After my night out on Saturday, I’m even more convinced that the 10pm curfew won’t work

13 Oct

As readers of ConservativeHome may know, I am hardly the biggest fan of the Government’s 10pm curfew policy. I believe it will cause huge economic harm; has been based on a flawed model from Belgium, and is dispiriting for national morale. Last Saturday night, I added a new reason to my list of objections; it seems to me that the curfew is counterproductive – and could, inadvertently, harm public health.

That evening my friend and I had been in Soho at a smart, socially distanced bar before grabbing dinner nearby. At the restaurant, waiters frantically hurried about, conscious of the time. I don’t think I have ever seen someone sprint towards me with a glass of wine before, but there are firsts for everything in this crisis.

Coming up to 10pm, we were told that we had had to leave. We were in a lively part of town, and so this instruction suddenly meant tens of people getting up at the same time to go home. But that was nothing as I headed towards Oxford Street tube. The streets were heaving with people – similar to the photographs many of us have seen in newspapers of revellers convening in other parts of the country.

What troubled me wasn’t so much the crowds gathering outside (the virus spreads mostly indoors), but watching hundreds – maybe even thousands – of these souls then pour onto the tube, where they would inevitably be packed together in carriages.

Although I am quite relaxed about my own personal risk with Coronavirus, I decided to wait an hour before boarding the underground, taking photographs of the scene (one of which you’ll see above). It merely convinced me that the Government has indeed got this policy wrong.

The Coronavirus crisis is, of course, forcing MPs to make impossible decisions, for which – dare I say – I feel very sorry for them; it is a thankless task. Their scientific advisors have clearly told them about the dangers of bars; that one person can spark a big wave of infections, and that alcohol makes people more relaxed about social contact.

The curfews are in many ways a concession made to those who say it’s wrong to have pubs open at all, and maybe it’s the case that they work well in small towns, where one can walk back and forth to the local.

As a Londoner I can only speak for how it works here. It simply looked like the quickest way to accelerate the spread of the virus. It is an example when a theory sounds good – “close earlier and the virus can’t circulate” – but the practical reality is far messier.

I have seen other problems with the curfew, albeit simply walking around London. One is that people are starting their “evenings” much earlier. There are now groups of dressed up people in pubs and bars at midday. Revellers will find other ways around the curfew, too, standing outside pubs with plastic cups of wine long after closing time. The parties haven’t stopped, they’re simply moving elsewhere.

Some of this is no doubt because people’s tolerance for lockdown is starting to wane. For young people particularly, many of whom live in small homes, getting out for the evening is a strange type of stretching one’s legs. For people of all ages, bars and restaurants are a salvation at a time when life has become quite bleak. 

My own, somewhat controversial theory – and not simply because I like nightlife, which I do – is that extending closing times would, paradoxically, provide a much better outcome than curfews. It would increase the range of times at which people come and go from bars. It makes people feel less pressured to head in at the same time. Perhaps venues could even allow people to book slots.

Unfortunately this idea would never get any traction. Part of the reason is that so much of our policies are based on replicating Europe; we decided the curfew was a good idea because Belgium had taken it on, and now Germany has done the same so the case for it will grow. I wonder if this is the right approach for any country with densely populated cities, not just ours. What I saw on Saturday night was not good.

Jason Reed: Taiwan, Britain and the UN. It’s time to rethink the One-China Policy.

25 Sep

Jason Reed is External Communications Officer at the British Conservation Alliance.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), which is an arm of the UN, has come under a great deal of scrutiny this year as a result of its disastrous leadership throughout the pandemic, the most troubling aspect of which is its close links with China.

When the Coronavirus first emerged, transparency of information in government was suddenly more pivotal than ever before. But little to no information sharing occurred between countries at that crucial time, thanks to the combination of the WHO being at Beijing’s behest and the Chinese Communist Party’s aversion to openness of any kind. The cost of that failure was tens of thousands of lives.

The CCP’s tentacles extend far beyond the WHO, of course. The Chinese government has spent the last several decades worming its way into every corner of the UN. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of that is the UN’s persistent refusal to recognise Taiwan as anything other than Chinese territory.

Imperialism is alive and well in the twenty-first century. China, a modern colonial power, still claims sovereignty over Taiwan, despite the fact that Taiwan has been an independent country for over 70 years, and its government was democratically elected by its population of 24 million.

Taiwan’s exclusion from the UN has nothing to do with Taiwan itself. It’s not as if the UN considered Taiwan’s request to join and rejected it on merit. Even North Korea is a member, after all. The UN simply refuses to acknowledge Taiwan’s existence. It is so beholden to the will of the Chinese government that it does not dare contradict anything that comes out of Beijing. What is the point of an international peace project if it reliably does the bidding of a communist dictatorship?

If there was ever a time to put our foot down and begin to roll back China’s power on the world stage, it is now. “De-Sinoficiation” will define international relations in the coming decades. The Coronavirus coverup, along with flagrant assaults on democracy in Hong Kong and the appalling genocide of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, mean that the world has no choice but to begin to distance itself from the CCP.

This will be an almighty task. For at least forty years, our politics and our economies have gradually become more and more intimately connected with those of China. Disentangling ourselves from that relationship will be a lengthy and arduous process. Finally deciding to exclude Huawei from our 5G network was the first step on a very long road.

But it is a journey we must make. De-Sinoficiation is a necessary task. The entire western world has effectively turned a blind eye to China’s wrongdoing for far too long. The watershed moment has now passed – there is no going back. In order to preserve any semblance of a liberal, globalised world order, China must be knocked off its omnipotent pedestal and held accountable for its actions.

Taiwan’s right to exist as an independent nation seems a good place to start. The right and wrong of the issue is clear-cut and it has always been a touchy area for the CCP, whose greatest fear is its sweeping authority being undermined.

In the Economist’s democracy index, Taiwan ranks third in Asia and 31st in the world (higher than Italy and Belgium). Meanwhile, China languishes among the fifteen least democratic countries, making it more authoritarian than Cuba and Iran. While Taiwan was legalising same-sex marriage, making it the first country in Asia to do so, China was writing ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ into its constitution.

Taiwan stands ready and able to become a fully-fledged member of the international community. There ought to be no question about its validity as an independent country. You might even argue that the island nation, which calls itself the Republic of China, has a much stronger claim to be the Chinese government than Beijing.

On top of everything else, Taiwan is a trailblazing Covid success story. Its total death count from the pandemic to date is seven. The Taiwanese government is also going above and beyond any reasonable expectations in order to build friendships with other democracies around the world, including the UK.

Despite the western world unfairly shunning it in favour of China’s economic might, Taiwan continues to behave courteously towards its would-be allies. For instance, the Taiwanese government donated over a million face masks to the NHS at the height of the British coronavirus outbreak.

