Archive for the ‘British politics’ Category

Boris Johnson versus the ‘blob’

LONDON — Welcome to the U.K.’s permanent revolution.

Having won a referendum and an election, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have turned their attention to overhauling the machinery of government.

Their plan? To centralize power in No. 10, improve efficiency and reduce the influence of a civil service establishment that Cummings likes to call “the blob.”

Whitehall’s top brass have been put — very publicly — on notice, with a briefing from “senior Tories” to a Sunday newspaper that three heads of department are on a No. 10 “hit list.” The Home Office has been rocked by briefings and counter-briefings about boiling tensions between Home Secretary Priti Patel and her top official Philip Rutnam.

Meanwhile, the ranks of special advisers — who provide media and policy support to ministers — have been purged of those not regarded as sufficiently loyal or useful to No. 10. That brought even the powerful Treasury to heel as Chancellor Sajid Javid opted to quit rather than see his team replaced.

Downing Street’s goal is as much about reforming the machinery of government as it is about ideology.

But while the approach is winning support among the Conservative party’s victorious Brexiteer faction — who have long-regarded the civil service as a bastion of pro-EU thinking — others warn of the danger of having perpetual campaigners at the heart of government: they might prevent people actually governing.

“It’s not normal for three permanent secretaries to be described as being on a hit list on the front of the Sunday Telegraph,” said Alex Thomas, a former senior Whitehall official and now a program director at the Institute for Government think tank. “[It] doesn’t feel like the way to win hearts and minds within the system, and you’re then likely to get more resistance [from officials].”

According to one former senior government official, Johnson and Cummings “are setting up some problems for themselves.”

“The danger is that a culture emerges where everyone is afraid to make their own decisions because they’re afraid to mess up and incur the wrath of Dom,” the official said.

Brexiteers vs. Mandarins 

Downing Street’s goal is as much about reforming the machinery of government as it is about ideology.

Dominic Cummings heads in to No. 10 | Peter Summers/Getty Images

Cummings has long advocated a pared-back, more nimble civil service, more accessible to talent from a more diverse range of disciplines. His view, as articulated on his blog, is that there are “profound problems at the core of how the British state makes decisions” and this will need to change in order to make the most of the opportunities and challenges presented by Brexit.

And with potentially five years until the next general election, the new occupants of No. 10 have time and political capital to spend on a shakeup.

But today’s tensions also have their roots in a deep suspicion of the civil service that permeated Brexiteer opinion during the Theresa May era, when powerful officials like Olly Robbins were accused of wanting to keep the U.K. closely bound to EU rules.

Now that many of those same Brexiteers are in power, a clash was inevitable. One of the senior officials on the “hit list” reported by the Sunday Telegraph was chief civil servant at the Treasury, Tom Scholar, targeted, according to the paper’s source, for the crime of being “off-side” on Brexit.

“Senior officials in Whitehall despise Brexit,” claimed one former Cabinet minister, now on the Conservative back benches. “No. 10 has strong support among Brexiteers in its efforts to cleanse Whitehall’s Augean stables.”

While some of the rhetoric has echoes of Donald Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra, battles between U.K. politicians and their civil servants are nothing new. Tony Blair’s Labour government quietly saw to it that a number of permanent secretaries were moved on, and reforming ministers rarely encounter an entirely pliant department.

Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, on Monday sought to draw a line under the tensions with an email to all civil servants.

Nevertheless, many observers have been struck by the “revolutionary zeal” of recent briefings against officials.

The question is how effective the strategy will be. “Cummings is always looking for an enemy,” said another former government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was the EU in the Brexit campaign, in the last parliament it was those blocking Brexit. He is desperately looking around for a new enemy, but that doesn’t really work in government.”

‘Keep them on their toes’

The top ranks of Johnson’s team and the civil service both say they are now seeking a truce.

Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, on Monday sought to draw a line under the tensions with an email to all civil servants (but clearly aimed at ministers too) warning that “unattributable briefings and leaks to the media” harm the U.K.’s “hard-won reputation for good governance” while adding pointedly that “the whole civil service is committed to delivering the government’s agenda.”

