- Perhaps the only good news for Boris Johnson is that his score, woeful as it is, is nowhere near as dire as that of Theresa May in the spring of 2019 – when she broke the survey’s unpopularity record, coming in at a catastophic -75 points.
- Nonetheless, this is the Prime Minister’s second consecutive month in negative ratings, his third altogether, and his lowest total of the lot. The explanation? Parties, competence, Covid restrictions, Paterson, taxes and Net Zero, not necessarily in that order.
- Nadine Dorries is down from fourth (plus 61) to mid-table sixteenth (plus 25), Michael Gove from twelfth to sixth from bottom (plus 43 to plus 16) , and Sajid Javid from eighth to twelfth (plus 54 to plus 29). All are associated with support for Covid restrictions.
- Mark Spencer stays in the red and Priti Patel inches into it: in her case, the explanation is “small boats”. Liz Truss is top again, Ben Wallace is up from second to fifth, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Nadhim Zahawi are scoring well. Generally, there’s a drift down.
Every fortnight, ConservativeHome will compile a handful of podcast recommendations – content that has been published in the weeks preceding – for its readers. Although these will mainly focus on podcasts for conservative listeners, we will try to include other options – should they be particularly interesting. Sometimes this feature will contain other types of media.
Title: Political Thinking with Nick Robinson
Host: Nick Robinson
Episode: The Katharine Birbalsingh One
Duration: 42:52 minutes
Published: December 17
What’s it about?
Readers of this podcast review may remember that Katharine Birbalsingh, the founder and headmistress of Michaela Community School, and more recently the Government’s new Social Mobility Commissioner, featured in my November round-up, when she was interviewed by Matt Chorley. So compelling is Birbalsingh that I must include a second conversation with her, during which she is interviewed by Nick Robinson. They cover a huge amount of ground, from whether she’s “the strictest head in Britain”, as the media once put it, to her upbringing and small-c conservative values.
Some teaser quotes:
- On being strict – “It means immersing children in love.”
- “In 2021, we as a people are letting ourselves down and letting our children down, because we’re not expecting enough of them.”
- “I knew I was being naughty. I knew I was saying things you’re not meant to say.”
- “I don’t want the limelight, but I have a duty… Somebody has to say something.”
An excellent exchange, in which Robinson is never short on challenging questions for Birbalsingh. The most interesting one is around whether she can create consensus in her new governmental role.
Title: Planet Normal
Hosts: Allison Pearson and Liam Halligan
Episode: Penny Mordaunt on Omicron hysteria, Tory rebels and Brexit
Duration: 58:36 minutes
Published: December 16
What’s it about?
This episode of Planet Normal is split into different segments, with fun and engaging exchanges between its two hosts, Allison Pearson and Liam Halligan, and then an interview with Mordaunt sandwiched in the middle. During the course, Halligan asks Mordaunt about her progress pursuing FTAs with the United States, as well as what she thinks about Omicron and the Government’s “Plan B”.
Some teaser quotes:
- “We are doing exceptionally well, and we have these huge and deep trading relationships and cross-investment interests… but I think we can do more – and a super deal with America would be fantastic.”
- “The response we’ve had at state level has been incredible… people want to have obstacles removed from them doing more business with us.”
- “Brexit is not an event to be mourned by the international community, nor is it an act of self-harm or an act that requires us to be punished in some way. It is a huge opportunity and we need to start to encourage to see people in that light.”
An impressive discussion, which will fuel speculation about Mordaunt taking on an even higher role in government one day.
Title: Red Box
Host: Matt Chorley
Episode: Alok Sharma talks about the climate
Duration: 40 minutes
Published: December 16
What’s it about?
In this interview, Matt Chorley sits down with Alok Sharma, the COP26 President, to find out the ins and outs of how he created one of the most impressive deals in world history. They cover all sorts of interesting territory, from how Covid affected this year’s climate conference, to Sharma’s experience seeing the effects of climate change up close, to why he’ll now be “auditor in chief”, as well as “shepherd in chief”, on environmental progress.
