Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 6) Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill

25 Jul

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

5. Animal Welfare Sentience Bill

What it is

The Bill will “make provision for an Animal Sentience Committee with functions relating to the effect of government policy on the welfare of animals as sentient beings”.

It’s very short – falling into two parts, the second of which contains supplementary and general provisions. The meat of the Bill is in the first part, which sets out the terms on which the committee will be established – its members will be appointed by the Environment Secretary – and which empowers it to issue reports that the Government must respond to.

Responsible department

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is in charge of the Bill, which has begun consideration in the Lords, not the Commons – as is sometimes the case with legislation which touches on relatively abstracted matters.

The Minister who led for the Government in the Lords wasn’t Lord Goldsmith, whose responsibilities cover animal welfare, but the more eirenic figure of Lord Benyon, who deals with rural affairs.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New.

Expected when?

Currently under consideration.

Arguments for

The argument for the Bill is inseparable from the circumstances which have produced it – namely, Brexit.  Until the UK left the EU, the latter’s laws applied to animal sentience.  The Government could simply have copied these over entire; it has decided instead to go its own way, believing that Britain can do better.

Which means, in this case, a committee – which recognises the principle that animals are sentient.  So unless you believe that they aren’t (and the most prominent critics of the Bill to date have not taken that position), you will believe that post-Brexit Britain must have a legal framework within which animal sentience is recognised.

Arguments against

In a nutshell, that the legal framework is wrong, because it will empower a committee to make particular recommendations from a general principle – rather than, say, deal with animal sentience issue through detailed Parliamentary debate and legislation, such as the The Animal Welfare Act 2006, which consolidated more than 20 other pieces of legislation in a single measure.

Critics of the Bill claim that the consequences of these could include: bans on Jewish and Muslim religious slaughter; the use of animals in medical research; the law on fishing and angling – even breeding horses or rearing pigs, if the committee works outwards from an ideal of animal rights.  That’s a view from the Right; on the Left, there’s a view that the committee should have more and wider powers.

Politics

The Bill is a classic example of a measure that is set to sail smoothly through Parliament – there was no Second Reading division in the Lords – only to become more controversial after it is enacted.  Much depends on who this and successive governments appoint as committee members.

For while this or other governments could simply ignore the committee’s recommendations, politics in Britain doesn’t tend to work in that way.  And while there is a case for, say, barring animals in medical research, it would find it harder to gain legitimacy if imposed because of a committee recommendation rather than a parliamentary vote.

Controversy rating: 5/10

It is hard to score a measure which looks to create almost no fuss at the time but which may do so later.  Some will argue that the Bill illustrates the folly of leaving the EU – which balanced, say, animals welfare with religious safeguards.  To which others might answer that that the Bill proves the point of Brexit: taking back control.  It’s then up to Parliament to do so wisely…or otherwise.

The Northern Ireland Protocol’s “serious societal difficulties”

22 Jul

The Northern Ireland Protocol contains within itself the means of its own suspension – Article 16.  This refers to “safeguard measures” which can unilaterally be taken by either the UK or the EU if “the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”.

“Such safeguard measures shall be restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation,” it continues – which leaves open the question of what that duration and scope might be.

The EU itself will presumably not need reminding of the terms of Article 16 – because it invoked these itself in January to prevent vaccines made in the Union to be exported from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

Is the Protocol leading to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”?  We will pass over the last but not the first – let alone the one in the middle.

On economic difficulties, there have been frequent and continuing reports of food shortages in Northern Ireland’s supermarkets: more or less at random, we link to accounts from January, April and yesterday.

On societal ones, successive opinion polls have confirmed what loyalist marches, and placards demanding “no sea border”, suggested – namely, that support and opposition to the Protocol are dividing along political lines.

One cannot introduce to a settlement built on cross-community consent a measure that 47 per cent of those polled believe is appropriate for Northern Ireland…and 47 per cent believe is not appropriate.

Let alone one whose operation to date is sometimes leaving shelves empty in the province’s shops – a problem that touches on the everyday lives of those of all political and religious convictions and none.

The Government thus has grounds to invoke Article 16 that have nothing to do with Boris Johnson signing the Protocol because Theresa May had left him no practicable alternative; or because the Government underestimated the Protocol’s effects.

Nor do Ministers need to imply that the Protocol is incompatible with Part 1 (iii) of the section of the Belfast Agreement, which says that “it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people”.

Nor to cite the references to “Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom’s internal market” in both the Protocol’s preamble and Article 5.

