Cabinet League Table: Johnson plummets into the bottom third of our Cabinet League table

5 Sep
  • In our first post-general election survey, no fewer than 18 Cabinet members had a satisfaction rating above 50 per cent.  Now, only six do.
  • Of those six, Liz Truss is a fraction higher than she was (61.7 per cent to 61.3 per cent), Dominic Raab up an insignificant point (66 per cent to 67 per cent), and Rishi Sunak up to the top of the table (79 per cent to 83 per cent).
  • Jacob Rees-Mogg has risen by only two points, from 48 per cent to 50 per cent, but was then tenth from bottom.  Now he is sixth from top.  The difference between his change in score and change in place says everything you need to know about how Cabinet ratings, generally, have fallen.
  • None more so than Boris Johnson.  In that post-election table, he was top on 93 per cent.  Now he is eighth from bottom on 25 per cent.  That’s a drop from sixth from top on 57 per cent last month – a fall of almost half into the bottom third of the table.
  • Robert Jenrick is still in negative territory, and Amanda Milling now joins him.  Gavin Williamson may take comfort from the fact that his expected fall into negative territory isn’t record-breaking.  In April last year, Theresa May reached -74 per cent.
  • The members’ panel has good record as a guide to activist voting in leadership elections, so we’ve no doubt that this month’s survey is picking up unease about the Government’s competence, consistency and sense of direction.

Richard Holden: Across the “Blue Wall”, there’s little sign Starmer’s approach to the crisis has cut through

3 Aug

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Green, Billy Row, County Durham. Nothing brings you back down to reality like properly being out and about in the towns and villages of North West Durham. People don’t hesitate to politely let you know their opinions, which I conveyed – again politely – to Amanda Milling, the Party Chairman.

Since lockdown eased, Amanda has sensibly been out and about across the “Blue Wall” and popped by to formally open my new office, before meeting some local members and constituents in Consett. It was only in 2010 that the Conservatives gained her seat of Cannock Chase. Part of the original “Red” to “Blue Wall” swing seats from 2010. it’s now held with 68.3 per cent of the vote for the Conservatives and a majority of almost 20,000. Something to aspire to and we are nothing if not the part of aspiration.

Lockdown has changed a few things and there is, understandably, concern about the future due to Coronavirus. While the caravan parks are full and people are holidaying in the towns and villages of Weardale, the reverse is true for my local businesses and companies that rely on international travel. From travel agents, through airlines, to aircraft manufacturers, all have been hit hard. How the next few months are managed is really going to set the course for the next few years.

But to date, the management of the economic impact of the crisis is seen as sound. A testament to that is that one first name has joined that very short list of “household name” politicians alongside “Boris” locally and that is “Rishi” – very much seen as someone who has worked hand-in-glove with the Prime Minister and done all he can to help steady the ship, in a credible way, at a very difficult time.

One of the things that really doesn’t appear to have changed though the antipathy of local people towards the London (and on a local level City of Durham) centric Labour machine. It’s quite clear that Keir Starmer, too, certainly hasn’t really cut through in any positive meaningful way here.

This hasn’t been aided by the missteps of the Labour-run County Council who, at the heart of the pandemic in late March, voted to put a new 3,000 sq ft roof terrace on top of their proposed new monstrous carbuncle of a County Hall on a floodplain in the centre of Durham city.

At a national level, Labour’s lawyerly approach to the crisis hasn’t helped it either. If your job is on the line – as quite a few are in my community – Starmer’s “Goldilocks Politics” of “too much/too little, too fast/too slow” with lashings of hindsight-driven drivel isn’t winning you over.

No-one wants to know that, like any good barrister, you can argue the counter argument. They want to know you get the economic reality of what’s going on and are instructing your local councillors where they’re in place to do something about it.

From those snatched chats over coffee or a pint in the pubs of North West Durham, it’s clear to me that without showing a desire to really challenge the basic economic arguments of the far-Left, Labour have still further to fall. This is Starmer’s real challenge: he’s dumped Corbyn, but can he – does he even want to – dump Corbynomics?

Within three months of taking office following the death of John Smith, Blair had told the Labour Party Conference he was going to change Clause 4 and within a matter of months at a special conference in April 1995 he did just that.

