties of a hard Brexit. Businesses have struggled with red tape and trade with the EU is much reduced.

Whatever the Prime Minister claimed, the TCA does not address non-tariff barriers in the same way as the Single Market, and the erection of trade barriers will have a long-term economic impact. Northern Ireland is adjusting to a border in the Irish Sea, and it must finally be occurring even to the DUP that campaigning for Brexit and against a deal that kept Northern Ireland and Great Britain closely aligned has not served the Union well.

Given the obvious problems of Brexit and that, by the time the transition period ended polls showed that a clear majority of the public thought the country had made a mistake in 2016 in voting to leave, one might expect that, over time, we would begin to move to a more collaborative relationship. The likelihood, however, is that we will go the other way.

There are a number of political reasons for this. Perhaps most importantly of all, the political imperative for the Conservative Party is to maintain the support of those Leave-voting Red Wallers who delivered the Prime Minister his majority.

This week saw the Conservative Group for Europe relaunched as the Conservative European Forum. The CEF’s Chairman, David Lidington, delivered a characteristically thoughtful, well-informed and pragmatic speech setting the case for building a constructive relationship with the EU.

I hope the Government follows his advice, but I fear it won’t. If the Government’s approach to the EU is thoughtful, pragmatic and constructive, this is not going to get the patriotic juices of Workington Man flowing. There needs to be rows, conflicts and Brussels-bashing from Boris Johnson whilst portraying Labour as the party of ‘rejoiners’. ‘Keep Brexit Done’ will be something we could hear a lot in 2024.

To nullify this risk, there is every sign that Keir Starmer will want the next general election to be about almost anything other than the EU. The most straightforward way for Labour to win more seats is to win back the Brexit-voting Red Wall.

The absence of much opposition from Labour to a hard Brexit position might create an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to articulate a pro-European one that will cut through to the public. But betting on a Lib Dem revival has not proved to be a profitable pursuit in recent years. In any event, pro-European votes have tended to be split amongst many parties and heavily concentrated in safe seats whilst Brexit votes are most efficiently distributed and, as long as Nigel Farage can be kept at bay, will vote Conservative.

The upshot of all this is that even, if the public continues to become more pro-European in the way that it has in the last five years (largely because of demography), the chances of an explicitly pro-European Government being elected in 2024 remain slim.

Nor should we discount the possibility that UK opinion becomes more hostile towards the EU in future. Even the day-to-day negotiations with the EU which we are now condemned to – endlessly having to make judgements as to how we balance ‘sovereignty’ with access to our most important market – can have a deleterious impact on how the EU is seen.

A bigger trading partner willing to leverage its strong negotiating position to protect its interests can be an unlovely sight, as the Swiss discovered after narrowly rejecting EU membership in 1992, since when support for joining the EU has fallen sharply.

Within weeks of the transition period coming to an end, we have faced more than the day-to-day challenges. The row between the European Commission and AstraZeneca is turning into a crisis that could have very serious implications for UK/EU relations.

Even before the recent difficulties with the AZ supplies, plenty of Brexit supporters were claiming that the UK’s success in rolling out the vaccine is a vindication of our departure from the EU. The reality is that at the relevant time, we were still required to comply with EU rules and everything we did on vaccines we could have done as EU members. Nonetheless, it is true to say that in these particular circumstances, going it alone has served us well. It is not surprising some are describing this as a benefit of Brexit.

The case, however, needs to be made that what worked in the very specific circumstances of finding vaccines in a pandemic applies elsewhere. It is not obvious that there is a read across from our approach to vaccines to other challenges we will face, not least because we are not yet capable of cloning Kate Bingham.

Not every decision that this country has taken during the pandemic has been quite so world-beating, and there is also a risk that we learn the wrong lessons from the vaccine issue and, in the pursuit of self-sufficiency in a whole host of areas, become increasingly protectionist.

But the immediate danger of protectionism comes from the EU in its export controls on vaccines. Understandably, EU citizens are concerned about the slow rollout of the vaccine and the response of the European Commission has been to panic, lash out and distract.

The news that AstraZeneca is unable to deliver the number of doses hoped for has resulted in demands that it diverts the product committed to the UK. Notwithstanding the statements made by EU Commissioners, the publication of the agreement between the EU and AZ reveals that the contractual basis of such demands is, at the very least, questionable.

So its next step is to control exports to the UK. Yesterday, this even involved triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol enabling the EU to block exports from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland.  This is supposed to be a “last resort” mechanism, but its use was premature, provocative and sets a precedent that will be cited by those unwilling to accept the consequences of the Protocol.  The Commission has now seen sense and backed off.

There is an argument that, if the EU is throwing its weight around in order to prioritise the interests of the citizens of member states, this suggests that it is a good idea to be a member state. However, it is an unattractive argument that is, at best, ‘right but repulsive’.

Medicine supplies rely on internationalism and interdependence, and vaccine nationalism will mean that we all end up as losers. The UK’s response to the strident language coming out of the EU has been strikingly mature and measured. On this issue, at least, it has wisely sought to de-escalate tensions.

Let us hope that this is what happens, that the behaviour of the EU is performative and that the practical implications of yesterday’s announcement are limited. But it might not be.

The fundamentals of the UK’s need for a constructive relationship with the EU have not changed. It was not in our national interest to leave the EU; it is in our interests to create a new, special relationship. Such an outcome is not inevitable but the Trumpian behaviour of the EU in recent days makes that task all the harder.

Daniel Hamilton: So we have a new CDU Chairman. Will a CDU-Green coalition follow after Germany’s federal election?

