Social care reform – and why we can’t simply tax our way to better public services

6 Sep

Congratulations to the Government.  That’s a sentence written less on ConservativeHome than you might imagine – and, when it comes to public service reform, scarcely at all.

For while the last Conservative Manifesto promised more nurses, GP appointments and police, it provided little explanation, if any, of how these new nurses would provide better care, doctors’ appointments would become quicker to book and extra police would catch more criminals.

And now that Dominic Cummings has left Downing Street, no reforming “hard rain” will drive down on the civil service.  Meanwhile, Tory backbenchers have left the government’s flagship housing plan holed below the waterline.

So it’s to Boris Johnson’s credit that he wants to overhaul social care, even if he hasn’t had a “prepared plan” for it since entering Downing Street, as he claimed at the time.  However, we fear that this is almost as far as the good news goes – because, of all the services in need of change, social care is among the most difficult to tackle.

Here’s why. For a start, many voters don’t understand the difference between how healthcare and social care is provided in in England and Wales.

Health care is funded free at the point of use but social care usually isn’t.  This confusion played a major part in the Conservative general election disaster of 2017.  Many voters hadn’t grasped that the value of their homes is taken into account for residential but not domiciliary care, and revolted when the Tory manifesto proposed to level the playing field.

The source of the muddle is doubtless what Tim Bale, in an agonising blog about the fate of his parents, rightly categorised as optimism bias: namely, the belief that disability and dementia, say, “won’t happen to you – I mean, what are the chances?”

Next comes the question of which problem the Government is trying to solve.  For not all social care goes on elderly people: half of the spending on it is consumed by working age adults.  Demand is rising; more people want social care but fewer are receiving it; council budgets have fared less well than the NHS’s, and local government is responsible for delivery.

And “there is a basic concern among the public about quality,” according to the Kings’ Fund, perhaps especially in care homes.  Then there’s the separate-though-related issue of selling one’s home to help meet the costs.

Penultimately in our list of problems, we turn to manifesto commitments.  The Tory manifesto not only promised more spending for public services; it also ruled out raising certain taxes to pay for it.  “We will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or national insurance,” it said baldly.  Finally, there is the matter of intergenerational justice.

Questionmarks over trust and fairness haunt the Government’s plan, which is concentrated on the final social care issue that we raise above – selling the family home to help meet costs.  (There will also be a big rise in the means-testing threshold for care homes.)

That means a floor beneath and a ceiling above which no-one will pay.  The higher the floor is, the more poorer people will be protected.  The lower the ceiling is, the less richer ones will pay. So there is an obvious north/south trade-off, broadly speaking, between the interests of, say, Batley & Spen, and those of, for example, Chesham and Amersham over where the ceiling and floor are set.

The Government’s plans are still being finalised, but it seems to be planning to raise national insurance to fund its plan.  Younger and poorer people would thus fork out to meet costs more often incurred by older and richer ones.  This would be unfair – especially in a country in which the latter hold an effective monopoly on capital.  Not to mention a breach of the manifesto.

How might Ministers respond to this formidable list of objections to their plan?  They might say one shouldn’t make the best the enemy of the good, and that even if only one of the main social care problems can be solved, the effort will be worthwhile.

And add that, since their proposals are based on the Dilnot Report, they at least command a degree of consensus.  They would doubtless say that older people tend to vote Conservative, and that it’s bad politics to alienate one’s base.  If Johnson also announces that the triple lock will be abandoned this year, they will claim that he has presented a package that “strikes the right balance”.

The Government’s model is the then Labour Government’s tax rise of the early 2000s to fund higher NHS spending.  Tony Blair got away with it, and the Prime Minister will hope that he does too.

Maybe Tory MPs will vote through a national insurance rise if Johnson, with his majority of 83, puts it to Parliament with the support of his Chancellor.  Downing Street will hope that the prospect of a reshuffle will keep Ministers in order – and that Labour opposition to the NI rise will minimise the Tory revolt.

None the less, we warn the Government that the cat of Conservative tax rises has fewer than nine lives.  Tory MPs won’t indefinitely nod hikes through.

Nor is the Blair precedent encouraging.  His national insurance rise failed to deliver the improvements he wanted.  Hence his later decision to support Alan Milburn as Health Secretary in delivering market-based reform.  Above all, governments can’t expect to break manifesto promises made in one election, and have those it makes at the next taken seriously.

It may be that Johnson will dress up any national insurance rise to pay for social care as a special levy, thus enabling him to claim that he’s not in breach of the pledge he made two years ago – technically, anyway.

But doing so wouldn’t ease this site’s wider concern: that just as government can’t tax its way to a more prosperous economy, it can’t tax its way to better public services.  And that once Ministers start reaching for tax increases to solve a problem, the reflex can become automatic.

At the heart of social care reform for any Conservative Government, two fundamentals conflict.  The first is: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  The second is: wealth must cascade down the generations.

