This article is more than 7 years old

Taking back control not just banging on about Europe

Martin McQuillan reviews the last crazy week which has reshaped politics and thrown up all sorts of new challenges and opportunities - not least for her new cast of players now bestriding Whitehall.
This article is more than 7 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

‘And now the circle is complete’ as Darth Vader says to Obi Wan Kenobi in the original 1977 Star Wars, just as he blocks his escape route from the Death Star and strikes him down. The same words could be used to describe the reappointment late on Friday night of Jo Johnson as Minister for Universities and Science with a joint brief across the Department for Education and the new Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. It is not so much the Empire striking back as Fatey McFate Face.

Since the morning of June 24th, we have witnessed dramatic convulsions on the political stage of the United Kingdom, with each twist and turn causing even the most experienced commentators to abandon their laptops and just gawp in amazement. However, normal service is about to be resumed. The outcome of it all will certainly be a challenge for universities.

When it became clear that the selection for the vacant leadership of the Conservative Party would be between the long-serving Home Secretary and the ludicrously under prepared Andrea Leadsom, the contest was brought to a swift conclusion. The Tories already had their Ian Duncan Smith moment and were not going to take the risk of going through all that again at a time when sterling was tanking, and J P Morgan were drawing up plans for their new staff car park in Paris.

For a connoisseur of political stitch-ups, it was a thing to admire. It was like Carlos Alberto’s 4th goal for Brazil against Italy in the 1970 World Cup final, such fluidity from front to back with an unstoppable finish. We barely had time to catch our breaths as we moved with speed from Leadsom’s withdrawal speech to the Chair of the backbench 1922 Committee nodding in front of TV cameras, to David Cameron sending out for quotes from removal firms, to Theresa May standing in front of Downing Street channeling Margaret Thatcher’s St Francis of Assisi tribute.

As this soft Remainer and Tory grandee gave a final wave to the press and closed the door of her new abode, it was clear that after weeks of self-created tumult, the Conservative Party were finally taking back control of the country. This is not to say that the political wreckage of the previous 20 days has left the new Prime Minister without a number of problems in her in-tray. Elizabeth Taylor enjoyed longer honeymoons than Theresa May is likely to.

There is the obvious problem of the result of the European referendum that precipitated all this upheaval. I am a Brexit sceptic. It is one thing to say ‘Brexit means Brexit’ to tie up a leadership election, it is quite another to explain what Brexit means. Soon after the referendum result, I wrote about why I think it will be years before a UK government will, if ever, trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. Recent days have shown Brexit to be an impractical, if not impossible, idea and the resigning Brexiteers have demonstrated themselves to be irresponsible opportunists. Taking back control means kicking Brexit into grass so long you would need binoculars to see it while getting on with the real business of ensuring an extended run of Conservative government.

We have had the first inclinations of how Mrs May intends to achieve this outcome. Firstly, like Roy Hodgson, she has set up an inexperienced front three for inevitable failure in Europe. As every vice chancellor knows you demonstrate how committed you are to a project by choosing the right person to lead on it; choose a clown and you are sending a clear signal that you are expecting this to run into the sand. Step forward Boris Johnson (it would have been more diplomatic to make Jeremy Clarkson Foreign Secretary), Liam Fox (the formerly disgraced, ‘disgraced former minister’) and David Davis (who is currently suing Mrs May’s Home Office in the European Court).

David Davis is the new minister for Brexit and told the Telegraph that he thinks Article 50 could be triggered before Christmas and have everything sorted in two years. He is seemingly unaware that the two years of the Article 50 process are only about negotiations for exit, discussing new terms only happens after you have left, and individual EU countries cannot make trade deals with the UK because, well, they are members of the EU, which is super competent in all matters. It will take him at least until Christmas to set up his new Department.

