Rob Sutton: Government needs advisers. But advisers need competition – not their present monopoly. As this pandemic has proved.

13 Dec

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

The combined effect of emergency measures which allow legislation to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, and a viral pandemic which requires the rapid interpretation of ever-changing and highly technical data, has exposed a troubling weakness at the heart of government: that our expert advisers, however talented and hard-working they might be as individuals, have left much to be desired.

This is not entirely due to the advisers themselves, but the internal structures and incentives which Number 10 relies upon to provide advice. Those organisations which Johnson’s administration turns to for expert opinion (SAGE, Public Health England, the Department of Health, and the Government Office for Science), hold effective monopolies within their own niches.

Despite the breadth of talent these groups pull from, and the impression of depth of available opinion, there is relatively little overlap of their briefs, and they are ultimately machines of consensus: built to produce a unified position, rather than competing proposals.

From a political communications perspective, this is ideal. Presenting a position drawn from the interpretation of ambiguous (and unstable) data as being scientific consensus gives some degree of protection from criticism.

Yet this is hardly a good approach to building policy. These problems, though longstanding, were dramatically exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the corresponding increase in the government’s reliance on expert advice. The natural monopoly of ideas held by these bodies of experts has led to a predictably narrow scope for policy debate.

This is a concern which has riled many in Parliament, who feel increasingly marginalised in favour of unelected experts who face no public scrutiny or internal competition. Steve Baker, ever the prolific organiser and influencer, has been among those leading calls for reform of expert advice in government, arguing that this should be addressed as a matter of priority in a letter to the Prime Minister.

A government which retreats from parliamentary scrutiny and has been defined by a vision of centralised control hardly encourages open discussion. Yet the importance of balancing contrasting advice has become, more than ever before, a critical requirement for effective policymaking. At the root of the problem is the question of what expert advisers should be doing. Is it their job to dispassionately report the available evidence? Or to interpret it in a broader societal and political context?

This uncertainty has been, in part, a problem of the Government’s own making. The unwavering fixation on the “following the science” assumes “the science” to be an immutable corpus of knowledge.

This is an untrue and unhelpful representation. The scientific method demands a narrow and well-defined hypothesis, from which it follows that any interpretation should have a narrow and well-defined applicability. To test that hypothesis, metrics will be proposed to observe and quantify the phenomenon under investigation.

These metrics, being a representation, not the phenomenon itself, moves us a degree away from reality (for instance, positive results does not mean number of infections; it is a proxy). Data analysis and statistical methods move us a further degree away, as does one’s ultimate interpretation of what, if anything, that analysis tells us.

The power of the scientific method is therefore also its weakness – that we get results with narrow applicability, have to apply human biases to interpret them and then apply those findings to real world situations, with all their intractable messiness.

Add predictive methods such as modelling, which are extremely sensitive to both initial parameters and the specific model used, and the problems are compounded. To assume that there is a single fountain of scientific knowledge from which the answers to all our policy queries must unambiguously flow is a political fiction. And it is designed, rather cynically, to place those answers beyond reproach from the scientific laity.

We therefore have two issues which combine to limit the effectiveness of expert advice in government: an exclusive inner circle of advisers who hold an effective monopoly on policy proposals (even to the exclusion of parliament itself), relying on research data which inevitably has a narrow scope of applicability and is subject to differing interpretations. Science can tell us much about the world as it is; it is a powerful means of answering “what,” but on questions of “should” it is silent.

Under normal conditions, Parliamentary scrutiny would serve as a means of tempering the most extreme of Government policy suggestions. But under the emergency legislation enacted in March, we no longer enjoy this luxury. This has exposed the fragility of the Government’s market on expert policy suggestions.

Without internally competitive processes to broaden the conversation and provide alternative options, there is a worrisome absence of incentives to encourage policymakers to stray from the consensus. With an effective monopoly on advice, there is little reason for ideas to be good, or even workable, as long as they are presented with an air of agreement.

