Ryan Bourne: It’s time to admit that Eat Out to Help Out was a mistake – because it boosted the resurgence of the virus

30 Sep

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

It will be tougher for many in Westminster to swallow than the subsidised food, but it increasingly looks as if the August Eat Out to Help Out scheme (EOTHO) was a costly economic and public health mistake.

Evidence now suggests that restaurants are important vectors in our current case uptick. More than that, the scheme has entrenched dining behaviours that threaten more transmission today. It is bizarre then that Rishi Sunak has avoided more critical scrutiny of the policy.

The Government’s most recent weekly coronavirus surveillance report says “eating out was the most commonly reported activity in the two to seven days prior to symptom onset” for infected individuals in the contact tracing system.

Figure 23: Events and activities reported by people testing positive, prior to symptom onset (enhanced contact tracing), England, NHS Test and Trace (as at 04:30am on 24 September 2020)

People do a lot of things during a week, so this doesn’t necessarily show where infection occurred. But that “eating out” appears more than “shopping,” “living alone or with family,” “holiday,” “visiting friends or family,” or “travel or commuting” suggests a high relative risk of restaurant dining.

This chimes with evidence from American states and the U.S. Center for Disease Control too. The latter’s recent study found adults testing positive for Covid-19 were twice as likely as those testing negative to have reported dining in a restaurant before becoming ill. Subsidising that activity in a pandemic seems a huge error.

That indicative data won’t convince everyone. When I Tweeted it last week, people demanded firmer evidence that (a) areas with more EOTHO meals had more cases, or (b) cases were actually seeded in August, when EOTHO was running.

But this level of precision may hide more than it reveals. In areas where prevalence of the disease was low in August, the risk of any activities would be low, meaning correlations between cases and meals in the scheme may not be particularly informative (as it happens, there is a correlation between meal numbers and Covid-19 cases by region). What matters is whether restaurants led to more transmission between infected and susceptible people in areas where prevalence was already there.

Accurately thinking through that counterfactual is tough. You have to (1) disentangle the scheme’s impact on dining numbers from any pent up demand returning after restaurants reopened in July; (2) account for the scheme’s longer-term impact of normalising eating out again. Examining August data alone therefore risks understating the scheme’s significance.

Basic network economics suggests activities like indoor dining might “link” more people in riskier circumstances who otherwise wouldn’t cross paths, particularly if packed into, passing through, or queuing on subsidised meal nights. Most restaurants took appropriate precautions to mitigate these risks. But sustained time indoors likely worsens the spread of the virus compared with other activities undertaken absent the subsidies. Case studies from Thailand, China, and Korea show restaurant’s risks. The scheme’s design also encouraged “superspreaders” – infected people visiting many outlets over time to take advantage of discounts.

Figure 22 of the Surveillance report shows that the overwhelming majority of “named contacts” given by infected people are those in their households or household visitors. Many faultily read this, and other information about where most transmission occurs, as showing that restaurants are insignificant vectors compared to domestic settings.

Figure 22: Contacts by exposure/activity setting in week 38, England
(Data source: NHS Test and Trace)

But this is misleading. People don’t know strangers in restaurants to give them as named contacts. And once the disease gets into a household, those most likely to be in contact with it are obviously others living or visiting that household. The problem is that restaurants seem more likely to be a place where a household member might catch the disease and then bring it home than other places they might otherwise spend lunchtimes or evenings. As the chart below shows, as EOTHO went on (Weeks 32 through 35), the share of “Covid-19 incidents” in food outlets or restaurants increased significantly.

Figure 20: Number of COVID-19 incidents by institution from week 27, England

What’s more, the Government didn’t just want to give restaurants a temporary boost in August. They wanted to encourage more economic normality. Data from OpenTable and others suggests they were successful, on this basis.

Diner numbers averaged 28 percent below last year for the week before EOTHO began. By the end of EOTHO, people were eating out excessively relative to previous years – averaging 44 percent per day above last year’s “normal” levels in EOTHO’s final week. Now numbers are back to around last year’s – i.e. dining is back at the good old days pre-Covid days of last year, despite the pandemic. This is in stark contrast to the U.S., where dining levels are still down over 40 percent.

It’s difficult not to conclude that, because of the message the scheme sent out or the habits it entrenched, EOTHO proved far more than a gimmick to give restaurants a temporary fillip. Instead it made people think restaurants were a-ok for people to party like it was 2019. That becomes more problematic now schools are open and more people are back to work too, bringing clear evidence networks of transmission have densified.

Unfortunately, people respond to this as if pointing it out means critics wanted restaurants permanently shuttered until a vaccine was available. But there’s a wide range of options between enforced closure and actively subsidising restaurants, including, well, not subsidising them, or subsidising outdoor dining and takeaways, tax breaks for investments for patios or delivery, and more.

What’s baffling economically is the thought process behind actively subsidising indoor gatherings. Social interactions right now impose negative externalities – risks on others beyond the diners themselves, for which the affected cannot receive compensation. Basic economics, if anything, suggests imposing taxes rather than handouts on these activities, to account for this social cost. Social distancing protocols and regulations seek to proxy for these taxes, of course. But it made no sense to undo this by overcoming people’s voluntarily choices and risk preferences in this world through taxpayer incentives.

Covid-19 debates, sadly, are more defined by culture wars and crude commercialism than economics these days. Many who usually oppose state subsidies backed this scheme loudly, not least because its use generated “buzz” about getting people out and about.

But that’s the problem. During the summer, many deluded themselves that the virus’s threat was deterministically and consistently falling, and we were on a one-way street to economic normalisation. Rather than adapting to live with the virus at the lowest overall cost, people thought that “restoration” should be the aim of government policy.

That was a grave error, of which EOTHO was Exhibit A. And with restaurants now facing restricted hours and a potential lockdown, even those short-term commercial benefits look a pyrrhic victory for the businesses who lauded the Chancellor at the time.

Daniel Hannan: Clever, inquisitive and, crucially, independent, Charles Moore would be the perfect BBC chairman

30 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Charles Moore is everything a BBC chairman should be: clever, inquisitive, independent, humane, well-read, polite, patriotic, broad-minded and generous to his critics. During the golden age of newspapers – roughly the years between the new technology brought in following the Wapping dispute in the late 1980s and the rise of online journalism in the early 2000s – he led the editorial field. His only rival, though their styles were very different, was The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, now being mooted as the next head of Ofcom.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have worked for both men. I don’t know Dacre well, but even slight acquaintance is enough to reveal the secret of his success, namely an unparalleled ability to speak to and for ordinary people. At a time when other newspapers were going online or throwing themselves on the generosity of patrons, Dacre’s Mail remained both popular and profitable. A newsman to his fingertips, he filled the editor’s chair with his restless energy and curiosity. With almost all media struggling to make money, he is exactly the regulator we need: fair-minded, diligent and committed in his bones to freedom of speech.

