Sarah Gall: The Tories need to take a lesson from Australia and update their leadership rules

29 Jul

Sarah Gall is a political data scientist and membership secretary for the UK’s Conservative Friends of Australia. She previously headed up political and policy research for the Prime Minister of Australia.

For any Australian, the most recent events in British politics – and the months leading up to it – brought back torrid memories of the past decade.

Over that time, “leadership spills” (the colloquial term for opening up the party leadership to contest) became a national sport and solidified Canberra’s reputation for being the coup capital of the democratic world.

Similarities can be drawn between Boris Johnson and his Australian counterparts, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott; all leaders had won a large majority in the lower house and, within the same term in government, suffered significant blows to their popularity amongst voters and their own colleagues.

Before the end of their first terms, the two Australian prime ministers were ousted; Rudd by his deputy, Julia Gillard, and Abbott by Malcolm Turnbull.

For Rudd, just months before the 2010 federal election was due, Australian Labor Party (ALP) powerbrokers visited Gillard to say that she had enough support to challenge the prime minister and win. Within 24 hours, Gillard was elected leader unopposed, becoming Australia’s first female prime minister. Rudd did not contest the ballot.

This leadership spill was conducted quickly and ruthlessly. Behind the scenes, the numbers had been done and had been firmed up amongst factions within the ALP’s caucus for months until Gillard was ready to pull the trigger.

In contrast to this swift knifing, the seven leadership spills that followed in as many years were drawn out, painful affairs, featuring pervasive internecine conflict.

The latter style of leadership spill was akin to the ousting of Johnson. They followed a general pattern of firstly holding a failed vote to remove the prime minister, followed by months of media speculation about the party’s leadership and mounting internal pressure against the leader.

Finally, momentum was built over a final week as cabinet ministers resigned en masse, rendering the prime minister’s position untenable. This occurred just before delivering the final, and fatal, vote against them.

Despite Gillard’s approach being described as a “bloodless coup”, all leadership spills in Australia have been damaging to the party, albeit some more than others. And ultimately, after a decade of chaos, voters had become unforgiving, and their confidence in the parties to govern had diminished.

This prompted both the ALP and conservative-aligned Liberal Party to change the rules that allow a sitting prime minister to be ousted. The ALP now requires 75 percent of the party’s MPs and senators to agree to bring forward a spill motion to remove their leader.

The Liberal Party also announced that if a leader goes to an election and wins, then they will remain as prime minister for the full parliamentary term. A safeguard mechanism could be triggered however, whereby a supermajority of two-thirds of Liberal MPs and senators are required to vote to trigger a spill motion.

In contrast, the Conservative Party in the UK has a much lower threshold of just 15 percent of MPs needed to trigger a vote of no confidence, and a simple majority of 50 percent to remove the prime minister.

Like Australia, the low threshold to bring on a vote has not served British politics well. Failed initial no confidence votes to remove Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Theresa May, and now Johnson left all four bruised and on shaky ground before they either resigned or suffered a brutal election defeat.

As history has shown us in both the UK and Australia, even if a prime minister is unsuccessfully challenged, their days are numbered one way or another. Their fate is therefore determined by a minority.

This begs the question as to why the threshold in which a no confidence vote can be triggered has not been raised to at least 50 per cent; the number required to remove the leader.

Changing these rules would ensure, in cases where the leader has lost the confidence of the party, that MPs are certain they have the numbers to successfully remove a prime minister before it goes to a vote.

It may also ensure that an alternative candidate can be canvassed amongst Conservative parliamentary members privately so that they can determine whether there really is a better alternative.

The current protracted and public process sees the airing of the Tories’ own dirty laundry. This really only benefits the Labour Party, who effectively are served up their opposition research on a silver platter.

What will be interesting to see is how the voters will respond at the next general election. In Australia, voters punished the respective parties severely following the ousting of leaders who had large mandates. Will the Conservative Party meet the same fate?

The post Sarah Gall: The Tories need to take a lesson from Australia and update their leadership rules appeared first on Conservative Home.

Alexander Downer: Lessons for the Conservatives from the defeat of the Liberals in Australia

21 Jun

Alexander Downer is a former Australian High Commissioner to the UK and a former Australian Foreign Minister.

What lessons should Boris Johnson take from the defeat of the nine year old Australian Liberal Party government in last month’s general election?

There’s hardly a country on earth more distant from the UK than Australia – and there’s hardly a country more socially similar.

Over the last nine years our two countries have rejuvenated our relationship: we have a high-quality free trade agreement and in AUKUS an unprecedented military technology agreement.

Expect relations to remain close, but perhaps less intimate, with the new Australian Labor Government.

Australia and the UK face many of the same challenges: post-pandemic price rises, higher interest rates, shortages of labour, and the culture wars we’ve both imported from liberal arts faculties in the United States.

That’s why Australia’s recent election has lessons for the UK.

Let’s look at the Australian Labor Party. It went into the election with a dull but worthy leader; none would praise Anthony Albanese’s charisma but he isn’t scary. Labor campaigned with few practical policies.

It emphasised broad themes. For example, it would end debate about climate change by improving (marginally) Australia’s 2030 Paris target. This would mean slightly higher energy prices but no difference to the global climate. This didn’t matter to high income voters; it is the symbolism that counts.

Labor would do more on childcare and build great roads and bridges. How, why and where? No one really cared, it sounded good. Most of the extra spending to do these things would be “off budget”.

No one cared about that either; the Government had borrowed and printed record amounts of money through the pandemic and that didn’t seem to do any harm.

So Labor had a general theme: big, intrusive government is a good thing and the state has demonstrated through Covid that control of the public is good for everyone’s health. Labor surfed on the contemporary zeitgeist. They didn’t need to expose themselves to detailed policies.

