David Gauke: If Johnson goes for a Brexit trade deal, as he should, he should also go for a further implementation period.

7 Nov

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

It is time to talk about Brexit again.

Understandably, the country’s attention has been focused upon the second wave of Covid-19 and the Government’s response to it. And in the past few days, many of us have welcomed the chance to change the subject and follow every twist and turn of the US Presidential election. But it is all too easy to miss the fact that the next week will be one of the most important in the protracted saga of the UK’s departure from the European Union. Just this afternoon, the Prime Minister is speaking to the President of the EU Commission.

We are so used to deadlines whooshing past with little or no practical consequence, there is a temptation to be complacent about the EU’s position that, for a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU to be ratified in time to take effect by the end of the transitional period, such agreement would need to be concluded by 15 November. After all, the Prime Minister has previously said that talks would need to conclude by 15 October in order to reach a deal and – save for a brief and rather unconvincing walk-out – the parties carried on talking.

This time, however, the difficulty is that we are not dealing with a deadline imposed for political reasons in order to focus the minds. We are now at the stage of running out of time to go through all the practical hurdles to ratify any agreement amongst member states and the European Parliament.

The stand-off remains as it has been for months. The two sides remain some way apart of the level playing field provisions, particularly on state aid, and how any agreement is enforced. In addition, the economically irrelevant issue of fish continues to be contentious.

Progress has been made on many of the technical issues, but on these fundamental points the talks have stalled. Both sides have given some ground, but will have to move further. And the side that is going to have to move the furthest will have to be the UK. If Boris Johnson wants a deal, at the very least he will have to accept something which recent leaders of the Conservative Party would consider to be desirable regardless of the EU implications – a robust and independent state aid regime.

I do not know whether the Prime Minister will decide to go for a deal. As far as I can see, it is not clear that he knows himself. Making decisions is not always a strong point for Johnson, and he made one big difficult decision a few days ago by re-imposing a lockdown. Now he has to make another.

At one level, the decision should be straightforward. The right to waste public money by subsidising loss-making businesses has never been a demand of most Eurosceptics, save for a few Bennites, and was a non-issue in the 2016 referendum campaign. (Johnson has praised the EU on this point.) He went to the country in 2019 promising he had a deal: failing to conclude an FTA looks like a failure of competence and a breach of trust. An already fragile economy will suffer a further blow.

However, it has been reported that the Prime Minister is ‘emotionally drawn’ towards a WTO Brexit. Why might that be? It is possible that he believes that any constraint on decision is an unacceptable suppression of sovereignty, but that suggests a purity of view that would make a free trade agreement with anyone impossible.

The politics and the Prime Minister’s perceptions of his own self-interest may tempt him to turn down a deal. Nigel Farage is relaunching himself (again) and is ready to cry betrayal (again) which will panic plenty of Conservative MPs (again). Johnson will also be aware that he has taken on many of his Parliamentary colleagues over the Government’s response to Covid-19 – he might not want to take on many of the same people on a second issue. And – a point I made back in February  – even a deal will cause economic disruption. If the Prime Minister agrees to a deal in the next few days, he will have to proclaim a triumph, but also explain to businesses that time is running out to prepare for it being much more difficult to trade with the EU.

The evidence that – even with the thin deal we may get – the end of the transition period will damage the economy is growing. On Thursday, the Bank of England pointed out that the UK’s trade and GDP will be adversely affected in the first half of 2021, even with a deal. On Friday, the National Audit Office published a report expressing concerns that UK business will face widespread disruption in 2021 because of failures to prepare for post-Brexit borders. A deal will help because it might provide an opportunity to ease rules in particular circumstances but the fundamental problems remain the same.

The approach of the Government has been to blame businesses for not being prepared. Some businesses may have been complacent about the consequences of the end of the transition period, but they can hardly be blamed when the Government, until relatively recently, has not been able to provide details of our future relationship and presented this moment as an opportunity. It simply is not. At a practical level, leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union only makes it harder to trade with the EU.

The Prime Minister might be tempted to try to escape responsibility for the predicament that he, more than anyone, has got us in. He could collapse the talks, and blame the EU for the consequences that the country will face in January. We saw how Brexiteers rather enjoyed the prospect of the talks collapsing in mid-October. A bitter dispute with the EU which could last for years would be truly thrilling to some. And quite a lot of the public would swallow mendacious claims for the reasons of the negotiations breaking down. In terms of the next few weeks, walking away from the talks might be the easier path to tread.

It would also be grossly irresponsible. In the medium term, it would not be possible for Boris Johnson to escape responsibility for a decision that will have a major impact on many people’s lives and livelihoods. The timing could not be worse with the economy already shrinking and businesses restricted in what they can do because of Covid restrictions for at least four of last nine weeks until the transition period ends.

If the Prime Minister wants a soft landing for Brexit, he will need to make concessions, but he needs to do more. Time has run out to prepare properly for 31 December. Even at this late stage, he should ensure that his deal has a further implementation period of another 12 months. A combination of Covid and the Government’s failure to prepare the nation for the realities of Brexit means that ending the transition period at the end of the year will cause even greater problems than necessary. A responsible Prime Minister should seek to prevent that from happening. He should get a deal that gives everyone time to implement it.

David Gauke: With a position so exposed, how did Burnham get away with it?

24 Oct

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

Who would have believed that we would see a mainstream, liberal MP turned city mayor taking a bold political risk, build an unlikely coalition of support and win a public relations battle by articulating the resentment of those who feel victims of an out of touch London establishment?

