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.