After a feverish few days, No. 10 officials also indicated a willingness to de-escalate.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson shakes hands Sir Mark Sedwill | Stefan Rousseau/Getty Images

A Home Office spokesperson issued a joint statement from Patel and Rutnam condemning anonymous briefings (to the Sunday Times) that MI5 officials were withholding information from the home secretary.

But some observers believe the fault lines are here to stay. The former senior official speculated whether Cummings might find the current tensions a useful way to keep civil servants “on their toes.”

“That is definitely how he operates,” the official said.

“There is definitely a stronger approach, a very ‘get things done’ mentality,” added a former government special adviser. “The Cameron and the May administrations were not massively different in the way they treated the civil service. This one is very different. It’s adapt or die.”

Annabelle Dickson contributed reporting.

UK shuts the door to unskilled migrants

LONDON — The U.K. government will not create a visa route for low-skilled migrants and temporary workers in its post-Brexit immigration system, which will give “top priority” to those with the highest skills, including scientists, engineers and academics.

A policy paper published Tuesday evening outlines plans for a new points-based system after EU freedom of movement ends in December. The report said employers “will need to adjust” to not being able to recruit unskilled workers from Europe.

“We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust,” the paper said.

“It is important that employers move away from a reliance on the U.K.’s immigration system as an alternative to investment in staff retention, productivity and wider investment in technology and automation.”

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the employers’ group CBI, said firms in the care, construction, hospitality, food and drink sectors could be most affected.

“In some sectors firms will be left wondering how they will recruit the people needed to run their businesses,” she said. “Firms know that hiring from overseas and investing in the skills of their workforce and new technologies is not an ‘either or’ choice — both are needed to drive the economy forward.”

The report recognizes the proposals represent “a significant change” for employers in the U.K., but pointed to a group of about 170,000 recently arrived non-EU citizens working in low-skilled occupations, saying this kind of workforce will continue to be available.

It added that U.K. employers could also recruit low-skilled workers from among those Europeans already in the country, and restated the government’s commitment to quadruple the pilot scheme for seasonal workers in agricultural jobs to 10,000 places.

Points-based system

According to the paper, skilled migrants from the EU and elsewhere wishing to work in Britain will need to demonstrate that they have a job offer from an approved sponsor; that the job offer is at the required skill level (A level minimum), and that they speak English. They will be able to make an application for a visa if, in addition to this, they meet the minimum salary threshold — which the government plans to lower from £30,000 to £25,600.

However, the salary threshold will not be a hard stop. As long as applicants earn £20,480 or more, they may still be able to live in the U.K. if they can demonstrate that they have a job offer in an occupation judged to be most needed, or if they have a Ph.D. relevant to the job.

The Migration Advisory Committee, an independent body reporting to the Home Office, will produce a shortage occupation list detailing all jobs covered by the points-based system. This will make it easier for the government to address shortages in the NHS, for instance.

Meanwhile, the most highly skilled will be able to enter the U.K. without a job offer if they are endorsed by a relevant body and they can achieve the required level of points.

The Home Office also floated plans for an even broader route — with no endorsement from an organization at all — that would allow a small number of the most highly-skilled workers to move to the U.K. without a job offer, but the department warned this additional route is likely to be capped and “will take longer to implement.”

The points-based system will be introduced next January, but the Home Office expects that it will be refined, both in the coming months and after it is implemented. The government pledged to reduce the time it takes for work visas to be granted to eight weeks.

Most EU citizens will be issued an electronic visa and will need to use an online checking service to demonstrate their right to be in the U.K. when applying for a job or using public services. This is likely to become a contentious issue after campaigners for the rights of EU citizens criticized the EU Settlement Scheme for not providing physical evidence of status.

Innovators, ministers of religion, sportspeople, artists and entertainers from the EU will fall outside the points-based system, and will instead be allowed to apply to visit the U.K. through existing routes that already apply to non-EU specialists. Europeans visiting the U.K. for up to six months will be able to travel without a visa, but will not be allowed to work.

Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott criticized the plan, saying it would be harder for U.K. firms to attract the workers they need at all skill levels.

“This isn’t an ‘Australian points-based system,’ which is a meaningless government soundbite,” she said. “It’s a salary threshold system, which will need to have so many exemptions, for the NHS, for social care and many parts of the private sector, that it will be meaningless.”

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