Department culls, new Brexit negotiators and no-deal preparations: PM hopefuls set out stall

DfID in the firing line as candidates seek to win support for leadership bids

Some of the Tory leadership candidates. Photo: PA

Government departments could face a cull under a new prime minister, it has emerged, as Conservative Party hopefuls set out their stall for the upcoming leadership contest.

Ten MPs have so far formally declared they will stand to be the next Tory leader, after prime minister Theresa May announced her plans to stand down last week. Since then, candidates have been jostling for the limelight as they have put forward their strategies for tackling Brexit and managing public spending.

Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary, has suggested he would aim to cut entire Whitehall departments if his bid to become prime minister is successful.


“I would cut down the number of Whitehall departments, cut out the bureaucracy,” Raab said in a BBC interview with Andrew Marr at the weekend.

Raab also said he would set up a special commission to examine savings in public sector procurement, particularly in the NHS and the Ministry of Defence, “then I would recycle roughly half of that into front line services and half into the tax cuts”.

Raab has long advocated for deep public sector cuts, saying in 2013 that the number of government departments should be cut from 20 to 11 to “cut a huge amount of waste”. At the time, he proposed re-merging the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, which were split in 2007, abolishing the Department for International Development and combining the Department for Transport and the then-Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Leadership frontrunner Boris Johnson, who stepped down as foreign secretary last year, has also called for DfID to be absorbed into the Foreign Office. Johnson said in January that the UK “can’t keep spending huge sums of British taxpayers’ money as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO”.

Former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey, who was first to formally launch her leadership bid after May’s resignation announcement, has also called for cuts to foreign aid, but has not explicitly said she would close DfID.

While not all of the leadership candidates have gone as far as scrapping entire departments, several have indicated they would bring about a shake-up of civil servants.

International trade secretary Liam Fox, who has not yet launched a formal bid but has not ruled himself out of the race, said Number 10 should replace any advisers who express doubts about Brexit. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he said “one of the most significant” benefits of May’s departure would be “to clear out Number 10 so that the PM’s advisers do not see Brexit as a problem to be solved but an opportunity to be grasped”.

Johnson’s successor as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said in an interview this morning that he would replace the team responsible for negotiating with the EU on Brexit.

The existing team has faced strong criticism from pro-Brexit MPs, who have suggested civil servants are to blame for a lack of progress on Brexit negotiations. The next prime minister is expected to replace chief negotiator Olly Robbins, who has borne the brunt of this criticism.

Hunt said a new negotiating team was needed, which included representatives not only of the government but the Conservatives’ coalition partners the DUP, the ERG group of hardline Conservative MPs, and Scottish and Welsh MPs.

The EU has said it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement, but Hunt told the Radio 4 Today programme this morning that “If you have proper representation in your negotiating team from other voices... I think you can then give Brussels confidence that they are talking to someone who can deliver a deal.”

The candidates’ stance on Brexit will also have a major influence on the work of government departments over the coming months. Some have said they would attempt to renegotiate May's withdrawal agreement with the EU, while Raab and Johnson are among those who have said are prepared to leave the bloc without a deal, along with McVey, who said last week that May’s successor “has to be a Brexiteer who believes in Brexit”.

Andrea Leadsom, who launched her bid after resigning as leader of the House of Commons last week, said she would support a no-deal Brexit “if necessary”, and health secretary Matt Hancock has also not ruled out without a deal.

Home secretary Sajid Javid said his priority would be to "deliver Brexit" but did not say if he was prepared to leave without a deal, while environment secretary Michael Gove has said a deal would be "better than no deal".

By contrast, Hunt has said aiming for a no-deal Brexit would be “political suicide”, and international development secretary Rory Stewart said it would be a “huge mistake”. Stewart added that he "could not serve in a government whose policy was to push this country into a no-deal Brexit”.

Housing minister Kit Malthouse, who lent his name to a proposal that aimed to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements in May’s deal, promised to act as a unity candidate to “get a deal over the line”.

The full list of MPs who have launched leadership bids to date are: Michael Gove, Matt Hancock, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom. Kit Malthouse, Esther McVey, Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart.

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