Nor do they have publicly to draw the obvious conclusion from the Protocol’s references to the Agreement – namely that, as Roderick Crawford has written on this site, the first isn’t fully compatible with the second.

Some Conservatives will agree with all these supplementary arguments and others with only some of them.  This site confesses to be unimpressed by those based on not appreciating the Protocol’s effects or it having effectively been signed under duress.

For governments ultimately have a choice in these matters – and the fact of the matter is that Brexiteering Tory backbenchers were ultimately prepared to gamble on a settlement that contained a different regime for Northern Ireland.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t follow that the Protocol obliges the EU to police the one-way Irish Sea border in the restrictive way that it has – as though the flow of goods east-west to Northern Ireland constitutes an existential threat to the integrity of the internal market.

The nub of the matter is that the EU is angling for a UK alignment on food safety standards, and the UK has been holding out for an equivalence agreement.

The main gripe of the Government is that the EU is once again seeking to manoeuvre the UK into the orbit of its institutional order and the European Court.  Obviously, this is inconsistent with “taking back control”.

The chief complaint of the former is that the Government has consistently dragged its feet on putting the infrastructure and staff in place to ensure that the Protocol will operate properly.

We suspect that the EU has a point here, but that Ministers have a larger one – namely, that they’ve come to believe that there’s no point in trying to get the Protocol to work, because lack of Unionist consent renders it unworkable, at least in its present form.

So it is that the Government has been unilaterally extending “grace periods” to keep the flow of food going to Northern Ireland; and has now taken the least inflammatory of the three resistant options open to it.

It could have announced that it is resiling from the Protocol, thereby putting itself on the wrong side of international law.  Or it could have sought to proceed with Article 16 immediately.

Instead, Lord Frost said yesterday, “this is not the right moment” to invoke it – even thought “the circumstances exist” that would justify such a move.

In short, the Government’s position is that the Protocol must be revisited, and the EU’s response is that it won’t be: no surprises there.  The question that follows, as so often in these affairs, is whether there is room for a diplomatic fudge.

As Stephen Booth pointed out recently on this site, the latter moved recently on the movement of medicines into the Northern Ireland market – so flexibility clearly isn’t impossible.

Until yesterday, the EU and UK had agreed to put aside their differences until September, having agreed a three-month extension to a grace period allowing chilled meats to continue to move from Britain into Northern Ireland.

By making it formally clear that the Government regards the Protocol as unworkable, Johnson, Frost and Brandon Lewis have both followed the logic of their position and taken a step into the unknown – especially in terms of the knock-on effect in Northern Ireland.

At any rate, the EU and the UK, as co-owners of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol, have a co-responsibility to ensure that the Belfast Agreement continues to work.

And it doesn’t follow that because it did so pre-Brexit, when Great Britain as well as Northern Ireland was within the internal market, it cannot now do so post-Brexit. What’s now needed is a dollop of what brought the Agreement into existence in the first place: a good old-fashioned fudge.  Which won’t happen if the EU insists on policing its Irish frontier against threats that don’t exist.

Will Starmer give vaccine passports a free pass?

20 Jul

“What is the question to which vaccine passports are the answer?” we asked in April.  After all, one can be double vaccinated and still carry the virus.  So providing evidence of the first as one enters a nightclub is no guarantee of not spreading the second.

The only convincing answer is: to raise vaccination rates.  But as ConHome put it then, “such a system would arguably be forced medication – which remains illegal for physical conditions, and might therefore run up against our international obligations, not least under the European Convention of Human Rights”.

Which is why we thought Ministers would be more likely to plump for requiring clubs to demand evidence that entrants are Covid-free – perhaps including lateral flow tests at the door.  Though such a scheme would have brought with it a mass of logistical and organisational problems.

So the Government has gone instead for a policy that won’t stop the spread of the virus altogether, is ethically dicey, and which will leaves it open to potential legal challenge.  Their motive is shown by the timing: Ministers aren’t requiring these passports be used immediately.

The reason?  Partly because the scheme isn’t oven-ready, as Boris Johnson would put it, but partly because although 87 per cent of the population has had a single dose of the vaccuum, only 67 per cent has had two doses.

The nightmare for the Government features young people (who make up a big slice of the unvaccinated) being turned away from nightclubs not because they’ve refused to have even a single dose of the vaccine…but because they’ve indeed had one, but haven’t had the chance to have two.

