Newslinks for Sunday 30th August 2020

30 Aug

Sunak ‘plans triple tax raid on the wealthy’ to pay for virus response

“Treasury officials are drawing up plans for a £30bn tax raid on the wealthy, businesses, pensions and foreign aid — to plug a hole in the nation’s finances caused by the coronavirus crisis. Under proposals that are due to form the centrepiece of the budget in November, the government is planning to raise both capital gains tax and corporation tax. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is also considering a proposal to increase corporation tax from 19% to 24%, a move that would raise £12bn next year, rising to £17bn in 2023-24, but would put the government on a collision course with businesses hit by the pandemic.” – Sunday Times

  • Treasury officials ‘push for bombshell tax hikes to pay for virus’ – Sunday Telegraph
  • Middle class ‘faces £30bn tax raid’ – Mail on Sunday
  • Families ‘face £20bn-a-year tax hikes’ to fund virus debt – Sun on Sunday
  • UK to review independent watchdog on overseas aid – FT
Comment
Back to office
Back to school
  • I give pupils and teachers 10/10… and shambolic education chiefs 1/10, says Lord Ashcroft – Mail on Sunday
  • Williamson warns we can’t afford to fail kids – Sun on Sunday
Virus round-up
  • Cost of HQ for new public health institute could treble to more than £1bn – Sunday Telegraph
  • Covid infections 14% down on last week – Mail on Sunday
  • Business leaders rage at Hancock’s ‘scaremongering talk’ – Mail on Sunday
  • Best case scenario for vaccine is 6 weeks – Sunday Express
More comment
>Today:

Lawson: U‑turn if you want to, PM, just don’t betray us

“The media are enjoying a little competition: which publication can come up with the biggest number of U-turns recently performed by what, if it were really a car, would have the numberplate BJ1. The Daily Mail, under the headline “Four months of U-turning”, came up with 10 examples, from May 21’s reversal of a policy of charging overseas health workers for NHS care, to last week’s flip-flop on the wearing of masks by pupils in secondary schools (when they finally reopen, that is). This beat the Politico website’s “8 U-turns in 8 months from Boris Johnson’s government”, which “keeps back-pedalling”. But the winner was the Financial Times: “U-turns by the dozen: Boris Johnson’s pandemic response”. – Sunday Times

  • Johnson faces Tory wrath as party slumps in shock poll – Observer
  • Now it’s Gove versus Sunak – Mail on Sunday
  • Tory MP claimed 9p on expenses after 330-yard car journey – Sun on Sunday

PM threatens No Deal Brexit over EU’s state aid rules

“The Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost, has signalled to Michel Barnier, the EU’s frontman, that he will recommend Britain leaves without a trade deal unless Brussels drops demands the UK continue to align with its rules on state aid. Frost took a tough stance a week ago in private meetings with Barnier, which failed to advance the talks. Barnier then demanded to see the UK’s blueprint for its domestic subsidy regime after the transition, which is not likely to be published until the end of September.” – Sunday Times

Jenrick ‘backs controversial housing algorithm’

“Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, is standing by plans to bring an algorithm into the heart of a new planning system, but does not rule out “tweaking it” to soothe anger on the Conservative back benches about its potential impact on the suburbs. This month Jenrick, 38, launched a plan to build more than 300,000 homes a year, giving councils compulsory targets and creating local zones in which development is automatically approved. The plan will use an algorithm to produce targets for every area in England, based on its “relative affordability” and the extent of development locally.” – Sunday Times

>Today:

Electoral Commission ‘should be overhauled or abolished’, says Tory chairman

“The Electoral Commission should be abolished or radically overhauled because it has become “accountable to no-one”, the Conservative Party has said. Amid mounting concerns over the regulator’s performance and accountability, Tory chairman Amanda Milling claimed it is “not fit for purpose” and should not be allowed to hand itself the ability to prosecute parties and campaign groups. The Telegraph can reveal the Conservatives have now lodged a submission with the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is currently reviewing the Commission’s remit and whether it should be handed more powers. The Commission, which has faced accusations of bias against bodies that campaigned for Brexit – a charge it strongly denies – confirmed plans earlier this year to hand itself a “prosecutions capability”. – Sunday Telegraph

Comment
  • Either the Electoral Commission reforms or we will abolish it, Amanda Milling – Sunday Telegraph

New Lib Dem leader with a disabled son, says: I’ll be voice of carers

“Sir Ed Davey has vowed to make the Liberal Democrats the party of Britain’s 10 million carers — as the new leader talked powerfully about the challenges of looking after his disabled son during lockdown. Davey and his wife Emily found much of their support was withdrawn when the coronavirus hit and said his political goal was to “give a voice” to the army of people caring for sick and disabled relatives, who live with “stress upon stress upon stress”. In his first newspaper interview as leader, Davey attacked Boris Johnson as an “absentee prime minister”, called on him to immediately set up a public inquiry into the handling of Covid-19 and said he would be willing to co-ordinate in the Commons with Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer to get the Tories out.” – Sunday Times

And finally, ‘Get me Riz Lateef’ — newsreader’s face fits as PM’s £100,000 voice

“Boris Johnson has tried to recruit Riz Lateef, the leading presenter on BBC London, to become the face of his government. A senior Tory has revealed that Lateef was Johnson’s initial choice to front the government’s daily press conferences, which are due to start this autumn. The job comes with a salary of at least £100,000. Work has already begun to turn a former colonial courtroom at 9 Downing Street into a television studio where the new spokesman will hold a televised briefing every tea time. When Johnson was mayor of London, Lateef was known for giving him a tough time in interviews, but he appears to have enjoyed the experience.” – Sunday Times

Algorithm or no algorithm, the UK needs houses. Fast.

30 Aug

Since it was published on this site last Monday, there has been a huge amount of interest in Neil O’Brien’s column, which documented flaws in the Government’s housing White Paper. In his piece, O’Brien criticised an algorithm that will be used to decide how many houses should be built in different parts of the UK.

Algorithms aren’t exactly in the nation’s good books anyway, given the confusion over recent A Level results. But members of the public will be even more wary upon understanding what this latest one could mean. Lichfields, a planning consultancy, has predicted its practical impact (something people usually only discover the hard way), with some astonishing findings.

