Why the coalition can't and won't lurch to the right

The new cabinet remains bound by the terms of the Coalition Agreement.

New Conservative chairman Michael Green (otherwise known as Grant Shapps) insisted this morning that the reshuffle did not represent a "shift to the right" but, displaying an unusual degree of consensus, Fleet Street disagrees. The Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Independent all variously welcome or bemoan the reshuffle as a turn to the right. And it's not hard to see why. Liberal Tories such as Ken Clarke, George Young and Sayeeda Warsi have been sacked or demoted, while right-wingers such as Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and Owen Paterson have been promoted. Further down the ministerial ranks, Tory attack-dog-in-chief Michael Fallon, and George Osborne's representative on earth, Matthew Hancock, have been dispatched to BIS to rein in Vince Cable, the man known among Tories as the "anti-business secretary".

But, in all likelihood, liberals are wrong to fear and conservatives wrong to hope for a shift to the right in policy. As the Prime Minister's spokesman said yesterday, "This is a reshuffle, it doesn't mean a change in government policy. It means different people in different jobs, but the policy remains the same." The government remains bound by the terms of the Coalition Agreement, so the fact, for instance, that the new Justice Secretay Chris Grayling once resolved to "tear up" the Human Rights Act is of little significance. The presence of the Liberal Democrats means he won't be able to. It will be as if Ken Clarke never left. Similarly, any new push for radical supply side reform, along the lines of that proposed by the Beecroft Report, will be vetoed by Cable et al. As the Lib Dems are briefing this morning, they won't allow "a phalanx of new right-wing policies".

Too many Tory MPs and commentators pretend to forget that this is a coalition government. As one Conservative cabinet minister recently told ConservativeHome: "The Lib Dems may only have one-sixth of the MPs, but without them we have no majority... They own 100% of the majority." For that reason, this is not now and never will be the full-blooded Conservative government that the right wishes to see. In order to change that, they need to win a majority first, a goal that Cameron, in his refusal to remove George Osborne and reverse direction on the economy (the biggest drag on the Tories' poll ratings), did little to advance yesterday.

Ken Clarke asleep (again) at the cricket yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.