The supposedly “iconic” blue British passport is returning. But it won’t be made in Britain. To the outrage of Tory Brexiteers, the £490m contract has been awarded to the Franco-Dutch firm Gemalto (the British-based De La Rue was outbid). Ministers were forbidden from knowing who submitted the individual bids and, under EU competition rules, large public contracts must be offered to companies across the Union.
Former cabinet minister Priti Patel has described it as a “disgraceful” and “perverse” decision. “To be putting the job in the hands of the French is simply astonishing,” she said. “It is a national humiliation. I would urge Amber Rudd and the government to look again at the powers they have to see what they can do.”
Yet such protectionist complaints merely demonstrate the hypocrisy of the Tory Brexiteers. Pro-market Conservatives such as Patel are content for European state firms to own UK rail franchises (while denying the same right to the British state) and provide the country’s energy.
The Greater Anglia, West Midlands and ScotRail franchises, for instance, are majority-owned by the Dutch state company Abellio, whose lamentable performance has been widely criticised by passenger groups. Chiltern Railways and Northern are owned by Germany’s Deutsche Bahn. Though concerned by the loss of political sovereignty to EU institutions, the Tories are typically unconcerned by the loss of economic sovereignty to global and European corporations.
As Manuel Cortes, the general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, recently told me: “You have Chris Grayling [the Transport Secretary], a renowned Brexiteer, who spent months telling the people of this country that we need Brexit to ‘take back control’. In his day job, when he’s running our railways, he’s giving away that control to the Dutch state, the French state and the German state. This is not about taking control for ordinary people, this is about allowing his chums with money to make even more money at our expense.”
There are two coherent and consistent positions. One is to argue that, in accordance with market rule, the contract should go to the cheapest bidder. The other is to maintain that essential national infrastructure should be the preserve of the state.
But the Leave position, alternately libertarian and protectionist, shows the ideological confusion that Brexit has wrought on the Conservative Party.