Since then, Taiwan has – politely – asked to join the UN and be recognised as an independent nation, calmly pointing out the enormous body of evidence and precedents in its favour. Those calls have gone unheard. Some bridge-building is going on – such as through UK Export Finance investing in a Taiwanese renewable energy project – but it will never go far enough while China is still in the picture.

The British left is beginning to stake its flag in Beijing apologia. Now is the time for Conservatives to demonstrate what post-Brexit Global Britain could look like by standing up for freedom on the world stage. The first step ought to be reconsidering the long-outdated One-China Policy, which would surely cause a ripple of similar actions across the west and – potentially – force the UN to reconsider its close relationship with China.

The Government has an opportunity to lead the world on de-Sinofication and create a valuable new ally for Britain in the process. Let’s not waste any more time.

Raghib Ali: Covid-19. The pluses and minuses of the Government’s new plan – and why there should be no more lockdowns.

25 Sep

Dr Raghib Ali is an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, and a Visiting Research Fellow of the Department of Population Health, University of Oxford. He writes in a personal capacity.

Last week, I explained on this site why there is still significant potential for harm from a second wave – both directly from Covid-19, and indirectly from its effect on the NHS’ ability to keep all essential services running.

Today, I will try to address the key question as to what our response should be. The situation now is almost the exact inverse of the one I discussed in June in relation to lifting lockdown restrictions. The divisions remain, and the public health messaging still needs to improve but there is now wider acknowledgement of the need to balance the harms of Covid-19 with those of lockdown.

I wish I had the same confidence as the armchair epidemiologists about the best course of action, but the truth is that although we do now have actual experience of dealing with first waves (as opposed to just modelling), ‘the science’ is still highly uncertain, with conflicting evidence for the effectiveness of different strategies (mitigation vs. suppression) in different countries.

I have set out in more detail on my blog why it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions but, in brief, the evidence we have is generally from low quality observational data which have significant limitations – and so we don’t know for certain if the reduction in disease was due to the intervention or other factors.

Also, many interventions were instituted simultaneously and so we don’t know which had the biggest effect in reducing infection. However, it is clear that the measures taken pre-lockdown (self-isolation and social distancing) did reduce infections and must remain the cornerstone of our response.

Between-country comparisons are particularly problematic as countries differ in so many important ways but I will briefly discuss the experience of Sweden as its approach has attracted so much attention (and supporters and detractors). Compared to its nearest neighbours, it has (so far) had a five to ten times higher death rate with a similar economic decline. This supports the case that those countries that locked down earlier had less deaths from Coronavirus (because they had less cases) – as would be expected given the virus needs human interaction to spread.

However, when compared to the UK, Belgium or France, Sweden has a similar level of deaths with a much better economic performance and has demonstrated that first waves can be ended with measures short of a full lockdown (including, crucially, keeping schools open).

But it is too early to say that Sweden has escaped a second wave as they generally occur about three months after the end of the first and Sweden’s only ended in July. However, I think it is unlikely as they have not reached the 20 per cent antibody level which may provide herd immunity (they are at about seven per cent.)

Also, in general, lockdowns postpone rather than prevent infection (although the death rate should be lower in second waves, due to better treatments) and Israel provides an example of their limitations where they now have a much larger second wave of deaths which has led to a second lockdown. And this cycle of lockdowns would need to be repeated until vaccines / very effective treatments become available – of which there is no guarantee.

Of the large European countries, Germany has (so far) managed the Coronavirus most effectively, with lower deaths in the first wave (and less economic damage) and no second wave yet – which seems to be due to better testing and tracing, and shielding of those at highest risk.

However, it is still too early to say which countries’ strategies are correct, and we won’t know until the end of the pandemic. But, of course, we have to make decisions now based on the best evidence we have.

Although I don’t agree with all the measures, I think the approach outlined by the Prime Minister and Chief Medical Officer – which can be seen as a hybrid mitigation / suppression strategy – is broadly correct ,and rightly focuses on the balance of benefits and harms in order to produce the best overall outcome.

And although there is now broad agreement that we must try to prevent a second national lockdown, there is already pressure to increase the restrictions further.

But before doing this, I would urge the Government and Parliament to ask these three questions:

  • First, how good is the evidence that the intervention works in reducing Covid-19?

We have a much better evidence base now, with the different interventions used over the summer and some data from the ‘natural experiments’ being conducted as devolved nations introduced slightly different measures (e.g. on the rule of 6, size of bubbles, household mixing, etc.)

Measures should also be in place for at least two weeks to assess effectiveness before considering new ones; but should also be reviewed regularly, and not kept any longer than necessary. (The Government should also urgently fund trials to test different interventions in different regions to get better evidence.)

  • Second, is it clear that making these restrictions mandatory (with penalties) makes a significant difference to compliance/ effectiveness of these measures?

In some cases, this is clear (e.g: breaking self-isolation rules where the voluntary system was not working well) but, in general, the harms of (particularly social) restrictions could be reduced by making them voluntary.

  • Third, and most importantly, does it clearly have more benefit than harm in relation to overall health, quality of life, education and jobs?

It is hard to see how a second national lockdown could be justified, even on health grounds, with the Government’s  own health cost-benefit analysis  showing that, in the long-term, the health impacts of the two month lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater than those of the direct Covid-19 deaths. (Importantly, this analysis was on the basis that mitigations to reduce Coronavirus infections (e.g. social distancing) were in place – otherwise the harm from Covid-19 deaths was more than three times greater than lockdown.)

Other analyses have also come to the same conclusion – particularly when also considering the economic costs of lockdown – which also harms health and society.

The evidence for the effectiveness of local lockdowns is mixed, but they will still have associated harms – and will exacerbate inequalities and so similar comprehensive, cost-benefit analyses are needed – with the input of economists and educationalists as well.

New lockdowns should only be considered when there is clear evidence of more benefit than harm, and closing schools must be the last resort.

We need to prioritise those interventions that most reduce the direct and indirect harms from Covid-19 (which will therefore decrease the need for more restrictions) while doing the least harm to everything else – particularly other health harms, education, and the economy.