Boris Johnson has had a difficult couple of weeks, but I hope he has enjoyed the irony of being on the wrong side of Andy Burnham’s somewhat populist revolt.

The extended row with the Mayor of Greater Manchester has put the Government on the back foot, looking mean-spirited and out of touch, whilst Burnham has come across as a heroic ‘King of the North’ – personable, passionate and articulate, he has successfully presented himself as a doughty defender of hard-pressed Mancunians.

He has had a political triumph – although the coherence of his position does not withstand a great deal of scrutiny. As Paul Goodman has pointed out, Burnham’s language, attacking an approach that ‘might not work’, was designed to appeal to those who thought that the new restrictions did not go far enough, as well as the likes of Sir Graham Brady, who want to adopt a very different strategy.

Even though he has made the valid point that lockdowns cause mental health problems, it does not seem likely that Burnham is a lockdown sceptic himself.

In May, he expressed the view that lockdown restrictions were being relaxed too quickly, appropriate for the position in London but not for Manchester.

More recently, he has expressed support for Keir Starmer’s call for a tighter, national lockdown. It is safe to assume that he believes the mainstream and, to my mind, rather commonsensical view that if you reduce the number of social interactions people have, there will be less chance for the virus to spread.

If that is the case, and given his criticism that the Tier Two restrictions which have been in place in Manchester since August have not stopped the spread of the virus, it is remarkable that he spent ten days resisting the imposition of tougher and more effective restrictions in Greater Manchester, where infection rates were high and, in eight out of ten boroughs, rising.

No doubt his supporters will make the argument that he was not opposing tougher restrictions – just tougher restrictions on the cheap.

But again, one can question whether his position was coherent. It is true to say that the level of support in Tier Three – the focus of his complaints – is not as generous as was available under the original lockdown.

But the real issue for many businesses was not the support available under Tier Two for those businesses forced to close, but the absence of support for businesses in Tier Two, where restrictions meant that hospitality businesses could stay open, but with little prospect of many customers. This was the real problem with Government support, until the Chancellor’s announcement on Thursday.

So a not unfair description of Burnham’s position was that Tier Two was ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus and involved inadequate support for businesses, but that he was determined to keep Greater Manchester within it.

There is also some confusion about his view on whether lockdown restrictions should be determined on a local or national basis.

He has argued that decisions should be made by those close to the ground but, back in the spring, he was opposed to London exiting lockdown before Manchester, because people there would object to seeing Londoners in pubs when they were still banned from going for a pint – suggesting that he favours national uniformity.

Given that he was also opposed to the national exit from lockdown because it did not reflect conditions in Manchester, he presumably favours a national policy based on conditions in Manchester – which is all very well but somewhat hard to justify to the rest of the country.

That he was able to turn such a position into a political triumph is a testament to clumsy handling on the part of the Government (appearing to withdraw the £60 million that had been offered) as well as Burnham’s political skills. He has tapped into northern distrust of the south, articulating the view that the interests of Manchester are treated as a lower priority to those of London.

In doing this, he is taking a leaf from the SNP in Scotland. The politics of national and regional resentment and grievance, the argument that ‘the system’ is designed to support the prosperous South East at the expense of the rest, is one that finds a ready audience in many parts of the UK.

‘If it wasn’t for a distant government in Westminster, taking our resources, we would be doing alright’ is the message of Scottish Nationalists, as well as regional mayors.

In purely fiscal terms this is, of course, nonsense. Contrary to the received wisdom of many parts of the UK, resources are massively redistributed from London and the Greater South East to the rest of the United Kingdom. In the last year for which numbers are available, 2019, London, the South East and the East of England had fiscal surpluses of £39 billion, £22 billion and £4 billion respectively which only partially offset fiscal deficits in the rest of the UK, including a deficit of £20 billion in the North West and £15 billion in Scotland.

This is not an argument that the Government is likely to be making any time soon. After all, the Conservative majority at the last election was heavily dependent upon the narrative that the Government was going to ‘level up’ the country, correcting the perceived London-centric nature of our economy and politics.

Tapping into anger at metropolitan elites proved very helpful to Boris Johnson in both the EU referendum and the 2019 general election; this week, that anger was turned against him as he was made to look like a representative of the establishment, not the insurgency.

The idea of localised restrictions has not been discredited, however painful local negotiations have been. This is the logical approach to a virus where the level of infection varies enormously. But the Government has been slow to recognise that localised restrictions will result in resentment if the level of support is seen as parsimonious. And arguments about fiscal discipline will not persuade those new, Red Wall Conservative voters who delivered the Prime Minister his majority.

The bitterness of the row between the Government and the Greater Manchester Mayor, as well as the continued surge in support for the SNP, has been dispiriting.

At best, it reveals that, as we enter a long winter with rising case numbers and deaths and restrictions on our everyday lives, we are becoming more fractious and distrustful of the Government. At worst, it reveals that the whole cohesion of the United Kingdom is starting to disintegrate – not just amongst the nations of the UK but between the regions of England.

If the approach that Burnham has taken is seen to be the exemplar of how regional politicians should operate, and if the Government cannot nullify those regional grievances, our politics will become yet more bitter and divisive. Ultimately, pitting one region against another would make us ungovernable.

