How Michael Gove won the cabinet row about the Saudi prison contract

On the morning of Tuesday 13 October 2015 the UK Prime Minister David Cameron had a serious political problem – a problem which seemed to many political observers to have almost come from nowhere.

The problem was about a proposed commercial relationship between the UK’s Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for courts and prisons services in England and Wales, and the government of Saudi Arabia.

The contract – for providing training to the Saudi prison system – had not even been signed and was still at bidding stage. And the value of the deal at £5.9 million was not that significant in the context of UK-Saudi relations.

But somehow the matter was now a pressing political concern – indeed a possible minor political crisis – that could only be resolved by a quick decision of the prime minister.

That morning the Times had reported a cabinet split.

On one side was the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who wanted the MoJ to pull out of the proposal, which he inherited from his predecessor.

On the other side was the Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond, who did not want the Saudi government to be upset by the bid being discontinued.

Neither Gove nor Hammond had been long in their respective posts; but their two offices of state are among the most ancient and distinguished.

It is rare for either a Foreign Secretary or Lord Chancellor to be party to any cabinet row, and it was unheard of for them to be rowing with each other.

What made this political row particularly awkward was the way the contract bid was being used by the Labour opposition.

Two weeks before, on 29 September 2015, the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn September 2015 had mentioned the commercial bid in his first speech as leader to party conference:

“Just because I’ve become the leader of this party, I’m not going to stop standing up on those issues or being that activist.

So for my first message to David Cameron, I say to him now a little message from our conference, I hope he’s listening – you never know:

Intervene now personally with the Saudi Arabian regime to stop the beheading and crucifixion of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who is threatened with the death penalty, for taking part in a demonstration at the age of 17.

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.”

It was the first time the contract bid had come to the attention to most politicians and pundits.

Until then it had not been a subject which anyone outside those with a close interest in MoJ affairs either knew or cared about.

There was speculation that information had been leaked to Corbyn by Gove or somebody at MoJ (the truth was more prosaic – Corbyn, with a long-standing record of criticising the Saudi regime, had been briefed by his front bench justice spokespeople about the issue following my post on 25 September 2015 at Jack of Kent).

The contract bid had been cited by Corbyn in aid of his point about the threatened execution of Mohammed Ali al-Nimr, and had it not been for that case, it may not have been mentioned at all.

The Saudi prison bid was now mainstream political news. Cameron was asked about it in that weekend’s interview with Andrew Marr and found it difficult to deflect. It seemed as if the new and controversial Labour leader had scored an unexpected hit at a time he was beset by internal party difficulties (as he is still is).

But the issue then seemed to fade.

A week passed, and the political commentators had many other things to talk about at a time of party conferences.

It looked as if the Saudi prison issue would go as quickly as it came as matter of political importance; maybe Corbyn had had the benefit of some beginners’ luck, and that was all.

And then, two weeks after Corbyn’s speech, the Times splashed on the cabinet split.

The Times is, of course, an excellent news paper and it was a superb scoop by Rachel outstanding political journalist. But it would also be fair to say that the Timeshad not shown any interest in the subject before its coverage on 13 October 2015. And then suddenly it was a front page lead, backed up with a comment piece inside.

The Times reported:

A cabinet row has broken out between two senior ministers over the fate of a controversial prisons deal with Saudi Arabia.

Michael Gove, the lord chancellor and justice secretary, was accused of naivety by Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, over his demand that a £5.9 million deal with Saudi Arabia be scrapped. The dispute became so entrenched that it was raised at a meeting of the National Security Council, The Times has learnt.

In the comment piece it was contended:

“Saudi Arabia’s brutal prison regime is getting help from the British taxpayer. We should stand up to Riyadh and cancel it

There was just one line in Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech that got under ministers’ skins — the Labour leader’s call to scrap a deal between the Ministry of Justice and the Saudi prison service. It is the source of a Whitehall row that illustrates the growing tension within government between morality and pragmatism in Britain’s relations with the rest of the world.

The bid for a £5.9 million contract to provide “training-needs analysis” for the Saudi penal system was approved by Chris Grayling, the former justice secretary, as part of a drive by the ministry to sell services abroad. It was submitted in April, by the department’s commercial arm, Just Solutions International (JSI). Michael Gove, who succeeded Mr Grayling in May, has scrapped JSI to focus resources on “domestic priorities”. Crucially, he also wanted to pull out of the Saudi deal, insisting that the government should not be helping a regime that uses beheading, crucifixion, stoning, amputations and lashings to keep its citizens in line. However, he was blocked by Downing Street, on the advice of the Foreign Office.”

That there was tension between the MoJ and the foreign office over the contract bid was not in fact news.

The estimable Alan White had expressly revealed this at Buzzfeed on 17 September 2015 – 12 days before the Corbyn speech:

BuzzFeed News understands that Gove wanted to terminate the entire contract but this was blocked by other government departments who feared that it would damage relations with the Saudis.

And this revelation in turn was simply making plain what was implicit in a ministerial statement of the day before. The MoJ wanted to ditch the deal but was being prevented by “wider government interests”.

Once the Times splashed the story, events began to accelerate.

