Posts Tagged ‘referendum’

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’s EU guru explains Brexit with dinosaurs and de Gaulle

“I’m here to explain, not tell.”

David Frost is the opposite of the strident, high-voltage Brexiteer. Boris Johnson’s Europe adviser does not possess the bombast of a Nigel Farage. Instead, the U.K.’s chief negotiator comes across as a mild-mannered, suburban bank manager, patiently running through the terms and conditions on a new product — in this case, explaining to a skeptical Brussels audience that Brexit is in fact an exciting “revolution.”

Frost’s speech at the Université Libre de Bruxelles Monday evening — a rare public appearance for an influential figure driving Johnson’s Brexit policy — was part history lesson and part exercise in red line drawing. The U.K. government is comfortable with the hardest of Brexits on trade: tariff barriers, quotas and the rest. “We understand the trade-offs. Some people say we don’t but we do,” he said.

But Frost also wanted to paint Brexit not as some freak event — an aberration that jilted Remainers might reverse in a decade — but rather running with the grain of history. Even as other anti-EU movements in France, Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere are toning down their rhetoric in the face of the realities of the U.K.’s departure, Frost sought to frame Brexit as part of a Continent-wide counter-revolution against the EU. When voters can’t effect change, he said, “opposition becomes expressed as opposition to the system itself.”

Britain was first to the door because it had always felt an ambivalent “political absenteeism” from the European project. Rather than Brexit being an unexpected happening, Frost suggested that “Britain was more like a guest who’d had enough of a party whilst trying to find a way to slip out.”

In the longer term, the advantages of being an independent nation that can more flexibly define standards and priorities and seek new deals around the globe would outweigh the negative effects, Frost argued.

With the U.K. now strolling down the street to an as yet unknown destination, here are five takeaways from Frost’s speech:

Global Britain will find it tough …

Frost admitted that Britain’s ambition to become a global champion of free trade comes at a “difficult” moment. The rules-based system of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is under severe strain and big players like the U.S. and China are increasingly resorting to strong-arm tactics to get what they want.

“I think it’s true that obviously the global trading system has seen more positive days than those at the moment,” he said. “There are problems around,” he went on, adding that Britain was depending “on a liberal trade regime” (aka the WTO) to play to its strength as an export-oriented nation.

“We would say that the arrival of a new independent player on the scene in the form of the U.K. is probably going to help that,” he added, optimistically.

… but it will be worth it

In the longer term, the advantages of being an independent nation that can more flexibly define standards and priorities and seek new deals around the globe would outweigh the negative effects, Frost argued.

“To think that we might accept EU supervision on so-called level playing field issues simply fails to see the point of what we are doing,” — David Frost

That is also true when it comes to trading with Britain’s closest partner, the European Union, he said: “There’s obviously a one-off cost from the introduction of friction at a customs and regulatory border,” Frost said in reference to the likely deterioration of trade relations as a result of leaving the EU’s single market.

However, “even if there is a short-run cost, it will be overwhelmed rapidly by the huge gains of having your own policy regimes in certain areas,” he argued. “I think looking forward, we are going to have a huge advantage over the EU.”

Frost cited “the ability to set regulations for new sectors, new ideas and new conditions quicker than the EU, and based on sound science not fear of the future.”

We’re serious about diverging

“We only want what other independent countries have,” said Frost, laying out the U.K. government’s position that it will not align itself to Brussels’ rules.

The clash between the two sides over the so-called level playing field — U.K. alignment with EU regulations on things like the environment and workers’ rights — looks set to be one of the hardest (perhaps impossible) to resolve in the second phase of Brexit talks.

“To think that we might accept EU supervision on so-called level playing field issues simply fails to see the point of what we are doing,” said Frost, “It isn’t a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure — it is the point of the whole project.”

Michel Barnier maintains that “fair” competition is central to an EU-U.K. trade agreement| Sean Gallup/Getty Images

His counterpart Michel Barnier maintains that “fair” competition is central to an EU-U.K. trade agreement. Can Johnson make him believe that the U.K. is serious this time about walking away without a deal?

The EU doesn’t understand Brexit

Frost said Brussels has never been able to take British Euroskepticism seriously, regarding it as an “irrational false consciousness, a kind of fundamentally wrong way of looking at the world.”

That meant that instead of seeing Brexit coming, EU enthusiasts regarded the 2016 referendum result as a “horrific unforeseeable natural disaster like the sort of meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs,” Frost argued.

But he said the U.K.’s semi-detached relationship with Brussels — rejecting the single currency, opting out of the Schengen free movement zone and judicial reforms, etc — were “inevitable staging posts on the way out rather than a random series of unfortunate events.”

Asked by a questioner if the late French President Charles de Gaulle had been right to refuse the U.K.’s entry into the club in 1967, Frost said: “Quite often it takes outsiders to see things that are not obvious to yourself.”

“Economic competition, we know for sure, boosts wealth for everybody in the long run,” — David Frost

“De Gaulle was seeing something very profound, to be honest, about British … attitudes and world view and society,” he added.

Brexit will be good for Europe

While many European politicians see Brexit as a lose-lose situation and warn, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, of Britain becoming “an economic competitor on our own doorstep,” Frost said the opposite was true.

“The strength of Europe as a civilization, looking back, has been when its component parts have done things differently, have looked to each other, have competed a bit, have experimented in different ways, doing things within a sort of broad framework,” he said. Having an innovative, fast-moving Britain as a neighbor could help to break up slow decision-making processes in the EU, he argued.

“Economic competition, we know for sure, boosts wealth for everybody in the long run,” Frost said. “Perhaps the British exit will help Europe.”

Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.

Powered by WordPress | Designed by: index backlink | Thanks to insanity workout, car insurance and cyber security