Our survey. Eight in ten Party members expect the Conservatives to hold office after the next election.

10 Oct

That’s 83 per cent of the total: 67 per cent currently expecting a Conservative Government, ten per cent a minority Tory government and six per cent a Conservative-led Coalition.

Here is the combined figure for each month of the year to date:

  • August: 86 per cent
  • July: 86 per cent.
  • June: 91 per cent.
  • May: 91 per cent.
  • April: 87 per cent.
  • March: 90 per cent.
  • February: 87 per cent.
  • January: 83 per cent.

Churchill, walking with destiny. Johnson, winking at destiny.

6 Oct

Never underestimate most people’s lack of interest in politics – as practised at Westminster, anyway.  Here at ConservativeHome, we’re obsessed by it.  Our readers are at the very least interested in it.  So it’s sometimes an effort to remember that most of Britain is Rhett Butler: “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

But now and again, a politician breaks through the cloud of unknowing and becomes a Given, a Fact – like the weather.  Modern Britain has seen three.  The first was Margaret Thatcher.  The second, Tony Blair.  The third, Boris Johnson.

Each vanished inside themselves and returned as an icon.  Thatcher was embraced first hesitantly, then decisively, as embodying the end of a clapped-out post-war settlement.  She became, with apologies to Dominic Raab and the gang, Britannia Unchained.

Blair was the beneficiary of revulsion at Conservatives who had run out of steam, and he projected an archetype of the age: of youthful, ideology-light, transformative leadership – a standard model in the west since J.F.Kennedy.

The Prime Minister has a smaller majority than either (though at 80-plus it is perfectly satisfactory) but a bigger inheritance: indeed, nothing is ever more likely to become him like his victory of almost two years ago.

After inheriting a broken party on nine per cent of the vote, expelling a swathe of his senior MPs, falling into an even bigger Parliamentary minority, wrangling with the judges and somehow gaining an election, Johnson won it and delivered Brexit.

This was more fundamental break with the recent past than Blair’s or even Thatcher’s.  So if Thatcher was Britannia and Blair Kennedy, who is the Prime Minister?

We won’t for a moment waste our time and yours by probing what he passed off yesterday as a speech.  Insofar as it was one, its content was levelling up – a traditional Tory idea of a One Nationish kind, to be achieved by electic mayoral methods: more Blair than Thatcher.

No, what Johnson did yesterday was less to make a speech than paint a picture: “generally funkapolitan party”…”my chestnuts out of Tartarean pit”…”chewed his pensive quill”…”raucus squaukus from the anti-AUKUS caucus”…“reprendre le control”…

“Build Back Beaver…the greatest Frost since the great frost of 1709…fibre-optic vermicelli…66,000 sausages aboard…”aquatic forest of white turbines”… “if you can steal a dog or cat there is frankly no limit to your depravity”…

This is what he has been doing all the way from his stint as the Daily Telegraph‘s Brussels correspondent (“Brussels bureaucrats have shown their legendary attention to detail by rejecting new specifications for condom dimensions”) to the premiership.

This is less a real though dead American president than another great and imaginary British archetype, but with a twist: Boris Johnson is John Bull with his trousers down.  Or should that be Winston Churchill?

Johnson, after all, has written a light but vivid book about the great Conservative and Liberal.  Perhaps it is impertinent or, worse, simply wrong to seek comparisons between the psychology of the two.

But we think there’s something in it, and the temptation is irresitible.  In his essay on Churchill and his “Black Dog” – i.e: his depression – Anthony Storr zeroes in on the former Prime Minister’s paintings.

“I must say, I like bright colours.  When I get to heaven…I shall require a still gayer palette than I get here below…there will be a whole range of wonderful new colours that will delight the celestial eye,” Churchill himself wrote.

Storr goes on to write that “in psycho-analytical jargon, this is manic defence.  The counterpart to the gloomy, subfusc world of the depressive is a realm of perpetual excitement and action, in which colours are richer and brighter…

…gallant deeds are accomplished by heroes, and ideas expressed in language replete with simile, ornamented with epithet, and sparkling with mellifluous turns of phrase.”

We can’t help but find parallels in the life of Churchill’s successor, who could himself produce striking doodles during Telegraph editorial conferences, and is the child of two artists.

One, in words (Stanley Johnson won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry at Oxford); the other, on canvas.  Charlotte Johnson Wahl‘s struggle with depression and OCD is well known enough not to need repetition.

“That’s the trouble with Anthony—half mad baronet, half beautiful woman”, Rab Butler said of Eden, whose mother was a beautiful woman and whose father was, well, you get it.

There is a lot more to the Prime Minister, or to anyone else, than being half each of both parents, but we think that there is something in it – and that, whether so or not, many people want nothing more than being cheered up.  Which Johnson does in spades.

All this is a long way from Italian condoms, let alone levelling up and Johnson’s speech today, but it may offer a surer guide to his success.  At any rate, his connection to the unpoliticised – his being a Fact and a Given – leaves the next election his to lose.