Based on our experience, these are three interventions which could save thousands of lives this time:

  • First, improving the public health messaging and reducing fear. Thousands died and suffered at home either because they thought they needed to ‘stay at home’ to ‘protect the NHS’ even when they were seriously ill – or they were too scared to come to hospital. We need to reassure the sick and ideally provide separate Covid-19 units/ hospitals to give them more confidence to attend – which also means keeping Covid-19 hospitalisations at a low enough level to enable this.
  • Second, ensuring that all NHS services are kept running. while also managing Covid-19. Millions have suffered, and thousands will die, through the closure of NHS services – which we now know was not necessary and mustn’t happen again. We must urgently establish the level at which Covid-19 admissions will overwhelm the NHS – not in the sense that we used before (i.e. emergency and critical care) – which is no longer a risk – but all other essential services as well. And this time, we must use the increased capacity available from the Nightingales and private hospitals.
  • Third, protecting those at highest risk including care home residents and hospital patients with regular testing & isolation, and ‘smarter shielding.’  This can be much better targeted now with all the data we have and individual ‘Covid-19 risk calculators’ should be urgently rolled-out to help people understand their own risk and make their own informed decisions. It will also help people to overcome their fears and seek medical help when required, as well as help to reduce Covid-19 disparities.

I do not, however, believe this shielding should replace the other measures to suppress the virus in the general population. There is currently not enough evidence to show that it is possible to effectively shield all those at high risk or to reach herd immunity without significant direct harm to the lower risk groups where adverse health effects occur in about a third of cases, including the young and those with mild symptoms.

(Of course, test and trace is also critical – and there is certainly room for improvement, particularly in schools, but the UK does have one of the highest testing rates in Europe.)

The public have the most important role of all in controlling the virus, and so must be convinced to follow the current restrictions and given support, as needed, to do so. To improve public consent and compliance, the Government should publish and explain the evidence – and be honest about the decision-making process, the uncertainties and the trade-offs.

The coming months will be challenging for all of us, and we will need to learn to live with the virus and change our behaviour accordingly. For some, that will mean reducing our social contacts; for others – overcoming our fears; and for all, looking out for the vulnerable, being patient and making sacrifices for the common good.

Finally, having served on the front-line, I am only too aware of the death and suffering that Covid-19 causes – but the harms of a second lockdown would be greater. And so we must follow the current measures and by protecting society, education and the economy – as well as the NHS – we will save, and improve, the most lives.

Belgium hasn’t “flattened the curve” – and should not be used to justify UK curfews

11 Sep

During the Government’s press conference on Wednesday, Chris Whitty explained that the latest lockdown rules, which mean it’s now illegal for over six people to socialise indoors or outdoors from Monday, had been inspired by Belgium.

On July 29, the country introduced similar guidelines, reducing the number of people who are allowed to socialise together from 15 to five, as well as enforcing a 10pm national curfew (which, depressingly, has been applied to bars and restaurants in Bolton – and could be extended to other parts of the UK).

Speaking about Belgium, Whitty said it had been a “clear indication that if you act rapidly and decisively when these changes (rises in cases) are happening, there is a reasonable or good chance of bringing the rates back down under control”.

Newspapers were quick to praise the country. The Daily Mail suggested that it had been “able to curtail a second wave of coronavirus”, and The Evening Standard even referred to Belgium as a “success“.

On the other hand, Spain and France, which have both seen cases rise rapidly, have been portrayed unfavourably. In the press conference, Whitty used this dramatic graph (below) to highlight their situation.

The conclusion is clear: the UK now needs to “act decisively” – aka apply similar measures to Belgium’s – to save it from a similar fate.

Matt Hancock, too, echoed Whitty’s sentiments. “If you look at what’s happened in Belgium, they saw an increase and then they’ve brought it down, whereas in France and Spain that just hasn’t happened”, he said.

Yet, in the last few days the idea that Belgium is a “success” look rather dubious (to say the least).

Indeed, as The Brussels Times points out, the country has recorded a rapid rise in the number of new Coronavirus infections. According to the latest figures by Sciensano (the Belgian institute for health), an average of 547.4 people per day tested positive for Covid-19 in the country during the last week, with new infections per day rising by 22 per cent over the seven-day period (from September 1 to 7).

It’s the sixth day in the row that the average number of new confirmed Covid-19 infections in Belgium has risen again.

Furthermore, while the Government’s graph was plotted from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, others look less flattering. Take the site Worldometer, as an alternative source, which released these yesterday:

Although it’s worth pointing out that Belgium did experience a slight dip in the number of new infections in August, the trend clearly hasn’t been sustained as people return to work and school. And on a more contentious note, it’s not obvious whether the dip was due to the interventions (limiting parties to five and curfews) or something else. There is still much that we do not know about the virus, and why it moves through countries at different rates.

Another question to ask is what hospitalisations look like in all this; from September 4 to 10, there has been an average of 22 new hospital admissions per day in Belgium – an increase on the previous week (15.7). Compared to cases, these figures are relatively low, and another reminder that scientists still don’t understand how cases translate to hospitalisations and deaths (partly because no one knows what cases were at the beginning of the outbreak).

Already there’s been talk of whether Britain could copy Belgium more in its approach, with a troubling YouGov poll showing that 62 per cent of the public would support a 10pm to 5am curfew.

But any moves must be made on more clear-cut data. By all indications, the latest figures are not that.

Ryan Bourne: A message for Johnson and Sunak on tax rises. Not now. And not these.

2 Sep

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

How’s this for a false dichotomy? Last Saturday, Prospect asked: “Post-Covid, are taxes hikes essential to fund the future? Or should we abandon “deficit fetishism” and spend our way to prosperity?” [i.e. through borrowing]. I shouldn’t need to tell ConservativeHome readers that “spend to grow” and “spend to grow”—the only difference being how to finance it—are not an exhaustive set of fiscal policy options post-pandemic.

But that tweet, sadly, reflects conventional wisdom. You should take the pre-Budget briefing in the Sunday papers about Treasury desires for £20-30 billion in tax hikes through capital gains tax, corporation tax, fuel duty, an online sales tax and restrictions on pensions tax relief with a pinch of salt. Before every recent budget such stories have emerged, perhaps due to kite-flying or overexcited journalistic coverage of illustrative exercises in how one could raise revenues. One suspects the briefings may even be a political ploy—raising fears in the Tory base before Number Ten saves the day.

Yet there’s undoubtedly an unnerving regularity to them. Alongside a steady drumbeat from “One Nation” Tories and such organisations as the Resolution Foundation, the idea that large tax hikes will be desirable and necessary is taking hold, with Covid-19 apparently making this agenda more urgent.

We are told, as the kitchen sink of argumentation is thrown, that the pandemic itself proves the false economy of a “hollowed out” state after a decade of austerity. Or that the “levelling up” and the “inevitable” higher spending we will now want on health, welfare benefits, and higher public sector pay means tax hikes are needed. Or that the crisis necessitates urgent repair to the public finances, and that there’s simply nowhere left to cut spending.