Some teaser quotes:
- “Just look at what’s happened this year. You’ve seen terrible flooding in China, you’ve seen that in central Europe, you’re seeing wild fires raging in America, in Australia; I mean, even in our own country. Talk to farmers; they will tell you the impact that climate change is having on the yields of their crops.”
- “Well I can tell you that my nostrils took quite a battering.”
- On the decision to delay COP26 – “Climate change didn’t take time off during that year.”
- “We helped delegates in over 70 countries get vaccinated as well.”
- On ensuring countries didn’t pull out of the COP26 deal – “It literally is like playing Jenga.”
A comprehensive interview, which shows the huge amount of work that went on behind the scenes of COP26, as well as showing Sharma’s satisfaction with how it went.
Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.
A striking poll was published last month, showing the Conservatives are ahead of Labour on climate change.
According to Ipsos Mori, 35 per cent of the public believe the Conservatives have good policies on climate and the environment, compared to 32 per cent for Labour. While only a small lead, this reflects positively on the Conservatives’ relative performance on climate change in recent weeks.
There are also signs that the Government’s climate change efforts are viewed increasingly positively by Conservative Party members. Notably, Alok Sharma rose up this site’s cabinet minister approval rating rankings this month, from bottom of the table on +6 to twelfth from bottom on +30, perhaps reflecting members’ approval for his determination and success in securing a good deal at COP26.
It certainly seems possible – perhaps likely – that the significant climate policy announcements in the run-up to COP26 has bolstered the government’s standing in this area. Policies such as the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, an end to the financing of overseas fossil fuel projects, and generous grants for heat pumps were all warmly welcomed by environmental groups, many Conservative MPs, and by much of the media. Similarly it was hard to miss Boris Johnson and Sharma’s international leadership on climate change at COP26.
Why does this matter?
There’s been a long standing view among some political strategists on the right that the Conservatives can never win on climate, because it is inherently a left-wing issue which only energises left-wing activists.
Others argue there’s no point making it a core part of the party’s platform: since the Conservatives are ahead on the economy, immigration, and law and order, people argue that it’s better to focus on those issues.
But Conservatives cannot ignore climate change given how salient the issue has become among the general public. Ipsos Mori found last month that four in 10 voters cite climate change as a concern – a record high – while one in five say it’s the biggest issue facing the country, ahead of Covid, the economy, and immigration.
Some of this is undoubtedly related to all the media coverage on climate around COP26. But, with climate change and the environment steadily moving up the public’s priorities for years now, it is increasingly hard to deny that the Conservative Party needs to win on climate change at the next election and beyond if it is to remain competitive. This latest polling demonstrates this is within reach.
How can the party consolidate its lead?
A key challenge for the public’s perception of the Government’s climate record is domestic fossil fuel production. The proposal for a new coal mine in Cumbria is one ‘barnacle’, even though the Government has now called in the decision for a review.
Similarly the Government’s position on UK oil and gas – that it wants to assess new licences against climate targets on a case-by-case basis – leaves them open to attacks from NGOs and activists in the media.
The Government should be clearer that it is working with the industry to transition away from fossil fuel production in line with projected falls in UK demand for oil and gas, due to the uptake of electric vehicles and the decline in gas demand for heating and electricity generation. One potential solution is for the Business Secretary to seek the advice of the respected and independent Climate Change Committee before awarding new oil and gas licences.
Across the country in the 2022 elections, particularly in the ‘Blue Wall’ in the South of England, Conservatives face strong challenges from Lib Dems and Greens on environmental issues. In fact, as I wrote in May on this site, the Conservatives are already losing council seats to the Greens. In response, the Government must address some of these critiques of its climate record.
There’s also a need to demonstrate the employment uplift from net zero in the ‘Red Wall’. Public First research showed that the phrase ‘green jobs’ does not resonate with the public, who might not see those jobs as durable or good quality. To tackle this misconception, there must be a greater emphasis on near-term delivery ahead of the next election, for instance through a new energy efficiency grant scheme for homeowners, which could be rolled out quickly and create jobs.