It would be grotesquely unjust for Ministers, on the one hand, to demand two doses as a condition of entry but, on the other, not ensure that both doses have actually been offered.  Hence the delay until the end of September until passports are demanded – by which time more vaccinations will have been rolled out and more young people persuaded to take them.  Or so the Government hopes.

Perhaps the special NHS app will be cheat-proof and work flawlessly (though confidence in the system as a whole won’t have been boosted by reports of people who use the present one being “pinged through walls”).

Maybe clubbers will simply sign up to be vaccinated and go with the flow.  Perhaps claims of a “racist system”, with more black people than white excluded from events, will fall on deaf ears – and those of an “anti-youth system” will do so too.

It could be that ECHR Article Eight privacy rights, GDPR and the Data Protection Act don’t come into play.  And after all, the public as a whole supports restrictions.  Ministers would then be able to roll out the passports for other venues without mass opposition: in theatres, sporting venues, cinemas, pubs – any venue covered by the three Cs: “closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings”.

But even if voters go one way, MPs may go the other.  There will be a Commons vote on the plan in one form or another, and Conservative MPs are very restive about restrictions already.

On the same recent day that 24 Tory backbenchers voted against the 0.7 per cent aid reduction, amidst a mass of publicity, 31 opposed a set of Coronavirus rules.  Forty-nine voted against regulations more broadly last month.

That’s enough to defeat the Government if the opposition piles in too.  And Johnson is not in a great place with his backbenchers: add to those Conservative MPs who tend to rebel over Covid those who believe that Downing Street has no grip, and you soon reach a number larger than 49, especially since the two groups overlap.

The weekend’s chaos over whether or not the Prime Minister and Chancellor would self-isolate has been well and truly clocked by backbenchers.  Vaccine passports will add fuel to the fire, since they first seemed to be on, then were off (“we are not looking at a vaccine passport for our domestic economy, Nadhim Zahawi said in February)…and are now on again.

With the Covid Recovery Group arguing that requiring vaccine passports means creeping ID cards, Keir Starmer will be able to weigh the risk of getting on the wrong side of public opinion against the opportunity to defeat the Government.

Perhaps Johnson’s real plan is first to up vaccination rates among young people and then withdrawn the passport scheme. If not, the Labour leader will come under pressure from the party’s MPs to abandon his lawyerly caution and go in for the kill.

ConservativeHome to bring back its Next Tory Leader survey

19 Jul

From near its start in 2005 to Boris Johnson’s election in 2019, this site ran a monthly poll on who the next Party leader should be.  We halted it because the question seemed otiose – especially after the Prime Minister’s substantial general election win that year.

The Conservatives have led in Politico’s poll of polls, with one brief period where the main parties were level, since shortly before Johnson won the leadership.

The big picture still is that Labour is in the doldrums and the Tories riding higher.  The odds are that the Prime Minister will gain a second term when the next election comes.

We don’t believe that there should be a leadership change before then, and doubt whether there will be a challenge in any event.  However, we aren’t sure, for two main reasons.

First, because either lockdown will return in the autumn, or else politics is resuming as normal.  In either case, Conservative MPs will be more restive than they were during the suspension of ordinary politics caused by the pandemic.

Second, because, since the departure of Dominic Cummings, Johnson has been acting as his own political strategist.  This makes him unique in recent years: even Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, strong leaders both, worked closely with a few senior colleagues.

This combination is fissile, and one is never quite sure, in any event, whether the Prime Minister will end up having pubs named after him or, like his great-grandather, end up being lynched by his colleagues. Possibly both.

For better or worse, we think that, while it would be excessive to bring back the Next Tory Leader question monthly, ConHome should no longer just let it be.

So our plan is to ask it say four times a year: as Parliament breaks up for the summer; in the wake of the annual Conservative Party Conference; in our end of year survey, and at Easter or thereabouts.

It will therefore be bunged in to our July survey, which will go out towards the end of next week.  Feel free to suggest below which Tory MPs should be listed in it.

Johnson puts the case for more localism in England. Now he must deliver it.

19 Jul

The unconvincing plan for growth apart, and the aftermath of Coronavirus not withstanding, ConservativeHome identified three main areas of policy weakness in the Queen’s Speech: social care, the delivery of net zero and English localism.

The first two turn out to be connected to the last – as are the whole country’s future prospects for growth and recovery.  Why?  Because, as David Lidington put it recently

“Whether it’s delivering an industrial strategy, or high quality apprenticeships, or integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, we are likely to get better and faster results, and to encourage innovation and experiment…

…if these things are done by the central government of the UK working in genuine partnership with elected devolved, local and regional leaders…

…who in turn are able both to use their convening power to rally business, education, cultural and third sector organisations and through their endorsement give additional democratic legitimacy to the plan”.

