Interview with Douglas Ross: Sturgeon is not in the clear, and is part of a “conspiracy against getting out the truth”

24 Mar

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin.” So says Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, at the start of this interview.

He goes on to condemn “the conspiracy against getting out the truth” which runs through the Sturgeon-Salmond feud, with the SNP Government promoting “a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability”.

Ross discusses how the Scottish Nationalists can be beaten in the forthcoming Holyrood elections, the need for the Union to be defended “as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border”, and the case for devolution from Holyrood to local councils.

He says he is looking forward to campaigning with Boris Johnson in the Holyrood elections, but points out that contrary to the Nationalists’ propaganda, he, not Johnson, is the Conservative leader in Scotland.

ConHome: “James Hamilton has cleared the First Minister of breaking the ministerial code, but the Salmond Inquiry Committee says its work was severely hindered by the Scottish Government’s reluctance to produce key documents. What’s your reaction to these verdicts?”

Ross: “James Hamilton has expressed frustration that redacted information risked an ‘incomplete and at times misleading version of what happened’.

“And the Salmond Inquiry Committee confirms that Nicola Sturgeon’s government hindered their work by withholding key documents and only willingly giving documents ‘that would advance a particular position’.

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin. The findings of this parliamentary committee are damning of her and her government and expose a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability.  And at the heart of this, women who came forward with serious allegations have been completely let down by the whole process.

“The thought that no one should take any responsibility for the many failings in this process is unbelievable.”

ConHome: “The Salmond-Sturgeon quarrel is surely unintelligible to many people who don’t follow politics. Their sense will be of a row about the former’s private life and who knew what when. Why is it important?”

Ross: “Well first of all it is really difficult for people to follow. It’s been ongoing now for several years, since the allegations first arose.

“Then there was the launch of the Scottish Government’s harassment procedure, and then the response from Alex Salmond, who challenged that.

“And since then we’ve had accusation and counter-accusation from Team Salmond and Team Sturgeon.

“And I’m not supporting one over the other. I’m just trying to get to the truth in all this.

“And it’s very difficult to get through to the truth when an inquiry that Nicola Sturgeon agreed would be set up, a cross-party inquiry, chaired by an SNP MSP, where the Scottish Government agreed the remit, the membership, and all aspects of how the committee could go about their business.

“It has been baulked on I think now more than 50 occasions by the Scottish Government, in terms of getting crucial information out there.

“And I think where we’ve got to now is a committee report that’s published, that believes Nicola Sturgeon did mislead Parliament. I believe on numerous occasions she’s misled the Scottish Parliament and Scottish people.

“At the heart of this, two women have been let down by a procedure that did not allow their complaints to be fully investigated and heard.

“The people of Scotland have been let down by a First Minister who’s not been truthful.

“And the people of Scotland have also been let down by a First Minister who has continued with action against the advice of her own lawyers that has cost in excess of half a million pounds.

“So these are all reasons why Scottish Conservatives believe Nicola Sturgeon’s position is untenable.”

ConHome: “Just leaving aside the money, the denial of information to MSPs, the Scottish Government going after publications like The Spectator that put up the reports, do you believe Salmond’s claim that there’s a conspiracy against him in which Sturgeon is implicated?”

Ross: “No I don’t. I believe there’s a conspiracy against getting out the truth. Everything seems to revolve around secrecy. The Scottish Government have been forced, after votes in Parliament which they ignored, with other measures we forced them to release some of the legal advice they’d received, but my conspiracy is more focussed on why can’t we just get the truth, rather than Salmond saying he was stitched up, or Sturgeon saying don’t believe him.”

ConHome: “Like many others, we’re concerned that the SNP may win a majority in this year’s Holyrood elections. How likely do you think this is to happen?”

Ross: “Well I’ve said since August, since I became Scottish Conservative leader, I didn’t think an SNP majority was inevitable, and I didn’t think another independence referendum was inevitable.

“I don’t underestimate the challenge we face in Scotland. The SNP have significant support among those who will vote for the party they think has the best chance to deliver them independence.

“We know back in 2014 45 per cent of Scotland wanted to separate from the rest of the UK. Therefore they see the SNP, for all their other failures, as being the party that could best deliver that.

“So it’s always going to be a challenge against them. But we have seen in recent weeks a shift away from the SNP.

“This image of them being no better than any other political party, having been in government for too long, and being shrouded in secrecy and sleaze, is having an impact.

“And I think at a time, particularly during a global pandemic, when we still need the trust of the public to follow the advice the Government are issuing, it not only is so damaging for Scottish politics as a whole, it could have an impact on our recovery out of this pandemic, if people don’t feel they can trust the First Minister.”

ConHome: “We’re not only worried the SNP may win a majority. We’re also worried about what will happen if they don’t. Down here in London, in Westminster, the UK Government will go ‘Phew, that’s all right then! They haven’t won a majority – we can stop worrying about the Union and think about something else.’

“Are we right to be worried?”

Ross: “I think it’s a genuine concern. I think there’s been a real shift in the emphasis from the UK Government. We’ve seen it in recent weeks and months – more focus on the Union, and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.

“I again have been beating this drum since I became leader. I gave the controversial speech at my first Scottish fringe event at the party conference, saying you know, we really had to wake up to the challenges.

“And when I say we, I mean the Conservative MPs, supporters and people across the rest of the United Kingdom who in some form or other didn’t think that Scotland leaving the UK would have a big impact on them.

“Of course it would. It would affect the whole of the United Kingdom. That fabric of our Union weaves through us all whether we’re Scots, English, Welsh or Northern Irish.

“But I do think the case for remaining a strong part of the United Kingdom has to be made as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border, and I’m seeing promising signs with that, in terms of the Government wanting to invest directly into Scotland through local councils.

“The SNP throw up their arms and say this is disrespecting devolution. But devolution is having two Parliaments, and both Parliaments and both Governments should work together to improve the lives of people in Scotland.

“It’s typical of the SNP, who claim to speak for the whole of Scotland, which they absolutely don’t, to decry any attempt of the UK Government to show where they invest in Scotland, and I just want to see more of that, and certainly from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and everyone in the Cabinet I get the reassurance that they’re up for this fight.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that the Conservatives, the Conservative and Unionist Party, can’t save the Union on its own. It’s going to have to work with other Unionist parties, in particular with Labour.

“Is that right, and how easy is it to work with Labour given their difference on what the political solution should be?”