In other words, someone must pay for social care – be it the user, the taxpayer, or someone else.  If so, wealth risks not so much cascading as trickling down, especially if the main form of saving, the family home, is sold off to meet social care bills.  At the one of the policy spectrum, Policy Exchange proposes rolling social care into the NHS, which would certainly require new taxpayer funding.

At the other end are a long succession of Tory plans for insurance-based schemes.  Peter Lilley’s set out a variant recently on this site, supporting a state-backed voluntary system.

There is no shortage of objections to such a plan – not least potential voter resistance to any Conservative health-related insurance scheme.  But if the aim of government is to protect homeowners from Bale’s “Russian roulette”, this type of proposal has merit.

It would be consistent with the Conservative manifesto, avoid tax rises and a backbench revolt, be generationally fairer, and represent evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, since no-one would be forced to join the scheme.  Instead, the Prime Minister is rushing in where angels, or at least politicians, have feared to tread.

He isn’t always associated with prizing courage over guile, or attempting today what can be put off until tomorrow.  Not for the first time, we’re learning something about Johnson that we didn’t know before.

Leadbeater’s first test: will she rebuke Shah’s call to criminalise cartoons of Mohammed?

7 Jul

Labour’s victory in Batley & Spen has had the outsize effect on the political narrative that wins by a couple of hundred votes always do. But you can be sure the party noticed how close George Galloway came to handing this safe seat to the Conservatives.

Although his new Workers’ Party of Great Britain doesn’t seem to have quite the pulling power that Respect used to, a strong third place suggests that the danger is real – and he might try playing spoiler again at the general election.

Perhaps that’s why Naz Shah, Labour’s ‘Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion’, used the debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill to call for what sounds very much like a blasphemy law.

Her logic is if the Government is introducing stringent criminal penalties for vandalising statues, it ought to do the same for people who “defame, slander or abuse” religious figures. If not, Shah suggests, ministers risk erecting “a hierarchy of sentiments”.

One might argue – indeed, I have – that the PCSC Bill is at least as much about public order as public feeling. Shah has no time for that:

“To those who say it is just a cartoon, I will not say, “It’s only a statue”, because I understand the strength of British feeling when it comes to our history, our culture and our identity. It is not just a cartoon and they are not just statues. They represent, symbolise and mean so much more to us as human beings.”

That’s the Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion seeming to suggest that drawing a picture of Mohammed is not a legitimate act by people who can “debate, discuss, disagree and even respectfully and vehemently oppose” a religious figure, but the public-order equivalent of actual vandalism.

Is that actually Labour’s position? It’s not just an academic question. As of a couple of weeks ago, at least, a teacher who showed cartoons of Mohammed in class was still in hiding. How much help can he expect from his new Labour MP?

We must hope that Kim Leadbetter is as prepared to face down her own front bench as she was the thugs on the by-election campaign trail – even if this means continuing to antagonise the voters who backed Galloway and thus nearly handed the seat to the Tories.

Robert Halfon: White privilege is the wrong way to describe nearly one million white working-class disadvantaged pupils

30 Jun

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

I asked a few people in my constituency of Harlow what they thought about “culture wars” at the weekend. Not only had the term passed most people by, but one individual believed that it might be something to do with Game of Thrones.

But, just because most people are not focused on the “culture wars” in the same way that the “Twitterati” and the Westminster Village are, that does not mean we should not allow significant debate and discussion about terms like “white privilege”. Some proponents of concepts like “white privilege” seek to close down debate by accusing those who want to discuss this as racists.

Far from promoting racial harmony, using “white privilege” pits one group against another and does more to damage race relations than enhance them.

Following the recent publication of our Education Select Committee Report, The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, it was noticeable how, with the exception of great Labour figures like Lord Blunkett, even discussing the subject of “white privilege” was according to the Left, a sin of sins. The subject was discussed over just three pages out of a 90-page strong report.

I have been told that I am a racist. My staff and I have received calls to my House of Commons Office to explain that we are racist individuals. It is interesting that this attack is coming from the Left. (As an aside, it is the Labour Party that produced a leaflet sent around to Muslim constituents in Batley and Spen showing and criticising the Prime Minister for shaking hands with Narendra Modi, the Hindu Prime Minister of India.)

Our Education Committee decided to highlight the issues caused by the term “white privilege” because its use is fundamentally wrong for three reasons.

First, the concept of “white privilege” implies collective guilt when it should be individuals who are responsible for acts of racism.

Second, if you use the words “white privilege” you are basically telling a poorer white community that they are privileged. You are saying to a single parent, who might live in a tiny flat, doing their best to bring up their child, that they have “white privilege”.

Third, the use of the term is factually incorrect. All of the data shows that, far from being privileged in education, disadvantaged white working-class students are doing worse than almost any other ethnic group. Just 17.7 per cent of white British pupils eligible for free school meals achieved a pass or above in GCSE English and maths and only 16 per cent go on to university.

There will be individuals who make intellectual arguments as to what “white privilege” really means. For example, the BBC posted a video to its website of John Amaechi, a psychologist and former NBA basketball player, explaining why he believes “white privilege” to be justified.