This is the reason why interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary competition for policy proposals is so vital. Interdisciplinary competition would allow us to balance the public health implications of Covid-19 against broader considerations of, for instance, the economy and mental health. intradisciplinary competition would allow conflicting interpretations of data to be debated in a rigorous manner.

Yet capturing this kind of competition, which comes so naturally to the private sector, is notoriously difficult to embed within the public. There are ways this might be built into the current organisational structure. “Red teams,” groups whose primary purpose is to play devil’s advocate, and thereby exposing weaknesses and unforeseen complications would be a step in the right direction.

Baker and, ironically, Dominic Cummings (who has frequently been a source of frustration amongst those lamenting the Government’s overreliance on a small number of expert voices) are among those who have argued for their implementation.

There are few who would, I suspect, attempt to make the case that the expert advice this Government has so heavily relied upon during the Coronavirus pandemic has been an overwhelming success. But the current parliamentary term is young, and if reforms in the procurement of expert advice were implemented with determination, we should quickly see them paying off.

Rob Sutton: Kamala Harris is an uninspiring choice for Vice President

12 Aug

Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Former Vice president Joe Biden has announced Senator Kamala Harris will be his running mate for the November presidential election. Harris was previously in the running for the presidential nomination and will be the first woman of colour to run for Vice President on a major party’s ticket.

The choice comes as a surprise to no-one. Biden announced he would choose a woman months ago, and Harris has been a consistent favourite for betting markets and pundits. Photos of Biden’s notes at a campaign stop recently prompted further speculation that she would ultimately get the nod. Yet on closer inspection, the decision is at best uninspired, and at worst a liability.

A presidential nominee’s choice of VP is generally considered through a strategic lens. Members of the campaign team will ask how a potential nominee could aid the campaign by shoring up support in key states and target demographics. They should be a unifying force within the party. It is also helpful if they are a close ally of the presidential nominee and an effective campaigner themselves.

On none of these points in Harris an unqualified success. The state she represents, California, is a safe state for the Democrats, so her popularity there adds little. The question of demographic is more difficult. The nominee should be both popular and inspiring enough to get voters to turn out. It is often noted that Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 was a consequence of disinterested voters in key demographics not turning out to vote.

As a black woman, one might think that she is a natural choice to turn out two groups the Democrats will be targeting: women and black voters. Yet these were two groups which she failed to gain much momentum with during her run for the presidential nomination. Furthermore, these are two groups Biden is already performing well with. Women and black voters were key to his primary success. It is therefore not evident that she will be able to add much in delivering their votes.

Prominent black Democrats reportedly pushed hard for Biden to pick an African American woman. In a party which is increasingly shifting to left and defined by its activist elements, Harris is a potential liability. Her former career as a public prosecutor will not sit well with anti-police activists following the death of George Floyd. And the Leftists within the party would have preferred Elizabeth Warren. When your opponent is well versed in exploiting divisions, there is a real risk that Harris’ background will haunt her all the way up to November 3rd, and Trump has wasted no time going on the offensive.

Harris and Biden do not have a close relationship, and he reportedly clicked better with other potential candidates. Their exchanges during debates for the presidential nomination have been tense and memorable. Given her chaotic run, it is unlikely she will add organisational excellence for a veteran like Biden.

The decision to pick Harris is perhaps symptomatic of a broader trend within the Biden campaign. As a nominee, Biden is viewed as safe but does little to excite voters or activists. His decisions have seemed uncertain and slow – both his choice of VP and his announcement that he would be running came late. Harris might be a compromise candidate in an increasingly fractious Democratic party, but by perpetually taking the middle of the road, Biden risks isolating many and inspiring none.

Rob Sutton: Dame Barbara Woodward ­– An appointee who can test the limits of British influence at the UN

7 Aug

Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School. Andrew Gimson is away.

The UK’s Ambassador to China, Dame Barbara Woodward, has been announced as the next permanent representative to the United Nations in New York. Woodward is a career civil diplomat who has been at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) since 1994.

Her distinguished record includes five years in Moscow, as Second then First Secretary, Commercial and Political. She has served as Deputy Head of the Human Rights Policy Department of the FCO, International Director of the UK Border Agency and Director General, Economic and Consular of the FCO.

