Henry Hill: The challenges involved in reviving the ‘four-nation’ approach to Covid-19

24 Sep

Whereas Brexit didn’t give the Scottish Nationalists the lift-off they were expecting, the Covid-19 pandemic really does appear to be putting the post-1998 constitutional order under even greater strain.

This became apparent over the summer with the breakdown of the Government’s efforts to maintain a ‘four-nation’ response to tackling coronavirus, resulting in a confusing spread of different rules across the United Kingdom and the spectre of internal movement restrictions between the Home Nations.

As a result, the true extent of devolution has become more apparent than ever and this seems to be hardening opinion on both sides. In Scotland, the Scottish Government continues to have a ‘good crisis’ – at least in PR terms – whilst in Wales devoscepticism has arrived as a noteworthy political force.

This week, however, Nicola Sturgeon seems to have changed tack again. The Scotsman reports that she has written to Boris Johnson to request “urgent four-nation talks” about how toughen lockdown. According to the paper:

“The topics highlighted by the First Minister include what further actions might be necessary, what support is required for affected sectors and what arrangements can be put in place to ensure that devolved administrations are not constrained in making what they judge to be essential public health decisions.”

Kenny Farquharson, writing in the Times, describes this approach as “alignment plus”. His explanation for the new approach is that the First Minister recognises that many Scots risk getting quite different information depending on whether, for example, they prefer Scottish or national radio and television stations. With public patience likely to start fraying as we head into another six months of restrictions, the less room for confusion there is the better.

Of course, it would be a little naïve not to look for possible mischief in any SNP overture to the Government, and one can see how this could make things tricky for Johnson. By urging the Prime Minister to adopt tougher restrictions, Sturgeon can once again appear ahead of the game to a solidly pro-lockdown public – which is doing her standing no harm in Scotland – whilst also sharpening the possible split between the Government and Conservative backbenchers, who are growing increasingly restive about how ministers are handling the imposition of economic and social restrictions.

If the Prime Minister does end up leaning into a more restrictive, four-nations approach, residents in England may end up facing some of the more draconian measures which are currently in force elsewhere. For example, Scotland has banned household visits (and Wales restricted them to ‘extended households’), whereas the Government currently still permits these subject to the ‘Rule of Six’ and appropriate social distancing restrictions.

Wales has also used the pandemic to start smuggling in somewhat bizarre public health nannying, such as a new ban on off-licences and supermarkets selling alcohol after 10pm. It will be very interesting to see whether or not that restriction is repealed once the Covid-19 crisis has passed.

Sturgeon also used her letter to call (inevitably) for more powers. The Scotsman says she “also highlighted that devolved administrations’ ability to take action is curtailed by a lack of financial levers to deliver economic support.” This demand is obviously in tension with the Government’s desire, embodied in the UK Internal Market Bill, to defend the coherence of the British common market and the broader constitutional settlement.

Newslinks for Thursday 24th September 2020

24 Sep

Sunak puts billions into new Covid-19 rescue plan

“Rishi Sunak will announce today a multibillion-pound package of support for the economy in an attempt to avoid mass redundancies this winter. The chancellor’s measures will include wage subsidies for part-time workers, VAT cuts and more loans for struggling businesses. Mr Sunak will set out his “winter economy plan” in the Commons. It is expected to feature a German-style subsidy scheme in which the government would help to pay the wages of people returning to work on a part-time basis. The system is designed to encourage companies to keep on workers in viable jobs while ensuring that others are not retained in “zombie posts” that exist only because of the government’s furlough scheme, which ends on October 31… Mr Sunak will also say that his plans for an autumn budget have been scrapped because of the resurgence of coronavirus.” – The Times

More:

  • Employers urged to ‘exhaust all alternatives’ before cutting jobs – FT
  • Businesses lash out at coronavirus curbs – The Times
  • Top scientist warns second lockdown on the way – The Sun

Comment:

  • Sunak needs to urgently rethink his plans to get UK through winter – Nils Pratley, The Guardian

>Today: Kevin Hollinrake MP in Comment: Replacing council tax and stamp duty should be part of the roadmap for a fairer Britain

>Yesterday: ToryDiary: With the 10pm curfew starting tomorrow, Sunak’s “imaginative” measures will need to come within days

Johnson faces major Tory rebellion over new lockdown rules

“Boris Johnson faces a major Tory rebellion over his new lockdown rules as his own MPs blasted him for pursuing “the wrong strategy”. MPs must approve the ongoing Covid measures in a Commons vote next week as the six-month powers granted under the Coronavirus Act expire. But dozens of Tories are threatening to vote for an amendment that would force the Government to give MPs a veto over all future Covid measures. The rebels – organised by powerful Tory backbencher Sir Graham Brady – are understood to have the backing of Labour and are confident they have the numbers of defeating the Government. One of the MPs organising the rebellion said: “If it comes to a vote, I think we’ll win it.” Former Cabinet minister David Davis said the PM’s latest measures had convinced him and several other Tories to back the rebellion.” – The Sun

  • Rebels ‘100% certain’ of blocking PM’s Covid powers – Daily Express

More:

  • London facing lockdown as UK coronavirus cases reach 6,000 – The Times
  • 10pm nightlife ban not a silver bullet to tackle Covid, says Raab – The Guardian
  • Labour apologise after frontbencher said pandemic was a ‘good crisis’ to exploit – The Sun

>Today:

New Covid tracing app to launch in England and Wales

“An app using Apple and Google technology that will alert people if they have been close to someone with coronavirus will be launched in England and Wales on Thursday, as ministers seek to beef up the government’s faltering test-and-trace programme. The arrival of the app draws a line under months of delays during which the government had attempted to produce a bespoke UK-only version that did not involve the tech giants. Matt Hancock, health secretary, warned that the country was “at a tipping point” in its efforts to control the spread of the virus. “With infection rates rising we must use every tool at our disposal to prevent transmission, including the latest technology,” he said. The government had worked “extensively with tech companies, international partners, and privacy and medical experts – and learned from the trials – to develop an app that is secure, simple to use and will help keep our country safe,” he added.” – FT