Aside from managing to knife his opponent for the job and boot her out of the Shadow Cabinet, Starmer’s first four months in office have been barely a tremor on the political Richter scale.

If I were Starmer at this moment I’d be recognising that I have one shot at this and boldly lay down the policy tracks in order to concentrate on next year’s elections in Scotland, Wales, London, The Midlands and the English counties.

From the attempted coup in 2017 and brutality of the internal wars currently taking place, it’s clear that Labour is up for knifing its leaders if they look like an electoral liability.

Starmer needs to show that Labour can win big in its remaining heartlands of London and Wales and show that he’s there, challenging the SNP in Scotland and winning over county councils across England – creating a real base for the future.

For us Conservatives the challenge is different. We can’t control what Starmer will or won’t do – any more than we can really predict or determine when we’ll finally be rid of the damned Coronavirus.

It’s about proving that we not only culturally understand the “Blue Wall”, but grasp their economic needs and aspirations too. The massive support that taxpayers have provided via the Government has not gone unnoticed by the man and woman in The Green at Billy Row and has cut through to constituents.

For the future it’s a mixture of delivering on policies both big – like the commitments on levelling-up – but also smaller policies, like ensuring that community services are maintained and lives, where possible, made a little easier, and cheaper.

Often that’s through ensuring fairness where the market fails or is skewed. From getting housing built on brown field sites that have been squabbled over for decades, to the cash machine on the green at Billy Row.

It might take some ingenuity at times, but we’ll need to keep highlighting to people that we’re on their side in their community economically, as well as culturally, to keep the trajectory away from Labour and to the Conservatives on course as we build the Blue Wall.

Andy Street: One, two, three – it’s a hat-trick of coming Conservative Party conferences for Birmingham

28 Jul

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

For years, the Party conference season was synonymous with the seaside. With the Commons in recess, delegates headed to places like Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton, to shape policy in the midst of seaside rock and ‘kiss me quick’ hats.

All that changed in 2008, with a bold decision that sent an important message about Conservative commitment to urban, modern Britain. The conference came to Brum. Last week, I was delighted when Amanda Milling returned here to announce that we will be hosting three more conferences – in 2022, 2024 and 2026.

It was an announcement that was greeted with real excitement. Birmingham is a hospitality city, with exhibition and conference venues that have made us leaders in “business tourism” in the UK.

Holding the Party Conference brings great benefits, both economic and more symbolic ones.

Firstly, of course, Conference brings income to the host city – estimated to be worth £20 million for each conference. This is great news for the region’s economy and jobs as we attempt to safely restart the economy post lockdown.

Major conference and exhibition venues like the NEC and ICC directly employ many thousands of local people, and the West Midlands’ hospitality sector also supports a region-wide supply chain, from hotels, restaurants, bars, events companies, and marketers. This vital sector was brought to a complete halt by Coronavirus. It is no wonder last week’s announcement was so well received, coming hot on the heels of the Prime Minister’s announcement that exhibitions could reopen from October 1.

Secondly, the return of Conference to Brum gives us an opportunity to underline our region’s relationship with and connection to Government – bringing, since 2010, the whole Government to the region. Much has been said about the need for Government to escape their South East bubble to connect more with communities north of Watford. By relocating to Birmingham for Conference, ministers will see first-hand how their investments, guided by devolved decision-making and local expertise, are helping level-up the economy.

Thirdly it gives us the chance to showcase the City and wider region. While the traditional warm Brummie welcome hasn’t changed, delegates and the media will notice plenty of visible improvements to Birmingham. They highlight the renaissance that has transformed the Second City in recent years and is set to continue.

When delegates arrive in 2022, a better-connected Birmingham will still be buzzing with the afterglow of the summer’s Commonwealth Games. Trams will have once again become a familiar sight, running past the Conference venue, the length of Broad Street and out towards Edgbaston. We will have seen further huge improvements in the City’s transport network – with the complete rebuilding of University Station (winning Government funding last week).

New, first-generation Sprint bus routes, which months before shuttled international spectators between Commonwealth Games venues, will be bringing people to a city centre transformed by the completion of the £700 million Paradise development. By 2022 Birmingham’s bold, bright new future will be firmly here.

