The Tories are victims of themselves

It is futile to complain about the consequences of laws they have established or upheld

Artillery Row

The Conservative Party in office is a prisoner of its own actions. Ministers and MPs rage against the consequences of these actions, with increasing frequency. This week saw two examples on the same day. 

The first, Cabinet Office minister Esther McVey’s speech about cracking down on wokery in the civil service. The second, the Government’s decision to appeal the High Court of Northern Ireland’s ruling on the legality of the Rwanda policy. Both are the predictable consequences of laws which the Conservative Party has either presided over without reforming, or introduced itself. The two laws in question have both become totemic examples of the failure of the party to articulate or deliver its vision for the nation in office. 

These laws have made it almost impossible for the Conservative Party to govern how it says it wants to

These are the Equality Act and the Windsor Framework. The first is a law that has plagued the Conservatives’ attempts to restore some sense and meritocracy to the dysfunctional public sector; the second, a law of self-imposed annexation, which has split the United Kingdom into different realms — one adjacent to the European Union, one semi-absorbed — in the interests of easing the trade of sausages and seeds between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 

These laws have made it almost impossible for the Conservative Party to govern how it says it wants to, but despite its majority in the House of Commons, it has done nothing to change the Equality Act, and, in the case of the Windsor Framework (which followed the slightly less bad Northern Ireland Protocol), has chosen to tie its own arms behind its back. 

At a speech at the start of the week, Esther McVey, the Prime Minister’s “minister for common sense” said that the Government was mounting a “common sense fightback” against the progressive left-wing culture, pervasive in the civil service, characterised by rainbow-coloured lanyards, staff networks devoted to minority interests, and a near-religious  commitment to process instead of outcomes.

At first glance, the minister’s criticisms of pride-themed lanyards may seem trivial but they reflect the broader dominance of progressive Left politics inside a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy which is meant to remain politically neutral. It is reasonable to reverse this, but Conservatives often pledge that they are going to do so, then never explain how. 

Last year the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, commended the activist group Conservative Way Forward for identifying billions of pounds being spent on progressive Left causes by the taxpayer, such as the growth of diversity and inclusion managers. He pledged to “review” all such spending and stamp it out. But nothing has happened. Voters and taxpayers should not expect anything different this time around. 

Ministers have become more able to describe the symptoms of the problem, but they forget its causes. In this case it is bad laws, laws which they can change. It is like a doctor describing the problem with your foot even as he fails to pull his chair leg up from it.

While the public sector has had a left-wing bent for some time, much of the most egregious political capture has taken place since the Equality Act was passed in 2010. Part 11 of the Act, and the Public Sector Equality Duty, mandate public bodies to advance equality in their actions. This means there is a legal justification for every bit of woke madness that enrages Tory ministers. Even if certain civil servants can be justifiably accused of “gold-plating” a bad law, they still have a bad law to gold-plate in the first place, and that is ultimately ministers’ responsibility to fix. Indeed, it is their duty. 

The problems of the Equality Act, and especially the Public Sector Equality Duty, have been described at length in these pages. These laws have created an anti-meritocratic working culture within British government, encouraged the armed forces to implement hiring policies specifically designed to stop promoting white male fighter pilots, and have even been used as a justification for the Financial Conduct Authority to impose diversity hiring requirements on private businesses. Incredibly, there are now calls for the forthcoming football regulator to set diversity targets on professional football clubs, which cite the FCA’s proposals as a precedent. The ratchet effect is clear, and it is only going one way. 

A similar effect is taking root in the constitutional realm of Brexit and the status of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. By entrenching the supremacy of EU law over the province of Northern Ireland, the Windsor Framework is starting to prise the UK apart. Budget giveaways like the increase in the VAT threshold were limited to only £5,000 early this year, because to go any higher would not have been allowed in Northern Ireland while EU law remains supreme in Ulster. 

This week’s court judgement stating that the Rwanda deportation scheme is not legal in Northern Ireland because of the Windsor Framework is the greatest admission of the Framework’s failure to date. Just when the Republic of Ireland is grappling with an illegal immigration crisis of its own, and 19 EU member states are calling for Europe to operate its own version of Britain’s Rwanda scheme, the Windsor Framework has rendered border control in the United Kingdom impossible. The Government’s decision to appeal this ruling is a government appealing against its own actions.

It did not have to be this way. Before Rishi Sunak agreed the Windsor Framework, Boris Johnson’s government had prepared a Bill to override the Northern Ireland Protocol (the forerunner of the Framework), and a series of trade-related grace periods had been implemented by then-minister Lord Frost had kept supply chains between Great Britain and Northern Ireland open. In an attempt to buy “good will” with the EU, Sunak’s government agreed to the Framework which surrenders Northern Ireland to the supremacy of EU law, forever. We were told this was to preserve the Belfast Agreement and its demands that there must be no national border on the island of Ireland, but the Republic of Ireland is now imposing a hard border with Northern Ireland to stop illegal immigrants pouring south. 

A common thread in these two problems is bad law

Indeed, in the depths of the pandemic, the EU attempted to override the Northern Ireland Protocol to stop vaccines being transported from Ireland into the United Kingdom. It seems that only Britain is interested in preserving the alleged spirit of the Belfast agreement, regardless of whether it works in Britain’s interest. 

A common thread in these two problems is bad law. Ministers can change this. So why don’t they? The Public Sector Equality Duty can be disapplied from any public body with ease by Ministers, as I described in a recent Legatum Institute paper. It might not solve all the problems in one go, but it will stop some of the worst blob behaviours, and it will demonstrate to voters that Conservative ministers do know how to use the law to deliver conservative outcomes. The same goes for our relationship with the EU: the powers to diverge from poor EU regulations on everything from data protection to labour laws, and to how we build infrastructure — vital for economic growth — are all there waiting to be used, but they remain neglected. 

The Labour Party is ideologically committed to the Equality Act and is campaigning to go even further by introducing a Race Equality Act if it wins power. It is also campaigning for closer ties with the European Union, which will mean regulatory convergence, and the suffocation of Britain’s independent trade and foreign policy, two of the great successes of Brexit so far. So why is the Conservative Party doing Labour’s work for them? In the remaining months of this Parliament, the Government has ample opportunity to inject some jeopardy and actual choice into politics before the General Election. If it wants to change the things its ministers complain about, then it should change the law. Another speech will not cut it. 

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