None of these arguments, however, stand the test of reason. Countries that have dealt with the Coronavirus better include those (South Korea, Taiwan, Australia) with much lower tax-to-GDP ratios than the UK and much lower health spending too. Many with higher tax-to-GDP ratios (France, Belgium, Italy) have seen similarly shocking death tolls to us.

At best, any failure to deliver resources where needed reflects bad state priorities, not an impoverished public realm. Indeed, the story of a hollowed-out state at a time of the highest tax burden since the early 1980s, coupled with this international evidence, suggests ascribing blame to austerity for poor performance is both ahistorical and parochial.

The wisdom or otherwise of  the “levelling up” agenda, and how best to pay for it, is largely unrelated to the pandemic too. Actually, to the extent that Covid-19 affects the desirability of infrastructure and public service spending in the regions, it throws substantial doubt on the benefits of projects such as HS2 and other city and town revival plans.

Who knows what lasting impact the crisis will have on remote working, the location of activity, and favoured transport modes? One Nationers arguing that the virus proves the need to level up would have us believe that the pandemic’s effects are significant enough for a tax revolution, but insignificant enough to alter the desirability of any of their proposed spending. One might almost suggest motivated reasoning here.

In macroeconomic terms, the case for significant tax rises now is weaker still. The point of bridging support through furlough was to shelter businesses and workers from this unexpected shock. To pass the bill to the private sector now as it struggles back to life would strangle the recovery. And for what? Borrowing costs are low, and we have no idea yet whether and how much this crisis will leave a permanent budget hole once emergency spending stops and private sector activity revives. In fact, even borrowing to date has not been as high as initially feared.

Of course, the extra debt to deal with the crisis has to be paid somehow, eventually. But, as I argued here before, unusual shocks such as pandemics and wars primarily result in step-level debt-to-GDP increases rather than ongoing budget holes, because you stop spending on the immediate threat afterwards.

The implication is that modest consolidation over decades is optimal to account for the extra incurred debt, rather than adopting large tax increases to compensate over a Parliament. Economists call it “tax smoothing”—debt provides a safety valve to allow us to only modestly change spending or taxation over long periods to maintain incentives. Of course, if the Government thinks that, for political reasons, it must expand welfare benefits or health spending permanently, this would be a normative choice: there is nothing inevitable about sharp tax hikes.

Even if you think permanent scarring will occur, those taxes suggested to raise revenue seem bizarre choices today. The Government presumably wants us to be Covid-cautious still. Two ways of reducing risks would be to drive more rather than use public transport and to shop more online.

Aside from all the other downsides of raising fuel duty and introducing an online sales tax, to use the tax system to incentivise worsening virus transmission right now by making driving and online shopping more expensive seems bizarre.

Raising top capital gains tax rates to 40 or 45 per cent would simply be self-defeating from a revenue-raising perspective. Capital Gains Tax on many investments represents a double tax. The justification for having it at all is to deter people hiding income as capital gains.

But there’s a revenue-maximizing balance between this effect and deterring people from selling assets. The Coalition government introduced a top 28 per cent CGT rate precisely because HMRC research suggested this raised most revenue. Though it was then lowered to 20 per cent under George Osborne, raising it to 40 per cent plus would reduce revenue relative to a lower rate. We’d get less investment and entrepreneurship when we need it most too.

And then there’s the mooted corporation tax rise from 19 back to 24 per cent. Taxes on mobile capital will deter foreign investment just as Brexit is set to happen, as well as reducing the after-tax return on new domestic projects. Who will bear the costs? Not just “the wealthy,” as commonly asserted, but workers too: evidence suggests that they bear between 30 and 70 percent of the burden of taxes on corporations.

Not only is the tax rise call premature then, but the specific proposals don’t conform to the pandemic’s needs or Boris’s Johnson’s ambitions to create a high-wage economy. Covid-19 may permanently scar the public finances, sure. But as yet its full effects are unknown and there’s little cost to pausing to see. Anything else at this stage is using the crisis as a pretext for raising funds for hobby horses.

If the Prime Minister truly objects to this rationale as reported and understands the threat to the nascent recovery of sharp tax rises today, he should take this message to his Chancellor: on tax rises, not now and not these.

Ryan Bourne: A message for Johnson and Sunak on tax rises. Not now. And not these.

2 Sep

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

How’s this for a false dichotomy? Last Saturday, Prospect asked: “Post-Covid, are taxes hikes essential to fund the future? Or should we abandon “deficit fetishism” and spend our way to prosperity?” [i.e. through borrowing]. I shouldn’t need to tell ConservativeHome readers that “spend to grow” and “spend to grow”—the only difference being how to finance it—are not an exhaustive set of fiscal policy options post-pandemic.

But that tweet, sadly, reflects conventional wisdom. You should take the pre-Budget briefing in the Sunday papers about Treasury desires for £20-30 billion in tax hikes through capital gains tax, corporation tax, fuel duty, an online sales tax and restrictions on pensions tax relief with a pinch of salt. Before every recent budget such stories have emerged, perhaps due to kite-flying or overexcited journalistic coverage of illustrative exercises in how one could raise revenues. One suspects the briefings may even be a political ploy—raising fears in the Tory base before Number Ten saves the day.

Yet there’s undoubtedly an unnerving regularity to them. Alongside a steady drumbeat from “One Nation” Tories and such organisations as the Resolution Foundation, the idea that large tax hikes will be desirable and necessary is taking hold, with Covid-19 apparently making this agenda more urgent.

We are told, as the kitchen sink of argumentation is thrown, that the pandemic itself proves the false economy of a “hollowed out” state after a decade of austerity. Or that the “levelling up” and the “inevitable” higher spending we will now want on health, welfare benefits, and higher public sector pay means tax hikes are needed. Or that the crisis necessitates urgent repair to the public finances, and that there’s simply nowhere left to cut spending.

None of these arguments, however, stand the test of reason. Countries that have dealt with the Coronavirus better include those (South Korea, Taiwan, Australia) with much lower tax-to-GDP ratios than the UK and much lower health spending too. Many with higher tax-to-GDP ratios (France, Belgium, Italy) have seen similarly shocking death tolls to us.

At best, any failure to deliver resources where needed reflects bad state priorities, not an impoverished public realm. Indeed, the story of a hollowed-out state at a time of the highest tax burden since the early 1980s, coupled with this international evidence, suggests ascribing blame to austerity for poor performance is both ahistorical and parochial.

The wisdom or otherwise of  the “levelling up” agenda, and how best to pay for it, is largely unrelated to the pandemic too. Actually, to the extent that Covid-19 affects the desirability of infrastructure and public service spending in the regions, it throws substantial doubt on the benefits of projects such as HS2 and other city and town revival plans.

