Profile: Penny Mordaunt. Ambitious, socially liberal, sacked, then rehabilitated, restive, military-flavoured – and on manoeuvres.

25 May

Last Tuesday, Penny Mordaunt triumphed at the Dispatch Box. In a speech lasting three minutes and 46 seconds she demolished Angela Rayner.

According to Henry Deedes, sketching the contest for The Daily Mail,

“You’d struggle to find a more elegant piece of skewering among Marseille’s finest kebabists.”

Rayner claimed that ministers “act like the rules are for other people”, and have repeatedly broken those rules. Mordaunt replied with icy self-possession:

“The right hon. Lady has made particular accusations today about colleagues, and I want to make a final point, Mr Speaker. If you were to take every single MP she has made an allegation about this afternoon, if you were to look at all the political donations they have received since the pandemic started, since January 2020, and if you were to add them all up and then double them—no, quadruple them—you would just about match what the right hon. Lady herself has received in the same time period. She should thank her lucky stars that we do not play the same games that she does.”

This sounded just the kind of point Michael Gove might have made had he been defending the Government, and some good judges even saw “Michael’s hand” in these words.

Rayner, who now rejoices in the title of shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, had supposed she would be taking on Gove, who is in many ways the most formidable debater on the Government benches.

It was instead Mordaunt, as Paymaster General, outside the Cabinet but a Cabinet Office minister, who was given the chance to remind Conservatives that she too is a considerable Commons performer, and can be relied on to carry the fight to the Opposition.

As ConHome noted in an earlier profile of her, published in March 2016 and predicated on the possibility that she might be a future leader:

“Mordaunt has a go-for-it mentality, which emerges at quite frequent intervals in her career, and is accompanied by a gift for publicity.”

She followed up her Commons performance with a piece in last week’s Daily Telegraph in which she mounted a bold defence of the Government’s record during the pandemic:

“I am proud to be part of this Government and to serve under such a determined, resilient, and popular leader…

“We…prioritised community assets over individual freedoms. The Government’s decision to protect the NHS and save lives was reminiscent of Churchill’s response to the U boat threat. He instinctively recognised that it was the one thing that could really hurt us.

“This is where the Prime Minister deserves personal praise. As someone who is an instinctive libertarian, he made the most difficult decision of his career.”

Her comparison with the Second World War was marred by a horrible blunder, when she described the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 as “the first and last victory of the war that was fought chiefly with British leadership”.

It fell to the present Viscount Slim to remind her that in Burma “the largest British-led campaign of the Second World War” began in 1942, and involved at its height a mainly Commonwealth army of 1.25 million personnel, which nicknamed itself the Forgotten Army, and which, unfortunately, was forgotten by Mordaunt, a former Defence Secretary.

What do Boris Johnson, Bill Gates, Elton John, Tony Blair, Ruth Davidson, Richard Curtis, Richard Branson, Kim Leadbeater, Michael Dobbs, Malcolm Rifkind, Peter Hennessy and Anthony Seldon have in common?

All of them have provided puffs for Mordaunt’s new book, Greater: Britain After The Storm, written with Chris Lewis and published last Thursday.

Blair described it as “uplifting and highly readable”, Branson said it is “utterly uplifting and inspiring”, Curtis settled for “really readable and funny”, while Johnson’s verdict is “loving, invigorating and delivered with characteristic wit”.

One may doubt whether these critics found either the time or the inclination to read the whole book, for like almost all such manifestos, it is sprinkled with ludicrous assertions.

On an early page, the American Ambassador to London, Woody Johnson, is said to have given a speech which is “shorter than the Gettysburg Address and just as powerful”.

In a later chapter, Parliament is dismissed as “about as out of touch with a modern democracy as it’s possible to be”, and some shoot-from-the-hip proposals are made for reform of the Lords and Commons, which earned the book a short write-up in The Sunday Times.

But the point of such a book is not to show literary merit. It is generally written to demonstrate the fitness of the author to be leader, a role reckoned to require energy, vision and grim determination, all of which are needed to get a book finished.