The Conservatives are on their fourth term in government, but neither David Cameron nor Theresa May won a solid Tory majority.  That Johnson did so two years ago made the Manchester Conference feel like that of a governing party for the first time since 2010.

In other words, Brexit has given him a first term, rather than a Conservative fourth one, and he still leads in the polls despite Covid, shortages, Chesham & Amersham, the Northern Ireland Protocol, the endless redefinings of levelling up – much, really.

Yet what would embarrass another leader somehow washes over him.  Take the absurd spectacle of the most important woman in his private life, Carrie Johnson, speaking at a conference reception co-hosted by Stonewall…

…Which the most important woman in his public one, Liz Truss, has slated – urging government to pull out of its employment scheme.  And, yes, the Foreign Secretary was actually there at the event.

“Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman wrote.  “Very well then I contract myself…I am large, I contain multitudes.”  He might have been summing the Prime Minister up in a couple of sentences.

The time may come when the show stops going on because the audience has had enough.  Most governments are felled by the question: “where’s the delivery?”  Somewhere in their second term, they usually run out of steam, and luck too.

Johnson’s great-grandfather, a liberal Turkish politician and journalist, was strung up by a group of paramilitary officers – in legend, a mob.  We’ve sometimes wondered if the Prime Minister will meet an end less bloody but no less dramatic.

The more those failed Remainers rage at him, the more he laughs, as he winds them up like a watch.  His hold on his party is brutal.  But one day, the worm – sorry those backbenchers – may turn.

And the British people will have had enough of this Given and Fact, whose authority comes partly from being a known quantity.  As this site has written for two days running and now writes for a third, the state is too big, taxes too high and levelling up too inchoate.

But for the moment, he is in pole position and poll position – shortages, price rises, queues and all.  “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial,” Churchill wrote as he entered Downing Street in 1940.  Where he walked with destiny, Johnson winks at it.

A tale of two conferences – and the start of overdue debate about our economic future

6 Oct

The auditorium used in Manchester for this Conservative Conference has been shrunk.  The organisers have abandoned any pretence of preserving the big spaces of old, exemplified by the rococo splendour of Blackpool Winter Gardens.  The change is a visual metaphor for the event.

That Priti Patel won a standing ovation yesterday illustrated the nature of the change.  The Home Secretary is languishing near the bottom of our Cabinet League Table.  So either it is unrepresentative of activists (here’s why we think not), or else something else is going on.  We think that the something else is that only the most committed Party members sit through the speeches.

The others can scarcely be blamed.  Dominic Raab pledged to overhaul the Human Rights Act; Patel promised to stop the channel boats.  But the surest route to the latter isn’t the former.  It would be leaving the European Convention of Human Rights – and, even with the Government in confrontational mode over the Northern Ireland Protocol, this looks very unlikely to happen.

For the Convention is written into the Belfast Agreement, and a central part of Ministers’ case against the Protocol is that its operations have turned out to be inconsistent with the Agreement, which is to be prized.  So the law and order section of the Conference was illustrative of the lack of significant announcements.

Rishi Sunak’s £500 million to support work in the wake of furlough was perhaps an exception (though how will it be funded)?  And Boris Johnson himself may go today where his Cabinet may not.  But this has fundamentally been a news-free conference, and so one in which Ministers have been free to chant their lines undisturbed, amidst a mass of people happy to be out of lockdown and meeting again.

The Prime Minister himself is king of this reunion at which nothing much so far has happened, uncontested ruler of his party, and owner for the moment of the political landscape.

At Westminster and amidst his party, he has looked better placed since the Chancellor saw off the revolt over the 0.7 per cent cut.  During this conference season, Keir Starmer has failed to cut through in the polls, and Labour’s recovery looks like a work in progress.  Johnson is set, as matters stand, for a second term.

But if what’s taken place in conference auditorium has been bland, the action on the fringe has been as lively as ever.  How many of the participants have been corporates and how many members have been activists is difficult to say.  But the Think Tent helped to keep the sharp end of debate up, and members were present in numbers at our own events.

Their belief in Brexit may be fervent, but their flavour is mild – more Cameron-era, one might have thought, than Johnson-flavoured.  Perhaps most of the harder-lined members don’t bother to come to the conference at all.  But these softer-edged ones are no walkover, nonetheless.

Put plainly, no-one much here in Manchester is swallowing the suggestion, implied by the Prime Minister’s framing of debate, that lower migration will in itself deliver higher wages – not sustainably, at any rate.  A big debate is beginning about the future of the British economy, as it becomes evident that some of the changes we’re seeing are features of this post-Brexit, post-Covid age.

Will higher wages be eaten up by higher prices?  Will interest rates rise substantially for the first time in a generation?  How big would the increase in unemployment then be?  Or will productivity gains come to rescue us?  But how likely are they to do so when taxes as a percentage of GDP are forecast to rise to their highest level since the early 1950s, and the state is bigger than at any time since 1946?

Britain has changed much since the 1970s, but these questions are substantially the same as then.  If many voters aren’t asking them yet, that’s because higher inflation and rates are, for a mass of middle-aged and younger ones, outside their adult experience.