Ross: “Well I think it’s absolutely right. We saw in the 2014 referendum that the parties put down their political differences and worked together to achieve success, with 55 per cent of the population voting to remain in the United Kingdom.

“However, since then we’ve seen a Labour Party in Scotland that’s been decimated, that’s a shadow of its former self. And sadly I think their response has been to out-Nat the Scottish Nationalists.

“And that is never going to win them back the support they need. So I’ve made the offer and I made the offer to Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader at the time, that I would work with him if we could kick the SNP out of power.

“And he turned that offer down. When his replacements were standing as the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party I said to Monica Lennon and Anas Sarwar, would they work with me to get rid of this tired and failing SNP Government, and they both turned that down within 30 seconds.

“So I’ll continue to hold out that olive branch. I think it is a way forward, I think it is what people want in Scottish politics, for the parties to work together, get away from this division of the past and focus on our recovery in Scotland.

“I’ll continue to make that offer and I hope at some point the Labour Party wake up to their responsibilities and accept it.”

ConHome: “In your speech on 3rd October to the virtual Conservative Party conference you said that

“far too many members in England…do not value the importance of the Union to their own British identity… They too often see Britishness and Englishness as one and the same. These attitudes extend to how we govern our country.”

“Are those attitudes improved now that Dominic Cummings has left Downing Street?”

Ross: “Well I always said those comments were not directed at any one individual. And indeed they weren’t just directed at the Conservative Party.

“I think we saw from the Labour Party, who oversaw devolution with the referendum in Scotland in 1997, that obviously led to the first Scottish Parliament in 1999, from Whitehall almost a view of ‘devolve and forget’.

“As if we could just provide funding to Scotland and not worry about how that was spent.

“And what we’ve seen over the last few years of SNP control in Holyrood is significant financial support going to the Scottish Government, the latest budget this year is the highest budget ever delivered to the devolved Scottish Parliament.

“But we’re seeing our standards in education falling. We’re seeing hospitals being built that can’t take any patients. We’re seeing our economy, pre-Covid, more sluggish than other parts of the United Kingdom.

“So it was a wake-up call to those within Government and outwith that we have to get rid of this devolve and forget attitude.

“Somehow a narrative that the English don’t care what happens to Scotland or the Welsh don’t care or those in Northern Ireland don’t care actually only aids the Nationalists.”

ConHome: “Some questions about the way the devolution settlement is working in Scotland.

“First of all, do you agree that Parliament should in some respects have more powers – for example, that MSPs should be covered by parliamentary privilege?”

Ross: “Yes. So I believe there are – I set out in a speech I did to Onward recently – some suggestions for strengthening the accountability within the Scottish Parliament.

“This should be done on a cross-party basis, I’m not saying the Conservatives have all the answers to this issue.

“But I think it was particularly revealing, to people across the country, that it took a Member of Parliament standing up in the UK House of Commons to reveal information that was not able to be revealed to MSPs sitting on an inquiry looking into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints and the procedure they set up.

“I’ve already raised issues about the Lord Advocate in Scotland being the head of the prosecution service, and also a political appointment sitting round the Scottish Government Cabinet table.

“I also think we could learn from the UK Parliament in terms of electing select committee chairs. I’ve sat in both Parliaments and been on committees in both, and I think we have far more rigour in our investigations and our questioning with select committee chairs who are elected by the whole House rather than party appointments that we have in the Scottish Parliament.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that a central problem with the devolution settlement in Scotland is not that there’s too much devolution but that there hasn’t been enough.

“And on that theme, you’ve called for local councils to have more powers, the power to set business-rate-free zones and to build more railways, deliver universal broadband. Could you expand on that?”

Ross: “Yes, so first of all I’m not advocating for more powers to go to Holyrood. I don’t think people suggesting now just devolve some extra powers and that’ll stop people wanting independence is credible.

“And I also say to the SNP, if you continue to call for more powers for the Scottish Parliament, just start using the ones you’ve got.

“In terms of devolution, what I want to see is more devolution from the Scottish Parliament to local councils.

“I do believe that local councils are better at delivering many of these policies. I was a councillor for ten years.

“For many people now in Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood seem as distant as the UK Government and the UK Parliament did in London prior to 1997 when there were calls for devolution.”

ConHome: “Aberdeen Council is reported to be applying for grants directly from the Shared Prosperity Fund. Do you know how that’s going?”

Ross: “There’s been an awful lot of positive discussion. I’m in regular contact with Douglas Lumsden, Co-Leader of Aberdeen City Council, he’s one of our excellent candidates on the North East list for the election in May, and with Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, who sees this as a way forward.

“He can see the frustration of councils in Scotland, particularly those outwith the central belt.”

ConHome: “Do you believe that Westminster should deploy the powers it has: for example, the Political and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee could launch an inquiry into the conduct of the civil service in Scotland, over why laws seem to have been crafted especially to investigate Alex Salmond, even after the Head of Propriety and Ethics in Whitehall expressed discomfort.”

Ross: “I think we have to look very closely at how the Scottish Government civil service worked throughout this process, and obviously the head of the Scottish civil service is answerable to the head of the UK civil service.

“I also think there’s an opportunity for the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, which I sit on, to look into it. It’s chaired by an SNP member, so we may have some challenges in getting that into our future work programme, but absolutely, I think there is a clear role for scrutiny within the UK select committee system, following on from the report of the Scottish Parliament committee.”

ConHome: “Should the UK Government here do more to involve the Governments of the devolved administrations in their decision-making, over immigration, say, or trade deals?”

Ross: “Well I mentioned that in my Policy Exchange speech, and it was more just about more dialogue, it’s not saying direct decision making.”

ConHome: “At one point last year, Michael Gove was reported to think that just occasionally, there’d be a case for inviting Nicola Sturgeon and the leaders of the devolved administrations to sit in at Cabinet meetings. What do you think?”

Ross: “No I don’t think that would be particularly helpful. Clear, distinct subject matters which affect the whole of the UK such as travel arrangements, quarantine arrangements, restrictions that may differ north or south of the border or into Wales, are right to be focussed on a small committee, and I’ve sat in on a number of these committees when I was a Scotland Office minister, so I can see the value of them.

“I think inviting devolved leaders to actual Cabinet meetings is a step too far, and I’m not sure it would be reciprocated by offers of the Prime Minister to go to the Scottish Government Cabinet meetings or the Welsh Assembly Cabinet meetings.”

ConHome: “How substantial a problem for your election campaign this year is Boris Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland?”