So what about the Liberals, the conservative government? They’d been in government for nine years and in that time had changed their prime minister three times. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?

They’d been in government through the pandemic. They had closed the borders, locked down society, shuttered businesses, confined people to their homes, and spent more money than any government in Australian history.

Many people vote conservative because they believe in individual liberty, not state control. They believe government should protect the most vulnerable while the rest make their own judgements about risk and opportunity. And they believe the budget should be cautiously managed and taxes kept low so individuals can decide how to spend their hard earned money.

All those arguments, that philosophy which was the lifeblood of the Liberal Party, was drained from its body by the Covid pandemic. It was left pallid and listless, with a Prime Minister who wasn’t very popular.

Scott Morrison tried to argue he was fixing the economy: it was recovering well, the budget could be repaired and taxes wouldn’t increase.

But at the same time energy prices were rising and shopping was becoming more costly. Real wages were starting to fall. The great boast of conservatives that they are the best managers of the economy and that Labor would be a risk seemed hollow to many.

But worse, the Liberals had lost the debate on values. They were characterised as a harsher and more uncaring version of Labor. They didn’t make the case for the sort of society they wanted.

After nine years in power the country’s cultural institutions remained colonised by the left. The schools and universities preach left environmentalism and an Australian version of critical race theory. Educational institutions embed these concepts in the minds of young people.

The Liberal government blithely let it happen, and didn’t counter critical theory with its own laudable beliefs in the equal value of all human beings regardless of race, gender or sexuality.

In the two or so years Johnson and the Tories have until the next election they need to concentrate on sound economic management. They need to refine the argument that spending and borrowing causes inflation and increasing taxes drives down living standards.

Above all they need to change the tone of the national conversation rather than have the statist obsessions of the left define political virtue. They need to convince the public that the Left’s social and economic model is wrong.

The Liberal Party in Australia is starting to debate whether it should move to the left or the right. It’s a banal, dry argument. If it moves to become ‘Labor Lite’ it will shift national values and the national conversation still further Labor’s way.

It needs to engage in and win the debate about values and build its policy positions around those values. That’s the Australian lesson for the Conservatives.

The post Alexander Downer: Lessons for the Conservatives from the defeat of the Liberals in Australia first appeared on Conservative Home.

The centre-right is in retreat across the Anglosphere. Why are our Tories the last ones standing?

23 May

Personally, I can’t stand Australians. I mean, Kylie is lovely, and I was very sad to see Shane Warne die. But I had one once as an exchange student for three weeks, and he was one of the most genuinely unlikable people I have ever met. He confirmed, in my mind, that Aussies are uniformly arrogant, self-obsessed, and unworthy of being in Eurovision.

Not that I’m still bitter about the Ashes or anything.

Nevertheless, my political antennae have been turned towards the Antipodes over the last couple of days via the Australian federal election. Bad news for our sister parties in the Liberal/National Coalition. Scott Morrison, erstwhile tourist board rep and Aussie Prime Minister, lost power to the Labor party under Anthony Albanese, who look set to take power in a minority government.

Since no foreign election can be allowed to go past without commentators immediately using it to confirm all their pre-existing theories and prejudices, it falls upon me to say that this defeat leaves the United Kingdom as the only country in the Anglosphere with a centre-right government.

Not so long ago, ConHome was celebrating that our cousins in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia mirrored us in being led by broadly similar stalwarts of the centre-right. Whether Stephen Harper in Ottowa, John Key in Wellington, or Tony Abbott in Perth, the consensus was for free-markets and spending control from the Rockies to the Outback, and via David Cameron’s Downing Street. Post-2008, Tories were de rigeur amongst the English-Speaking Peoples

And yet now we see a sea of red across our former Dominions, punctured only by the dark hue of Justin Trudeau’s latest attempt at Blackface. The simpering posterboy for international wokery took power in 2015, followed by Guardian golden gal Jacinda Ardern in 2017, and now Albanese. One shudders to remember that we almost joined them with Jeremy Corbyn only five short years ago.

Looked at together, the narrative writes itself. The Great Recession in 2008 sobered up the sensible folk of the Anglosphere from the free-spending lefties they had tolerated when times were good. So they voted blue. But years of tough Tory medicine have ground them down, and the comforts of the left seem attractive again – the ice cream after the tonsils are removed.

However, like any simple explanation, this ignores much essential info. For one thing, the Conservatives took power in Canada in 2006, and not with a majority until 2011, whereas the Liberals and Nationals only took power Down Under in 2013. That was after losing it in 2007 under John Howard. We know from the Coalition’s own experience that changes in government not because of some newfound enthusiasm for Milton Friedman, but because of economic turbulence and unpopular incumbents.

Moreover, the centre-right only lost power in New Zealand in 2017 because of a deal between Saint Ardern and the Kiwi cousins UKIP and the Greens. The Nationals remained the largest party, with a larger vote share than Johnson managed in 2019. Meanwhile, Albanese looks set to come to power on only 33 percent of the vote, and Trudeau has polled behind the Conservatives at the last two elections. Neither represents a surge in support for the left.

The Ardern example is also pertinent. She has commanded glowing reviews from the global media and won over 50 percent of the vote in 2020, coming on the back of huge personal popularity due to her handling of the Wellington terrorist attack and of the early stages of the pandemic. But she is now behind in the polls and looks set to lose to the Nationals next time. From that, we can take the most obvious message of this weekend’s vote: that different countries have different politics.

Of course, it is easy to feature spot. Various Liberal MPs in middle-class, leafy constituencies – think Surrey, but with more kangaroos –  lost their seats to independent female candidates campaigning on a platform of tackling climate-change and cleaning up politics. Those Tory MPs with slim majorities and the Lib Dems breathing down their necks in the Blue Wall might want to take note.

