Britain is offering commitment and cooperation to Europe on security and intelligence. It should do the same in its Brexit strategy
Fri 16 Feb 2018 22.30 GMT
A year ago, the annual Munich security conference – the most important gathering of international defence chiefs and ministers in the calendar – met to debate the proposition: “Post-truth, post-West, post-Order?” A year on, this weekend’s Munich conference has a new theme: “To the Brink – and Back?” The sense of relief implicit in the difference between the 2017 and the 2018 themes is unmistakeable and, to an extent, justifiable. The Trump administration has not, after all, trashed everything in the policymakers’ world, as it threatened to do 12 months ago. Explosions in relations with Iran, North Korea and even China have been averted, for now. Washington has not so far rolled over in the face of Russian aggression in eastern Europe. The so-called Islamic State has been pushed back, for the moment. The insurgent political tide that swept the US and the UK in 2016 has mostly been kept at bay elsewhere.
Yet while the worst may have been avoided, genuine positives are thin on the ground. Global confrontations continue and in some cases – the Middle East, for example – to deteriorate dangerously. The alliances that exist to control and resist them are still in shock at the Trump effect. Theresa May is in every context except Brexit a traditional multilateralist. She will certainly give a less thoroughly provocative speech at the Munich conference on Saturday than the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, did at the same venue 12 months ago, when he ludicrously described Brexit as a national “liberation”. Yet, viewed from elsewhere in Europe, Mrs May still leads a country that, by voting for Brexit, has made a serious contribution to the problem of instability, not one that is playing a reliable role in solving it.
Mrs May’s rhetorical answer is the mantra that Britain is leaving the European Union but not leaving Europe. Her visit to Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday and her appearance at the Munich conference are designed to underpin that message and to make it a springboard for her Brexit strategy. Britain, Mrs May says, is fully committed to European cooperation, through Nato and in other ways, to deal with common threats to security. She will cite the fact that British troops are on the frontline against Russia in Estonia, that she has just pledged a new support role with France in the Sahel, that planned troop withdrawals from Germany are now being reexamined, and that the UK is a heavy-hitting and reliable partner in intelligence sharing and police coordination.
Security and intelligence have now been placed squarely in the vanguard of Mrs May’s political effort to persuade the rest of Europe that Britain remains a reliable and committed post-Brexit partner. The head of MI6, Alex Younger, appeared in Munich on Friday with his French and German counterparts to commit themselves to cross-border information sharing. His predecessor Sir John Sawers and the former GCHQ chief Robert Hannigan took to the media with a similar message. And the prime minister will cap this all off on Saturday in a speech that repeatedly urges closer cooperation with Europe and proposes a new UK-EU security treaty.
There are things to welcome here. After a grim two years of government negativity about the EU, it is a relief to hear the prime minister praising the union and being practical about it. Yet it is hard to see what EU partners are supposed to make of a prime minister who embraces the union at one moment then turns her back on it the rest of the time. The one thing that she could do to make her protestations more credible is to bolster it with a soft Brexit strategy. But this, disastrously, is the one thing she is terrified of doing.
• PM pledges tough rules to tackle pensions abuse • Whitehall weighs up plan to target executives
Irresponsible company bosses who “line their own pockets” while failing to protect workers’ pension schemes are to be hit with huge fines, under plans to be announced by Theresa May’s government within weeks.
A total of 28,000 members of Carillion’s 13 pension schemes are facing a cut to their retirement funds.
Other measures being considered for inclusion in a white paper in March would give regulators new powers to block or place conditions on takeovers that are deemed to put pension schemes at risk. The regulator will also be given the power to request information about how companies run schemes.
Resurrecting a commitment with which she launched her premiership – to govern “not for a privileged few, but for every one of us” – May says that while governments should not get involved in day-to-day management of businesses, the state should act now “in favour of ordinary working people”.
While the measures will be welcomed by millions of workers, May’s move to intervene directly in the financial affairs of companies is likely to antagonise Tory backers in the City.
Referring to company bosses who put their own financial interests, and those of shareholders, above their workers, May says “tough new rules” will be introduced to tackle the behaviour of “executives who try to line their own pockets by putting their workers’ pensions at risk – an unacceptable abuse that we will end”.
It is understood that the pensions regulator will be given specific powers to issue punitive fines on company directors in cases of clear wrongdoing. Criticising a business culture which too often prioritises immediate financial rewards over long-term stability, she adds: “Too often we’ve seen top executives reaping big bonuses for recklessly putting short-term profit ahead of long-term success. Our best businesses know that is not a responsible way to run a business and those who do so will be forced to explain themselves.”