I know Moore rather better, having spent seven years working for him at The Daily Telegraph. He was, as any Telegraph writer of that era will attest, a wonderful boss. Patiently and intelligently, he improved every section of the paper, from the sports pages to the weekly children’s pull-out section. He always stood by his people – he once went to war against the Prince of Wales’s office because it had treated a Telegraph photographer badly – yet he was impervious to flattery. The newspaper he edited reflected his voracious interests. He cared a great deal about accuracy, and hired several Labour-leaning lobby correspondents – perhaps on the principle that a Leftist reporter on a Rightist paper would always strive to be objective.

The BBC stands to gain enormously from his involvement. As he did at each of his newspapers, he will take a benign interest in every aspect of programming, from comedy to cookery. He will ensure that the Corporation gets a sympathetic hearing in Downing Street. He will steer it through a landscape changed utterly by the rise of YouTube and Netflix. He will revive that sense of integrity and high-mindedness that we might loosely call Reithian.

This, naturally, is not the view of most Beeb staff. Have I Got News For You, the quiz show which arguably set Boris on the path to Number 10, Tweeted that if Moore became chairman, the BBC wouldn’t last another five years. One staffer described his mooted appointment as “the Corporation’s Stalingrad.”

In part, this is simply a howl of anguish from a Leftist establishment used to getting its way. It is striking how many BBC figures cite Moore’s Euroscepticism and Toryism as ipso facto disqualifications – even though the country voted for Brexit and then elected a Conservative Government. Implicit in the criticism is the notion that someone on the Right can’t be disinterested – or, more precisely, that the soft Left positions we associate with the Beeb are statements of objective fact. The ordinary viewer might think the BBC has certain prejudices – feminism good, austerity bad; immigration good, Israel bad; EU good, Trump bad – but to its editors, these are not prejudices but truths.

Moore’s critics display the close-mindedness that they falsely suspect in him. In fact, you won’t find a less partisan man. Moore started out as a Liberal back in the pre-SDP days when that party was still broadly liberal. His liberalism rested, and rests still, on a readiness to question assumptions, to think things through from first principles, to spot what others have missed. Successive Conservative leaders came to fear his pen more than that of any Labour-supporting editor.

His BBC critics, naturally, won’t be convinced by anything I write. A readiness to dismiss views from outside their tribe is part of their problem. But, if he gets the job, they will come to appreciate him.

For the BBC, as it is currently run, is obsolete. The problem is not that it is biased or expensive or out-of-touch. The problem rather, is that it is not feasible to fund a state broadcaster through taxes in an age of streaming. Yes, the BBC’s partiality has weakened it by alienating conservatives. But even if everyone agreed that it was run by the best, wisest and most neutral public servants, it would still not survive in its current form.

Some senior figures within the BBC recognise that change is coming, and want to take ownership of that change. The corporation, after all, has huge advantages. No broadcaster has a stronger global brand. BBC programmes are watched on every continent. Much of what it does would be commercially viable under any dispensation.

People are creatures of habit. Thirty years after privatisation, BT was still by far the largest supplier of landlines, with nearly 40 per cent of the market. Without the licence fee, plenty of viewers will still want to watch Strictly and Planet Earth and Eastenders. The BBC could more than hold its own as a subscription channel. Yes, some parts might be less viable than others – I never understood, for example, why the BBC felt the need to get into local radio, an area amply served by private suppliers. But there is every reason to believe that a more commercial BBC could become more popular as well as more efficient.

The way to ensure that that doesn’t happen, of course, is to resist all reform, to be dragged kicking and screaming into each new change.

A wise BBC will turn technological change to its advantage, aiming to emerge as a more successful and original content-generator while recovering its former place in our national esteem. No one would help it achieve that goal better than Charles Moore.

Dean Russell: Levelling up isn’t just geographical; it’s about age too 

30 Sep

Dean Russell is the MP for Watford and a member of the Health & Social Care Select Committee.

When Covid-19 transitioned from an epidemic into a pandemic, I was concerned over more than just the callous consequences of this virus. Rightly, the country demanded the Government direct the entirety of its efforts to saving lives, protecting the NHS, and supporting people’s incomes. Six months on, we have seen an NHS that never reached capacity; around 12.3 million people’s wages were supported by the Treasury and most importantly, the UK death rate has fallen to internationally low levels.

As the Member of Parliament for a constituency with a visible wealth gap, I remained adamant that the Government must continue with its levelling up agenda. Conservative MPs were elected on a mandate to give Britons to deliver opportunity for all and a real chance at a better life. In the United Kingdom, we don’t just have geographical inequality – we have an inequality within age groups. To date no government has faced up to this, and it is why I am pleased to support the new Planning White Paper curated by Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) Secretary of State.

Jenrick’s bold stance in his Planning White Paper will finally overhaul the 70-year-old planning and finally tackle the moral inadequacies built into the existing antiquated system. It will ensure that young people, first-time buyers, and those with lower incomes are given more affordable opportunities to move into new, good-quality homes.

Incredibly, not since Harold Macmillan held the ministerial post for housing in Churchill’s second term have we had a government genuinely committed to ensuring better housing opportunities for all.

To understand why the Government’s tenacity on this issue is so welcome, absorb these statistics: in 1995–96, 65 per cent of those aged 25-34 with incomes in the middle 20 per cent for their age owned their own home. Twenty years later, that figure was just 27 per cent. Home ownership has plunged since the 1990s for young people. In 2015-16, 90 per cent of those aged 24-34 had to deal with average regional house prices of at least four times their income compared with twenty years earlier. That is plain wrong.

This country’s planning system has long differed from other countries. Rather than a central process and system driven housing policy, we’ve given unique discretionary planning powers to local councils. What this Planning White Paper aims to achieve is a merging of the benefits of both systems. Local authorities will categorise areas between growth, renewal and protected areas. Only land categorised as growth will gain automatic planning permission and thereby speed up the process of delivering high-quality, sustainable affordable housing. The housing crisis is, as the name suggests, a crisis. The Government is overriding the clutters of unnecessary local authority housing red tape and replacing it with a desire to build what people from lower-incomes are crying out for – not just houses – but homes they can be proud to own of.