Anyone who would like to see Mordaunt display those qualities in shorter form is referred to her piece in September 2018 for ConHome entitled The twelve new rules of politics, and also to her piece in May 2019 entitled It’s time for servant leadership that will listen to the people.

Mordaunt supported Leave in the EU Referendum of 2016, but saw the need afterwards to bring the two sides together.

Theresa May made her Minister of State for Disabilities from 2016-17, put her in the Cabinet as International Development Secretary from 2017-19, and promoted her to the role of Defence Secretary from May to July 2019.

This was a highly suitable post for her, given her service background, outlined in the earlier ConHome profile. Even as Defence Secretary she continued as a Royal Navy reservist, a combination of roles which the Navy found, in the words of one of her colleagues, “mildly uncomfortable”, for she was both extremely senior and rather junior.

By this stage, May’s prime ministership was tottering to its close, and having established that despite her ConHome pieces, she did not have enough support to run for the leadership herself, Mordaunt decided to back Jeremy Hunt, and became a member of his campaign team.

Had Hunt won, she could have expected a senior Cabinet post. But although he got to the final two, he lost heavily to Johnson, who proceeded to sack Mordaunt.

She might have gone off to chair a select committee, the role taken by Hunt himself.  But instead she set to work on her book, and in the reshuffle of February 2020 accepted the post of Paymaster General, well below her previous level.

“I’m sure that Boris has told her if she’s helpful she can come back [into the Cabinet],” a former minister told ConHome. “But Boris tells everyone that.”

“I’m a big fan,” another former minister said. “I would have thought she would be an absolutely prime candidate for promotion to the Cabinet. There’s an awful lot of talent in the party, but I’d put her top of my list.”

“She’s very determined, very ambitious and generally very competitive,” a third ex-minister said, contemplating her chances of one day becoming leader. “But I don’t know how far she has been able to ingratiate herself with the 2019 intake.”

Because of the pandemic, nobody has been able to woo that intake much.

Mordaunt has a headstrong quality, and has on a considerable number of issues defied the Government line. Last summer she said there were many “inconsistencies” in Dominic Cummings’ account of his visit to Barnard Castle, and accused him of undermining the Government’s key public health messages.

She is a resolute social liberal, and in March told the Commons that ‘transmen are men and transwomen are women’, a position far in advance of Government policy.

At about the same time, she defied the Government line by meeting the Muslim Council of Britain.

So she could already have been fired for insubordination. Perhaps this accounts for the more loyal tone she has recently struck, though that could also proceed from the realisation that Johnson is on course to emerge strengthened from the pandemic, which means the best she can hope for is to get back into the Cabinet, which in turn will only happen if she convinces the Prime Minister that she is loyal.

Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.

Emily Carver: Politicians’ refusal to discuss NHS reform is cowardly at best and sinister at worst

10 Mar

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The recent furore over the proposed one per cent pay rise for NHS staff has served as yet another reminder of just how toxic and claustrophobic public debate over our health service has become.

Unsurprisingly, the press framed the Government’s decision as a callous attack on nurses (despite the fact that the pay rise would apply across-the-board), the unions slammed the “pitiful” increase as “the worst kind of insult” to NHS workers and threatened strike action, while the opposition rallied to demand justice for our “Covid heroes”. All very predictable. But while the headlines may have been foreseeable, it is still troubling to see how little room there is for rational discussion when it comes to “our NHS”.

First, it doesn’t take much digging to discover that the headline figure of one per cent is misleading. The wage banding system for NHS staff – as with most of the public sector – allows for regular incremental wage rises; and overtime payments and extra allowances for staff in London and the South East are also built into the system. The problem is that the way staff are remunerated appears arbitrary and allows little room for targeted or performance-based pay rises.

In an institution, which employs 1.3 million people, this is not only an inefficient way of using taxpayers’ money, but a rather unfair and possibly demotivating method for deciding pay. Few would disagree that pay should ideally reflect contribution and performance, rather than rely on national pay bargaining. It is distinctly disingenuous to claim that every single employee in the NHS, regardless of their role, responsibility or competence, deserves the exact same increase.