Ross: “I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as an opportunity for me to continue to show that I’m the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. I am the leader standing for election to Holyrood.

“NIcola Sturgeon and the SNP are already using this in their leaflets, saying ‘vote for the SNP or vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party’.

“But the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His policies are having a positive impact in Scotland, such as the vaccine rollout; the levelling up funding will see investment into Scotland.

“But in terms of the running of the party here, our manifesto, our team, it’s led by me. I think that’s right for the Scottish Conservatives and it’s certainly the approach I’m taking into the election.”

ConHome: “Are you looking forward to Boris joining you on the campaign trail?”

Ross: “Yeah. It’ll be a very different campaign trail, so let’s be honest, he’s not going to be popping up every couple of days to do visits, and we’re all trying to get our head round exactly what this campaign’s going to look like.

“But I was at Political Cabinet last week, we had a good discussion on the election in Scotland, and obviously in Wales, and there’s big elections in England, we’ve got by-elections coming up as well, so the Prime Minister’s going to be busy all over the country.

“But we’re probably going to do an awful lot of it like this. It’ll be Zoom meetings. We’ll see how it all pans out.”

ConHome: “Do you know Oliver Lewis?”

Ross: “Yes.”

ConHome: “What was your take on him?”

Ross: “Yeah, I worked well with Oliver, first of all he was always extremely engaged with Scottish MPs during the Brexit negotiations, and then when for a short time he was the head of the Union Unit I spoke to him a number of times, and I think he had some really good things to offer.

“Clearly it didn’t work out, but he is someone I will still look at what he says and listen to what he says.”

ConHome: “It doesn’t make a difference that the Unit’s no longer there?”

Ross: “I don’t think so. Clearly the change in personnel was something that attracted quite a lot of media attention. I actually think the move to the Cabinet committee system, with senior members of the Cabinet, is a good thing, having the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Minister of the Cabinet Office, the Secretaries of State like Alister Jack, it’s a powerful committee.”

ConHome: “One of the things people know about you is that you’re a great football referee. What help is that to you in your present role? Because your role now is partisan, you’re on the pitch, you’re trying to wipe the floor with the opposition.”

Ross: “Well I don’t quite get onto the pitch, because I’m an assistant referee, just from the sidelines, and I’m not even doing that at the moment, I’ve got a hamstring injury.

“But I do think for political leadership it’s a good thing, because you’ve got to take instant decisions, based on what you see in front of you, knowing that that decision will not please everyone, in many cases my decision will please no one, and you’ve got to have a pretty tough skin to do it in the first place and to defend and stick by your decisions.”

Interview. Therese Coffey – “An element of a kinder politics is not calling other people bigots because you don’t agree with them.”

19 Mar

Thérèse Coffey runs a major front-line department yet is hardly ever seen on our television screens. As Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, she has administered one of the great successes in the official response to the pandemic, the extension of Universal Credit, coping at one point with an extra 100,000 claimants in a single day:

“I always think of that train scene in Wallace and Gromit, the one with the penguin, and Gromit’s on the front of the train laying down the track in front of it, and that’s how it felt like for a little while.”

In this interview she refuses to say there will be any further extension of the £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit, and instead indicates that she wishes to concentrate on promoting the DWP’s various schemes to help people get back into work:

“Big thanks to the Jabs Army, we are the Jobs Army, and I’m keen that you will see more of me, also more of my colleagues like Kwasi Kwarteng and Oliver Dowden.”

Coffey says there hasn’t been “as much interest as I would expect from local government” in the “flagship” Kickstart Scheme for placing young people in jobs.

She also discusses what it is like being a Catholic in politics, says one of her “proudest days” was when she voted against the Assisted Dying Bill, recalls seeing Tony Blair at Mass in Westminster Cathedral, and calls for an end to calling opponents “bigots”:

“People do talk about having a kinder politics. An element of a kinder politics is not calling other people with different views bigots because you don’t agree with them.

“People are bigots for calling other people bigots in a way, if that makes sense.

“It genuinely is about just accepting that other people may have different views to you. We seem to be candidly better at doing that in the Conservative Party than perhaps some of the other political parties.

“Being respectful to each other even if you completely disagree with their perspective or their viewpoints, and just accepting that people can have different views. I think politics could be a lot gentler.”

Coffey, MP since 2010 for Suffolk Coastal, is originally from Liverpool, and explains why the Conservatives have declined in that city. She remains an ardent supporter of Liverpool Football Club and ends by comparing Boris Johnson to Jurgen Klopp: “I’m a great fan of very visible leadership.”

ConHome: “What difference does your background as a scientist, your doctorate in chemistry, make to the way you operate as a politician, indeed as a senior minister? Most of your colleagues have a background in politics, economics, history, law, or, in one prominent case, the classics.”

Coffey: “I think just generally the approach of being pretty data-driven, evidence-based, analytical, good use of statistics, challenging sometimes things which people aren’t familiar with – perhaps I’m more confident, even though I don’t pretend to be a medical scientist or anything like that.

“But the ability to ask good questions is very helpful.”

ConHome: “Do you think there should be more people in the Cabinet who are scientifically literate?”

Coffey: “Well I think everybody has different strengths. You don’t need to be a scientist to be able to have that analytical ability. I’m just conscious that that’s led to a particular way of how sometimes I approach matters.

“I think it also helped, I really value my industrial experience and learning at one of the best companies in the world [Coffey worked for Mars].

“All that sort of experience we each bring as members of the Cabinet, and other people will have other life and work experiences too. So it’s the combination of strengths that help us.”

ConHome: “The uplift in Universal Credit is going to be extended for six months. Isn’t it absolutely inevitable that after that six months is over it’s going to be extended again?

“And if that’s so, why not cut out all the bother and just announce that now?”

Coffey: “I don’t think it is the case that we wanted to make sure, close discussions with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, undoubtedly the response at the time, like a lot of the responses, what could be done quickly and effectively to support people, particularly those who we think were very much impacted by the effects of the pandemic.

“And I do think that we are in a good place, that the economy will be opening up, we have to get confidence back into the economy, back into employers to create jobs, and the investment that’s already gone into DWP and across government more broadly for the Plan for Jobs means that we’re well-placed to encourage and get people taking up those vacancies as quickly as possible.

“This has been a long time now for quite a lot of people being out of work. The furlough has kept that link, and we need to encourage employers to make sure that those people still on furlough are now being prepared to be trained, to be refreshed to get back into their workplace as soon as possible, when conditions allow them to resume their normal activities.”