However, the problem is that people can make all of the intellectual arguments that they like, but disadvantaged white groups just hear two words, “white privilege”. It is a bit like the Ronseal advert, it does what it says on the tin. The use of the term just tells people that whatever their circumstances, whatever their background, they have “white privilege”. It is wrong.

The other argument that often crops up is that the term “white privilege” is irrelevant and is not being used. This is far from the case. Barnardos uses the term as a guide to parents on its blog. Councils have been introducing “White Privilege” terminology. (See page 16 of our Education Committee report.) Calvin Robinson, a former teacher and school governor, has written extensively as to how the concept of “white privilege” is being introduced into teacher training toolkits and much more besides.

I previously mentioned David Blunkett, the former Education Secretary. Last week, when writing about our Committee report, he said:

“I, for one, have always found it offensive, divisive and frankly irrelevant to making a difference to the lives of those from whatever background, who deserve our support…to put it bluntly, the last thing that young people facing disadvantage need to hear is anything about ‘white privilege’”. 

He gave a warning to his party saying:

“If my party is not able to raise its voice in defence of its former political base of the white working-class, it will not have much chance of winning power in future”.

Blunkett has got it on the nail. Rather than properly reading the report and really examining why white working-class pupils struggle so much more than other ethnic groups in education, the critics choose to try to undermine the whole report based upon literally a few pages that suggested that the concept of “white privilege” was putting white working-class pupils at a further disadvantage.

I mentioned I asked people on the streets of Harlow about the “culture wars”. While they may not have come across this particular terminology, they did hear about our Select Committee report because of the intense media coverage. The overwhelming response has been positive. The silent majority know that white working-class pupils from free school meal backgrounds have been neglected for decades. It is time to right this wrong.

Batley and Spen. Labour is following Galloway into the swamp of sectarian politics.

29 Jun

What does Labour think it’s doing in Batley and Spen by issuing a leaflet hostile to India’s Prime Minister?

Criticism of Boris Johnson and the Conservatives one understands.  It may be unfair – but, hey, that’s by-elections for you.

Why, though, is the Opposition risking the alienation of some 1.2 million Indian-origin voters, if it picks up after the by-election where this leads off?  For an answer, we must turn to the disputed territory of Kashmir.

MPs of all parties with Indian-origin constituents tend to take the Indian Government’s view (which is that all of Kashmir belongs to India, including the bits currently controlled by Pakistan)…

…though those with Pakistani-origin constituents don’t always take the Pakistan Government’s view (which is that all of Kashmir belongs to Pakistan, with the exception of parts ceded by Pakistan to China during the 1960s.)

This is because roughly 70 per cent of Britain’s Pakistani-origin population is actually Kashmiri – or Mirpuri, as some put it: that’s to say, they hail from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.  There is strong support among the Mirpuris for a referendum of all Kashmiris to decide the future of the former princely state: self-determination.

Some of them want an independent Kashmir.  Some, a merger with Pakistan.  At any rate, MPs with Pakistani-origin or Kashmiri-origin or Mirpuri-origin constituents (take your pick on the terminology) tend to support the self-determination poistion.

So far, so predictable.  MPs amplify the views of their constituents.  Nothing surprising or wrong with that.

But until Labour’s annual party conference in 2019, policy on Kashmir was essentially bipartisan.  Government and Opposition took the same position: that Kashmir is a matter for India and Pakistan to resolve.

However, the conference voted for a motion critical of India and stating that “the people of Kashmir should be given the right of self-determination.”  In short, it took the Mirpuri position.

This would have mattered less were this not also Jeremy Corbyn’s.  The Indian High Commission cancelled a dinner reception with the Labour Friends of India, which itself protested about the change of approach to the party leadership.  The controversy spilled over into the 2019 general election.

According to Sunder Katwala on this site:

“The Conservatives paid particular attention to winning British Indian-origin voters – but with very patchy results. In Harrow East, where Bob Blackman is the only Conservative to represent a ‘minority-majority’ seat, he outperformed colleagues across London by winning an increased majority on a five per cent swing to the Conservatives. There was also a dramatic 15 per cent swing to the Conservatives in Leicester East – a constituency where six out of ten votes are Indian-origin – after Keith Vaz stood down in ignominy, replaced by Labour NEC member Claudia Webbe. Labour’s majority was reduced from 30,000 to 6,000, but Webbe still won over 50 per cent of the vote.”

Sunder was dismissive of the claim that the Conservatives made significant progress among Indian-origin voters, claiming that “analysis suggests these results reflected local dynamics, rather than a national pattern”.

However, Keir Starmer may not have seen it the same way; or he may have worried about Labour’s electoral future in seats like these; or be concerned about its relationship with one of the world’s biggest rising powers; or he may have been lobbied effectively – or all four.

At any rate, he returned Labour’s approach back to the status quo ante last year: “Any constitutional issues in India are a matter for the Indian Parliament, and Kashmir is a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully,” he said.