As O’Brien says of the consultancy’s analysis: “in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.”

Furthermore, the algorithm suggests a “lower number than their recent rate of delivery” for some areas, including Sheffield, Bradford, the entire North East, Nottingham and Manchester. These effects are hardly a winning formula, and there are already signs of Tory resistance.

Indeed, The Times reports that in his video conference with 17 Tory MPs from the greater London area on Wednesday, Boris Johnson was warned that the algorithm risks “destroying suburbia” and “creating the slums of the future”, and that reforms will cause “real harm to the Conservative vote”.

As we’ve seen this year – from difficulties with Huawei to Johnson u-turning on free school meals after Marcus Rashford wrote a letter to MPs – this Government is not immune to having to massively rehaul its policies, and it seems unlikely the algorithm will be accepted, based on the statistics in O’Brien’s article.

Even so, there is no shying away from the fact the country urgently needs hundreds of thousands more houses built, whether it’s an algorithm that designates their location or not. It is interesting to note the objections in the aforementioned video conference, where there were fears about areas becoming built up, and MPs concerned about losses to the Conservative vote. The latter is inevitable, anyway, if the Government does not help my generation (millennials), and those below it, for whom buying a home looks about as probable as winning the X Factor.

One interesting question in all this – which no algorithm can predict – is how Covid-19 is going to change the housing landscape. Clearly many have left cities in favour of space and country air. Whether this change is permanent remains to be seen, but boosting figures in shire and suburban areas may not be such a bad thing, as is the algorithm’s south-centric model of growth in Britain (where, in truth, much of demand is focussed).

As a 31-year-old renting in London (who has somewhat given up on the prospect of home ownership), the Government reforms were the first thing I’d seen to show that MPs actually care about fixing this problem; one that is giving people my own age real anxiety about the future, from whether we will ever have families, to wondering how old we will be when we stop sharing with X amount of strangers.

Of course, any flawed algorithm must be untangled and corrected. But let’s hope that Johnson’s video conference isn’t a taste of kicking the can further down the road. Whatever solution the Government takes to fix the housing crisis will not be perfect. But the worst will be to do nothing at all.

As a government source reportedly said: “This is not something we’re going to step away from. We’ve got a duty to do this for the next generation.” Indeed.

Allan Mallinson: What is the army for?

30 Aug

Allan Mallinson is a former soldier, novelist and writer. 

So it leaked out that the MoD is considering scrapping its tanks. And Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, says it would be better if the MoD waited for the strategic direction to emerge from the Cabinet Office’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

They’re both right. Logically, decisions about tanks – the heavy end of army business – ought to follow from how the Review sees the future. On the other hand, the MoD has a budget to manage and can’t assume it will get bigger. They’ve been looking at options for a “strategic pause” in procurement for the past two years. That’s what staff work is about: possibilities, options, risks. Besides, they’ve been asked specifically by the Review “What changes are needed to Defence so that it can underpin the UK’s security and respond to the challenges and opportunities we face?”

I know this because I’ve been asked the same. Last week I received an invitation from the MoD to enter a submission. It was no particular honour. Everyone is invited: see the link here.

We’ve been here before. In 1998 the new Blair government had celebrity focus groups for its Strategic Defence Review. It made participants feel important. They bought into the outcome, which by and large they agreed was a good one, which it would have been if only the premises had held good, which they didn’t, and if Gordon Brown’s Treasury had funded it, which they didn’t. Perhaps this time things will be different.

The Integrated Review intends to “define the Government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade”. It will set “the long-term strategic aims of our international policy and national security, rooted in our national interests, so that our activity overseas delivers for the British people.”

It will “re-examine the UK’s priorities and objectives in light of the UK’s departure from the European Union and at a time when the global landscape is changing rapidly.” For it foresees “increasing instability and challenges to global governance”, adding that last year witnessed the highest number of state-based conflicts since 1946.

In the last decade it estimates that “more than half the world’s population lived in direct contact with, or proximity to, significant political violence”, and that by 2030 some 80 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile states.

It’s not all bad news, though. The Cabinet Office believes that in 2030 the UK will be “stronger, wealthier, more equal, more sustainable, more united across nations and regions.”

In asking what changes are needed to Defence, the Review adds that submissions “focusing on the changing character of warfare, broader concepts of deterrence, technological advantage and the role of the Armed Forces in building national resilience are particularly welcome.”

So, not exactly blue-sky thinking, but certainly not (too) constrained. My inclination, however, as I was first a soldier, is to leave vexed questions such as Trident replacement, the superiority of land-based airpower, and the vulnerability of our “carrier-strike”, and instead ask rather more basically “What is the army for?” (Not “will be for“, because that implies it has no enduring purpose).

For the army is in a very present predicament. According to one former Chief of the General Staff, the robustly pragmatic Sir Mike Jackson, the army is probably no longer capable of war because it is simply too small, a “shadow”, he says, of what it was just a few decades ago.

Too much of it is part-time, with all that that means for quality and readiness. At the end of the Cold War the regular army was more twice its present size, and the Territorials were 80,000. Now the regulars can barely muster 80,000, and the Reserve 30,000.

How did it happen? The answer could be instructive.

John Major cut numbers drastically at the end of the Cold War – his “peace dividend”. The then CGS, Sir John Chapple, argued in vain that the army needed the dividend more than the Treasury because the future was so uncertain. Indeed, at the time the army was still liberating Kuwait. But as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, wrote, “Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer”; and Major saw that the future was peaceful.

Blair and Brown, despite their interventionist appetites – Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan – cut troop and equipment numbers even further, justified by novel doctrines of limited scale and “fast in, fast out”, as if the enemy had no vote.

Worse still, in 2010 the Coalition government all but emasculated the infantry and armoured corps, even while fighting continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. The chancellor, George Osborne, anticipating the end of both campaigns and the coming of the elusive “summer”, demanded more chimneys be blocked up. Both Iraq and Afghanistan had been policy mistakes, ran the logic; policy mistakes could be avoided, and “winter”, if it returned at all, needn’t be too severe. Indeed, if there were a smaller army there’d be less incentive to use it.