ConHome: “Do you think there will be a case for an extension at the end of six months? Given the fact that unemployment will be rising.”

Coffey: “Yes I’m conscious about that. And I think that we’ve been clear about the value of this extension. I think that the Chancellor’s always said that we’ll wrap our arms around, but we do believe genuinely in economic terms the large effects of the pandemic will be over, and the investment of people into skills, to get people working again, and that training I think will be important in order to take full advantage of the vacancies that arise.

“So the decision’s been made about the up to six months extension of a variety of schemes, and we’ve got the full six-month extension for people on Universal Credit.”

ConHome: “Can you say more about what your department’s broad plans are for dealing with the unemployment challenge as it will be when lockdown is lifted, particularly for younger people coming into the labour market as they hope, people who lost their jobs immediately before the first lockdown happened.”

Coffey: “Yes, well, already across the country we’ve nearly 27,000 work coaches, we’re not far off now, we’ll have recruited our extra 13,500 by the end of the month.

“And they’re already making interactions with people who’ve been looking for work. We reintroduced Claimant Commitments last year, which is our contract on behalf of the taxpayer with the people receiving benefits.

“People are already taking advantage of more tailored support through a variety of schemes under the Plan for Jobs. So for example probably our flagship scheme is the Kickstart Scheme focussed on young people, and the intention is to have a quarter of a million Kickstart placements by the end of this year.

“And we’ve already approved over 150,000. I don’t know when we’re publishing this information, just over 6,000 young people have now started that role, since November, and we have vacancies, I think there’s over 40,000 vacancies at the moment, which we’re now starting to process with employers and the young people, to get the start.

“I think it’s fair to say that some of the sectors and some of the areas it’s been challenging for them to get the start dates agreed, because they just want to make sure it’s in line with when their sectors can open up.

“But I’m also looking into the fact, I had hoped that more councils would take up the offer of programmes like that. We haven’t had as much interest as I would expect from local government and very few people have started in local government, so that’ll be an area of emphasis.

“But it’s not just about the young people. We’ve got schemes called SWAPs, sector work-based academy programmes, where there are vacancies, employers set these schemes up with us, they get some training, they get some work experience, and they get a guaranteed job interview.

“And that’s often important for people whose sectors aren’t particularly recovering in the way we would like, and we are focussing on some of the growth sectors, or sectors where there are well-known vacancies.

“So that can be a mixture of different levels, including health and social care. We’ve got some other opportunities. There’s something called JETs. This is where people have been unemployed for a while and they get more specialist support.

And indeed something called JFS, Job Finding Support, it’s very light touch, because quite a lot of the people who’ve turned to us for help are people who haven’t had to look for a job for the last 20, 25 years, may not have a LinkedIn profile, may not have their CV quite up to date, and some of that probably just needs some finessing, and an element of confidence and interview practice.

“So we’re trying a whole series of ways in order to get people back into the habit of this, getting them ready, and then steering them, as part of their Claimant Commitment, towards jobs that are available. And we need people to keep going for those vacancies.”

ConHome: “Were you as baffled as we were that you weren’t tasked with fronting any of the daily Government press conferences over the last year?”

Coffey: “Well it’s kind of you to say that. I think the way the process worked was largely if there were announcements to be made in particular areas, and then you had some of my other colleagues, like the First Secretary of State, or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, running the Cabinet Office, who would actually have a broader remit I suppose to make announcements on behalf of the Government.

“So I think that, I’ll be open with you, I’m quite happy to, we’ve got this enormous jobs army, as I call us now, at DWP, we’re growing to nearly 100,000 people, and you know we have the most connections with communities right around the country.

“We’re increasing the number of Job Centres by 200, so we’ll have well over 800 Job Centres. So we have enough to do, to actually deliver the day to day services that we need.

“And who knows in the future. We’ve got the press briefing starting, but the shift of the Government away hopefully from Covid and actually onto the jobs recovery.

“So big thanks to the Jabs Army, we are the Jobs Army, and I’m keen that you will see more of me, also more of my colleagues like Kwasi Kwarteng and Oliver Dowden, as we really push and bang the drum alongside the Chancellor and the Prime Minister for job creation.”

ConHome: “Last year has been full of Government successes, and frankly some Government failures. But one of the big successes has been Universal Credit.

“It’s stood up. It didn’t fall over. If it hadn’t been there, goodness knows what would have been done in terms of support. Why was it you weren’t allowed out at a press conference to talk about this?”

Coffey: “Well I think quite a lot of Government, quite rightly, citizens expect it to work. And I’m conscious that perhaps colleagues and dare I say it the commentariat might have been surprised that UC didn’t fall over.

“It took a lot of effort. I’m really proud of what our civil servants did. I have to say there was a particular day when over 100,000 claims were made and we had some really intensive work undertaken to increase the capacity of our IT, our servers.

“I always think of that train scene in Wallace and Gromit, the one with the penguin, and Gromit’s on the front of the train laying down the track in front of it, and that’s how it felt like for a little while.

“But we did cope, we did manage, we made some effective decisions, and we worked together very well, and how can I put it, it was a great success story in a way, that DWP was not in the news for it falling over.

“We’re happy to be the unsung heroes, but it’s nice to get some praise as well, and we’ve certainly been given that by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister in the last year.”

ConHome: “The manifesto commitment on the Winter Fuel Payment and the older person’s bus pass, that’s all very clear, but those payments have aroused controversy recently. Can you rule out the possibility of the age at which they’re received being raised?”

Coffey: “I haven’t been involved in any policy discussion about that. It’s not on the agenda, as far as I know.”

ConHome: “Do you think you were right, in retrospect, to vote both in 2013 and in 2019 against same-sex marriage?”

Coffey: “Well I’m a practising Catholic, we have a diversity of people and their views in Parliament, and think it’s fair to say, I’m a great believer in democracy, I’ve not sought to try and block anything further.

“But I will say the thing about the 2019 [vote], which is the Northern Ireland situation, I felt that was a devolved matter, to be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“As did I think you’ll find some other people who voted against that at the time, who actually support same-sex marriage, but respect devolution. I didn’t agree with the situation that forced that through, but again, I’m a democrat. The vote went through and it’s now been delivered.”

ConHome: “You’re part of the quite sizeable tribe of Tory politicians from Liverpool who don’t sit for Liverpool. Why do you think the Conservatives have basically been driven out as an electoral force, not only of Liverpool now, but the whole of Merseyside pretty much, with one exception.”