The long and short of it is that Labour, being better represented than the Conservatives in seats with large numbers of Indian and Pakistani voters, is especially vulnerable to capture by communalism.

The party’s approach is being swung this way and that by its needs of the moment.  And as we feared, the centrality which George Galloway is giving to the Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan disputes is having a knock-on effect on Labour.

This vile by-election campaign highlights the risk of Labour being dragged into an explicitly anti-Israel, anti-India position by pressure from Galloway and others to its left…

…With the Conservatives being manouevered, or moving deliberately, towards the opposite position.  Batley and Spen offers a warning glimpse of sectarianism infecting the mainstream of British politics.

Iain Dale: Starmer is right to appoint one of Blair’s former advisers. But if other MPs can’t see that, Labour are doomed forever.

25 Jun

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

The RT-watching conspiracy theory creating nutters have been in full flow this week. The fact that journalists were on board HMS defender means, according to them, that the Royal Navy deliberately provoked the Russians into firing warning shots and dropping bombs in the path of the ship to warn it to keep out of Russian waters.

It never ceases to amaze me how and why these disgusting individuals always take the side of any country – usually Russia – which gives a totally different version of events to our own. There’s a word for people like them.

On one of our Cross Question shows we invited Rivkah Brown from Novara Media onto the panel. She started asserting that the Americans see Britain as a sad little country that they no longer take any notice of, and Biden had made that clear at the G7 in Cornwall.

It was total bollocks of course and he never said any such thing, or even intimated it. At that point I’m afraid I lost my presenter impartiality and asked: “Where do you get this rubbish from?”

Of course whenever you ask them to justify themselves and provide some evidence they can never do so, so all she did was splutter. Why is it that the Left still don’t comprehend that it’s attitudes like this that help them continue to lose elections. The British people don’t like it and never will.

– – – – – – – – –

The appointment of Matthew Doyle as Sir Keir Starmer’s new Director of Communications has sent the Left into apoplexy. Why? Because he’s close to Tony Blair. Yes, the man who led Labour to three election victories.

The word Blair is considered a total anathema to anyone further left that Jess Phillips – i.e. most of the Labour Party. They cannot see any good that he did in 10 years as Prime Minister. And again, until they decide to revise that opinion they will keep on losing.

The trouble is, a weak opposition and a weak Labour Party – and that’s what we have at the moment – enable the Government to get away with things that ordinarily they shouldn’t.

I’ve described the current cabinet as the weakest in my lifetime, with very few transformational figures sitting round the cabinet table. But look down the list of Labour Shadow Cabinet members and it’s even worse.

Most of them are barely names in their own households, let alone known among voters. How many of them are capable of developing the kind of sensible but radical policy agenda that they will need to put to the electorate in less than two years time – yes, I mean May 2023.

Very few. It’s all rather depressing.

– – – – – – – – –

And then we come to the Liberal Democrats who are understandably triumphant in the wake of their victory in the Chesham & Amersham by-election. Wouldn’t you be, if you were part of the “yellow peril”?

I’ll admit, like most of the punditerati class I didn’t see it coming. It’s a long time since the Lib Dems won this type of by-election, and they did it very skilfully, even without the guidance of Lord Rennard.

They concentrated on two issues – HS2 and planning laws – and did them to death in their literature on the doorstep. And it worked for them, even though they were campaigning against policies they actually support. No change there then.

One swallow does not a summer make, though. They got one per cent in the Hartlepool by-election and I doubt they’ll do an awful lot better in Batley & Spen. The long-term consequences of this by-election, if there is one, will be to entrench the view among Lib Dem strategists that they should regard the Tories as their prime enemy or competition, and squeeze the Labour vote in southern, eastern and south western constituencies.

But they need to do it in a way which doesn’t frighten off moderate Tories who, for whatever reason, have tired of Boris Johnson.

– – – – – – – – –

I’ve been writing this column for a decade or more now. That amounts to more than 500 diaries. I’m sorry to say that this week’s column will be my last. All good things come to an end, and I think now is the time to end it.

It’s my decision to do so, and I am also giving up my weekly media review column on Reaction. Why? Well, I’ve just signed a contract for another book and I have to deliver the manuscript by January 31 2022, and frankly there are only so many hours in the day. I need to commit much more time to the book and this frees up two mornings a week.

It’s important for me to be open about that because I don’t want anyone to think there’s been any falling out. ConHome is a brilliant site, led by the excellent Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace. I’d like to thank Paul in particular for allowing me to write the column for so long and for being so supportive. And I’d like to thank you all for reading my words each week. I know that from time to time, I’ve tested your patience.

I’ve said to Paul I’ll happily contribute the occasional column or chair conference events, and I’d like to continue to support the work of ConHome where I can.

So as someone once said, that’s it. The end. Goodbye.

Richard Holden: Levelling up is for voters in the South as well as my constituents in Durham

21 Jun

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Village Hall, Delves Lane, Consett, Co. Durham

It’s a bit like the fabled London bus: you wait ages for a by-election, then four come along at once. For the Westminster bubble – the media, politicians, psephologists and the commentariat – these provide much-needed fresh meat for broadcast comment and column inches. They are the perfect base on which all can retrospectively build their latest pet theory, or justify their most recent musing.

