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Brexit chaos drives Adonis to resign

2 Jan 18 Andrew Adonis has resigned as chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission after deep-rooted disagreements with the government.

Andrew Adonis
Andrew Adonis

Lord Adonis is deeply opposed to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union but the final straw was the bailout of Stagecoach/Virgin on the East Coast rail franchise, which he describes as ‘inexcusable’.

He attributed poor decision-making at the Department of Transport to ‘a nervous breakdown across Whitehall’ caused by Brexit.

Lord Adonis said that the first draft of his resignation letter was 5,000 words and took a lot of work to get it down to the 1,000 words reprinted in full below. He submitted it to the prime minister on 29th December.

Key sections include: “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.”

Andrew Adonis is a former policy wonk for the defunct Social Democratic Party and he describes Roy Jenkins as his mentor. He joined the Labour Party after Tony Blair moved it the centre and was given a job in the Number 10 Policy Unit. He was handed a peerage in 2005 and became firstly and education minister and subsequently, under Gordon Brown, a transport minister. He resigned the Labour whip in 2015 to head the newly created National Infrastructure Commission.

Former chancellor George Osborne, who chose Adonis as chairman of the NIC, said he was sorry to see him resign. “He brought expertise and rare policy creativity, and will be sad loss,” Mr Osborne said. “I want to thank him personally for helping us establish our new NIC as a permanent improvement to long term thinking in UK.”

There is support for deputy chairman John Armitt to replace Lord Adonis at the National Infrastructure Commission.

Nelson Ogunshakin, chief executive of the Association for Consultancy & Engineering (ACE), said: “Throughout his career Lord Adonis has served infrastructure well, yet he can be especially proud of what he achieved as chair of the National Infrastructure Commission where he was a champion for our industry at the heart of government. We urgently need to secure a credible individual, such as current deputy Sir John Armitt, to step-up as chair to maintain the commission’s momentum and its vital role in reminding ministers and civil servants, who may be distracted by issues surrounding Brexit, of the long-term importance of infrastructure investment to the economy and society.”

Lord Adonis’s resignation letter to the prime minister

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.

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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.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Adonis

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