Despite a career path which seems quite typical of what would be expected of such a senior diplomatic appointment, the contrast with previous representatives is notable. Dame Karen Pierce, whom Woodward will take over from, worked in Japan, the USA, Ukraine, Belarus, Switzerland and Afghanistan. Before her, Matthew Rycroft spent much of his FCO career in Geneva, London, Paris and Washington.

The significance of Woodward’s experience relates to the body of the UN in which the UK bears the most influence – the Security Council. The Security Council contains 15 members, of which five are permanent: China, France, the USA, Russia, and the UK – the so-called ‘P5’.

The considerable influence of the P5 is due to their powers of veto for all Council resolutions. Thus, these nations are the key players around which Britain must skilfully manoeuvre.

How much Woodward will be able to achieve is of course constrained by the limitations of the UN itself, its lack of moral leadership and its inability to intervene on the most pressing international crises. For an organisation which positions itself as a leader of leaders, the failings of the UN during the most trying international crises reflect the difficulty of building and implementing consensus at a global level. The response to the coronavirus pandemic is just the latest in a long series of failures of leadership.

At the lofty heights of the P5, leadership could hardly be further from the ideals envisioned by Churchill and Roosevelt when they spearheaded the UN’s formation. Secretary-General António Guterres has also received fierce criticism for his toothless approach to challenging human rights violations.

Even amid such company, we have been timid where we should have been bold, and our future influence is in doubt. Britain has not used its veto since 1989. Since then, Russia, China and the USA have used it on a total of 45 times. We’re sitting at the grown-ups’ table, but we act as though we have no right to be.

By placing Woodward at the table, we can be assured that our representative will be completely comfortable with the competition. China is not a cultural mystery to her. Russia is no riddle wrapped in an enigma. Woodward understands the nuanced politics of our most serious rivals in the P5, and that experience is invaluable. Following her appointment, she spoke of joining the UN at “a time when the rules-based international system faces pressing global challenges”, so we might hope that she will speak out on the numerous egregious violations committed by these nations.

The challenge in shaping Britain’s role as an international player is due in large part to our antagonistic aims. Seeking trade deals across the globe becomes considerably more difficult when one seeks to also criticise these partners when they stray outside international law. So we could opt for business as usual. We could quietly talk Britain up in the back rooms and decline to use our veto or publicly criticise our rivals for fear of being exposed as a lesser force than we were in the immediate post-war years.

Or we could seize this opportunity. Woodward has the skill, experience and support to be a key voice as we seek a renewed national identity amidst a decaying rules-based international order. A respected, principled, and industrious diplomat who is unafraid to articulate the importance of an open society may go some way to helping the UN and the UK rediscover their moral authority.

Rob Sutton: Sir Philip Barton – a key player in Johnson’s quest for global Britain

5 Aug

Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Sir Philip Barton, the British High Commissioner to India, has been announced as the incoming Permanent Under-Secretary of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). He will take over from Sir Simon McDonald, who is stepping down at Johnson’s request, on September 1 and oversee the long-awaited merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID)

An FCO lifer, Barton will inherit complex internal dynamics and be vital to the success of Johnson’s mission to reshape Britain’s role on the world stage. He has been with the FCO since 1986, punctuated occasionally by secondments to the Cabinet Office. Early assignments included Caracas, Nicosia and Gibraltar, and he was Private Secretary to the Prime Minister under Major, then Blair.

From 2011 he was Deputy Head of Mission to the USA in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2016 he was High Commissioner to Pakistan, and he is currently serving as High Commissioner to India. He has been tested during political crises, as the Director General, Consular and Security at the time of the Salisbury poisonings and most recently as Director General of the Covid-19 Response at the Cabinet Office.

His appointment has thus far had a positive reception. Dominic Raab has called him an “outstanding public servant and diplomat” with “experience across all areas of foreign policy.” Sir Mark Sedwill said he “will bring to the role an understanding of overseas development funding together with experience of international relations.” Jeremy Hunt Tweeted that “he is one of the most thoughtful & diligent civil servants I worked with & carries great wisdom lightly.” Andrew Adonis described him as “an immensely able & experienced ambassador who is well equipped for the big challenge of heading the diplomatic service at this time of crisis.”

