Brexit is a 'nationalist spasm': Lord Adonis resigns as infrastructure tsar
Labour peer urges his party to support second referendum as he steps down as chair of national commission
Brexit has caused a “nervous breakdown” in Whitehall, the former Labour minister Andrew Adonis has said following his resignation as chair of the government-backed National Infrastructure Commission.
Lord Adonis resigned on Friday in protest at Theresa May’s management of Britain’s departure from the EU, describing the process as “a dangerous populist and nationalist spasm worthy of Donald Trump”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday morning: “Almost the entire government machine is spending its time seeking to wrench us out of the key economic and political institutions of the EU. Everything else is going by the board.”
Adonis said there should be a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal and that people like him who are in leadership positions should be “arguing passionately with the British people as to why staying in the EU is the right thing to do”.
He said those who voted to leave were “not stupid” but argued that Brexit was not defined before the referendum and people should be given “a new say” on the choice between May’s deal and staying in the EU.
“I hope we can bring the common sense of the British people to bear when they realise what the consequences are,” he said.
The former transport secretary headed the body that makes recommendations to the government on projects such as the high-speed rail link HS2. Most recently he recommended that 1m new homes be built in the “brain belt” spanning Oxford, Cambridge and Milton Keynes.
Adonis has become increasingly outspoken on a series of policy issues in recent months, including tuition fees and vice-chancellors’ pay.
He told BBC Breakfast earlier on Saturday: “My differences with the government had become too great, not only on Brexit, which I think is being handled very badly … but increasingly Brexit is infecting the whole conduct of Whitehall. We’re seeing that including in infrastructure itself.”
His strongly worded resignation letter accuses the prime minister of becoming the voice of Ukip and pursuing policies that would leave Britain in splendid isolation.
“I am afraid I must now step down because of fundamental differences, on infrastructure and beyond, which simply can’t be bridged,” he wrote.
Adonis said he was duty bound to oppose the government’s flagship EU withdrawal bill, which will reach the House of Lords in the new year. He described the it as “the worst legislation of my lifetime”.
He said Britain could have abided by the result of the 2016 referendum and left the EU “without rupturing our essential European trade and political relations”. Instead, the prime minister had “become the voice of Ukip and the extreme nationalist rightwing” of her party.
Adonis said he would have felt compelled to step down anyway over the transport secretary’s decision to bail out Stagecoach and Virgin on the East Coast rail franchise. “It is increasingly clear that the bailout is a nakedly political manoeuvre by Chris Grayling,” he said. He described the move as extraordinary and indefensible, saying that it would cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of pounds, possibly billions”.
Grayling announced that a new partnership would take on responsibility for intercity trains and track operations on the route in 2020. Virgin Trains East Coast, involving Stagecoach and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin, had previously agreed to pay the government £3.3bn to run the service until 2023.
Adonis said he had tried to warn the government of the cost to the taxpayer of the bailout, but that a senior official had tried to stop him. He is said to have text messages from a senior official at the Department for Transport, warning it may be more difficult to cooperate with him if he attacked the decision, and that it could be awkward for him to attend its annual party.
He is also said to have sent a direct text message warning to Philip Hammond, the chancellor, which went unanswered.
Adonis’s departure, which was confirmed by commission officials,makes him the second senior Labour figure to resign from a government-backed role, following Alan Milburn’s decision to step down as chair of the social mobility commission, citing May’s failure to make progress on the issue.
It is unclear why Adonis, who was appointed to the role in April, chose now to resign, when May made clear in her conference speech in 2016 that she planned to take Britain out of the single market and the customs union.
Before the official announcement of his resignation, an early version of Adonis’s letter to May was leaked to the media. When asked how this happened, Adonis told Today that “dirty tricks” had been played but that he would be speaking “unmuzzled” from now on.
Nick Timothy, May’s former chief of staff, tweeted that the recent behaviour of Labour appointees was “making it harder to pick people from different party backgrounds”.
Adonis has also been highly critical of his own party’s stance on Brexit, urging the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer’s team to advocate remaining in the single market, and suggesting Labour would eventually end up backing a second referendum.
A Labour spokesperson said: “Theresa May’s weak and divided government can’t even command the confidence of its own advisers. With each resignation, the stench of decay around the government grows stronger and stronger. The Tories
are in office, but not in power.”
Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, expressed sadness about Adonis’s departure. “Lord Adonis is one of the most thoughtful politicians around. This is why he has so many friends and political admirers beyond the Labour party,” he said.
“It is, then, a great shame that he is no longer leading Britain’s infrastructure programme. Yet he felt there was no other option but to resign because of the way Brexit has been so badly mishandled.
“Notably, he is deeply concerned by how the Conservative leadership has pandered to its right wing over the single market and customs union, leaving which will badly – and needlessly – damage our trade.”
Senior government sources played down the significance of his departure, claiming his position had been under threat over his recent habit of engaging in vehement Twitter spats.
They also cited his criticism of government policy. “He’s been moving closer to the exit door with each new onslaught he makes against Brexit,” they said.
The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said: “Lord Adonis’s departure is long overdue.