For now, fundamental change in the way we decide NHS pay is likely to be placed on the backburner, along with reforms to many other areas of public policy. Far simpler for ministers to slap an NHS badge on their lapel and squabble over how many extra billions we should pump into the behemoth this year. Why risk the inevitable backlash that comes with calling for more substantial reform?

It was only a few weeks ago that the IEA’s relatively innocuous briefing paper Viral Myths, which challenged the idea that the NHS has been a “star performer” during the pandemic, triggered explosive media coverage. The fact that the paper made it clear that it was talking about the institution rather than the staff mattered very little when the opportunity arose for politicians and commentators to make incendiary remarks – see Angela Rayner’s public outburst for a particularly wearying display of point-scoring.

It is clear that much of the political class would rather pander to the narrative of the NHS as the “envy of the world” than stick their head above the parapet and dare to suggest we might have something to learn from international best practice.

But this is cowardly at best and sinister at worst when you consider that the NHS consistently ranks in the bottom third in international comparisons of health system performance, which, to our shame, translates into thousands of unnecessarily lost lives each year. Failing to implement – or even entertain the notion of – change helps no-one, aside from perhaps a handful who use it for cheap populism. Reform would not undermine hard-working staff, quite the opposite. Releasing frontline staff from the broken system they are trapped within would be a mark of respect and gratitude.

In the months to come, the case for reform will strengthen. As immediate pressure from Covid patients eases, it is doubtful the NHS will breathe a sigh of relief. It has been estimated that as many as six million “hidden” patients could join the queue for NHS treatment in the coming months, which could see waiting lists reach eight million by October this year. The reported rise in the number of people now booking private appointments suggests that the public are growing increasingly aware that the service is in poor health, and increasingly impatient at how long it takes to get the treatment they need. If this trend continues, as is surely inevitable, it is not inconceivable that resentment will start to bubble at the vast sums funnelled towards an unreformed NHS.

Although the pandemic has exposed systemic weaknesses in the NHS, people appear intolerant to change. Such is the potency of the two rhetorical strawmen devotees of our healthcare system are able to erect: first, that criticism of the institution is tantamount to criticism of its workers and second, that the only alternative to our universal provision is the American system. But perhaps, as the trauma of the pandemic eases, their resolve may soften. Either way, our representatives owe it to us (let’s remember the NHS budget is likely to reach a colossal £200 billion this year) to engage in sensible discussions over reform.

It is simply unacceptable that it is now the norm for patients to wait months and months for routine operations – as was the case even before the pandemic struck. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world; it should be a national scandal that our health service produces health outcomes more similar to that of the Czech Republic and Slovenia than of Switzerland or Belgium, both of which, it is important to stress, benefit from universal market-based healthcare systems.

The burden on the NHS in the months and years to come may be unlike anything we have yet experienced. The Government speaks of a global Britain, but this must include a willingness to learn from other countries, and healthcare should be no exception. Those hackneyed arguments that any failings are down to underfunding, or that the only other choice besides the NHS is the US model, are borderline insulting to a voting public who have sacrificed so much over the past year to “protect the NHS”.

More fence sitting from Starmer as Labour MPs challenge deportation flight

4 Dec

This week, the Home Office’s plan to deport 50 convicted criminals to Jamaica for violent, sexual or drug offences was disrupted after a campaign by Labour MPs.

Two days before the flight was scheduled to take off, Clive Lewis wrote to Priti Patel to demand she “cancel the planned deportation of up to 50 Black British residents” adding that deportations “epitomise the Government’s continued ‘Hostile Environment’ agenda”, and that “[t]ackling institutionalised racism starts one step at a time.”

Nearly 70 mostly Labour MPs signed Lewis’s letter, including Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Rebecca Long-Bailey, John McDonnell Lloyd Russell-Moyle, and celebrities such as Naomi Campbell and Thandie Newton wrote to airlines asking them not to carry out the Home Office’s orders. After a series of legal challenges, 30 criminals were taken off the flight, including a rapist and a London murderer.

Where was Keir Starmer in all this? Many noticed that he was not one of the signatories on the letter, nor was his deputy Angela Rayner, suggesting they disapprove of Lewis’s intervention (which, ironically, challenged a policy set by the last Labour government). But he has done nothing to indicate an opinion either way. Perhaps he thinks, like the Covid tiers, he can abstain his way out of the matter.