Finally, the location of the annual conference reiterates the political importance of the UK’s cities to our party. When David Cameron moved our annual conference from the traditional seaside setting to our great cities it underlined the party’s ambition to win again in urban Britain. After all, until 1997 those cities contributed an important cohort of MPs and Cabinet Ministers to Conservative Government.

However, that drive to win back urban Britain has proved an elusive challenge, despite the election victories of 2010 and 2015. Even when the “red wall” was breached in 2019 Labour bastions in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds proved resistant. Indeed, of these cities, only Leeds has conservative councillors.

For this entire period, the only Conservative MP in any of our great cities was Andrew Mitchell in Sutton Coldfield. But it was in Brum that the break-through came. In 2019, for the first time since 1987, the Party gained a big city seat – Birmingham Northfield. This was a hugely important and symbolic win for the Party, showing we can win in cities again.

More importantly it has given the people of Northfield constituency a dedicated, effective and sincere champion in Gary Sambrook. Gary has already proved tenacious in fighting for his area – and is pushing, for instance, for further regeneration of the former Rover factory site at Longbridge. Much has already been done to reclaim what had been a derelict eyesore for many years – but Northfield’s new MP is determined to create even more jobs and opportunities there.

Birmingham also sets the pace when it comes to Conservative representation on local authorities in urban Britain. Unlike the other big cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, the Conservatives have run the council here in recent memory and retain a strong, influential base of councillors, led by indomitable campaigner Robert Alden.

In the last local elections Labour’s majority across a city of ten parliamentary constituencies comprised just 4483 votes – less than 500 per constituency, a tiny majority. Indeed, when you consider that my own majority averages 135 in each constituency, it shows how closely fought elections are in our area.

There is a real possibility that when delegates arrive in Birmingham for the conference in 2022, they will be visiting a growing city of more than a million people with a Conservative-led Council. If we are serious in our ambition to be a party that reflects a modern and diverse Britain, achieving this outcome must be a reality.

Amanda Milling: This year, the Government laid strong foundations for our levelling-up agenda

24 Jul

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

They say a week is a long time in politics, and in a year, well, a lot can happen. But when Boris Johnson spoke on the steps of Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time exactly a year ago today, absolutely no-one could have predicted the course of events that would unfold.

Coronavirus has been an unprecedented crisis that has required an unprecedented response. Who would have thought a year ago that the Government, a Conservative government no less, would be directly paying the wages of over nine million workers?

We make no apology for that, and our response to Covid-19 – to save lives while protecting our economy and people’s livelihoods – has been one of the most comprehensive in the world.

And while the machinery of government has rightly been focused on getting our country through this pandemic, we have not lost sight of the promises we made to the people of this country. At the last election, many people who had never voted Conservative before put their faith in us for the first time. And even in the depths of this unprecedented crisis, honouring that faith has remained at the core of what we do.

We are a Government and a Party that is determined to make good on our commitments and repay the voters who lent us their votes, no matter the turbulence that might hit along the way. When reflecting on the year passed since Johnson became Prime Minister, we have kept to our commitments and made remarkable strides forwards.

We said we’d get Brexit done, honouring the biggest democratic vote in our nation’s history, and we did. We broke through the endless parliamentary deadlocks and on the 31st January 2020, we delivered on the mandate the people set us to leave the European Union.

And we also set out an ambitious and wide-ranging domestic agenda, to level-up our country and forge prosperity for every region and nation of the UK.

During the last election, we all had to endure the age-old Labour lie that the NHS would not be safe in our hands. It was as wrong seven months ago as it was when they trotted it out 38 years ago.

It is this Party and this Government that enshrined into law the biggest-ever cash boost for the NHS, investing an additional £33.9 billion in frontline services every year by 2023-24, the largest and longest funding settlement in the history of the Health Service. And when the NHS needed additional resource to cope with the coronavirus, we provided it.

And we are making good on our commitment to recruit more doctors and nurses too: there are now 12,000 more nurses and 6,000 more doctors in our NHS since a year earlier.

I also know many of you and my parliamentary colleagues were subject to local schools cuts campaign run by the National Education Union at the last election. Yet it is this government that is boosting funding in our primary and secondary schools by £14 billion over the next three years, so that every child can get a good education.

And just last month, the Prime Minister set out our ambitious ten-year plan to rebuild schools throughout England, with £1 billion for the first 50 projects.