  • Anger as app fails to work on older phone models – Daily Mail

More:

  • Battle to calm coronavirus herd immunity revolt – The Times
  • Shortages threaten Johnson’s pledge of 500,000 UK Covid tests a day – The Guardian
  • Cases in Scotland surge to record high – Daily Telegraph

Vaccine:

  • Britain to run first coronavirus vaccine trials that infect volunteers – The Times
  • Revealed: Vallance has £600,000 shareholding in firm contracted to develop vaccines – Daily Telegraph
  • One in five don’t want coronavirus vaccine amid fears of side-effects – The Times

>Today: Frances Lasok in Local Government: This pandemic has shown the Conservatives need a local community focus

Gus O’Donnell and Harry Begg: Ministers must change strategy to get a grip on Covid

“Yet each announcement of new rules, coupled with a steady stream of leaks, shows a government struggling to emerge from firefighting mode and into a workable longer-term strategy. It is as though our institutions were not built for this. From excess deaths to precipitous falls in GDP and wellbeing, the UK has unequivocally failed compared to its peer countries. One glaring issue is that the government has no framework for dealing with trade-offs, so we lurch from one policy to the next depending on whether the chancellor or the health secretary has won the argument of the day. Such a framework should be the cornerstone of government strategy. If implemented properly, it would allow for more effective decentralisation, which has been key to the success of countries like South Korea and Germany in this crisis. To this end, here are four recommendations for the government to turn around its lacklustre performance.” – The Times

  • The three taboos at the heart of the Government’s coronavirus fiasco – Allister Heath, Daily Telegraph
  • Protect the elderly and let the rest of us carry on as usual – Rod Liddle, The Sun
  • This isn’t the Johnson that Britain voted for – Stephen Glover, Daily Mail
  • Johnson is struggling with the politics of Covid, but it’s dangerous to write him off – Martin Kettle, The Guardian
  • The Tories are turning into a big state party – Iain Martin, The Times

>Yesterday: ToryDiary: Covid. Mass lockdowns v a Swedish option is a flawed choice. But if Ministers can’t make mass testing work, it’s the one we’ll have.

‘Garden of England’ set to grow own borders under plan for Kent ports

“Plans to force British and international lorry drivers to obtain an “access permit” to drive into Kent next year have caused uproar after they were outlined to MPs by Michael Gove, the cabinet minister responsible for Brexit implementation. Under the scheme, announced by Mr Gove on Wednesday, drivers will be tracked by number-plate recognition technology and forced to pay spot-fines of £300 if found to be travelling without the correct customs documentation. The measures are designed to avoid clogging the roads around the Kent Channel ports of Dover and Folkestone when customs controls are reimposed on the UK’s border with Europe at the end of the Brexit transition period on January 1. Mr Gove warned that queues of up to 7,000 trucks could form in Kent if business did not do more to prepare for the new border, leading to a furious backlash from the customs industry, which blamed the government for failing to provide adequate guidance and ready new IT systems.” – FT

  • British lorries will need permit to enter Kent after Brexit – The Times
  • Gove unveils ‘moment of opportunity’ in 100-day exit countdown – Daily Express

More:

  • Ferry firm handed multi million-pound contract by Grayling has gone bust – The Sun

Johnson overrules Sunak to keep triple lock on pensions

“Boris Johnson has “put his foot down” and overruled the chancellor to retain the triple lock on increases in the state pension, The Times has been told. The government tabled legislation yesterday to avoid the state pension being frozen in April because of the fall in average earnings. The technical bill clears the way for the Conservatives to deliver on their triple lock manifesto pledge, under which the state pension rises in line with wages, inflation or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest. Rishi Sunak has been pushing for it to be suspended for fear of soaring costs because of the recession and a fall in wages caused by the furlough scheme, which covers 80 per cent of earnings. Once the scheme ends, a sharp one-off rise in average wages is forecast to be recorded next year, leading to a jump in pensions the following year.” – The Times

Prime Minister will call on nations ‘to make big commitments’ on climate change at virtual UN meeting

“Boris Johnson will call on nations to make ambitious commitments on climate change when he addresses a virtual UN today. The PM will announce that the UK will co-host an event with the UN on December 12th to mark the five-year anniversary of the landmark Paris Agreement where most countries committed to cut emissions. The Prime Minister will say: “As the world continues to deal with coronavirus we must look ahead to how we will rebuild, and how we can seize the opportunity to build back better. The UK will lead by example, keeping the environment on the global agenda and serving as a launch pad for a global green industrial revolution. But no one country can turn the tide – it would be akin to bailing out a liner with a single bucket.” – The Sun

  • Fossil fuel companies ‘misleading’ Johnson on green hydrogen – The Times

Jenrick ‘ignored civil servants’ to spend Towns Fund millions on Tory marginals

“Ministers ignored the advice of civil servants before ploughing millions into marginal constituencies, a cross-party group of MPs has been told. Last September, weeks before the general election, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, announced that he would award £25 million each to deprived areas under a regeneration scheme called the Towns Fund. Mr Jenrick and Jake Berry, a junior housing minister, chose 61 of the 101 towns. Analysis by The Times found that 60 of the areas they selected were in Conservative-held seats or Tory targets. The average majority in those towns was just 3,000. Mr Jenrick also chose his own seat of Newark – one of only two with a majority of more than 10,000 to receive funding. The government initially refused to publish details of the selection criteria, but was overruled by the National Audit Office (NAO), leading to accusations by the public accounts committee that the government had used “flimsy, cherry-picked evidence” to choose the towns.” – The Times

