Iain Dale: How many Cabinet members would your fantasy Cabinet. I count five. And it gets worse.

20 Aug

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

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to defend what’s happened over the last week or ten days with exam results.

Clustershambles doesn’t really cover it. And the trouble is that it has affected a huge number of people, not just the students and teachers concerned, but their parents and grandparents too.

Add them up, and we’re talking several million people, I imagine. Like the Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip, it’s had cut-through.

The latest YouGov poll, out on Wednesday should a four point dip in the Tory ratings to 40 per cent. While that is still a two point lead, it’s not difficult to imagine that next week Labour could be ahead for the first time in, well, many years.

Optimists might point out that we are three and a half years away from a general election and that time is a great healer. Maybe, but once a Government gets a reputation for crass incompetence it is very difficult to shake off.

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It was reported by The Independent (yes, it still exists online) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation on Monday, but that it was rejected by the Prime Minister. Only they know the truth of this, but it certainly hasn’t been denied by the beleaguered Education Secretary.

If he did indeed do the honourable thing, all credit to him. But surely if you resign, you, er, resign. It’s all very well for the Prime Minister to have said (if he in fact did), well, you got us into this, you get us out, but in the end once a politician loses the confidence of his or her client groups, it’s very difficult to get things back on an even keel.

Your Cabinet colleagues look at you as a dead man walking. Your enemies can’t wait until your inevitable denouement, and your “friends” melt away at the first whiff of grapeshot. If you’re going to survive, you don’t have long to plan how to do it. In Williamson’s case, he has until Christmas, given that I am led to understand that the reshuffle is now planned for January.

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The trouble with this Cabinet is that it has a distinctly second-rate feel about it. How many of them would make it into a Thatcher or Major cabinet. Very few, I would venture to suggest.

I interviewed Alastair Campbell on Wednesday (it will be on the Iain Dale All Talk podcast next Wednesday), and he reckoned that most of the current crew wouldn’t have even made it to Minister of State in Mrs T’s day.

Do it yourself. Go through the whole cabinet, and think how many of them would make your own fantasy cabinet. I just did so and came up with a total of five. Lamentable.

But it gets worse. Look down the list of Ministers of State – the ministers who would normally be next in line for the cabinet. I count five that are cabinet material. This is a dire state of affairs.

But it gets even worse. Normally you have a range of former ministers who you could think about bringing back to add a bit of weight and gravitas. Trouble is, most of them left Parliament at the last election. Looking at the greybeards on the Tory benches with cabinet experience you have Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, John Redwood, Maria Miller, Greg Clark, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Cheryl Gillan, Chris Grayling, Damian Green, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Esther McVey, Andrew Mitchell, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers.

Now, how many of those could realistically be restored to cabinet status to bring something extra in terms of political weight, gravitas or character? I’ll leave that to your impeccable judgement.

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So far this year, I haven’t taken any holiday at all. However, next week I’m on holiday in Norfolk – apart from the fact that I’ll be writing this column, doing several podcasts and appearing on Any Questions.

I realised last week that I’ve lost the art of doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’ve got my laptop open and I will be flicking through Twitter or something.

Next week, I’m going to try to do some reading, and I mean reading for pleasure – not reading something because I have to for my job. Talking of which I have just done an hour-long interview for my Iain Dale Book Club podcast with Danny Finkelstein. He’s just published a book of his collected columns. What a truly fascinating man he is. The podcast will be released on Friday 4 September.

Robert Halfon: Do Twitter’s bosses believe that anti-semitism is worth indulging for profit?

29 Jul

What is the difference between Radio des Mille Collines and Twitter?

Radio des Mille Collines (RDMC) was a radio station that broadcast in Rwanda between 1993 and 1994.  One of its founders (and primary funder) was businessman, Felcien Kabuga, who was recently arrested in France for alleged war crimes against the Rwandan Tutsi population in 1994. One million – predominantly Tutsi – Rwandans were killed over three months in a genocide that shocked the world. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, I spent time teaching in Rwanda, as part of the Andrew Mitchell-led Project Umabano.

What I learnt and saw first-hand in that country will haunt me for the rest of my life. The Tutsi people were, first, systematically demonised, then, marginalised and, finally, murdered. As so often in human history, the Free World stood by and let it happen.

In part, what made the mass-slaughter humanly possible were the activities of the RDMC. Listened to by millions, the station would broadcast regular propaganda against the Tutsis, notably describing them as, “cockroaches”. It helped ‘desensitise’ the Hutu population in terms of the killings they would go on to carry out.

