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Politics

Johnson’s reshuffle throws up jokers

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IT WAS all about ‘The Saj’.
The shock departure of the former Chancellor from the government only a few weeks before his first Budget surprised media commentators and MPs alike.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s ‘did-he-fall/was-he-pushed’ resignation aside, the reshuffle was a return to the traditional way of Cabinet reshuffling Cabinet members. Out with the competent and argumentative and in with a collection of flunkies and stooges who owe everything to their loyalty to Brexit and Boris Johnson.
Julian Smith became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in July last year. In his brief tenure in that role, he managed to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly and a cross-party power-sharing executive after three years of constitutional limbo during its suspension. That is the sort of signal achievement which usually leads to promotion. However, Mr Smith was an advocate of a ‘softer’ Brexit than proposed by Number Ten. He had gone so far to comment, in October last year, a no-deal Brexit would be “a very, very bad idea for Northern Ireland”.
Competent and with a record of achievement in his brief Cabinet tenure, he had to go.
His replacement is former Conservative Party Chair, Brandon Lewis. Ironically, one of the Conservative MPs who broke pairing arrangements at Mr Smith’s direction when the latter was Chief Whip.
The reaction to Julian Smith’s departure was a series of aghast tributes by all sides in Northern Ireland and Mr Lewis’ appointment greeted by the sort of ‘dangerous indifference’, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested was behind his predecessor’s sacking.
Mr Lewis is as loyal as a loyal thing. You tell him what to be loyal to and he’ll be loyal to it. Rather like a cushion, he bears the impression of the last backside to sit on him. He will lead the nodding dog tendency in Cabinet meetings.
The only tension in the Cabinet with him in it will be whether he or Health Secretary Matt Hancock gets the first Boris Bonio after meetings.
There weren’t only high profile departures, though. Liz Truss remains in place as Secretary of State for International Trade. No. Don’t laugh. Ms Truss’ presence at the Cabinet table is a sign of hope and a beacon to others. Her continued tenure in government is evidence that no matter how dimwitted, mediocre or out-of-their-depth a person is, this is a government of opportunity for all. Her presence shows senior backbenchers with talent, intelligence, and ability that their gifts are no substitute for those qualities’ total absence. To new Conservative MPs with room temperature IQs, her example shows that they, too, can aspire to Cabinet status.
The same might be said for Matt Hancock. The Health Secretary, who’s behaviour in the election campaign marked him out as a man to watch – preferably while he sat in a padded cell rocking to himself and murmuring the words ‘forty new hospitals’ over and over – is the only person in the country to take what the Prime Minister says at face value. The incredibly credulous Hancock has chained himself to the wheel of misfortune and will spin every disaster into a triumph with puppy-like devotion. Like a whipped dog will try to make friends with its tormentor, Matt’s loyalty is endless.
The departure of Andrea Leadsom demonstrates that even Boris Johnson thinks a joke can be taken too far. Floundering in every position she ever occupied, it is difficult to conceive that she could have been the leader of her party, and subsequently PM, barely three years ago, Ms Leadsom’s legendarily argumentative nature ushered her to the Cabinet door.
Her replacement at the Department of Business, Energy, Investment and Skills (BEIS) is Ashok Sharma. Mr Sharma’s appointment is interesting. He might be dangerously half as clever as Boris Johnson thinks he is, which means he could run rings round the PM. His ability was rewarded in a particularly cunning way. Accepting a role turned down by a former PM and a former Foreign Secretary, Mr Sharma will coordinate and chair the government’s preparations for the next round of climate change talks, due to take place in Glasgow later this year.
If the conference achieves anything, highly unlikely as the US, China and India will stall any possible progress, the praise will be the government’s and therefore Boris Johnson’s. Like the Sun King, Boris is not only a state but the state. If it all goes the well-known shape of a pear, Mr Sharma gets to take the fall. Rewarding ability with a poisoned chalice: that’s the way of government these days.