Wallace attacks Labour’s ‘illegal wars’ in debate on veterans

“The Defence Secretary triggered a row last night by suggesting British troops had taken part in ‘illegal wars’. Ben Wallace appeared to question the legality of the Iraq invasion while standing at the Commons despatch box. In a heated exchange with his Labour counterpart, Mr Wallace said: ‘What we should recognise is much of the mess we are having to come and clean up today is because of your [Labour’s] illegal wars, your events in the past.’ Labour defence spokesman John Healey replied: ‘That is not worthy of the office of the Secretary of State for Defence. This is too important for party politics. It should be beneath the Secretary of State to reduce this to party politics.’ The row came as MPs debated legislation the Government has said will mean service personnel will be protected from ‘vexatious claims and endless investigations’.” – Daily Mail

  • Three Labour MPs quit Shadow Cabinet after voting against Bill designed to shield army veterans – The Sun

Intelligence services:

  • Undercover MI5 agents broke the law to foil May assassination plot, reveals Home Office – Daily Mail
  • Human rights groups voice fears over ‘licence to kill’ for spies – The Times

>Yesterday: James Sunderland MP in Comment: The Prime Minister has said he’s willing to see our armed forces back up the police. But there’s much more they can do.

Starmer may back Sturgeon’s bid for second divisive Scottish independence vote

“Sir Keir Starmer could back Nicola Sturgeon’s bid to hold another divisive Scottish independence vote, it emerged. Boris Johnson vowed to block a second referendum, which needs Parliamentary approval. Labour’s leader said the Scottish Nationalists will have a “mandate” for it if they win next May’s elections. He also refused six times to say he would join the PM in blocking the poll. He told the BBC: “We’ll be going into that election making it very clear another divisive referendum on independence is not what’s needed.” He added: “I am not doing a hypothetical of what will happen after that.” Scotland voted against in 2014 in what was billed as a “once-in-a-generation” vote. Ms Sturgeon has been calling for another ever since.” – The Sun

BBC ‘braced for more turbulence’ as arch-critic is tipped for top job

“Tim Davie has not even been the BBC’s director-general for a month but the UK broadcaster is already being thrown into another leadership battle, this time with a more existential edge.  Boris Johnson’s government will soon launch a process to nominate the BBC’s next chair, a position that the corporation’s charter states must be filled through “a fair and open competition” but in practice can be settled by the whim of the prime minister. Reports that Mr Johnson is minded to tap Charles Moore, his former boss at the Daily Telegraph newspaper, have rattled senior figures in the BBC and Whitehall, who have told colleagues they are convinced it is more than just a Downing Street scare story.  The concern is not his notable record as a Fleet Street editor and Margaret Thatcher biographer, which earned him a peerage from Mr Johnson last month. It is that Lord Moore has waged a decade-long war on the BBC’s licence fee, which extended to a court punishing him with a £262 fine in 2010 for refusing to pay it.” – FT

  • Corporation criticised for giving Starmer right of reply to Johnson’s ‘public information’ address… – Daily Telegraph
  • …in which he says Covid-19 is ‘not an act of God but a failure of government’ in ‘political attack’ – Daily Mail

Comment:

  • Why Grayson Perry is wrong about intolerant liberals – David Aaronovitch, The Times

>Yesterday: Darren Grimes in Comment: Not even Charles Moore can save the BBC

News in Brief:

  • The Tory brawl over Covid rules – James Forsyth, The Spectator
  • The Keynesian comeback – Tim Congdon, The Critic
  • Sunak needs to be tough if he is to protect jobs long term – Maggie Pagano, Reaction
  • The hard left hates Starmer’s appeal to patriotism – Dr David Jeffery, CapX
  • Can nationalism be used to fight climate change? – Aris Roussinos, UnHerd

Dying by numbers

24 Sep

Covid-19 can cast a “long shadow”.  Its aftermath effects include “fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain”.

One study suggests that the proportion of those who first catch the virus and then develop such persistent symptoms is about 15 per cent.  But there’s still much we don’t know about it and evidence is hard to come by.  Nonetheless, it is clearly wrong to claim that the Coronavirus is no worse than flu.

The long shadow effect is also a reminder that one doesn’t either get Covid-19 and end up in hospital, or else not get it at all.  However, the UK, like other countries, would not be responding to the virus with a mix of shutdowns, new laws, voluntary action and testing were the Coronavirus not a killer.

As this site explained yesterday, we believe that a choice between more mass lockdowns and a Swedish option would be the wrong one: the best policy to counter Covid-19 is mass testing.  But successful testing will inevitably be go hand in hand with social distancing and other preventative action.  And the scale, duration and sweep of all anti-virus measures will ultimately be shaped not by the long shadow, but by death numbers.

These are notoriously hard to calculate, both here and abroad.  The NHS in England has changed the way in which they are assessed at least twice: in April and August.  The daily figures “do not include deaths outside hospital, such as those in care homes”, and each daily release is always lagging, since “reporting in central figures can take up to several days”.

Furthermore, there is over-counting, because the figures include cases in which Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, which doesn’t necessary mean that it was the main cause of the death, and under-counting, because the figures can’t catch every single case. Those that follow are therefore heavily caveated.

Two similar peaks are recorded as having being reached: 1,152 deaths on April 9 and 1,172 on April 20.  Were England to suffer, say, eleven hundred Covid deaths a day for a whole year, that would be some 369,600 deaths in all, plus more in the rest of the UK.

But nothing like that, of course, has actually happened.  Writing on ConservativeHome, Raghib Ali says that “we now have good evidence from death certificates that Covid-19 was the underlying cause of death in about 50,000 people”.  Still, that’s about 30,000 more than the 20,000 that Patrick Vallance said would be “a good outcome”.