Finally, there is undoubtedly still a challenge with winning over people who are more sceptical of decarbonisation and worry about the costs. That’s why the Government must continue to emphasise the importance of technology cost reduction and private sector investment in delivering net zero.
And in the immediate term, the Government must help consumers with the rising costs of electricity when the energy price cap is revised in the new year. Despite being driven by high international gas prices, electricity bills could be cut immediately through policies such as eliminating VAT (currently five per cent), or by funding some of the social and environmental levies out of general taxation.
The Ipsos Mori polling proves the Government is making progress in convincing people about its climate credentials. It must maintain the momentum if it wants to capitalise at the ballot box in May and at the next general election.
Case study: Reading
Numbers: Labour 29, Conservatives 10, Green Party 5, Lib Dems 2.
Change since last local elections: Labour -1, Green Party +2.
All out or thirds: Thirds
Background: Reading is a town in Berkshire with a long and proud history. In the eighth century, it was called Readingum and the occupants of the settlement were an Anglo-Saxon tribe known as Readingas. Generally, it has been relatively prosperous. But the English Civil War was a difficult time, the Roundheads mounting a siege. Reading Borough Council was established in 1974. It has been a unitary authority since 1997 – usually under Labour control, though the Conservatives seized power for three years from 1983 during the Thatcher heyday.
At the last General Election, Reading East was held by Labour with a majority of nearly 6,000. Yet in 2005, that constituency had be gained for the Conservatives by Rob Wilson and he held it as recently as 2015 with a majority of 6,520. Labour’s majority last time was higher than it had been in 2017. Reading West is a Conservative seat, represented by Alok Sharma, the President of COP26, who had a majority of 4,117 last time. Boundary changes are due to abolish both seats. There will one Reading constituency (which Labour would be expecetd to win) with some wards in Reading going to a new Earley and Woodley constituency – and others to a new Mid Berkshire constituency (both of which the Conservatives would be expected to win).
Results: In the EU referendum, Reading voted Remain by a very clear margin – 58 per cent to 42 per cent. This is a town of youngish, mostly affluent, ethnically diverse, eco-friendly, social liberals who were susceptible to David Cameron’s charms. But they are less in sympathy with the Conservative Party as it is now. It is a very unequal town in terms of income – with several pretty impoverished districts.
The town is a melting pot of nationalities. Sir John Madejski, the owner of the football club, staunch Conservative and benefactor to many local good causes, had a stepfather who was a Polish Second World War airman. There are many Poles in Reading. Also many Asians – including a community of retired Gurkhas.
Reading University has grown in size and this has had a particularly detrimental electoral impact on the Reading East constituency. In recent years Corbynistas have shown great zeal in signing up students to vote. The expansion of the sector has also seen more academics – both tutors and a burgeoning number employed on assorted academic “projects”.
But there is also a thriving private sector. Information Technology is a big source of employment – including Microsoft’s UK headquarters and other big firms. But where are the micro IT firms? The insurgents. The disrupters. No doubt the talented young nerds have plenty of ambition. So why are their entrepreneurial dreams not realised more often? Government policy should move away from a corporatist approach suited to big business and offer more incentives to start-ups. John Redwood has written about how useless the Local Enterprise Partnerships are. Abolishing them and instead offering targeted tax cuts to help new businesses during their first year would be more effective.
Home-ownership is another huge issue. Some former Londoners have bought in Reading – while commuting into the capital. That has pushed prices up. A lot of the new homes being built are flats, rented out for the young to enjoy the “thriving night time economy” – rather than houses with gardens for families to buy and settle down in. The owner-occupation rate in Reading is well below the national average which – as I noted last week in the context of London – puts the Conservatives at a disadvantage. The Minister of Justice is selling Reading jail. That may provide some new housing. Though it may also become a hotel, art gallery, theatre, a restaurant, or various combinations of the aforementioned. It would be good to get on with it. The building has been derelict since 2013. There are plenty of other opportunities for selling surplus public sector land and buildings.