David Gauke: Covid-19. Conservative MPs should fear for their seats if they push for a Sweden-style policy – just as deaths are rising

10 Oct

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

Conservative MPs are restless. There is widespread disappointment with the Prime Minister, it is reported, with senior members of the 1922 Committee not just rebelling, but leading rebellions.

There are two sets of concerns about Boris Johnson. The first is that he is displaying insufficient grip, that he is a bumbling, incompetent figure unsuited to the role of Prime Minister at a time such as this.

The second is that his strategy on Covid-19 is wrong, and that he should be pursuing one that is based on living with the virus and allowing the economy to grow.

It would be fair to say that I am not a natural cheerleader for the Prime Minister but, on this occasion, I have limited sympathy for these MPs.

First, when it comes to competence, what exactly did they expect? I had plenty of discussions with my then colleagues about the attributes of the leadership candidates last summer. I do not recall anyone making the case that Boris Johnson would have a mastery of detail, or a command of the administrative challenges with which any Prime Minister has to deal.

They knew his limitations and were content to foist him upon the British people as their head of Government (a decision with which the British people were sufficiently content to give the Conservatives a big majority). I happen to think that Tory MPs and members should value competence in their leaders, but it is a bit late for that now. If competence was essential, there were always better options.

On the second complaint – that his Covid-19 strategy is too restrictive – there is a much stronger case to be made that this is not the Prime Minister for whom many voted. I touched on this in my last column on this site and it is true to say that he has not approached the Coronavirus with his characteristic carefree joie de vivre. But let us put ourselves in Johnson’s shoes.

He was widely criticised for locking down too late in March, with the consequence that, for a time, the UK was an outlier in terms of excess deaths. He is being advised that we are heading for a second wave of hospitalisations and deaths. The majority of scientists in this field, including his Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientific Officer and SAGE, are calling for tighter restrictions. The devolved administrations are also going in that direction, and England taking a radically different position would put a strain on the union.

Yes, deaths remain low but they are rising. Let us not forget that on 23 March there were 48 Covid-19 deaths. Eighteen days later, 940 people died from it in the UK on a single day. An exact repetition is unlikely – treatment has resulted in lower mortality rates and cases are now disproportionately amongst the young – but, in all likelihood, we are going to see a substantial rise in deaths in the next few weeks.

It is true to say that the existing restrictions – let alone the new ones that will be announced shortly – severely diminish many people’s quality of life. It is very far from being cost-free. And there are alternative strategies put forward by a small number of reputable scientists. Serious people are making the case for the ‘Swedish approach’ and, for what it is worth, although very sceptical about this being the right answer, I happen to think that the Swedes got it right on schools.

However, I really do have to question their political sense of those Conservative MPs calling for the adoption of the Swedish approach,  The polling shows that further restrictions are popular – and that is before the death-rate starts to climb.

It might be callous to think about such matters in crude party political terms, but it is part of the job of a Party leader to calculate the implications of any policy. It is pretty obvious that the Prime Minister will have reached the conclusion that maintaining a relatively light-touch regime would leave him and the Conservative Party extremely vulnerable. The recent collapse in polling support for Donald Trump – especially amongst the elderly – should be a warning.

Just imagine the situation if, in a month’s time, deaths are running at several hundred a day after the Government had announced that, contrary to the advice of its scientists, it had decided to pursue a strategy of relaxing restrictions for England at the very point at which every other comparable country (and, indeed, every other nation in the UK) had tightened them.

It is hard to see how any Government, if it could survive, would come back from an approach that would be so spectacularly unpopular. Of course, the Prime Minister is not going to adopt such a strategy. And, on this point, I think that he will quickly see off his critics.

I can hear the counter-argument. “Lock down restrictions might be popular but they are economically disastrous. It is causing enormous damage to business which will soon feed through into people’s livelihoods. Conservatives should be prepared to take the tough decisions necessary to ensure we create wealth – even if unpopular. Without that wealth creation, everyone will suffer.”

By and large, I am usually sympathetic to arguments that put the economy first. Creating wealth is a pre-requisite to raising living standards (especially for the poor) and delivering high quality public services. And sometimes you have to take unpopular decisions – getting the public finances on a sound footing whilst maintaining a competitive business tax system, for example – in order to deliver that economic growth.

But there are a couple of problems with this argument. First, if the virus takes hold, it will not matter whether pubs have to close at 10pm, 11pm or 12pm. People will not want to go to the pub or restaurant, cinema, shop or office. Most of the economic damage caused by a virus is driven by people voluntarily changing their behaviour.

Second, if Conservative MPs are worried about the economy and business-damaging policies that will damage the UK’s capacity to create wealth, some of them might want to have a think about what they have been doing for the past four or more years in terms of our relationship with the European Union. They might also consider that, when it comes to the long term health of the UK economy, ensuring that the UK has a sensible deal in place before the end of the transitional period would be a better focus for their energies.

David Gauke: Johnson’s Covid policy – and why it’s opening up a rift between him and his traditional Tory supporters

26 Sep

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at last year’s general election.

For an amendment of no legal force that may not even be called, Graham Brady’s proposal that there should approve in advance any Covid-19 restrictions is of real significance.

On the face of it, it is an amendment that is more about process than substance – the extent to which Parliament, rather than just the executive, has a say on future restrictions. But in reality, it also exposes the divide between the position of the Government – and the Prime Minister in particular – and many of his Parliamentary colleagues on how far we should go in attempting to stop the spread of the virus. For the first time in many years, Boris Johnson’s position puts him at odds with the instincts of many on the right of the Conservative Party. What is more, his position appears to put him at odds with his own instincts.