Those recorded deaths began to fall in late April, and the last figure we can find, yesterday’s, was 37.  Since August 8, they have ranged from 55 to zero.  Those inclined to minimise the severity of Coronavirus will quote those low totals, while those disposed to maximise will quote Vallance’s figure, from his presentation earlier this week, of some 200 deaths a day by November – some 5,600 that month.  Or point out that it could be higher.

Replicated each day for a year, that would suggest about 67,000 deaths.  But that’s based on cases doubling every seven days, as at present – with no change.  Vallance himself conceded that such an assumption is “quite a big if” – which raises the question of whether he should therefore have raised it at all, or at least clearly put it in a more rounded context.

Which would include looking at what’s happening in two other European countries whose increase in numbers we seem to be following: France and Spain.  (As last spring, the figures suggest that the UK is treading in the footsteps of some other European countries.)

If 50,000 cases in mid-October were to be followed by 200 deaths a day by November (“the Vallance model”) 10,000 cases a day (“the French/Spanish model”) would be followed by 40 deaths a day.  If we play the same game of replicated that number each day for a year, we get 13,440 deaths.

That would be lower than annual flu death totals in England during recent years. Public Health England estimates that on average 17,000 people died from flu in England annually between 2014/15 and 2018/19.

But whether the number of deaths each day by November is 200, more than 200, or 40 (or fewer), there is no reason to believe that a rise from present levels would be sustained.

Ali says that “deaths should also be significantly lower due to the lower age profile of cases…better shielding of those at highest risk and possibly a lower viral load  due to social distancing and masks. We are also now much better at managing the disease with more effective treatments.”

Were we to follow Spain and France after all, and if test and trace doesn’t show clear signs of improvement, the mood on the Conservative backbenches is likely to shift away from Government policy, which is ultimately based on state-enforced lockdowns, and towards Sweden’s, and mass voluntary action.

Dying by numbers

24 Sep

Covid-19 can cast a “long shadow”.  Its aftermath effects include “fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain”.

One study suggests that the proportion of those who first catch the virus and then develop such persistent symptoms is about 15 per cent.  But there’s still much we don’t know about it and evidence is hard to come by.  Nonetheless, it is clearly wrong to claim that the Coronavirus is no worse than flu.

The long shadow effect is also a reminder that one doesn’t either get Covid-19 and end up in hospital, or else not get it at all.  However, the UK, like other countries, would not be responding to the virus with a mix of shutdowns, new laws, voluntary action and testing were the Coronavirus not a killer.

As this site explained yesterday, we believe that a choice between more mass lockdowns and a Swedish option would be the wrong one: the best policy to counter Covid-19 is mass testing.  But successful testing will inevitably be go hand in hand with social distancing and other preventative action.  And the scale, duration and sweep of all anti-virus measures will ultimately be shaped not by the long shadow, but by death numbers.

These are notoriously hard to calculate, both here and abroad.  The NHS in England has changed the way in which they are assessed at least twice: in April and August.  The daily figures “do not include deaths outside hospital, such as those in care homes”, and each daily release is always lagging, since “reporting in central figures can take up to several days”.

Furthermore, there is over-counting, because the figures include cases in which Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, which doesn’t necessary mean that it was the main cause of the death, and under-counting, because the figures can’t catch every single case. Those that follow are therefore heavily caveated.

Two similar peaks are recorded as having being reached: 1,152 deaths on April 9 and 1,172 on April 20.  Were England to suffer, say, eleven hundred Covid deaths a day for a whole year, that would be some 369,600 deaths in all, plus more in the rest of the UK.

But nothing like that, of course, has actually happened.  Writing on ConservativeHome, Raghib Ali says that “we now have good evidence from death certificates that Covid-19 was the underlying cause of death in about 50,000 people”.  Still, that’s about 30,000 more than the 20,000 that Patrick Vallance said would be “a good outcome”.

Those recorded deaths began to fall in late April, and the last figure we can find, yesterday’s, was 37.  Since August 8, they have ranged from 55 to zero.  Those inclined to minimise the severity of Coronavirus will quote those low totals, while those disposed to maximise will quote Vallance’s figure, from his presentation earlier this week, of some 200 deaths a day by November – some 5,600 that month.  Or point out that it could be higher.

Replicated each day for a year, that would suggest about 67,000 deaths.  But that’s based on cases doubling every seven days, as at present – with no change.  Vallance himself conceded that such an assumption is “quite a big if” – which raises the question of whether he should therefore have raised it at all, or at least clearly put it in a more rounded context.

Which would include looking at what’s happening in two other European countries whose increase in numbers we seem to be following: France and Spain.  (As last spring, the figures suggest that the UK is treading in the footsteps of some other European countries.)

If 50,000 cases in mid-October were to be followed by 200 deaths a day by November (“the Vallance model”) 10,000 cases a day (“the French/Spanish model”) would be followed by 40 deaths a day.  If we play the same game of replicated that number each day for a year, we get 13,440 deaths.

That would be lower than annual flu death totals in England during recent years. Public Health England estimates that on average 17,000 people died from flu in England annually between 2014/15 and 2018/19.

But whether the number of deaths each day by November is 200, more than 200, or 40 (or fewer), there is no reason to believe that a rise from present levels would be sustained.

Ali says that “deaths should also be significantly lower due to the lower age profile of cases…better shielding of those at highest risk and possibly a lower viral load  due to social distancing and masks. We are also now much better at managing the disease with more effective treatments.”

Were we to follow Spain and France after all, and if test and trace doesn’t show clear signs of improvement, the mood on the Conservative backbenches is likely to shift away from Government policy, which is ultimately based on state-enforced lockdowns, and towards Sweden’s, and mass voluntary action.

