The overnight news was dramatic: the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, has “picked a fight” in Cabinet.
And the subject of this political spat?
It would appear that it is the commercial bid by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to assist the prison service of Saudi Arabia, something I have been blogging about here and at the FT since January.
This post sets out the general background to this political development: in essence, everything you need to know.
The overnight news
The story broke in the Times, with a page one news feature and a (very) well-informed opinion piece inside.
The front page of the print edition (hat-tip Nick Sutton):
And here is what the online story looks like:
(Please now click and read the originals if you can, even it involves paying: journalism costs money, whatever its source.)
The key facts in the Times story are as follows:
– there is a “cabinet row” between Gove and Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary;
– Gove has demanded the MoJ commercial bid be scrapped;
– Gove has circulated a memorandum to this effect;
– the dispute was raised at a meeting of the “National Security Council”
– the Prime Minister has had to determine the dispute, and has insisted that the commercial bid go ahead;
– Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, supports Gove;
– Hammond warned that cancelling the deal would make the UK look an untrustworthy ally;
– and so, in summary, the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister have overruled the MoJ.
The Opinion piece repeats these facts, and adds the following detail:
“There was a robust exchange of views,” says a Whitehall source who has seen the letters. “The MoJ had human rights concerns; the Foreign Office felt this would have far bigger ramifications.” Downing Street ruled that the Ministry of Justice must honour its bid. Unless something changes, Mr Gove will sign the contract any day now and British civil servants will spend six months working with one of the most barbaric prison systems in the world.”
The “commercial bid” of the MoJ
So what is this about?
[Most of the information below is contained in and sourced in these previous posts:FT, January 2015, Jack of Kent, February 2015, FT, September 2015, Jack of Kent, October 2015, and FT, October 2015 (yesterday).]
The “commercial bid” of the MoJ to assist with the Saudi prison service was one of a number of transactions proposed by a group of MoJ civil servants who called themselves “Just Solutions international” (or “JSi” complete with gimmicky lower-case “i”).
JSi was established in 2012, when Kenneth Clarke was Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, but it developed rapidly under his successor (and Gove’s predecessor) Chris Grayling.
The idea was that JSi would sell “expert” services to foreign governments in return for cash on a “commercial” (as opposed to a costs) basis. The MoJ would thereby make money from the transactions.
Involved in the creation and promotion of JSi was PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The proposed Saudi contract was first mentioned (in passing) in a MoJ report to Parliament in December 2014. That in turn was brought to the attention of David Hencke, who broke the story in January 2015.
The MoJ under Grayling continued with the bid (despite the public criticism), putting a final bid in around April 2015.
In May 2015, after the general election, Gove replaced Grayling. Gove then quickly reverses a number of Grayling’s policies: see Joshua Rozenberg here.
In September 2015, the MoJ announced it is closing down JSi, but also that the Saudi commercial bid was too advanced to be stopped.
After a bit of digging, I was able to establish that one reason then given by the MoJ for not dropping the bid – “financial penalties” – was invalid (and this led to an amendment of the September announcement to parliament). The MoJ then confirmed it had to continue with the bid because of the “wider interests” of the government. Alan White at Buzzfeed reveals that MoJ (and Gove) wanted to drop the bid but could not.
At this stage, therefore, there was obvious tension between government departments. Tension is not new, of course.
But what then electrified the situation is that at the end of September 2015, the new Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn mentions the bid in his conference speech.
Corbyn demanded of the Prime Minister:
“And while you’re about it, terminate that bid made by our Ministry of Justice’s to provide services for Saudi Arabia – which would be required to carry out the sentence that would be put down on Mohammed Ali al-Nimr.”
And that in turn is the immediate background to the overnight news.
So: an issue of “reverse public procurement” (ie, public bodies seeking to sell goods and services) in a relatively small government department (in spending terms) leads to a political fight between the holders of two great offices of state – the Lord Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary – which the Prime Minister then has had to resolve in the face of criticism from the Leader of the Opposition.
And then someone tells the Times about this happening.
Assessing the overnight news
Things do not end up on the front page of the Times by accident.
There are reasons why this story has hit mainstream media in this well-informed way, and in the manner it has.
The details of the contract bid, or the MoJ’s recent opposition to continuing with it, are not news. It has previously been covered in detail by David Hencke, by me here and at the FT, and by Alan White at Buzzfeed. It was not of particular interest to political correspondents and columnists.
What has converted it to front page news is that the bid and the MoJ’s opposition has become the stuff of a cabinet split. One can guess who would benefit from such a story.
What appears to be the situation (and here I am only going on what is in the public domain) is that the issue is of natural interest to Gove (I do not doubt his sincerity in not liking this Saudi bid) but that it also is a useful political tool for him to use.
Gove did not have to close down JSi – the fact he did shows his general disdain for selling MoJ services to foreign despots, even though it shut off a potentially lucrative revenue stream to a cash-starved department.
It is also clear that the Saudi bid would have been stopped but for pressure from the Foreign Office.
And so it also serves Gove as a political weapon: it is reminiscent of how Gove used the faith school issue in Birmingham when he was Education Secretary.
Whatever the political realities of the matter, one thing is plain: the MoJ should never have got itself into the misconceived and illiberal position of making commercial bids to sell UK state services to repressive regimes.
Nothing good was to come of it.
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