Next year will see “all-out” local elections as a result of changes in ward boundaries. Some of those I spoke to feel the Conservatives could make some progress. The Green Party have been campaigning actively which may split the socialist vote. The Labour Council has engaged in financial mismanagement and failed to fill potholes. The boundary changes are expected to bring forward some new blood among Conservative candidates with the old guard standing down. Rather more vigorous campaigning may result.
There remains a broader challenge. Why do so many of these young people with a love of freedom – filled with ambition to become capitalists and homeowners – not see the Conservative Party as the natural choice for them? A lot of them are clustered in Reading. But there are plenty more elsewhere.
Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
This weekend brings the First Sunday in Advent, the start of the liturgical year in the Christian calendar.
For most of us, it signals that other annual rite – the Countdown to Christmas. Shopping! Santa! Sleighbells in the snow! And endless lists: cards to be sent, presents to be given, food to be shopped for. It’s little wonder that those responsible for producing lunch or dinner on the 25th collapse into a Quality Street-Netflix coma on the sofa on Boxing Day.
‘The more the merrier’ is the plucky response to the arrival of unexpected guests. It is Christmas, after all. Time to eat, drink and be merry. There’s plenty of room around the table (‘budge up’) and the garden chairs can be brought in from the shed. Extra roast spuds mean no-one will notice any shortage of turkey, but if it looks like guests might go short, FHB.
Family Holds Back brings us to the vexed issue of immigration, dominating the headlines again with the tragedy in the Channel on Wednesday.
Although immigration is an area of public policy that affects each and every citizen, governments throughout this Elizabethan age have allowed it to become so seemingly intractable that they have frequently appeared to give up on it – or to make maladroit interventions such as the Hostile Environment strategy.
Never mind the 2005 ‘Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking?’ series of election campaign posters, what on earth were the Coalition thinking in 2012 when it signed off the Hostile Environment as a good idea? In 2018, this was blamed for the Windrush Scandal, which continues to cause misery for those affected and blight the reputation of Conservatives.
Further entangling immigration with the always sensitive issue of race is not the most sensible way of resolving a problem which frequently troubles so much of the electorate. This concern peaked in 2014 and stood at around 45 per cent in the months leading up to the June 2016 Referendum, according to IPSOS-MORI’s regular Issues Index poll. After the vote for Brexit, voters were no longer so bothered. As an issue worrying them, it plummeted to 10 per cent in late 2019, the lowest level since March 2001.
This contraction of concern suggests that, while the association between race and immigration looms large in the minds of policymakers – often to toxic effect – most voters are able to decouple the two issues.
Indeed, the electorate could well suspect that invoking racism has long been a convenient if cynical means by which politicians close down any debate on the immigration, perhaps in the forlorn hope that the problem will go away. This was reflected by Gordon Brown during his mask-slipping encounter on the 2010 campaign trail with ‘that bigoted woman’.
In voting to end free movement of people in the Brexit Referendum, voters showed the country of origin of those people was pretty irrelevant. Belgium or Brazil or Benin, who cares? To paraphrase the PM, they issued their instruction: they wanted Britain to take back control of our borders.
Earlier this month, YouGov reported that immigration is once again back among on the public’s agenda, with 73 per cent saying the Government is handling the issue badly. Ministers must brave opponents’ inevitable if hackneyed accusations of ‘dog whistle politics’ (ironically, itself a dog whistle for accusations of racism) and exert some political will.
Voters are alarmed, not just by the tens of thousands of migrants landing on Britain’s beaches in the past year, but by the latest terrorist attack in Liverpool on Remembrance Sunday. The suicide bomber, a failed asylum seeker, was able to game the deportation system for seven years, not least by faking conversion to Christianity. Adding to disquiet is what appears to be an act of hybrid war against the West: the recent weaponization of migration by Belarus, who encouraged migrants illegally to enter the EU via its borders with Poland and Lithuania.
In squaring up to confront immigration, ministers could do worse than re-read the 2019 General Election manifesto. Even the most hardened Corbynista could not object to a system that aimed to be ‘firm, fair and compassionate’. The current apparent free-for-all is grossly unfair to almost everyone apart from people smugglers, but especially to the 27 migrants who drowned off the French coast on Wednesday.