This was nothing new. Writing of the Duke of Wellington’s struggle with the Whig government in the 1830s, the historian Sir John Fortescue concluded “Wellington’s care was less to improve the army than to save it from destruction.”

The same could be said of all army chiefs since the end of the Cold War. With no threat of invasion, no threat to internal security requiring a military response, and little need to defend overseas possessions, all that they’ve been able to do is point to residual Nato commitments, “defence engagement” (working and training with local forces in areas of instability) and peacekeeping.

But in auditing the manpower bill for this, the Treasury has always been able to find further economies because they’re good at measuring finite things. More cuts followed in 2015. Consequently there are now more postmen than regular troops.

The problem is that the MoD is always made to answer the wrong question. Or chooses to.

The Greeks had a word for it. They called their army stratos, “a body of men”, while the Romans called theirs not by what it was but by what it did: exercitus – “practice”, “training”. Both took for granted the fundamental need for a body of men that trained constantly.

When in 1906, however, Britain’s great reforming war minister, the philosopher Richard Burdon Haldane, famously asked “What is the army for?” he posed a different and existential question. Did the army, like the Royal Navy, have a specifiable purpose that not just determined its form but justified its very being? 1914 rudely interrupted the discussion.

What answer should the Integrated Review expect of the same question today? The Royal Navy is responsible for the strategic nuclear deterrent, and minds Britain’s trade routes as advocated by Sir Walter Raleigh. The Royal Air Force exists for the air defence of the United Kingdom, for which it was founded in April 1918, the air arms of the other two services having been judged not up to the task.

These functions are 24/7. But the army has no comparable purpose. Not, at least, one that justifies its existence beyond its original purpose in 1660: a few guards and garrisons. It should therefore refuse battle on terms of mere accountancy.

Trotsky explained why: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Only during the Cold War has Britain had remotely adequate defence insurance. Instead it has preferred to pay ruinous repair bills. In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, defence spending was 5.1 per cent of GDP. At present, as a Nato member the UK is committed to just two per cent of GDP.

In real terms, this will not fund armed forces capable of full-spectrum war. Can it really make sense for post-Brexit “Global Britain” to be paying an insurance policy comparable to those of Belgium and Luxembourg?

Indeed, rather than insurance, shouldn’t the Defence budget be regarded as infrastructure investment, like HS2?

Rather than trying to justify itself by specific tasks, which come and go at a whim, the army should insist on funding for its fundamental, enduring purpose: to be ready for war, war that cannot be foreseen or its character predicted – even, paradoxically, by the army itself.

That, ultimately, is what the army is for.

Philip Booth: The BBC should be owned by subscribers

29 Aug

Philip Booth is Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The BBC has come under severe criticism recently for the way in which it seems to be ditching the nation’s history, apparently because many of the party pieces at the Last Night of the Proms are anachronistic.

As many people who understand the origin of the words of “Rule, Britannia!” and similar songs have pointed out, the BBC seems to be totally misguided. However, there is a deeper irony here. The BBC itself is a living, walking, talking anachronism.

The BBC has been financed by a hypothecated tax levied on television sets since 1946. The link between television sets and watching mainstream television no longer has any meaning.

In the UK, 18-34-year-olds watch seven times as much Netflix and YouTube as BBC1 content, and spend more time watching Netflix and YouTube than all other public service channels put together. The average time spent by all adults watching Netflix and YouTube is greater than the amount of time spent watching BBC1. Interestingly, most non-broadcast content is now watched on a television set.

The idea of linking the funding of a television channel to the ownership of a television set does not belong in the 21st century. Collecting licence fees in relation to the use of other devices is unenforceable.

The BBC tells us that compulsory licence fee funding is appropriate because the channel brings the nation together. But, not only are young people not sitting in front of the fire with their parents watching The Generation Game any more, they are enjoying their own ‘shared experiences’, without the BBC. Amongst young people, the proportion of shared viewing of content is increasing dramatically, and the length of viewing sessions is increasing.

The economic case for licence fee funding and compulsory funding of the BBC has evaporated, and the BBC no longer makes such a case. The case it makes is basically cultural. But broadcasting has become like publishing became in the 18th and 19th century, and nobody argues that a state-owned publisher, funded by a tax on books, would add to culture.

Around 200 years ago, in the publishing industry, technology improved, raw material costs fell in real terms and real incomes rose. As a result, publishing blossomed.

A similar phenomenon is happening in relation to broadcasting and content provision today.

In both broadcasting and streaming, there is a huge variety of genres, delivered in different ways through different platforms and responding to different tastes and by different organisations. This is similar to how bookshops, libraries, pamphlets, novels and newspapers all proliferated in the nineteenth century: in 1898 there were around 400 publishers in Britain and Ireland alone. The growth in publishing both encouraged and was encouraged by a growth in literacy. Good quality literature was read and literature from the period is still read today. We did not need a state-funded publisher to produce great books.

The parallels between publishing and broadcasting continue almost down to fine details. In publishing, as well as a variety of formats (magazine, newspapers, serialisations, books and pamphlets) there was also a variety of payment mechanisms (subscriptions to series or serials, pay-per-chapter, pay-per-book and subscription to lending libraries, which would allow readers to read as much as they wished in return for the subscription).

Surely the BBC should be funded by subscription by those who wish to avail themselves of its services. There is no justification in the modern world for requiring people to pay for television services they do not wish to watch. But this leads to the question of the ownership of the BBC. If it remains a state-owned corporation it will surely become an irrelevance.

Even if politicians thought a commercial sale of the BBC desirable, surely that is not on the table (though this should be pursued for Channel 4). Perhaps we should consider something else. In a thriving free economy we see a wide variety of ownership arrangements. And, in the field of culture and education, mutual, co-operative and similar forms of ownership are very common.

There is a strong case for turning BBC subscribers into owner-members so that the BBC would become a subscriber-owned mutual. In fact, this was the Peacock review’s preferred model. It would be very difficult for a subscriber-owned mutual BBC to be captured by closely connected political and commercial interests as its ownership would be dispersed. But it would be possible for it to expand into the 95 per cent of the English-speaking world that lives outside our shores through joint ventures and wholly-owned subsidiaries.