Profile: Graham Brady, who played a quiet part in deposing May, and now keeps a watchful eye on Johnson

24 Sep

An adviser to Boris Johnson warned him earlier this year not to be alone with Graham Brady. Here already was a sign of prime ministerial weakness, or evasiveness, in the face of a determined upholder, not just of the rights of Conservative backbenchers, but of parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive.

Nobody would describe Sir Graham Brady as evasive. He is sincere, vigilant and as Chairman of the 1922 Committee, considers it his duty to convey, in the manner of a polite but implacable shop steward, the views of his members to the Prime Minister.

Like a considerable number of those members, he is furious that ministers have “got into the habit of ruling by decree” during the pandemic. In May, Brady called on ministers to look at “removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”, though he recognised that many voters approved of these restrictions:

“The public have been willing to assist. If anything, in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home.”

Last weekend, Brady went further, and told The Sunday Telegraph:

“In March, Parliament gave the Government sweeping emergency powers at a time when Parliament was about to go into recess and there was realistic concern that NHS care capacity might be overwhelmed by Covid-19.

“We now know that the NHS coped well with the challenge of the virus and Parliament has been sitting largely since April. There is now no justification for ministers ruling by emergency powers without reference to normal democratic processes.

“It is essential that going forward all of these massively important decisions for family life, and affecting people’s jobs and businesses, should be exercised with proper supervision and control.”

In other words, Parliament must have the final say on any new measures the Government introduces to fight the pandemic. That is the amendment to the Coronavirus Act 2020 demanded by Sir Graham, which as Paul Goodman noted here on Monday, could command widespread assent on the Conservative benches:

“The danger for Downing Street, if it comes to a debate and a vote, is that it faces a coalition of high-minded constitutionalists, supporters of a Swedish option, low-minded opportunists who dislike Johnson, feel under-promoted, are grievance-haunted (or all three), plus backbenchers who are simply unhappy and bewildered.”

Every Tory leader has to be mindful of what his or her own troops will wear. The Conservative Party is a coalition of such disparate or even contradictory elements that many people, unaware of the lesson (“never again”) learned from the disastrous split over the Corn Laws in 1846, cannot comprehend why it remains together.

Brady possesses a resolute independence of mind. “He really couldn’t stand David Cameron,” one of his colleagues remarks. Nor, one may surmise, is he particularly keen on Johnson.

For in Brady, we find a Conservative of a different stamp. He was born in Salford in 1967 and educated at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, an establishment to which he remains fiercely loyal, after which he read law at Durham, where he was immensely active in student politics and married Victoria Lowther, with whom he has two children.

In his twenties, he earned his living by working for public affairs companies, and also for a couple of years for the Centre for Policy Studies, before gaining selection for his home seat of Altrincham and Sale West, which in the Labour landslide of 1997 he retained by the slender margin of 1505 votes.

At the age of 29, he was the youngest Conservative MP, and in his maiden speech he declared his passionate loyalty to grammar schools:

“In the borough of Trafford, successive Conservative administrations have worked, not only to preserve our excellent grammar schools, but to raise standards in the high schools as well. What we have achieved is an example of selective education that works and it should be taken as a model for improving education across the country.

“I believe passionately in the role of the grammar schools as the greatest of social levellers and I fear that before long I will be called upon to defend my old school, Altrincham boys grammar school, from those who would see the remaining 160 grammar schools destroyed. As a believer in grammar schools, I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools.”

He served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Ancram, a junior Whip, Education spokesman and in 2003 as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the new Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard.

The following year he became Shadow Europe Minister, a post he retained under Howard’s successor, David Cameron. But in 2007, when a tremendous row erupted within the party over grammar schools, Brady resigned because “in conscience” he had to be free to speak his mind, and to argue his unfashionable case:

“Grammar schools in selective areas are exactly the motor that does drive social mobility more effectively than comprehensive areas.”

A generally sympathetic colleague says of Brady that when grammar schools are mentioned “his eye lights up with insanity”, an expression coined by Disraeli, who reported that this was what happened to General Peel on hearing the words “household suffrage”.

Cameron says in his memoirs, For The Record:

“I felt that the call to ‘bring back grammars’ was an anti-modernisation proxy, and I wasn’t going to stand for it.”

There was a class element in this row. Etonians couldn’t generally see the point of grammar schools. Conservatives from less gilded backgrounds often knew from personal experience that such schools could transform lives.

In 2010, Brady stood for the chairmanship of the ’22, just after Cameron’s brazen attempt to neuter that committee as the voice of backbenchers had been seen off, with his proposal to allow members of the Government to vote in its elections being withdrawn.

Brady’s resignation three years earlier had proved his independence, and he had indicated, after the 2010 election, that he and other Tory MPs would have preferred a minority Conservative Government – “That, I think, is generally the feeling of colleagues” – to the coalition formed by Cameron with the Liberal Democrats.

In a piece for ConHome he explained why he was standing:

“Coalition government has been hailed as a part of a ‘new politics’. I believe that enhancing the role of Parliament and the status of MPs as the elected champions of our constituents is just as important. For too many years the Executive has eroded the power of Parliament and back benchers have increasingly been marginalised, I want to play a part in reversing that process.”

Brady defeated the other candidate, Richard Ottaway, who was thought to be favoured by Cameron, by 126 votes to 85.

If one wants to see how deeply Brady feels about things, one has only to read the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture which he delivered under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2014. He began by quoting with approval Margaret Thatcher when she gave the same lecture in 1996:

“In politics, integrity really lies in the conviction that it’s only on the basis of truth that power should be won – or indeed can be worth winning. It lies in the unswerving belief that you have to be right.”

Brady went on to say:

“Political parties have become over-reliant on focus groups and opinion research to identify the key target voters in the key ‘swing’ seats. The message is too often crafted to appeal – not to be right, and the biggest focus group of all – the British electorate – grows ever more disenchanted.”

