Little fire and little fury

PUBLISHED: 13:00 11 January 2018

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson (left) and chancellor Philip Hammond. Photo: PA

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson (left) and chancellor Philip Hammond. Photo: PA

PA Wire/PA Images

MICHAEL WHITE on a muted reshuffle and why waiting for Corbyn is a waste of time

Donald Trump’s latest biographer, Michael Wolff, says the candidate didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘Brexit’ until the 2016 referendum result went his way, in the direction of market-led populism cloaked as nationalism. But hey, were British voters much better informed when they went to the polls on June 23? Probably not on either side of the Euro-chasm, and things have not got much clearer since Theresa May declared “Brexit means Brexit”. A great soundbite, but a vacuous one.

Is clarity starting to emerge as the dust settles on dismal 2017 and we embark on 2018 for the third year of divorce-and-settlement terms, the crucial year by general consent? I think it might be as May edges back from Nigel Lawson’s ‘no deal’ cliff and ministers show faltering signs of post-Brexit purpose. Michael Gove’s speech on agriculture represents one positive development (as a Gove-sceptic I say that reluctantly), but the other lies in May’s ministerial shake-up.

“Oh no,” I hear you shriek. “You can’t mean it. Not Theresa’s timid and ineptly-managed rejig of the deckchairs on that doomed Atlantic liner that everyone mentions on these occasions, the one that walloped the iceberg and sank with a huge but inclusive loss of life in all classes of society?”

I do, I do. It is true that May’s Incredible Shrinking Reshuffle was initially promoted as a chance for a recovering prime minister – the play-safe budget and Brexit Stage 1 safely behind her – to impose her iron will on recalcitrant, incompetent or disloyal ministers (in some cases, all three) and sack the rascals. Boris Johnson’s hapless career as Foreign Secretary was going to be traded for Spreadsheet Phil Hammond’s dismissal as Chancellor. Old Leadsom was for the heave-ho too, Tory MPs confided. “Six sackings!”

Before the leaden skies of Damian Green’s dismissal and the (brief) appointment of that semi-house-trained lout, Toby Young, to an unsuitable advisory post, May was also planning to refresh her team with wholesome new faces from the sparkling parliamentary intake of 2015. Ethnic minorities, women, LGBTs, hip hop fans, West Brom supporters, they would all be represented. Not one of them had even thought of ever making a leering joke about cleavage on Twitter or dipped (allegedly) into online smut on the office laptop.

But the pundits are unanimous in their verdict that the reshuffle has been a flop, an “omnishambles”, as George Osborne is unlikely to call it in his vengeful Evening Standard coverage, though comparison with England’s latest collapse against Australia in the Ashes series might be appropriate. Bad player behaviour and poor selection were crucial in both disasters. Few reshuffles go according to plan but this was a bad one.

You have probably been suffering from reshuffle fatigue since Tuesday lunchtime. Even the BBC’s energetic political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, sounded a bit weary as she explained to her radio and television audiences that the new faces aren’t exactly household names, not even to politics buffs in many instances. That’s not entirely fair – the DWP and Brexit’s Esther McVey is not a shy woman – but I’ll be brief.

Reshuffle reasons for Remainers of all shades of attachment to be slightly encouraged is that Remainers and pragmatists are still in the key positions, strengthened by the promotion of David Lidington, clever and urbane in a Douglas Hurd (his ex-boss) way, to become May’s cross-Whitehall minder, her new Damian Green in all but title.

Briefly Justice Secretary, Lidington, a former Europe minister (2010-16) and MP for Aylesbury since 1992, has always been a passionate Remainer. Apart from expenses trouble in 2009 (dry cleaning and deodorant claims) this ex-company executive has kept his nose fairly clean. He cannot be blamed for David Cameron’s failure to obtain a sellable EU reform deal from Angela Merkel, who now seems to be paying a similar price at home for a lack of imagination.

Talk of Brexit’s Chris Grayling taking over as Tory chairman, always a significant post, got no further than the party’s Twitter feed. Perhaps Lord Adonis’s call for his dismissal saved him for transport. I thought Jeremy Hunt, widely tipped as the new Green, was right to insist on staying at health during what is likely to prove a worse winter NHS crisis than usual.

That should have come as no surprise. Don’t these people talk? He was right to demand control over social care policy too, as gaping a hole in the NHS’s interface with local councils as those breached Cornish seawalls after Storm Eleanor.

What was right for Hunt, ambitious enough to be a flexible ex-Remainer (the NHS will make or break his career), was not necessarily right for a prime minister seeking to impose her authority, but only able to sack volunteers. She wanted to give tech entrepreneur Hunt Greg Clark’s business portfolio, but after two hours of faffing around inside No 10 (where exactly? it is a small place to park a ditherer) both men stayed put, as Justine Greening did not. The smack of firm government this was not.