I thought of Radio des Mille Collines on Monday this week as, for the first time since joining Twitter in 2009, I began a 48-hour boycott in solidarity with Jewish groups, Jews in public life, the former Chief Rabbi and supportive friends.

As RDMC showed, the power of broadcasting – whether it be social media, TV or radio – can, at worst, facilitate a genocide. At best, it desensitises those who engage with it, so much so that they no longer see racial hatred as an offence, but merely part of everyday parlance.

Clearly, Jack Dorsey is not Felicien Kabuga. Nor is Twitter as an organisation encouraging genocide.

But was RDMC the early equivalent of Twitter for the Hutu militia? Whilst the Hutus may not have had the internet, they did have access to pocket radio. They were able to switch on and hear ‘ordinary’ folk call in to tell their stories about the so-called horrific actions of the Tutsi “cockroach” population.

Was the ability of the RDMC to spread evil and hatred any different to some of the vile Tweets that anti-Semites write on Twitter, seemingly with both impunity and immunity?

In essence, the question to be asked is whether Twitter has created a safe haven to spread hatred of Jewish people? What I have never understood from some of these social media websites is why the onus is always on the victim to report abuse. Why is it that the advanced algorithms do not pick this up? Moreover, when it is reported, especially when it comes to anti-semitism, rarely is it followed through.

At the time of writing this article for ConservativeHome, despite reporting an anti-semitic tweet a week or so ago, it has still not been removed. This inaction – as exemplified in the case of Wiley, the rapper who wrote anti-semitic tweets last week, which are still up as I write -is why so many good people have decided to stage a 48-hour boycott of Twitter.

Often, Twitter goes after the big high-profile cases in terms of dealing with extremism, yet when it comes to specific and regular instances of anti-Semitism, the social media site appears to turn a blind eye.

Why does all this matter? In February, the Jewish Community Security Trust reported that anti-Semitic incidents were at an all-time high, with 1,805 cases recorded in 2019. Online anti-Semitism made up the greatest proportion of abuse, at 39 per cent, with the vast majority taking place on Twitter.

Perhaps the management of Twitter just don’t care because they are making so much money? Why should a few upset Jews upset its golden applecart?

As far as I am aware, none of us Twitter boycotters have left Twitter for good. I will still use the social media site as, on balance, it is more useful than not. But, I have a very different opinion of Twitter from a few years ago, when I thought the social media site was a genuine benefit to mediakind. There might come a time that this 48-hour boycott – a chip of ice, slipping down the mountain – may become an avalanche. Millions of decent people may decide that Twitter is no longer worth the candle. I think that time could be nearer than we think.

Michael Gove, in the past, described countries that treat their Jewish citizens well, as being the countries in history that were most liberal, enlightened, democratic and having deep respect for the rule of law. In the same way, perhaps, we can judge the enlightenment of social media sites by the way they genuinely – or not, as the case may be – work to combat anti-Semitism.

P.S. Readers may be interested in this article I wrote on the Rwandan genocide in August 2008 for ConservativeHome: “How Bergen Belsen came to the hills of Rwanda”.

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.

Andrew Mitchell: I used to be adamantly opposed to all forms of assisted dying. Here’s why I changed my views.

22 Jul

Andrew Mitchell was International Development Secretary from 2010 to 2012. He is the MP for Sutton Coldfield.

The All Party Group on choice at the end of life – composed of members of both the Commons and the Lords – held its first ever virtual meeting last week.

That more than 60 members of Parliament chose to attend at 9am is an eloquent testimony to the seriousness with which Members of Parliament are examining the issue. At the meeting I agreed to be the co-Chair of the group along with my Labour colleague Karin Smyth, the Member of Parliament for Bristol South.

When I entered the House of Commons in 1987, I was adamantly opposed to all forms of assisted dying. But over the years (perhaps it is part of the ageing process) I have completely changed my mind.

Let me explain why.

It is first and foremost because of my experience as a constituency MP. I have sat in my office in the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield and heard stories from so many of my constituents. Often with tears pouring down their faces, they have given me deeply intimate details of the last days of someone they loved but who died a miserable and sometimes very painful death.

By the end of these meetings, often with tears coursing down my own face, I was invariably left with two overwhelming feelings: the first is that we would not let an animal we loved be treated in such a way and, second, I do not myself wish to go through the sort of end of life experience that my constituents have so often eloquently described.

