Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
There are a few things that become immediately clear when meeting Alec Shelbrooke. His passion for the Conservative Party and how it can deliver real impact for his constituency of Elmet and Rothwell is obvious. As is his love of West Ham United. But at the Conservative Party conference last week, we sat down to talk about his role as the Party’s Vice Chair for International and how Conservatives can engage far beyond Westminster.
What is the Vice Chair for International?
Appointed in July 2017 by the Prime Minister, Shelbrooke’s role centres around building relationships with the Conservative’s sister parties on the centre-right around the world. “A lot of that is based on working with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the International Democratic Union”, with a view to enhancing and strengthening democratic institutions and party structures in new democracies globally. It is effectively the Conservative Party’s own arm of soft power at a time when a triumvirate of Government departments – the FCO, DExEU and DIT – are being tasked with turning ‘Global Britain’ from a slogan into a reality.
The top three priorities
A wide-ranging brief with responsibility at a political level for all the Conservative Party’s international relationships, the challenge is to ensure the Party is engaging effectively in global forums. His top priority is clear – “the Western Balkans, especially Bosnia Herzegovina” where he describes “corruption festering away under the surface”. As the very real risk of political disenfranchisement breeding nationalistic tensions grows, the Conservative Party, through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, helps to strengthen democratic institutions and carry out a democratic domestic agenda. “It is a part of the world that is looking increasingly westwards owing to the Russian threat from the east”. That means the work of the Party, as well as the Foundation, is at a critical juncture.
His next priority is in Southern Africa, where a host of young democracies effectively have what Shelbrooke describes as a “clean sheet of paper” that they can move forward with, assisted by the experience of a mature political party in a developed democracy like the Tories in the United Kingdom.
Latin America completes the shortlist of regional priorities, where the “mutual benefit” of these relationships is best highlighted. In Argentina, there is a “very real exchange of information that goes both ways”. After the Conservatives were outperformed Labour on social and digital media in the 2017 snap election, there is now an ongoing dialogue to see how CCHQ can learn from Republican Proposal’s (PRO’s) campaign that was seen to lead the way in digital campaigning in Argentinian elections.
And in the nearer term, Brexit dominates. At conference, Shelbrooke tells me much of time was dominated by “conversations about opportunities after Brexit”. In the long run, that is the responsibility of the three departments listed previously, but in the meantime the challenge is delivering on those conversations by “getting local business groups and international chambers of commerce talking to each other”. Brexit presents new opportunities with new countries around the world, he reinforces, and the tone of conversations he had with international visitors at conference suggests proof of that.
Playing the Trump card
It is impossible to have a conversation about international relations in the current climate without discussing President Trump. Discussing the November midterm elections, neither of us predicted the Republicans will hold on to their majority in the House of Representatives but both doubted talk of a so-called “blue wave” extending to the Senate.
Citing Lord Ashcroft’s September polling on political attitudes in the United States, Shebrooke’s view is that “turnout will be the most likely decisive factor in the midterms”. The Democratic base appears energised in their blanket opposition to everything President Trump does and stands for, though it remains without a natural successor to Hillary Clinton. The GOP base had expected to be deflated by a bruising campaign to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, but instead his victory has invigorated grassroots Republicans who will head into the midterms with another win in their pocket and a spring in their step.
A new poll found the Democrats’ overall lead in the generic ballot has fallen from 10 points in July to just 2 points in October, within the margin of error – proof of the ‘Brett boost’. While the gap in enthusiasm narrows, the challenge for the Democrats is two-fold in Shelbrooke’s view: “Reluctant Trump supporters think he’s doing a good job, by and large. And can Democrats turn out those who stayed at home and didn’t come out for Hillary?”
Who will lead the Democrats next? “Ask yourself who the Bill Clinton candidate is”, he said. We discussed the shortlist of Democrats positioning themselves for a likely run in 2020 – Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, Elizabeth Warren – but the name that prompted most interest was that of Mike Bloomberg.
More broadly, the question of the next Republican president poses an interesting question. Now that the GOP has been re-cast as the party of Trump, will his Republican successor continue to pursue an ‘America First’ policy abroad, playing favourites with both friends and foes? Or will we see a reset in Republican strategy, and a return to more classic international policy at global forums like the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation?
Soft power in the age of populism and political upheaval
The position of Vice Chair for International might not be one that is universally recognised. But in the current era of political populism, when established parties are fighting a wave of insurgent parties and personalities, soft power matters. It is important to have channels between centre-right parties around the world, so that they can learn from one another and further the relationships that create a framework for cooperation. In Alec Shelbrooke, the Conservative Party has a Vice Chair who recognises that importance and takes the role deeply seriously.