He is well-liked and trusted. It is important that he is perceived as a safe pair of hands and a natural choice within the civil service. With multiple high-profile civil servants stepping down since the 2019 general election, a controversial appointment to lead FCDO would have put No 10 on the back foot at a time when it should be looking to craft a positive vision for the future.

For Barton, the challenges are both internal and external. Within the FCDO, a new hierarchy must be built. Creating clear chains of command from two parallel organisations with competing interests will cause friction. Buzzwords like “coherence” and “integration” will seem premature if the new organisation is wrought with internal power struggles and turf wars. We should have some idea of Barton’s initial success by the end of September.

Long term, he will need to ensure the functions of the FCDO’s constituent departments can be executed. Tensions are an inevitability, and tailoring a unified mission will be difficult when commercial and political interests and poverty relief pull in different directions. All this as Britain seeks new trade deals across the globe and weighs its future relationship with Europe.

Barton appears to be an exceptionally good fit to take on these challenges. His background is less Eurocentric than his predecessors in the role. He looks away from Brussels and towards Commonwealth nations with whom Johnson will be eager to renew relationships.

His experiences will also help to ensure Britain continues to be a world leader in international development. Pakistan is one of the five biggest recipients of UK aid funding, and Barton’s time as High Commissioner will have given him a better understanding of the challenges of poverty relief than his peers appointed to industrialised European nations. This will go some way to settle the nerves of those who worry international development will be an afterthought for the new office.

Barton will take the helm at the FCDO at a time of internal upheaval and international uncertainty. His career path is typical enough to avoid controversy but his specific experiences may prove invaluable to performing the multiple tasks which his success will depend upon. The Government aims to complete the formation of FCDO by the end of September, so we will know soon enough whether he is up to the task.

Robert Sutton: Top Tories on Twitter. Case Study 5) Steve Baker

3 Jul

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Number 14 on the Top Tories on Twitter list: Steve Baker

A prominent Eurosceptic in a seat which narrowly voted to remain, Baker’s majority has fallen during recent elections. From a high of 28.9 per cent in 2015, it dropped to 7.7 per cent in 2019. But the verve with which he has pursued his cause has not eased, and he completed his second tenure as chairman of the European Research Group in February.

Baker previously held a junior ministerial position in the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) but resigned shortly after David Davis stepped down as Secretary of State.

During the Conservative leadership contest he briefly considered running and received some positive press, but ultimately threw his weight behind Boris Johnson. When offered the opportunity to return to DExEU as part of the Johnson government, he turned it down.

The backbenches suit him well, and he has used his prominent position to drive support for Johnson’s deal. An influential voice and well respected, Baker is highly principled, putting his beliefs ahead of short-term career opportunism. But his singular mission has failed to win over many of his constituents. He also needs to find a way to stay relevant as we move to the lengthy process of renegotiating our place in the world.

He balances his tweets between popular sentiment and nuanced discussions. He’ll certainly have plenty to discuss in the coming years, but it is uncertain whether he and other prominent Eurosceptic backbenchers will continue to wield the same clout. But given our unprecedented opportunity to reshape our role on the global stage, there will be plenty of time to craft a positive, unifying message.

Rob Sutton: Top Tories on Twitter. Case Study 4) Tom Tugendhat

2 Jul

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Number 13 on the Top Tories on Twitter list: Tom Tugendhat

A former lieutenant colonel in the Army with ten years’ service, Tugendhat entered Parliament in 2015 in the safe seat of Tonbridge and Malling. Since then the seat has become even darker blue, last year reaching a majority of 47.3 per cent.

Since arriving, his focus has been on committee work. In just over two years, he became the youngest ever chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. His approach is a long game, focused on areas which will increasingly dominate conversation in the decades to come: diplomatic tensions with the US; violations of international law by Russia; the uncertain future of multilateral organisations.