We should not pretend that a subscriber-owned BBC will not remain a participant in the left-dominated culture wars. The executives will not necessarily reflect the views of the members (as we have seen with the National Trust). However, we should be able to choose whether we support the BBC with our wallets.

Whatever the economic and cultural arguments for compulsory licence fee funding (and they are very weak), there is no moral case for requiring people to finance the BBC if they have no interest in its services.

Newslinks for Saturday 29th August 2020

29 Aug

Coronavirus 1) Hancock warns of extensive lockdowns

“England could face nationwide restrictions and very extensive local lockdowns in the event of a second wave of coronavirus this winter, the health secretary has warned. Matt Hancock said that under a “reasonable worst-case scenario” Britain could find itself contending with a surge in coronavirus and a bad outbreak of seasonal flu as people spent more time indoors. In an interview with The Times he said that a second wave of Covid-19 was “avoidable but it’s not easy” and that the return of children to schools next week presented challenges in stopping the spread.” – The Times

  • Health secretary says second wave is ‘serious threat’ – The Sun
  • Lockdown in North eased – FT
Return to work
  • Hancock homes in on getting us back to the office – The Times
  • Johnson faces collision with unions over ‘back to work’ drive – Daily Mail
  • Just 5% return to work in Sharma’s office – Daily Mail
  • Councils urged to play their part in saving city centres – Daily Mail
Return to school
  • Children will have to quarantine for two weeks if student in class gets virus – Daily Mail
  • Parents ‘will keep pupils away’ if there is a second lockdown – The Times
  • Johnson tells parents all pupils must go back to school – Daily Mail
  • Part-time schools ‘will cause chaos’ – Daily Mail
  • Bizarre rules in schools revealed – Daily Mail
Round-up
  • Winter plans revealed in leaked Sage report – BBC News
  • Daily cases jump 24% as death rate creeps up – Daily Mail
  • Seventy one local authorities saw no deaths in July – Daily Mail
  • Backlog of cancer patients should clear within months, says Hancock – Daily Mail
  • Care homes offered higher payments to accept virus sufferers – Daily Mail
  • France sees ‘exponential rise’ in cases – BBC News
Comment
>Today:

Coronavirus 2) Workers enticed back on trains with three-day season tickets

“Commuters will be offered three-day season tickets under plans being studied by ministers to get Britain back to the office. Rail firms believe the part-time tickets are the only way to entice home workers back on to trains to give them the flexibility of going to their workplace for a few days a week. An announcement on new types of ticketing could be made as soon as next month if, as expected, the Government extends the current emergency funding for the railways. Boris Johnson will launch a major new push next week to get people back to the office, and one of the major hurdles in his way is the financial burden of commuting.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Tories drive pressure to ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 – The Times
  • Government to accelerate switch to electric cars – Daily Mail
  • Johnson’s proclaimed golden age of cycling suffers ‘bikelash’ – The Times

Coronavirus 3) Patel: Selfish behaviour this weekend will not derail progress we have made

“Over the bank holiday weekend, many people will rightly be looking forward to going out and seeing friends and family. And I would like to thank the vast majority of the public who continue to follow the rules we have put in place to control the spread of coronavirus. Thanks to your sacrifice and sense of duty, we can once again spend time with those we love and do the things we have missed. While we have made progress over the last few months, it is also essential that people remain alert and enjoy summer safely – the danger has not gone away. And sadly, there is still a small minority of inconsiderate individuals who show a blatant disregard for the safety of others.” – Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 4) MPs call on Rees-Mogg to extend hybrid parliament

“MPs are calling on Jacob Rees-Mogg to extend the system that has allowed them to work from home, which is due to expire next week as the summer recess ends. Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, has been keen for as many MPs as possible to return to Westminster, with the government hoping to “lead by example” in encouraging employees back to their workplaces. But opposition parties are demanding an extension of the “hybrid parliament” arrangements that allowed them to take part in proceedings by video-link, appearing on large screens in the Commons chamber. Ed Davey, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Hybrid proceedings are still an absolute necessity.” – The Guardian

Grayling quits intelligence committee

“Chris Grayling has quit the Commons intelligence and security committee weeks after MPs blocked his attempt to become its chairman. The former transport secretary, who had been No 10’s handpicked candidate to lead the group, resigned last night in a letter to its chairman, Julian Lewis. The committee oversees MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. The government’s attempt to install Mr Grayling as chairman in July failed when Mr Lewis mounted his own campaign with the backing of the four non-Tory members. Mr Grayling is said to have seemed “disappointed” to have lost the chairmanship and shown little interest in the committee’s work subsequently. “He just wanted to be chair,” one source on the committee said. “When he wasn’t chair he obviously just started throwing his toys out of the pram. He had no interest in the subject at all, he hasn’t got any background in defence or intelligence matters.” – The Times

Planning algorithm may destroy suburbia, Tory MPs warn Johnson

“Boris Johnson has been warned by Tory MPs that an algorithm at the heart of his planning reforms risks “destroying suburbia” and “creating the slums of the future”. The prime minister held a video conference call on Wednesday with 17 Tory MPs from the greater London area about the government’s white paper on planning. He was joined by Mark Spencer, the chief whip, and Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary. The MPs, who included four serving ministers, were “unanimous” in raising concerns about the reforms, which will treble the number of homes built in London to 93,532 a year.” – The Times

  • Half of cabinet ministers could see houses built in their backyards – Daily Mail
Comment

Johnson ‘faces autumn of backbench discontent’

“When parliament returns next week, Boris Johnson will find himself facing a mutinous party. After a summer in which there have been more than half a dozen U-turns, including on exam results and masks, Conservative MPs are openly voicing their discontent. Huw Merriman, chairman of the transport select committee, told the Today programme on Radio 4 that the government needed to “get a grip”, and Marcus Fysh, the MP for Yeovil, described the reversal on masks as “utterly wrong”. Sir Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, said: “I know that times are uncertain but these are the moments when government needs to show the greatest conviction in its actions.” – The Times

  • Johnson falling out of favour with voters, poll finds – The Times
  • Proms to begin with music by black composer – Daily Mail
  • Hall reveals plans to move BBC staff out of London – Daily Mail

Parris: Beware the no-deal spin

“The words “distracted,” “bluffing” and “Brexit” leapt from the sub-headline. My colleague on The Sunday Times, Tim Shipman, was writing last weekend about the state of Britain’s Brexit negotiations with Brussels. Ah, I thought, this would be about our government’s distracted state of mind, failing to understand that Brussels was not bluffing in their Brexit demands on trade. I was wrong. These key words stood in the opposite relation to each other from my assumption. It was the EU (the column argued), distracted by the Covid crisis, which was unable to accept that Britain was not bluffing about our readiness to leave with no deal (or the thinnest of deals) on trade. Europe, in other words, was underestimating our determination.” – The Times

News in Brief

Televised press briefings are an ill-conceived American transplant that Britain should reject

29 Aug

Yesterday’s Times reported that Sky News and BBC News, the country’s two major 24-hour news channels, have refused to commit to broadcasting the Government’s new, televised press briefings every day.