The incident raises questions about Starmer’s leadership, not least because of the degree of influence opposition backbenchers now have over Home Office policy. It is unusual for them to write these sorts of letters without the backing of shadow cabinet ministers. Notably, 12 other frontbenchers did not sign. So who is in charge?

Labour’s National Executive Committee even appeared to tell Starmer and Rayner off for not signing the letter, writing: “we are alarmed that there has been no comment from you both in response to the deportation flight scheduled for 2nd December… we request that you make a decisive and compassionate intervention.”

In his Labour Party Conference speech, Starmer famously promised “This is a party under new leadership”. He was keen to project the sense that he would bring the various factions of Labour together, though recent events are yet more evidence of how difficult that goal is, with Corbyn and McDonnell calling the shots elsewhere.

The bigger question, of course, is what this means for Starmer’s future policies. Many will remember him promising at his party’s conference “never again will Labour go into an election not being trust on national security”. But his refusal to comment, let alone act, on a matter involving murderers, rapists and violent criminals is hardly going to reassure many voters.

Part of the reason Starmer is reportedly quiet on some issues is down to advice from Joe Biden’s campaign team, which has instructed him not to get involved in “culture war issues”. But this mindset seems to have gradually extended to all manner of political policy. Often people think Starmer is calculated in his political moves, but too much fence sitting does not a Prime Minister make.

How to ensure that disadvantaged children are fed when schools are closed

26 Oct

When Theresa May was Prime Minister, Conservative MPs stopped voting, for a time, against Opposition Day motions.  This had two upsides.  First, they were no longer assailed in their constituencies for trooping through the lobbies against motions that could be read to be innocuous.  Second – and even more to the point – one can’t lose a vote if one doesn’t vote at all.

The downside of not opposing those motions was that, once they passed and the Government then ignored them, Ministers were open to the charge of holding the will of Parliament in contempt.  In any event, Labour then unearthed a device that the Government couldn’t bypass – the Humble Address.

We mention this to-and-fro from the last Parliament in the wake of a vote in this one.  Tory MPs are raging about being whipped to vote against last week’s Opposition Day motion on free school meals – especially those newly-elected last year.  They feel that the Whips’ instruction has made them targets in their seats.

Angela Rayner’s disgusting cry of “scum” may be part of the reason: over 100 Conservative MPs say that they and their staff have been the targets of abuse and threats.  Some Labour MPs have form in this way: remember John McDonnell’s notorious remark about lynching Esther McVey.

We believe that Tory MPs can’t simply run away from Opposition motions.  But we also feel that those unhappy backbenchers have a point.  For the simple truth is that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the departmental ministers concerned could scarcely be handling this issue worse were they trying.

One can grasp the scale of the problem by pondering the arguments that Conservative MPs have been deploying against making free school meals available during the Christmas holidays.  The problem is not that there are none.  It is that there are too many.

On the one hand, it was said last week that the taxpayer can’t afford it.  It’s true that we are losing a sense of what the Treasury can afford as the Coronavirus bills pile up.  But if the Government can afford Eat Out to Help Out, why can’t it afford Feed Kids to Help Out?

On the other, it was also said that the Government is spending millions on feeding poorer children.  True again.  But the money is divided up between a mass of programmes – support to local authorities, the Universal Credit uplift, the holiday activities and food programme, Fareshare, Magic Breakfast, and more. That’s a mouthful to communicate.

Conservative MPs point out that the last Labour Government didn’t make free school meals available during the holiday period.  Correct: but Gordon Brown’s failed administration is beginning to become a bit of a distant memory. They say that parents should be responsible for feeding their children, not the state.

Quite so – up to a point.  But if the principle were extended to its logical conclusion, there would be no free school meals at all.  What about sudden unemployment after furlough, to strike a timely note?  Or disability?  And what about state policy that frustrates families – complex childcare schemes, high energy bills, food taxes?

When a Tory MPs can claim that vouchers for meals are being spent on crack dens and brothels, without being able to produce hard evidence, one can hear the bottom of the barrel being noisily scraped.  If vouchers are such a bad idea, why did the Government make them available over the summer holidays in the first place?