Or they might not. Morrison’s government had a successful economic record, with low unemployment, and weathered the pandemic in a broadly popular manner, even if it’s approach was rather draconian. But the Liberal/National Coalition had only just scraped home in 2016 and 2019 and had the natural baggage of any administration in power for too long. Their defeat was a long time coming.

So was that of Bill English in 2017, or Stephen Harper in 2015. That they did not all win or lose office at the same time should tell you the most obvious lesson: each government was elected on a particular platforms, for particular reasons, in particular circumstances. Platforms, reasons, and circumstances that were country-specific, even if comparisons can be drawn.

If there is a question to ask, it is as to why our Conservative government has lasted longer than any of its Anglosphere cousins. Partly that is down to electoral systems and election frequency. Australia and New Zealand both have elections every three years, whilst the former uses a run-off system for elections, and the latter the Additional Member System beloved of Holyrood, Germany, and Politics A-Level classes.

But we have hardly struggled when it comes to election frequency in recent years. Neither has Canada, which also uses first-past-the-post. The Government’s hold on power is also not because of frequent changes in Prime Minister, either. The Liberals dumped Abbott for the loathsome Malcolm Turnbull in 2015, and almost lost, and the more appealing Morrison barely won in 2019. Changing leaders is no sliver bullet – for every John Major there is a Gordon Brown.

Instead, it is because our Tories have reinvented themselves more successfully in office than any of their equivalents. A party elected in 2010 to implement spending cuts won re-election in 2019 pledging to overturn them. Brexit was a boon, and no country other than Britain could produce a Boris Johnson. Even if he was born in New York. But the basic point stands: in its own messy way, the party moved to meet the voters just fast enough to stay in office.

Many bemoan this ideological slipperiness, calling for a return to proper Conservativism. What that means in practice is usually what ever a grumpy Telegraph op-ed says it is this week. Yet if the basic, fundamental reason for voting Tory is keeping the other lot out, then a little flexibility is surely worth it. I put up with some spending increases in 2019 to keep Corbyn out of Number 10 – and Morrison, English, Harper et al would have bitten off their arms for Johnson’s success.

And to show what a nonsense drawing spurious parallels is, I shall finally turn to that semi-detached member of the English-Speaking Peoples’ that I have so far neglected. Yes, that erstwhile Great Satan and Home of the Brave, the United States. I have not done so so far as it so obviously debunks any idea of a uniform Anglosphere trend. It moved to the left when others moved to the right, and then reverse-ferreted in spectacular fashion of two successive occasions. It may yet do so again.

Obama’s victory in 2008, or Trump’s in 2016, or Biden’s in 2020, was as much a product of tiredness with the incumbent as it was the personality of the winning candidate. From that, we can learn the most important lesson about elections: in a democracy, no party can last in power forever. Even Japan’s previously unassailable Liberal Democratic Party or Sweden’s Social Democrats have seen their hegemony challenged. The former was once in government undefeated from 1955 to 1993; the latter was in government continuously from 1932 to 1972.

Neither major party has ever achieved such a prolonged hold on power in this country since the introduction of universal suffrage, and all to the good. As awful as Labour governments can be, no Conservative government deserves a monopoly on power if it allows itself to become exhausted and unresponsive. The real message of Australia’s election for our Tories is that government is a responsibility, not a gift – and it is in their hands how long they can hold onto it for.

Sarah Gall: This Saturday, the Australian election rests in the hands of the independents

19 May

Sarah Gall is a political data scientist and membership secretary for the UK’s Conservative Friends of Australia. She previously headed up political and policy research for the Prime Minister of Australia.

On Saturday, Australians head to the polls after a fairly uneventful campaign. Neither of the major blocs – the incumbent conservative-leaning Liberal and National Party Coalition and the opposition Labor Party – have landed any substantial blow to their opponents.

Nor have either cut through to the electorate with any substantive policy that differentiates between the two.

This campaign has instead seen a greater focus on a number of conservative-held inner city seats being targeted by ‘teal’ independent candidates; reflective of the growing palpable disdain for the two major parties.

For British observers, the idea of independent or minor party candidates wielding any significant power or posing any threat to electoral success of a major party is foreign. But in Australia, where compulsory voting generally creates a narrow margin of victory, independents can and do hold the balance of power in both the lower and upper houses.

This is particularly problematic for a government seeking re-election for a fourth term and whose formal majority in the lower house had been wiped due to the redistribution of electoral boundaries (the abolition of a Coalition-held constituency in Western Australia and creation of a notionally Labor-held constituency in Victoria).

As the numbers currently stand, the Coalition requires a net gain of one constituency to win a majority and the Labor Party, a net gain of seven constituencies to win in its own right.

For the Coalition, there was at best an exceedingly narrow path to victory. This pathway however, has not been aided by successive scandals involving rorts and rape allegations, the feeling by many voters that Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister comes off as ‘cringeworthy’ and untrustworthy, or even the internal factional war within the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party which delayed the preselection of candidates in key seats.

For the Labor Party, who have not been taking the same hubristic stance as they did during the 2019 campaign, their gaffe-prone leader, Anthony Albanese, still remains behind in the polls as preferred prime minister.

This is despite a relatively less ambitious reform agenda than in 2019, which promised higher taxes and divided their own supporter base (particularly traditional blue-collar voters in coal-mining areas) with their un-costed climate change policy – and failure to address the potential job losses and energy price hikes it would create.

Pundits have therefore been led to believe in the very real possibility of a hung parliament in which Labor is required to negotiate a minority government with the independent and minor party crossbench.

This is made possible with Australia’s preferential voting system. Unlike First Past the Post, which does not require a candidate to attain a majority of the votes to win, Australia’s system requires voters to rank every candidate on the ballot paper in order of their preference.