Among radical potential measures that have been discussed in Whitehall are plans that would leave individual executives personally liable for hefty financial punishments if their companies’ pension schemes collapse. One proposal is for regulators to be empowered to claw back executives’ bonuses after a company and its pension system go to the wall.
The all-party work and pensions committee has recommended a system of “mega fines” on executives who crash their companies and their pension schemes. The committee chair, the Labour MP Frank Field, says such fines would act as a “nuclear deterrent” against abuse and negligent approaches to pensions.
Steve Webb, a former pensions minister and now director of policy at the pensions company Royal London, said: “The last Conservative manifesto floated ideas of tackling firms who put executive pay and dividends ahead of the pension fund, and the Carillion scandal has given that new urgency.
“The prime minister will want to see bonuses clawed back from executives who steer a company onto the rocks, and will want new powers to block takeovers that could threaten the pension scheme. The government could also make sure that ‘recovery plans’ to tackle pension scheme deficits are tougher, putting the pension fund further up the queue relative to dividends and bonuses.
“The Treasury and the business department will be hostile to these sorts of ideas and will not want regulators interfering in the business decisions of corporate Britain. Despite the idealistic rhetoric, I would expect any actual action to be some years away and reserved only for the most extreme cases.”
May’s pledge comes as she faces renewed criticism from some Tory MPs for a lack of willingness to back radical policies. Nick Boles, a former minister, warned last week of a timidity at the heart of her administration.
Field said: “The prime minister said when she first entered Downing Street that she would be on the side of hardworking British people and those who were the underdogs.
“The reforms suggested by the committee – including mega-fines on individuals who crash their companies and pension funds – gives her an opportunity to get on the front foot with this agenda.”
Parliamentary inquiries are already being set up into how the funding shortfall in Carillion’s pension scheme widened before the business’s spectacular collapse. Its deficit rose from £317m in 2015 to £587m by the end of 2016. The final figure is believed to be high as £900m.
With its pension problems mounting, Carillion controversially changed the rules in 2016 to prevent any clawing back of executives’ bonuses should the business eventually collapse.
The government has come under pressure to limit the damage to pension funds from reckless employers since the collapse in 2016 of BHS, the retailer that went into administration with a large black hole in its final salary retirement scheme – and despite paying hundreds of millions of pounds in dividends to its owner Sir Philip Green’s wife, Tina.A consultation green paper last year signalled that ministers planned to get tough with employers who failed to tackle large deficits in their pension funds.
Employers’ lobby groups have argued that increased powers for the pensions regulator would give it undue influence in the running of companies already struggling to juggle the competing demands of shareholders, employees and the need to invest in new equipment. They have pushed back against proposals to allow the regulator to block executive bonuses and dividend payments, arguing that they are intrusive and draconian limits on private enterprises.
A pensions expert, John Ralfe, said the regulator was unlikely to want extra powers that could lead it into protracted disputes with companies about the level of payouts to shareholders and directors.
He said the government should move from a “DIY regulation that judges each scheme on an individual basis” to a blanket rule that forces all final salary pension schemes to measure their liabilities in the same way and reduce deficits over the same time.
Currently, the regulator agrees a separate plan with each employer to determine how long it needs to close its pension deficit. This can range from five to 20 years.
Forcibly removing rough sleepers from the streets is one way to maintain an illusion of affluence, but not one that politicians with a conscience should countenance. That such a device looks cruel is obvious even to one who advocates it: Simon Dudley, the Conservative leader of Windsor and Maidenhead borough council, describes homelessness as “completely unacceptable in a caring, compassionate community” in a letter to Thames Valley police, while urging action to remove the evidence from public view.
Mr Dudley focuses his displeasure on a sub-category of the homeless whom he accuses of “aggressive begging and intimidation” and whose plight he sees as “a voluntary choice”. This distinction between deserving and undeserving poor is as old as it is bogus. It is probably true that some of Windsor’s homeless offend the council leader’s sense of propriety and make choices other than the ones he would recommend. But genuine compassion reaches beyond such narrow parameters.
It is also true that extreme poverty changes the character of a town that attracts millions of tourists and will be a focus of international attention when Prince Harry marries Meghan Markle in Windsor Castle in May. A local politician’s interest in removing social decay from the scene is obvious. It needn’t even be a despicable ambition if the royal wedding were set as the deadline for genuine action to address destitute people’s needs with resources allocated accordingly.
But that would indicate different priorities, a different moral outlook. It would require seeing homelessness as a source of collective national shame and not a quasi-criminal act best referred to the police. This obtuseness reaches the top of the Tory party. Theresa May has said she disagrees with Mr Dudley’s approach but she shows no willingness to accept that, under her government, homelessness is becoming an emergency. In one prime minister’s questions session last month, Mrs May asserted that “statutory homelessness peaked under the Labour government and is down by 50% since then”. The statistical lens deployed there was so warped as to present a reversal of reality. The peak that Mrs May described was in 2003, reflecting the persistence of a problem that had become entrenched under the Tory government that lost office in 1997. Labour got to grips with the issue and numbers fell until 2010, when Downing Street was recaptured by the Conservatives. Progress then went into reverse.