When I met with Jenrick earlier this month, I discussed the paramount importance of new builds being good-quality, environmental and a lovely place to live in. We all agree that whilst affordable house building is desperately needed, and the existing housing policy isn’t effective, the quality of homes matter.

I welcomed confirmation of the “fast-track for beauty” aspects of the Planning White Paper to make it easier for people to build beautiful quality homes. Through these changes to national policy and legislation, permit proposals will be automatically approved for high quality developments where they reflect the local character of the area. I also strongly welcome the Secretary of State’s addition that each local planning authority would have a chief officer for design and place ensuring quality is at the heart of the homes we build.

This is not just conjecture, to ensure homes built in growth and renewal areas are of the standard local residents expect, councils will create design codes. These will ensure housing matches what residents and councils want delivered, covering things such as aesthetics and energy efficiency. This will create clarity of developers who can mould new housing to ensure it meets the standards required by local authorities. At the moment, it is widely regarded that design codes hold minimal influence over planning decisions which is something I raised with the MHCLG Secretary of State which is why I was pleased that he is giving real priority to ensuring people live-in high-quality homes that match the local character of their community.

I have been frustrated, but unsurprised, by the unfounded rhetoric by some opposition politicians to this Planning White Paper; they call for change yet criticise reform that will truly help deliver a fairer, more environmentally-focused approach. To transform this country and tackle all forms of inequality, we need to alter our generational errors of the past. Young people in this country as well as those with a lower income need to be provided housing opportunities that successive previous governments have not enabled. To me, levelling-up is more than just rhetoric, this white paper will help deliver on an achievable, aspirational vision which will deliver sustainability, quality, and speed.

Gerard Dugdill: Anger persists over the loss of our traditional counties. Proper names and boundaries must be restored.

30 Sep

Gerard Dugdill is the Campaign Manager of the British Counties Campaign, which seeks to restore official recognition for the 92 traditional British Counties

Imagine if your name was changed against your will. John Smith became John Smith-&-Jones, because you lived next door to Mr Jones. Dorothy Black became Dorothy Grey and then Dorothy White.

Smith laughed, then protested. He tried a variety of brush off tactics until, with deepening resentment, he tried desperately to stop the avalanche of references to Mr Smith-&-Jones by ripping up all mail and returning to senders in tiny pieces. To no avail. The letters kept coming…

In 1974, on April Fool’s Day, certain citizens of, for example, ancient Lancashire found themselves in Greater Manchester, Yorkshire in Lancashire, Hampshire in Dorset, Northumberland and Durham in Tyne & Wear.

In Scotland, Glaswegians have shifted from Lanarkshire to Strathclyde, then sort of back to Glasgow. Men of Stirlingshire and Perthshire have gone to Central and back. Men of Roxburghshire have disappeared into Borders.

In Wales – or England? – folk of Newport went from Monmouthshire to Gwent, then in 1996, to a beyond bizarre mix of Newport, Monmouthshire, and a version of Gwent simultaneously killed off and brought back.

Poor Wales, defenceless beyond repair. Only Wikipedia, presumably upon instruction, can officiously carry the disingenuous spirit of our legal, accounting, and insolvency, quack-speak-ridden times:

“Monmouthshire (Welsh: Sir Fynwy) is a principal area with the style of ‘county’ in South East Wales.”

All the while of course, when you complained, the letter writers – the Land Registry, say – insisted that your name hadn’t really changed, but only for “administrative” purposes. You are perfectly entitled to refer to your previous name, Ms White, even though everybody who matters now calls you just that, save the odd annoying reference to Ms Grey still slipping through.

Those “arrogant officials” have long since decided. Who did they consult? Whose wishes did they comply with?

The indignation of years of bullying, indifference, wasted money, identity denial, identity crisis, and confusion has prompted an online petition from Pamela Moorhouse.

She says:

“It needs to be mandatory for all councils to tell everyone about the historic counties, tell how the Heath Government in 1974 removed and replaced them with the present historic nonsense names, and ignored all objections.

“Why, when being forced into Humberside, were we told ‘We’ve come to get rid of your traditional areas’ if it was all admin only? The first Government statements at the time of the change were ‘That’s it! All the traditional areas have now gone! There are none left anywhere anymore!’ Does anyone else remember?

“Nobody wanted their history changing, so they ‘pushed objectors away’, and now lie to everyone, saying that the new counties have always existed.

“Ours does it by implication. ‘Would you like to know about people who lived in 50s North East Lincolnshire?’, knowing quite well that NEL wasn’t created till 1996, introduced by our then MP Austin Mitchell, carefully as everyone in Grimsby wanted historic Lincolnshire back, after getting rid of Humberside, but the council didn’t want us back in Lincs, so suggested NEL as a compromise.

“So if it’s the people’s choice, the new counties will remain and valuable history will be lost forever, as millions are currently in ignorance about the events of 74, confirmed by people’s memories in our smart survey results.

“Can these views be published so everyone knows about 74, and the new councils keeping an eye on us for 20 years so we didn’t sneak back to the old counties? Or at least part of them?

“But we must have full education, as millions have never heard of the traditional counties.”

 A Government White Paper next month will repeortedly address these grievances. Please do sign the petition.

Caroline Elsom: The Online Harms Bill sets us on a course that will threaten freedom, privacy and competitiveness – while being unlikely to make us safer

29 Sep

Caroline Elsom is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.

It’s almost eighteen months since the Government laid out its roadmap for tackling online harms. The Online Harms White Paper’s mission was to make the UK the safest place to go online, and the best place to grow a digital business.

This is a laudable aim, yet the plans outlined tell a different story. They set us on a course that will seriously threaten our freedom, privacy and competitiveness – while being unlikely to make us any safer.

This Conservative Government has enacted unprecedented curbs on private life to combat Covid-19. It can ill-afford to commit a potentially embarrassing unforced error that will shrink the private sphere in the UK and might damage both the Party’s and the country’s reputation for openness, tolerance and freedom.

It is time to reflect on the purpose and design of any new regulation. My new report for the Centre for Policy Studies, Safety without Censorship, uncovers the extent of the flaws in the system proposed for Ofcom to regulate online content.

The report offers an alternative model, clearly differentiating Ofcom’s powers over illegal content from its remit over legal speech that may be considered by some to be harmful.

If it the Government chooses to ignore the warnings, it appears almost inevitable that the eventual Online Harms Bill will meet a similar fate to that of France. In June this year, the French Constitutional Council found large parts of France’s online hate speech legislation (known as the Loi Avia after National Assembly member Laetitia Avia, who drafted it) unconstitutional. Among other reasons, it breached a basic legality test for impermissible vagueness.