Greening is not a politician to change the political weather, but she is a South Yorkshire steel worker’s gay accountant daughter who attended a Northern comprehensive. Not too many of them. Her resistance to May’s grammar school fetish was understandable and right – such schools are no longer the ladder to social mobility they were – but it was unwise. She was also rash not to accept the DWP post offered. Running Whitehall’s biggest budget, whose decisions affect sharply society’s poorest, is an opportunity to help the social mobility Greening champions, and May says she does. You do not turn it down.

Anti-Brexit ‘rebels’ at Westminster may cheer their new recruit, who represents affluent 70% Remain Putney. But backbench advocacy – for social mobility, or Remain, and against Heathrow expansion – is no substitute for a seat in cabinet, except for the most skilled guerrilla operators, which she ain’t. Remainer Damian (who?) Hines got her job. Contrast snowdrop behaviour with that of Culture Secretary and ex-tax accountant Karen Bradley. She must have cursed her luck that James Brokenshire’s need of a serious operation made him leave the Northern Ireland Office at this sensitive moment – Stormont stalled and the Irish border question unresolved in the Brexit maze. What’s not to like about being Culture Secretary? It is the tricky-but-fun brief she has had to hand over to jammy Matt Hancock, a fast-track Osborne acolyte of flexible views who celebrated by attacking BBC pay. Brave or what!

Hancock was for Remain in 2016. So was Bradley, neither zealous Remainers, much like May herself. Bradley too has said she backs Leave now that the 52% have spoken for us all, a widely-held ‘get on with it’ view – as advocates of a second referendum ruefully acknowledge. Belfast is again an important posting in 2018, as it was not when Brexit’s Theresa Villiers was in charge. Bradley was right to take up the poisoned Guinness chalice. Good luck. Don’t ring unless it’s urgent (as it may be).

Wake up! Suella (‘No Deal’) Fernandes to DExEU may not realise she’s just been locked in May’s cellar. And apart from Brexit’s Dominic Raab not making cabinet (becoming housing minister is a chance at stardom or burn-out) I have only one last point to make, possibly two. The Tory chairmanship ended up being passed from likeable Patrick McLoughlin – probably the last ex-miner ever to sit in a British cabinet – to Walthamstow’s Brandon Lewis. MP for Brexit’s Great Yarmouth since 2010, council leader and commercial barrister, he was a May ally at the Home Office and – you guessed – a pragmatic Remainer in 2016.

What’s his line on the hot issue of excluding student numbers from the net immigration figures to help meet May’s notorious pledge to get them down from 200,000-plus to the “tens of thousands”? So far as I can see, immigration minister Lewis (his job until Monday) loyally supported May in arguing that their inclusion does not discourage foreign student applications to Britain’s vibrant university industry – nor harm the sector.

In that he is at odds with Home Secretary Amber Rudd, with Hammond, Boris and others who have been pressing for a change. May is isolated but has dug in her kitten heels. Clearly Chairman Lewis knows where his bread is buttered. His new deputy is James Cleverly, another ambitious London politician, briefly a professional soldier, later a major in the territorial reserves which coalition cuts have so weakened. An ambitious Brexit-backer whose mother is from Sierra Leone, he and Lewis are both media savvy, but in their balancing act, Lewis is currently on top.

As most sensible people expected, the Three Brexiteers – Messrs Boris, Fox and ‘Bulldog’ Davis – were left in place, May’s hostages to whatever happens next. The Foreign Secretary limps on, the Brexit Bulldog’s standing has been damaged by his ‘dog ate my homework’ excuse for those 58 impact assessments and by the spectacle of May’s transfer window acquisition of the Bulldog’s permanent secretary, Oliver Robbins, to No 10’s Brexit unit. From here, he leads most of the talks with Michel ‘Tick Tock’ Barnier.

The interesting one so far this New Year has been Liam ‘Air Miles’ Fox, our trainee International Trade Secretary whose 220,000 miles in search of post Brexit opportunities reminds us all that Barnier is not the only one with a clock ticking. At this rate Dr Fox will have free holiday flights forever after, though he may have to avoid EU destinations.

The Trade Secretary’s big achievement in 2018 has been to persuade the Fox-resistant FT to lead its January 3 UK edition on the thought that Britain may seek to replace the US as the second G7 member (Canada is the other) of the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) now that the ‘child’ that is President Trump (so ALL of Michael Wolff’s sources told him) has withdrawn from the new Asia-Pacific trade block.