Safety on our streets was another area where we pledged to take action, and we have. Recent rates of knife crime have been a major concern, particularly in London, where the Labour Mayor refuses to take responsibility. I am pleased that we have already recruited an additional 3000 police officers as part of our manifesto pledge to put an extra 20,000 officers on the streets.

We also know that transport and infrastructure is key to driving our future economic growth and success, but that particularly in our Northern cities and towns, good transport infrastructure has been too often lacking.

As someone who used to live in Leeds, I was delighted at Grant Shapps’ announcement yesterday of £589 million to kick-start upgrade work between York, Leeds, Huddersfield, and Manchester, to speed up trains and boost reliability by electrifying much of the line and doubling the number of tracks on congested stretches. This comes on top of the money we have already pledged to upgrade rail and roads across the country.

Finally, I know that for many the cost of living is a major concern. In April, this Government gave the National Living Wage its largest cash boost to £8.72 – giving nearly three million people a well-earned pay rise. This week we also gave millions of hard-working public-sector employees, such as our armed forces, doctors, police, and teachers, an above-inflation pay rise, on top of what we’ve already given to nurses in the NHS.

Over the last year, in the face of adversity, a remarkable amount has been achieved. Yet we cannot be complacent. We still have much to do to honour our commitments and level-up our country as we emerge from the greatest crisis of our times.

But the last year should give us confidence that we can, and will, achieve our mission.

Amanda Milling: This year, the Government laid strong foundations for our levelling-up agenda

24 Jul

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

They say a week is a long time in politics, and in a year, well, a lot can happen. But when Boris Johnson spoke on the steps of Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time exactly a year ago today, absolutely no-one could have predicted the course of events that would unfold.

Coronavirus has been an unprecedented crisis that has required an unprecedented response. Who would have thought a year ago that the Government, a Conservative government no less, would be directly paying the wages of over nine million workers?

We make no apology for that, and our response to Covid-19 – to save lives while protecting our economy and people’s livelihoods – has been one of the most comprehensive in the world.

And while the machinery of government has rightly been focused on getting our country through this pandemic, we have not lost sight of the promises we made to the people of this country. At the last election, many people who had never voted Conservative before put their faith in us for the first time. And even in the depths of this unprecedented crisis, honouring that faith has remained at the core of what we do.

We are a Government and a Party that is determined to make good on our commitments and repay the voters who lent us their votes, no matter the turbulence that might hit along the way. When reflecting on the year passed since Johnson became Prime Minister, we have kept to our commitments and made remarkable strides forwards.

We said we’d get Brexit done, honouring the biggest democratic vote in our nation’s history, and we did. We broke through the endless parliamentary deadlocks and on the 31st January 2020, we delivered on the mandate the people set us to leave the European Union.

And we also set out an ambitious and wide-ranging domestic agenda, to level-up our country and forge prosperity for every region and nation of the UK.

During the last election, we all had to endure the age-old Labour lie that the NHS would not be safe in our hands. It was as wrong seven months ago as it was when they trotted it out 38 years ago.

It is this Party and this Government that enshrined into law the biggest-ever cash boost for the NHS, investing an additional £33.9 billion in frontline services every year by 2023-24, the largest and longest funding settlement in the history of the Health Service. And when the NHS needed additional resource to cope with the coronavirus, we provided it.

And we are making good on our commitment to recruit more doctors and nurses too: there are now 12,000 more nurses and 6,000 more doctors in our NHS since a year earlier.

I also know many of you and my parliamentary colleagues were subject to local schools cuts campaign run by the National Education Union at the last election. Yet it is this government that is boosting funding in our primary and secondary schools by £14 billion over the next three years, so that every child can get a good education.

And just last month, the Prime Minister set out our ambitious ten-year plan to rebuild schools throughout England, with £1 billion for the first 50 projects.

Safety on our streets was another area where we pledged to take action, and we have. Recent rates of knife crime have been a major concern, particularly in London, where the Labour Mayor refuses to take responsibility. I am pleased that we have already recruited an additional 3000 police officers as part of our manifesto pledge to put an extra 20,000 officers on the streets.

We also know that transport and infrastructure is key to driving our future economic growth and success, but that particularly in our Northern cities and towns, good transport infrastructure has been too often lacking.