The Coronavirus crisis has been immensely difficult for the Prime Minister. In part, that has been due to his own ill-health that took him out of action at the peak of the virus, and from which he has made a slow and painful recovery (although, from what I hear, he is now physically in good shape).

t has also been a crisis that has exposed his longstanding inability to grasp detail. A Prime Minister was needed to get Whitehall focused on the virus in February, identify and prioritise testing and tracing and spot that the Department for Education was heading for a fall with its approach to exam results. On all these issues, he appears to have been absent.

However, I suspect that the most challenging aspect of recent months for Johnson is that he has felt compelled to do things that alien to his normal approach to life. By restricting the freedoms of his fellow citizens, he is not acting like the great admirer of Mayor of Amity Island, the foe of the doomsters and gloomsters, the critic of pettifogging bureaucrats, the ‘freedom-loving, twinkly-eyed, Rabelaisian character’ for whom Toby Young – and many others – voted.

Why has this happened? His own experience of the virus may be a factor, but one can only conclude that he has been convinced that there is a real risk that, without further action, the virus will spread more widely – including to the vulnerable, and that this will result in very large numbers of deaths. Given the widely-held view that we locked down too late in March, this would not just be a health disaster but a political one as well.

His libertarian critics argue that these measures are panicked and unnecessary. There is anger over the projections of a weekly doubling of cases (a much worse trajectory than France and Spain have followed). Some point to Sweden or Brazil – countries that have been hit hard, but now have falling or stable levels of infection – to argue that herd immunity comes quicker than we previously thought, perhaps because of T cell immunity.

Maybe these critics are right; I certainly hope that they are. There are reputable scientists who are making the case, and we all want to believe those that are telling us that it is all going to be alright. But there are also reputable scientists who are making the opposite case, who are arguing that we should be tightening up further and faster (a view, incidentally, that has a lot of public support).

This is where the job of Prime Minister is a difficult and lonely one. I think we all know where Johnson would stand on this issue if he were still a Daily Telegraph columnist. We can also take a good guess as to his approach if someone else was Prime Minister, and he was an ambitious backbencher with a desire to free the ball from the back of the scrum.

But he is not a columnist nor a backbencher but the person who has t person who has to make the decision. And unlike some decisions that a Prime Minister might make, if he gets it wrong the consequences will be both enormous and very quickly apparent to all.

So when faced with advice that the virus was now spreading strongly and that, without intervention, deaths would soon rise substantially, Johnson acted in much the same way as any recent Prime Minister would have done. Maybe his libertarian instincts softened some of the new restrictions, but essentially he has made a decision to be risk averse; to be conventional.

This is not the first time during the pandemic that he has reached that conclusion. But it has also been obvious that this sits uneasily with him. He does not like restricting people’s liberties (not a bad quality, by and large) and he likes to tell people good news. He has promised we would have this licked by July and then by Christmas. He has urged us back to our offices when it was predictable (indeed, predicted  that he would soon have to reverse that advice. Even on Tuesday, he seemed to consider it a matter of national pride that we, as a great freedom-loving people, have not been following the rules. The old Johnsom instinct is hard to suppress.

The consequence of this internal conflict is inconsistency and muddled messages. His natural supporters – those who value freedom and independence from the State and are most sceptical about the advice of experts – are in revolt. This has manifested itself in signatures for the Brady amendment. There are signatories from across the Conservative Party spectrum, but they notably include big Brexiteer beasts such as David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker and Bernard Jenkin. These could be dangerous opponents.

Of course, Covid is not the only issue where the Prime Minister is going to have to make a big choice in the next few weeks. Does he make the necessary concessions in order to conclude a Free Trade Agreement with the EU before the end of the transition period? Yesterday, James Forsyth suggested that a deal was close and that the UK might take a more flexible approach to the negotiations, choosing to fight some battles in the future (‘you have to make it through the short term to get to the long term’ says James, using language that will sound very familiar to anyone who served in Cabinet with Michael Gove in 2018-19).

The piece suggests that the Prime Minister is ‘totally focused on Covid’. But he will soon have to make a choice. On the one hand, he will be receiving advice from officials that the adverse consequences of No Deal are very significant, especially for a fragile economy. On the other hand, his instincts presumably tell him that this is all over-stated gloomsterism.

The Prime Minister knows that the instinct to take a risk, to chance it, to tell the experts to go to hell, is very strong both within himself and amongst many of his Parliamentary colleagues. He is already defying those instincts on one issue. If he is to take the necessary steps to get a Brexit deal (and I hope he does), he is going to have to defy those instincts on a second issue, too. Given that he is already in danger of losing his hold over his traditional allies, it is not obvious that he will.

David Gauke: May should lead the Commons struggle against her successor’s plan to break international law if necessary

12 Sep

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

The reputations of Prime Ministers tend to follow much the same trajectory.

First, there is a honeymoon period on the back of a Party leadership or general election victory. Their qualities are compared favourably with their predecessor and the country gives them the benefit of the doubt.

This period is usually as good as it gets. Popularity may fluctuate but eventually the attributes that once seemed refreshing begin to grate. A Prime Minister’s strengths become weaknesses. Disappointments accumulate and enemies become emboldened.

Whether suddenly (think John Major and the exit from the ERM or Gordon Brown and the election that never was) or gradually, they become damaged. A Prime Minister’s term in office usually ends on a low ebb.