According to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK’s own Human Rights Act 1998, restrictions to free of expression have to be ‘prescribed by law’ and ‘necessary in a democratic society for a legitimate aim’. This means, for example, that users must be able to reasonably foresee whether the platform will be legally obliged to remove content they are about to post.

In France, it was judged that platforms’ obligations were not laid out in clear enough terms that allowed the scope of liability to be determined. Given how alike the principles in the Loi Avia and the White Paper are, similar judicial challenges would likely be mounted in the UK on human rights grounds right from the start.

Even if the eventual Online Harms Bill manages to clear this hurdle, it could fall down on other legal grounds. The Loi Avia gave powers to France’s Higher Audiovisual Council to require hosts to remove the most extreme content (certain terrorist content and child sexual abuse imagery) within an hour.

For other content, deadlines of up to 24 hours apply, depending on who has made the request, the nature of the content and what sort of site it is on. This failed the requirement of necessity and proportionality, because of the powers it gave to an administrative authority rather than allowing host sites to obtain a judicial ruling on the matter.

The UK Government’s proposals are likely to run aground on both of these aspects of legality too. If anything more so, as the White Paper expands much further into the terrain of ‘legal but harmful’ than the Loi Avia. The Foundation for Law, Justice and Society rightly point out that the White Paper leaves open the possibility that constraints on free speech could be imposed ‘on the basis of opaque agreements between platforms and politician’ rather than being subject to the constraints of parliamentary debate.

If this fundamental principle is to change, it will involve amendment or repeal of the Human Rights Act, requiring the full legislative scrutiny of Parliament. Even then, it could still be defeated under principles of freedom of speech under English common law. Extreme caution should be exercised in going down this route to tackle online harms so as not to erode important checks against creeping censorship.

There are also issues of fairness in leaving all these crucial issues to be decided by a series of court battles. Tech giants with entire legal departments can mount these legal challenges with relative ease, but smaller companies seeking to dispute the rules do not have the resources for a fair fight.

This has already happened with large companies who have been subject to fines from the Information Commissioner’s Office. Last year, Facebook appealed against an ICO fine of £500,000 on the grounds of bias and procedural unfairness.

The ICO was forced to settle this out of court, allowing Facebook to avoid admitting liability. Much larger cases against the likes of British Airways and Marriott Hotels have been delayed as it appears the ICO is unable or unwilling to defend its position against the legal firepower large corporations are able to bring to the fight.

It is likely that two years will have passed before the Online Harms Bill makes progress through the House. Making crucial changes now could avoid many more years of legal disputes dooming this policy to failure.

“Project fear” and a “national trauma” – criticisms from Tory backbenchers in the Commons yesterday

29 Sep

Yesterday, MPs took part in a lengthy Commons debate on Coronavirus. It’s clear from the breadth of the concerns they raised that managing the next stage of the crisis will be even more complicated than the first, not least because there is so much more information to go on – and thus positions have changed among MPs as to what’s the best strategy for Covid-19. Indeed, it was interesting to note that several mentioned columns in The Times and Daily Telegraph during the debate – as well as the articles of Dr Raghib Ali (published on ConservativeHome here), which were referenced by Steve Baker – as sources of inspiration for their evolving perspectives.

While ostensibly it looks as though only a handful of Conservative MPs are sceptical of the Government’s latest direction – Desmond Swayne said Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance’s recent graph had been “an attempt to terrify the British people” and Andrew Lewer criticised the “dystopian nature of some of these restrictions” – even the more moderate remarks indicate that a sizeable number of Conservatives are becoming increasingly wary of the Emergency Powers Bill, and the economic effects of lockdown. Without further ado, here are some of the criticisms that were made yesterday.

Tory MPs that took part in the debate:

  1. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)
  2. Desmond Swayne (New Forest West)
  3. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean)
  4. Steve Baker (Wycombe)
  5. Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)
  6. Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland)
  7. Steve Brine (Winchester)
  8. John Redwood (Wokingham)
  9. Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling)
  10. Lucy Allan (Telford)
  11. Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells)
  12. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)
  13. Simon Baynes (Clwyd South)
  14. Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham)
  15. Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough)
  16. Nusrat Ghani (Wealden)
  17. Pauline Latham (Mid Derybyshire)
  18. Andrew Lewer (Northampton South)
  19. Maria Miller (Basingstoke)
  20. Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North)
  21. Bill Wiggin (North Hertfordshire)
  22. Mark Pawsey (Rugby)
  23. Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes)
  24. Richard Drax (South Dorset)
  25. Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) – slightly critical
  26. Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)
  27. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East)
  28. Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton)
  29. Jacob Young (Redcar)
  30. Peter Gibson (Darlington)
  31. Anthony Higginbotham (Burnley)
  32. Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn)
  33. Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden)
  34. Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
  35. Ben Spencer (Runnymede and Weybridge)
  36. Felicity Buchan (Kensington)
  37. Rob Butler (Aylesbury)
  38. Lee Rowley (North East Derbyshire)
  39. James Daly (Bury North)
  40. Selaine Saxby (North Devon)
  41. Richard Holden (North West Durham)
  42. Dean Russell (Watford)
  43. Andrew Griffith (Arundel and South Downs)
  44. David Amess (Southend West)

Perhaps the biggest criticism levelled at the Government by Tory MPs is the lack of Parliamentary scrutiny in decision making:

Edward Leigh:

“If the first duty of Government is to keep people safe, will the Secretary of State remember that the first duty of Parliament is to hold Government to account? I know that he wants to take public opinion with him, but will he therefore reassure us that he is also determined to take Parliament with him?”

Mark Harper:

“it is about not just scrutiny but the laws we are making. The laws that came in at midnight, for example, were 12 pages of laws, with lots of detail, criminal offences and duties not mentioned when they were set out in a statement last week…We need to scrutinise the detail of the legislation before it comes into force and give our assent, and not, I am afraid, just allow the Secretary of State to put it into force by decree.”

Christopher Chope:

The original objective of the legislation has been achieved, but, as so often happens with regulation brought in by Governments, they want to keep it. They say, “Oh, we need to keep it just in case.” That is why, in an Adjournment debate on 2 September, I demanded that if the Government were going to keep the regulations, it should be on the basis that there were proper regulatory impact assessments for them. We do not have those regulatory impact assessments. It is all most unsatisfactory.”