Boris Johnson began to correct that weakness in his speech last week, in which he sketched out what may be taken from the postponed devolution white paper and put into the coming levelling-up white paper.

The nub of the Prime Minister’s case was that the mayoral experiment is working for cities and their suburban hinterland, and that the towns and countryside could do with a bit of it.

“Local leaders now need to be given the tools to make things happen for their communities, and to do that we must now take a more flexible approach to devolution in England,” he said.

Which could mean “a directly elected mayor for individual counties”; or devolution “for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses”.

Ideas on a postcard, please, to our recently-departed columnist, Neil O’Brien. Or, as Johnson put it, “come to Neil O Brien or to me with your vision for how you will level up, back business, attract more good jobs and improve your local services”.

Put like that, the Prime Minister’s case sounds lamentably underdeveloped, open to fresh thinking, or simply cautious, depending on how you look at it.  But he, Robert Jenrick and others will have to make the following decisions.

At the outset, whether or not to push for uniformity, or something very close to it.  Both of the main schemes that would ensure it are out: regional government and an English Parliament.

Labour tried to make the North East a start-up zone for regional government, and the project was duly trounced in a referendum – the event which gave politics early sight of James Frayne and Dominic Cummings.

An English Parliament would institutionalise potential conflict between a First Minister for England, who would run the bulk of the country, and a Prime Minister stripped of responsibility for nearly everything other than foreign affairs, defence and security policy.

Which returns us to the options on Johnson’s table.  He could sit back and wait for local leaders to come to him.  And the map of local government in England would continue to look much like the patchwork we see today.

There is a good case for this approach.  “A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome,” as Johnathan Werren wrote on this site.

The downside is that if that, with so many cooks preparing the broth, nothing much might be served up: experience suggests that county, district, town and parish councils don’t easily come to agreement.

Some senior Tory figures in local government, and elsewhere, are keen on unitarisation – some has already happened (as recently in Buckinghamshire); more is happening (as in North Yorkshire), and more may happen still.

But ConservativeHome finds no appetite near the top of government for an attempt to force amalgamation on unwilling Conservative-controlled authorities: the whips have enough trouble with agitated councillors and backbenchers, thank you very much.

Nonetheless, experience suggests that if the Government wants more local mayors, it will have to push for them – and, if local people are given a say in a referendum, they tend to push back.

Remember May 3, 2012: the day on which ten cities voted for or against new mayors.  Only one, Bristol, went for change.  Since then, some authorities, such as Hartlepool, have voted to abolish their elected mayors; others, like North Tyneside, have not.

There are further problems about political legitimacy.  The Tees Valley has a population of about 1.2 million people.  Kent has one of approximately 1.8 million.  It follows that if an elected mayor can work for it might for the other.

Government sources also named other well-populated counties, such as Lancashire and Warwickshire.  But would it be practicable to  bundle ones with smaller populations together under a single mayor?

One of the problems that is wrecking the police commissioner project is the sense that there is no real local ownership of whoever is elected to the post.  Might not enforced, multi-county, amalgamated mayoralities run the same risk?

But if, to use the Prime Minister’s own example, a county or city comes together “to improve local services like buses”, who or what is to take charge, if not a Mayor?

Mention of an actual service is a reminder not to put the cart, structure, before the horse, services.  The first question is what to make more local.  The second is how to do it.

Which takes us to the mayors in place already.  Consider Ben Houchen in Teesside.  He already controls education for people over 18.  Wouldn’t it make sense for this to be joined up to that provided to people over 16 – given the stress he places on skills?

Andy Street made the same case for the West Midlands in a recent column on this site.  Why not go further, and let Houchen, Street and some of the other mayors pilot more local control?

For example, they could retain a slice, say, of airport passenger duty, vehicle excise, and VAT.  Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan recommended the full devolution of the last in The Plan, opening the door to tax competition between local authorities.

Johnson said that counties could “take charge of levelling up local infrastructure like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution and to unlock new job or new bus routes plied by clean green buses because they get the chance to control the bus routes”.

“Or they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business needs.”  The Prime Minister was careful to add that “we need accountability”.

But the thrust of his case was there are fewer “irresponsible municipal socialist governments” and that “most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

Johnson has no experience of running a major domestic department.  His sole government experience at Cabinet level was in the Foreign Office.