At which point, the reputation of an ex-Prime Minister also tends to follow a familiar trajectory. Their qualities are compared unfavourably with their successor, and the country refuses to give them the benefit of the doubt. The troubled last period in office is fresh in the public’s memory. Former allies gravitate to the new powerbase or drift into well-remunerated obscurity. An ex-Prime Minister almost becomes a figure of pity and ridicule – the mighty fallen. Their reputation continues to decline.

And then, at some point, it begins to recover. The comparison with their successor becomes more nuanced. It is appreciated that the problems that beset their time in office were real and complex, and that maybe changing the captain hadn’t solved all the problems aboard the ship.

All of our recent Prime Ministers fit this profile to some extent, but none more so than Theresa May. On assuming office in 2016, her obvious diligence and decency won her the respect of much the nation. Her reserved, unshowy personality was seen as an asset. She was sensible and pragmatic, but also steely and determined. She polled extraordinarily well.

But, as is familiar to all readers of this website, this is all came to end – and very quickly. Over the course of the 2017 general election campaign, her reserved, unshowy personality was seen as uncommunicative and unsympathetic. A strength became a weakness and, when the Conservative majority was lost, she became a loser not a winner.

She then faced the almost impossible task of getting a Brexit deal through with a minority government, a deeply split Parliamentary Party and an increasingly polarised public. Her attempts at compromise failed to satisfy both sides of the arguments.

When she reached a deal with the EU – a compromise that had to address the contradictions and fantasies that had been peddled in previous years – she lacked the shamelessness necessary to persuade a sceptical Party and nation that she had achieved a triumph.

In the critical months that followed, she suffered Parliamentary defeat after defeat. Even those of us in her Cabinet did not know how she would try to find a way of out of the situation. In the end, she would not countenance what she saw as a risk of the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with the potential implications for the peace process. Consequently, she did not attempt to force through a No Deal Brexit. The wider Conservative Party neither understood nor accepted her position and she was forced out.

For the next few months, many compared her unfavourably with her successor. Boris Johnson secured a deal which permitted greater regulatory and customs freedom (for Great Britain) and won a majority for it at Second Reading.

Rather than allow the Withdrawal Agreement be subject to extended Parliamentary scrutiny, he pulled the legislation and managed to force the opposition parties into a general election. In contrast to May’s efforts in 2017, he triumphed with a thumping majority. Six weeks later, we had finally left the EU. He had achieved what she had not.

In the 30 months after the start of the 2017 general election campaign, May’s reputation had fallen further and faster than most. But, I would argue, it then began to recover somewhat earlier than happened with her predecessors.

The Covid crisis would have played to her strengths. Her moral seriousness and attention to detail would have been well suited to the circumstances. She would have provided grip. People remembered that these were useful qualities for a Prime Minister.

And when it came to the ‘fabulous, oven-ready Brexit deal’ obtained by her successor, all was not as it was portrayed. The Northern Irish question was always immensely difficult with the Brexit-seeking UK holding contradictory objectives. Boris Johnson had got a deal by selling out the Unionists, but failed to recognise publicly that this is what he had done.

This was either staggeringly incompetent or extraordinarily mendacious (I am afraid either explanation is plausible) but it has come unstuck. Ministers’ explanations for the problems the Government now perceives – ‘it was all done in a hurry and now we must not jeopardise the peace process’ – only make matters worse. They certainly destroy the argument that Johnson had proven to be a masterful and triumphant negotiator.

In order to try to interpret the Northern Ireland Protocol in a manner that is consistent with what the Prime Minister has been saying about it, as opposed to what he actually agreed, he has had to come forward with legislation that gives the Government the power to breach international law.

I am not going to dwell on why this is an appalling course of action that will do immense damage to our international reputation and destroy trust in the EU negotiations (they stagger on, but I wonder if they are now just zombie negotiations). This is not a specifically Brexit issue, or even a No Deal Brexit issue, but it is wider than that. That is why staunch Brexiteers such as Michael Howard, Norman Lamont, Tim Montgomerie and Iain Dale have been so condemnatory.

So has May. All those who worked with her would not be surprised by her principled objections to the proposal, and her concern that future international partners will not trust the UK to ‘abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs’.

It would have been inconceivable to May to have brought forward legislation such as this. From my point of view, this is just as well. As her Lord Chancellor, had she done so, I would have felt compelled to resign in order to uphold the rule of law.

In the next few days, the Commons will have to decide whether it is willing to endorse the proposed breach of international law. There is considerable disquiet in the Parliamentary Party about this, but caution about rebelling. It will be a stain upon the reputation of this country and the Conservative Party if the legislation, in its current form, were to pass.

There is only person who might be able to stop this in the House of Commons. If Theresa May were to indicate that she will vote against reneging on our commitments, it would embolden others.

Voting against the Conservative whip is not in her nature. She is not a natural rebel but were she to defy the whip – in a very specific and limited way – it would be immensely to her credit and very clearly in the national interest. History would judge her kindly.

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

29 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Gauke: Without a proper state aid regime, the UK is unlikely to make a deal with Brussels

1 Aug

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

Within the next three months, Boris Johnson is going to have to make the decision that will define his premiership and determine the future of British politics – especially the Conservative Party – for a generation. And the subject matter of this momentous decision? The previously obscure issue of the regulatory regime constraining the ability of the Government to provide taxpayer support for private sector companies. In other words, state aid.