The broadcasters are apparently sensitive of appearing to be giving excessive airtime to what amounts to a massive spinning exercise, and therefore say they will only commit to showing the footage ‘on merit’.

Really the only thing surprising about this is that someone in Downing Street might have thought it wouldn’t be the case. It would be extremely obliging of the main channels to cede so much broadcast real estate so cheaply.

But even with this sensible attitude in place, it seems inevitable that daily televised press conferences will have the same baleful impact on British politics as their US inspiration has had across the water. In lean times it gives Government spinners something else to bend the business of governing out of shape around, and when a crisis hits it risks devolving into a poisonous stand-off, with reporters competing to ‘look tough for the cameras’.

Even without the unpromising example of America, the auguries for this initiative aren’t good. Months of daily Covid-19 press briefings have provided ample demonstration of how these set pieces distort ministers’ priorities – recall the desperate scramble to appear to hit Matt Hancock’s ‘100,000 tests a day’ target.

But with the Prime Minister apparently determined to press ahead with this, are we doomed to see it become a permanent feature of British politics? It certainly could. As Daniel Finkelstein writes: “Once you’ve opened the door to the cameras, which press secretary is going to be the one who shuts it?”

The pressure in favour of the cameras is certainly strong. It is very unfashionable these days to suggest that the business of an institution like the lobby is better conducted behind closed doors. It’s much the same with Parliament: it isn’t obvious that televising the Chamber has improved the quality of what goes on inside it, but Heaven help the hero who tries to turn those cameras off again.

And for all their apparent even handedness now, in the end we can expect the broadcasters to throw their weight any change which increases their importance and gives them more material, as they have with that other unhappy American transplant, televised election debates.

But the example of debates also shows us how tricky it can be to import such rituals from one system to another. Whilst the format has lurched on through every general election since 2010, the reality of British multi-party politics has meant that there was no smooth standardisation of the three-leaders, three-debate format of that first contest. David Cameron, Theresa May, and even Boris Johnson have managed to fight effective rearguard actions against the format.

So the day may yet come when a future press secretary closes the door on the press briefings once again. As it should be.

David Gauke: We’re urged to return to the office – but Ministers must face the fact that the world of work is changing.

29 Aug

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Some months ago, I made the observation on this site that there was a danger that the Government’s then message – ‘stay at home’ – might work too well. Given that the Government is launching a campaign to get us back in our offices, it looks as if they have reached the same conclusion. By international standards, far fewer of us have returned to our place of work and, as a consequence, businesses that depend upon the custom of office-workers are suffering terribly. In the view of the Government, as we inch back to some kind of normality, now is the time for us to start to go back to the office.

This is understandable. For some people, working from home is a miserable experience and bad for their mental health. Creating an environment where people have the opportunity to go to work is to be welcomed. But there are five reasons why I would urge a degree of caution in the messaging.

First, and perhaps most fundamentally, it is not obvious why a return to work will not increase the infection rate. The UK has seen a lower return to work than other countries but it has also seen a smaller increase in infections (so far). Cramming people into trains and then into offices will increase social interaction and, therefore, the opportunity for the virus to spread. Given that the Prime Minister, Health Secretary, Cabinet Secretary, Chief Medical Officer and half of Whitehall appear to have caught the virus in the office, I do not think this concern can be dismissed.

Other activities, such as getting the schools back, are more important than getting those who can work from home to work in the office. So, in the event of a second wave, any messages about getting back to work will need to be reversed.

We must not forget that what really drives behaviour is the perception of the health risks. Of course, the Government can help inform the public of the real risks but, fundamentally, people will be happier to return to the office if they think it is safe. So my second point is that demonstrating we have the virus under control – with an effective test, trace and isolate system that identifies and suppresses local outbreaks – will count a lot more than exhortations to get into the office.

Third, the decision of where someone works is principally one to be worked out between employer and employee. Some employers are keen to get their staff back; some employees are desperate to return to the office. But that is not always the case and, as Matt Hancock has said in the context of the Department of Health, his concern is that his staff can do the job. His experience, and the experience of many employers, is that they can.

We do not live in a command economy and the man or woman in Whitehall (or Godalming or Hitchin or wherever it is they might live and, currently, work), doesn’t necessarily know best. It is particularly unhelpful if Ministers give the impression that working from home is a step in the direction of being made redundant. This is neither true nor helpful to businesses who have sought to reassure their employees.

What appears to be driving the Government’s message is concern about businesses located in city centres. Although entirely understandable, my fourth point is that we also have to face the reality that the world of work is changing. We are likely to see a structural change with people spending more time at home (and spending more money close to home) and spending less time and money in cities. Trying to push-back against a long term change in consumer preferences will only preserve economic inefficiencies. More people are going to mix working in the office with working from home and our retail and hospitality sectors are going to have to adjust.

And, finally, giving the impression that the Government thinks that the very many people who want to work from home are lazy and unpatriotic does not strike me as obviously good politics.

– – – – – – – – – –

The row over the Last Night of the Proms has probably come as a bit of a relief to the Government. Speaking as a metropolitan, liberal, remoaner type, attempts at cancelling the lyrics of Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory results in me getting in touch with my inner Nigel Farage (to be fair, we are not in regular contact).