Nonetheless, he has been mayor of the biggest city in the whole country, serving two terms.  He will need to draw on that experience as he decides which localist options to take.

One thing is certain – though it won’t be what anxious MPs and councillors want to hear.  If the mayoral experiment had needed existing councils’ and sitting councillors’ agreement to happen, it wouldn’t have happened.

So since the Prime Minister wants more localism, and rightly, he must ready himself for a row – to add to the one already raging about housing and planning.  One can’t serve up a muncipal omelette without breaking eggs.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 5) Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

18 Jul

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

5. Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

What it is

The Bill will “strengthen the legal duties on higher education providers in England to protect freedom of speech on campuses up and down the country, for students, academics and visiting speakers”.

It falls into three parts, of which the most significant are the first two. The first part places new free speech duties on colleges and student unions.  The second applies these to the Office of Students, within which will be established a Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom.

Responsible department

The Department for Education is in charge of this piece of amending legislation, which makes changes to four previous Acts of Parliament.  It gained its Second Reading last week.

Gavin Williamson kicked off the debate and Michelle Donelan wound up.  As Universities Minister, the latter can be expected to lead for the Government during the Bill’s committee stage.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New.

Expected when?

Currently under consideration.

Arguments for

Essentially, that freedom of speech in higher education for both academics and students is under threat, the evidence for which consists of various surveys (see here, for example), and individual incidents – such as Amber Rudd being disinvited when due to speak at Oxford University, and the treatment of academics at Edinburgh University and Cambridge University.

These flare-ups can be seen as incidents in a culture war, much of which is contested in a less dramatic way.  The Right tends to hold that free speech on campus and elsewhere is threatened by radical norms on language and conduct – enforced by “cancellation”, social media and groupthink.  The debate has spilled over into the Left over trans; see this site’s regular Radical column for more.

Arguments against

The most vocal opposition to the Bill comes from the Left, but there is some from the Right too.  The sum of the case from the Left is, first, that there’s no convincing evidence that free speech at colleges is under threat and that, second, the Bill will protect Holocaust deniers, racists and anti-vaxers.  There is also concern that it may weaken free protest.

The Right has a mixed series of reservations.  One is that the Bill goes too far, because it empowers the state to set more conditions for independent institutions.  Another is that it doesn’t go far enough, because both academics and students need further, broader protections which existing legislation, such as the Equality Act, stand in the way of.

Politics

The coalition of voters that returned Boris Johnson’s Conservatives with an 80 seat majority will like the flavour of this Bill and, given the toxicity of the debate within the Left on trans, there will be some support within parts of it for the claim that freedom of speech in colleges is under threat, even if those parts are opposed to the Bill, either in principle or in detail.

Labour watched its back at Second Reading – tabling a reasoned amendment which referred to “the need to ensure legal protections for freedom of speech and academic freedom”.  This may reflect a nervousness that the Left’s broad position is self-contradictory: after all, one can’t both support curbs on free speech while also claiming that there’s no threat to it.

Controversy rating: 7/10

That the politics of the Bill favour the Government (the measure is certainly eye-catching) doesn’t guarantee that it will deliver.  The broad threat to free speech, for students and academics of different political and religious persuasions, cannot be seen off by Parliamentary legislation.  Which is important for supporters of the Bill to bear in mind.

In the contest between Patel and Tyrone Mings, will there really be “only one winner”?

15 Jul

“In the contest between the Home Secretary and Tyrone Mings there will only be one winner and it won’t be the politician,” Daniel Finkelstein wrote yesterday in the Times. Which contest?

A social media poll about taking the knee? Mings would triumph, certainly. An opinion poll? Ditto, we think. A penalty shoot-out? Definitely Mings.  An election? Not so sure. Especially if it took place in Priti Patel’s Witham constituency.

The point we’re trying to make is that more matters in politics than polls (and Mings’ Twitter attack on Patel was nothing if not political, just in case anyone’s in doubt). Or indeed a mood of the moment, which Mings certainly conveyed and furthered.

But while moods in politics can change overnight, election results tend to last longer.  To beat Patel in an election, Mings would have to join a political party.  Or form one of his own, and then face the voters.  Who can be even more formidable than Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Disagreement about taking the knee and Black Lives matter may still be current come the next election.  And the options for Boris Johnson, who appointed Patel, aren’t as simple as some suggest.

According to Ipsos MORI, 40 per cent of the British public support the England team taking the knee.  That’s a sizeable percentage, though not a majority.  Some of it will never vote Conservative.  Some already does.  Some might in future.