Theresa Villiers’ departure from DEFRA and her replacement with George Eustice received a cautious but warm welcome from farming unions and rural organisations. Ms Villiers’ naked enthusiasm for the benefits of free trade and blindness to the consequences of it for UK agriculture did little to instil farmer with any confidence in her to do what was best for the industry. From a farming background himself, Mr Eustice is far better placed to sell any betrayal to those farmers who, free of the EU as they wished, find their businesses going down the pan if/when imports of lower quality and lower price undercut them after December 31 this year.
The Department of Culture Media and Sport (Don’t Care Much, Seriously) has a new Secretary of State in Oliver Dowden. Mr Dowden replaces Nicky Morgan, a minister you couldn’t possibly describe as two-faced as she wouldn’t wear the one she does if she was.
Mr Dowden’s main ministerial achievement in a brief parliamentary career was his replacement by Jonny (‘Did I mention I was in the Army?’) Mercer as a junior flunky in the Cabinet Office. His task is to put into place the Government’s policy of neutering the BBC and trashing public service broadcasting. A PR man before entering parliament and – as a special advisor to David Cameron – a PR man for a PR man, Mr Dowden will have to sell the Government’s plans to dismember the BBC to the public and MPs.
The appointment that caused most comment and concern was Suella Braverman’s promotion to replace Geoffrey Cox QC as Attorney General. Brexiteers hailed Mr Cox’s independence of mind and judgement when he declined to rubber-stamp Theresa May’s proposals for an Irish Backstop as part of her doomed attempts to force a Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. He also loudly – he doesn’t do quietly – laid into the High Court’s decision that Mr Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. However, Mr Cox is also a person with a deep and abiding respect for the rule of law and the need for courts to act as a check and balance on poorly-made and ill-considered legislation. The growth of Judicial Reviews of governments’ laws can be partly laid at the door of those who prepare legislative measures in haste and then repent at leisure as the Court’s painstakingly explain why they are unenforceable or unlawful. Whatever his flaws as a Government minister, Geoffrey Cox is a proper lawyer with a keen understanding that bad laws and incompetently-prepared legislation are properly subjected to scrutiny by the Courts.
Suella Braverman has no such scruples. An advocate of increasing political vetting of judicial appointments, she also has no evident skills as either an advocate for sound law and sound law-making.
The role of the Attorney General is to advise the government, as impartially as possible in the circumstances, on a range of legal issues arising from its planned legislative programme. Ms Braverman’s appointment is a sign that what Boris Johnson wants most from his law officers is a nodding-dog approach, a readiness to sign-off on any crackpot plan, and knifing the Courts for doing their job properly in a plural democracy in which an overmighty executive needs curbing.
The most rabid of Brexiteers and an appalling media performer whose backside she often confuses with her humerus, Suella Braveman cannot be relied upon to do what’s right but can be relied upon to do what Boris Johnson tells her is right. Otherwise, her main qualification for her new role seems to be the gift of forgetting that she studied at the Sorbonne under the Erasmus programme and had her post-graduate studies in Paris funded by the French embassy. In other words, precisely the sort of exposure to continental education and cultural enrichment this Government is dedicated to ending.
And finally, we come to the new Chancellor. Rishi Sunak’s rise to power is proof that enormous personal wealth, a background as a merchant banker and having a job working for his indescribably wealthy father-in-law. All that might be unfair to Mr Sunak; however, replacing state-educated Sajid Javid with a privileged alumnus of Winchester could be easily interpreted as an attempt to broaden the government’s appeal to distressed billionaires.
Mr Javid’s loaded remarks around the circumstances of his dismissal, ‘no self-respecting minister would continue to serve’ (if ordered to sack his entire team of ministerial advisors) suggests Mr Sunak’s self-respect is in inverse proportion to his self-regard. It is also a sign that Mr Johnson has restored the long-forgotten tradition of the Exchequer as a money chest at the beck-and-call of a prime-ministerial whim. Mr Sunak’s one advantage is that he can scarcely be sacked after the manner of his predecessor’s leaving. At least for as long as he does what he’s told.
The cringe-worthy sight of Mr Johnson’s new Cabinet at its first meeting playing call and response with the class bully suggests that Boris Johnson now has a team he wants. More-or-less malleable office-holders who will do as they are told. Taking back control, it turns out, means an uncontrollable PM.