Who knows what lasting impact the crisis will have on remote working, the location of activity, and favoured transport modes? One Nationers arguing that the virus proves the need to level up would have us believe that the pandemic’s effects are significant enough for a tax revolution, but insignificant enough to alter the desirability of any of their proposed spending. One might almost suggest motivated reasoning here.

In macroeconomic terms, the case for significant tax rises now is weaker still. The point of bridging support through furlough was to shelter businesses and workers from this unexpected shock. To pass the bill to the private sector now as it struggles back to life would strangle the recovery. And for what? Borrowing costs are low, and we have no idea yet whether and how much this crisis will leave a permanent budget hole once emergency spending stops and private sector activity revives. In fact, even borrowing to date has not been as high as initially feared.

Of course, the extra debt to deal with the crisis has to be paid somehow, eventually. But, as I argued here before, unusual shocks such as pandemics and wars primarily result in step-level debt-to-GDP increases rather than ongoing budget holes, because you stop spending on the immediate threat afterwards.

The implication is that modest consolidation over decades is optimal to account for the extra incurred debt, rather than adopting large tax increases to compensate over a Parliament. Economists call it “tax smoothing”—debt provides a safety valve to allow us to only modestly change spending or taxation over long periods to maintain incentives. Of course, if the Government thinks that, for political reasons, it must expand welfare benefits or health spending permanently, this would be a normative choice: there is nothing inevitable about sharp tax hikes.

Even if you think permanent scarring will occur, those taxes suggested to raise revenue seem bizarre choices today. The Government presumably wants us to be Covid-cautious still. Two ways of reducing risks would be to drive more rather than use public transport and to shop more online.

Aside from all the other downsides of raising fuel duty and introducing an online sales tax, to use the tax system to incentivise worsening virus transmission right now by making driving and online shopping more expensive seems bizarre.

Raising top capital gains tax rates to 40 or 45 per cent would simply be self-defeating from a revenue-raising perspective. Capital Gains Tax on many investments represents a double tax. The justification for having it at all is to deter people hiding income as capital gains.

But there’s a revenue-maximizing balance between this effect and deterring people from selling assets. The Coalition government introduced a top 28 per cent CGT rate precisely because HMRC research suggested this raised most revenue. Though it was then lowered to 20 per cent under George Osborne, raising it to 40 per cent plus would reduce revenue relative to a lower rate. We’d get less investment and entrepreneurship when we need it most too.

And then there’s the mooted corporation tax rise from 19 back to 24 per cent. Taxes on mobile capital will deter foreign investment just as Brexit is set to happen, as well as reducing the after-tax return on new domestic projects. Who will bear the costs? Not just “the wealthy,” as commonly asserted, but workers too: evidence suggests that they bear between 30 and 70 percent of the burden of taxes on corporations.

Not only is the tax rise call premature then, but the specific proposals don’t conform to the pandemic’s needs or Boris’s Johnson’s ambitions to create a high-wage economy. Covid-19 may permanently scar the public finances, sure. But as yet its full effects are unknown and there’s little cost to pausing to see. Anything else at this stage is using the crisis as a pretext for raising funds for hobby horses.

If the Prime Minister truly objects to this rationale as reported and understands the threat to the nascent recovery of sharp tax rises today, he should take this message to his Chancellor: on tax rises, not now and not these.

Ryan Bourne: A message for Johnson and Sunak on tax rises. Not now. And not these.

2 Sep

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

How’s this for a false dichotomy? Last Saturday, Prospect asked: “Post-Covid, are taxes hikes essential to fund the future? Or should we abandon “deficit fetishism” and spend our way to prosperity?” [i.e. through borrowing]. I shouldn’t need to tell ConservativeHome readers that “spend to grow” and “spend to grow”—the only difference being how to finance it—are not an exhaustive set of fiscal policy options post-pandemic.

But that tweet, sadly, reflects conventional wisdom. You should take the pre-Budget briefing in the Sunday papers about Treasury desires for £20-30 billion in tax hikes through capital gains tax, corporation tax, fuel duty, an online sales tax and restrictions on pensions tax relief with a pinch of salt. Before every recent budget such stories have emerged, perhaps due to kite-flying or overexcited journalistic coverage of illustrative exercises in how one could raise revenues. One suspects the briefings may even be a political ploy—raising fears in the Tory base before Number Ten saves the day.

Yet there’s undoubtedly an unnerving regularity to them. Alongside a steady drumbeat from “One Nation” Tories and such organisations as the Resolution Foundation, the idea that large tax hikes will be desirable and necessary is taking hold, with Covid-19 apparently making this agenda more urgent.

We are told, as the kitchen sink of argumentation is thrown, that the pandemic itself proves the false economy of a “hollowed out” state after a decade of austerity. Or that the “levelling up” and the “inevitable” higher spending we will now want on health, welfare benefits, and higher public sector pay means tax hikes are needed. Or that the crisis necessitates urgent repair to the public finances, and that there’s simply nowhere left to cut spending.

None of these arguments, however, stand the test of reason. Countries that have dealt with the Coronavirus better include those (South Korea, Taiwan, Australia) with much lower tax-to-GDP ratios than the UK and much lower health spending too. Many with higher tax-to-GDP ratios (France, Belgium, Italy) have seen similarly shocking death tolls to us.

At best, any failure to deliver resources where needed reflects bad state priorities, not an impoverished public realm. Indeed, the story of a hollowed-out state at a time of the highest tax burden since the early 1980s, coupled with this international evidence, suggests ascribing blame to austerity for poor performance is both ahistorical and parochial.

The wisdom or otherwise of  the “levelling up” agenda, and how best to pay for it, is largely unrelated to the pandemic too. Actually, to the extent that Covid-19 affects the desirability of infrastructure and public service spending in the regions, it throws substantial doubt on the benefits of projects such as HS2 and other city and town revival plans.

Who knows what lasting impact the crisis will have on remote working, the location of activity, and favoured transport modes? One Nationers arguing that the virus proves the need to level up would have us believe that the pandemic’s effects are significant enough for a tax revolution, but insignificant enough to alter the desirability of any of their proposed spending. One might almost suggest motivated reasoning here.

In macroeconomic terms, the case for significant tax rises now is weaker still. The point of bridging support through furlough was to shelter businesses and workers from this unexpected shock. To pass the bill to the private sector now as it struggles back to life would strangle the recovery. And for what? Borrowing costs are low, and we have no idea yet whether and how much this crisis will leave a permanent budget hole once emergency spending stops and private sector activity revives. In fact, even borrowing to date has not been as high as initially feared.

Of course, the extra debt to deal with the crisis has to be paid somehow, eventually. But, as I argued here before, unusual shocks such as pandemics and wars primarily result in step-level debt-to-GDP increases rather than ongoing budget holes, because you stop spending on the immediate threat afterwards.

