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Q+A: Sir Lockwood Smith interviewed by Corin Dann

Q+A: Sir Lockwood Smith interviewed by Corin Dann

Former High Commissioner on Britain’s shock election result

New Zealand’s election result is unlikely to be as shocking or as surprising as Britain’s, according to our former High Commissioner to the UK Sir Lockwood Smith.

Speaking on TVNZ’s Q+A this morning, Sir Lockwood told Corin Dann younger voters angry about Brexit were a key reason Britain’s Labour party did so well in Friday’s vote.

“The younger people didn’t want to leave the EU and so this was a chance for them to express their frustration at that and they’ve done that. I think it’s quite a complex set of issues,” he said.

“I don’t see the parallels at all in New Zealand. We’ve come through the global financial crisis in far better shape than European countries, and we (NZ) never had to cut spending.”

He said issues like student debt and housing affordability were felt much more acutely in the UK.

He would not offer his former National MPs advice ahead of New Zealand’s election on September 23 but did say: “One thing the (UK) election does show is snap elections are dangerous. And number two, you have to campaign.”

Sir Lockwood Smith was New Zealand High Commissioner to the United Kingdom for three years before stepping down earlier this year.

Q + A
Episode 1714
Interviewed by CORIN DANN

CORIN Thank you very much, Greg. Good morning to Sir Lockwood Smith. Thank you very much for joining us. Of course, our former High Commissioner, I should say, to the UK. Are you shocked by this result? You were in the UK reasonably recently. Was there any hint that Theresa May would struggle?

LOCKWOOD The snap election was always going to be a risk. You know, they are. Snap elections – you can never predict exactly the outcome. But I must say I was surprised by just how badly the campaign went. And I think towards the end of the campaign that became the main issue – just how badly it was being run.

CORIN So, you know Theresa May.

LOCKWOOD Yeah, I made a point of getting to know her and I’d meet her occasionally even socially.

CORIN So what went wrong? Why do you think she misjudged this so badly?

LOCKWOOD Poor advice, I think, and also underestimated the opposition. I mean the credibility of the Labour opposition was not seen as being strong. Jeremy Corbyn was not seen as a strong opponent and I think they therefore underestimated the need to run a good campaign. Any election, a party must run a good campaign, and she didn’t.

CORIN Do you think she can hang on? Is she the type of person who will try and fight this out and scrap and push away those trying to take her job?

LOCKWOOD She’s tough. I mean, she proved that at the Home Office. As Home Secretary she demonstrated how tough she is and she is strong. I think what’s happened since the result’s been seen – her two really crucial advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, her joint chiefs of staff, have stepped down. I think that had to happen because clearly they’ve been hugely involved in her government, almost more powerful than most senior cabinet ministers, and I made a point of getting to know them too.

CORIN And they’re gone, right? As of today?

LOCKWOOD And they’re gone, and that’s demonstrating that there will be a change in how she leads the government now. Where it’s been very central control in the past, I think ministers are going to have to have much more influence if she’s to survive.

CORIN Do you think it is viable? Should she stand down?

LOCKWOOD She’s a—She was an effective Prime Minister and there’s no—You know, obviously she’s got to rebuild her credibility, but if she can do that, there’s no reason why she has to stand down. She was an effective Prime Minister.

CORIN Do you think the likes of Boris Johnson will look to try and take her job?

LOCKWOOD Someday Boris, I mean, is an obvious contender. He’s a very smart guy and a very effective politician. A lot of people underestimate his intellect. There’s no shortage of grey matter up top with Boris, and one day—Obviously it’s a matter of when, and it’s not necessarily going to be in the near future. Boris needs to build his credibility too.

CORIN For this government to survive they have to rely on the Northern Irish DUP, which has a pretty big track record as something, homophobic, pretty conservative party. Is that going to work?

LOCKWOOD Obviously, you know, we’ve proven in New Zealand here that you can get strange bedfellows that can work in government. We’ve seen that in New Zealand, and so it’s possible and I think they need to make it work. The DUP will only have a limited number of members involved, and I think they’ve got to be a bit realistic.

CORIN What’s their price, though?

LOCKWOOD Yeah, well, they’ve got to be a bit realistic about that price, and, I mean, if they push that too hard, the thing’s going to not work well.

CORIN But do you think this will lead obviously to a more instable government over a longer period of time in the UK? So what’s the flow-on effect for Europe, for Brexit? It’s hugely unstable.

LOCKWOOD The longer-term effects are interesting because what it’s done – it’s cemented Jeremy Corbyn in as the leader of the Labour Party, someone who’s generally perceived over in the UK as unelectable. So in some ways, it’s kind of given the Conservatives a stronger-looking future.