It is hard to believe that anyone really takes offence at the lyrics, but rather that a patriotic celebration of this country should not even be permitted. It is an attitude that infuriates large numbers of people, feeds into a cultural backlash and does nothing to help the disadvantaged.

As an event, it is not to everybody’s taste. I can see why people might find the whole occasion anachronistic, absurd and a bit naff, but surely that is the essence of good Saturday evening telly? After all, the same could be said of Eurovision and Strictly.

If the Last Night of the Proms is too jingoistic for your tastes, the solution is to watch something else. Don’t spoil the innocent fun for the rest of us.

– – – – – – – – – –

Brexit has rumbled on. I have always been a bit of a pessimist as to whether a deal would be reached and, after an apparently acrimonious round of talks earlier this month, the odds of No Deal are increasing.

Both before and after the 2016 referendum, plenty of advocates for Brexit made the case that we would get a very good deal that would mean we would have control over our own laws and excellent access to EU markets. It was argued that anyone who doubted that failed to appreciate how we held all the negotiating cards, especially given the large trading deficit we run with the EU.

When such an offer was not forthcoming, this was blamed on the failure of the May Government to play hardball or the ‘Remainer Parliament’ of 2017-19. Now those impediments have been swept aside and we have a Government that would be prepared to end the transition period without a deal, the EU will presumably accept our demands.

The counter-argument has always been that the EU has certain interests it will be determined to protect, such as the integrity of the Single Market, and considers itself to be better able to withstand the disruption of no deal. Consequently, the threat to walk away was never the bargaining chip some people believed.

In the next few weeks, as the negotiations come to a head, we will find out which interpretation of the EU’s motives and actions – and the efficacy of particular negotiating strategies – will have turned out to be correct. Will the EU cave or not?

This won’t necessarily tell us whether Brexit is a good idea or not, but it will mean that the promises and predictions of politicians and commentators over the last four years or more can be scrutinised in a more informed way. If we get very good access to EU markets and complete regulatory autonomy, I for one will have to admit that I got it wrong. If we do not get that, others are going to have to eat some humble pie.

Adam James: The Government must breathe new life into the Conservative education agenda

28 Aug

Adam James is Head of Faculty at a secondary comprehensive school in East London. He has an MA in educational Leadership from UCL and trained through Teach First.

Towards the end of the 20th century, nearly 90 per cent of pupils in inner London failed to leave school with five good O-levels. It was deemed that local councils were doing a poor job of running these schools as they believed the situation was so dire that intervention was futile.

The New Labour government encountered issues when it started to remove schools from local council control, as most schools that needed independence were to be found in Labour council strongholds, such as East London.

When Michael Gove became education secretary in 2010, he knew that he had to vastly expand the academies programme to improve educational standards. The Academies Act 2010 began this process, and allowed headteachers to mostly run schools how they wish, much like independent schools, albeit funded by the taxpayer.

PISA has rated this system highly internationally because of its level of autonomy and accountability. School autonomy has hugely widened choice for parents; it has allowed those who are most passionate about leading schools to set-up their own and run them in the way they see fit; it has allowed for multi-academy trusts (MATs) to help improve standards across several schools for tens of thousands of students; and it has shown how fundamentally important accountability is to a school’s success, when done properly.

It has led to the opening schools such as Katharine Birbalsingh’s famous Michaela school, Mossbourne Academy and Bedford Free School, to name a few of the most successful academies. In 2019, 54 per cent of all of Michaela school’s GCSE grades were Grade 7 or above (the old A/A* grades), compared to the national average of 22 per cent. This is remarkable for a school that is fully comprehensive and in one of the most challenging and deprived areas of inner London.

MATs, such as Harris and Ark, have replicated similar successes across hundreds of schools. The Harris Federation has transformed many troubled schools. As of 2019, 19 of its 23 secondary schools were rated ‘Outstanding’ and three rated as ‘Good’.

What is their key to success? Visionary and inspiring leadership and cast iron accountability structures. After analysing Ofsted reports of schools in England, McKinsey found that ‘the performance of a school almost never exceeds the quality of its leadership and management’. It found that ‘for every 100 schools that do not have good leadership and management, only one will have good standards of achievement’.

Academisation has also bred innovation outside of traditional schools. A prime example of this is Reach Academy in Feltham which has set up a ‘Hub’ that provides ‘cradle-to-career’ educational services. In addition to their two all-through schools, they provide support for children aged 0-2 years, and their parents through adult classes and employability workshops. Reach Academy have said that they aim to broaden this programme to support the wider community, not just students who feed into their school. This shows how providing autonomy to the education sector can help enable headteachers to become entrepreneurs and support entire communities.

Where next?

So, ten years on from the Academies Act being passed, what is next for the academies programme? Despite many success stories, there are flaws within the system that have allowed poor leaders to drive schools to failure. There are many ways in which the academies programme can progress to help fulfil its ambition to ensure ‘educational excellence everywhere’. Full academisation, taking into account some lessons from the last decade, will ensure this.

Although there is government support for large MATs, more help must be given to ensure that poor performing standalone schools are supported and, if necessary, join a successful MAT. There needs to be more effort invested into finding these mismanaged and poor performing schools before their issues spiral out of control. This could be done through Ofsted, or through government support of successful MATs to inspect local schools.

Leadership from headteachers and groups of schools was key to London’s success. A good leader can make the seemingly impossible possible and impact thousands of lives. The Government should consider re-launching the National Leaders of Education (NLE) and National Leaders of Governance (NLG) programmes. They recognised outstanding individuals in these areas and allowed this expertise to be shared with schools in need of support.

Overall, ministers must make education a top policy priority again. Gove, the pioneer of academisation, ensured that education policy was a key pillar of the Conservative manifesto. The Government worked with many schools, MATs and other private organisations to drive the education sector forwards. Recently, this funding and focus has diminished somewhat and highly successful organisations, such as Ambition School Leadership, are less effective as a result. Other programmes that could have been implemented nationally, such as the London Challenge, were not pursued.

Academisation should not be a controversial topic. It has improved the life chances of hundreds of thousands of pupils, including the most disadvantaged, by driving up standards and allowing leaders to lead. The government needs to make this a policy priority once more.