“It’s a bit rich for him to pontificate on what he calls populism, but what most would refer to as democracy, when he himself has never been elected by a public vote. He has instead relied on preferment from others.”
Adonis was an adviser to Tony Blair and a key driver of the decision to impose tuition fees on university students, but he has been strongly critical of recent changes to the scheme.
The large-scale infrastructure projects he championed are likely to go ahead without his chairmanship, because his approach is shared by the chancellor, who is keen to boost investment to offset the impact of Brexit on the economy.
Full text of Adonis’s letter
Dear prime minister,
The hardest thing in politics is to bring about lasting change for the better, and I believe in cooperation across parties to achieve it.
In this spirit I was glad to accept reappointment last year as chair of the independent National Infrastructure Commission, when you also reaffirmed your support for HS2, which will help overcome England’s north-south divide when it opens in just eight years’ time. I would like to thank you for your courtesy in our personal dealings.
The commission has done good work in the past 27 months, thanks to dedicated public servants and commissioners. Sir John Armitt, my deputy chair, and Phil Graham, chief executive, have been brilliant throughout. I am particularly proud of our plans for equipping the UK with world-class 4G and 5G mobile systems; for Crossrail 2 in London and HS3 to link the northern cities; and for transformational housing growth in the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor.
I hope these plans are implemented without delay. However, my work at the commission has become increasingly clouded by disagreement with the government, and after much consideration I am writing to resign because of fundamental differences which simply cannot be bridged.
The European Union withdrawal bill is the worst legislation of my lifetime. It arrives soon in the House of Lords and I feel duty bound to oppose it relentlessly from the Labour benches.
Brexit is a populist and nationalist spasm worthy of Donald Trump. After the narrow referendum vote, a form of associate membership of the EU might have been attempted without rupturing Britain’s key trading and political alliances. Instead, by allying with Ukip and the Tory hard right to wrench Britain out of the key economic and political institutions of modern Europe, you are pursuing a course fraught with danger.
Even within Ireland, there are set to be barriers between people and trade. If Brexit happens, taking us back into Europe will become the mission of our children’s generation, who will marvel at your acts of destruction.
A responsible government would be leading the British people to stay in Europe while also tackling, with massive vigour, the social and economic problems within Britain which contributed to the Brexit vote. Unfortunately, your policy is the reverse.
The government is hurtling towards the EU’s emergency exit with no credible plan for the future of British trade and European cooperation, all the while ignoring – beyond soundbites and inadequate programmes – the crises of housing, education, the NHS and social and regional inequality which are undermining the fabric of our nation and feeding a populist surge.
What Britain needs in 2018 is a radically reforming government in the tradition of [Clement] Attlee, working tirelessly to eradicate social problems while strengthening Britain’s international alliances. This is a cause I have long advocated, and acted upon in government, and I intend to pursue it with all the energy I can muster.
Britain must be deeply engaged, responsible and consistent as a European power. When in times past we have isolated ourselves from the continent in the name of “empire” or “sovereignty”, we were soon sucked back in. This will inevitably happen again, given our power, trade, democratic values and sheer geography.
Putin and the rise of authoritarian nationalism in Poland and Hungary are flashing red lights. As Edmund Burke so wisely wrote, “people will not look forwards to posterity who do not look backwards to their ancestors”.
However, I would have been obliged to resign from the commission at this point anyway because of the transport secretary’s indefensible decision to bail out the Stagecoach/Virgin East Coast rail franchise. The bailout will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds, possibly billions if other loss-making rail companies demand equal treatment. It benefits only the billionaire owners of these companies and their shareholders, while pushing rail fares still higher and threatening national infrastructure investment. It is even more inexcusable given the Brexit squeeze on public spending.
The only rationale I can discern for the bailout is as a cynical political manoeuvre by Chris Grayling, a hard-right Brexiteer, to avoid following my 2009 precedent when National Express defaulted on its obligations to the state for the same East Coast franchise because it too had overbid for the contract. I set up a successful public operator to take over East Coast services and banned National Express from bidding for new contracts. The same should have been done in this case. Yet, astonishingly, Stagecoach has not only been bailed out, it remains on the shortlist for the next three rail franchises.
The East Coast affair will inevitably come under close scrutiny by the National Audit Office and the public accounts committee, and I need to be free to set out serious public interest concerns. I hope the PAC calls Sir Richard Branson and Sir Brian Souter to give evidence. I am ready to share troubling evidence with the PAC and other parliamentary committees investigating the bailout.
As you know, I raised these concerns with the chancellor and the transport secretary as soon as the bailout became apparent from the small print of an odd policy statement on 29 November majoring on reversing Beeching rail closures of the 1960s. I received no response from either minister beyond inappropriate requests to desist.
Brexit is causing a nervous breakdown across Whitehall and conduct unworthy of Her Majesty’s government. I am told, by those of longer experience, that it resembles Suez and the bitter industrial strife of the 1970s, both of which endangered not only national integrity but the authority of the state itself.
You occupy one of the most powerful offices in the history of the world, the heir of Churchill, Attlee and Gladstone. Whatever our differences, I wish you well in guiding our national destiny at this critical time.