There is a hint of the Thatcher era about what is happening now.  Some will say that she won three elections, and the moral of those victories is: ignore the protesters.  But there is a new dimension – even if you don’t believe that the loss of reputation for compassion came back to haunt the Party once it lost its reputation for competence.

It is that while Labour MPs and the hard left are one thing, local businesses, charities and football clubs are quite another.  All these, and more, are queuing up to offer help to disadvantaged children.  Do you warm to the idea of the Big Society?  Well, here it is in action – with the Conservative Party on the wrong side of it.

Reports today suggest that Downing Street knows that it has dug itself into a hole, and must now start to dig itself out.  That would be best attempted by finding a plan that’s better than Labour’s (or Marcus Rashford’s) communicating it, implementing it – and then campaigning for it.

Fortunately, there is one to hand.  If you think about it, schools are not the right venue for delivering help to poorer children during the holidays – for the obvious reason that, by definition, they are then closed.  And the exceptional circumstances of the spring lockdown are now, we all hope, behind us.

Nor do vouchers guarantee “healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink”, to quote from Government guidelines – which, in the case of food, is better delivered hot.  These are best provided in a formal setting.  Which is precisely the aim of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme which we mentioned earlier.

This is a £9 million programme in its second year of pilots.  This summer, it supported up to 50,000 disadvantaged children across 17 local authority areas at a cost of some £9 million – providing at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August 2020.

The speech of last week’s debate came from Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Clevelys (Blackpool itself, by the way, has eight of the ten most deprived areas in England).  “My view is that we need a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support stream to deal with the trials that have occurred,” he said.

Maynard is not alone in understanding the issues: see Alan Mak’s work, for example, on Magic Breakfast. But he was right to suggest that the pilots have been too slow.  As he said, the issue “is the ultimate example in politics of where something must be done. That is very different from saying that anything should be done”.

Exactly so, and two different groups of people ought to read his speech with special care.  The first are Ministers, the Downing Street apparatus, the Treasury – and a handful of backbenchers.  There is no more matter more primal than food – and getting fed, especially if one is going hungry.

This debacle is a fearful warning to Boris Johnson, Downing Street, the Government and CCHQ: in all things, let alone any matter so emotive, one needs a policy, a message – and the capacity to campaign on it.  In each of these areas, they have been found wanting.

They will have to raise their game on continuing the Universal Credit uplift, and responding to the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s report on food strategy.  Why didn’t they, in this case?  Perhaps because, amidst all the focus on the Just About Managings, they are missing a point: social justice matters in the former Red Wall, too.

The second group of people concerned are the Rashford campaigners.  Some Tories complain about the footballer.  We aren’t joining them.  After all, if it wasn’t for him, we might well not be writing this morning about the issues he has highlighted.

But he should surely see that vouchers, dispersed to parents in a mass of homes, are not a substitute for nutritious meals, delivered to children who are gathered together in a formal setting – just as in term-time.  If Ministers offer such a programme on a bigger scale, he should jump at the chance to embrace it.

Iain Dale: The way the BBC and Sky News behave, you’d think we are the only country in the world with a second wave

23 Oct

It’s been another difficult week for the Prime Minister, who has come under attack from Labour both for the failure to come to an agreement with Andy Burnham, or to cave in to demands for kids to get free school meals in the next few school holidays.

Sometimes in politics it is right to say so far – but no further. Bottom lines are important in conducting negotiations.

However, in the case of the money offered to Greater Manchester it is a little difficult to understand how the two sides could fall out over a trifling £5 million.

On free school meals, it would cost £157 million to provide them during the autumn half term, Christmas, February half term and Easter holidays to those children already due to receive them.

Given the U-turn that Marcus Rashford forced in the summer, I do wonder whether this has been worth the political and reputational fallout. “Tories rip food from starving children’s mouths” is the narrative that’s already developing, and however ridiculous that is, sometimes it’s just not worth the political fight.