If a single candidate does not achieve 50 per cent of the vote share from first preferences, the second, third, etc. preferences are transferred to the top two candidates until one candidate wins the majority.

This means that if a candidate has the highest number of first preference votes, they may lose after preferences are distributed to the final two, whereas they would have won under FPTP.

As a consequence of Australia’s preferential voting system, the election of independent and minor party candidates has become relatively common in Australia.

This has been particularly prevalent over the last 15 years, which have seen a bleed of first preference votes from the two major parties growing after an extended period of instability and leadership changes resulting in increasingly high levels of voter disenfranchisement.

One in ten voters is now preferencing independent or minor party candidates ahead of the two major parties.

With both Labor and the Coalition suffering from a dealignment of many of their voters, some estimate that the first preference vote for independent and minor party candidates could increase from a quarter of all voters to a third this Saturday.

It is therefore not surprising that the so-called ‘teal independents’ – a group of mainly high-profile and successful female candidates, backed by billionaire Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200 – have ceased the opportunity to attempt to sweep up these disillusioned voters.

These independents have run effective campaigns in primarily wealthy urban seats against moderate Liberal MPs, including in the Australian Treasurer’s (equivalent to the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer) electorate of Kooyong in Melbourne and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s old electorate of Wentworth in Sydney.

They hope to entice voters with a commitment to tackle climate change and to bring in a series of integrity measures to hold politicians to account, while also making claims that their Liberal opponents are ineffective in standing up against their more-conservative colleagues who represent rural and coal-mining constituencies.

This tactic highlights an important and difficult position that the two major parties find themselves in: key policies, like action on climate change, seem no longer capable of uniting the entirety of their modern support bases.

Unless they can change this, challenges by minor factions will continue to become more significant, especially if Australians become accustomed to a larger crossbench and the usual warnings of chaos and instability start to lose their power.

David Willetts: Sunak’s Mais lecture, Ministers’ Augar response – and a better approach to universities

1 Mar

David Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He was Minister for Universities and Science 2010-2014. His book A University Education is published by OUP.

The invasion of the Ukraine and its heroic resistance is of course dominating our thinking. As David Gauke pointed out yesterday on ConservativeHome, this has diverted attention from the Chancellor’s Mais Lecture, which set out his economic strategy more clearly than any Budget which inevitably has to focus on specific measures.

On the same day Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan set out a higher education and skills package which complemented the Chancellor’s approach. Together, they add up to a coherent strategy for the public finances and also boosting productivity.

The case for the education package is simply that graduates earn more than non-graduates and it makes sense for graduates to pay back for their higher education provided they can afford it. This is the moment to quote Karl Marx – as I used to do at meetings with the National Union of Students. He objected to a plan from the German Social Democrats for taxpayers to fund higher education because: “[if] higher education institutions are also ‘free’, that only means in fact defraying the cost of education of the bourgeoisie from the general tax receipts”.

Theresa May ignored his wise words, and increased the repayment threshold above which graduates start paying back, so that half of graduate debt was going to be written off by taxpayers. That is far too much.

Phil Augar was commissioned by May to look at reforms to the system. Ironically, his main proposed reform is to reverse her own increase in the threshold, and extend the repayment period so that now only about 20 per cent of graduate loans will be written off. I always envisaged that the typical graduate should expect to pay back in full and that taxpayers should only help those who for whatever reason had unusually low earnings. The package very persuasively explained by Michelle Donelan in her piece on this site last Thursday gets that balance right.

It will not just get the public finances back on track. I hope it also provides an opportunity to get the whole Tory approach to higher education back on track. Many young people and their parents aspire to go to university – all of us out canvassing have seen the photograph of the child or grandchild in graduation robes on the mantlepiece. But Conservatives seemed to be getting into a mind-set that universities are the enemy.

I suspect many readers of ConservativeHome believe that over 50 per cent of young people going is too large a proportion. Indeed, I am surprised how often I am told it must have happened because we in the Coalition slavishly followed Blair’s target.

But I never believed in any such target. It has happened because of millions of personal choices – and carried on increasing, despite our making it clear that, as graduates, they would usually have to pay back for the cost of their university education in full. Participation is also over 50 per cent in countries like USA and Australia with relatively flexible labour markets and fewer protections for big industrial employers. It is not some eccentric English experiment.

Opinion surveys show very few young people regret going to university, though more do come to regret their choice of subject – and there the problem is early specialisation.

If too many people are going to university then this social problem is most acute in prosperous Tory constituencies where participation is over 60 per cent – such places as Wimbledon, Hitchen and Harpenden, Rushcliffe and Tatton. By contrast, my former constituency of Havant had low rates of young people going to university. I could see that if the only way for more young people from the tough council estate in my constituency to get a place was for fewer to go from Chelsea or Beaconsfield, then they were in for a long wait.

That is why I am against number controls. The Government is now consulting on some specific ones, but I think it would be very hard to make them work effectively and fairly.

Do all these graduates then become Labour voters? Just occasionally Tories, get close to Trump’s notorious remark that ‘I love the poorly-educated’. Three years of higher education does change people. Graduates are more liberal and individualistic. The more education they receive, the more likely they are to create their own businesses – doctorates are increasingly a route to a tech start-up not to academia.

Graduates have better health and longer life expectancy – not because they are somehow better people, but because of the effects of access to higher education. They are more tolerant of alternative views and more likely to vote. They are more more sceptical of the state. Whenever I met students, they were not focused on destroying capitalism: instead, they were unhappy that it took so long to get their essays back and that wifi coverage on campus wasn’t very good. Even the Woke agenda did not preoccupy them – though it is a serious issue which I hope to turn to in a future column.

The real political problem for Conservatives is not graduates, but young people in general, whether they go to university or not. A graduate earning £28,000 shouldn’t be turned into a socialist because she has to pay back £17 a month. What does turn them away from us is the retreat from the property-owning democracy. It is the difficulty of getting started on the housing ladder and the lack of any kind of company pension matching the one their parents got for themselves.