Andrew Lewer: 

“The dystopian nature of some of these restrictions has already caused a considerable deal of damage in society. I recognise the difficult balance and approach the Government had to take, but if we look at some other countries—Sweden, yes, but others too—it becomes evident that there are alternative approaches to controlling the virus without as significant an impact on civil liberties or as damaging an effect on the economy…. A bonfire of restrictions must be metaphorically set alight… This has been a national trauma.”

Nusrat Ghani:

“I have huge concerns about how the Government want to progress with the extension of covid laws. I do not feel it is appropriate that Members of Parliament read about new restrictions in the press—restrictions that cover criminal offences, duties and penalties that can reach up to £10,000—and I am hugely concerned about the role of covid marshals. I am sent to the House of Commons to represent my constituents in Wealden, and I cannot do that if parliamentary democracy is suspended.

Pauline Latham:

“I have supported the Government on the new measures that we have put in place as a country, but I feel that this Parliament should be sovereign and we should make some decisions. It is no good the Government, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State just saying out there, “We’re going to do this.” We need to ratify it and we need to agree with it. I probably would agree with it, but I would like to have a say in what we are doing. I have had dozens of constituents say, “Enough is enough. We want to be able to go and see our grandchildren.”

Others criticised the scientific evidence upon which decisions had been made:

Lucy Allen:

“It is very uncomfortable being frightened to death by scientists presenting charts to the nation that they must know are wrong; that chart last Monday undermined public trust, as it was quite clearly pushing a worst-case scenario without telling us the probability of such a scenario occurring. Was it designed to instil fear in order to control the public? Is that how we want to govern?”

Desmond Swayne

“I believe that the appearance of the chiefs last week should have been a sacking offence. When they presented that graph, it was with the caveat that it was not a prediction, but nevertheless it was clear that they presented it as a plausible scenario, with its 50,000 cases per day by mid-October based on the doubling of infections by the week… It was “project fear”. It was an attempt to terrify the British people, as if they had not been terrified enough.”

And one MP said it was time to be honest about the lack of vaccine:

Simon Clarke:

“Fundamentally, we owe it to the British people to be totally honest with them about the situation. Until we have a vaccine, we are going to be living alongside the threat of the virus and some of those we love may die… [given there is no vaccine), to return to a national lockdown would be not only untenable but wrong.”

There were also worries about the groups of society most affected by Covid measures:

Tom Tugendhat:

“Many of the poorest members of the communities I represent are the ones who are suffering from lockdowns in different ways. Would it not therefore be right for this House to debate—quite rightly not to reject all lockdowns, but at least to debate—the different political choices that are being made as these questions are being asked?”

Maria Miller:

“we need more targeted support for women. Across the globe, women have been more adversely impacted than men by the coronavirus. We have record numbers of women in work in this country now, but we face critical problems with women, particularly pregnant women and new mums, being made redundant and not being able to get back into work because they are disproportionately represented in those sectors that have been hardest hit.”

Several MPs were more supportive of the Emergency Powers Bill.

Chris Clarkson:

“This country is facing an emergency. Even the most libertarian of us, and I count myself as such, have to recognise that, on occasion, the Executive must be given room to manoeuvre to make decisions in the moment. We already have checks, balances and safety mechanisms in place to ensure that decisions are appropriate and proportionate. What the amendment proposes is the ​equivalent of the House of Commons making Churchill come here to take a vote every time he wanted to send out Spitfires.”

And there were a few optimistic takes…

Steve Brine:

“we have many things to celebrate in this country about how we have approached the response to this pandemic—not least the brilliant scientific community in this country, which has produced the only known effective treatment for covid-19 and is doing great work on getting us closer to a vaccine. We like to beat ourselves up—or, rather, the media like to beat us up—but is not the truth that we have many things that the rest of the world follows us in?”

… even around contact tracing:

Steve Baker:

“Against all my instincts—and in the knowledge that I am not the Member of Parliament for dogmatic libertarians across the country, with whom I generally agree, but in fact the MP for Wycombe—I have done the right thing: I have, against my expectations, ​installed the contact tracing app. I ran out of excuses, I have installed it, and I am allowing it to run even as we speak. I hope that will be of some reassurance, even to those libertarians who might condemn me for it.”

Hunter DuBose: Why Sweden is leading the way out of the pandemic

29 Sep

Hunter DuBose is the Managing Partner of Spitfire Capital Advisors.  He also conceived and produced Brexit: The Movie.

In his ConservativeHome article yesterday, Bernard Jenkin derided Sweden’s light-touch strategy in response to Covid-19, and mounted a staunch defence of the Government’s ongoing policy of unprecedented and draconian restrictions on our daily lives in its effort to suppress the transmission of the disease.

He is wrong.

It is becoming increasingly evident that Sweden not only got it right, but that the human cost of the UK’s onerous Covid-19 policies will be significantly worse than Covid-19 ever would have been.

Covid-19 has now virtually disappeared in Sweden. The country had among the worst rates of Covid-19 fatalities in the world in April. Now, it’s among the lowest, having fallen over 99 per cent, and with an average of just one death per day over the past week.

What has Sweden done to achieve this? Almost nothing. And that’s the point.

The Swedish government never imposed any lockdowns. Nor has it required the wearing of face masks (and only two per cent of Swedes have worn masks voluntarily, according to a survey published in the New York Times). Offices, schools, restaurants, bars, shops, salons, gyms, and tourist attractions have remained open throughout. Contrary to enkin’s suggestion, Sweden did not bring Covid-19 under control using a track and trace system, having abandoned such plans in early March.

The Swedish government did require tables to be spaced farther apart in restaurants and bars, banned public gatherings in excess of 50 people (now relaxed to 500), restricted travel from areas outside of Europe, and shifted colleges and universities to distance learning. It also recommended – but never mandated – that Swedes observe social distancing and minimise domestic travel, and that over-70s should stay at home as much as possible.

Sweden, then, is the closest we have to a control group for light-touch mitigation rather than the UK’s draconian suppression of Covid-19.

And, as the extraordinary reduction in daily deaths there reveals, the virus has now all but burnt itself out naturally. The empirical evidence points exceptionally-strongly to the establishment of herd immunity there. While the UK frets about the potential for a second wave of Covid-19, all indications are that Sweden can now move on and get back to life as normal and business as usual.

But what has been the human cost to Sweden of letting Covid-19 run its course naturally and without significant intervention?

This year’s all-cause mortality rate in Sweden is on track to be the 13th worst of the past 40 years, according to Statistics Sweden (their version of the ONS). In other words, Sweden has experienced a worse death toll every three years, on average. Every individual death – from any cause – is excruciatingly sad. But Covid-19 has had an entirely-unexceptional effect on Sweden’s annual death rate.