As the three Brexiteers began their years of chasing shadows across Europe, Mrs May went to visit Nicola Queen of Scots. This is where Brexit met its Culloden. After her ‘very productive’ meeting with the First Minister, Theresa May said ‘I won’t be triggering Article 50 until I think that we have a UK approach and objectives for negotiations – I think it is important that we establish that before we trigger Article 50’. Mrs May’s intentions could not be clearer if she called upon Gavin Hastings to kick Brexit over the posts at Murrayfield and into Roseburn Public Park. Sorry England, Brexit is off, and it’s Scotland’s fault.

When declaring herself leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party on the steps of Downing Street two days before, she was telling us about her priorities. Unlike her predecessor, she will not risk losing Scotland. There are some things that run even deeper in the DNA of the Tories than dislike of the European Union, and when asked to choose, as she inevitably must, the Prime Minsiter’s choice will be accompanied by the whooshing sound of the sleeper train of inevitability.

Soon we will hear of her commitment to Northern Ireland, then to the welfare of our financial services, then to our security interests and so on. We might even find the needs of our universities added to this list of Brexit obstacles at some point.

With Leavers on planes and Remainers in charge, it is then back to running the country. While the rest of the legislative docket was cleared to avoid bad publicity before the referendum, the Higher Education and Research Bill was specifically chosen as the one thing that a post-plebiscite Tory party could unite around. The last few days before parliament’s summer recess see a vote on the renewal of Trident (a bucket load of salt for Labour’s self-inflicted wounds) and a second reading of HERB. Re-enter Jo Johnson as minister for universities and the circle is complete.

During her speech to the Conservative Party conference last September, Mrs May said that she did not care what the university lobbyists had to say about international students. Less than a year later, she has abolished the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills that had been her irritant as Home Secretary. Now, the resources and energy of the university lobbyists will be divided between two departments. Admittedly they are only separated by 50 yards in Westminster, but they are oceans apart in terms of culture and remit. Jo Johnson might think about having a tunnel dug under Abbey Orchard Street.

The Office of Students will run the TEF on behalf of the Department for Education, and UKRI will run the REF on behalf of the new BEIS. Plus ça change, as they like to say in Brussels. However, universities are going to have to regroup and think about how they approach this new departmental landscape because, in a beauty contest between primary schools and higher education, Key Stage 1 wins every time. The Russell Group found it easy enough to take candy from babies at BIS; they will find it a lot more difficult when competing with infant schools.

One suspects with Greg Clark reappearing and with a cabinet in front of him blocked by uncomfortable Brexiteer appointments, Jo Johnson might be another long-serving minister for universities in the style of David Willetts. Given the options that were on the table last week, many in the university sector will welcome this as the least bad option.

However, difficulties persist for Mrs May. She will have to guide the economy through the fog of Brexit twaddle mongering, and as we all know whoever is minister for universities, the Treasury always runs the show. The biggest risk to universities in the coming years is not the TEF or challenger institutions or even access to European frameworks; it is the fate of the real economy. Another period of fiscal contraction and recession would be detrimental to higher education. On top of the vagueness and uncertainty concerning Europe, it could be highly damaging. The wheel of fortune might be about to turn for a sector that emerged from Osborne economics in relatively good shape.

And will Mrs May call an early election to capitalise on Labour’s tribulations and to give herself her own parliamentary mandate? I doubt it. The Fixed Term Parliament Act makes it difficult enough. Plus, the Prime Minister will not want an even clearer Brexit mandate that she would then have to act upon.

The May government derives its legitimacy from the unprecedented instability of the past weeks. It is in her interests to maintain that sense of uncertainty that teeters on the brink of chaos. Her mandate is the value of sterling and the FTSE 100, the country’s credit rating and the headline rate of inflation. She has one job: to do nothing to put that at risk, and so she will not call an election until we are well out of the post-referendum woods. In case there is anyone out there who still thinks that the referendum result had anything to do with an uprising of the dispossessed, rather than a change in the leadership of the Conservative Party, then they should note that this is what it really means to take back control.

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