Coffey: “As you say, Southport was there, and we came close in Wirral West to regaining that in 2019. I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there, I was in a place called Formby from about six months old and then proper Liverpool if you like from the age of six, to the point that I actually had a Conservative Member of Parliament when I lived there, for a while.”

ConHome: “Who was that?”

Coffey: “I’m trying to think. Malcolm Thornton it was at one point. I know he then moved constituency to Crosby, but I don’t have entire recollection of that time.

“I think that what happened, especially when Militant took over, that’s when I got interested in politics, or I realised politics mattered, I think with the rule of Militant about 20 per cent of the population actually just left Liverpool.

“And I’m conscious that some of the economic impact there was pretty tough on the city. The issues that had happened earlier in that decade with the riots and so on.

“Candidly, other bits of the North West, like Manchester, instead of having a row with the Government, just got on with it and did better economically.

“There are several of us, as you say, from Liverpool who’ve ended up in other parts of the country. I didn’t go back after university, I got a job elsewhere in the country.

“But I’m still very fond of what I consider to be my home city, and very keen to try to make sure it does prosper, which is one of the reasons why earlier this week I was doing a fundraiser with Gillian Keegan for Jade Marsden, our candidate for the LIverpool City Region.”

ConHome: “Where are we on the Government review of women’s pensions?”

Coffey: “Well the Government’s policy has been consistent on women’s pensions. We won our latest court session, to keep the fact that we wanted to have the age of pensioners to be the same, whether a man or woman.

“However, we’re awaiting a legal process. A further appeal was made by others and we’re waiting to hear if the Supreme Court is going to take it on.”

ConHome: “Do you feel it’s tougher in any way for Catholics in politics than it was? Some Catholics say so though others disagree.”

Coffey: “I don’t know because I’ve only had ten years of experience. Probably the famous one was Alastair Campbell saying ‘we don’t do God’.

“Before I was an MP I actually remember, I think it’s the only time I’d seen Tony Blair in the flesh, I was at Mass at Westminster Cathedral and all of a sudden he appeared with his daughter, and it was quite amusing, at the shake of the hands of peace there were people clambering over the pews to shake his hand.”

ConHome: “That must have been before the Iraq War.”

Coffey: “I can’t remember when, but it can be a difficult balancing act, I appreciate that. And sometimes people of faith just have different views on certain matters.

“I’m a great believer in live and let live, and not condemning other people for choices they make or for approaches they take. I have very different views to some of my friends say on assisted suicide.

“That day, 11th September 2015, is one of the proudest days in my time as an MP, to stop that Second Reading [of the Assisted Dying Bill].

“And I’ve got friends who completely disagree with me, and that’s OK.

“People do talk about having a kinder politics. An element of a kinder politics is not calling other people with different views bigots because you don’t agree with them.

“People are bigots for calling other people bigots in a way, if that makes sense.

“It genuinely is about just accepting that other people may have different views to you. We seem to be candidly better at doing that in the Conservative Party than perhaps some of the other political parties.

“Being respectful to each other even if you completely disagree with their perspective or their viewpoints, and just accepting that people can have different views. I think politics could be a lot gentler in that way.

“How I explain it sometimes to members of the public or indeed schoolchildren is that in the Chamber, you tend to only discuss largely the things where you disagree.

“Frankly on most things, all the parties probably agree on about 70 per cent of matters.”

ConHome: “Do you have any advice for Jurgen Klopp? You’re a Liverpool supporter we believe.”

Coffey: “I’m a huge supporter of Liverpool Football Club. Clearly the impact of injuries on defenders, particularly Virgil van Diyk, has knocked confidence.

“But it’s about having self-belief, and recognising it’s only one match at a time. That’s all it takes, and I’m a great fan of Jurgen Klopp, and his enthusiasm, his visible leadership, and I’m a great fan of very visible leadership.

“And we’ve got that in bucket loads in Liverpool, and we’ve got it in bucket loads in our Prime Minister Boris Johnson as well.”

ConHome: “The Jurgen Klopp of politics.”

Coffey: “Well, you know, it’s the style that I really like.”

Interview. Mel Stride – a damaged economy provides less for health and social care, “and that has a cost in lives”

6 Nov

Rishi Sunak yesterday refused Mel Stride’s third request for the Treasury’s analysis of the economic impacts of the pandemic.

Stride, who chairs the Treasury Select Committee, suggests in this interview that the Chancellor misunderstands what is being asked for.

Others, Stride adds, might draw the “unfortunate conclusion” that providing the information would be “unhelpful in the context of persuading Members of Parliament to support a lockdown”.

ConHome: “I want to take as our theme a quote from the Sage minutes of 21st September that you read out in the Commons on 21st October and referred to again in your question yesterday to Rishi Sunak:

“Policy makers will need to consider analysis of economic impacts and the associated harms alongside this epidemiological assessment. This work is underway under the auspices of the Chief Economist.”

“Now you’ve asked Rishi Sunak on three occasions to show you this analysis. What did you make of the answer he gave you in the Commons yesterday?”

Stride: “I can only imagine there’s a misunderstanding about what’s being asked for here.

“Because I think his response, which was really in line with his written response to me, was, well, we don’t produce official forecasts from the Treasury, that’s the job of the OBR and others, and these are the various forecasts which are out there – which of course are all in the public domain and we know about those.

“But that wasn’t actually what I was asking for.

“What I’m asking for is precisely the output relating to that section of the minutes of that Sage meeting on 21st September. If the minutes are accurate, there is work that has been going on at the Treasury, looking at the impacts of the lockdown measures, under the auspices of the Chief Economist [Clare Lombardelli].

“So we think, in terms of good decision-making, Parliament having access to all the information it needs to take these decisions, and the wider public, that that should be made public.”

ConHome: “You asked for something that Sage suggests exists. The letter gave you an answer to something you hadn’t really asked. It said it didn’t seek to disaggregate these economic outcomes, which it referred to in some detail, from their causes, whether they be lockdowns or other restrictions or the virus itself.

“What do you think is going on? You said a moment ago this seems to be a misunderstanding. What do you think is up? Has the Treasury just got the wrong end of the stick? Or is there some reason why it’s reluctant to engage in this way?”

Stride: “I think that’s a very good question. My feeling at the moment is that perhaps it’s got the wrong end of the stick.

“If it were not me answering this question, and I were to be a little more cynical about it, I might think, well, maybe this kind of information is unhelpful in the context of persuading Members of Parliament to support a lockdown.