The able Labour front bench justice spokesperson Andy Slaughter applied for and was granted an “urgent question” on the floor of the house of commons. The deadline for tabling such a question was 10am; the Speaker’s Office would then inform party whips and the department of the question by 11am. The prime minister’s office would have been told about the same time.

The next day would also be the prime minister’s questions, and it would be a topic which Corbyn would be sure to raise.

Suddenly it seemed that the cabinet split would be the subject of commons debates – and debates on the very issue which the new Labour leader had been seen to have scored a point.

Cameron had to take a decision quickly, and he did.

The MoJ were not involved in the decision that day – indeed, whilst Cameron was making his mind up, the department’s senior civil servant was being questioned by a parliamentary committee and his answers presupposed no decision was imminent.

The decision was then announced as the answer to a question at the 11am lobby briefing, which according to the Press Association was worded as follows:

The Prime Minister’s official spokeswoman told reporters: “This bid to provide additional training to Saudi Arabia has been reviewed, and the Government has decided it won’t be proceeding with the bid.”

She added that the decision was based on an examination of the “priorities” for the Ministry of Justice and a decision to “focus on some of the domestic priorities we want to do in terms of reforms here”.

“Having looked at it further again, we have established that we can withdraw at this stage, there will be no financial penalty and consequently that decision has been taken.”According to the detailed account the next day by Francis Elliott, the political editor of theTimes, the sequence of events was then as follows: 

The coverage was raised at the routine morning meeting in No 10, at which Mr Cameron and his de facto deputy, George Osborne, consider the day ahead. Ordinarily the prime minister takes soundings from trusted aides and civil servants before giving a judgment. Yesterday, however, he closed down the discussion quickly, deciding that it was too sensitive an issue to be aired at the later meeting.

Instead Mr Cameron is understood to have phoned Mr Hammond, asking him to set out the case for keeping the contract between the commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice and the Saudi government.

Insiders say that he well knew what the reply would be: for months Mr Hammond, supported by Theresa May, the home secretary, has been making the case that it is better to engage with Saudi Arabia than walk away and that the contract was an important part of a wider effort to reform Saudi’s judicial and police institutiions.

He did not call Michael Gove, the justice secretary, who has been arguing for the commercial deal to be ditched, but asked officials to check whether any financial penalties would be incurred should Britain pull out, and was told there would be none.

Faced with having to make a decision between his warring cabinet colleagues, Mr Cameron was acutely aware that he was a little more than 24 hours from a clash with Jeremy Corbyn at prime minister’s questions today.

This description of Cameron’s sequence of priorities in his decision-making seems rather unfortunate though revealing: first the political imperative, then the commercial cost, and then finally whether it was the right thing.

But a decision was made, and a cabinet row (and a political embarrassment) averted.

It is perhaps too early to reckon the real effect of the decision. The Saudi ambassador resorted to the Telegraph to vent his displeasure (which in turn indicated a loss of influence – it is hard to imagine that a Saudi ambassador needing to do that ten years ago). In domestic politics, the dropping of the contract bid has already become a feature of the political narratives of both Corbyn and Gove, as well as being a further mark against the record Gove’s incompetent predecessor as Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling.

Both Corbyn and Gove deserve the political credit for the MoJ’s Saudi’s prison bid being dropped in the way it was.

Both politicians exerted pressures at just the right time. Had it not been for Corbyn’s mention of the commercial proposal in his conference speech, and the likelihood that he would bring the matter up again, the bid would not have had the keen attention of Cameron that it received.

And had it not been for Gove forcing the issue in cabinet (with the Times somehow getting the story) then there would not have been the row for Cameron to resolve so urgently.

But the preconditions for this political row had been in place before the Corbyn speech. And these had been set months before by Gove; his escalation of the matter to cabinet level in the wake of the Corbyn conference speech was  just the final move in a sequence of decisions and deft manoeuvers which started months before.  So when the explosion came, it was clear that it would be at the expense of the Foreign Office.

The key decision by Gove was to close the commercial arm of the MoJ – known as “Just Solutions International” but also to continue with just one main project, the Saudi prisons bid.

Initially, part of the reason for the bid’s continuation was that it was supposed that there was a “penalty” for withdrawing, though this excuse fell away when I asked a series of questions about the penalty’s existence and enforceability.  But when that fig-leaf fell away it became clear that “wider” government considerations were obliging the MoJ to continue. This is what picked by Alan White at Buzzfeed a week before the Corbyn speech.

To anybody who then cared, it was clear that the MoJ wanted out of the bid and was distancing itself as much as possible.  It was open knowledge.

At this stage it was not certain that the bid would continue: no final award decision had been made.

The MoJ thereby might have gone through with performing the contract, whilst controversy about the Saudi human rights record was likely to keep reigniting.

What Gove seems to have been ensuring was not that the bid would be dropped – that was unexpected – but that the blame for the MoJ performing it would be deflected as much as possible to the Foreign and Home Offices. And had it not been for Corbyn, that would have been the most likely outcome.

But when Corbyn did make that speech, then it appears that this manoeuvring was put to a slightly different use, and this is how Gove stoked and won a cabinet confrontation.


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