Newslinks for Friday 28th August 2020

28 Aug

Get Britain back to work, senior Tories tell Johnson

“Boris Johnson is facing calls from senior Tory MPs to give a “clear and consistent message” that it is safe for people to go back to work, amid warnings of “devastating consequences” for town and city centres. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, opened a cabinet rift by saying that he cares more about how effectively officials in his department are working than whether they come into the office. His comments put him at odds with the prime minister, who has urged people to “go back to work if they can” and put pressure on employers to provide “Covid-secure” workplaces. The split emerged before it was announced that the sandwich chain Pret A Manger was cutting 2,890 jobs, equivalent to a third of its workforce, after a collapse in sales caused by the coronavirus pandemic.” – The Times

  • Ministers warn that continuing to work from home could make staff ‘vulnerable’ to being sacked – Daily Telegraph
  • Hancock opens Cabinet rift by saying he doesn’t care if his officials work from home – The Sun
  • Warnings from Tory MPs of the ‘devastating consequences’ of working from home for city centres – Daily Mail

Fraser Nelson: A dose of classic Boris boosterism is key to Britain’s national recovery

“The Butchers Arms in Farmborough, Somerset, has finally reopened and I popped in with my children last weekend to remind them what society looked like before lockdown. It was bliss. One of the regulars let my daughter feed a biscuit to his Labrador (both were thrilled) and we all chatted to the landlady. She had reopened after seeing that so many local restaurants were thriving due to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. It has made her think differently about other things, she said: she’s avoiding supermarkets, spending locally, supporting the shops she values most. It’s not often, nowadays, that you come across a government policy that actually works. But this one really seems to have done. At the Hop Pole in Bath (where my research continued), staff said they have been barely able to catch their breath on Eat Out to Help Out days, with business back up to normal the rest of the week.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Don’t bet the house on working from home – Iain Martin, The Times

Lawyers scupper Patel’s bid to put Channel migrants in Spain

“Priti Patel was furious last night after legal challenges forced the Home Office to abort a planned charter flight carrying cross-Channel migrants to Spain. The ministry had aimed to remove 23 migrants yesterday morning after checks against EU databases found that they had passed through Spain on their route to Britain to claim asylum. Ms Patel’s department was thwarted on the same day that it became embroiled in a row over a Dad’s Army-style video it had promoted, attacking lawyers for taking such cases. It showed simplistic cartoons of aircraft flying out of Britain to the Continent. The image was similar to the opening credits of the BBC comedy in which arrows indicated British forces attacking Nazi-occupied Europe. Matthew Rycroft, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, admitted that officials should not have used the phrase “activist lawyers” in the video, which criticised legal efforts to halt the removal of migrants.” – The Times

  • Home Office outspoken in criticism of courts over cancelled migrant return flights – FT
  • Department wrong to refer to ‘activist lawyers’, top official admits – The Guardian

More:

  • ‘Total crash’ in visa applications reveals impact of pandemic on migration – Daily Telegraph

New Tory MPs demand reform to Gender Recognition Act

“Conservative MPs who won seats in Labour’s northern heartlands last year have broken ranks to urge Boris Johnson to press ahead with plans to make it easier for people to change their gender, warning of a “new Section 28 moment”. In an intervention that highlights unease among the new intake of Tories elected in December, nine of Mr Johnson’s MPs backed proposals to allow transgender people to be legally recognised in their new identity by self-declaring their transition. Under the terms of the Gender Recognition Act, trans people have to receive a medical diagnosis, submit a paper application and wait for two years for legal recognition of their new gender at a cost of £140… In an article for the Conservative Home website, Alicia Kearns and Nicola Richards, MPs for West Bromwich East and Rutland and Melton, said it was the prime minister’s “duty to follow through” on the reforms. “As Conservatives, we have made it a central tenet that individuals should be free to live their lives as they choose,” they wrote.” – The Times

>Yesterday: Nicola Richards MP and Alicia Kearns MP in Comment: Conservatives believe in freedom and choice. That’s why we should reform the Gender Recognition Act.

White Van Men and Deliveroo drivers urged to form army of pothole spotters

“Ministers want White Van Men and Deliveroo drivers to form an army of pothole spotters. Firms including Uber, Tesco, and Ocado will be able to report the worst stretches of tarmac for fast-track repairs before schools return. Whitehall will use their reports to create a “first of its kind audit” of potholes in England. They have already taken advantage of the drop in traffic during the lockdown to resurface 319 miles of road. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has vowed to “relentlessly” target the worst remaining “hotspots” with cash from a £2.5bn repair fund. He said: “I want to go further by identifying critical potholes and ensuring these are fixed as quickly as possible. “Better road surfaces benefit motorists and cyclists alike ensuring the back to school and work environment is safer for everyone.”” – The Sun

  • There is no good tax rise for the Conservatives – Jeremy Warner, Daily Telegraph

No 10’s hopes for daily TV slot dashed by channels

“Sky News and the BBC News channel may not carry Downing Street’s new televised press conference in full every day, it has emerged. Britain’s two leading rolling news channels plan to screen the White House-style briefings “on merit” and may cut away if they are insufficiently newsworthy. No 10 is replacing the off-camera afternoon lobby briefings for journalists with broadcast daily question-and-answer sessions in an attempt to communicate directly with the public. The briefings, due to start in October from a room in 9 Downing Street, are modelled on media conferences held by the White House press secretary which have been televised since 1985. The Conservatives are recruiting a spokesman to be paid £100,000 a year to front the briefings and are expected imminently to announce the appointment of an experienced broadcaster.” – The Times

Up to 97 per cent of primary schools set to reopen for new term

“Up to 97% of primary schools expect to fully reopen to all pupils at the start of the new term in England and Wales, though a third have no extra handwashing provision and no PPE for staff, according to a survey. The vast majority of school leaders who took part in the poll said they expected to be open full-time for all children, most of whom will have been out of school for five months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Of those unable to fully reopen, some are planning transition periods for new pupils or a phased return to reduce anxiety for children. Others said they were dealing with staff absences, local lockdowns or difficulties implementing control measures. The survey was conducted by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and drew responses from 4,000 members, overwhelmingly in the primary sector, including 140 responses from school leaders in Wales where ministers have allowed more flexibility for reopenings.” – The Guardian