“Because inevitably it’s likely to at the very least throw into sharper relief the kind of economic costs associated with these measures.

“And I’m not for a moment – I think this is very important for this interview – suggesting that.

“Let me put it this way. I think that would be an unfortunate conclusion that some might draw, and I think that’s unnecessary, because if we can clear up the misunderstanding we can see the information.”

ConHome: “Your committee wanted the information before the vote yesterday, and didn’t get it. With all that in mind, how did you feel about voting yesterday, and what’s your general view of the lockdown proposal?”

Stride: “OK. I don’t think we have enough information to make the best, most informed decision on this, and I don’t just point my finger at the lack of economic information, though there’s certainly a complete dearth of that, but equally at the health aspects of this.

“But at the end of the day you have to take a decision based on the information you have – you can’t just lament the fact that there’s a hole in it.

“You have to look at it, and it’s a matter of judgment. And my judgment, which was personally fairly finely balanced, so I supported it with a bit of a heavy heart, was that on this occasion I would trust that the Government’s judgment was more likely to be right than wrong.

“Now critical to all of this of course is what is the likely outcome in the counterfactual example of no lockdown, in terms of the over-running of the National Health Service.

“It seems to me that there are at least two strands within the health data that are problematic. One is some projections which I think have been to a degree debunked, like the projection of 4,000 deaths per day, which I think has been unhelpful.

“But the second thing, to be fair to the Government, is the very nature of responding to this pandemic, and the lags involved for example between infection, hospitalisation and ultimately sadly death, lead you to a situation where it’s very difficult to answer a number of the critical questions that you need to answer.

“Because you don’t actually have the data in real time. An example of that would be what is the average time that somebody infected with Covid spends in a bed within the NHS at the moment compared to the first wave?

“Now purely speculatively suppose that that figure is much lower than in the first wave, because you’ve got better treatments and we understand how to make people better faster.

“If it was, for the sake of argument, half the amount of time, that would be an effective doubling of the capacity of the National Health Service at a stroke in order to handle these particular problems.

“But we don’t know the answer to that critical question. And if we did, and it was half the time, we might be able to avoid the lockdown altogether, who knows.”

ConHome: “You’ve said it’s a misunderstanding. That’s a very charitable term. The Chancellor is a staggeringly acute and quick-in-the-uptake individual. Even if he were momentarily to misunderstand what you want, he wouldn’t misunderstand when you put the question to him again.”

Stride: “Of course he has a lot on his plate, and let’s hope that fairly shortly he has another look at it and perhaps we end up in a position where the information is made available.

“Or indeed it’s categorically stated that the information referred to in the Sage minute is not actually available, because it never existed.

“If it never existed, the question then becomes, given the magnitude of the decisions being taken around lockdown, why would you take a decision like that without that kind of information?

“So I think it’s difficult both ways, whether it exists or not, for the Treasury. But my hunch is that it does exist and we should have it.”

ConHome: “How significant do you think it is that a growing number of your colleagues – Theresa May, Graham Brady, Bob Neill, Nus Ghani and so forth – are calling for this analysis which you’ve been trying to extract from the Government?”

Stride: “Well I think that’s just reflective of two things. One is that the economy has been downplayed in the elements of the discussion so far.

“And secondly, through time it’s becoming more and more relatively underplayed, because the economic situation is getting that much tougher.

“So it’s more relevant today, when we looked at another £20 billion of support, and huge stress on the public finances going forward – we have a close look at this stuff, perhaps compared to on day one back in mid-March.

“And I think there’s one other important thing, which very few commentators have picked up on.

“It’s not just about what are the economic impacts of these measures, it’s about what are the consequential health impacts of those economic impacts.

“And there are at least two things that one thinks of here. One is that if you go into lockdown then you have an increase as we know in mental health problems, potentially suicides, and that needs to be quantified.

“And the second thing is that if you damage the economy, if you scar it, i.e. you end up with structural long-term contraction of the economy, you’re less able to fund the kind of health and social care services that we want to fund going forward, and that has a cost in lives.

“Now that’s not as dramatic as saying that next month we may be overrun in the NHS and there may be people very sick in NHS beds etcetera, but nonetheless it’s not something that can be avoided.

“And the problem is that not only is the economic analysis there in my opinion, but the consequent health analysis is not there either.

“We had a very interesting committee meeting that I organised about a week ago, where we looked at how you convert economic damage via something called the QALY, the Quality Adjusted Life Year, and tried to flesh out how you could make comparisons between economic damage – smaller economy, less public spending – and the consequence for lives.

“And that analysis can be done. It all sounds a bit esoteric, but at the end of the day, if you’re to take rational decisions about actions that are there primarily to save lives over the medium to long term, you can’t ignore those issues.

“Politically, of course, it’s very difficult to be entirely rational over the long term, because the immediate political expediencies tend to lead to shorter-term decision-making.”

ConHome: “What happens next to your committee’s inquiry into this whole question?”

Stride: “Well we will be publishing a report. We have called for the Government’s Chief Economic Adviser to appear before our committee next Wednesday.

“I’m hopeful that she will appear, alongside the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, and we’ll be able to put further questions to her at that point.”

ConHome: “And how soon will we get your report? Because as you say there’s this great tension between immediate actions, including flinging a lot of liquidity into the economy, and the long term, when Keynes said we’re all dead, but some of us won’t be dead at least in the medium term.

“You might produce a perfect report which was far too late.”

Stride: “If it was a report it will vest within the ongoing inquiry we have into the economic impacts of coronavirus, and that probably wouldn’t be for some time.

“But we don’t need to rely on a report in order to get out the conclusions of a particular session.

“One of the things I’m acutely aware of, and I know the committee is, is just the point you’ve made, that everything is moving frighteningly quickly, and if you’re going to add value to the decision-making then you need to be as nimble as the Chancellor, if not even more nimble, in getting in and out with your commentary and your suggestions.”

ConHome: “Just following up what you said about the QALYs – isn’t there a natural reluctance of Government, and of MPs, to get into all this? Because it is extremely difficult to have a public debate about the value of a life lost to the coronavirus, to the value of a life that isn’t lost to it.

“It invites the charge of the Conservative Government, ‘the heartless Tories’, not putting enough value on some of the lives lost.”

Stride: “Well it depends. Politics as Bismarck said is the art of the possible. The QALY argument I think is the bridge between the economic and the effect on life and death and so on.