Before turning to the issue in hand, let me set out a little context. My last two columns (here and here) have made the case that there is an electoral logic that points towards the Conservative Party moving in a leftwards direction economically but in a rightwards direction when it comes to social issues or, to put it more precisely, issues of national identity. Politics appears to be realigning as the biggest dividing line ceases to be about economic class or ideology but in relation to cultural issues.

The consequences of such a dividing line – and the Conservative Party unambiguously placing itself on one side or the other – is an uncomfortable one for those Conservatives with a desire for intellectual consistency.

At least since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Conservative orthodoxy has been in favour of sound money and free trade. That is not to say that the State had been banished from making any kind of intervention in the economy – no recent government could accurately be described as laissez faire – but that any such intervention would be made carefully, recognising that the market was, by and large, a rather good way of allocating resources.

As for cultural issues, the Conservative Party has been a broad church consisting of social conservatives and social liberals, tub-thumping patriots and committed internationalists. Generally, we rubbed along alright.

These Conservative traditions were abandoned in 2019, resulting in the Prime Minister’s electoral triumph in December when he won previously safe Labour seats. He did so by promising an economic policy that involved more spending and greater government intervention. He also promised to deliver Brexit at whatever cost. It was an uncompromisingly Leave prospectus that appealed to patriotic/English nationalist working class voters.

This brings us to the UK/EU negotiations over a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. Contrary to promises of an oven-ready deal, discussions have not yet made a lot of progress. There are two sticking points. The first is fish. This is a matter of economic irrelevance (our fishing industry contributes less to GDP than Harrods) but of disproportionate political importance. As one can make a similar point about the EU, it would be an extraordinary failure for this matter to prevent a wider deal being reached.

The more substantive issue relates to the level playing field provisions. These are the EU’s requirements that the UK will not engage in “unfair competition” by undercutting the EU’s social and environmental legislation, nor provide anti-competitive subsidies.

The UK Government’s response to these demands has been to argue that this is an outrageous attempt to fetter the actions of a newly-independent nation. Given that (1) free trade agreements inevitably involve accepting some restrictions on a country’s ability to determine its own rules and (2) the UK accepted the principle of level playing field provisions in October’s Political Declaration, the EU is less than impressed by the argument.

The particular focus of the dispute has been state aid. At one level, this is surprising. The UK has traditionally eschewed state aid spending, seeing it as market-distorting and a wasteful use of taxpayers’ money. We spend less of it than the French and Germans and, as EU members, consistently argued against its use.

Nor has it traditionally been a touchstone issue for Eurosceptics. From my days in the ERG, I recall plenty of conversations about how the EU imposed regulatory burdens on businesses, prevented trade deals with rising economies like China and resulted in too much power in the hands of the unelected (oh, happy innocent days). Restrictions on bailing out private sector companies were not so much of problem for us Thatcherites.

This issue could have easily been de-escalated if we had put in place our own, independent and robust state aid regime, perhaps enforced by the Competition and Markets Authority. Such a regime is probably necessary (albeit not sufficient) in order to reach a compromise with the EU on this topic.

Instead, we have refused to set out our own domestic regime and there is much talk of how we can use our new freedoms as ex-members of the EU to support our own companies, like the rather odd acquisition earlier this month of a £400 million shareholding in a failed satellite company.

According to the Financial Times, Dominic Cummings is digging in against anything other than a “minimal, light-touch” state aid regime, believing that once you have left the EU “you should just do whatever you want”.

This brings me back to the nature of the Conservative victory last year and, in particular, the new supporters. If the Government’s focus is appealing to nationalists who favour an interventionist state, it would want the ability to back national champions or other businesses in favoured locations.

And if you are temperamentally inclined to think that any constraint on your ability to “do whatever you want” (whether by the EU, Parliament or the legal system) is an affront to democracy, then you will be all the more the likely to resist a robust and independent regime.

There are, however, consequences. First, it is very hard to see how the EU will agree to a deal if the UK does not have a proper state aid regime. I wrote in February how there may be a political case for not getting a deal (any deal will be very thin in any event, some parts of the economy will suffer as a consequence of leaving the Single Market, better to collapse the talks and blame the EU for the consequences) and that argument still applies.

But, as a consequence of the handling of Covid-19, the Government is more vulnerable to the charge of incompetence. In addition, a no deal Brexit would be a gift to the SNP, thus weakening the Union yet further.

Second, even putting aside the EU dimension, there are very good arguments for having in place a robust state aid regime. The Treasury will be arguing the case. Both as a finance ministry (ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely) and as an economics ministry (wanting resources to be allocated productively in order to maximise economic growth), it institutionally hates state aid. Presumably, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, well-regarded by his officials, will have similar views and will be making the case forcefully. At least, he should be.

It will be for the Prime Minister to decide. Go for the purist view of Brexit (“you do whatever you want”), embrace the new political alignment and splash the cash in order to play to the Red Wall voters. Or keep open the possibility of a deal, look after the interests of taxpayers and maintain some kind of consistency with economic orthodoxy. Whichever way he goes, it will be a hugely consequential and revealing decision.

Required next time. A fresh, charistmatic Tory leader who embodies modern, multi-racial Britain. Does that suggest anyone?

18 Jul

‘Don’t be so gloomy, the wheel will turn’. That, in essence, is the counter-argument to my last column.

