Liam Fox: Labour’s choice – adapt or die

9 May

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.

Not only is it 16 years since Labour last won a general election but, 11 years into a period of Conservative government, when all political precedent suggests they should be gaining ground dramatically, Labour are actually rolling backwards.

The writing has been on the wall for some time, but Labour politicians have refused to see it. They have sneered at the values of their own voters, implied that they were stupid to vote for Brexit, and have harangued them with a “woke” agenda that either disinterests or alienates them.

When Emily Thornberry was forced to resign over a tweet showing a white van and England flags during the Rochester and Strood by-election, it was not because she was out of line with the Labour leadership’s instincts, but because she had let the mask slip.

Labour despised the very values of patriotism and economic self-improvement that made people like my grandparents vote for them. After the referendum, they not only told voters that they were wrong to vote for Brexit, but they tried every parliamentary manoeuvre (assisted by the disgraceful behaviour of John Bercow and a handful of ultra-Remain Conservatives) to try and thwart the democratic decision itself.

The party’s current policy of saying “Brexit is done”, without trying in any way to make it a success, and with no policies whatsoever on how Britain should view its future outside the EU fools no one – including the voters of Hartlepool. Many of them strongly believe that  the Labour leader and much of his parliamentary party are closet rejoiners who simply lack the courage to say so. Labour may be doing relatively better in areas that voted Remain, but that is not where they need to be recovering.

Dominated by a London-centric metropolitan core, they obsess endlessly about “culture war” issues, whereby “taking the knee” is more important than any concrete ideas on  how to run a complex pluralistic country like the UK. The image of Keir Starmer kneeling may have thrilled supporters in their urban base, but it has not gone un-noticed in their former heartlands, where they are haemorrhaging votes.

In the north of England, while the Conservatives have talked about levelling up and providing much overdue capital investment, Labour has talked to its own ever more unrepresentative echo chamber of metropolitan culture warriors. According to voter segmentation studies, only around 13 per cent of voters fall within the “progressive activists” label (what many of us would have referred to as the trendy lefties in the past), yet they account for some 58% of all the activity on social media.

Labour has become so obsessed with listening to, and responding to, its activists that they have forgotten to listen to the voters. Many of those who used to support them simply do not know what the Labour party is for.

Are they still an aspirational socialist party in the mould of Harold Wilso,  the paler social democratic version of Tony Blair – or the full-blooded hard left epitomised  by Jeremy Corbyn? In their former heartlands in the north of England and Scotland, once their banker for electoral success, they struggle even to be relevant – never mind dominant.

To blame Starmer, as the Labour left have been quick to do, for their current predicament is (at least to an extent) unfair. It will take some time to expunge the  memory of Corbyn and his team’s toxic brand, tainted with tolerance of anti-Semitic behaviour, comfortable with the bully boy tactics of Momentum and a twisted worldview that despised the United States, but admired Venezuela.

There is a temptation for any political party, at the time of dire results, to take comfort in the belief that “things can only get better”. I remember Conservative  MPs taking this line after the defeat in 1997, and before the drubbing of 2001. We need only look across the channel to see how once dominant political parties have become increasingly diminished or completely swept aside.

In the last German federal election, the once ultra-dominant CDU and SPD parties won barely 50 per cent of the vote between them while, in France in 2017, the runoff did not include a candidate from one of the traditional left or right parties, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic – with their combined vote share a historic low of 26 per cent.

One of the greatest strengths of the Conservative Party is that it understands that if it wants to avoid external coalitions, it needs to maintain an internal coalition.  Periodically, usually after an extended period in office, the party can forget this, and engage in a bout of factionalism and ideology which lands it a period on the opposition benches.

But its ability to understand this one basic electoral truth is what has made  it the most successful political party in the history of Western democracy. But in every healthy country, a credible opposition is required to hold government to account and to ensure that the national interest always takes priority over internal party politics.

Whatever the short term advantage to the Conservative Party of a dire, divided and directionless Labour Party, the national interest requires a respectable, patriotic and competent alternative to be available. Labour are far, far away from being that alternative at present. If they do not understand their predicament and react accordingly there is no reason why they should survive a realignment in British politics. The principles of Darwinism apply in the political world too: adapt or disappear.