If and when that changes, the political backdrop will change too.  This conference has seen an absence of announcements but the presence of debate, outside it as well as inside.  Which we read as a sign of hope.

Peter Franklin: Ten reasons why Labour isn’t dead yet

27 Sep

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

Here’s something to cheer up the gloomiest Tory: the Labour Party.

Out of power for eleven years and counting. Four general election defeats in a row. The loss of Scotland in 2015. The loss of the Red Wall in 2019. The loss of Hartlepool in 2021 (in a by-election, to a fourth-term Tory government).

This year’s party conference was a chance for a fresh start. But, so far, it’s been a disaster — featuring a 12,500 word “essay” that nobody read; an absurd statement on female anatomy; and a watered-down attempt to change the party rules on leadership elections.

That last one sums up the futility of last eleven years. Since 2010, Labour has elected three leaders. The third leader is using up his political capital on trying to reverse the first leader’s biggest mistake in the hope that no one like the second leader is ever elected again.

If Conservatives don’t take the Labour Party seriously, one can hardly blame them. And yet that could prove to be a big mistake. Labour is a much stronger foe than immediate appearances suggest.

Here are ten reasons why:

1) An irreducible core of support

I’m old enough to remember when the Conservative Party was in the same position that Labour is today. In fact from 1997 to 2005 we had 40 fewer seats than Labour’s current tally. At the time there were those who pronounced the party’s decline to be irreversible. And yet, even at the lowest ebb, the Tories never lost their major party status. There was an irreducible core of Conservative support (roughly 30 per cent of the electorate) and a heartland that held out against Tony Blair.

The same is true of Labour in 2021. The Red Wall may have fallen, but there are other red walls — the big cities, the Welsh Valleys and a sprinkling of university towns. These are still standing.

2) A plausible Prime Minister

I used to think that Keir Starmer was a poor leader of the Labour Party, but a good Leader of the Opposition. However, I’ve now seen enough his performances to convince me he’s bad at both.

He is, in the words of Ruth Davidson, “a dud” — except, that is, for one redeeming quality: you could imagine him in the role of Prime Minister. I mean that literally. If he was an actor and British politics a TV drama (yes, yes, same difference) — then one could plausibly cast him as the leader of his country.

The same could never have been said of Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn. So in that respect Labour’s taken a big step forward.

3) The German model

Of course, plausibility isn’t the same thing as popularity. And Starmer certainly doesn’t have the latter. But then neither did his German opposite number, Olaf Scholz — also a dull social democrat. And yet over the course of the German general election campaign he emerged as the voters’ favourite to succeed Angela Merkel.

Scholz didn’t receive a charisma transplant, he just stood out as the best of bad bunch. Admittedly that’s not the most vaulting of ambitions for Starmer, but sometimes it’s all you need.

4) Time for a change?

Tories don’t have to buy into theories of a centre-left revival to view the Germany result with concern. They just have to remember that, eventually, voters get fed up with having the same old party in power. After 16 years of CDU-led governments, it’s clear that German voters wanted something different.

By the time of the next British general election, we’ll have had 13 or 14 years of Tory-led government. If British voters decide time’s up, then the only alternative to a Conservative Prime Minister is a Labour Prime Minister.

5) A reservoir of potential voters

According to the polls, Labour is still stuck in the low-to-mid-thirties. That’s not enough. So where do the extra votes come from?

Well don’t forget the other parties of the centre-left. Between them, the Lib Dems and the Greens have got nearly 20 per cent in the polls. If Labour can squeeze that — especially in marginal seats where they’re best placed to win — then they’re back in business.

6) Brexit fade

And there’s another potential source of votes: people who voted Labour as recently as 2017, but who broke with the party over Brexit.

But how long will the Brexit effect last? Five years, ten years, a generation? Or is it already fading away? We just don’t know because we’ve never been here before.

I suspect that the only permanent loyalty among Red Wall voters is to not being taken for granted. Best not to let them down, then.

7) The spectre of 2017

One doesn’t have to speculate about Labour consolidating the left-leaning vote, because it’s happened once already.

I know that everyone except the Corbynites would rather forget, but in 2017 Labour won 40 per cent of the vote.

Can we be sure that there’s no potential for a second consolidation? Yes, it’s a nightmare scenario — but sometimes nightmares come true.

8) Coalition partners

Labour’s own nightmare is that’s they’ll never win a majority again. However, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to form a government. In fact, in the event of hung parliament, Labour now has an overwhelming advantage over the Conservatives.

Of the parties currently represented in the Commons, potential partners for Labour include any or all of the following: the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, the SDLP, the Alliance and (perhaps) the DUP.

How many of those would conceivably join a Conservative-led coalition (or prop up a minority government)? Well, after Ed Davey’s announcement last week, just the DUP — and they’re in decline.

So let’s be clear about this: an inconclusive election result almost certainly means a Labour-led government.

9) A new leader

Even if there’s no repeat of the 2017 scenario, there is another precedent to watch out for — 1994. That was the last time that Labour got tired of losing — and chose an electable leader.