With net migration to the UK standing at 313,000 in the 12 months to March 2020, policymakers should be asking themselves whose quality of life worsens thanks to the current unplanned mess. Hint: it’s not, for example, the residents of Surrey’s ritziest gated communities, who can access private schools, private hospitals, private dentists, private doctors, private carers for their old age and private security guards. Former Prime Ministers with extensive property portfolios also escape the adverse impact of too many people chasing too few resources.
To permit such massive influxes from overseas without providing commensurate public services is have spent the past two decades expecting the vast majority of the British public, whatever their ethnic background, constantly to budge up. Successive governments have not bothered to get in the extra spuds; Family Holds Back seems to have been the overarching policy response – if one indeed exists.
The Conservative party is the party of immigrants, many living the British dream who make a positive contribution to the country. Despite missteps like the Hostile Environment, we are the party of hope, not hate.
The time is long overdue for a government with a near 80-seat majority and a Cabinet which includes Sunak, Patel, Javid, Zahawi and Raab, not to mention ministers Sharma, Badenoch, Cleverly and Kwarteng to take control of immigration
Politics, Alan Watkins used to observe, is a rough old trade. But occasionally, amid the ritual insults and casual cruelties, we see a politician give way to more generous feelings.
Such a moment occurred in Glasgow at the end of COP26, when Alok Sharma fell silent, unable to speak for emotion as he said sorry for a last-minute diminution in what had been agreed.
Delegates could see he was on the brink of tears, and began to applaud. The wider world applauded too, touched by the sight of a politician who had entered with a full heart into the task of bringing the climate conference to a successful conclusion.
Here was proof of the old dictum that an ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts. At the age of 54, Sharma had at last emerged as a political figure in his own right. Ed Miliband, for Labour, had “nothing but praise” for him.
“He really does deserve an honour,” agreed a floating voter who in her time has backed everyone from Tony Blair to Nick Clegg.
Sharma until this moment had appeared to be yet another minister who was no more than a dull, laborious apparatchik, a careerist who had long since sacrificed his capacity for human feeling.
This was not actually the case. In July 2017 Sharma wept in the Commons while delivering, as Minister of State for Housing, a statement about the Grenfell Tower fire.
And those who knew him well esteemed him. Oliver Letwin, whom Sharma served as Parliamentary Private Secretary from June 2015, yesterday said of him to ConHome:
“Absolutely splendid person. Clever, conscientious, high-minded, kindly, easy-going, delightful company. The tops.”
A year later, Theresa May sent Sharma as a junior minister to the Foreign Office, where he enjoyed the distinction, almost certainly unique among Alan Duncan’s colleagues, of not once arousing the wrath of that acerbic diarist.
The Foreign Secretary, a certain Boris Johnson, received a mixture of praise and blame from Duncan.
Johnson formed a high opinion of Sharma, who in 2016 had been a staunch Remainer, but who now thought it was essential to respect the result, because “anything else would not be good news for democracy”.
He went on to explain, in an interview with ConHome in February 2019, that after the referendum
“I was disheartened for a period of time. But actually straight after that, when Theresa May became Prime Minister, I became Minister for Asia and the Pacific, and I spent literally every other week getting on a plane to Asia on a Wednesday and coming back on a Sunday.
“The interesting thing was that absolutely every single government and every single foreign investor that I met thought that us leaving the European Union would present significantly more opportunities for bilateral trade and investment.”
In 2016 Sharma had endorsed May’s candidacy for the leadership. In 2019, he wrote a piece for ConHome explaining why he was backing Johnson:
“I have worked closely with him in Government, during my time as a Foreign Office Minister. I saw just how deeply he cares about Britain’s place in the world and our ability to project a global footprint, which will be increasingly important post-Brexit. I have also seen first-hand his ability in meetings with foreign dignitaries to strike up good and productive relationships and engender real warmth and positivity.”