As someone who used to live in Leeds, I was delighted at Grant Shapps’ announcement yesterday of £589 million to kick-start upgrade work between York, Leeds, Huddersfield, and Manchester, to speed up trains and boost reliability by electrifying much of the line and doubling the number of tracks on congested stretches. This comes on top of the money we have already pledged to upgrade rail and roads across the country.

Finally, I know that for many the cost of living is a major concern. In April, this Government gave the National Living Wage its largest cash boost to £8.72 – giving nearly three million people a well-earned pay rise. This week we also gave millions of hard-working public-sector employees, such as our armed forces, doctors, police, and teachers, an above-inflation pay rise, on top of what we’ve already given to nurses in the NHS.

Over the last year, in the face of adversity, a remarkable amount has been achieved. Yet we cannot be complacent. We still have much to do to honour our commitments and level-up our country as we emerge from the greatest crisis of our times.

But the last year should give us confidence that we can, and will, achieve our mission.

Iain Dale: My end of term school report on the Cabinet. Grades below. Open with care.

24 Jul

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Parliament has broken up for the summer, and there’s a bit of an end of term feeling around Westminster at the moment.

So what better time to look at how politicians are performing? Here’s Part One of my School Report on the Cabinet – what a great way to make a few new enemies…

Boris Johnson – Prime Minister

B –

A tumultuous first year in power. It was supposed to be all about the bright new post-Brexit era, but everything was turned upside down by Coronavirus, and Johnson himself being hospitalised. Delegation is a great thing, and he did it very well as Mayor of London. Being Prime Minister is much more complicated. Number Ten is too centralised, and Cabinet Ministers need to be given their head if they are to prove themselves. I’m not alone in thinking Johnson hasn’t totally got over his near death experience, but the old Boris is showing signs of returning. There is a degree of Parliamentary unrest, but if he can get his domestic agenda back on track MPs will rally round. In short, did well in the winter term, but needs to concentrate more and give a lead to the class.

Rishi Sunak – Chancellor of the Exchequer

A –

It’s easy to be popular when you’re dishing out the sweeties, and Sunak hasn’t put too many feet wrong since he because Chancellor in February. His business rescue package and furlough programme were effective, albeit with a few teething problems. Yet he has utterly failed to help the so-called ‘excluded three million’ – the self employed and company directors. These are natural Conservative voters, and they won’t forget how they have been ignored. Tipped to be the next Head Boy, but he mustn’t rest on his laurels. If he manages to revive the economy in double quick time, he will be unassailable. But then again, so was a previous Chancellor…

Dominic Raab – Foreign Secretary

A difficult start to the job, but has increasingly grown into it, and has started to display a more humble side to his character. When the Prime Minister was in hospital, he deputised in a very non-showy way, which drew praise from many of the Cabinet. His response to the problems in Hong Kong and China portray a Foreign Secretary who has begun to lose any sense of imposter syndrome.

Priti Patel – Home Secretary

B –  

Endured a difficult start to the job, and has suffered from some appalling misogynistic prejudice, and some racism too, not least from deluded Labour MPs. She’s come across as a gritty fighter, and knows how to find the party’s G spot. She suffers from being unable to project her bubbly, funny persona in the media. If she can conquer that, and increase her public visibility, she will become indispensable to the boss, who reportedly blows hot and cold about her.

Michael Gove – Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

B

One of the government’s few transformational gamechangers, Gove’s job is to coordinate the Government’s Brexit and Coronavirus responses. No pressure, then. In recent weeks, he’s become more of a behind the scenes operator rather than front of house, and there are lingering suspicions that he’s tolerated rather than embraced by his line boss. But Johnson should remember, that if Gove is successful, the government in general will be successful.

Gavin Williamson – Secretary of State for Education

C

He was desperate to get back into the cabinet, but seemed an odd choice for this job. It’s one he’s never appeared comfortable in, and his media appearances have sometimes been a tad uncertain. Needs to get his head down and come to terms that this post is one of the best in government, and onein  you can make real change and have a real impact.

Alok Sharma – Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy

C

Sharma’s niceness is an asset, but his promotion into one of the most important jobs in British politics is seen by many as not having worked. He’s very loyal to the Prime Minister and that loyalty has been repaid in spades but, given the economic recovery should be driven and encouraged by his department, he needs to be far clearer about what his industrial strategy is. Needs to do his homework on his media performances, which can often be sleep inducing.