But does Labour today have the equivalent of a Tony Blair? It does, and his name is Dan Jarvis — a political moderate, a former British Army officer and an MP for a northern seat. A sane Labour Party would have elected him leader five years ago, but a fifth successive general election might just bring them to their senses.

Jarvis has been in semi-exile from Westminster politics, serving as Mayor of the South Yorkshire metro region since 2018. Significantly, he’s now stepping down from that role. Perhaps, he’s got his eye on another position?

10) The coming red wave

Finally, let’s look far beyond the next general election — which we can do by looking at generational voting patterns.

It’s an over-simplification to say that old people vote Conservative and young people vote Labour — but it’s never been closer to the truth than it is today.

Of course, a pensioner’s vote is every bit as valid as anybody else’s – but that doesn’t just change the fact that the Grim Reaper is on Labour’s side.

One might hope that younger voters will turn Tory as they mature, but why would they if we continue to exclude them from home ownership? If we fail to turn that around, then Labour’s future looks a lot brighter than its present.

Bim Afolami: After the reshuffle, back to the future – NHS queues, rising energy bills, and higher prices

20 Sep

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

As the Prime Minister said at Cabinet on Friday morning, it is “half time” in this Parliament. We have two more years to deliver on our election pledges before shaping up for the next election. Covid has basically taken up the vast majority of this Parliament so far, not only preventing us from focusing on our wider domestic agenda (though, very importantly, we have delivered Brexit), but also creating new problems, such as lan extra £350 billion in public debt and huge NHS waiting lists.

By two years from now, levelling -p needs to be noticed on the ground, people need more money in their pockets, and public services need to be consistently improving. Is this going to be straightforward to deliver? In a word, no.

The Government reshuffle was a significant start on moving forwards. Much has rightly been made of the importance of Michael Gove’s new beefed-up MHCLG – now LUHC: the department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – with responsibility for housing, local government, devolution and the Union.

Education has severe challenges, from the difficulties of our exam system to the need to rebalance public spending from our universities towards the further education sector. Both Michael Gove (LUHC Secretary) and Nadhim Zahawi (Education Secretary) are extremely capable, with very good new junior ministers in their departments – in particular Neil O’Brien in LUHC and Alex Burghart in Education. But the stakes are high. If these departments fail over the next two years, the Government will fail too. We don’t have long to start delivering.

However, the most important domestic department for the next two years is the Department of Health. The public has gradually grown to trust us with the NHS, ignoring the propaganda from the Labour Party and the doctors’ and nurses’ unions. The most significant aspect of the Health and Social Care Levy which passed the Commons last week was the implicit realisation that the political risk of potential NHS failure is even worse than the risk of being seen as a Conservative Party who broke a manifesto commitment not to raise taxes. (Even though a pandemic was not in the manifesto!)

The NHS’s problems are of acute public and political importance. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of people waiting for NHS treatment in England has grown by a fifth. Some 5.3 million people were waiting for treatment in May 2021, up from 4.4 million in February 2020. There has been a particularly sharp increase in the number of people waiting for longer than a year.

Yet the number of people on the waiting list is expected to rise much further. Sajid Javid has warned that it is ‘going to get a lot worse before it gets better’, and could grow to 13 million.

The challenge here is monumental, and the department is also pushing through the Health and Care bill, which it seeks to remove barriers to integrating services to improve health outcomes and reduce health inequalities.

On top of all of this, we are not fully out of the woods on Covid yet, and doctors warn of a difficult winter with significant flu and RSV cases. This is a Department that may hold the fate of the Government in its hands.

The economy is facing its own headwinds too. Yes, we are bouncing back after Covid – according to the International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook report, the UK economy will expand seven per cent this year, a sharp increase from the 5.3 per cent predicted in the Fund’s previous report in April. This is fastest in the G7.

However, the ghost of inflation past stalks us. I wrote about this here (in June, and worries about rising prices and costs of living are growing. One key aspect of inflation is energy prices, especially in the winter. Household energy bills are to rise after prices on the UK’s wholesale electricity market soared to a record high last month. The average market price reached £107.50/MWh – up 14 per cent on July, and well above the previous record of £96/MWh recorded in the run-up to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Last month, the industry regulator Ofgem announced it would lift the maximum price cap on energy deals by more than 12 per cent, after a sharp rise in the market price for gas and electricity. This increase is driven by a rise of over 50 per cent in energy costs over the last six months, with gas prices hitting a record high as the world emerges from lockdown. Coupled with rapidly rising costs for many foodstuffs, cars, and consumer goods (largely due to a combination of global macroeconomic factors), it is likely that most voters will feel a real pinch this autumn.

The Just About Managings (remember them!) will have a much tougher time. This will be especially the case if the Bank of England seeks to spike the rise in inflation in the coming months with a rise in interest rates (though at the moment I think this is unlikely). Shortages of certain foods and other key goods, largely due to damaged supply chains after Covid and not enough HGV drivers, are growing in the short term. This not only likely to put up prices, but also become a very visible and real problem for ordinary people who just go about their daily lives without thinking much about politics: i.e. most voters. This will come at political cost, particularly if the press builds up public anxiety about Christmas shopping which leads to a degree of stockpiling.