The implication is that modest consolidation over decades is optimal to account for the extra incurred debt, rather than adopting large tax increases to compensate over a Parliament. Economists call it “tax smoothing”—debt provides a safety valve to allow us to only modestly change spending or taxation over long periods to maintain incentives. Of course, if the Government thinks that, for political reasons, it must expand welfare benefits or health spending permanently, this would be a normative choice: there is nothing inevitable about sharp tax hikes.

Even if you think permanent scarring will occur, those taxes suggested to raise revenue seem bizarre choices today. The Government presumably wants us to be Covid-cautious still. Two ways of reducing risks would be to drive more rather than use public transport and to shop more online.

Aside from all the other downsides of raising fuel duty and introducing an online sales tax, to use the tax system to incentivise worsening virus transmission right now by making driving and online shopping more expensive seems bizarre.

Raising top capital gains tax rates to 40 or 45 per cent would simply be self-defeating from a revenue-raising perspective. Capital Gains Tax on many investments represents a double tax. The justification for having it at all is to deter people hiding income as capital gains.

But there’s a revenue-maximizing balance between this effect and deterring people from selling assets. The Coalition government introduced a top 28 per cent CGT rate precisely because HMRC research suggested this raised most revenue. Though it was then lowered to 20 per cent under George Osborne, raising it to 40 per cent plus would reduce revenue relative to a lower rate. We’d get less investment and entrepreneurship when we need it most too.

And then there’s the mooted corporation tax rise from 19 back to 24 per cent. Taxes on mobile capital will deter foreign investment just as Brexit is set to happen, as well as reducing the after-tax return on new domestic projects. Who will bear the costs? Not just “the wealthy,” as commonly asserted, but workers too: evidence suggests that they bear between 30 and 70 percent of the burden of taxes on corporations.

Not only is the tax rise call premature then, but the specific proposals don’t conform to the pandemic’s needs or Boris’s Johnson’s ambitions to create a high-wage economy. Covid-19 may permanently scar the public finances, sure. But as yet its full effects are unknown and there’s little cost to pausing to see. Anything else at this stage is using the crisis as a pretext for raising funds for hobby horses.

If the Prime Minister truly objects to this rationale as reported and understands the threat to the nascent recovery of sharp tax rises today, he should take this message to his Chancellor: on tax rises, not now and not these.

Allan Mallinson: What is the army for?

30 Aug

Allan Mallinson is a former soldier, novelist and writer. 

So it leaked out that the MoD is considering scrapping its tanks. And Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, says it would be better if the MoD waited for the strategic direction to emerge from the Cabinet Office’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

They’re both right. Logically, decisions about tanks – the heavy end of army business – ought to follow from how the Review sees the future. On the other hand, the MoD has a budget to manage and can’t assume it will get bigger. They’ve been looking at options for a “strategic pause” in procurement for the past two years. That’s what staff work is about: possibilities, options, risks. Besides, they’ve been asked specifically by the Review “What changes are needed to Defence so that it can underpin the UK’s security and respond to the challenges and opportunities we face?”

I know this because I’ve been asked the same. Last week I received an invitation from the MoD to enter a submission. It was no particular honour. Everyone is invited: see the link here.

We’ve been here before. In 1998 the new Blair government had celebrity focus groups for its Strategic Defence Review. It made participants feel important. They bought into the outcome, which by and large they agreed was a good one, which it would have been if only the premises had held good, which they didn’t, and if Gordon Brown’s Treasury had funded it, which they didn’t. Perhaps this time things will be different.

The Integrated Review intends to “define the Government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade”. It will set “the long-term strategic aims of our international policy and national security, rooted in our national interests, so that our activity overseas delivers for the British people.”

It will “re-examine the UK’s priorities and objectives in light of the UK’s departure from the European Union and at a time when the global landscape is changing rapidly.” For it foresees “increasing instability and challenges to global governance”, adding that last year witnessed the highest number of state-based conflicts since 1946.

In the last decade it estimates that “more than half the world’s population lived in direct contact with, or proximity to, significant political violence”, and that by 2030 some 80 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile states.

It’s not all bad news, though. The Cabinet Office believes that in 2030 the UK will be “stronger, wealthier, more equal, more sustainable, more united across nations and regions.”

In asking what changes are needed to Defence, the Review adds that submissions “focusing on the changing character of warfare, broader concepts of deterrence, technological advantage and the role of the Armed Forces in building national resilience are particularly welcome.”

So, not exactly blue-sky thinking, but certainly not (too) constrained. My inclination, however, as I was first a soldier, is to leave vexed questions such as Trident replacement, the superiority of land-based airpower, and the vulnerability of our “carrier-strike”, and instead ask rather more basically “What is the army for?” (Not “will be for“, because that implies it has no enduring purpose).

For the army is in a very present predicament. According to one former Chief of the General Staff, the robustly pragmatic Sir Mike Jackson, the army is probably no longer capable of war because it is simply too small, a “shadow”, he says, of what it was just a few decades ago.

Too much of it is part-time, with all that that means for quality and readiness. At the end of the Cold War the regular army was more twice its present size, and the Territorials were 80,000. Now the regulars can barely muster 80,000, and the Reserve 30,000.

How did it happen? The answer could be instructive.

John Major cut numbers drastically at the end of the Cold War – his “peace dividend”. The then CGS, Sir John Chapple, argued in vain that the army needed the dividend more than the Treasury because the future was so uncertain. Indeed, at the time the army was still liberating Kuwait. But as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, wrote, “Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer”; and Major saw that the future was peaceful.

Blair and Brown, despite their interventionist appetites – Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan – cut troop and equipment numbers even further, justified by novel doctrines of limited scale and “fast in, fast out”, as if the enemy had no vote.

Worse still, in 2010 the Coalition government all but emasculated the infantry and armoured corps, even while fighting continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. The chancellor, George Osborne, anticipating the end of both campaigns and the coming of the elusive “summer”, demanded more chimneys be blocked up. Both Iraq and Afghanistan had been policy mistakes, ran the logic; policy mistakes could be avoided, and “winter”, if it returned at all, needn’t be too severe. Indeed, if there were a smaller army there’d be less incentive to use it.

This was nothing new. Writing of the Duke of Wellington’s struggle with the Whig government in the 1830s, the historian Sir John Fortescue concluded “Wellington’s care was less to improve the army than to save it from destruction.”

The same could be said of all army chiefs since the end of the Cold War. With no threat of invasion, no threat to internal security requiring a military response, and little need to defend overseas possessions, all that they’ve been able to do is point to residual Nato commitments, “defence engagement” (working and training with local forces in areas of instability) and peacekeeping.