Two weeks ago, I made the case on this site that the nature of the Conservative Party has changed. It has done so to reflect the fact that the swing voter in the swing seats has a different set of values than was the case before. Compared to the swing voters of the past (and, indeed, the typical Conservative voter of the present), the polling evidence shows that the voters who gave Boris Johnson his electoral triumph in 2019 are economically left wing and socially right wing.

If the Conservatives want to retain those Red Wall seats, I argued, they will need to deliver economic policies that are consistent with these views – high spending and interventionist – and ensure that cultural issues remain salient. It was a depressing conclusion, I argued, if you were a ‘small state free marketeer, or a one nation social liberal’ and that ‘I fear it is too late to turn back’.

One person who took issue with my conclusion was my good friend, David Lidington. As well as being probably the nicest person in politics, he is also one of the wisest. In his response on ConHome, David set out, from the perspective of a liberal Conservative, reasons to be optimistic.

First, he makes the very fair point that, in the 45 years in which he has been a member of the Conservative Party, it has been a home for many different types of Conservative and that ‘different leaders of the party, at different times have chosen to emphasise different elements of the broad Conservative tradition’.

Second, he acknowledges that ‘we shall want to hang on to traditional Labour supporters who lent us their votes last December, which in turn means that in four years’ time they need to see that we are at least beginning to deliver results for their families and neighbourhoods’ but that ‘to win again in 2024 we shall need to secure support from more younger voters than we did in either of the last two elections and to do that will mean reaching out to people whose values are, in the convenient shorthand, more “socially liberal” than those of their parents and grandparents, and who want to see political parties to take seriously their concerns about issues like the environment’.

‘Far from giving up in despair,’ David concludes, ‘liberal, centrist Conservatives should redouble our efforts to influence the party’s thinking about how we can win again in 2024’.

I genuinely wish David and other liberal, centrist Conservatives well in that endeavour. His analysis of the need to appeal to younger more socially liberal voters is one I share for two reasons.

First, I think it would lead to better government and, second, in the longer term, the Conservative Party will need to broaden its base. Relying on the votes of those born before 1960 has obvious long term problems. But in terms of understanding what will happen, there is a tension between what I would like to happen and the Prime Minister’s preferences, as revealed in the events of last year. I suspect those revealed preferences are a more reliable indicator.

Last year’s general election result was a triumph for the Prime Minister. It was the product of strategic clarity. Under Boris Johnson’s leadership, there was no real attempt to appeal to both sides of the Brexit debate (although he received the reluctant support of plenty of Remainers who were terrified of Jeremy Corbyn) but that gave him a clear message which appealed to the half of the country that favoured leaving the EU.

Theresa May had sought to seek a resolution to the Brexit issue that satisfied both sides of the argument. Leavers would see us depart from the EU, Remainers would see sufficient continuity to avoid the economic and security downsides that we feared from a hard Brexit. In my view, this was the sensible approach to the referendum result but by the time we got to last year it had little public support. Opinion was polarised into supporting a hard Brexit at any price or no Brexit at all, as the results in the European Parliamentary elections showed.

Johnson’s strategy was to be clearly identified as being on one side of the argument. In everything he did – from the make-up of the Cabinet, the prorogation of Parliament, the withdrawal of the whip for Conservative rebels, the nature of the general election campaign – was designed to win over the support of Leave voters. Forcing the Brexit Party essentially to step-aside in the general election meant that the Conservative Party had a near monopoly on Leave voters against a divided and badly led opposition.

Some will argue that these were the circumstances of 2019, but that does not make them the circumstances for 2024. And this brings me to the key question. Are we living through a fundamental realignment of British politics? Are our politics no longer defined by divisions on the grounds of economic class but on cultural identity? The somewheres versus the anywheres, the provincial and rural versus the metropolitan, non-graduates versus graduates, the socially conservative versus the socially liberal, the nationalist versus internationalist.

My view is that we are in such a period. More to the point, I think that the Prime Minister and the people around him believe that we are and that their view is that the most likely route to electoral success for the Conservative Party (and the route to success last year) is for the Party to embrace that realignment and establish itself as the Party for those on one side of the new dividing line in British politics.

Brexit may have accelerated this transformation but it did not cause it. Throughout the world, centre-right parties are being dragged in a similar direction as the social democratic left loses its grip on its traditional supporters, providing an opportunity for parties who can defend the cultural identity of those voters.

If that analysis is right (and, again, I would rather it is not), the wheel is not going to turn, at least not for a long time. Political realignments do not happen very often and this realignment has worked out very nicely for the Conservatives so far. But it means that the Conservative Party will not be economically or socially liberal (at least in terms of issues of national identity) for some time to come.

There is one other point. If I am wrong and David Lidington is right that the best course of action is for the Conservatives to seek the support of younger, more socially liberal voters there is a significant obstacle. Even though he is in many ways a social liberal himself, Boris Johnson is too battle-scarred, too associated with Brexit, too polarising to reinvent the Conservative Party yet again.

Fresh leadership by 2024 would be necessary. Someone not associated with the turmoil and divisions of 2016-19, someone with the charisma and communication skills to appeal to younger voters, someone who could embody modern, multi-racial Britain. Maybe, just maybe, such a leader could take the Conservative Party in a different direction. But who could fit the bill? Hmm.

David Gauke: I fear the Conservative Party is lost for small state free marketeers and One Nation social liberals

4 Jul

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

Are we seeing a fundamental realignment of British politics? It is a question that has often been asked in the wake of last year’s general election in which Boris Johnson won an 80 seat majority on the basis of winning traditionally Labour seats in the midlands and northern England.