Conservative backbenchers have not grown disenchanted with Brady. Sir Charles Walker, who became Vice-Chairman of the ’22 in 2010, the same year as Brady became Chairman, told ConHome:

“He’s a man who believes in Parliament and a man who believes in doing things properly. Graham is straight as a die. He’s straight in his dealings with people. So it’s no surprise he’s moving this Amendment. The Chairman of the ’22 should be spiky. That’s his role – to be a critical friend. The ’22 is rightly regarded as being a powerful organisation and leaders are best advised to be wary of it. But it’s also capable of providing great support in time of difficulty.”

The most difficult period in Brady’s chairmanship came during the last two years of Theresa May’s prime ministership. He was knighted in the 2018 New Year honours, the investiture taking place in March 2018, so at this point in the story he becomes once more Sir Graham.

The ’22 was fractious and divided, and Sir Graham was the recipient of the letters from Tory MPs which, if and when the 15 per cent threshold was reached  – 48 MPs out of 317 – would mean she faced a motion of no confidence.

Nobody knew how many letters he had received, for he did not breathe a word, but nobody doubted he was showing complete integrity in his counting of them.

In December 2018 the 15 per cent threshold was crossed, but the Prime Minister survived the subsequent ballot by 200 votes to 117. This supposedly meant she could not be challenged by this method for another year.

But on 24th May 2019, after the Conservatives had performed disastrously in European elections which would not have taken place in the UK had she managed to get Brexit done, out she went.

Brady’s role in this was one of the utmost delicacy. He reckoned the game was up, but had to say so with discretion, for not all his colleagues agreed with him.

Once she realised she had to go, he wished to take soundings to see whether he could launch his own leadership bid. Since the ’22 would be running the leadership election, he stepped down.

He soon found he had no support, so he did not run. Nor, to the astonishment of more worldly figures, did he endorse any other candidate: not even his fellow Leaver, Boris Johnson, when it became evident that Johnson was going to win.

Others who rushed to join the winning side were rewarded with Cabinet posts. A minister told ConHome: “I know Graham believed he was going to be offered a job, and thought it should be a Cabinet position.

“But he had never come out for Boris, and Boris’s whole operation is based on people who are loyal to him.

“Graham was disappointed he didn’t get anything, went back to being Chairman of the ’22, and since then he’s been quite grumpy.”

This reading of events comes from a Johnson loyalist, and others will feel it was to Sir Graham’s credit that he did not sell out his long-established independence.

Sir Graham, who is still only 53 years old, is in person an affable figure, ready to be amused by things, unperturbed by journalists, and not inclined to idealise Tory MPs, of whom he remarked at the 2018 party conference, when the question of letters demanding a vote of confidence was starting to become of interest:

“The distance between what some of my colleagues say they might have done and what they actually have done can be considerable.”

On another occasion, interviewed by ConHome, he lamented the “ennui, apathy and cynicism” shown by colleagues who declined to use the machinery set up to enable them to feed in policy proposals for consideration in the 2015 manifesto.

He is loyal, as we have seen, to an idea of truth which stands above party politics. Sir Graham is now a severe impediment to any attempt by Downing Street to go on running things without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

And if and when Johnson suffers a severe loss of confidence on his own side of the House, Sir Graham will once more find himself being asked from day to day, indeed from hour to hour, how many letters he has received.

Garvan Walshe: Four actions we can take to help Belarus achieve its freedom

24 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

The streets of Minsk, bathed in September morning sun, were absolutely empty yesterday. Not a soul under the clear blue sky. A sudden U-turn towards tough anti-Covid policies? Belarus making it to the world cup final? Of course not.

The real reason was that Aleksandr Lukashenko had decided to get himself reinaugurated as president – weeks early – and in secret.

Lukashenko’s regime has been shaken by almost two months of street protests following an election, in which he faced off against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband he had imprisoned in order to take him out of the race.

The rigging was farcical: observers recorded a middle-aged woman climbing down a ladder outside a polling station with bags of surplus ballots (a ballot-stuffing plan had gone awry when too many voters turned up, and space had to be created for their votes), and nobody believed the 80 per cent vote share officially recorded. Those deserted Minsk streets must have been filled by everyone who actually voted for him.

Lukashenko’s regime, in place since the Soviet Union collapsed, and so unreformed that its security service is still called the KGB, is looking very vulnerable.

Regime thugs initially responded to peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence, but have found protests led by women to be much harder to contain. Balaclava-clad men have been snatching protesters off the streets, but predictably just caused the protests to grow further.

Vladimir Putin has offered the Belarusian regime $1.5 billion, and perhaps covert riot-control support, but appears to have balked at more decisive intervention. Despite rigging his own constitutional referendum to allow him to stay on beyond the term limits he himself included in the previous version of Russia’s fundamental law, Putin finds himself on the ropes. Covid has dramatically reduced oil and gas demand, while protests have taken off, not only in Moscow, but across the country. It was on a flight back from one of those protests, in Siberia, that Alexei Navalny collapsed with Novichok poisoning. The last thing Russia needs right now is another rebellious province.

In these revolutionary moments, the survival of the regime depends on projecting a sense of “inevitability”, Rob Thomas, an Eastern Europe analyst, tells me. Legitimacy has long been forfeited, and the state lacks the sheer repressive capacity to put down such a large uprising. The best he can hope to do is to try and outlast the protesters, and hope the winter cold can send them home.

As much as Putin and Lukashenko might want to believe their own propaganda that this revolution is a CIA or George Soros plot, it is in fact a domestic movement to overthrow an unaccountable leaders who has overstayed his welcome. The pressure for change is coming from inside Belarus. Our job is to keep it in the international spotlight.