He has butted heads with Boris Johnson enough times that a ministerial career seems unlikely in the immediate future. He was critical of Parliament’s prorogation before the 2019 general election, wrote a scathing judgement of Johnson’s “suicide bomber” jibe at Theresa May, questioned the former Foreign Secretary’s approach to diplomacy and backed Michael Gove during the Conservative leadership election.

His position has given him the freedom to speak openly and with authority where those holding government portfolios must tread lightly. He can align his stances with popular discontent, particularly with regards to China.

In areas such as Huawei’s involvement in 5G infrastructure, Beijing’s role during the early Covid-19 outbreak, the citizenship status of British Nationals Overseas and historic human rights violations he has been outspoken. And he isn’t compromised by the diplomatic considerations of a government anxious to make friends outside of the EU.

Rob Sutton: Top Tories on Twitter. Case Study 3) Andrea Jenkyns

1 Jul

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Number 12 on the Top Tories on Twitter list: Andrea Jenkyns

Andrea Jenkyns has built her following on an unwavering pursuit of Brexit. Both her communications style and her parliamentary career have been shaped by an outspoken desire to take us out of the EU on terms which would impose minimum restrictions on a global Britain.

It’s a message which has served her well in her constituency where 60 per cent voted to leave the EU. A former councillor, she ousted Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood at the 2015 general election. The victory, on a thin majority of 422 (0.9 per cent), has since been cemented, growing to 11,267 (21.7 per cent) in 2019.

Her messaging style leaves voters with little doubt as to what they’re getting, but the lack of compromise has caused friction within the party. Jenkyns resigned from her early government role as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to focus on her work on the Exiting the European Union Committee.

The backbenches have suited her well. Without a Government post to dampen her attacks on Theresa May’s negotiation of a Brexit deal, she was a frequent and severe critic before it became commonplace. She has taken the place of Steve Baker (number 14 on this list) on the European Research Group following his promotion to Chair.

The challenge for her moving forward is twofold: to succeed within the party without ruffling too many feathers, and to maintain relevance when Brexit ultimately ceases to inspire public interest. Jenkyns is entirely willing to get into blue-on-blue scraps on Twitter, but it’s a costly approach which would be better directed at the opposition benches.

Regarding Brexit, she is likely to be a prominent voice as negotiations heat up towards December. But assuming a satisfactory agreement is ultimately reached, public interest will wane, and Jenkyns risks being left a rebel without a cause.

Rob Sutton: Top Tories on Twitter. Case Study 2) Johnny Mercer

30 Jun

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Number 11: Johnny Mercer

Mercer narrowly missed a spot in the top 10, and everyone ranked ahead of him is either a current or recent Secretary of State. For a Parliamentary Under-Secretary who has been in his first ministerial role for under a year, that’s an impressive achievement.

Before entering politics, Mercer did three tours of Afghanistan in the Army, retiring at the rank of captain. Unseating Labour’s Alison Seabeck in Plymouth Moor View at the 2015 general election, he has grown his parliamentary majority from just 2.4 per cent to 29.2 per cent.

His posts can be playful and self-effacing. When one of his campaign boards was vandalised with expletives, he took the opportunity to make a light-hearted video about it. His interactions with other members in the House feel more like office banter than the work of a national legislature.

They can also take a more serious tone. He entered Parliament as a man on a mission and is quite happy to ruffle some feathers along the way. He recently shared a scathing attack on Alastair Campbell. A post mocking Jeremy Corbyn received almost 20,000 likes. A fight with local newspaper the Plymouth Herald went viral. And a confrontation with a constituent who had allegedly spat at a young female Conservative campaigner is one of his most popular posts.

This skill in picking battles has carried over into his parliamentary career. He withdrew his support for Theresa May late during her tenure and was an early backer of Boris Johnson’s leadership bid. This loyalty translated into his first ministerial appointment,

Mercer has seen his political clout and parliamentary majority grow steadily in just five years. It seems entirely possible that he’ll be a Secretary of State five years from now.