Government statistics put the number of homeless households in the third quarter of 2017 at 15,290 (up from 14,930 at the equivalent point in 2016). But the “statutory” definition is narrow and misleading, covering those getting help from local authorities. Many who sleep rough or drift in and out of precarious private accommodation fall below statistical radars. And the evidence of an acute problem is visible to anyone with their eyes open to it.
Homelessness, the big failure caused by a series of lesser ones, is often the visible symbol of social policy under stress. The Tories can only obfuscate for so long before majority opinion recoils in horror at a government that treats abject destitution as a tolerable side-effect of its economic policies. Mrs May is on this trajectory. She might reject the terms used by the leader of Windsor council, but she seems to share his instinct for seeing extreme poverty more as a source of political embarrassment than a spur to action. Her dodgy statistics are a subtler device than police intervention, but both testify to the false belief that a social calamity can simply be swept aside.
Goodness what a year! Theresa has made it very clear that we can’t go into excruciating detail, in case it reaches the “oreilles” of a certain Monsieur Jean-Claude, but to share just a summary outcome, she started 2017 with a super visit to the US, then defied expectations with a splendid election victory, and finished with a stunning success in Brussels! Just in time for a well-earned break which we’ll spend relaxing with Mr Attenborough, after whatever feast our resident star chef is planning (Philip’s hoping it won’t involve too much washing-up!). Alas the cricket hasn’t been quite the triumph everyone wanted, but the Aussies will no doubt be relieved to hear that Theresa’s miracle-working is of the strictly political variety!
Most memorable moments? Frankly it’s hard to choose! That first crunchy crisp after we gave them up for Lent? Philip’s was plain, Theresa made it very clear she’d prefer cheese and onion. And like everyone privileged to be present in Manchester, Philip was left reeling by the most talked-about speech in conference history – is it just us or have we been hearing a bit less about roaring lions recently? Little did anyone guess that, a brief eight months after triggering article 50, Theresa would again do the impossible, striking a historic Brexit deal that, at a very reasonable £45 – or so – billion, left Monsieur Barnier & co looking just a tiny bit worried! We’ll certainly be exchanging a wry smile next time the vicar takes as his text “oh ye of little faith”!
Sartorial note from Philip: it’s really rather nice when your brilliant other half appears in Vogue, looking quite exceptionally fabulous! Perhaps you spotted that we went for quite a dramatic new look, darker tones in the LK Bennett dress and coat, accentuated by a striking upswept “do”? Not an everyday style, but Vogue isn’t everyday either, for us mere mortals, and the interview was super, though we were disappointed that “Brexit means Brexit” did not appear even once! Theresa says she must have said it a million times, though it was technically closer to 43.
We had much better luck with “strong and stable government”, mentioned 1,024 times by Theresa alone, in a super election campaign that showed off what friends know as her fun, “wheat field” side, as well as her integrity and tremendous willingness to listen. Philip has never been more impressed by Theresa’s leadership than when she delivered a bold manifesto pledge then did what they said was impossible – decisively scrapped it within four days. Stylewise, it seemed right to let the embellished shoe do most of the heavy lifting.
So, all in all, a truly memorable first-time election and a super learning experience – following which we wish Fiona and Nick all the luck for the future, we’re only sorry there wasn’t time for the sort of send-off they both deserved!
But that sums up our lives these days: “hectic” would be an understatement, though we did manage a blissful break in Wales – without that clear mountain air “Team May” might never have realised that a snap election was, after all, essential for the strong and stable government the country needs. Later, Italy’s beautiful Lake Garda, with its stable waters reflecting the strong peaks above, seemed silently to applaud our decision. Before too long we hope to roam “the emerald isle” with Arlene and Brian, a super couple who’ve been an absolute rock these last months. Theresa wants to make it very clear how much we look forward to welcoming another wonderful new friend, Mr Trump, and to his staying, owing to the steep stairs at No 10, with Her Majesty the Queen.
On a sadder note, those who remember Theresa’s former colleague, George Osborne, will be sorry to hear of his rapid decline on, we understand, a local evening paper. Both of us pray for a time when he can come to terms with his political failure instead of embarrassing himself on a daily basis. Our hearts also go out, this Christmastide, to David Cameron, last heard of living in a hut. Do join us, as we celebrate another outstanding year, in raising a glass to the “left behind”.
A super Christmas and a strong and stable new year to you all,
Theresa and Philip
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