Last month, Hartlepool and Airdrie and Shotts were the focus. In a fortnight, the bubble’s eyes will alight upon Batley and Spen. Until then, the Chesham and Amersham result provides nourishment for this week.

Like an oversized Christmas turkey, the result will be dissected and eaten, the remaining meat will sandwiched and eaten cold for days, and the carcass will then be picked over by someone in need a morsel. Finally, the bones will be boiled up for stock, and set aside to form the basis of future fodder.

Today, we’re at the sandwich stage. Edward Davey, a man uniquely blessed both with the appearance and charisma of a microwaved jacket potato, is clearly relishing some rare limelight for the Lib Dems. The dead parrot is very much alive, he cries! And he repeats this on every media outlet going, spreading his orangey-yellow spin-sauce as thick and fast has he can.

Former Conservative Cabinet Ministers, sat on colossal majorities – thanks to our Prime Minister’s clear stance on Brexit, rather than their own failed approach – bemoan this latest by-election result. The reason for it is clear: it’s whatever pet peeve is tickling their fancy, as they charmlessly forget that they’re participants in, not commentators on, politics.

But from the conversations I’ve been having, the general noise from the bubble is drowning out a far stronger signal. In elections, as with opinion polls, you’ve got to look at trends, not individual results. The trend, rather than the by-election de jour is the same as the local election results. The Conservatives continue to perform solidly (unusually so for a party in Government), and you can see just how much trouble Labour are in. And it knows so.

The local elections of just six weeks ago showed Labour going backwards from the hammering they’d got under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. Hartlepool added to the party’s woes. The trend has been re-enforced in Labour’s unprecedently poor showing in Chesham and Amersham. 622 votes (1.6 per cent) is abysmal, especially when you consider that, under Corbyn in the 2017 general election, Labour came second with 11,374 votes (20.6 per cent of the vote). Starmer, elected in part because it was thought he could win back more of Southern England as well as reverse the losses in the Red Wall, is now looking weaker than ever.

From the day Tony Blair became Labour leader, the party didn’t go backwards in the by-elections that other opposition parties won all the way up to 1997. Perth and Kinross, and Littleborough and Saddleworth, won by the SNP and Lib Dems respectively in 1995, both saw Labour’s vote share rise, despite the other parties taking those seats from the Conservatives. Moreover, Labour know that talk of ‘electoral pacts’ would be madness for a party that seeks to govern, or for a leader who thinks that they can become Prime Minister.

But Labour now knows that it has a leader who is incapable of winning elections. Behind the scenes, it is looking to change him, and sooner rather than later. Plans are more advanced than is widely known beyond the bubble. Both Lisa Nandy and Angela Rayner have desires for the Labour crown with campaigns ready to go, if not already fully underway.  Andy Burnham’s appetite for the leadership is so blatant it’s even being spoofed on Radio 4 comedy shows.

With Labour about to become embroiled in another testing civil war – the timing of which is dependent on just how badly this downward trend goes in the near future – Conservative MPs, wherever they represent, should cool their boots.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment, but the Government’s planning proposals haven’t even gone out to consultation yet. Everyone knows that the current system’s broken: that it works for large land-banking developers, and does very little to really drive sustainable brownfield regeneration outside the centre of our major cities. So let’s not prejudge anything.

On top of that, levelling up is an agenda for everyone because it’s explicitly not about taking from one to give to another. The clue is in the name: it’s about ensuring the provision across the country is there to meet the talents of our people. It’s as relevant to the lad in Ashford as it is for the girl in Ashington. Both want good further education provision, a good job, in time a home of their own for them and their family, good transport and broadband connectivity.

It’s about tackling the productivity issues our country faces so that we don’t have a hideous situation where we’re having to transfer vast amounts of tax around the country to perpetually subsidise some areas. The drive behind levelling up is instead ensuring that towns, villages and individuals across the country will have the jobs and access to jobs and opportunities that, in time, will enable them to pay a greater portion into the collective national pot as they get better off.

Labour don’t like levelling up because they want client communities who rely on handouts from the centre who will then, with a tug of their collective forelock, say thank you for the hand-out by re-elect Labour MPs. So, let’s not fall into the trap of its North v South drivel.

Now is not the time to be distracted by the noise. Cool heads are required – with our opponents about to plunge themselves into another bout of “the public are bonkers for not voting Labour.” As their leadership candidates jostle for the votes of an overwhelmingly out of touch metropolitan membership, we Conservatives, the party in government, must not be distracted. We need one focus, delivery of our one-nation Conservative agenda, because that’s what the public here in the village hall in Delves Lane today or in the shop next door care about. They will accept nothing less.

Reports of Johnson’s political demise are greatly exaggerated

20 Jun

Vote Leave‘s successor was Change Britain – a name that says much about the country’s decision to leave the European Union five years ago.