Notably, Sweden does not appear to have experienced a significant increase in excess mortality for conditions entirely unrelated to Covid-19 such as cancer, stroke, heart disease and suicide. There have been an estimated 15,000 – 25,000 such deaths in the UK so far, with lockdowns and re-prioritisation of NHS resources cutting off access to urgent, life-saving treatment. A recently-leaked SAGE report predicts up to 75,000 such deaths over the next five years due to delayed treatments and diagnoses. That’s almost twice the current UK Covid-19 death toll.

But, “Aha!” Bernard Jenkin says: the Swedish population is much healthier and sparser than the UK’s and, therefore, the bar for achieving herd immunity is significantly lower there. Many hundreds of thousands of Britons would have to die in order to achieve the same outcome, he claims.

On this point, again, Jenkin is wrong. And gratuitously so.

The UK is a nation of fatties, he tells us, with 27 per cent of us obese compared to only 20 per cent in super-svelte Sweden, making us more susceptible to the ravages of Covid-19. However, according to ONS data, only 0.9 per cent of Covid-19 mortalities in England and Wales in March and April – when the vast majority of Covid-19 deaths occurred – cited obesity as the main pre-existing condition. Only 1.3 per cent cited obesity as a pre-existing condition at all.

He also claims the higher rate of smoking in the UK, makes us more susceptible to Covid-19. However, the available scientific evidence does not identify smoking as a significant risk factor for Covid-19 and, in fact, suggests that smokers may actually face a lower mortality risk from the disease.

Jenkin simplistically divides population by land mass to conclude, erroneously, that the UK is 11 times more crowded than Sweden, making it significantly easier for the virus to spread from person to person. However, the majority of Sweden is completely empty, with 85 per cent of its population living in dense urban areas. Sweden’s population-weighted density – which adjusts for this – is actually among the highest in Europe and 25 per cent higher than the UK’s, according to a 2015 EU Commission report, with urban areas 60 per cent more dense than the UK’s. (For this same reason, comparisons between Sweden and other, legitimately-sparse Nordic countries are inept).

Jenkin contends that, according to antibody testing by the ONS, fewer than eight per cent of Britons have contracted Covid-19, thus far, and that a further 50 per cent of the UK population would need to become infected in order to establish herd immunity here.

However, recent scientific research from Oxford University, Karolinska Institutet, Duke-NUS Medical School, and La Jolla Institute for Immunology, among others, demonstrates that the prevailing technology for SARS-CoV-2 serology tests provides a wholly incomplete and unreliable picture of the degree of immunity to the virus in the population at large.

This is because they don’t test at all for the presence of the IgA variant of antibodies or of the killer T-cells that, according to the research, play vital roles in the human body’s repertoire of weapons to eradicate the virus.

Indeed, several of these studies indicate that up to 50 per cent of the population already possessed SARS-CoV-2 cross-reactive T-cells – and presumed immunity to Covid-19 – prior to any exposure to the virus, most likely due to previous infection by other coronaviruses, such as those that cause SARS, MERS and variants of the common cold.

Tellingly, a recent analysis by Werlabs in Sweden found that only 14 per cent of a sample population there was positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. If Sweden has achieved herd immunity with only 14 per cent of its population testing positive for antibodies, can the UK really be that far behind?

By any reasonable standard, given the available evidence, the Swedish model has achieved vastly superior results and at a significantly lower cost in human lives. The British government should take heed.

James Frayne: Covid-10. Seven action points for Ministers – as pressure rises on the Government

29 Sep

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The Government always knew that keeping public opinion onside during the early days of a second spike would be hard.

These are times when public finances are under pressure, lockdown fatigue is setting in (particularly amongst the young), but when dangers to public health are still high. Ministers face criticism from all corners, whatever decisions it takes. Some of the popular media’s websites channel criticism towards the Government from entirely different directions on the same day. So what should Ministers do to keep public opinion onside?

I never write about clients’ work, unless expressly agreed and declared. My thoughts here are entirely derived from my own recent reading of the public mood. In any case, not only has it been a relative age since I ran groups for Government, but my agency has decided not to pursue opportunities for future work with the Cabinet Office. As those that understand qualitative research know, the work, while interesting, is ultimately extremely low-margin, all-consuming and a distraction from commercial work.

1. Forget the polls.

First things first – the Government needs to junk almost all the polling. Public opinion is in a state of total unreality and has been for many months. All the polls show the public back strict lockdown measures – just as they always have.

But voters are on morphine supplied by Ministers in the form of vast furlough payments and emergency support to businesses, tenants and the rest. As such, the public has no sense at all of the real state of the economy – and therefore no sense whatever of the trade-offs the Government is making between public health and public finances.

People will always favour tighter restrictions when they think there’s little direct risk to them. As it stands, few think their taxes will rise, their personal debt will increase or that their jobs are at risk. For most people, risk lies with others.

Ministers have created a vicious cycle of opinion: they’re artificially pumping up support for tight restrictions, then reading the polls telling them the public want tight restrictions, then further extending support. If the Government is going to help the country ultimately get back to normal, it’s going to have to break this cycle. Stop reading the polls for a bit.

2. Start being honest about risk and public choice.

While the nature of the conversation will necessarily be brutal and uncomfortable, the Government must start talking about the balanced risks of ongoing restrictions. It has to: the chances of the cavalry arriving with millions of vaccine shots before the money runs out look slim. It seems likely, at some point, that we’ll have to find a way to live with risk.

If Ministers don’t prepare the ground now, they’ll find the public in a state of hostile shock when all of a sudden the Government removes financial support. As part of this process, they’ve also got to start encouraging the public to start managing their own risk.

So far, only Rishi Sunak has been prepared to deliver, in flashes, this message. He should be unleashed to start telling the public some fundamental truths about the need to protect the economy, and in turn our public services and living standards. The public aren’t daft and they’ll come to accept this. But it’s a message that is going to take time to filter through; it needs to be delivered now.

3. Don’t misunderstand the character of the English.

There’s only one value the English hold dearer than fairness, and that’s family. While they want ludicrous violations of lockdown rules punished in the name of fairness, they’ll also do whatever it takes to protect their families and they believe utterly in the sanctity of the private home.

The Government has been dicing with political death in recent times. They’ve appeared to encourage snitching on other families, which will come back to haunt them in calmer times; they’ve left themselves open to putting, say, attending demos ahead of visiting relatives; and they will have made lifetime enemies of middle class parents of students in recent weeks.

