Slightly later than planned, we have our opening main speaker, Lord Kerslake, Former Head of the Civil Service (and now chair of Sheffield Hallam University).
“We are probably in the most turbulent period in British politics that I can remember… I gave up my predictive powers when Boris Johnson withdrew from the Conservative leadership race. Prediction is pretty damn hard.”
The new government is profoundly different to the previous one. Cameron and Osborne claimed to be centrist, but were fundamentally free-market liberals. Theresa May is much more “traditionally conservative”, both in style and substance, and will be willing to intervene in the economy. She is also much more “controlling” of government policy and communications.
“How Brexit goes will determine whether May is a caretaker Prime Minister or a long-term Prime Minister”. How is it going so far? “To be frank, they are struggling”. Kerslake argues that we have to have a sense of the direction in which the government is going, but we don’t. There is a vacuum of information about what the plan is, and this is why the scribbled notes of an aide of a backbench MP have ended up all over the front pages this morning.
It appears that the government hasn’t yet worked through the fundamental problem: free-movement of trade vs free-movement of people. This is complicated by the new machinery of government and the minister involved: having the “three Brexiteers” all with a say will be very tricky, and it won’t have the desired goal of spreading the blame if things go wrong.
There is also a critical shortage of resources. The civil service is now the smallest its been since the Second World War, and the challenge the government is facing is the largest it has faced since that time. It won’t be possible to do both Brexit and a domestic policy agenda without more resources.
What does this mean for universities? Well, there’s very little upside. BUT, the sector cannot be Remoaners – the government has enough problems on its hand without universities adding a few more. The sector needs to offer constructive solutions.