Brexit was a vote for economic as well as constitutional change: to shift from a model based on financial services, high immigration and London’s hinterland to one more favourable to manufacturing, lower migration and the provinces.  You might call it “levelling up”

If you doubt it, look at this constituency-based map of the results.  West and South of London, you will find a kind of Remain Square.  Its eastern boundary is Hertford and Stortford, more or less.  Its western one is Stroud.

Its northern frontier ends at Milton Keynes and its southern one at Lewes.  Admittedly, this square has a mass of holes punched into it: much of Hampshire, for example, voted Leave.  And some of the Remain majorities within it, like some Leave ones, were narrow.

Levelling up is a term of art.  It can mean enterprise zones, freeports, better schools, improving skills, devolving power – none of which necessarily imply rises in or transfers of public spending.

But to some in that Remain Square, and elsewhere, it is coming to mean taking money in higher taxes from people who live in the south and transferring it to people who live in the north.

This truth would hold had the Chesham and Amersham contest never taken place.   Obviously, it was a lousy result for the Conservatives – for the Party to lose a by-election without seeing it coming, let alone by some eight thousand votes.

There should be a searching post-mortem. But why would any canny voter back the establishment in a by-election?  Isn’t it best to send it a message – namely: “don’t take our votes for granted”?

In the north, that establishment is still Labour.  Hence Hartlepool.  In the south, it’s the pro-levelling up, Red Wall-preoccupied Conservatives.  Hence Chesham and Amersham.  Now on to Batley and Spen.

Come the next general election, the Liberal Democrats won’t be able to concentrate their resources in a single seat, as they did last week.  Nor will they necessarily be the opposition front-runner in the Remain Square, or elsewhere.

Which suggests that last month’s local elections are a better guide to the future than last week’s by-election.  Crudely speaking, they found the right-of-centre vote uniting behind the Tories, and the left-of-centre equivalent divided between Labour, the LibDems and the Greens.

ConservativeHome will take no lectures from anyone about the potential threat to the so-called “Blue Wall” – to the seats within the Remain Square that we identify.  Henry Hill published an analysis of it on this site on May 11, which we re-ran last Friday in the by-election’s wake.

But the good news for Boris Johnson is that the Blue Wall is crumbling more slowly than the red one.  So time is on his side rather than Keir Starmer’s, which is why we still believe that the Prime Minister will be pondering a dash to the polls in 2023.

The bad news for him is that no party can hold a monopoly on much of the country forever.  Tony Blair had one even more extensive than Johnson.  He got three terms out of it (which will encourage the Prime Minister), but Labour eventually ran out of time and votes.

Its backing melted away at both ends.  In the blue corner, their new-won support from 1997 eventually returned to the Tories or went LibDem.  In the red one, their base was eaten away not so much by economics as by immigration and culture.

The medium-term danger to Johnson should start kicking in – unless inflation speeds the process up – in two to three years, when the vultures from post-Brexit and post-Covid spending really start coming home to roost.  He may well be on a second term by then.

But at that point the Prime Minister could find himself trapped in what William Hague, referring to potential British membership of the euro, described as “a burning building with no exits”.

The cornerstone of Government economic policy to date is “no return to austerity” – which we crudely interpret to mean questionable control of the country’s public finances.

This being so, the only weapon left for Ministers to deploy is tax rises: and the tax burden is already forecast to hit the highest level since the late 1960s – 35 per cent of GDP by 2025/26.

We all have a way of reading into by-election results whatever we want to read into them.  Undoubtedly, HS2 was a factor in Chesham and Amersham.  So was planning.  Above all, Blue Wall voters were asking for what Red Wall ones are getting: a little bit of love and attention.

Beyond that, anti-lockdown campaigners claim that the result was powered by opposition to shutdowns.  Pro-aid ones assert that Buckinghamshire’s voters stand behind the 0.7 per cent.

Those suffering from Johnson Derangement Syndrome, such as Dominic Grieve, claim that Buckinghamshire’s “sophisticated” voters see through the Prime Minister.  But if so, why did they chuck Grieve out of Beaconsfield less than two years ago?

So we make no special claim about what happened in Chesham & Amersham last week, other than to take some of the more exotic claims with a lorryload of salt.

But we do make a forecast about what will happen there and elsewhere within the Remain Square in future – regardless of whether or not the seat, like Newbury and Christchurch and Eastbourne and other Liberal by-election gains of the past, duly returns to the Tory column.

Namely, that the good voters of Chesham and Amersham won’t tolerate more tax rises for long.  Not that voters in Red Wall or provincial English seats would do so either.

But the private sector in the Remain Square is relatively big; employment in public services relatively smaller; exposure to property and pensions taxes relatively bigger.

Sooner or later, Johnson and Rishi Sunak will have to revisit the other side of the financial sustainability ledger: spending control.  With over a third of it going on pensions and healthcare, that will mean tough choices, in Chesham, Amersham – and everywhere else.