So the “global Britain” project, which seems to its critics like so much hot air, is one that Sharma has been working on for several years.
He was born in Agra, on the Yamuna River south of Delhi, but at the age of five moved with his parents to Reading, on the River Thames west of London. They set up a business, and his father, Dr Prem Sharma, became a respected figure in the Conservative Party, for which Alok first volunteered to deliver leaflets when he was 11.
He was educated at the Blue Coat School at Sonning, on the Thames, and at the University of Salford, where he read Applied Physics with Electronics, after which he qualified as a chartered accountant and became a banker, working in London, Stockholm and Frankfurt.
But he hankered after politics, and his wife, who is Swedish, encouraged him to put in for the seat of Reading West, which he won for the Conservatives in 2010, after the previous, Labour MP, Martin Salter, had retired.
In his maiden speech Sharma remarked:
“The comedian and actor Mr Ricky Gervais grew up in Whitley, not far from where my parents lived when they first moved to Reading. I do not know Mr Gervais personally, but it is entirely possible that we loitered in the same shopping precinct when we were youngsters. Of course, one of us has now gone on to great things – and the other has become a Member of Parliament.”
One notes a talent for self-deprecation which might have been the prelude to a lifetime of obscurity. But as Sharma has repeatedly demonstrated, modesty is not incompatible with strong emotion.
In 2013, he paid tribute in the Commons to a Conservative leader who had just died:
“My father often remarked that Margaret Thatcher was not just the first British female prime minister, but the first British Asian prime minister. He was not joking – he does do jokes, but never about Baroness Thatcher. He always said that she might not look like us, but she absolutely thought like us. What he meant was that she shared and empathised with our values, experiences and ethos. For immigrant families such as mine, she was aspiration personified…
“My parents started their own business in the late ’70s. As anyone who has run a business or tried to run one knows, it is pretty hard work when it first gets started. My parents certainly went through some pretty tricky times, but the one thing of which they are absolutely certain and I am absolutely certain is that if it were not for the economic policies that Margaret Thatcher and her Governments followed, they would not have prospered—and without them, I would certainly not be here today.”
One trusts that some brilliant young scholar is already studying the affinities between Thatcher and a number of ministers who came to prominence after 2019 (cf Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak).
This is work that could most fittingly be performed at Oxford University, in penance for denying Thatcher, its alumna, an honorary degree.
For although some of the finest young minds in that home of lost causes are Roman Catholics, one trusts that light will also be shone on the affinities between Methodism, Hinduism and Thatcherism. Religion plays a larger role in British politics than our generally secular press is capable of noticing.
Sharma said after Glasgow, at the Sunday afternoon press conference in Downing Street, “I’d had about six hours’ sleep in three days.”
His tears were the result of tiredness: no doubt that is part of the truth. And no doubt another part of the truth is that, as he told Nick Robinson,
“I just get on with things with the minimum of fuss and do the best I can.”
But success brings its penalties, one of which is that people cease to be so charitable.
“People like him, but he is incurably lightweight,” a senior Tory close to the COP26 negotiations told ConHome. “Yes, he was nice to people. He has a fawningly oleaginous manner.
“But he was not even in the room when the deal was done between John Kerry and the Chinese negotiator, Xie Zhenhua. The UK team didn’t even know the deal was coming. Sharma was crying out of frustration and fury that he’d been humiliated.”
That is certainly not how it looked to the delegates in the hall in Glasgow, or to the wider audience. But is is perhaps a measure of Sharma’s arrival as a major player that he now attracts criticism.
"China, India are going to have to explain themselves to the most climate vulnerable countries in the world" says COP26 President Alok Sharma
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) November 14, 2021
"I think what we've achieved here is something quire remarkable."#COP26 President Alok Sharma says Glasgow "delivered" a promise to keep the goal of 1.5C within reach and "closed off all of the outstanding elements of the Paris rule book".#Phillips: https://t.co/eKfOjlc8vW pic.twitter.com/ivvvjXKZaW
— Trevor Phillips on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) November 14, 2021