Ministers rightly want more adult learning and more vocational education – it was a key theme of the Mais Lecture. That must be right. But universities as well as FE College are key agents for this. More than half of university courses are vocational. There is the exciting new initiative of higher apprenticeships, but there are many other ways in which university courses link with employers – from being accredited by employer groups through to including a sandwich year in industry. Many doctoral students are now co-funded by employers and tackle a research problem directly relevant to an innovative company.

The Chancellor identified skills, investment and R&D as his three main routes to boosting the real economy. Universities are key to all three. I include investment because a lot of overseas investment comes from companies attracted by the quality of our universities for their recruitment and business innovation.

There have been times over the past few years when our party was in danger of becoming hostile to universities and the young people and their families who aspired to go. But last week’s two important statements boost my hopes that we are getting out of that dead-end. The real battles as we can see this week are so very different.

Richard Robinson: Allowing asylum seekers to work is the most Conservative of policies

3 Feb

Richard Robinson is an Investment Manager, former European Parliamentary candidate and Chairman of Surrey Heath Conservatives.

At the heart of Conservative values is the belief that each individual should have the freedom to support themselves, and to go as far as their own efforts will take them.

When we enable people to do this, we achieve strong communities, a prosperous economy and a thriving United Kingdom.

For me, as a lifelong Conservative, it’s why banning asylum seekers from working and forcing them into welfare dependency is fundamentally un-Conservative.

I am not alone in this view, Conservative voters up and down the country, from the Blue Wall to the Red Wall, support change. In my own constituency of Surrey Heath, MRP polling estimates that 73 per cent of people want to let asylum seekers work.

The Labour government stripped asylum seekers of their right to work in 2002, instantly forcing thousands of people into a position where they had no option but to claim state support.

The Government says it will process most asylum claims within six months. The reality is rather different. The average waiting time for an initial decision on an asylum claim is between one and three years. And the situation is getting worse. Home Office data shows that the number of people waiting for more than a year for an initial decision increased almost 10-fold from 3,588 people in 2010 to 33,016 in 2020.

While cash support is available, it is set at £39.63 per person, per week. That’s just £5.66 a day for essentials such as food, sanitation and clothing.

This ban is a wholly un-Conservative policy. As a party, we believe that the State is a safety net, a hand up not a hand out. We know that work is better than welfare. We want people to ‘get on your bike’ to look for work. And yet for one group we make work illegal. The cruel truth is that in this case we have mandated that some people must live off benefits.

With increasing delays in the asylum system, the bill for housing and supporting people is mounting.

Some level of spending on support will always be necessary. We have, after all, a responsibility to make sure people in our asylum system, most of whom have valid claims for refugee status, do not become destitute and homeless.

But we also have a responsibility to minimise that cost by making the common-sense and hugely popular change to let people seeking asylum work.

The Lift the Ban Coalition, which includes economists, businesses, recruiters and trade unions as well as refugee charities, has calculated that allowing people seeking asylum to work could reduce the burden on the taxpayer by an estimated £181 million a year in increased tax and national insurance contributions, and a reduction in asylum support spending.

The UK is an outlier to Australia, Europe, the US and Canada in preventing people from working. Yet evidence from these countries shows work plays a vital role in helping people integrate better into their communities once they receive their refugee status.

Lifting the ban will allow them to become tax-paying, economically active members of society. Work would give asylum seekers the opportunity to meet and socialise, as well as provide a strong incentive to improve English language skills.

The ban means we leave asylum seekers prey to predators. Unable to work legally, they are tempted to work for below minimum wage in the black economy, or worse, for drug gangs or sex traffickers.

One issue Conservatives are rightly concerned about is the integrity of our borders. The claim is often made that allowing asylum seekers to work is a pull factor that will encourage migrants to choose the United Kingdom over other safe destinations. While fears around the right to work and increased asylum claims feel intuitive, they are in fact wholly unevidenced and discredited.

The Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee says a delay in access to the labour market does long-term damage to integration, and notes that there is no evidence that work rights would be a pull factor to the United Kingdom.

As we move forward from the pandemic we must give everyone the opportunity to succeed and contribute to this country, both economically and socially.

The time to act on this is now. The Nationality and Borders Bill presents an opportunity. Baroness Stroud has put her name to an amendment to the Bill that would give people the right to work. It strikes at the very core of our values as Conservatives and we should do all we can to make this happen.

Giving asylum seekers the right to work would allow them to support themselves financially, to meet their basic needs, lift themselves out of destitution and be afforded a basic level of dignity and autonomy. This is a Conservative policy change that is long overdue.

Aman Bhogal: A Global Britain can turbocharge free democracies, free trade and free enterprise

2 Feb

Aman Bhogal is the Founding Chairman of Global Britain UK and stood for parliament in the 2015 General Election.

Television headlines recently showed the terrible volcanic eruption that ravaged Tonga, but why was the report of Britain dispatching HMS Spey to support the relief effort, led by allies Australia and New Zealand, right at the bottom of the news agenda?

For the world that was global Britain in action. Our British Isles leaping to help a group of islands 13 time zones away.

Following on from the establishment of AUKUS and in the wake of the Carrier Strike Group’s power projection, is it not news that the Indo-Pacific is fast becoming the centre of economic, security and political gravity of a new multi-polar world order?

Of course, the assorted left rejoiner Brexit-bashing brigade would have you believe that Britain cannot play a meaningful role in global affairs outside the EU’s orbit; though it has to be said, the likes of the shouty-mad-as-a-EU-hat man seen loitering outside Parliament, has been quite quiet of late.

Yet, with a resurgent UK leading G7 growth, record job numbers and as one of the first exiting the pandemic, that argument is as past its sell-by-date as the hidebound EU.