As for the Prime Minister’s prospects, we are where we were before. He can have all the Turkmenbashi statues he wants, and more, for getting Brexit done – and for saving the country from metaphorical if not literal Dreyfus affair-style strife.

ConHome believes that he should have his chance to “Change Britain” (with a majority of 80, he has earned it; anxious backbenchers please take note) while having little confidence that he actually will.

What’s left of this term risks being frittered away in bread, summits, and circuses, Roman-style.  The possibility is frighteningly plausible.  We devoutly hope that we’re proved wrong, as we sometimes are.

David Gauke: Chesham and Amersham. Yes, a realignment is taking place in British politics. But it is likely to happen slowly.

19 Jun

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Conservative MPs should take the Prime Minister at his word. He has told them what he is going to do and they should trust him to do it. He won’t let them down. There. I have said it.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not talking about promises to level up, prioritise the education catch-up, simultaneously keep taxes and borrowing down while ending spending austerity, avoid new non-tariff barriers with EU trade, prevent new checks on Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade, stop veterans being pursued in the courts, deliver net zero without any pain for taxpayers or consumers, or maintain all existing agricultural standards at the same time as obtaining comprehensive trade deals around the world. Some of those promises might not be kept.

But when the Prime Minister says that he intends to open up on 19 July, I am sure he means it and I think he will be able to do so.

On Boris Johnson’s intentions, nobody should be in much doubt that he is an instinctively reluctant implementer of lockdowns and, if they were, the evidence of Dominic Cummings should dissuade them.

Over the course of 2021, the Prime Minister has been more cautious in unlocking (with considerable justification) but it is worth noting the reasons. Of most relevance is the fact that we have vaccines which are demonstrably the way out of lockdowns without yet further vast numbers of deaths. The existence of vaccines has meant that the end is in sight, but also that the case for caution is strengthened because further deaths are avoidable. It is this insight that has driven our lockdown policy for the last few months, and drove the decision to delay easing once again.

The Indian/Delta variant has disrupted the plans, because it is evidently much more transmissible and a single dose is less effective than against earlier strains. This has not resulted in abandoning the vaccine strategy but raising the thresholds. In broad terms, the Government has moved from being satisfied in unlocking, when 80 per cent of adults will have had the benefit of one dose and 60 per cent two, to moving up the thresholds to roughly 90 to 95 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.

A fair proportion of the Conservative Parliamentary Party is sceptical that the July unlocking will happen, presumably because they think that cases and hospitalisation will be high when the decision will be made. If that were to be the case, that might also suggest the decision to delay the June unlocking was wise.

But July 19 does – at this point – look like the right date. We will still get the benefit of summer, the long school holidays will reduce transmission and the vaccine programme will be very nearly done. Assuming that the vaccines work – and the evidence continues to be very encouraging – and we are not struck by a variant that looks as though it will escape the effects of the vaccine, the case for unlocking at that point will be very strong. I think he will do it.

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I have written elsewhere about the Chesham and Amersham by-election. It is a constituency I know well, having represented the neighbouring seat of South West Hertfordshire for some years, and I live just a short walk from the constituency boundary. The two seats have much in common.

During the course of the 2019 general election campaign I had lots of encouraging conversations – usually in Berkhamsted High Street – in which people would wish me luck before declaring that they lived in Chesham and could not vote for me. Presumably, most of those voters went Liberal Democrat on Thursday.

I have for some time argued that we are undergoing a political realignment.  As far as the Conservative retreat from the Home Counties is concerned, I think that is more likely to be apparent in by-elections before we will see it in general elections, because it is seen as risk-free to vote elsewhere. In 2019, the soft Conservative vote stayed Conservative because of the fear of Jeremy Corbyn, whereas no such threat exists in a by-election.

Even accepting all of that, the result seems to have caught most observers by surprise. Given that I am almost a local, a few people asked me if I had expected it, and I confess I hadn’t (a sharply reduced Conservative majority – yes; a comfortable Liberal Democrat majority – no).

However, on reflection, the only person in the constituency I had spoken to in the last week was the nice man from the Amersham branch of Majestic, and we didn’t discuss politics.

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As someone who is happy to defend Boris Johnson’s decision to delay the next stage in easing the lockdown, I do think he has rather got away with causing the delay in the first place. I listened to PMQs this week (as it happens, driving to receive my second dose in Watford Town Hall) and Keir Starmer asked a series of questions on the delay in restricting travel from India.

The Prime Minister responded with a series non sequiturs and evasions. Pakistan and Bangladesh went on the red list on 2 April, India (where cases were far higher) not until 19 April (and implemented four days later). I have not seen a good explanation for the difference in approach.

It is clear that the Delta variant was seeded in the UK because of extensive travel with India over that period. Despite our superior vaccine rollout (although the gap is closing by the day), the UK now has more cases per head of population than anywhere in Europe

At some point, the Government is going to have to explain what happened. If not, people will only assume it was because the Prime Minister did not want to abandon the chance to make a trip to India. It is a serious charge and deserves a serious response.