Ben Wallace – Secretary of State for Defence

C +

A long time Johnson ally, Wallace was tipped by many for the sack in the last reshuffle but was given a reprieve. Defence has largely been out of the headlines over the last year, but that’s about to change. Will Wallace seriously tolerate yet further cuts in the British Army, as is rumoured?

Matt Hancock – Secretary of State for Health & Social Care

B

Hancock has become one of the most well-known faces in government, largely due to Coronavirus. On top of the detail, tiggerish in his enthusiasm, his colleagues have come to respect him more than they perhaps ever thought they would. His frustration with the Health Service establishment has become plain for all to see.

Brandon Lewis – Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

B +

Given he’s one of the government’s most trusted performers, his appointment in the apparent backwater of the Northern Ireland Office came as a surprise to many. He inherited a tricky job given the popularity in the Province of his predecessor. He’s tasked with keeping the parties talking and implementing the Northern Ireland protocol. So far so good. He’s also been used more than might be expected doing the morning media rounds.

Amanda Milling – Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party

C –

The post of Party Chairman used to rank number 5 in the hierarchy. Now it seems to be an afterthought. James Cleverly was neutered in the role, and Amanda Milling is largely anonymous. She has little public profile and most party members wouldn’t recognise her. Without upsetting the boss, she needs to up her profile and do it quickly.

Grant Shapps – Secretary of State for Transport

B +

One of the surprise successes of the Cabinet. It’s the job he wanted, and he’s shown a sure-footed grasp of the different Transport policy nettles. In the Coronavirus press conferences he was by far the most confident and human performers. He’s also got the ability to say ‘I don’t know’ without losing face.

The Conservative Party’s coming virtual conference. Turning a setback into an opportunity.

8 Jul

Though CCHQ insists that attending the annual Party conference in a big city, such as Birmingham or Manchester, is less expensive than some suggest, such venues are undoubtedly more expensive than the seaside ones that preceded them.

So there is an upside to yesterday’s inevitable announcement that this year’s event will follow Labour and Liberal Democrats in being held online.

Admittedly, watching Boris Johnson via Zoom or Microsoft Teams – or whatever portal CCHQ puts in place and charge members for entering – is no substitute for the live experience.

But seeing the Prime Minister’s closing speech in this way will come this year without travel costs, train bills, buying petrol, purchasing meals and standing people drinks.  And the same goes for the rest of the event.

Many members go for the fringe events and not the platform ones, and this is therefore a good moment to confirm that ConservativeHome will be offering our usual fringe programme – by virtual means, of course.  A tweet from Amanda Milling’s confirms that the conference itself will take place in October. More news when we have it.

The Conservative Party Conference will take place this year – online

7 Jul

Amanda Milling and Ben Elliott have written to Party members as follows:

“Following discussions with our partners we have decided that the Conservative Party will host a Virtual Conference and move most of our conference in October online.

We are excited to be working with our partners and suppliers to produce the Virtual Conference and will provide further details shortly, with the full agenda going live in early September. 

The Virtual Conference will provide a fantastic opportunity for members to share ideas and hear from voices across the Party.

Party Conference is a highlight of the political calendar and we know many people will be disappointed if they can’t attend Conference in person. 

Whilst we hope we will be able to host some aspects in the physical format, we would only do so if allowed by government guidelines and following the strictest safety guidelines.

Members who have already purchased passes to attend the Conference will receive an email with instructions in due course.”

It isn’t clear as we write what the virtual gateway to the virtual venue will be, what the Party will charge its members for entering, or as above what the programme will be.

As readers will see, CCHQ isn’t ruling out elements of a physical conference in some form.  More on ConservativeHome tomorrow.

Profile: Ben Elliot, Co-Chairman of the Party, under fire for the seating plan which put Jenrick next to Desmond

3 Jul

Ben Elliot is a more significant figure than his title, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, might suggest. Just as Andrew Feldman was David Cameron’s man in CCHQ, so Elliot controls the party organisation for Johnson.

The Conservative Party Board is chaired by Elliot, not by his Co-Chairman, Amanda Milling. The new Chief Executive, Darren Mott, a long-term servant of the party, reports to Elliot, not Milling, and Elliot is regularly in Number Ten, conferring with Johnson.