As well what might be called the standard toolkit – applying Magnitsky sanctions to regime-connected figures, clamping down on money laundering, preventing the export of surveillance and internet censorship technology, and stepping up funding of civil society through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – there are specific things that can put pressure on Lukashenko’s regime.

First, Belarus has a surprisingly successful tech sector, responsible for over five per cent of GDP. Such work can be done anywhere, so we can help Belarusian firms and programmers set up legal structures to keep their earnings outside Belarus while continuing to work where they are. Taxes due on this activity could be held in trust, and released to Belarus after it holds free and fair elections.

Second, visas should be relaxed to allow Belarusians who want to work and study abroad to come to the UK and also set up businesses with minimal red tape, on the same terms as the Ankara Agreement used to allow for Turkey.

Third, to blunt Russia’s energy weapon, we should work with Lithuania in particular to enable gas pipelines to Belarus to flow in reverse, and, together with other democracies, provide financial guarantees for liquified natural gas to be sent to a transitional Belarusian government.

Fourth, if further pressure is needed to create pressure for a transition to free and fair elections we could recognise Tikhanovskaya as an interim legitimate president, as part of a negotiating process that would allow both her and Lukashenko to stand down in favour of a neutral but democratic figure.

The empty streets and secret inauguration show that despite Cyprus blocking EU sanctions (an action surely unconnected to the large quantities of Russian money deposited in his banks) Lukashenko is running scared. If we can deny him international legitimacy, and put further economic pressure on the regime, we can play our part in supporting Belarusians’ struggle to choose their own future.

Garvan Walshe: Four actions we can take to help Belarus achieve its freedom

24 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

The streets of Minsk, bathed in September morning sun, were absolutely empty yesterday. Not a soul under the clear blue sky. A sudden U-turn towards tough anti-Covid policies? Belarus making it to the world cup final? Of course not.

The real reason was that Aleksandr Lukashenko had decided to get himself reinaugurated as president – weeks early – and in secret.

Lukashenko’s regime has been shaken by almost two months of street protests following an election, in which he faced off against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband he had imprisoned in order to take him out of the race.

The rigging was farcical: observers recorded a middle-aged woman climbing down a ladder outside a polling station with bags of surplus ballots (a ballot-stuffing plan had gone awry when too many voters turned up, and space had to be created for their votes), and nobody believed the 80 per cent vote share officially recorded. Those deserted Minsk streets must have been filled by everyone who actually voted for him.

Lukashenko’s regime, in place since the Soviet Union collapsed, and so unreformed that its security service is still called the KGB, is looking very vulnerable.

Regime thugs initially responded to peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence, but have found protests led by women to be much harder to contain. Balaclava-clad men have been snatching protesters off the streets, but predictably just caused the protests to grow further.

Vladimir Putin has offered the Belarusian regime $1.5 billion, and perhaps covert riot-control support, but appears to have balked at more decisive intervention. Despite rigging his own constitutional referendum to allow him to stay on beyond the term limits he himself included in the previous version of Russia’s fundamental law, Putin finds himself on the ropes. Covid has dramatically reduced oil and gas demand, while protests have taken off, not only in Moscow, but across the country. It was on a flight back from one of those protests, in Siberia, that Alexei Navalny collapsed with Novichok poisoning. The last thing Russia needs right now is another rebellious province.

In these revolutionary moments, the survival of the regime depends on projecting a sense of “inevitability”, Rob Thomas, an Eastern Europe analyst, tells me. Legitimacy has long been forfeited, and the state lacks the sheer repressive capacity to put down such a large uprising. The best he can hope to do is to try and outlast the protesters, and hope the winter cold can send them home.

As much as Putin and Lukashenko might want to believe their own propaganda that this revolution is a CIA or George Soros plot, it is in fact a domestic movement to overthrow an unaccountable leaders who has overstayed his welcome. The pressure for change is coming from inside Belarus. Our job is to keep it in the international spotlight.

As well what might be called the standard toolkit – applying Magnitsky sanctions to regime-connected figures, clamping down on money laundering, preventing the export of surveillance and internet censorship technology, and stepping up funding of civil society through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – there are specific things that can put pressure on Lukashenko’s regime.

First, Belarus has a surprisingly successful tech sector, responsible for over five per cent of GDP. Such work can be done anywhere, so we can help Belarusian firms and programmers set up legal structures to keep their earnings outside Belarus while continuing to work where they are. Taxes due on this activity could be held in trust, and released to Belarus after it holds free and fair elections.

Second, visas should be relaxed to allow Belarusians who want to work and study abroad to come to the UK and also set up businesses with minimal red tape, on the same terms as the Ankara Agreement used to allow for Turkey.

Third, to blunt Russia’s energy weapon, we should work with Lithuania in particular to enable gas pipelines to Belarus to flow in reverse, and, together with other democracies, provide financial guarantees for liquified natural gas to be sent to a transitional Belarusian government.

Fourth, if further pressure is needed to create pressure for a transition to free and fair elections we could recognise Tikhanovskaya as an interim legitimate president, as part of a negotiating process that would allow both her and Lukashenko to stand down in favour of a neutral but democratic figure.

The empty streets and secret inauguration show that despite Cyprus blocking EU sanctions (an action surely unconnected to the large quantities of Russian money deposited in his banks) Lukashenko is running scared. If we can deny him international legitimacy, and put further economic pressure on the regime, we can play our part in supporting Belarusians’ struggle to choose their own future.

Kevin Hollinrake: Replacing council tax and stamp duty should be part of the roadmap for a fairer Britain

24 Sep

Kevin Hollinrake is MP for Thirsk and Malton.

The battle against the Coronavirus is far from over, but as we begin to look at how to achieve what the Prime Minister called “building back better”, the time is right to think about what we as Conservatives believe “better” really means.