CORIN And how much do you think it is about him – Jeremy Corbyn – or his ideas, his policies? I mean, he is a revert to, I guess, an old-fashioned form of socialism that has now got a huge amount of credibility.

LOCKWOOD Believe it or not, I’ve been at Labour Party conferences there in the UK because I used to attend both major conferences, and I’ve heard him speak. He uses that whole language. I’ve heard him talk about ‘comrades’ and, you know, old unionist-type language. And sure, there’s been a bit of a surge for that sort of thing, but I think it’s more complex than just a hankering for those old times.

CORIN But a lot of young voters– It resonated with a lot of young voters. He talked in that clip at the start about hope, and I wonder if he has got onto something there. He’s offering younger voters in a Western democracy who feel shut out genuine hope.

LOCKWOOD I think those younger voters were also quite grumpy about Brexit. The younger people didn’t want to leave the EU and so this was a chance for them to express their frustration at that and they’ve done that. I think it’s quite a complex set of issues. Of course, also in the UK, austerity has been far, far more severe than in New Zealand here. Government spending has been actually cut in the UK and that’s been felt quite hard.

CORIN So you don’t see those parallels, perhaps, in New Zealand?

LOCKWOOD I don’t see the parallels at all in New Zealand. We’ve come through the global financial crisis in far better shape than European countries, and we never had to cut spending.

CORIN There are obviously a lot of students with big student loan debt. You’d know all about that, having been a former Education Minister. But also the housing issue – there are some parallels there, aren’t there?

LOCKWOOD Believe me, it’s just so much better than in the UK and Europe. Students pay far, far more in the UK and so that dissatisfaction among young people is very real there and Brexit was the trigger. They didn’t want that outcome and so they’ve voiced their frustration with that at this snap election.

CORIN What do you think it means in terms of New Zealand’s positioning for a free trade agreement with the UK in terms of Brexit? Is this going to delay the Brexit negotiations, do you think?

LOCKWOOD It shouldn’t necessarily, no. There’s a two-year timeframe in which those have got to be negotiated and I think this government, the Theresa May government will push on with that. I think they’ve got their mind—They were pretty cohesive prior to this snap election. The key ministers – David Davis, Boris, Liam Fox, Theresa May herself – were really very cohesive around the strategy they were pursuing. I think they will get back to that.

CORIN Will that still be that idea of a hard Brexit, where it’s just a clean break, pretty much?

LOCKWOOD It has to be. Because if they tried to, for example, stay in the Customs Union with the EU, there are no wins out of it. Why would you leave the EU and remain in the Customs Union? You can’t win that way. The only way the UK can really win out of leaving the EU is being able to develop its own global trade strategy, get its own control back over its immigration policy and get its own control again over its own regulatory system. And they’ve got to proceed with that if they’re going to win out of leaving the EU, otherwise why leave? You’re better off in.

CORIN So, what does a country like New Zealand do? What’s our best strategy here? Do we just quietly work behind the scenes and make sure we’re ready when they’re ready?

LOCKWOOD That’s what we’re doing, and we work quite closely with them, very much involved with the development of their global trade strategy. And we’ll keep working on that. We’ve got a trade dialogue going with them, because our first priority at the moment is our FTA with the EU, and we want to get that launched this year. But then we want to be one of the first cabs off the rank with the UK as well when they’re able to negotiate trade agreements once they’ve left the EU, and so a lot of work behind the scenes.

CORIN Coming back just to the campaign, I wonder, have you got any sort of words of advice for your former National Party colleagues about campaigns and about what’s gone on in the UK and anything like that?

LOCKWOOD Never. I’m no longer a politician and don’t offer any such advice. Although one thing the election does show as a snap elections are dangerous. They can produce really perverse results. And number two, you have to campaign. And Theresa May, I think we have seen, standing back, not getting into the campaign, not engaging.

CORIN What was the thinking behind that strategy?

LOCKWOOD I suppose it was that they felt they had such a huge lead that she didn’t want to engage with someone who she thought -- Jeremy Corbyn -- had such little credibility. She sent Amber Rudd along to one of the debates. You don’t do that. That’s insulting to the peoples – the voting public to say, ‘We don’t care enough, and therefore, I’m not going to go and debate.’ That never goes down well.

CORIN In your view, it’s a complex picture and you don’t think Labour here should be emboldened by this?

LOCKWOOD I mean, elections are always unpredictable, but this particular situation in the UK was very complex – Scotland, so different from what was going on around parts of the UK, and you look at the different results happening in different places. I think you’ve mentioned the one compelling thing, and that is the influence of the young people, who were very frustrated about Brexit and other issues as well.

CORIN Sir Lockwood Smith, thank you very much for your time. We do appreciate it on Q + A.

LOCKWOOD Thank you.

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