Elliot’s success as a fundraiser for the party is generally recognised. He not only raised the money for last December’s election, but ensured there was a surplus to carry the party through the leaner period after the election – a particularly welcome precaution once the pandemic struck.

The question troubling some Tories is whether, while charming the donors, he is sufficiently careful to avoid unfortunate juxtapositions.

He would not have arranged the seating plan for the now notorious dinner last November at which Robert Jenrick found himself sitting next to Richard Desmond. Nor can he be held to answer for Jenrick’s subsequent conduct, which included sending a friendly text message to Desmond and then ruling in his favour on a major planning application.

The seating plan would have been in the hands of the Treasurer’s Department, which appears to have tried to inform Jenrick’s special advisers about it by way of departmental emails which could not be opened because the general election campaign was already under way.

But because Elliot is in overall charge of CCHQ, he still incurs criticism when things go wrong. The buck stops with him.

“He clearly hasn’t understood the politics,” a senior Tory backbencher complained. “It smells wrong.”

“I’ve never met him,” a second senior Tory backbencher said. “He’s invisible. Maybe that’s a good thing.”

“There are mutterings that he’s a disaster waiting to happen,” an activist who knows the party well comments.

But none of those three knows Elliot. Zac Goldsmith – now as Lord Goldsmith Minister of State for the Pacific, International Environment, Climate and Forests, and Animal Welfare (is there a longer title in the Government?) – has known Elliot “pretty much all my life”, has the highest opinion of him, and calls him “without doubt the most effective person I know in terms of getting things done – he is the go-to person, he has an amazing ability to get people onside, to get people together”.

Goldsmith says it is Elliot’s job “to make sure the party can operate”, by raising the necessary funds: “How politicians behave around party donors is for politicians to figure out.”

This is right: the responsibility for behaving with complete propriety rests with the politicians. On the other hand, they ought not to be placed in situations which might lead to unnecessary embarrassment.

And the donors themselves can be tricky. “Donors put up stuff on Instagram – you despair,” one Conservative remarks. “Desmond is a particularly difficult man,” another observes.

Elliot himself possesses such a tremendous, gung-ho ability to carry off awkward social situations that he may underestimate the difficulties these could pose for less self-assured figures.

His insouciant manner suggests to those around him a refusal to contemplate the danger of scandal.

The élan with which his grandfather, Major Bruce Shand, commanded a squadron of armoured cars in the Western Desert during the Second World War, is displayed by Elliot in the less heroic roles offered by peacetime.

One of Shand’s daughters is now Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, while the other, Annabel, married Simon Elliot, a landowner in Dorset.

Ben Elliot, born in 1975, is almost invariably described, in articles about him, as Camilla’s nephew rather than Annabel’s son.

He does not appear to repine at this branding. After a conventional education at Eton and at Bristol University, where he read politics and economics, he set out to make his way as an entrepreneur.

When he was 24, he and two partners set up a firm called Quintessentially, a “lifestyle management” service for people with more money than sense. It from time to time attracts adverse comment in the press, but Elliot has also shown a flair for promoting it by giving interviews about his own lifestyle.

Here is a piece from The Daily Telegraph in 2011 about his perfect weekend:

“In my heart and soul I am a West Country man and ideally my weekends are spent there. I was born and bred in Dorset and I missed it massively when I was setting up Quintessentially, my lifestyle company, in New York during my twenties and early thirties. On my bedroom wall I had a photograph of Hod Hill, the Iron Age fort behind my parents’ home near Blandford Forum. But these days I also spend weekends in Northleach in Gloucestershire, where my wife Mary-Clare’s family live and where we own a home. I was nervous about emigrating north to Gloucestershire but you’ve got to compromise sometimes…

“We met at an Eric Clapton concert in Madison Square Gardens in New York about three and a half years ago. Her father, Steve Winwood, is a songwriter and musician who formed Blind Faith with Eric Clapton in 1969, and he was also performing in the concert. The Winwoods are half British and half American; they have a second home in Nashville, Tennessee, where Mary-Clare and I spent some time last summer.”

At the end of the interview he was asked, “What are you most ashamed about?” and replied with characteristic boldness: “I don’t have much shame. I don’t really regret anything.”