But in auditing the manpower bill for this, the Treasury has always been able to find further economies because they’re good at measuring finite things. More cuts followed in 2015. Consequently there are now more postmen than regular troops.

The problem is that the MoD is always made to answer the wrong question. Or chooses to.

The Greeks had a word for it. They called their army stratos, “a body of men”, while the Romans called theirs not by what it was but by what it did: exercitus – “practice”, “training”. Both took for granted the fundamental need for a body of men that trained constantly.

When in 1906, however, Britain’s great reforming war minister, the philosopher Richard Burdon Haldane, famously asked “What is the army for?” he posed a different and existential question. Did the army, like the Royal Navy, have a specifiable purpose that not just determined its form but justified its very being? 1914 rudely interrupted the discussion.

What answer should the Integrated Review expect of the same question today? The Royal Navy is responsible for the strategic nuclear deterrent, and minds Britain’s trade routes as advocated by Sir Walter Raleigh. The Royal Air Force exists for the air defence of the United Kingdom, for which it was founded in April 1918, the air arms of the other two services having been judged not up to the task.

These functions are 24/7. But the army has no comparable purpose. Not, at least, one that justifies its existence beyond its original purpose in 1660: a few guards and garrisons. It should therefore refuse battle on terms of mere accountancy.

Trotsky explained why: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Only during the Cold War has Britain had remotely adequate defence insurance. Instead it has preferred to pay ruinous repair bills. In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, defence spending was 5.1 per cent of GDP. At present, as a Nato member the UK is committed to just two per cent of GDP.

In real terms, this will not fund armed forces capable of full-spectrum war. Can it really make sense for post-Brexit “Global Britain” to be paying an insurance policy comparable to those of Belgium and Luxembourg?

Indeed, rather than insurance, shouldn’t the Defence budget be regarded as infrastructure investment, like HS2?

Rather than trying to justify itself by specific tasks, which come and go at a whim, the army should insist on funding for its fundamental, enduring purpose: to be ready for war, war that cannot be foreseen or its character predicted – even, paradoxically, by the army itself.

That, ultimately, is what the army is for.

Tom Tugendhat: It’s time for the Government to stand with its allies – and stand up to Iran

26 Aug

Tom Tugendhat is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Tonbridge and Malling.

Israel is losing its reputation in the Middle East. For decades, it played the role of chief villain with nations around the region blaming Mossad for every mishap. Today, Jerusalem is a partner with the United Arab Emirates – just the latest of many to build ties to Jerusalem and seek cooperation.

Jordan and Egypt are about to be joined by some or all of Bahrain, Oman, Sudan. Even Saudi Arabia, while insisting that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative remains the basis of its policy, is making sympathetic noises. Arab popular opinion may still find Israel a difficult issue. But the higher-level dynamics are changing, as new interest-based alignments emerge blinking into the light of day.

Tehran is seeing to that. Over the past decade or so, Britain’s friends and partners have focussed on one thing – the threat of violent Iranian subversion and perhaps direct attack.

From Syria to Yemen, Arab states know well the danger that Iran poses. Militias paid for by Tehran and controlled by the Revolutionary Guard Corps have turned tension into conflict, and fuelled wars that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed whole countries.

That makes the UK’s recent UN vote even more surprising. On 14 August we, along with France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia, abstained on a motion to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran. Only the United States and the Dominican Republic voted in favour.

As Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, put it: “the result of the vote in [the UNSC] on arms embargo against Iran shows—once more—the US’ isolation.” It’s hard to argue that’s in Britain’s interest. Even less so, given how many of our regional allies are counting on us to hold the line.

Should the embargo end, the next step is clear: Iran will be looking to buy Russian or Chinese air defence weapons to put around the nuclear plants that it has long believed is essential to the regime’s survival. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already confirmed that Iran has increased its low-enriched uranium stockpile to more than 300 kilograms, enriched uranium to a purity greater than 3.67 percent, stored excess heavy water, tested advanced centrifuges, refused inspections into suspected nuclear sites and may be concealing more undeclared nuclear materials and activities.

It will seek to accelerate the development of its ballistic missile programme, particularly in the area of guidance systems. It will become even more aggressive in cyberspace. And it will redouble its political and material support for the Shia militias that are corruptly colonising Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Again, it’s hard to see how that helps Britain.

Over the past four years, the approach of the Trump Administration can hardly be described as diplomatic but, despite its tone, its respose to the clear violations of the Iranian regime is based on the actions it’s seeing in Tehran. The UK, by contrast, seems to have an Iran policy more focussed on remaining close to European allies (with a disdain for the current US administration) than on the actions of the dictatorship in Tehran.

That decision to abstain puts us even further apart from our most important security partner and regional allies – undermining a global approach, and pushing us firmly back towards the EU we have just left. Worse, it risks raising questions about the veto that none of us would like to have posed.

Now that the US has lost the vote on renewing the embargo, the White House will, no doubt, use the so-called snapback mechanism to reimpose sanctions as agreed in a 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution (SCR). This poses a problem for us.

The snapback mechanism included in SCR 2231 allows participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal’s full name) to reimpose sanctions unilaterally. In 2018, the US withdrew from the deal, so some – Russia and China, no doubt – will claim that Washington can no longer trigger the snapback. UK, France, and others will have to decide: is the deal worth it?

Blocking or even abstaining on the likely vote against the US’s determination to trigger a snapback would undermine the alliance and weaken the UN. The temporary relief of allowing the Iran deal to continue, with the UK standing alongside European allies against the Trump White House, would be overwhelmed in coming years, since no US administration could accept being bound into a UN system without a veto.

“Iran continues to conduct ballistic missile activity that is inconsistent with SCR 2231.” Karen Pierce, our Ambassador to the United States, said in June 2019. That hasn’t changed. But nor has the UK’s posture. We continue to try to perform the diplomatic splits – denouncing Iran, but at the same time remaining committed to a JCPOA that has been consistently violated by Tehran and effectively abandoned by the US.

Iran continues to hold British hostages, most notably Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, and spread terror in the region. In Iraq, its militia allies are assassinating young activists – female and male – with impunity.  They are rocketing Baghdad’s Green Zone and bombing military convoys, with the aim of humiliating the new Prime Minister, Mustafa al Kadhimi, and showing him he cannot depend on the US – or any other Western power – for his survival.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah clearly thinks it will not be held to account for the assassination of Rafiq al Hariri in 2005 or for the massive recent explosion at Beirut’s port.

In Syria, Iran has saved the murderous Bashar al Assad and will want rewarding. Some of the militias it has deployed there recently held a public event in Mashhad to advertise their successes, and announce that Jerusalem was their next target.