The Government is right to point out that circumstances are different now and schools are open. But it cuts little ice. The Labour Party is promoting the narrative that the Tories are happy to pay £7,000 a day to failing test and trace consultants, and £12 billion to fund the failing test and trace system, yet quibble over a few million to feed hungry children. You can just see the election videos now…

Mark my words, there will now be a further ratcheting of demands, and what I mean by that is that there will now be a campaign to permanently provide free school meals in school holidays, Covid or no Covid. To do that would cost £350 million a year.

A small price to pay to protect our children’s health, the campaigners will say. But it would be yet another way of the state taking over parental responsibilities. Where does the role of the parent end and that of the state begin? This is an argument which is going to gain a lot of traction in the next few years.

Since the state will inevitably take on a much bigger role in promoting an economic revival that it would normally do, it is yet further proof that all politics is cyclical. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the big state v small state argument was one of the big political debates of the day. Fifty years later, I suspect it will dominate the 2020s.

– – – – – – – – – –

The way the BBC and Sky News behave, you’d think Britain was the only country in the world experiencing a second wave.

It’s happening virtually everywhere to one degree or another. Belgium and France seem to be experiencing the worst of it, with Spain and the Netherlands also having massive problems.

Even in Germany, local restrictions are being introduced all over the country. France’s track and trace system has more or less totally collapsed.

Does our insular looking media ever tell you any of this? You get a bit of coverage in The Times, and that’s about it.

It is absolutely the case that catastrophic errors have been made in this country over the last eight months, and I do not seek to hide from that.

All I am saying is that many other countries have faced similar issues and made the same mistakes. It’s not to defend the wrong decisions that have been made, but we rarely get any nuance or context.

The British people know that those in charge are having to make very difficult decisions day after day, and they have sympathy with that. All they ask if for a bit of honesty when things go wrong, and that politicians hold their hands up.

That’s where the Government’s comms strategy has been failing. People appreciate honesty, not obfuscation. Boris should take more of a lead from how Macron has handled failure and learn from it.

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I’ve made more progress in reading Tom Bower’s new biography of Boris Johnson. Having expected a complete hatchet job, I’m finding that it’s nothing of the sort.

Yes, there’s a lot about Johnson’s weaknesses, but Bower has done a fine job in writing a book which provides real insight into the Prime Minister’s life and character.

His final two chapters on the Coronavirus crisis are incredibly powerful, and go totally against the conventional wisdom that the politicians have been a shambles, and the scientists and civil service have been on the side of the angels.

He doesn’t just assert that there have been major failings on the part of the latter – he provides the evidence. This book is well worth £20 of anyone’s money.

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Tomorrow at 5.25pm I’m appearing on Pointless Celebrities with Jacqui Smith as my partner in crime.

Honestly, the woman is taking over the BBC Saturday night schedule, what with her Strictly Come Dancing antics and everything.

Our Pointless episode was recorded back in January. and I was beginning to despair that it would ever be shown. We were up against Michael Fabricant and Martin Bell, Ayesha Hazarika and John Pienaar, and Camilla Tominey and Rachel Johnson.

I’ve never done a game show before, and if I’m honest, I’m not sure I wholly enjoyed the experience. I don’t mind doing things out of my comfort zone, but these sorts of shows present a huge opportunity to make a complete fool of yourself.

I didn’t – at least I don’t think I did – but there’s a tremendous pressure to say something hilariously funny or incisive. I’m not wholly sure I stepped up to the plate. Hopefully everyone will be too distracted by my red suit…

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“Did the hon. Lady just call me scum?”

Yes, apparently she did. That was the question Chris Clarkson, a Conservative MP, asked Angela Rayner.

The deputy speaker, Dame Eleanor Laing was furious with her and told her off in no uncertain terms – although bizarrely she didn’t make her apologise.

Sky News, however, clipped the episode up without even including Dame Eleanor’s comments and made out that it was a matter of dispute as to whether Rayner had actually said it.  It’s exactly the sort of editing which encourages distrust of the so-called Mainstream Media.

Anyway, I suspect that quote is going to hang in the air for a long time. Several people suggested I should commission a mug with it on for my online shop. So I have. And it’s proved surprisingly popular among male purchasers… Should you wish to join them, buy it here.