“It’s not a debate that we’re not already having. QALY is used by NICE in order to decide which drugs it will invest in and which it won’t.

“I don’t think you end up being heartless about anything. It’s a way of moving into a space where we look at the impacts of what’s happening far more holistically, and are therefore likely to take better decisions for the medium and longer term.”

ConHome: “What are the prospects for the economy, broadly speaking, do you think?”

Stride: “Not as good as they were a few months ago, unfortunately, because of the advent of the second lockdown and what appears to be a rather difficult second wave.

“Any idea of a V-shaped bounce back has completely gone, and it’s now a question of trying to avoid the W shape, and try to have a kind of Nike tick.

“One of the biggest elements to look at is going to be unemployment. To what degree can we avoid going back to where we were in the 1980s or worse?

“What the Government’s trying to do now is just to hold down that unemployment figure, in the expectation that a vaccine, better treatments and so on will be a game changer.”

ConHome: “Quite recently you were a very senior gamekeeper, Leader of the House, at the tail end of Theresa May’s Government. You’re now a very senior poacher, the Chair of a Select Committee, trying to get answers out of the Government. What’s the change like and are you enjoying this new role?”

Stride: “It feels quite liberating in many ways. It was a wonderful privilege to be Leader of the House of Commons, as it was to be Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General and so on.

“But to be able to have the freedom now to try and be fair and balanced in our appraisal of what’s going on, I’ve been very complimentary of the Chancellor and the Treasury in many areas of what they’ve done, but to be able to point at things you really don’t think are right, and where you think you can add value, you can do that without restraint, and that’s been the most positive element I think of the experience for me.”

Interview: “Petrolhead” Milling denies that Elliott is really in charge at CCHQ, and says that she’s visited all 48 Red Wall seats

30 Sep

Amanda Milling’s “greatest love” is Formula 1 and she is making sure the Conservative machine is ready for next year’s election races: “I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.”

As Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party she announces “the biggest conference ever”, starting on Saturday, and has been “on the road constantly for the last three months”, visiting all 48 of the Red or, as they are now sometimes called, Blue Wall seats won off other parties at the general election.

Milling denies in this interview that Ben Elliot, her Co-Chairman, runs the show at CCHQ, just as Andrew Feldman did for David Cameron.

She does not deny that since the general election victory in December, CCHQ has got rid of some campaign managers: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers round the country.”

Her role, she explains, is not to represent the party on the airwaves, but to maintain close contact with activists: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base.”

The interview was conducted on Monday afternoon in her office at CCHQ, which is adorned by pictures of Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson.

ConHome: “What do you think the virtual party conference will be like, and what do you hope to achieve from it?”

Milling: “Well I’m thoroughly looking forward to the virtual conference which starts on Saturday. It’s going to be the biggest conference ever, given the number of registrations.

“Obviously I’m disappointed we’re not in Birmingham, but we are where we are. You do find yourself attracting people who would normally not come to conference, by virtue of being able to dial in from your home.”

ConHome: “It is very expensive, in time as well as money, to go to conference.”

Milling: “Yes, in terms of normal conference, if you think about actually going along to Birmingham or Manchester, the hotel, it can be quite a big commitment.

“But I’m delighted we’ve got this virtual conference this year to be able to pour more people in, and hopefully it’ll give them appetite to join us at future conferences both in the spring and in the autumn.”

ConHome: “Will they be able to answer back, or to applaud?”

Milling: “It’s going to be very interactive. A virtual conference does give us the opportunity to have that chat function. People can pose their questions.

“I think that’s quite an important part of this. Because otherwise I think there’s a bit of a danger that it’s permanently just ‘transmit’ – it’s much better to have that interaction – the ability to ask colleagues questions.

“And I’m very pleased that ConHome are having the fringe events too.”

ConHome: “We are, in massive number. Just so you can help us plan, how many set-piece speeches will there be?”

Milling: “We’ve got set-piece speeches from the Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Chancellor and Prime Minister, but other Cabinet ministers will be having their slots as well.”

ConHome: “Let me ask you about your function, and do this by looking back for a moment. We’ve had a number of dual chairs, we’ve had Saatchi and Fox, then we got to Feldman and Shapps, and Feldman chaired the Board, and Feldman really was David Cameron’s man, he was in effect the real Party Chairman.

“I’m going to put this to you absolutely straight. There’s a view that Ben Elliot chairs the Board, Ben Elliot is a long-time supporter of Boris, as you are, and Ben’s the real Party Chairman.

“And that with no local elections this year it’s been very hard to see what you’re up to, or some people would say, brutally, why you’re there.”

Milling: “It’s very much a Co-Chairman role, and very much teamwork, with both of us working together. Inevitably we take on different roles and responsibilities.

“Your point about campaigning. Whilst we did have the pause, the postponement of elections earlier in the year, we still have to work towards those elections next May.

“During the summer since we had the easing of lockdown one of the things that’s been really important is setting out guidance for our activists in terms of how they can campaign in a Covid-secure way ahead of those elections next year.”

ConHome: “Tell us about your year. What have you been doing with no local elections? How did you fill in and prepare for next year’s?”

Milling: “Let’s be honest, when I was appointed Co-Chairman back in February I was there ready to get out campaigning and get out also to those seats which are the Blue Wall seats.

“They are Blue Wall seats not Red Wall seats now. Lockdown made that somewhat more difficult. But during lockdown I did a lot of work engaging with the membership via our various new virtual platforms, Zoom and Teams.

“in fact the day was filled morning to evening engaging with our activists. Actually you can get to see more activists in many ways using technology because you’re cutting out the travel time.

“But then after the lockdown was eased I started on what my original mission had been which is to get out and visit these Blue Wall seats.

“And at the weekend I did my last visit which meant I’d visited every single seat that we gained in December. I’ve been on the road constantly for the last three months.”

ConHome: “You actually visited physically?”

Milling: “Physically every single one.”

ConHome: “Could you remind me how many that is?”

Milling: “It is 48.”

ConHome: “And how many times in the year have you been put up on the Today programme or Newsnight?”

Milling: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base, our members, and talk about my vision for the party.”

ConHome: “Will the local elections definitely go ahead next year?”

Milling: “Yes, there is a lot of work going on in the Cabinet Office to make sure that those local elections go ahead.”

ConHome: “This is a bumper crop of local elections. What have we got? We’ve got London…”

Milling: “We’ve got the county council elections, PCC elections, mayoral elections from 2020 and also 2021, we’ve got elections in Wales and elections in Scotland. So you’re right, this is an absolutely bumper year.”