There is no bigger example of the stuck-in-the-mud out-of-sync-with-liberty EU than the outrageous prevailing view at its heart – Berlin blocking Estonian defence assistance to Kiev trying not to upset the Kremlin, even as it amasses its belligerence in Eastern Europe.

Whereas following UK support for Kiev with the supply of defensive anti-tank weapons, “God save the Queen” amassed trends on Ukrainian Twitter.

With Boris Johnson having got Brexit done and Liz Truss getting on with sorting out the Northern Ireland Protocol, British support for free Ukraine and a helping hand for Tonga sum up what makes our Britain global like no other.

Yet there is a whole world of goodwill still to be tapped, where a Global Britain helps unleash the potential of the world’s leading free democracies, by identifying shared values, shared challenges, and shared strengths to ensure security, stability, and prosperity.

Getting Brexit done has shown up all that still remains to be done to help make Britain central to the prosperity and security of our allies and friends.

The biggest step in that direction is the Prime Minister’s ‘Roadmap 2030’ signed with Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister. However, we now need to go further and faster. And we do this by building a framework of political and business engagement to bind together the tremendous goodwill for a global Britain that exists throughout the world, especially the Indo-Pacific.

Now providence places Global Britain in the centre of a core group of natural allies and friends across the Indo-Pacific. With India, Australia and Japan defending the frontier of freedom, turbocharging our strategic partnership with these free democracies it is crucial to integrate free Britain into the centre of the network of liberty.

Many hurdles remain – hostile forces running 24×7 fake-news bots spreading disinformation to undermine democracy in London, Washington DC and New Delhi, the CCP undermining nations with its debt-trap diplomacy – toxic forces chiselling at the very foundations of our freedoms and liberty.

However, it is in the greatest democratic exercises of our times – the EU referendum and the biggest democratic mandate in history, earned by PM Modi that offer us the hope and optimism to prove that democracy is more resilient than the toxic agenda of the anti-UK- India-Israel-US-Brexit bashing nexus.

Global Britain, together with a New India, is uniquely placed to lead the charge to defend our way of life – free democracies, linked by free trade, powered by free enterprise, driven by a free people.

And on free trade, the more than five dozen trade deals signed, including two brand new ones with Australia and Singapore, and the prized deal with India in the offing, are a shining testament to how Global Britain is revving up to lead the global recovery. And this is still before British business really goes global with entry into the tier-A Indian towns.

With free enterprise – there is not a brighter beacon of hope and aspiration than the UK where our agile businesses, slashing suffocating red tape, are more productive, innovative, employ more people and generate more revenue.

This is the ready-to-make template which we must push to persuade the next start-up, the next unicorn, the next big idea that free enterprise and education is the best way known to mankind to lift the next billion out of poverty. And now more than ever, as the world economy attempts to reach escape velocity out of the orbit of Covid, Global Britain must set the global tempo.

Be it getting Brexit done, more trade deals than Emmanuel Macron could shake a stick at, record job numbers and mega manufacturing investment, Johnson has shown how Global Britain is a proven winner. And this is the Global Britain vision which resonates with the goodwill in capitals across the free world.

That’s why the Global Britain Centre is established to bring together a coalition of those who want to fill in the gaps, colour in the details, to pour concrete into the foundations of a Global Britain turbocharging free democracies, free trade and free enterprise. To help build a Britain that is truly global, by global Britons, for Britons that are going global.

Daniel Hannan: Distracted and passive, the Government has yet to grasp the full advantages of Brexit

5 Jan

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Brexit, on its own, does not add or subtract a farthing from our national wealth. All it does is remove constraints, allowing us to make different choices. Those choices will determine our success. We can opt for the formula that always guarantees growth – lighter regulation, freer trade, lower, flatter and simpler taxes – or we can go the other way, rewarding politically-connected industries and giving into demands for higher spending.

A year has passed since the EU’s transition period came to an end, giving us the freedom to make these choices. Now seems as useful a time as any to assess which way we are going.

We should first note that 2021 was a worse year than almost anyone expected when it began. Remember the relief with which we greeted the end of 2020. After nine months of intermittent lockdowns, we finally had vaccines and with them, it seemed, a clear way out of the crisis. But a new lockdown was decreed on January 4 – supposedly until mid-February although, in the event, parts of it were left in place until July. So we should not infer too much from an atypical year. None the less, we can make a tentative early reckoning.

Some of the positives were listed by Boris Johnson last week:

“We’ve replaced free movement with a points-based immigration system. We’ve secured the fastest vaccine rollout anywhere in Europe last year by avoiding sluggish EU processes. And from Singapore to Switzerland, we’ve negotiated ambitious free trade deals to boost jobs and investment here at home. But that’s not all. From simplifying the EU’s mind-bogglingly complex beer and wine duties to proudly restoring the crown stamp on to the side of pint glasses, we’re cutting back on EU red tape and bureaucracy and restoring common sense to our rulebook.”

He’s plainly right about the vaccination programme. Had we still been in the EU, we would never have opted out of the cumbersome collective purchasing scheme which, let’s remember, almost every British Europhile clamoured to join.

As for trade, there have been gains, but they have so far been stunted. A combination of bureaucratic inertia, rent-seeking and general protectionism has limited our ambition – even with as close an ally as Australia. The resistance to free movement of labour, for example, was wholly on the British side, as was the foot-dragging on cheaper food.

Free-trade is counter-intuitive, running up against our hunter-gatherer instinct for self-sufficiency. Even so, ministers have so far not been radical enough. We need to think like New Zealanders, eliminating barriers regardless of lobbying by vested interests. We need to understand that unrestricted imports make our industries more efficient. We need to remember that “cheap” is not a dirty word: giving our consumers more spending power is what drives our economy.