Robert Sutton: Top Tories on Twitter. Case Study 1) Rishi Sunak

29 Jun

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

It seems unsurprising that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has done well in the rankings. He is behind only Boris Johnson and Theresa May, and given his emergence as a leading figure in the Government’s coronavirus response (Matt Hancock has also done well, ranked five), the ranking seems a fair recognition of his prominence.

He is a long way ahead of his most recent predecessor, Sajid Javid (ranked 8), and despite Jacob Rees-Mogg having almost 60,000 more followers, Sunak ranks a place ahead of him. This is a reflection of the speed of Sunak’s ascent, having only been in Parliament since 2015, half the time as Rees-Mogg.

Highly-respected within the party, Sunak is a stylish figure with a talent for managing the optics of his job. A consistently solid performer during the Covid-19 daily briefings, he laid out the Government’s economic response to the crisis with a confidence and reassurance which has calmed the public and financial markets.

He has worked hard to develop his social media brand, hiring a talented media special adviser, Cass Horowitz, to help craft his image and achieve broader engagement. He balances seriousness with an ease which many of his older and greyer colleagues lack.

He can be light-hearted when necessary and is able to engage in a manner few previous Chancellors have shown. Even when his attempts backfire (see the “Yorkshire tea” fiasco) they generate discussion and media interest.

The challenge for Sunak will be whether he can carry over his current popularity in a post-coronavirus Treasury. His ascent has been so quick that he had relatively little time to make enemies. It remains to be seen whether this will continue as he is inevitably forced to tighten the purse strings.

Rob Sutton: Introducing the top 50 Conservative MPs on Twitter

29 Jun

Conservative MP Twitter power rankings: the top 50

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Amongst the social media giants, Twitter is the primary battleground for political discourse. It’s also one of the key avenues by which MPs convey their message, and has near-universal uptake by members in the current House of Commons.

The effectiveness with which Twitter is utilised varies considerably between MPs, but it is difficult to compare like-for-like. How does one take into account the differences between, for instance, a freshman MP and a veteran Cabinet member? Length of service in Parliament and ministerial rank give a considerable advantage when building a following.

In this article, I have compiled a power ranking of MPs in the current Parliament, with the top 50 shown in the chart above. The MP’s follower count was adjusted by factoring in their previous experience, to better reflect the strength of their following and their success at engagement on the platform.

Being Twitter-savvy is about more than just a high follower count: any Secretary of State can achieve this just by virtue of the media exposure their office brings. Building a Twitter following based on thoughtful commentary and authentic engagement requires skill ,and can be achieved by members across all Parliamentary intakes and ranks of Government.

Though the top 10 is still dominated by MPs holding senior ministerial offices, the composition of the list beyond it is far more variable. A number of prominent backbenchers are in the top 20, and four members from the 2019 intake make the top 50, beating longer-serving and higher-ranked colleagues.

I hope that this list serves as recognition of the skill and contribution by Conservative members to public debate and engagement, beyond ministerial duties which so often dominate any mention in the media.

Building a model of Twitter power rankings

Success is judged by number of followers, with higher follower counts indicating greater influence on Twitter. The follower count was adjusted using three key parameters:

  • The number of years since an MP was first elected to Parliament.
  • The number of years the MP’s Twitter account has been active.
  • Their highest rank within Government achieved since 2010.

Higher values for each of these would be expected to contribute to a higher follower count. I built a model using the open-source Scikit-Learn package, and fitted it to data from the current Parliament.

The model was then used to predict how many followers a given MP might expect to have based on these three factors. The steps taken to produce a final “Twitter power score” were thus as follows:

  • Using these three factors, multiple linear regression was used to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers an MP might have.
  • Their true follower count was divided by the expected follower count to produce a single number which represented the MP’s performance at building a following.
  • Finally, a logarithm was taken of this ratio to make the number more manageable and to produce a final Twitter power score.

The final step of taking a logarithm means it is easier to compare between MPs without those who have very high follower counts (such as Boris Johnson) making the data difficult to compare, but it does not affect the order of the ranking.