During the last two weeks, we have seen three pieces of evidence suggesting that we are seeing such realignment.

First, a report by Matthew Goodwin and Oliver for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation studying the election . Goodwin and Heath make the case that in 2019 the Conservatives established a 15-point lead over Labour among people on low incomes (the first time in recorded history that the Conservative Party has outpolled Labour among people on low incomes); the Conservatives are now more popular among people on low incomes than they are among people on high incomes, whilst the Labour Party is today just as popular among the wealthy as it is among those on low incomes; consequently, both the Conservatives and Labour have inverted their traditional support base; and that Labour must improve its offer to low income voters and the Conservatives must work hard to retain their support.

Second, a report by UK in a Changing Europe which was discussed by its Director, Anand Menon on this site
This report compares the attitudes of MPs, party members and voters, by asking each group a series of questions about fundamental ideological attitudes on a left-right spectrum for economic issues and a liberal-authoritarian spectrum for social issues.

It reveals that, on social issues, the Conservatives at all levels are relatively united (MPs are a bit more socially liberal than Conservative voters) but, on economics, there is a much bigger divide, with Conservative MPs are a long way to the right of Conservative voters.

But perhaps most interesting of all (if not altogether surprising), were the survey responses for those voters who switched from Labour to Conservative at the last election. These are the people who decided it and, in all likelihood, will decide the next one.

On social issues, these voters were slightly more authoritarian than Conservative voters as a whole and a lot more authoritarian than Conservative MPs; on economic issues, they were to the left not just of the typical Conservative voter (who, remember, is somewhat to the left of Conservative MPs) but of the average voter.

The lesson for Labour from both analyses is straightforward. If it wants to win back the support of those Red Wall voters who switched to the Conservatives in 2019, the party should avoid the culture wars. When the Left go woke, their voters walk. It is lesson that Keir Starmer, who is trying to steer through the Black Lives Matter controversies with caution, appears to have learnt.

What about the positioning of the Conservative Party? This brings me to the third piece of evidence of realignment in British politics – the recent rhetoric from senior members of the Government embracing Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal. First, Michael Gove and then Johnson went out of their way to endorse FDR’s approach to an economic crisis, provoking free marketeers like Daniel Hannan and Ryan Bourne to point out (correctly) that the US’s economic record in the 1930s was much worse than that of the UK’s, and that many of the President’s policies were deeply flawed.

Of course, one can simply shrug off the talk of being Rooseveltian as a rhetorical flourish (the measures announced by the Prime Minister were limited but perfectly sensible), and there is a strong economic case to the effect of there being a vital role for active Government in the current circumstances.

Nonetheless, the references to FDR are consistent with a Government that is essentially tacking Left on economic measures. Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that it is tacking Right on social measures. And if it wants to retain those low income, Red Wall, Labour switchers who delivered the Prime Minister his Parliamentary majority that seems to be the sensible approach. Hug those voters close and give them what they want. It was an electoral strategy that worked in 2019 and, the argument goes, should work again in 2024.

There are, however, risks.

When it comes to pursuing a socially authoritarian agenda, this may well appeal to the new Conservative voters, but it could come across as divisive and mean-spirited to the wider electorate. For younger and better-educated voters, it can contaminate the brand. One shouldn’t carry the parallel too far, but being a cultural warrior doesn’t look as though it will guarantee Donald Trump re-election in November.

On the economy, Conservative MPs are more right wing than the new Tory voters not out of spite or contrariness, but because they believe that the best way to create wealth is to have a flourishing private sector, that the market is generally more efficient at allocating resources than Government, and that one person’s prosperity does not cause another person’s poverty.

This raises two problems. Either Conservative MPs ‘do not want to meet the losers of globalisation halfway’ (to use Matthew Goodwin’s phrase), which causes a political problem, or they will accommodate the views of these voters, which will cause economic problems.

Economic nationalism, a hard Brexit, high levels of Government borrowing, and more taxes on the wealthy and big business may well be popular with these voters, but it is not consistent with a dynamic, open and enterprising economy. As many of us used to argue against Labour politicians who themselves argued in favour of some of these measures, pursuing left wing economics makes working class voters poorer.

Then there is the question of competence. People decide on how they vote on the basis of a combination of factors. Partly it is economic self-interest, partly about values. But there is also a sense of whether the individuals concerned are trusted to be up to the job. Politics has changed a lot in recent years but there has traditionally been reluctance in the British voter to trust social authoritarians or economic left wingers. Politicians that just reflect back the views of voters can, ultimately, be perceived as insincere and insubstantial. And when it comes to competence, Keir Starmer will set the bar much higher than Jeremy Corbyn.

Those are the risks. But what choice does the Conservative Party have? The nature of the coalition of support it created in 2019, built on the basis of ‘getting Brexit done’ and successfully capturing large numbers of northern and midland low-income Labour voters, means that a return to a more traditional, liberal, middle-class Conservatism would doom dozens of newly elected MPs. If Boris Johnson wants to retain the Red Wall (or, if he prefers, consolidate the Blue Wall), the war on the woke and Rooseveltian economics is the way forward.

If you are a small state free marketeer, or a one nation social liberal, it is a depressing conclusion to reach. But when it decided to be the Party of Brexit, when it decided that it should focus on Red Wall voters, the Conservative Party made its choice. I fear it is too late to turn back.