The difficulties with rising prices and energy bills will coincide with the much awaited Net Zero strategy (expected in mid-October) followed by COP26 in November. The net zero strategy will have to answer the knottiest questions on the environmental agenda such as: how are we going to replace boilers in millions of homes or better insulate buildings? How are we going to manage the shift away from petrol and diesel cars?

Whilst I am confident that there are huge economic opportunities over the medium term, in the short term there will be certain costs. Though these costs are a necessary part of implementing this critically important task of getting to net zero, being seen to impose greater costs at a time of rising prices will be politically challenging.

The next year brings rising prices, higher energy bills, and NHS difficulties. This will not be an easy atmosphere for the Government, and the Party, to operate in.

Never mind CCTV. A sign should greet Javid in his new office. Saying “Welcome to Hell”.

27 Jun

Some of Sajid Javid’s friends wanted him to return to the Government as Education Secretary.  This might have suited the meritocratic campaigner, whose leadership election pitch was: “I’m in this race because I want to level the playing field, to lower the ladder to everyone”.  And who also has a big interest in skills.

Others believed that he could come back as Foreign Secretary, thus completing an all-Asian line-up in the three great offices of state: Rishi Sunak at the Treasury, Priti Patel at the Home Office…and Javid.  It is just the sort of “eye-catching initiative” that might have found favour in Downing Street.

We wondered if a lower key, lower drama return might come at Work and Pensions, where Javid’s numeracy and Treasury experience would come in useful.  At any rate, there was no shortage of options for slotting The Saj back in – always likely, given the departure of Dominic Cummings, who doesn’t rate him, and the presence of Carrie Symonds, his former Special Adviser.

What neither he nor Boris Johnson may have anticipated was a recall to Health – a move necessitated by Matt Hancock’s defenestration, and the Prime Minister’s determination to keep Cabinet changes to a minimum.

Javid is becoming the John Reid of the Conservative Party, having now served at Cabinet level in the Treasury, the Home Office, the Business Department, Housing and Culture: the man one calls upon to fill a gap or fix a problem.

However, nothing will have prepared him for what he is about to experience.  The CCTV camera that doomed Matt Hancock has apparently been dismantled.  But never mind secret tape in the office – never likely to be a problem, in any event, for this most uxorious of politicians.  Rather, the new Health Secretary should be greeted by a three-word warning sign: “Welcome to Hell”.

Consider the challenges that confront him.

Housing produced the Grenfell horror; the Home Office, Shamima Begum; Business, Tata Steel.  All were one-offs – the equivalent of a jab with a sharpened stick.  The health job, by contrast, brings with it persistent pressure: like being squeezed tight by the coils of a giant python.

First of all, Javid has to establish a position on Covid.  His early hope that restrictions will be lifted “as soon and as quickly as possible” seems immediately to have been gutted by his department.

The odds are that the remaining elements of lockdown will end on July 19, only for pressure for shutdown to return in the autumn as Coronavirus and flu cases climb.  The new Health Secretary’s first task will be to get to grips with the issues.

But it’s after Covid that his problems really begin.  Whether or not Boris Johnson makes an early dash to the polls in the autumn of 2023, health is likely to dominate headlines in 2022, with over five million people waiting for treatment.  Labour won’t be able to help themselves trying to frame the next election as “a referendum on the NHS”.

Javid will find himself on the Today progamme, in the Commons, on the airwaves and in front of Andrew Marr on a regular rather than an occasional basis.  Even in his varied career, he won’t have experienced anything like it.  But making the case for the Conservative record on the NHS will be only the start of the new Health Secretary’s labours.

Read Robert Ede and Sean Philips’ recent piece on this site. (“The Government faces an election run-up monopolised by reports of NHS waiting times and delays”).  As if grappling with the Covid backlog were not enough, Javid faces no fewer than four other major policy challenges, at least three of which require legislation.

First, there is the plan to split up Public Health England into two new bodies – the UK Health Security Agency and the Office for Health Promotion.

Next, there is reform of the Mental Health Act, which will require a draft bill.

Penultimately, there is the NHS and Care Bill, due in this session, which “will provide the framework for a more integrated and joined-up healthcare system in England”.

And finally, there are the Government’s proposals for social care, whenever they emerge.

The third has the potential to rock Javid’s boat and the fourth to wreck it.  Competition and co-operation are the two main drivers of healthcare policy.  And there has been an apostolic succession of competition-based policy from Ken Clarke’s GP fundholding, through Alan Milburn’s partnership with private health care to create new capacity, to Andrew Lansley’s batttered reforms.

The right-wing think tanks will kick back against any attempt to water down competition, and there may be rumbling on the Conservative backbenches.  But if most Tory MPs are onside, as they can reasonably be expected to be, Javid can take opposition on the chin.