And now Tehran is offering Beijing privileged access to its energy resources and perhaps also a trading and naval base on the Indian Ocean. None of this is in our interests. But instead of siding with our allies and giving ourselves more leverage over a dictatorship that respects nothing but strength, we are remaining wedded to a deal that has become irrelevant to the two principal signatories.

The time has come for us to change policy. Even under the Obama administration, it is far from certain the JCPOA would have endured as US strategic interests – no matter who is in the White House – lie with regional allies, not the Iranian autocrats, and it seems unlikely that a new Democratic administration would attempt to breathe life into the deal.

The UK should now be joining the US in calling out the real threat to peace in the Middle East and standing with our friends in the region—from Abu Dhabi to Jerusalem. We need to defend the principles of international cooperation, not see them used as a fig leaf for human rights violations, war and nuclear proliferation.

If we’re going to convince allies around the world our place at the UN Security Council works for them and defends our common interest in a world based on agreements, our policy on Iran has got to change. Abstaining shows we’re not prepared to stand up for our friends and won’t stand with our allies – and that weakens everyone, but most of all us.

Tom Tugendhat: It’s time for the Government to stand with its allies – and stand up to Iran

26 Aug

Tom Tugendhat is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Tonbridge and Malling.

Israel is losing its reputation in the Middle East. For decades, it played the role of chief villain with nations around the region blaming Mossad for every mishap. Today, Jerusalem is a partner with the United Arab Emirates – just the latest of many to build ties to Jerusalem and seek cooperation.

Jordan and Egypt are about to be joined by some or all of Bahrain, Oman, Sudan. Even Saudi Arabia, while insisting that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative remains the basis of its policy, is making sympathetic noises. Arab popular opinion may still find Israel a difficult issue. But the higher-level dynamics are changing, as new interest-based alignments emerge blinking into the light of day.

Tehran is seeing to that. Over the past decade or so, Britain’s friends and partners have focussed on one thing – the threat of violent Iranian subversion and perhaps direct attack.

From Syria to Yemen, Arab states know well the danger that Iran poses. Militias paid for by Tehran and controlled by the Revolutionary Guard Corps have turned tension into conflict, and fuelled wars that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed whole countries.

That makes the UK’s recent UN vote even more surprising. On 14 August we, along with France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia, abstained on a motion to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran. Only the United States and the Dominican Republic voted in favour.

As Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, put it: “the result of the vote in [the UNSC] on arms embargo against Iran shows—once more—the US’ isolation.” It’s hard to argue that’s in Britain’s interest. Even less so, given how many of our regional allies are counting on us to hold the line.

Should the embargo end, the next step is clear: Iran will be looking to buy Russian or Chinese air defence weapons to put around the nuclear plants that it has long believed is essential to the regime’s survival. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already confirmed that Iran has increased its low-enriched uranium stockpile to more than 300 kilograms, enriched uranium to a purity greater than 3.67 percent, stored excess heavy water, tested advanced centrifuges, refused inspections into suspected nuclear sites and may be concealing more undeclared nuclear materials and activities.

It will seek to accelerate the development of its ballistic missile programme, particularly in the area of guidance systems. It will become even more aggressive in cyberspace. And it will redouble its political and material support for the Shia militias that are corruptly colonising Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Again, it’s hard to see how that helps Britain.

Over the past four years, the approach of the Trump Administration can hardly be described as diplomatic but, despite its tone, its respose to the clear violations of the Iranian regime is based on the actions it’s seeing in Tehran. The UK, by contrast, seems to have an Iran policy more focussed on remaining close to European allies (with a disdain for the current US administration) than on the actions of the dictatorship in Tehran.

That decision to abstain puts us even further apart from our most important security partner and regional allies – undermining a global approach, and pushing us firmly back towards the EU we have just left. Worse, it risks raising questions about the veto that none of us would like to have posed.

Now that the US has lost the vote on renewing the embargo, the White House will, no doubt, use the so-called snapback mechanism to reimpose sanctions as agreed in a 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution (SCR). This poses a problem for us.

The snapback mechanism included in SCR 2231 allows participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal’s full name) to reimpose sanctions unilaterally. In 2018, the US withdrew from the deal, so some – Russia and China, no doubt – will claim that Washington can no longer trigger the snapback. UK, France, and others will have to decide: is the deal worth it?

Blocking or even abstaining on the likely vote against the US’s determination to trigger a snapback would undermine the alliance and weaken the UN. The temporary relief of allowing the Iran deal to continue, with the UK standing alongside European allies against the Trump White House, would be overwhelmed in coming years, since no US administration could accept being bound into a UN system without a veto.

“Iran continues to conduct ballistic missile activity that is inconsistent with SCR 2231.” Karen Pierce, our Ambassador to the United States, said in June 2019. That hasn’t changed. But nor has the UK’s posture. We continue to try to perform the diplomatic splits – denouncing Iran, but at the same time remaining committed to a JCPOA that has been consistently violated by Tehran and effectively abandoned by the US.

Iran continues to hold British hostages, most notably Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, and spread terror in the region. In Iraq, its militia allies are assassinating young activists – female and male – with impunity.  They are rocketing Baghdad’s Green Zone and bombing military convoys, with the aim of humiliating the new Prime Minister, Mustafa al Kadhimi, and showing him he cannot depend on the US – or any other Western power – for his survival.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah clearly thinks it will not be held to account for the assassination of Rafiq al Hariri in 2005 or for the massive recent explosion at Beirut’s port.

In Syria, Iran has saved the murderous Bashar al Assad and will want rewarding. Some of the militias it has deployed there recently held a public event in Mashhad to advertise their successes, and announce that Jerusalem was their next target.

And now Tehran is offering Beijing privileged access to its energy resources and perhaps also a trading and naval base on the Indian Ocean. None of this is in our interests. But instead of siding with our allies and giving ourselves more leverage over a dictatorship that respects nothing but strength, we are remaining wedded to a deal that has become irrelevant to the two principal signatories.

The time has come for us to change policy. Even under the Obama administration, it is far from certain the JCPOA would have endured as US strategic interests – no matter who is in the White House – lie with regional allies, not the Iranian autocrats, and it seems unlikely that a new Democratic administration would attempt to breathe life into the deal.

The UK should now be joining the US in calling out the real threat to peace in the Middle East and standing with our friends in the region—from Abu Dhabi to Jerusalem. We need to defend the principles of international cooperation, not see them used as a fig leaf for human rights violations, war and nuclear proliferation.

If we’re going to convince allies around the world our place at the UN Security Council works for them and defends our common interest in a world based on agreements, our policy on Iran has got to change. Abstaining shows we’re not prepared to stand up for our friends and won’t stand with our allies – and that weakens everyone, but most of all us.