ConHome: “And everywhere you’ve got a third of the council being elected.”

Milling: “And you’ve got some by-elections. This is why this conference is a really great opportunity to galvanise the troops, enthuse the troops in terms of campaigning.

“I think back to about June time, I would go round the House of Commons, I would literally have colleagues going ‘When can we go out campaigning?’ I was actually hearing that from the grassroots as well.

“And it’s been great to see people getting back on the campaign trail, having rested their legs over lockdown.”

ConHome: “Do you think these elections will be seen as a referendum on the Government?”

Milling: “These elections are our opportunity to really demonstrate Conservatives delivering at a local level. These are local elections, but on a very large scale, given that they are two years’ worth.”

ConHome: “How has it come about that the opposition to the way the fight against Covid was conducted is actually now being led by the Chairman of the 1922 Committee?”

Milling: “Throughout this, we as a Government had to respond to an unprecedented situation with measures to protect jobs, businesses and also lives.”

ConHome: “But how come you seem to have lost the confidence, up to a point, if I read his piece in The Telegraph on Saturday rightly, of the Chairman of the ’22?”

Milling: “So what this debate is about at the moment is the time spent in Parliament discussing it. Today [Monday], as an example, we are having a debate on Coronavirus and the various measures, and a staggering 80 people are in that debate. And there will be further debates and votes going forward.”

ConHome: “But some of them are hopping up and down because today they say we’ve had another set of regulations sprung on us without any notice, saying you can’t dance in a pub and you can’t sing in a pub.”

Milling: “What the Government’s having to do is respond to what is a very fast-moving situation, but at the same time giving colleagues the opportunity to debate that, as is being demonstrated this evening.”

ConHome: “Do you feel there’s been a movement among the colleagues towards a more Swedish-type solution?”

Milling: “Colleagues are as I say debating this today and the Government are responding to the science and the research to ultimately save lives, and that’s the most important thing.”

ConHome: “If this Brady amendment is debated on Wednesday, by then we would expect the Government to have made some move to accommodate it?”

Milling: “We will be having the vote on the Rule of Six next week.”

ConHome: “Though not amendable.”

Milling: “The days of me being in the Whips Office in terms of what’s amendable are over, you seem to forget.”

ConHome: “What do you do in your spare time? Though by the sound of it you don’t have all that much of it just at the moment.”

Milling: “Well my greatest love, and I do try to carve out the time for this, is watching Formula 1.”

ConHome: “Gosh!”

Milling: “So I am a petrolhead.”

ConHome: “From what age were you a petrolhead?”

Milling: “From childhood. I was brought up around cars.”

ConHome: “Who are the greatest racing drivers in your lifetime? Lewis Hamilton’s a bit dull, isn’t he? I mean obviously very good at it.”

Milling: “He’s very, very good at it. He had a bit of a tough day in the office yesterday. Eddie Irvine I always thought was quite an interesting character, because he really took the challenge to Schumacher at the time if I recall rightly.

“So I love Formula 1. So you can imagine my Sunday evenings are most definitely carved out for watching the highlights.

“It’s nice downtime. It would be nicer to actually go to one, but obviously at the moment that’s more difficult. Going to Silverstone is a great, great experience.”

ConHome: “You were brought up around cars?”

Milling: “My father had some vintage cars. There’s a photo if I recall correctly of me at about two in a kind of jump suit with a spanner in hand, although I’m not sure I’d be very good at servicing cars.

“Although on the matter of servicing cars, in terms of this particular role at the moment, I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.

“You haven’t maybe been able to do these things over the last few years, because we’ve just been so focussed on elections.”

ConHome: “So you’re tuning the engine.”

Milling: “We’re tuning the engine. Curiously, lockdown enabled us to do that to a greater extent.”

ConHome: “What sort of things?”

Milling: “One of the things is the candidates’ process, so an end-to-end review of that, from identifying talent to assessing talent and then supporting and nurturing talent.

“We did the Welsh review. We’ve recently appointed a team member to be the campaign manager for Northern Ireland.”

ConHome: “In the past there’s been a lot of criticism of losing highly knowledgeable campaign managers after a general election, and then the machine not in fact being in proper working order, for example in 2017.”

Milling: “So what we’ve been doing over the last few months, particularly ahead of next year’s elections, is making sure that our team are in the right places.

“But also over time our main focus is on getting the organisation fit for not just next year but 2024.”

ConHome: “The organisation was very scanty in many of the 48 seats which were won in December. What are you doing to build up some troops, some boots on the ground, for next time?”

Milling: “There’s a big piece of work we’ve been undertaking looking at these Blue Wall seats. Lee Rowley, who’s the Deputy Chairman, has been sitting down with all these colleagues to really get under the skin of what have they got, what have they not got, what their priorities are, what we need to do to build a membership and activists in these different areas.

“We’re going to be having a working group to make that more action-focussed.”

ConHome: “You just said you’ll be getting the campaign managers to the right places. Is that fewer people to the right places?”

Milling: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers around the country. But I think the main point for me as well is making sure that those campaign managers that we’ve got are focussed in the right places, particularly ahead of next year, which you know is a challenge, given the number of elections that we’ve got.”

ConHome: “When you went round the Red Wall or Blue Wall seats, how many of them don’t have a Conservative councillor?”

Milling: “It’s a big of a mixed bag. I think the key here is about building on having a Conservative MP. From being out on the ground, when I’ve met with businesses and residents, they’re really chuffed to have a Conservative MP who’s really there acting on their behalf, a voice in Parliament for them.”

ConHome: “How many of them actually have activists, never mind local councillors? How many of them have had to put together a team outside the traditional association structure?”

Milling: “My seat back in 2015 was a marginal seat and you have to build it up over time to have that broader activist base.”

ConHome: “Previous Chairmen have actually declared the membership figures. I don’t think you’ve got any plans to do that, have you?”

Milling: “No. I’m not going to be declaring the membership figures.”

ConHome: “Why not?”

Milling: “There’s a number of things on this. Number one which is actually membership’s just part of the Conservative family in many ways. It’s also about activists as well.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is actually people putting their cross by the Conservatives at an election.

“But what I would say is that membership is up from this time last year.”

ConHome: “Is there any other organisation – the National Trust or whatever – name me another that doesn’t declare their membership.”

Milling: “Look, I’m not going to declare the membership numbers. But as I say, it is up from last year.”