One of the pleasures of the Conservative leadership campaign has been the incentive to learn more about the candidates. In particular, I may not agree with much of the political philosophy of Rory Stewart, erstwhile contender and walking Darwin Award, but his books on Afghanistan and Iraq are a delight to read. They are not just earthy and grotty, but plant your sandalled feet in the dust rather than leave you up in a Nimrod looking down into his compound (as I once found myself – I expect he didn’t see us waving).
In his book The Prince of the Marshes, Stewart recounts an anecdote told to him by an Iraqi Marxist who had been in Cuba. When Fidel Castro was organising his Cabinet, he asked who knew anything about education. “I was a teacher, comrade,” said one guerrilla. “You are the Minister of Education.” And that appointment was settled. “Who is an economist?” Che Guevara raised his hand. “You, Che, are the Governor of the Central Bank.” Later, his colleagues asked Che why he had claimed to be an economist. “Economist? I though he had asked ‘Who is a communist?’” He was Governor of the Central Bank for eighteen months.
The tale is amusing and, today, salutary. In a matter of weeks we will know who has been elected to head the Conservative Party, and with it (barring constitutional speed bumps) become Prime Minister. There then immediately follows another critical moment where ministers are appointed who will reshape their departments, some of which are beginning to drift like the inflatable lilos of civil servants’ threatened summer holidays.
The decision on who fills these posts, and in particular those charged with navigating the core Brexit issues, will mark a pivotal point that will either invigorate or doom the Brexit process – and with it, the Conservative Party itself.
The Cabinet system has over recent decades tended to operate via one of perhaps four models. There has been the ‘sofa junta’ approach of Blair-Brown and Cameron-Osborne; the ‘Chairman’ approach of the old-style Cabinet from Margaret Thatcher’s first term and earlier; the more ‘Murdochian’ approach of later Thatcher years or of Gordon ‘Catch My Nokia’ Brown; and latterly Theresa May’s ‘Wrestlemania’ period, a minor foretaste of what Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure would be like if he applied Stalinist comitology techniques to the workings of the Privy Council.
Notwithstanding the example set by the combined slow-motion car crash and vehicle crusher of John Major’s premiership, reverting to a more traditional collegiate approach would likely best suit a Boris Johnson premiership. This would allow Cabinet members to get a grip on their departments, while giving them clear direction to hit set targets. However, this only works if the right people are picked to do the right job.
Remain Apologists pretend that Brexit has yet to be delivered because the task is inherently impossible. This is flippant defeatism worthy of pre-Thatcher Britain. One should rather focus on the deliverymen. Within Theresa May’s Downing Street, very few card-carrying Eurosceptics were listened to, let alone brought on board. Brexiteers trying to contribute were frozen out with a “We’re not doing it that way”. Policy work suggesting an approach based on a Free Trade Agreement and intergovernmental principles, rather than deep institutional affiliation and significant regulatory alignment, was considered out of bounds from the outset. The mission was treated as one of managing and minimalising change, rather than picking a strategic objective. The end result was the Withdrawal Agreement, a deal so profoundly flawed that the churn in Cabinet Ministers obliged to sell it reached rates reminiscent of Italy in the Seventies.
The Deal is dead. It is beyond repair. There is no hope of slapping on some hubcaps, swapping the exhaust, and pimping it up. Nor is there now time to begin the negotiations again from first principles, owing to the botched policy of deliberately running down the clock and then repeatedly pressing the snooze button.
If Brexit means Brexit, then change as sanctioned by the referendum must, by definition, involve change. Ministers should now start accepting that they are in the business of transformation and support rather than replication. To deliver, that means guaranteeing that, at each of the key trigger points between now and 31st October, their respective authorities, agencies and budget holders see their contingency plans green-lighted at the point where each, in turn, needs in advance to be set in play.
The Cabinet’s gone stale with the Withdrawal Agreement. Delivering Brexit needs freshness. It needs empowered departmental leadership. It needs ministers who have not become entangled in the small print of the Dead Deal they have been advocating, or intellectually compromised by it.
It needs actual Brexiteers.
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