18 Jan

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

In September, Angela Merkel will step down as German Chancellor after sixteen years in office. Regardless of how one may judge her record, Merkel’s influence over the substance of European governance has been immense; from stamping her mark on EU fiscal rules to her open-doors policy during the migrant crisis to her final ascent for the UK’s post-Brexit deal.

The cast of names that have come and gone during her term in office – Tony Blair, David Cameron, Theresa May, Jacques Chirac, Francois Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, George W.Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump– is without modern compare.

Partly because of constitutional constraints and partly due to post-war caution and conservatism, stability is a feature of German politics.  Since 1982, Germany has had only three Chancellors.  In the same period, the UK has had seven Prime Ministers.  Italy has had twenty-two.

The Große Koalition between the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) has now largely served in office since 2005.  This has effectively resulted in the two main parties adopting a similar, centrist persona, with disagreements tending to focus on tweaks and cadences of policies rather than fundamentals.

This has arguably hurt the SPD most, whose traditional platform, once grounded in patriotic labour unions and cosy accommodations with big businesses, has fractured as Germany has become more ethnically diverse, more start-up friendly and more ecologist in its views.  The party won 41 per cent of the vote in 1998, yet polls around 15 per cent today.

The CDU has its own problems.  Distinct from what “voting Merkel” meant – centrism, no surprises and the social market, with a strong nod to environmentalism – the CDU’s platform has a rather hollow feel.  It is accepted, for sure, that the party stands for the defence of Germany’s social market economy and a punchy approach to German influence at an EU level, yet its pro-immigration stances and seeming intransigence on tax cuts and deregulation have separately irked working class voters and entrepreneurs.

With the CDU and SPD unable to define their appeal effectively, an opportunity exists for other parties to gain ground.

While the hard-left Die Linke and market-liberal Free Democrats (FDP) are polling well enough to have a respectable presence in the next convocation of the Budestag, it would be wise to follow the public remarks of Die Grünen, Germany’s Green Party.

Overseas perceptions of the Greens are somewhat outdated and tend to revolve around images of the “68ers” – a radical student movement founded on ending the military draft, opposition to the Vietnam war and the modernisation of a stodgy political system still inhabited by the wartime generation.

Their march to the mainstream has, though, been a long one.

The decision in 1998 of Joschka Fischer, a veteran 68er and the country’s Foreign Minister during the Green coalition with the SPD, to advocate NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia over the Kosovo crisis upended the party’s pacifism-at-all-costs agenda, and led Germany into an overseas conflict for the first time since World War Two.  A Green Minister-President, Winfried Kretschmann, has governed the manufacturing-dominated state of Baden-Württemberg in coalition with the CDU for more than a decade; implementing a pro-business, R&D-friendly agenda that feels more modern than the SPD’s staider rhetoric.

The issue of immigration is as polarising or more so an issue in Germany as in other European countries, yet polling suggests that recent-naturalised Germans and the descendents of the Gastarbeiter generation which moved to the country from Turkey and Yugoslavia in the 60s and 70s lean strongly towards the Greens.  This offers the party another electoral advantage over the SPD.

There is much to dislike – or even, given the party’s more extreme factions, fear – in the Green Party’s platform, but the fact remains that the party appears to be on the verge of stitching together arguably the most electorally-appealing platform in German politics today.

With the CDU on course to win roughly a third of the vote when September’s elections come, the Greens on upward or around 20 per cent of the vote and all other blocks trailing far behind, the prospect of a CDU-Green, Schwarz-Grüne coalition is a distinct possibility.

The election of Armin Laschet as the new Chairman of the CDU on Saturday morning would, on the face of it, appear to represent a “safe” choice for the party.  Coverage of his victory has focussed on his jolly nature, centrist political brand and stewardship of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of Germany’s most important manufacturing hubs.

A debate will take place in Germany during the coming months as to whether Laschet will be the party candidate for Chancellor (he faces a potential contest including the guttural Bavarian Governor, Markus Söder, and the liberal Health Minister, Jens Spahn), yet this is a battle he is likely to win.  The fact he was able to see off the socially-conservative, immigration-sceptic Friedrich Merz and media-friendly Norbert Röttgen to win the top job suggests the party is looking for stability, not revolution.

There is little debate about whether the CDU and its Bavarian affiliate, the Christian Social Union, will win the plurality of votes in September.  With Laschet as their candidate, a Große Koalition with either the rump remainder of the SPD or resurgent Greens would appear to be both mathematically and politically possible.

CDU/CSU voters have proven to be a loyal block, yet their combined 45 per cent vote share in 2013 is a distant memory.  They now poll 35 per cent.  The price of such a fall in support is that no clear path exists for Laschet to pursue a coalition with the CDU’s traditional partners, the liberal FDP.  His only options are on the left.

Given the recent momentum of the Greens, it is not beyond the realms of possibility they could further erode support from the SPD and Die Linke, leading to an electoral percentage showing in the high twenties.  In this scenario, the pressure from both Green insiders and those on the left, battered by sixteen years of losses, for a leftist GroKo may be insatiable.  The price of such a coalition, particularly for Die Linke, would likely be the shelving of Green moderation in favour of a distinctively leftist agenda.

The implications of such a centre-left coalition would be profound – for both the UK and EU.

Notwithstanding recent Coronavirus-related speeding, a coalition of this kind would see the abandonment of the ‘Schwarze Null’ fiscal policy that mandates a balanced budget domestically and higher taxes on personal incomes and business.

For a post-Brexit UK, seeking to steer a path as a low-tax, regulation-light economy, a malcontent leftist coalition in Germany would likely serve as a Trojan Horse in the European Council for policies designed to disadvantage and undermine UK interests.

For all the criticisms of Laschet’s unambitious centrism and the gap that exists between British conservatism and the CDU’s social market economy orthodoxies, the preferred outcome for the UK is clear.