Ministers should remember who the English are: law-abiding; fair-minded; (nuclear) family-focused; and ultimately liberal. Pushing them into civil disobedience to protect their families will end catastrophically badly. (And, whatever you do, don’t mess with the English Christmas).

4. Promote politicians, downgrade scientists.

PR Advice 101 is always the same: wheel out the independent experts that the public trust, and play down the role of politicians. And so we’ve seen nothing but Government scientists for months.

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, it has implied that the scientists are ultimately in control of the situation and that there are simple, empirical decisions which can and must be made. This isn’t true, and has given the public a false sense of security.

Secondly, most of the scientists are poor communicators. The media love the idea of the boring, trusted scientist that the public all love. But this isn’t reality. The scientists aren’t professional communicators and putting them in positions of public influence in this way is a mistake. The Government needs to show some balls and downgrade the scientists’ role as communicators, and take responsibility for what are essentially political decisions.

5. Use Rishi Sunak more, use businesspeople more.

Strategically speaking, communicating on the economy is now the most important comms challenge – because of the need to prepare people for balanced risk. People know as much as they ever will about the health risks and the need to socially distance, wash hands etc.

So there’s little gain now in having the scientists keep talking about the health risks. They won’t help keep the public onside if a million people join the dole queues. Instead, the Government needs to promote business voices who can both explain the rationale for Government action, and who can explain risk and reward in ways others can’t.

Ultimately, since we’re all going to need to get back out there and manage risk at some point, we need businesspeople to explain in necessarily lurid terms the dangers of not doing so. We need to hear even more from Rishi Sunak and ideally a panel of businesspeople to amplify his warnings.

6. Drop the technical language.

This is such an obvious point, I’m reluctant to make it. However, one of the problems that has arisen from the public role of the scientists is the casual use of pointlessly technical language that ordinary people can’t possibly understand.

The use of the “R rate” in public communications is merely the most obvious example. Of course, when used enough, they take on the meaning they’re supposed to have. But as part of the shift to promote political voices, there’s got to be an onus on using the simplest language.

7. Internationalise the response.

One of the weird things about the global pandemic is that each country seems to be grappling with its  own specific outbreak; it’s as if we all have our own national pandemics. It will be far easier to keep the public onside if politicians are seen to be actively talking and learning from one another.

And, no, this isn’t a Brexit thing; this seems true around the world. The public will be more open to change if they can see we are cooperating with the other countries and learning lessons from them.

Over the summer, all we heard was the possibility of tit-for-tat quarantine restrictions imposed on different countries’ tourists, as if this was all a zero sum game; this wasn’t given the attention it warranted: it was a real low point in the crisis. The Government would do well to work publicly with other governments at this point.

Newslinks for Tuesday 29th September 2020

29 Sep

Coronavirus 1) Tories lash out against ‘Big Brother’ fines…

“Boris Johnson has been accused by Conservative MPs of ruling by decree after creating an array of coronavirus offences, including falsely reporting that someone must quarantine and pubs playing music too loudly. The new offences, which were not subject to consultation, also include penalties of £4,000 for “reckless” refusal to self-isolate, prompting comparisons with George Orwell’s 1984 from leading Tory rebels. In a further tightening of restrictions in the northeast, meeting people from other households in pubs and restaurants is illegal from tomorrow. Previously it was banned only in homes and gardens, while it is discouraged in other local lockdown areas.” – The Times

  • Police to crack down harder on those who flout coronavirus rules – Daily Telegraph
  • Red Wall revolt underway as new measures will stop friends meeting for a drink – Daily Mail
  • MPs may get votes to stem revolt on coronavirus emergency powers – The Times
  • Rebellion set to be thwarted despite rising anger – The Guardian
  • The Government has tried to “terrify the British people” with its use of Covid data, says one backbencher – Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 2)…. as ministers are warned that the pub curfew is harmful

“Ministers have rejected calls for an urgent review of the 10pm curfew despite the police and government scientific advisers warning that it could be doing more harm than good. Downing Street defended the measure despite scenes at the weekend of large crowds gathering in city and town centres and packed public transport after closing time. Long queues were also seen outside off licences as people rushed to buy more alcohol. Boris Johnson’s official spokesman played down the scale of the problem and said that the 10pm closing time struck the “right balance” between virus control and allowing pubs and restaurants to trade.” – The Times

  • Mayors and businesses object to new restrictions in Paris – The Times

Coronavirus 3) Hunt: Can the golden age of democracy survive Covid?

“As foreign secretary, I travelled to nearly 30 countries and – contrary to the self-flagellation in the press over Brexit – was always struck by how much respect Britain is held in as a country. The hard-headed world of diplomacy can be pretty transactional, but I always sensed that our place at the global top table was about more than our economy – still in the top 10 – or our soft power. We earned our influence the hard way – through our decisive role, alongside America, in the construction of the post-1945 global order. Those 75 years have been a golden period that has nurtured more scientific and technological advances, eliminated more poverty and fostered more freedom than any other period in humanity”, Jeremy Hunt – Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 4) Johnson to outline £2.5 billion scheme to help unemployed train and retrain

“Boris Johnson will use a speech to promise guaranteed opportunities for life-long learning as he looks to help create a jobs recovery after the pandemic. Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week, when unveiling his plan to support jobs after the furlough scheme is wound down next month, admitted not every job can be saved following the hit that Covid-19 has dealt the economy, with his focus turning to propping up ‘viable’ employment. But the Prime Minister will use a speech on Tuesday to outline his intention to create conditions for people to upskill at any stage of their life in a bid to help those made redundant to retrain for new positions.” – Daily Mail

  • Tax hikes or austerity needed to pay for Covid spending, warns IFS – Daily Telegraph
  • Free college courses to help adults gain skills – The Times

Coronavirus 5) Elderly facing winter flu vaccine shortage

“The flu vaccine is running short across parts of the UK, causing fears that pensioners could face delays in getting the jab. Surging demand caused by coronavirus has prompted high street pharmacies Boots and Lloyds to suspend bookings for those aged 65 and over, while the waiting list at some GP surgeries stands at several weeks. The shortages leave swathes of the most vulnerable in the population with no immediate prospect of an flu jab, despite a Government promise that they would be at the front of the queue. It follows the release of a Public Health England (PHE) study showing that the chance of death for coronavirus patients roughly doubles if they catch flu” – Daily Telegraph

  • Covid-19 test that gives results in minutes to be rolled out across the world – The Guardian
  • Global Coronavirus deaths pass 1m with no sign rate is slowing – The Guardian
  • Unpaid carers spent an extra 92 million hours looking after relatives with dementia since Covid-19 started – Daily Mail
  • Breast milk could stop Covid-19 spreading, researchers claim – The Times

