LONDON — Remember Brexit?
All those years of wrangling took a back seat when the coronavirus struck but a spat over an EU scheme to buy medical equipment has shown the bad blood lurks just beneath the surface in Westminster.
While the public may now have bigger concerns than the U.K.’s exit from the EU, the procurement row, which has rumbled on for over a month, illustrates that many of the old divisions still linger at the top of the British government, niggling at the relationship between Boris Johnson’s top team and the wider civil service.
The real reason for the U.K. not joining the EU scheme — which hasn’t yet delivered a single piece of personal protective equipment — is either political (i.e. blame Brexit) or a technical error, depending on who you listen to. And, given no equipment has yet materialized, it’s either an irrelevance or a missed opportunity to do everything possible to give health workers what they need. It’s certainly an embarrassment for the government.
On Tuesday, Simon McDonald, Britain’s top diplomat, told a House of Commons committee the refusal by Britain to sign up to the scheme was a “political decision” — one taken by ministers. His comments flatly contradicted the government’s previous line that an email got lost and Britain merely missed the deadline.
Within hours, McDonald had written a letter insisting he had made a mistake. He blamed a “misunderstanding” and said “ministers were not briefed by our mission in Brussels about the scheme and a political decision was not taken on whether or not to participate.”
Mistake or not, the episode risks raising tensions between the civil service and the Downing Street administration spearheaded by Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings, who’s made clear his distaste for the Whitehall machine.
McDonald himself was reported by the Sunday Telegraph in February to be on a “shit list” of top civil servants the Johnson regime wants ousted because of claims they are at odds with the team in Downing Street. He is said to speak his mind, for example when addressing civil servants after former U.K. Ambassador to Washington Kim Darroch was forced to resign over the leak of diplomatic cables.
The dispute over the EU procurement scheme is unlikely to endear him to the prime minister’s team, but the fast retraction of his comments and the general coronavirus chaos mean the incident might not prove fatal — at least not yet.
“They might have their suspicions, but I think at this point in time they have got bigger fish to fry,” an ex-Downing Street adviser said. “I don’t see them going after him or there being any immediate fallout for him. I think it’s just another example of some of the tensions between the political side and the civil service, which is not ideal at a time like this.”
Asked whether the prime minister still has confidence in McDonald’s ability, a Downing Street spokesman simply said: “Yes.”
The fallout from McDonald’s reversal breathed new life into the Brexit debate.
Care Minister Helen Whately was sent into the media firing line on Wednesday morning. “There do seem some misunderstandings about the EU scheme. I am assured there was no political decision about the involvement in it,” she told Sky News. “We are now participating in one EU scheme and ready to participate in future schemes.”
It was too little, too late.
“I think it’s Brexit ideology on the one hand, but on the other hand it’s about the government, in the early stages of this pandemic, not taking it seriously enough,” said Labour’s Ian Murray, shadow Scotland secretary and a member of the foreign affairs committee that McDonald addressed.
Acting Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey said: “Everyone can see that ministers decided not to join the EU procurement and did it because they feared it would embarrass them politically over their Brexit policy. The more ministers deny this the more dodgy they look.”
Brexiteers are less sure.
“I wouldn’t have thought Brexit would be the reason for it,” former Brexit Secretary David Davis said. “We are under EU laws until the end of the year and we are still paying our membership fee, so I would have thought that is the least important reason for not pursuing it.”
Numerous government officials POLITICO approached insisted the decision had nothing to do with Brexit and revealed their frustration at the suggestion, especially over a procurement scheme that has so far been ineffective.
“There might be other reasons, such as the effectiveness of the EU, on this. That would be a more sensible analysis,” said Davis.
‘Possible he forgot what the line was’
U.K. officials insist the comments by McDonald were a genuine error. “He made a simple mistake and corrected it within a few hours,” one said.
Another official admitted the committee hearing was not McDonald’s “best performance,” but added: “Honestly, people are trying to turn this into a bigger row than it is.”
But Whitehall observers questioned the incident. “You don’t get to be in the position he is in without being thoughtful, intelligent and experienced,” said one person who is close to the civil service. “This has been a sensitive political issue but he gave a confident answer. It felt like he revealed something rather than made a mistake.”
The person added that McDonald’s letter “left a lot more questions than answers.”
“It feels like a negotiated letter, given the tortuous language used. He seems to be trying to retain his own credibility, while still being prepared to put his name to a mistake. He won’t be happy about what has happened.”
The former Downing Street aide said McDonald would have had briefing notes during his appearance before the committee, containing suggested wording on how to respond to such a sensitive and prominent issue.
“It’s possible he forgot what the line was, but it does seem a bit odd that he set out a clearly divergent view,” the ex-aide said. “Obviously he has retracted it since, but you have to ask whether there were other motivations behind what he was saying.”
But Davis, the former Brexit secretary, offered an opposing view, saying McDonald “is an intelligent man and … he knows enough that if he says something like that it would be politically explosive. So I expect it was an honest mistake.”
Mistake or not, it was undoubtedly explosive.
Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting.
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