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Politics

Pembrokeshire County Council appoints interim Chief Executive

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PEMBROKESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL’S Head of Environmental Services and Public Protection, Richard Brown, is the Authority’s Interim Chief Executive.

He was appointed earlier today (Friday, November 20) at an Extraordinary meeting of the full Council.

Mr Brown was on a shortlist for the final interview by Elected Members along with the Council’s Director of Social Services and Housing, Jonathan Griffiths.

Mr Brown will be in post while the Council continues with the process of recruiting a permanent Chief Executive.

The current Chief Executive, Mr Ian Westley, leaves at the end of this month.

Mr Brown has a career in Public Protection and more recently been leading the County Council’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Born near Stirling in Scotland, he was brought up in North Yorkshire, and, after studying in Newcastle, spent four years with the National Rivers Authority in Northumberland.

In 1992 he joined the Environmental Health department of the former South Pembrokeshire District Council and in 1996 took up a post as Pollution Control Officer with the then newly formed Pembrokeshire County Council.

In 2005 he headed the Authority’s emergency planning team and holds an MSc. in Environmental Risk Management

A keen athlete, Mr Brown is married to Welsh-born Val.

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Politics

PM’s Green Industrial Revolution welcomed by Crabb

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PRESELI MP Stephen Crabb has welcomed the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, which could see 250,000 new jobs across the UK.

Covering clean energy, transport, nature and innovative technologies, Boris Johnson’s blueprint will allow the UK to forge ahead with eradicating its contribution to climate change by 2050, particularly crucial in the run up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow next year.

The plan – which is part of the PM’s mission to level up across the country – will mobilise £12 billion of government investment to create and support up to 250,000 highly-skilled green jobs in the UK, and spur over three times as much private sector investment by 2030.

Featuring in the plan is a focus on increasing offshore wind, accelerating the transition to electric vehicles and investing in zero-emission public transport.

The PM’s plan also aims to support difficult-to-decarbonise industries to become greener through research projects for zero-emission planes and ships and becoming a world-leader in technology to capture and store harmful emissions away from the atmosphere.

Preseli MP Stephen Crabb, who has long championed the positive role Pembrokeshire can play in developing green energy, said: “This is a big commitment from the UK Government on creating a new generation of ‘green jobs’ as part of our economic recovery and underlining the UK’s leadership on climate change.

“Pembrokeshire, with our natural resources and skilled workforce, is well-placed to benefit from a Green Industrial Revolution especially when it comes to offshore wind power and other marine renewable’s.

“However, bringing forward the ban on new petrol and diesel cars will be a challenge for the UK’s oil refining industry. So the UK Government must step up its support for new technologies and ensure that new high quality jobs and training opportunities are created.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Although this year has taken a very different path to the one we expected, I haven’t lost sight of our ambitious plans to level up across the country. My Ten Point Plan will create, support and protect hundreds of thousands of green jobs, whilst making strides towards net zero by 2050. 

“Our green industrial revolution will be powered by the wind turbines of Scotland and the North East, propelled by the electric vehicles made in the Midlands and advanced by the latest technologies developed in Wales, so we can look ahead to a more prosperous, greener future.”

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Politics

WG settles ‘scandalous’ land sale case

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THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has settled a claim against its former advisors about land sales which took place under a purported regeneration scheme.

The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) had issued proceedings against Amber Fund Management and Lambert Smith Hampton concerning the portfolio sale of 15 properties in 2012.

The settlement has been reached on a commercial basis and without any admission of liability by any party.