Coronavirus 6) Several universities investigated over Covid-19 disruption amid growing calls for refunds

“Several universities are being investigated over concerns they are failing to provide a good quality education due to Covid-19, it emerged on Monday, as vice-chancellors were told they may have to partially refund students. The university watchdog the Office for Students said it would investigate any institution it believed had failed to uphold standards or where “quality is slipping for groups of students”.  A spokesman confirmed it was already investigating a number of universities after it was alerted to concerns over “teaching arrangements or other potential breaches of our regulatory conditions as a consequence of the pandemic.”” – Daily Telegraph

  • Students could be told to isolate before going home for Christmas – The Times

Hopes of deal rise as EU says it is ready to work on legal agreement

“European negotiators have indicated for the first time that they are prepared to start writing a joint legal text of a trade agreement with the UK, before fresh talks begin today. In a potentially significant move Brussels is understood to have dropped its demand for the two sides to reach a broad agreement on all the outstanding areas of dispute before drafting a final agreement. In return the UK side is expected to engage in detailed discussions on post-Brexit fishing quotas and the government’s future subsidy policy, two of the biggest remaining sticking points.” – The Times

Cummings-inspired planning reforms will lead to ‘disastrous urbanisation’ warns ex-Cabinet minister

“New planning reforms would lead to a “disastrous urbanisation of the suburbs”, a former Conservative Cabinet minister has warned, with some areas forced to take the equivalent of several new towns each. New analysis shows that Tory seats around London, Nottingham and Leicester will be forced to take tens of thousands of additional new homes due to a “mutant planning algorithm” in new reforms. Many Tory MPs are up in arms over plans to use an algorithm which is being proposed to overhaul housing forecasts. A consultation on the plans closes on Thursday.” – Daily Telegraph


News in brief:

  • The row over Charles Moore and Paul Dacre exposes the entitlement of the institutional left – CapX
  • Is No. 10 about to move on the Brady amendment? Katy Balls – The Spectator
  • Under fire Number 10 strives to agree a deal with Covid Tory rebels, Mutaz Ahmed – Reaction
  • More than a third of young people have ‘lost hope’ over future aspirations due to Covid-19 pandemic – ITV
  • Joe Biden’s one chance to save America, Justin Webb – UnHerd

The Conservatives should watch for a rival to their right

29 Sep

Many pixels and much paper have been spent trying to explain UKIP and, briefly, the Brexit Party.  Some see them as having been driven mainly by economics, and the effect of the financial crash and techological change on living standards, jobs and security.  Others highlight the role of culture, citing the long-term effect of mass immigration, changing social attitudes, and the deracination of the main political parties.

Others still go for a more simple explanation: lots of people just wanted to leave the European Union.

That last take has another dimension to it.  The odds are stacked against a new political party in the UK – all the more now that European elections, the stage for UKIP’s main electoral successes, are no more.  First past the post is a high barrier to entry.

Recent history suggests that, to succeed, a new party either needs a clear objective to spearhead its appeal, as the Brexit Party and UKIP had, or a significant number of Parliamentary defections from one or more of the main parties, like the Social Democratic Party during the 1980s.  It also helps to have a leader who can cut through to a slice of the electorate – a thought that allows us to cram Roy Jenkins and Nigel Farage into the same sentence.

This takes us to Lawrence Fox, who is reported to be launching a new political party.  He wants it to champion free speech, “reform publicly funded, controlled and operated institutions” (the BBC, anyone?) and preserve our national history and cultural inheritance.

It’s a programme without a measurable objective (unlike UKIP’s) and without the prospect of MP defections – at least, as far as we know.  Perhaps we are under-estimating Fox, but it seems unlikely to us that this project will take off.  The political landscape is littered with the wreckage of failed political parties: the Jury team, Renew, the SDP itself and, talking of parties which picked up support in Parliament, the Independent Group for Change.

Money doesn’t equal success: James Goldsmith pushed a chunk of his considerable fortune at the Referendum Party during the mid-1990s.  It failed to win a single Commons seat in 1997.  Nor does name recognition: in the post-expenses scandal general election of 2010, Esther Rantzen won only four per cent of the vote in Luton South.

You may say that this is too Westminster-focused a view.  What about the dominance of the SNP at Holyrood?  Or the mass of independents and members of small parties who together make up the fourth biggest force in English local government?  Or the independent mayor in Middlesbrough?

Nonetheless, it’s striking how the sprawling patchwork of directly elected Mayors in England, and of Police and Crime Commissioners, remains largely red or blue.  Ken Livingstone won the London mayoralty as Labour’s candidate second time round, though only after his victory as an independent in the first contest.  But before we write off new challengers altogether, it’s worth pausing for thought.

For perhaps we’re becoming too complacent about the Conservatives having no real opposition to their right.

After all, Farage and his parties were a feature of British politics for the best part of ten years – between the formation of the Coalition in 2010 and the advent of Boris Johnson last year.  Perhaps the next new challenger party in British politics will be from the Left, like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece.  (Mind you, UKIP and the Brexit Party won a slice of former Labour and “natural Labour voters”.)  Or even from the Rory Stewart-flavoured centre.

But the story of the last ten years suggests that the Tories are most vulnerable of the main parties to electoral newcomers.  These have occupied ground, to use crude but effective labelling, to the right of the Party.  As David Gauke pointed out in his ConservativeHome column on Saturday, there is now distance between Johnson and Tory backbench opinion on Coronavirus policy, and potentially on a Brexit trade deal, too.

A new challenger could be anti-lockdown, libertarian in flavour, pro-free market – troubled by what its supporters would see as a Tory shift to Red Wall statism and authoritarian virus control.  In our view, this would be an elite project.  Which may help to explain why Farage has not yet put himself at the head of an anti-shutdown movement.

Or it could be more like UKIP, fishing in the waters that Fox is dipping into: anti-mass migration; pro-economic intervention, massing itself to challenge Black Lives Matter, the Left in our universities, the mainstream media – “wokeness” everywhere.

The EU referendum and its aftermath took the Conservatives up to about 40 per cent of the vote or so.  Theresa May Mark One, before the 2017 election, kept support there.  May Mark Two, afterwards, didn’t do so.  Johnson rebuilt that backing and, last December, mobilised it at the polls.

He is now trying to keep that coalition of voters together amidst a pandemic of global scale.  That entails not giving Farage – or anyone else – an opening to his right.  Especially with the Conservative backbenches in their current mutinous condition.