He also said: “I’d love to represent a West Country seat in the House of Commons.” It would be surprising if he did not still harbour a desire to become an MP, conceivably for The Cotswolds, the seat where Northleach lies.

Politics has been an interest from his earliest years. Goldsmith can remember Elliot at the age of nine or ten at Hawtreys, their preparatory school, getting people to sign petitions.

Recent years have seen an accumulation of offices: in 2015 he was appointed to the development board of the Royal Albert Hall, in 2016 he was deeply involved on the fundraising side of Goldsmith’s unsuccessful campaign for Mayor of London and became a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in 2017 he joined the board of the Centre for Policy Studies, and in December 2018 Michael Gove made him the Government’s Food Surplus and Waste Champion.

Publicity for the last role offered scope, in an interview with The Times, for one of the self-deprecating anecdotes of which Elliot is a master, used as the intro to the piece by its author, Damian Whitworth:

“Ben Elliot arrives for our breakfast meeting having already been into battle. ‘I had a row with my youngest son today because he wouldn’t eat all his porridge. It’s bloody difficult. Negotiating with him on anything is a nightmare.’

“When Britain’s new food waste tsar was growing up he was not allowed to leave the table until he had finished everything on his plate. His father once made him sit, picking away at the last scrap of lunch, until 5 p.m. Modern parenting trends are less hardcore. Caught between an intransigent 21st-century four-year-old and the horror of throwing food away, what did he do? ‘I ended up eating most of it.'”

Here is a rhetoric which creates a feeling of complicity between Elliot and anyone who has ever had trouble getting a child to eat.

But behind the genuine charm lies something else. Someone who has worked for Elliot said he has two modes, charming and angry.

One day he will walk in smiling, the next day like a storm cloud. He is no mere boulevardier, a tall, relaxed, handsome man who networks for his own amusement, content to look good in his grandfather’s old suits as he moves among fashionable and well-connected people.

He is a serious person who for most the time conceals his seriousness, as Englishmen of a certain type do, behind a screen of affability, but who gets immensely frustrated when he cannot achieve what he has set out to achieve.

In this he is like the Prime Minister, another man often written off as not serious, because his manner seems to indicate  incorrigible frivolity.

The two of them are more ambitious, incisive and energetic than their critics are willing to admit. Both of them want to make dramatic changes to the organisations they are running, not conduct themselves as caretakers.

Last summer, when Johnson became Prime Minister and put Elliot into CCHQ, preparations began for an early general election campaign, to be run by Isaac Levido, protégé of Lynton Crosby, who himself got Johnson elected as Mayor of London in 2008, and ran David Cameron’s successful general campaign in 2015.

Most of the recommendations of the Pickles Review, set up to work out what went wrong in Theresa May’s disastrous campaign in 2017, had already been implemented.

Elliot raised the money for the 2019 campaign, frightening donors with the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn government. He also ensured that Levido had the space to get on with running the show. No turf wars disrupted what was a highly successful operation.

Johnson since his Oxford days, when the workers, peasants and intellectuals of Balliol were given no glimpse of his upper-class friends, has had a talent for belonging to several different circles which are for most of the time unaware of each other’s existence. Elliot, close to Gove, great friends with the Goldsmith brothers, and a member at 5 Hertford Street, a club owned by Robin Birley, belongs to one such circle.

The press has striven, quite rightly, to find out all it can about Jenrick and Desmond, and to investigate Elliot’s other enterprises, including the Government work obtained some years ago by Quintessentially, and the lobbying firm, Hawthorn Advisors, which he and others founded in 2013.

That sort of journalism is an indispensable check on the abuse of power. But it may also lead, paradoxically, to an underestimate of the abilities of those against whom it is directed; a cutting down to size which misses significant aspects of someone’s character.

Elliot is described, by one who has seen him at close quarters, as an invigorating boss, a genuine believer in entrepreneurship who sees the good in people, and takes it personally when people criticise Johnson, in whose leadership campaign he played a important role.

If Elliot lacked self-confidence, he would be useless as a fundraiser. To ask people for large sums of money in return for the opportunity to eat an over-priced dinner with Jenrick, and bid for an absurdly expensive game of tennis against Johnson and Elliot, requires a degree of impudence.