  • Shamed Ofqual boss quits with £1 million pension despite disastrous time in the job – The Sun

Barnier urges EU leaders to call on Johnson to step in to ­rescue Brexit talks

“Desperate Michel Barnier is urging EU leaders to personally lobby Boris Johnson to step in and save the Brexit talks from failure. The Brussels dealmaker fears the PM is unaware how badly the negotiations are going and wants capitals to spell out the situation to him directly. He has concluded talks with David Frost have now gone as far as they can and only an intervention by top politicians on both sides can unblock them. EU negotiators believe Mr Johnson is committed to a deal but others in No 10, including chief adviser Dominic Cummings, would prefer to leave without one… The revelations come after it emerged Angela Merkel is becoming increasingly dismayed by the lack of progress in the talks. A planned update on Brexit has been removed from a meeting of EU ambassadors next week with the say-so of Germany’s representative.” – The Sun

  • Two weeks to save Brexit deal, No 10 told – The Times
  • ‘Panicking’ EU chief launches last-ditch bid to stop no deal Brexit – Daily Express
  • Tory MPs believe Brussels is posturing and warned bloc UK will not cave in – Daily Mail

Labour official denies ‘grand plan’ to sabotage Corbyn’s 2017 election bid

“A senior Labour official accused of being one of a Corbyn-sceptic group who sabotaged the 2017 election has defended his colleagues’ actions, saying the party would not have lost so badly two years later if a similar strategy had been followed. Patrick Heneghan, the then executive director for elections, said “electoral oblivion” had been the direct result of the departure of experienced staff because they were not loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. “The stab-in-the-back myth is their deflection from reality,” he said. “The endless debate of this fantasy needs to be put to bed. Grand conspiracy theories offer nothing for a party that has been out of office for a decade so far.” He said Corbyn staff had demanded the party defund the campaigns of some prominent critics of the leadership and give extra resources to some key supporters who had bigger majorities.” – The Guardian

Lib Dems get wake-up call from new leader Davey

“Sir Ed Davey told the Liberal Democrats they needed to “wake up and smell the coffee” as he was elected leader. Sir Ed, who had been acting leader since December, beat Layla Moran with 63.5 per cent of the vote and quickly vowed to regain the trust of voters. He had been the bookmakers’ favourite for the contest, which began after Jo Swinson lost her seat in last year’s general election. The former cabinet minister now faces a struggle to improve his party’s fortunes after it returned 11 MPs in December, well below expectations. The contest had a low turnout of 57.6 per cent of members. In a victory speech in London yesterday Sir Ed, 54, promised to begin a “national listening project”… Sir Ed, who represents Kingston & Surbiton in Greater London, served as energy and climate change secretary in the coalition government.” – The Times

  • He calls on Lib Dems to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ after becoming leader – FT

Comment:

  • After abandoning liberalism and democracy, what is the point of the Party? – Tom Harwood, Daily Telegraph

Editorial:

  • He faces a formidable challenge to restore Liberal Democrat fortunes – The Times

>Today: Iain Dale’s column: Davey is the new LibDem leader. But only 57 per cent of his party’s members could be bothered to vote.

Salmond and Sturgeon’s top mandarin dealt with ‘a number’ of ministerial bullying claims

“Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon’s former chief mandarin has said he dealt informally with bullying allegations against SNP ministers “in a number of settings” as the “expectation” was that official procedures would not be used. Sir Peter Housden told a Holyrood inquiry that “informal resolution was generally considered by all parties to (be) the most appropriate and effective solution” within the Scottish Government. Where the behaviour of ministers caused concern, the former permanent secretary said it was expected he would “manage these situations without recourse to formal procedures.” He said he “took actions on these lines in a number of settings” but refused to provide any details because of “confidentiality.”” – Daily Telegraph

  • SNP accuses No 10 of ‘endangering Acts of Union’ with judicial review inquiry – The Guardian

Comment:

  • Nationalists riding high, but they’re divided over independence – Rory Scothorne, The Guardian

>Yesterday: Henry Hill’s Red, White, and Blue: SNP abandon ‘economic case for independence’ as GERS reveals that they don’t have one

Rajan tells Hall about his colleagues’ fears the corporation is becoming ‘the broadcasting wing of the BLM movement’

“BBC media editor Amol Rajan has questioned director general Lord Hall about fears among colleagues that the corporation is becoming ‘the broadcasting wing of the Black Lives Matter movement’. Outgoing director general Tony Hall appeared on The Media Show yesterday to discuss the crises and successes of his time in charge of the outlet, covering topics including the public anger over the censoring of the Proms, diversity, TV licenses and controversies over the use of the n-word. Turning to the subject of race and equality, Mr Rajan told Lord Hall there were worries over the broadcasting giant’s stance on certain issues. He said: ‘Several Radio 4 listeners and some senior BBC News colleagues have been in touch with me to raise deep concern that in their view the BBC has in effect become the broadcasting wing of the Black Lives Matter movement.” – Daily Mail

Truss ‘set to announce Tokyo trade deal’

“Liz Truss is on the verge of handing Boris Johnson a massive Brexit boost by unveiling a bumper UK-Japan trade deal today. International Trade secretary Ms Truss has scheduled a joint press conference today with Japanese foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi, which will focus on progress made in bilateral trade talks, the Daily Telegraph reported. The two sides had hit a snag over earlier this month after it was claimed they had divided on the subject of tariffs on exports of blue cheese to Japan. However, the Nikkei Asian Review has reported a compromise has been reached whereby tariffs will stay at the same level as they are in the current EU-Japan agreement, but with suppliers to be refunded later if the total import amount at the end of the year falls below an agreed level.” – Daily Express

  • Abe to step down as Japanese prime minister – FT

>Today:

News in Brief:

  • ‘Boris the builder’ mustn’t buckle over planning reform – James Forsyth, The Spectator
  • How Trump went from YIMBY to NIMBY – Oliver Wiseman, CapX
  • Our leaders must do what is right, not what puts them ‘on the right side of history’ – Niall Gooch, UnHerd
  • Free Gen-Z from the Generation Zoom nightmare – Alice Crossley, Reaction
  • British self-interested aid – James Longland, The Critic