The detailed terms have been incorporated into a confidential settlement agreement between the parties.

The Welsh Government Minister for Local Government, Julie James, said the £40.7 million tied up in the Fund can now be made available to support future investments across Wales.

RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to allow the Welsh Government to raise money which could then be used to fund regeneration and investments in Welsh businesses.

It was a complete shambles.

One of the advisors appointed had previous connections with one of the parties which bought some of the land at an undervalue.

Vital information was not relayed to the RIFW’s board by the Welsh Government and Board members were kept in the dark about transactions carried out in their name.

Under the oversight of their appointed agents and Welsh Government civil servants, RIFW sold publicly owned assets by private treaty and without prior valuation at a price that reflected the assets’ existing use, under sale terms that provided only limited protection to the public interest in their significant future development values, and via a negotiation process that left RIFW lumbered with undesirable assets.

The Chair of the Senedd Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay MS, said: “The out of court settlement between the Welsh Government and the former advisors of RIFW effectively brings a curtain down on a very sorry and lamentable episode.

“The hasty sell-off of publicly-owned land at bargain-basement prices effectively deprived Welsh taxpayers of tens of millions of pounds which could’ve been used for essential services.

“We look forward to examining matters further with the Permanent Secretary and Head of the Welsh Government Civil Service, Shan Morgan, at our next meeting on Monday, November 23.

“We will be asking what robust steps have been taken to avoid history repeating.”

RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to sell off land around Wales including in north Wales, Monmouthshire and Cardiff, and use the money, in conjunction with European funding, to reinvest in areas in need of regeneration.

But the Public Accounts Committee found that the body was poorly managed, poorly overseen by the government, and that, because of a change in the direction of RIFW, from one of regeneration to property asset disposals, some of the Board members felt they lacked the necessary knowledge and expertise to fulfil their roles.

It also learned that the Board was not presented with key information regarding the value of the land in its portfolio, or of expressions of interest from potential buyers.

Fifteen plots of land, originally supposed to be sold separately, were instead sold as a single portfolio at a price which did not take into account potential use of the land in the future. This decision resulted in Welsh taxpayers missing out on tens of millions of pounds of funding.

The Committee learned that one of the organisations charged with offering expert advice to the Board, Lambert Smith Hampton Ltd, had previously acted on behalf of a director of the buyer of the land, South Wales Land Developments Ltd (SWLD), and signed an agreement to do so again one day after the sales went through.

The Committee concluded that the RIFW Board had been poorly served by its own expert advisors.

Angela Burns MS – Shadow Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency – said: “The Fund was established to sell valuable packages of Welsh Government land, with the money used to support regeneration schemes. However, evidence has since emerged that shows that the sale of RIFW’s assets was undertaken at a loss of tens of millions of pounds. A loss which was borne ultimately by the Welsh Taxpayer and yet another example of the complete inability of this Labour Government to be fiscally prudent.

“Millions of pounds have been squandered, millions that could have been invested in our education and health systems or spent building Wales’ economy or supporting some of our more vulnerable citizens. It’s an absolute scandal and the real scandal is the Welsh Government can slide out of their responsibility for this debacle”

Included in the scandal are:

  • Fifteen sites sold for £21 million; with the taxpayer missing out on staggering sums of money
  • A site in Rhoose purchased from RIFW for less than £3m – sold on for almost £10.5m South Wales Land Developments Ltd. Taxpayers losing out
  • An Abergele site purchased from RIFW for £100,000, without overage, and sold for £1.9million. Taxpayers losing out
  • Land in Lisvane sold for £1.8million – worth £39million.

 

Welsh Conservatives also claim the Welsh Government has squandered £1 billion on other projects, including:

  • £221m on uncompetitive Enterprise Zones
  • £9.3m on flawed initial funding of the Circuit of Wales
  • £97.9m on delays and overspend on the A465 Heads of the Valleys Road
  • £157m on the M4 relief road inquiry
  • Over £100m propping up Cardiff Airport
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