The PM gets all this, at least in theory. Two years ago, in Greenwich, he offered the strongest and most eloquent defence of free trade yet put forward by a head of government. Invoking Adam Smith and David Ricardo and Richard Cobden, he went on to diagnose where the world was going wrong:

“The mercantilists are everywhere, the protectionists are gaining ground. From Brussels to China to Washington tariffs are being waved around like cudgels even in debates on foreign policy where frankly they have no place; and there is an ever-growing proliferation of non-tariff barriers and the resulting tensions are letting the air out of the tyres of the world economy.”

What was the solution? Why, for Britain to resume her historic role:

“There lies the port, the vessel puffs her sail, the wind sits in the mast. We are embarked now on a great voyage, a project that no one thought in the international community that this country would have the guts to undertake. But we commit to the logic of our mission: open, outward-looking, generous, welcoming, championing global free trade now when global free trade needs a global champion.”

Good stuff, no? Yet, in the very first test case – whether to retain the steel tariffs that the EU had imposed in retaliation against Donald Trump – Downing Street overruled the Trade Remedies Authority and kept the levies in place, largely so that a handful Conservative MPs could boast about standing up for local producers. We have thus sent a message to every politically-connected industry: if you want special favours at the expense of the general population, the door of Number 10 is open.

When it comes to deregulation, too, the rhetoric has been ahead of the reality. The Government was very warm in its language when, in June, Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and George Freeman produced a well thought-out and serious plan to remove some of the more needless and expensive EU rules. And, to be fair, it has made some positive changes beyond those listed by the PM: restoring pint bottles of champagne, scrapping the tampon tax and so on.

But the most burdensome EU regulations have so far been left in place: the Clinical Trials Directive, the Ports Services Regulation, the Temporary Workers’ Directive, the End of Life Vehicles Directive, the droit de suite rules, the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive, MiFID II, the bonus cap.

Repeal is always difficult once an industry has had to assimilate compliance costs. Established actors don’t want new entrants avoiding those costs, and so become advocates for measures they originally opposed. For example, 15 years ago, the entire chemical sector was opposed to the EU’s REACH Directive, which replaced a risk-based approach to importing chemicals with a pricey and prescriptive list system.

Now, having gone through the hassle of implementing it, the industry wants to keep it. It is difficult, in such circumstances, for a minister to say, “I understand your position, but I have a responsibility to start-ups, innovators and, above all, consumers”. And so, again and again, we have taken the line of least resistance and left things as they are – or worse, as in the case of REACH, expensively recreated our own version of the EU’s regime.

For all these reasons, it is often easier to let regulations wither on the vine than to hack them back. Over time, many regulations cease to be relevant. Who cares, these days, what the rules are for fax machines or word processors? Britain could, in theory, acquire a cumulative competitive advantage simply by not adopting the new regulations that the EU does.

Again, though, this requires a conscious effort. If, for example, we decree unusually cumbersome carbon taxes, we shall fall behind more pragmatic countries.

Brexit could mean cheaper energy: we could cut prices by disapplying some EU rules or, if that is too much, by regulating more lightly in future. But we are choosing to do the opposite.

Brexit could mean cheaper food. Outside the Common Agricultural Policy, we could remove tariffs, quotas and other barriers. But we seem reluctant to do so.

Inflation is taking off, but we are not pulling any of the levers that might mitigate it. Instead of cutting taxes, and so giving people more disposable income, we are raising National Insurance, squeezing household budgets further.

Yes, a lot of this has to do with the epidemic – not just in the immediate sense that we are half a trillion pounds worse off, but in the wider sense that the crisis has made voters more illiberal and statist.

Has Covid-19 killed our appetite for reform entirely? We’ll know soon enough. The Government seems to have decided to try to keep things open rather than paying people to stay at home. The PM’s could now make some of the reforms arrested by the pandemic. If he doesn’t, we must conclude that he never will.

Richard Holden: Covid has kept Britain in chains since we left the EU. Now we’re set to break free.

4 Jan

Mounter and Sons Sawmill, Willington, Co. Durham

A hard core of my colleagues in Parliament are Brexperts. Many spent decades campaigning against – or in some cases for – Britain’s membership of the European Union. It is the issue that in no small part tipped constituencies like mine ‘over the edge’ between 2015 and 2019.

Finally, the scales fell from local people’s eyes, and they saw what they’d had an inkling of for some time: that Labour no longer respected the view, or even the votes, of people in North West Durham. Inner-London Labour thought it knew better and the public, finally, gave it the boot across the Red Wall.

The first big piece of legislation that the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs voted for was the EU Withdrawal Agreement. This month marks a year on from the end of the so called ‘transition period’, when our ties to the European Union were severed de facto, as well as de jure. Some said would be the start of ‘Britannia Unchained’ and others predicted would be the greatest foreign policy disaster since Suez.

Within a few weeks of MPs voting through the Withdrawal Agreement, the global pandemic hit. What leaders in Britain and the EU had thought would be the biggest challenge of the decade – Brexit– suddenly became secondary. And the impact of leaving the EU, whatever side of the debate you were on, now feels small fry compared to the: lockdowns, colossal borrowing, and worldwide efforts that have gone into tackling Covid.

I’m tempted to put my neck on the line at this point, and say that we’re coming to the end of Covid. Like the rest of the country – and the world – let’s pray that is the case. And if it is, what lay behind Brexit will return centre-stage alongside the fall-out from the virus

While many will groan at the prospect of the return of Brexit as a political issue, I welcome it wholeheartedly. I long to see the eyes of Government and the country lifted from two years of crisis management to a discussion about where we now see ourselves, and how we deliver it. The country is sick to death of circular debates about the social etiquette of mask wearing and meeting via Zoom and Teams.