Social care is a horse of a different colour.  In opposition, Cameron’s Conservatives wrecked Labour’s potential reforms by labelling them a “death tax”.  In Government, Theresa May’s unprepared, unfloated policy did more than any other to lose her seats in 2017.

On the downside, Javid has no background in a health-related departments.  His recent areas of interests have included the economy after Covid, drawing on his Treasury experience; reducing child sexual abuse; raising the minimum marriage age to 18, and rough sleeping (see his ConservativeHome piece).

The last two campaigns were closely related to his experience at Housing, Communities and Local Government, and its to his credit that he kept going on both.

On the upside, the new Health Secretary knows his way round the Treasury – he is the first to be a former Chancellor, rather than the other way round – which will be invaluable during this testing period ahead.  And since Ministers are necessarily generalists, he is no more disadvantaged taking up the post than any other first-timer.

Javid is about to find himself the most publicised Health Secretary since Lansley.  He will hope that his tenure at health doesn’t end the same way.

Guy Opperman: In the North East, Labour’s Red Wall continues to crumble – here’s where we can win next

20 Jun

Guy Opperman is the Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, and is MP for Tynedale and Ponteland.

During this year’s local elections, we saw seismic change in the North East of England. Hartlepool fell with a near 7,000 majority to Jill Mortimer. Ben Houchen secured 73 per cent in the Tees Valley. In County Durham, Northumberland and elsewhere, the Labour Party retreated.

I don’t think that is our high watermark. In May 2021, we solidified our 2019 general election successes in Blyth Valley, across County Durham and in Teesside – and we can do better.

It has taken time. When I was selected to be the Conservative candidate for Hexham at the 2010 General Election, it was the only Conservative-held seat in the North East. We gained over 100 seats in the 2010 election across the country, but only one new seat was gained in the North East. In 2015, Anne-Marie Trevelyan took the formerly ‘safe’ Liberal Democrat seat of Berwick, making it three.

However, our electoral success in the North East only started really to change in 2019. We gained seven seats – including Tony Blair’s old seat in Sedgefield. Following our Hartlepool victory, we now have 11 seats altogether.

However, there are opportunities for us to go even further, and to do so, we need real action, and determination over the coming years. Boundary changes may alter some seats, but this is how it presently stacks up.

In Northumberland, we now hold three of the four constituencies, and run the council on our own. As we head towards the next election, Wansbeck – the seat of Ian Lavery, an arch Corbynista – is well within our grasp. At the last election, Lavery clung on: but his majority was cut from over 10,000 to just 800.

In truth, he was lucky to hold the seat. We put most of our effort locally into winning the neighbourhood constituency of Blyth Valley but, in the May local elections, local Labour Councillors saw their majorities tumble. It will be for the new Conservative Council in Northumberland to deliver for local people, attracting major new employers to create jobs – building a new train line which will link Ashington and Blyth to Newcastle upon Tyne, and changing Northumberland for the better.

In County Durham, my southern neighbour Richard Holden has written on in ConservativeHome of the sea change in his constituency. I saw first-hand at the local election some of the amazing new Conservative councillors who are delivering for their communities. Richard will always be rightly famous for defeating Corbyn’s heir apparent, Laura Pidcock. In my view, no Labour seat in County Durham is safe. The remaining seats all have majorities under 6,000. There is a big change happening in Durham.

In Sunderland, Labour hold all three seats with majorities of less than 4,000, and in Sunderland Central (majority 2,964), the Conservatives topped the poll in the local elections.

Many of our recent gains came from the Tees Valley. Perhaps that’s no surprise. Ben Houchen is doing an incredible job in transforming Teesside – from delivering more jobs and investment, to saving the Airport, and more importantly projecting a ‘can do’ enthusiasm that all can see.

Ben’s landslide victory shows we can win in any part of Teesside. Both Stockton North and Middlesbrough now look very winnable. Even in Middlesbrough, a seat once so safe the former Labour MP lived in france most of the time, Ben Houchen won well over 60 per cent of the vote. And if Hartlepool can be won by nearly 7,000, anything is possible with work and a real commitment to bring change for the better.

We are making progress on Tyneside too. In a by-election in North Tyneside caused by the resignation of Kate Osborne, now a Labour MP, a local young campaigner showed local residents exactly what a hardworking local Conservative can achieve – and won, taking a safe Labour seat.

In Gateshead, Blaydon is another area with real potential. It is a seat that neighbours my own, and my sense is that Boris Johnson’s leadership and the Conservative message is resonating on the ground.

However, whilst there are many opportunities for success, we will only make progress in the North East if we continue to deliver the change people want to see. So how do we achieve that?

In 2012, as I recovered from my brain tumour, I did a four-week charity walk from Sheffield to Scotland – through what was then the Red Wall. I met people in pubs, mosques, bed and breakfasts, shops and at community events. I talked to people endlessly to get an understanding of the change people wanted to see.

Most of all, people wanted proper representation, with local champions fighting for better investment in schools and hospitals, improved public transport, and more job opportunities. That is exactly what the Government under Boris Johnson is doing. Key symbols of this that matter: like the relocation of part of the Treasury to Darlington, which will open up a world of opportunities for local young people, and play its part in ending the ‘London Centric’ culture that has existed for far too long.