I know, I know. We are already members of a perfectly good trade block on our doorstep, one we are preparing to leave in pursuit of mythical sovereignty and global free trade. I think it is a mistake which will cost us more than we gain. But I disagree with Alastair Campbell in last week’s New European, arguing that Len McCluskey and other union power brokers are going to save us from Brexit by bullying Jeremy Corbyn into a more upright posture in defence of the jobs agenda which the Labour leader claims to support. It isn’t going to happen, not unless Big Len is forced out of office prematurely by an election court and replaced by a pro-EU rival, highly unlikely.

High spending and romantic socialism-in-one-country Corbynites think that what Angela Rayner calls their “s**t or bust” opportunity is finally coming as May collapses in 2018. They’re for party, not country, hanging around the corner flag hoping to score, as Alastair more gently put it.

As for Tony Blair, lucid as ever in last week’s edition of The New European, he can and does argue fairly that Still-Remainers must first argue for the right to change our collective mind on Brexit, only later to advocate that we should do so. It’s a tough call and polls indicate no significant shift in public opinion, even among Labour activists and voters who are passionately pro-Remain and have talked themselves into thinking St Jeremy is too. He’s not and spoke against continued single market membership again this week.

As Phil Collins, Blair speechwriter turned Times columnist, says, a likeable pro-Brexit politician who has come around to Remain is the ideal person to lead a ‘Let’s think again’ campaign. Respected Tory MP/GP Sarah Wollaston, is one such, but Jeremy Corbyn has stronger credentials to reach out to the third of voters open to persuasion.

Alas, Collins concludes that Corbyn, self-styled man of principle, is actually behaving like the “ruthless Blairite” of Dacre/Corbyn caricature and cynically triangulating between Leavers and Remainers to maximise his vote.

That means many of us have to focus what we regard as a realist’s mind, not on Fox’s familiar whinge that Remainers “want Brexit to fail” (we can’t afford that folly), but on how best to encourage him to make the best of a bad job. Trade deals in Asia when we can sell goods and services in fast-recovering Eurozone markets (growth of 2.4% in 2017?) across the Channel, anyone?

It’s easy to laugh – as I did – but the FT took Fox’s pitch seriously enough to run a page of analysis on the huge opportunities in Asia’s emerging markets. Not just in China and Anglophone India, but Malaysia and Bangladesh, South Africa too if post-Zuma trends improve. David Smith of the Sunday Times, one of my favourite economic pundits, makes similar points though he also echoes Open Britain’s complaint that Fox has been visiting the wrong countries.

Why? Because Air Miles Liam hasn’t spent much time trying to ensure that Brexit Britain will be able easily to replicate the existing EU trade agreements with 65 countries around the world (places like South Korea and Switzerland, Mexico and, yes, South Africa) where the UK currently does 12% of its trade. It won’t be easy to ‘grandfather’ such deals and they will only work if Britain can also tailor an EU deal close to single market membership.

That’s what makes this week’s new trade bill interesting, accompanied as it is by a Hammond letter to the Treasury select committee and hints from No 10 that their search for “most frictionless trade” terms with the EU27 after Brexit Day – March 29 2019? – may include a form of customs union and more. Canada Plus? Norway Minus? Even the Turkish model of agreement is now back under study. The trade bill gives ministers plenty of latitude. That’s where cabinet reshuffle maths comes in and any evidence of growing pragmatism or realism among ministers, as the hard facts of Brexit life bear down on them. In that context Gove’s speeches to farming conferences in Oxford was interesting. Always a stimulating, if erratic man, he spoke in a holistic way about the opportunities for reshaping those £3 billion worth of farm subsidies he has promised to maintain at current levels for five years (sorry, NHS) after the UK leaves the CAP. He wants them better spent than on rich farmers’ large acreage. Few could disagree with that, nor his talk of healthier food for poor consumers and better animal welfare.

Talk is cheap and the challenges for Britain’s novice trade team (few were even born when we joined the embryo-EU in 1973) are horrendous and highly technical. But I was encouraged to be reminded that there are opportunities ahead as well as threats, this in a week when Q3 economic data from last summer suggested UK productivity (as well as manufacturing output) has finally edged up (“despite Brexit” as Liam Fox expects me to add).

‘Don’t just cherry pick the facts you want to believe are true’ is advice against the current vice of selective bias worth hanging on to. Trump’s trouble with Michael Wolff again underlines the point. I’d feel vindicated, albeit not thrilled, to write off the self-declared “very stable genius” in the Oval Office as the dangerous fool Wolff’s book says he is. But in radio and television interviews Wolff defends every detail of his book with more certainty than any mere mortal should. “Flaky and loathsome, but he’s probably 60% right on Trump,” is how a pal who knows Wolff describes the author. That sounds about right, but being “60% right” won’t swing True Believers in Utah or Yarmouth back to righteousness on either Trumpismo or Brexit. Wasn’t it over confidence in the self-evident rightness of Remain’s cause and the 100% folly of Brexit that got us into this mess in the first place?

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