The Prime Minister will want to stay on the right side of those voters.  But hang on a moment.  Twenty-seven per cent of those polled are opposed to the gesture – a smaller proportion but, again, a significant one.  Johnson won’t want to get on the wrong side of them, either.

Politicianly savvy suggests careful handling.  Something like this: “If the England team want to call out racism, good luck to them.  And no real supporter will boo the national team”.

“But it’s clear that taking the knee is clearly a divisive gesture, which is why I haven’t done it.  Speaking personally, I’d like to see us all settle on anti-racist campaigns we can all unite around”.  (By the way, that’s what this site believes, for what it’s worth).

A perfect solution?  Admittedly not.  But as those poll numbers suggest, there isn’t one, at least for the Prime Minister.  At any rate, our line on booing the players is an improvement on his – which isn’t hard, because he hasn’t really had one.

It’s worth adding that a reluctance to commit himself until he has to, not only on cultural conflict but on much else too, normally works quite quite well for the Prime Minister.

For example, he was actually slower than Keir Starmer to condemn the pulling down of statue in Bristol last year.  It seems to have done him no harm.

But not having a collective Government position on taking the knee and booing players allowed Patel to say one thing, Sajid Javid another (in the wake of England’s achievement in reaching the final), and various Tory MPs to deprive themselves of enjoying the tournament.

Some will greet our recommendation on taking the knee roughly as follows: “same old Tory party: too little, too late.  Always in the rearguard of social change.  Why not get in the vanguard, for once?”

That view’s right if history is a one-way road to progress.  But is it?  The latest thing that comes along isn’t always as popular a little bit later.  Take the major example of eugenics, supported within mainstream politics before the Second World War.

Or the minor but memorable one of the Paedophile Information Exchange during the 1970s. So – back to the present. If voters see England footballers taking the knee, support for the gesture will grow.  If they see police officers doing so again, they may not be quite so sure.

And if the gesture becomes linked in peoples’ minds with public disorder, support for it will drop.  With America in its current state, and what happens first so often coming here next, how likely is it that the street scenes we saw last year won’t be back?

Either way, ask yourself whether Keir Starmer or Boris Johnson is the real winner of the week.  The former has doubled down on taking the knee.  That doesn’t come risk-free.

Now consider the backdrop against which they act.  Next year, the England team is off to the World Cup.  Maybe more of its supporters will still be applauding taking the knee than booing it (assuming the team carry on with the gesture).  Perhaps there’ll be no catcalls at all.

Of one thing, though, we’re certain – that however loudly England fans may cheer taking the knee, they’ll sing the national anthem even louder.

No wonder, since patriotism is the driver for them identifying with the team in the first place.  And the Labour Party hasn’t been doing so well on it recently.  That’s why Starmer has been taking care to be photographed near Union flag.

The repositioning that his top team has been mulling won’t have been helped by a take from parts of the Left in the wake of the final. Namely, that pre-final street violence and post-final online racism are characteristic of England football supporters as a whole.

We wouldn’t go so far as to claim that at the next election, when the Prime Minster and Keir Starmer square up, “there will only be one winner, and it won’t be Starmer”.

But while Labour is ambiguous on patriotism, the Conservatives aren’t – at least as far as England’s electorate is concerned.  That’s a plus for Johnson.  And so one, too, for the Home Secretary.

This may offer her some consolation as some fellow Tories – indeed, some fellow members of the Cabinet – queue up to take a different view in public.

Tory generations divide. The 24 Conservative MPs who voted against the Government’s 0.7 per cent aid cut plan.

13 Jul
  • Amess, David
  • Baldwin, Harriet
  • Bottomley, Peter
  • Bradley, Karen
  • Brine, Stephen

 

  • Chishti, Rehman
  • Crabb, Stephen
  • Davis, David
  • Ellwood, Tobias
  • Gale, Roger

 

  • Green, Damian
  • Hoare, Simon
  • Hudson, Neil
  • Hunt, Jeremy
  • Latham, Pauline

 

  • Loughton, Tim
  • May, Theresa
  • Mercer, Johnny
  • Mitchell, Andrew
  • Nokes, Caroline

 

  • Parish, Neil
  • Pawsey, Mark
  • Seely, Bob
  • Tugendhat, Tom

Plus one teller, Anthony Mangnall.