In my own constituency since 2010 we have rebuilt all four high schools, refurbished a local hospital and invested heavily in our community. That is levelling up in action. By getting on with the job and delivering on the people’s priorities, there is a great future for the North East. The Labour Party is out of ideas and does not represent their heartlands. We must keep working, select candidates early, and make the case for conservatism in action.

Can we win more seats than the 11 we now hold? Yes, we can.

Richard Holden: Knightmare on Starmer Street. Labour loses control of Durham – held by the party for a century.

10 May

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Louisa Centre, Stanley, County Durham

At the count in Stanley at 3am on Friday morning after the verification checks on the ballot papers, I realised that I was witnessing the latest stage of the fundamental shift in British politics.

The communities that are not merely the heartlands but the birthplace of the Labour Party are decisively turning their backs on the party which turned its backs on them.

Two weeks ago in this column, I wrote about Keir Starmer and Labour’s five tests from this set of elections in the North East of England. To be fair to the Labour leader, these results cannot all be laid at his door – they have a much longer-term gestation.

However, the man who many thought would be Labour’s knight in shining armour has delivered results even worse than the outlier, “knightmare” scenarios that I suggested a fortnight ago.

Not only did the Conservatives remain the largest party in Northumberland, but they took overall control and, in doing so, took Hartley ward – and kicked out the Labour group leader on Northumberland County Council.

Sir Keir didn’t just fail my Stockton South test (remember: Stockton South was won by Corbyn’s Labour in the 2017 general election), but the excellent campaigning of Stockton South’s MP, Matt Vickers, with together with Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, saw the Conservatives not just retain the Stockton South council seats that they’d held, but take all the seats that were up for election, including from Liberal Dems and independents.

Paul Williams, the former Labour MP for Stockton South, handpicked and put on a shortlist of one by Labour HQ, delivered a catstrophic result for Labour in Hartlepool. To lose the seat at this stage in the electoral cycle by that much would have previously been thought impossible, but it’s happened.

With the Conservatives gaining over 50 per cent of the vote in the by-election, and Labour finishing a poor second, it’s clear that, in terms of parliamentary seats, CCHQ now needs to be targeting the North East of England much more broadly for the next election, including such seats as: City of Durham, North Durham, all the Sunderland seats, Blaydon – and even perhaps Gateshead and Easington.

Houchen’s utterly overwhelming victory in the Tees Valley, gaining almost three quarters of the votes on the first round, is the strongest symbol of continued Conservative advance in the North of England. The Conservative gain of the Police Commissioner post in Cleveland is further proof of this. Particularly when the vote from Middlesbrough, widely believed still to be rock solid for Labour in Teesside, came out five to three in the Conservative’s favour.

To outsiders, the loss of Durham County Council by Labour to No Overall Control may not seem quite as totemic as some of the other results. But if anything it’s more so.

The Conservatives increased their number of seats by 14, taking them from the fifth largest group (there are two independent groups) to the position of second largest party behind Labour – in one fell swoop.

Durham is where the Labour Party first gained a county council in 1919 and they have held it ever since. The results overall for the Conservatives are really, really good – particularly in my constituency in North West Durham and in my good friend Dehenna Davison’s constituency in Bishop Auckland.

Scratch the surface, and the results are more impressive still. In North West Durham, we’re now second almost everywhere we didn’t win, from what were often poor third places just four years ago. The increasing vote and vote share was at least 100 per cent, and in some cases, such as in Consett North and in Consett South, the number of Conservative votes went up almost four times.

Even in Weardale, where Conservatives were challenging two long-established independent councillors, we jumped from third place to second place, and came within 85 votes of taking one of them out.

In Woodhouse Grove, in the Bishop Auckland constituency, Conservatives gained two new councillors, and only missed out by nine votes in the working class town of Willington in North West Durham. It’s quite clear that, from this incredible baseline, Conservatives can now make further progress both locally and at the next general election.

These campaigns really came down to incredibly hard graft on the ground. It’s clear that CCHQ needs to look at how we can really capitalise on this with extra resources in the coming months and years.

The results in the North East are not unique. To see Rotherham go from zero to 20 Conservative councillors is mindblowing, as are the exceptional gains in Hyndburn in Lancashire, where the Conservatives held the county council with an increased majority.

But this succes is not just in the North. The gains in Harlow, Dudley, Southampton and elsewhere by the Conservatives show an incredible national picture.

While these results are absolutely stunning, often with significantly increased turnouts, it’s clear that the future of these areas as key battlegrounds will require the promises made by the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party to deliver on levelling up to not only be delivered on in the long-term, but also to show that progress is being made within the next year-to-18 months too.

In some areas of the country, the Conservatives haven’t performed quite as well. Downing Street and CCHQ need to find out why this has ocurred, and learn the lessons not only from the great successes, but also from the places where we didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

What’s clear from politics is that nothing ever stays the same. Who’d have thought that the narrow victory in the Teeside matoralty in 2017 following Brexit would have not only been the catalyst for a shift in voting, but a shift in poltical culture in the North East? People are no longer willing to accept either MPs or local authority leaders who see their position as a sinicure. Delivery is what counts.