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The Chesham and Amersham by-election may be uncomfortable for the Conservatives but that is likely to be as nothing compared to the Labour discomfit if they lose Batley & Spen. In large part, this looks likely to be as a consequence of George Galloway’s campaign, and his criticism of Starmer for being insufficiently critical of Israel.

Assuming Labour loses, I wonder if the approach the Labour leadership should take is to lean into the issue and argue that – whatever the electoral consequences – the Labour Party under Keir Starmer (in contrast to his predecessor) will take a mature and balanced approach to the Middle East, and not put political expediency above responsible diplomacy.

I am not sure that is entirely true (there seems to me to be too much pandering to radical anti-Israel sentiment as it is), but it might not be a bad issue to be debating the wake of a by-election loss. Frame the debate as Starmer against the Galloway/Corbyn worldview.

As it is, Labour is in an impossible and ghastly position. It is either seen as too anti-Semitic to be elected or, in some places, not anti-Semitic enough.

Iain Dale: The student said men are physically stronger than women. Now she’s been referred to the Student Disciplinary Board.

21 May

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

On Wednesday, Ryan Stephenson was selected as the Conservative candidate in Batley & Spen. The way some Tories are carring on, it’s already in the bag.

This is dangerous talk. Hartlepool is not Batley & Spen. Not all northern constituencies are the same. Indeed, this used to be a Conservative seat, with Elizabeth Peacock representing it from 1983 to 1997.

Since then, it’s been fairly solidly Labour, although at the last election the majority was reduced to 3,525. That year, an independent candidate, Paul Halloran, polled more than 6,400 votes, the majority of which seem to have come from Labour, if you compare the 2019 result with that of 2017.

Will Halloran stand again? I’ve had a look at his Facebook page, and he’s certainly strongly hinting that he might. However, if Jo Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, gets the Labour nomination – the party is selecting on Sunday – that might put him off.

Labour seem to have learned their lesson from the disastrous imposition of their candidate in Hartlepool from a shortlist of one. This time, the local party will have a selection of candidates to choose from.

Everyone is assuming that Leadbeater is a shoo-in, but one should always remember that local candidates, though often seen as a real advantage by commentators, usually have local enemies. And local Labour Parties are usually a hotbed of plotting and chicanery.

Finally, it appears that George Galloway will be throwing his Fedora into the ring. He will try to win the substantial Muslim vote, which would normally be expected to row in behind Labour. The result of this by-election could well depend on how successful Galloway is.

For that and many other reasons, this by-election is likely to become the most well covered by the media for many years: indeed, this site carried a report from Andrew Gimson yesterday. Put your seatbelts on and hold tight.

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The other by-election on the horizon is Chesham & Amersham, on June 17th. The Conservative candidate, selected a fortnight ago, Peter Fleet, has a majority of more than 16,000 to defend.

On the fact of it, the seat doesn’t look like the place where political earthquakes take place, but stranger things have happened. I was listening to the LibDem podcast this week (so you don’t have to), and they certainly have their dander up and think they can win it.

They base this on the fact that the seat had a 55 per cent Remain vote (or at least did in 2016). I’m not sure how relevant this is any longer. I mean, ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ worked for them so well in 2019. The vaccine rollout has certainly converted many people to the Brexit cause as well.

But complacency is the enemy of victory, and Conservative strategists should certain not rest on their laurels.

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Yet another example of the world going completely mad. A student at Abertay University, Dundee has been referred to the Student Disciplinary Board because in a seminar on Gender, she had the temerity to state that men are physically stronger than women.

This is obviously a thought crime and, in true Orwellian style, she must be banished to the Student Disciplinary Board for correctional training. And they say there is no need for a Free Speech Bill (Universities) Bill…

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Looks like the West Ham Variant will be hitting Europe in August… Come on You Irons!

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For the last three and a half years, I have hosted an hour-long panel show called Cross Question on a Wednesday evening on LBC. It’s similar in format to Any Questions or Question Time  with the main difference being the questions come from our callers.

We had to pause it during lockdown, because we couldn’t have four guests in the studio. But, since the beginning of March, we’ve had them all on a giant Zoom wall, and it’s worked rather well.

I deliberately keep the tone light and discourage too many heated confrontations. If people talk over each other on Zoom it sounds far worse than it does if they’re physically present. What I have found is that this engenders an atmosphere of positivity, with panellists agreeing with each other surprisingly often.

As well as big name politicians and commentators we’ve also used the show to try to discover new talent too. This week, we had Ndidi Okezie, chief executive of UK Youth on. She was an absolute revelation, with original things to say on every subject we covered. And we covered a lot of ground.

The show has been so successful that from next week we’re going to be doing it three times a week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), live from our new studio in Westminster.

On Monday, we have a very tasty first panel with Diane Abbott, Sarah Vine, Polly Toynbee and Brandon Lewis. Our challenge is to keep up the quality of the guests, given that we’ll have three programmes to fill every week. And the great things is, as well as listening people are able to watch via the Global Player or Youtube. That’s modern radio for you!