And just as I would not want it for myself, I no longer want members of my family or those I represent in Parliament to have to navigate so awful an end.

I believe the time is approaching when Parliament must examine this again. This is not a party political issue subject to whipping; it is an issue of conscience where members of the House of Commons hold different views reached entirely honourably on the basis of their own personal beliefs.

Assisted dying could be the great liberal reform achieved by this government. Public support for assisted dying is overwhelming and consistent across all parts of society. Out of the British public, 84 per cent support assisted dying including 86 per cent of Conservative voters. Of Conservative Party members, 67 per cent support assisted dying. It is interesting also to note that 79 per cent of people of faith and 86 per cent of people with disabilities support assisted dying.

Support is also highest in the North East, East Midlands and Yorkshire and Humber. It is lowest in London. So this is not a liberal metropolitan issue; it is one that unites the country.

Assisted dying is legal in 10 states in the United States of America (some for more than 20 years), two states in Australia, nationwide in Canada and likely to be nationwide in New Zealand later this year. It is interesting to note that in no country with legalised assisted dying has the law been repealed. And in Britain we now have the opportunity to look at the differing legislative approaches in all of these countries, evaluate them, and deliver the best possible results for our constituents.

Consider these facts:

  • Everyday 17 people in the UK will die in pain and distress that cannot be prevented by even the very best palliative care.
  • Hospices now acknowledge that some dying people are in so much pain medication doesn’t work.
  • One Britain travels to Switzerland for assisted dying every week at a cost of around £10,000, the expense, the difficulty of traveling when terminally ill and the challenges of obtaining the necessary documentation put this option out of the reach of all but a few.
  • Those who accompany their loved ones to Switzerland run the risk of police prosecution. Ann Whaley, married to her husband Geoffrey for more than 60 years, was interviewed under caution by police officers.
  • Around 300 terminally ill people take their own lives every year behind closed doors. The effect of these suicides on their family and on responders can be devastating. Some of them have gone wrong, which has added to the immense distress. Mavis Eccleston helped her husband of almost 60 years, Dennis, who was dying in agony to take his own life and was later prosecuted for murder. She was acquitted by a jury but only after 18 months of investigation. This brought huge distress to her and her family.

There is also a risk in maintaining the status quo as attitudes among the public change. The increased reporting of cases undermines public confidence in the law. Almost half of police and crime commissioners including five Conservative PCC’s have called on the Government to review the law saying the current law does not protect vulnerable people.

The medical profession’s views are shifting too: the Royal College of Physicians moved its position to neutrality in 2019 and the Royal College of General Practitioners who surveyed their membership this year found a surge in support for assisted dying – 41 per cent compared to just five per cent in 2013.

As assisted dying becomes more established and understood in other English-speaking countries, demands in the UK for the law to change will continue to grow.

Many of us hope that the Health Select Committee under Jeremy Hunt, its distinguished and experienced Chair, might consider an inquiry which took evidence from the various sections of society that are most affected: dying people and their families, police officers, healthcare professionals and coroners, so that the issue can be explored further.

The Health Select Committee will currently be heavily preoccupied with the Covid crisis but perhaps in due course they may feel this is a subject which they are well placed to examine.

So finally, what are the modest changes those of us who want reform are seeking?

  • We want to give people who are terminally ill (and also in the final months of their lives) the option of dying on their own terms. We want this to be an active choice by a rational person to end their own life as they wish.
  • The change in the law we propose would contain stringent safeguards to protect people; it would only be accessible to mentally competent adults.
  • Two doctors would assess the person making the request to ensure that they met the eligibility criteria under the law. They would explain all other care options in full.
  • A High Court judge would examine the person’s request and make sure that it was being made voluntarily – free from any pressure or coercion.
  • Once the request was approved, a doctor would be able to prescribe life-ending medication for the person who would then take it themselves under the supervision of a doctor or another healthcare professional.
  • Healthcare professionals who wanted to exercise conscientious objection would, of course, be able to do so.
  • There would be clear reporting procedures for doctors as well as monitoring through an annual report published by the Government.

The law change that we propose is based on one that has operated in Oregon in America for 23 years. We would like to add additional safeguards built in to make it right for the UK. There have been no cases of abuse of Oregon’s law and no extension of its eligibility criteria throughout these 23 years. This model of assisted dying legislation has since been adopted in nine other US states and passed by lawmakers in Australia and New Zealand.

Wherever you stand on this issue, let us now have a calm and measured debate on the best way forward. I believe this is a reform whose time is approaching.