For me that must include creating a fairer society. By hitting the most vulnerable groups hardest, Covid-19 has sharply exposed the profound inequalities that exist in Britain. These are divides that a modern Conservative Party must be committed to eradicating. Now is the moment to do so, and as a fundamental part of that we have to look at how we tax people.

While it might not be the first thing that comes to mind, replacing council tax and stamp duty should be part of the roadmap for a fairer Britain. It’s a fundamental principle of taxation that taxes should be simple, transparent and fair, yet these taxes achieve none of those things.

Council tax is based on property values that are thirty years out of date, taxes low-value homes at a much higher rate than high-value properties and pushes millions of households into debt. It is emblematic of a broken system that is no longer fit for purpose.

Ultimately these taxes are unfair, complicated and block aspiration. Unfair because the poorest find themselves hit hardest. Complicated because they are difficult to understand and command an intricate web of bureaucracy to administer. And they hinder aspiration by taxing property transactions and discouraging people from moving home.

Since being elected to Thirsk and Malton in 2015, and as Chair of the APPG on poverty, I have seen first-hand how council tax inflicts immense suffering on some of our most vulnerable citizens while failing to fulfil the most basic tasks of a functioning property tax.

It has a devastating impact on low-income households, who if they are unable to pay are aggressively pursued by local authorities and debt collection authorities – and in some cases even imprisoned. According to Citizens Advice, 40 per cent of problem debt can be apportioned to council tax, up from 21 per cent in 2011. The Covid-19 crisis has only exacerbated the situation, with an extra £700 million in council tax debt accrued by 800,000 struggling UK households since March.

As an officer of the APPG on Land Value Capture and a former member of Parliament’s Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Select Committee, I’ve become depressingly familiar with council tax’s many structural flaws. Chief among these is its failure to keep up with the substantial increases in property values that have taken place in recent decades, particularly in London and the South East.

This has deprived the Treasury of crucial tax revenues. While it is right that property owners are able to enjoy the fruits of their investment, it is only fair that in return they are taxed on the actual – rather than 1991 – valuations of their homes.

I have come to accept that council tax is in need of replacement – the problems will not be solved simply by adding one or two more property bands. I was therefore delighted to discover that a new grassroots campaign, Fairer Share, has put forward credible and costed proposals to do just that. It proposes replacing council tax and stamp duty with a proportional property tax (PPT) which would tax all homes at exactly the same rate based on up-to-date property values.

These proposals have two key merits in comparison to council tax: they are fairer and they are simpler. By taxing homeowners on current property values, they would ensure that wealthy homeowners pay an amount of tax that actually reflects the value of their homes while providing a much-needed tax cut to millions of low- and middle-income households.

This would give a real boost to the UK’s regions, the majority of which are hugely disadvantaged by the current system. This is in stark contrast to the status quo, under which a person living in a property worth £100,000 pays around five times more tax as a share of property value than someone living in a property worth £1 million – the equivalent of charging more VAT on a Ford than on a Ferrari.

In place of the administrative challenge of council tax, in which properties are taxed through a confusing and distorting system of bands and exemptions, the PPT would apply a single rate of tax – 0.48 per cent of property value – to all homes. Owners rather than tenants would be responsible for the tax, removing over 8.7 million households from property tax altogether and saving councils an annual £400 million in administrative costs.

To incentivise more efficient usage of existing property, a surcharge on second, empty and offshore-owned homes would be introduced, as well as on plots of land that received council planning permission yet have been left vacant by developers. The policy is revenue neutral – raising the same amount of money for the Treasury as the scrapped taxes currently do.

To maintain the important democratic link between local expenditure and local taxation, Fairer Share recommends that the 0.48 per cent rate should consist of two components. A fixed national rate (0.32 per cent) which would go to central government for redistribution and an initial floating local rate (0.16 per cent) which would go straight to the local authority and could subsequently be moved up or down by that authority. In this way local authorities retain flexibility over taxation and voters can still judge them on value for money.

And importantly, this approach includes the complete abolition of stamp duty land tax (SDLT) on owner-occupied residential property. By taxing properties when they change hands, stamp duty discourages homeowners from moving – such as a young household looking to buy a family home or an older couple looking to downsize – and prevents the efficient use of our existing supply of housing. This also has wider economic consequences when, for example, it leads to people turning down job opportunities outside of their area due to the cost of moving home.

The Government has already acknowledged the harm stamp duty causes by introducing numerous exemptions from the tax, including most recently a temporary holiday on all purchases up to £500,000 announced last month. With the UK likely facing an extended economic downturn, the Chancellor should now take further action to support the housing market by fully abolishing stamp duty on owner-occupied property.

While replacing taxes as fundamental as council tax and stamp duty – responsible for raising £50 billion annually ­- is no walk in the park, I firmly believe it is the right thing to do. The current system of council tax and stamp duty is simply unfair and inefficient.

Local authority finances have been hit hard recently. Replacing these taxes with a better system will put them on a stronger foundation for the future. The PPT is simpler and easier to operate, and revaluations can be carried out regularly, quickly and easily using the latest technology and on a desktop basis.

The Fairer Share campaign has provided us with an excellent blueprint for reform. I urge the Chancellor to take its proposals seriously, starting by announcing a fundamental review of council tax at this year’s Autumn Budget. This would mirror the Treasury’s ongoing review of business rates, the other half of our dysfunctional property tax system.

While it would take time to get the details right, introducing a proportional tax on property in the UK would be an excellent way for our party to demonstrate our commitment to “levelling up” and to do something meaningful for the many new constituencies we have won across the country.

I urge anyone interested in Fairer Share’s proposals to visit their website here or get in touch with me, and to share this article and the wider campaign with their networks. I will also be hosting a live webinar and Q&A with the Fairer Share team in the coming weeks – details will be posted on my website in due course.