Liam Fox: Are we really going to close down the global economy every time a new virus emerges?

24 Jan

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.

Over 71,000 more people died in 2020 than would have been expected in a normal year. Apart from a deluded and dangerous minority whose addiction to conspiracy theories leave them in denial about the impact (or even the existence) of Covid-19, most people recognise that these excess deaths are due directly or indirectly to the pandemic.

The UK has been recognised as one of the world leaders in the vaccination programme. Britain has made £548 million available to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access facility (COVAX), to support equitable and affordable access to new coronavirus vaccines and treatments around the world.

The rollout of the vaccine to the UK population has also been impressive, although there is growing concern about the decision to extend the period between doses of the Pfizer (but not the Oxford AstraZeneca) vaccine.

If we are to continue to lead globally on the issue – and this year’s G7 summit gives us an ideal opportunity to do so – we must be clear about the reality in which we find ourselves, and recognise that the data systems we currently have will be inadequate to deal with the challenges of global pandemic.

We need to understanding that, contrary to a great deal of assertion, this is unlikely to be a “once in a generation” event.

The first major, and deadly, coronavirus outbreak of the 21st century was SARS in 2002.  The second was MERS in 2012. So we are now in the third major global coronavirus outbreak in 20 years.

While the first two had higher death rates than Covid-19, it is the transmissibility of the latest viral variant that has caused such damage. There is, however, no guarantee that we will not get both a more deadly and more transmissible outbreak in the future.  It is likely that Coronavirus is here to stay, and that we will have to deal with potential new variants emerging from time to time around the world.  To have any chance of dealing with this effectively, we need to develop international protocols, and this means having standardised recording of data.

In the UK, there is no single measure to calculate the mortality rate for Covid-19 accurately . We use inferences from total excess death rates, the number of people who have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test, and those who have had Covid-19 mentioned as a contributory cause on their death certificate.

None of these on their own can give us a truly accurate picture about the cost in lives of the virus.  There are three different types of patients who may fall within the excess mortality figures.

The first group is those who have died of Covid, i.e: where this was the main cause of death.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 made changes to death certification which may cloud the waters in this regard. While it is still intended that the doctor who attended the deceased during their last illness should, where possible, complete the death certificate, the Act also allows this to be completed if a patient was not seen by any medical practitioner during their last illness.

If that happens, a doctor would need to state to the best of their knowledge and belief the cause of death.  Covid-19 is now an acceptable ‘direct’ or ‘underlying’ cause of death for the purposes of the certificate but, although it is a notifiable disease, this does not mean that deaths from it must be reported to the coroner.

This may well result in fewer post-mortems being conducted, and a valuable source of data missed.  Some autopsy studies of patients who died of “influenza” during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic showed that, while almost all patients had evidence of bacterial pneumonia, fewer than 50 per cent tested positive for influenza viral antigens or viral RNA. In other words, there was a significant overestimate of the numbers who had actually died of influenza itself.

The second group is those who died with Covid19, that is, those who had been diagnosed with a positive test ,but who may have died of other, unrelated causes.

It seems strange to many that someone who tested positive for the virus but was hit by a bus within a month is counted as a Covid-19 death.

The third group is those who have died as a consequence of Covid-19, including those who did not access medical care because of lockdown, or those who were unable to access the appropriate care because hospitals were overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.

This will be of importance in determining how we run our healthcare services, especially if pandemic is likely to occur more frequently.  It has long been the practice in the NHS to run at very high bed occupancy rates.

We have to ask, if pandemic is going to be potentially a more frequent event, whether this is tilting the balance between efficiency and resilience in the wrong direction.  Given that we have spent billions of pounds trying to stop the capacity of our healthcare system being overwhelmed, would it not be more sensible (and potentially more financially prudent) in future to run the system with many more beds available than we expect to need at any one time?

Given the overall cost to our economy and the impact on the future of our public finances, perhaps we need to re-visit some of the assumptions that have underpinned policy under governments of all political colours. ,

Britain has a real opportunity to lead the global debate and the government can lead the way with the shakeup of Public Health England and the Resilience Unit within the Cabinet Office, both of which should have been better prepared for any pandemic.