  • That’s a former Prime Minister and Party leader, the runner-up to Boris Johnson in the last Conservative leadership election, a former First Secretary of State, four other former full Cabinet Ministers, seven other former Ministers, and six select committee Chairmen (four of whom are former Ministers)…
  • …But only one member of the 2019 intake, Neil Hudson, plus a teller, Anthony Mangnall.
  • So this division list is very much a tale of two generations.

 

The Government’s aid retreat. Sunak retreats to advance – as he sends a signal about the future control of spending.

13 Jul

“The champions of 0.7 per cent will win either way – if not in the Commons, then in court,” we wrote recently, after a vote to end the reduction from that percentage almost happened.

It didn’t take place because the vehicle for a decision, an amendment to the Advanced Reseach and Invention Agency Bill, was ruled out of order by Lindsay Hoyle.

The Speaker acted correctly.  He was then lambasted on social media for not “being a Bercow” – in other words, acting incorrectly.  That will not in itself have ruffled his feathers.

However, he believes that the Government has been flouting its obligation to make important announcements to the Commons before doing so elsewhere – in particular, those about Covid-19.

That proper resentment will have informed his decision, made public in the wake of the cancelled vote, to ensure that a vote on the 0.7 per cent cut was held in the Commons in due course.

Which brings us to Rishi Sunak, the author of the reduction.  He was staring down the barrel of a Parliamentary defeat – and yesterday evening’s news saw him jerk his head away before the trigger is pulled.

His gambit comes in the form of a “double lock”.  The cut from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent stands.  It will end when aid spending will the Government is no longer borrowing to fund day-to-day spending, and public sector net debt is falling as a percentage of GBP.

Furthermore, the decision about if and when those criteria have been met will be made not by the Chancellor himself, but by the Office of Budget Responsibility.

The Government is gambling on rushing a vote on the proposal through the Commons today, having tried to minimise its retreat by announcing its plan under the cover of yesterday evening’s Covid press conference.

The new policy hasn’t satisfied Andrew Mitchell, the author of the ARIA amendment, but Ministers aren’t straining to appease the former International Development Secretary, whose opposition to the cut is implacable.

Rather, their aim is to peel off enough backbench dissenters to get the policy through.  Much may turn on whether they believe that any reversion to 0.7 per cent will come fast enough: it might not happen for five years or so, though post-Covid growth could speed it.

Three main points arise from this new proposal. First, it emphasises how a majority of 80 won’t always be enough – and signals that, faced with enough opposition from its own MPs, the Government will fold, which sends a signal to seasoned critics and rebels.

If Ministers won’t defend a policy popular with most voters, how fast will they collapse when defending unpopular ones?  The second point is about Sunak himself.

His critics will say that he sought to play to the popular gallery without doing his Parliamentary sums.  His friends say that both he and the Foreign Secretary wanted to hold a vote earlier, before opposition to the 0.7 per cent cut gathered backbench pace.

Finally, the Chancellor is sending a signal about future public spending.  He is reminding Tory MPs that the Conservative manifesto didn’t only make big spending commitments, but also contained a framework for restraint.

When they point out that it promised big increases to find more doctors, police and nurses, he can fire back that it also pledged expenditure control.  Watch this space as the spending review looms into view.

A lesson from this tale is that manifesto promises matter.  We have no particular brief for keeping aid spending at 0.7 per cent, let alone putting that target into law – the driver of the Government’s undoing over its plan for a reduction.

But Ministers can’t break their commitments and expect no consequences.  ConHome is thinking of the pensions triple lock as we write.  And of much else.

The Prime Minister may be a “Brexity Hezza” whose instinct is to spend, spend, spend.  But the Chancellor must follow his incontinent horse with a dustpan and brush.  The Treasury never had much room for manoeuvre, and that space it has is vanishing.

England whose England?

12 Jul

For reasons that our readers won’t expect us to explain, there’s been debate during recent weeks about Englishness.  It has coincided with this Conservative Government announcing the intended removal of a constitutional safeguard for England that another Conservative Government introduced.

English votes for English laws was introduced by the Cameron Government after 2015, because it had been promised in the Tory election general manifesto of that year.  David Cameron felt a special obligation to implement EVEL, as it is called, because he had re-pledged it in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum of 2016 – under pressure from Conservative MPs.

They had objected to Cameron’s commitment, with the then leaders of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, under guidance from Gordon Brown, to “the vow”: that’s to say, to further devolution for Scotland without compensating action for England.