Like my Conservative colleagues from every intake, I am desperate for Parliament to be at the heart of the debate about international trade, securing our borders and Britain’s place in the world.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen flashes of the future. Such as: AUKUS – the new tripartite defence agreement with Australia and the United States. The UK’s application to join the Trans-Pacific-Partnership. Improved post-EU trade deals with Japan, Australia, and many other countries, alongside scores of roll-over deals.

There will be challenges. How to manage the place of Northern Ireland in the UK raises profound constitutional questions. With the Northern Ireland Assembly elections looming large, dealing with a Sinn Fein First Minister (if the polls are to be believed) in a few months will be challenging.

Mounter and Sons, a wood pallet manufacturer in my constituency, is facing increased costs and bureaucracy in dealing with the EU. The most substantial of these is heating all pallets leaving for the EU, which wasn’t required before Brexit. This is just one of examples from my own constituency of blocks to trade that both sides surely want to see removed in further negotiations to the benefit of all concerned. These are eminently achievable if the will is there.

In 2016, my constituents voted to leave the European Union. And in 2019, they voted again to finally make it happen. After two years of the focus of the Government being elsewhere – rightly – it’s time start reminding people again that they made the correct choice both times.

That means getting some focus back on getting Britain out into the world, and dealing with those very tricky issues Brexit throws up. After the last couple of years, that task of unchaining Britannia seems more manageable, and getting on with it will be welcomed more than ever by the whole country.

Garvan Walshe: Four ways in which democracies can fight back against China’s state gangsterism

23 Dec

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

Peng Shuai, a Chinese Tennis player, accused a former Chinese vice premier of sexual assault on the Chinese social network, Weibo.

The post then disappeared, and so did she. Six weeks later, she gave an interview to a pro-Beijing Chinese language newspaper denying she had ever made the allegation. Far from clearing things up, this stage-managed recantation reeks of state gangsterism.

The behaviour is part of a pattern of violence and intimidation that has intensified since Xi consolidated power in China. It goes beyond traditional targets of Chinese policy like Hong Kong and Taiwan, and takes in anyone that dares to cross the regime’s leadership.

Sometimes it is absurd (demanding that all Amazon reviews of Xi Jinping’s new book shown in China receive five stars), but more more often it is sinister – as demonstrated by the sanctions applied to Lithuania, the attempts to intimidate German companies that use Lithuanian suppliers, and the politically motivated prosecutions of Canadian businessmen Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who were only released after legitimate charges were dropped against a Huawei executive.

China has turned globalisation into a weapon, and Western democracies need to develop a systematic defence. During the 1990s and 2000s, a combination of wishful thinking and greed allowed China to enrich itself through a globalised economy while maintaining an ideology hostile to the rules on which the international order was based.

Democratic countries have started to understand and correct this error in individual cases: Australia has sought stronger security guarantees from the United States through AUKUS. The UK has removed Chinese involvement in British nuclear electricity infrastructure, and the new Czech government, for instance, is likely to adopt a more sceptical approach to Huawei’s provision of 5G infrastructure.

While these changes are welcome, it is time to consider a more systematic approach. A first mistake of the 1990s was to think that economic growth would lead to democratic change. Though there may have been merit in the theory that wealthier middle classes are more likely to demand accountable government, it was unwise to base policy on a “law” among whose exceptions may be counted Russia and Turkey, as well as China.

A second, less well-understood error was to think it possible to depoliticise business in authoritarian states. Instead, the opposite happens: businesses, which need to make money after all, are being held hostage to the regimes’ agendas, whether these matters are as trivial as reviews of the Xi Jinping’s book, or as geopolitically pointed as Lithuania’s support for Taiwan.

Western foreign investment is subject to extortion, while authoriarian investment in the West is used to finance strategic corruption. Western libel laws are then used to attempt to silence its exposure (as Catherine Belton, who has successfully defended her Putin’s People from a fusillade of lawsuits can attest).

The lesson is that the globalisation of finance is only reliable when mechanisms exist to enforce the depoliticisation of business, whether through domestic courts that enforce international agreements, or Investor State Dispute resolution agreements when domestic courts cannot be trusted.

This applies equally to sport, where athletes should not be compelled to follow regime agendas either, and should be free to seek justice for crimes committed against them by the regimes.

That we instead have had to rely on the courage of HarperCollins, Belton’s publisher, or the Women’s Tennis association, which has stood by Peng Shuai, is not good enough. Democracies, acting together, need to start thinking about how to protect their sports organisations and busiesspeople from capture and extortion by powerful dictatorships.

There are four things democracies should do.

First, ensure protection from arbitrary retaliation, such as that China is trying to impose on Lithuania, by establishing automatic means of retaliation. To work well, these need to be done by democracies together. The EU is proposing an “anti-coercion” instrument for this purpose. The UK, US, and other democratic states should follow suit, and include countries like South Korea, which are too small to resist Chinese pressure on their own.

Second, sporting and research organisations could be supported, or compelled, make competitions and research cooperation conditional on ensuring the political independence and academic freedom of participants. Democratic countries dominate these areas to ensure such conditions are upheld. Even FIFA, happy to sell out to non-footballing Qatar would have to pay attention — who would watch a world cup in which democratic countries didn’t participate?

Third, in a sort of “democratic preference,” future economic integration should be focused on democratic countries, and could include snap-back clauses to remove priveleges if democracy decays.

Finally, democracies should act collectively against strategic corruption, leaving kleptocrats without a safe place to stash their money.

Peng Shuai’s treatment by the Chinese regime should reinforce the warning delivered to Michael Spavor and Michael Korvig. Neither celebrity or foreign citizenship can protect you from becoming an instrument of the regime’s intimidation. The naive globalisation of the 1990s has become a liability. Democracies need to beef up their defences against the Chinese dictatorship.