I have supported the Government in all the lockdown measures they have taken in relation to Covid-19 but, in future, are we really going to close down the global economy every time a new virus emerges?

If not, what are the international protocols that we will need to develop as a global community and what are the metrics that we will require to make them work? Without proper information, how will we be able to determine the case fatality rate (the deaths from a disease compared to the total number of people diagnosed in a particular period) which will be one of the key measures that we will have to make in the event of a new outbreak?

We will also need enforceable global rules around transparency and notification. As we head for the G7, there can be no better example of “Global Britain” than for Britain to take a lead in pandemic preparedness and work towards global definitions that will enable us to avoid the uncoordinated global response that we have seen during Covid19.

Liam Fox: Today, the Chancellor should aim to boost an unambiguously private sector-led recovery

25 Nov

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.

The successful development of vaccines by the world’s largest – private sector – pharmaceutical companies brings much-needed optimism as we look forward to 2021. Yet, any political respite for the Government is likely to be short lived, as the focus inevitably shifts towards the seismic economic impact that the coronavirus has created at home and abroad.

As the Chancellor said at the weekend “people will see the scale of the economic shock laid bare”.

The UK’s overall debt has now reached 100.8 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) – a level not seen since the early 1960s. It is terrifying to imagine where we would be if the public finances had not been improved to the extent they have over the past decade. The most recent Bank of England forecast estimates that unemployment may peak at around 7.7 per cent in April to June of next year but could be as high as 10 per cent.

The key to the post-Covid-19 recovery will rely on the ability of Britain’s small businesses to create jobs on the scale that we have seen in recent years. At the beginning of 2020 there were 5.82 million small businesses (with 0 to 49 employees), 99.3 per cent of the total business population.

Despite the unprecedented support from the Government through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (the furlough) which has been extended to the end of March 2021, the Business Interruption Loan Scheme and the Self-Employment Income Support Grant, many small businesses fear that they may not survive the transition to the economic “new normal”.

The unprecedented government assistance has masked the fact that this group has suffered more than most in the varying degrees of lockdown that we have experienced since March, with some still struggling to get lenders to support them.

The longer that lockdown continues, the more that demand for their goods and services is likely to be depressed and their viability threatened. Many fear they may not survive to see the recovery. That is why, in his spending statement this week, the Chancellor must make clear the Government’s commitment to Britain’s SMEs, for this must be an unambiguously private sector-led recovery.

While there are understandable demands to pump more funding into the public sector, we must restore the habit of making sure we have the money in the bank before we start spending it.

Unless we are able to grow our economy through the private sector and generate more national income, then we will be back in the territory of having to choose between damaging tax rises or unpopular spending cuts.

Our ability to borrow heavily during this crisis has maintained the viability of a large part of our economy but an inability to control future borrowing will be deeply damaging to our long-term prosperity and our ability to fund the quality public services on which we depend.

I would like, in his financial statement, to see the Chancellor replace or at least add to David Cameron’s policy test which was “how will this affect and be perceived by every family in Britain”. The new test would be “the entrepreneur test”. This is in line with his natural instincts.

We must assess how every bit of legislation and every regulation will affect the wealth creating part of our economy and our every statement and every speech should be mindful of the message it sends to our small business community.

We must ensure that we are not only a great place for business start-ups but that we can deal with the lack of capital that often results in a failure of scale ups. We must ensure that the elements that make the United Kingdom such an attractive place for foreign direct investment continue – a stable regulatory framework, an attractive tax environment, flexible skills in our labour force, access to quality higher education, access to tech and gold standard protection for intellectual property. As the world’s third largest destination for foreign direct investment, we are already strong in all these areas.

In the 1980s, the Conservatives demonstrated our commitment to the ownership society through our totemic policy of council house sales. The Conservatives must now be seen as the natural ally for every white van man and woman, every tech entrepreneur and every corner shop owner. The Chancellor must make us unequivocally the party of small business.

Liam Fox: How MPs can better hold Ministers to account over their handling of the Coronavirus

11 Nov

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.

