Liz Truss wants to merge three smaller departments into a bigger one in the wake of the spending review. Business, Culture and Transport would be folded into a new Ministry of Infrastructure. B.I.S.C.U.I.T.S lives!
More prosaically, there is a danger, in weighing up the idea – the Chief Secretary believes bold measures are needed to raise productivity – of confusing three different though linked aims.
The first is saving taxpayers’ money through more efficient administration. Amalgamating departments can help to achieve this end. But it is always possible to find savings within the present set-up. For example, Jeremy Hunt cut staff costs in one of those departments, Culture, by the best part of half, during his term as Secretary of State under the Coalition.
The second is restructuring departments to deliver political priorities. Again, this shouldn’t be Mission Impossible. However, it can go wrong. The classic example is Harold Wilson’s Department of Economic Affairs, a “department of long-term go” created to balance the Treasury, the “department of short-term stop”. Led by George Brown, it fought the Treasury. The Treasury fought back, under Jim Callaghan. Short-term stop is still with us and long-term go left very quickly.
The third is signalling priorities through ministerial appointments. Consider the department at the head of the Chief Secretary’s list, Business. Gordon Brown galvanised it by sending in a big hitter, Peter Mandelson. David Cameron responded by appointing another as his shadow – Ken Clarke.
In that particular case, structural changes were made. (Mandelson’s new department gained responsibility for universities.) But these aren’t always desirable or even necessary. By way of illustration, we offer a post-March 29 example.
If Theresa May’s deal eventually passes the Commons, Great Britain and Northern Ireland will have different regulatory regimes, assuming the backstop eventually kicks on. Some argue that the two parts of the UK will potentially have different customs arrangements too. This aspect of the deal has knock-on implications for Scotland, and therefore the Union, as a whole.
In the event of No Deal, it is possible that support for Irish unity and/or Scottish independence will grow faster than would otherwise be the case. There is no way of knowing. But Unionists should be alive to the possibility. Relations with Ireland would certainly be tested in these circumstances, with an obvious read-across for Northern Ireland. Whatever happens, we have paid for neglecting them.
In short, the latter will need a senior Tory player as Secretary of State when the next Cabinet reshuffle comes. That person will need to know the Irish political scene, be on civil terms with the DUP and have a feel for how the island ticks.
Our suggestion is David Lidington. He won’t be top of the DUP’s Christmas card list, but the party knows him well from his time as David Cameron’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, and vice-versa. As a former Europe Minister he is familiar with the Irish side of the political equation: indeed, he has already been operating, in effect, as Theresa May’s emissary to Dublin.
Meanwhile, it follows that his replacement in the Cabinet Office would be tasked, as Lidington now is, with establishing how the whole UK can best work post-March 29. In the event of No Deal, the challenge will be obvious – testing the UK Governance Group, presently charged with constitutional matters, to its limits. In the event of No Brexit, it will be more subtle, but still present.
Our reflex is to send for Michael Gove when new thinking and action are required. Perhaps we yield to it too readily. And in any event, he can’t be everywhere. Who else fits the bill? Required: energy, brains, eloquence, seriousness and a passionate attachment to the Union. These qualities are not in long supply.
The bold solution would be to send for a rising politician who has all five.
Rory Stewart is a Scot representing an English borders seat who is across the independence issue, having campaigned against it fervently in 2015. He would not, repeat not, be Scottish or Welsh Secretary – any more than Lidington is now. But a feel for what happens north of the border in particular would come in very useful.
These changes could be made without any structural change at all. Or else DexEU could be folded into a new Department of Constitutional Affairs, with Stewart in charge, Chloe Smith staying on as the junior Minister, and perhaps a Scottish MP coming in too.
In which case, Steve Barclay could run the Cabinet Office. Or Oliver Letwin return to do so. Or Dominic Raab, if you prefer. What’s that, you ask? B.I.S.C.U.I.T.S? Well, it’s a long story. Our theme today is shorter: mind “our precious Union”, post-March 29.