We Conservatives are in government, and have the abilty to really make that happen. If we do so, our political prospects in these areas will just get better and better.

Chris White: Will next week’s Queen’s Speech presage an early general election?

3 May

Chris White is Co-Head of Advocacy at SEC Newgate.  He was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House.

Next week, in the wake of the local and national elections, the Government will have its first real set-piece opportunity to press the reset button since the beginning of the pandemic, when it unveils its legislative agenda as part of the Queen’s Speech.

Much of the focus will either be on the flagship measures designed to get the economy moving and push on with the levelling up agenda, or on the pared-down ceremonials, and whether the Queen will attend.

Yet the long-trailed arrival of the short bill to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) could well have a greater impact on the future of the Government than many realise.

Repealing the Act

The draft Bill to repeal the FTPA has already had significant scrutiny from the Joint Committee, which published its report last month and raised a number of concerns, particularly around the ouster clause and the role of the monarch under a revived prerogative system.

This latter point, restoring the status quo ante, will attract a great deal of attention when the Bill finally appears before both Houses. The Government’s position is that the Monarch’s role in dissolution is not simply ceremonial, and that she or he has the constitutional power to exercise a veto.

There is a lack of clarity around how a refusal to grant a dissolution would be appropriate and, without such clarity, the change could place the Monarch at the centre of huge political controversy. This should be avoided at all costs, and as the Joint Committee makes clear, “the Cabinet Manual should, unlike the initial Dissolution Principles document, address much more directly how the Monarch’s veto operates in practice.”

Repealing the Act will attract a great deal of heat and light from all sides during its passage, but it is both necessary and the right thing to do, subject to some tidying up in the drafting. The Government has a clear mandate from the 2019 manifesto, its repeal was supported by Labour in its manifesto, and above all, the country cannot have such paralysis again.

Timing of the next election

Reverting to the status quo ante will have several significant effects – not least a return to the practice of the Prime Minister choosing the date of the election. Currently, the FTPA mandates that general elections are scheduled to take place on the first Thursday in May in every fifth year. The next election is currently scheduled to take place on 2 May 2024, and reverting to the previous system would not change the maximum term length of five years.

It is by no means certain that, should the FTPA, be repealed the Prime Minister will choose to keep the date of the next election to 2024, and could decide to choose an earlier date under the pre-2010 system.

It is far too early to say for certain what will happen in 2023 or 2024, yet the long-term trends are certainly looking favourable for the Conservatives should they wish to hold an earlier election.

The Conservatives now hold a seven-point overall poll lead on Labour, with little sign of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer making any real breakthrough.

Much more needs to be done to deliver on the manifesto promises made that delivered a stunning electoral result, and voters will want to begin to see the benefits of Brexit, but at this stage the trends are clearly promising.

Going early?

If the Prime Minister does decide to go for an early election, what clues should we look out for? Constructing a legislative programme takes a considerable amount of time and effort. Bids for legislative slots take time to arrange, and letters from the Leader of the House to Cabinet Ministers seeking their input for the forthcoming session to be announced in May would have been sent out over a year ago, shortly after the previous State Opening of Parliament in 2019.

A normal legislative year, running May to April, could expect to have between 20 and 25 bills, ranging from the short – up to 25 clauses – to the very long – over 150 clauses. Any legislative programme will have a mix of measures: too many ‘big’ bills will clog the system, and too many small ones will lead to both Houses having too little to do. These would have been whittled down from around 40 bids from departments.

This year is slightly unusual in that we already know quite a few of the scheduled bills – Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Environment Bill and the Armed Forces Bill will all be ‘carried over’ from this session, as they have yet to be completed.

Ministers have also announced legislation to improve the building safety regulatory regime and reform the asylum system, in addition to the aforementioned bill that will repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

Letters will now have gone out to Departments and Ministers for the 2022-3 session, and the Leader of the House and Downing Street will spend the next few months stitching together the Queen’s Speech for the 2022-3 Session.

If the Prime Minister does want room for an earlier election in 2023, for example, then the content of that Queen’s Speech next year, and the battle for legislative slots in it, should be closely watched.

The news from the political grapevine is already suggesting that legislative time is at a premium, particularly with several carryover bills included in this upcoming session. Expect to see several kites being flown in the papers from Ministers making the case for why their measures are vital.

There will also be a need to reserve time for campaigning during the first few months of 2023. Even with a majority of 80, Conservative MPs will be wanting to spend time in their seats rather than tied down to votes in the Commons. It is eminently possibly that we could see a either a trimmed down Queen’s Speech in 2022, one with a few ‘motherhood and apple pie’ bills, or some placeholders that won’t matter too much should they fall by the wayside.

Over the next few months the FTPA will be repealed and we will return to the previous system of the PM choosing the date of the next election. That election may well come sooner than we think.