EVEL had also featured in the 2010 Conservative general election manifesto, but the exigencies of coalition had halted its delivery – and handed it over to a commission, chaired by Sir William McKay.  It concluded that Commons decisions with a “separate and distinct effect” for England should “normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs sitting for constituencies in England”.

Which returns us to the Cameron Government’s introduction of it in the form that now exists – a tortuous one, whereby the Speaker judges which parts of a Bill relate to England only (or to England and Wales; or to England, Wales and Northern Ireland), and the agreement of a Grand Committee is then required to those parts.

(The committee consists of English MPs only, in the first case; English and Welsh MPs in the second; and English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs in the last).

A Constitution Unit report, issued a year after EVEL’s introduction, suggested that it was no bad thing, in some respects, didn’t go far enough.  That at least is our reading of its conclusions, which rejected the main criticism that had been levelled at EVEL before its introduction – namely, that it would create two classes of MP.

“The question of whether EVEL has created two classes of MP is more a question of judgement than fact,” the report declared.  It went on to say that another complaint “has been less widely aired, but we believe deserves greater attention: that EVEL has so far failed to facilitate expression of England’s ‘voice’”.

“Given that EVEL has done little to facilitate the expression of English voice, we suggest that alternative mechanisms, outside the legislative process, should be considered – for example a cross-cutting English Affairs select committee”.

Michael Gove’s recent declaration that “it’s a fundamental principle that all constituent parts of the United Kingdom should be equally represented in Parliament” should be seen in the light of all the above – and, of course, in that of the development that has provoked it: the continuing threat of Scottish independence.

The heart of the matter is that the New Labour devolution settlement has weakened the constitution, and the Conservative Party swings first one way on its tightrope, and then the other, in an attempt to maintain a balance.  First, Tory MPs revolt, and EVEL is introduced to placate them; then, Scottish independence looms again, and the removal of EVEL is floated to appease Scottish public opinion.

The Scots voted by a substantial majority for devolution, and the present settlement is here to stay, at least for the moment – which makes any general election in which England returns a Conservative majority but the UK as a whole doesn’t potentially problematic.

Any attempt to correct the mess that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown created immediately raises the problem of the size of England.  An English Parliament would leave a huge tail wagging a diminished dog: in other words, a UK Parliament dealing largely with defence, foreign and security policy only; and a potential English First Minister who isn’t necessarily the Prime Minister.

That formula sounds more likely to speed the end of the Union rather than secure its future.  Labour’s solution in government was regional assemblies.  The North-East referendum buried that idea.  There is no evidence of public support for it.  For a solution, the Conservatives must look elsewhere.

We wrote above that devolution has weakened our constitutional settlement but, for all its enduring power and adaptability, it hasn’t been as strong as Tories seem to think it is for quite some time.

A unitary state is one thing; that state’s over-centralisation another.  One way in which Conservatives can think their way into the relative centralisation of Britain, compared to some of its European neighbours, is to ponder uniform benefit rates across the country as a whole.  Since living standards vary throughout the UK, shouldn’t benefits usually do so too?

But if there were to be more local variety in spending, wouldn’t local variety in taxation necessarily follow?  As a starter, why shouldn’t Ben Houchen, Andy Street and the other metro mayors be able to retain a share of say, airport passenger duty, vehicle excise duty, and of VAT?

More widely, it is impossible to believe that Whitehall knows better how to deliver better skills, net zero, industrial strategy, integrated transport or a mass of this Government’s aims than those closer to the ground do.

If England is to have a formal voice in Parliament, might it not best be heard in the Lords, in which representatives of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom could question, but not ultimately frusrate, the decisions of the Commons?  England’s representatives in such a dispensation would be senior figures from local government, whose mandate wouldn’t clash with that of MPs.

Elsewhere, the solution to the devolution problem doesn’t lie only with seizing power from above, so to speak – in the form of such initiatives as the United Kingdom Internal Market Act.  It lies also with seizing power from below.  For example, why shouldn’t Scottish councils to have the power to set business rates-free zones and rebuild local railways, as Douglas Ross has proposed?

Rather than lurch from one expedient to another – first introducing EVEL; then threatening it – the Government needs to apply a bit of strategic thinking to the constitution. We hope that the long-delayed levelling up White Paper may produce it.

If it doesn’t, there will be no localism worth the name; the danger to the unity of the United Kingdom is likely to grow rather than diminish, and England will be less well represented in our institutional arrangements than it should be.  And all that talk about Englishness will return to little effect next year, when the England football team faces the World Cup – and, God willing, no penalty shoot-outs.