Compiling the data

Having decided which factors to correct the model for, I collected the required information. All three factors were easy to find reliable sources for. The Twitter page for each MP displays the date the account was created, and the Parliamentary website provides the date of their first election to Parliament and previous government posts.

Members who are newly returned to the backbenches following governmental duties (such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt) are scored at their highest government rank since 2010 to recognise this. I was able to find the Twitter accounts and required information for 319 Conservative MPs who were included in this ranking.

To build a model based on this data required incorporating the highest government rank numerically. To do this, I assigned scores according to their rank. These grades recognised their relative seniority and media exposure associated with the office, with higher scores assigned to more senior positions:

  • Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State, Speakers, Leaders of the House and Chief Whips are scored 3.
  • Ministers of State, Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chief Whips are scored 1.
    Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Whips are scored 0.5.
  • Backbenchers score 0.

When assigning these values, I considered the typical sizes of follower counts of MPs in each category. When comparing Secretaries of States to Ministers of State, the median follower count is around twice the size, but the mean follower count is around eight times the size, as a handful of very large follower count skews the results upwards.

Deciding on weightings requires a (somewhat arbitrary) decision as to which measures to use when comparing between groups, and the scores I decided on were ultimately chosen as a compromise across these different measures, which produced stable results when used in the model.

It is also worth explaining why Prime Ministers are grouped with Secretaries of State, despite the far higher media exposure and seniority of their post. When deciding on the respective weighting for different levels of government post, a sufficiently large pool of MPs was needed to produce a meaningful comparison. The only data points for comparison of Prime Ministers are Boris Johnson and Theresa May, so it is difficult to give them their own weighting without it being either unreliable or arbitrary.

While grouping them with Secretaries of State and other senior positions might be perceived as giving them an unfair advantage in the weighting, I felt it justified given these challenges in determining the “fair” weight to assign them. With this done, I had three parameters for each MP on which to build a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers.

Calculating the number of expected Twitter followers

I built a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers using the Scikit-Learn, a popular machine learning package in the Python programming language. The model used multiple linear regression to fit the input parameters to the known follower count.

The input data was prepared by removing extreme high outliers in the data which skewed the fit toward high numbers and away from the vast majority of MPs before fitting. Once fitted, an “expected value” of Twitter followers could be calculated for each MP, based on the year of their first election to parliament, the number of years on Twitter and their highest government rank since 2010.

Including more parameters increases the ability of the model to describe the difference between MPs’ follower counts (the variability). By increasing the number of input variables included in the model, more of the variability is captured:

  • One variable captures between 20.3 per cent and 36.1 per cent of the variability.
  • Two variables capture between 39.1 per cent and 43.1 per cent of the variability.
  • All three variables capture 48.7 per cent of the variability.

These three variables are therefore responsible for almost half of the variation between MPs in their follower counts. The remainder of the variability is likely due to a range of factors which the model does not include, of which the MP’s Twitter-savviness is of particular interest to us. I discuss these factors further below.

Limitations in the model

There are multiple other parameters which could be included in future iterations which I did not include in this model. In particular:

  • Membership or Chairmanship of Select Committees.
  • Previous election to a council, assembly, devolved legislature or the European Parliament.
  • Membership of the Privy Council.
  • Government positions prior to 2010.
  • Prominent positions within the Conservative Party, such as the 1922 Committee or European Research Group.
  • Twitter-savviness and effectiveness of their comms team.

Another limitation was not accounting for the perceived relative importance of various governmental departments: a Great Office of State or Prime Minister is scored the same as any other Secretary of State. The difficulties involved in ranking governmental departments were beyond this first model. The length of service in a given government post was also not considered.

Finally, the choice of model to fit the data may not be the optimal choice. Multiple linear regression assumes, per the name, that the distribution is linear. But the large outliers might be better described by a power law or Pareto distribution, or the non-linearities of a neural network.

During next week, ConservativeHome will produce profiles of six individual MPs who have performed notably well in the power rankings, and who reflect the contributions brought by members beyond their ministerial duties, if they have any.