One of the most quoted maxims in medicine is “first, do no harm”. In effect, it means that the patient should not be left in a worse condition following treatment than they would have been if there had been no treatment at all. For all sorts of reasons, are clear echoes of this in our approach to Covid-19.

As we deal with the consequences of the pandemic, we must ensure that the measures we are introducing do not inflict more damage on our long-term well-being than the virus itself. All around the world, governments are struggling to maintain balance as they walk the policy tight rope, with public health pulling in one direction and economic necessity pulling in the other. All of them find themselves confronted with a series of options but no clear solutions.

Our own Government is no different, as it tries to limit the damage to the health of the population and the NHS with the current lockdown – before moving back to the tier system on 2nd December, whilst trying to keep enough of the economy going to fund vital public services and infrastructure for the future.

In many ways, it is a “no win” for the Government, with calls for both stricter lockdown and greater civil liberties being made with equal ferocity. The latest opinion poll shows that 20 per cent of the population believe that the Government has overreacted to the Covid19 emergency, 43 per cent that it has underreacted and that 31 per cent believe that the response has been proportionate.

Problems with track and trace are cited by those who are determined to show that policy has been inadequate, while conveniently overlooking the fact that, across the channel, the French had to introduce a new track and trace system because of the failure of their initial model.  Meanwhile, in Germany, track and trace efforts had become completely swamped, leaving the origin of three quarters of infections a mystery.

Others point to the mistaken use (or misuse) of NHS data as evidence of their assertion that the threat to healthcare capacity has been overblown to justify a second national lockdown. If the public’s confusion is understandable, what clarification is Parliament able to give through its powers of scrutiny?

The answer is that it is limited and, I believe, inadequate. At the moment, Parliament is unable to hold the Government properly to account, because it is unable to access the full range of data on which decisions by the executive are made.

Despite the best efforts of the Speaker and his team, the House of Commons cannot possibly discharge its role of scrutiny by a series of question and answer sessions on ministerial statements that lack the rigour which comes with proper parliamentary debate.

To properly assess the overall response to the pandemic, we need to ensure that we are able to monitor the “treatment” that the UK is receiving, looking across the whole range of issues from public health to social well-being to economic viability. Our current select committee structure allows proper interrogation of the response at departmental level but lacks the crosscutting oversight necessary.

In response to the UK banking scandal in 2012, the government established The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.  It was, in David Cameron’s words, “a full parliamentary committee of inquiry involving both Houses”, with a clear mandate, a senior and experienced membership and cross-party support it was, and was seen to be, rigorous and independent. We should follow that example now.

There are other reasons why such a structure is necessary. The first is that the credibility of the government’s assertion that it is basing its response on “the science” is wearing thin to many and will be sorely tested if the situation continues, or worsens, through the winter and into 2021.

This particular difficulty is exacerbated by the over-exuberance generated in some quarters, where news of progress with a vaccine has been wrongly interpreted to mean that an end to the coronavirus is nigh. The Prime Minister was exactly right to try to dampen this down immediately as it is likely to create an increased risk appetite to the virus, without justification, in an understandably frustrated public. It would be to everyone’s advantage (including the government) if it was clear to the British people that not only “the science” but all other relevant information sets were being independently assessed.

The second reason why such a structure is important is that this will not be the last pandemic that we face. They are the rule in human history not the exception. In recent years, we saw the coronavirus manifest itself in SARS and MERS which, thankfully, were relatively limited and short lived. Covid19 is widespread but not particularly lethal in the history of human pandemics.

In an era of globalisation, where widespread human interaction is necessary (and where before the outbreak around 700,000 passengers were in the air around the world at any one moment) the likelihood is that we could potentially face worst scenarios. We need to be prepared with a blueprint that can be put into effect quickly and to develop global protocols to prevent the piecemeal, delayed and sometimes shambolic global response that we have witnessed on this occasion.

At home, we need our Parliament to be able to credibly assert that it has examined all the evidence, medical and economic, on which policy is being determined. This is crucial in maintaining the political consensus and public confidence needed to see off the naysayers, the cynics, and the political opportunists. To do no harm we need more information, more transparency and more scrutiny. And we need it urgently.