Johnson believes faith in the nation can unite lifelong Tories and traditional Labour supporters

6 Oct

Before Boris Johnson delivered his conference speech, Rachel Sylvester suggested, in her column in The Times, that he

“is fortunate to be speaking on a video link rather than in person because he might have received a less rapturous reception than normal.”

It is true that the Prime Minister is, as often happens to holders of that office, less popular than he used to be. But the idea that he was lucky not to be performing in front of a live audience is preposterous.

His difficulties spring not only from the often inadequate response by the authorities to Covid-19, but from the impossibility, during the pandemic, of engaging with live audiences.

Johnson is one of the few speakers in any party who has taken the enormous trouble needed to master the art of the conference speech. For year after year on these occasions, he would for an hour or two steal his party leader’s thunder, by showing he knew better than David Cameron or Theresa May how to make Conservatives feel good about being Conservative.

This year, one cannot judge how his oratory went down in the hall. He spoke, however, in much the same manner as he would have employed if he had been in front of a live audience:

“I have read a lot of nonsense recently, about how my own bout of Covid has somehow robbed me of my mojo. And of course this is self-evident drivel, the kind of seditious propaganda that you would expect from people who don’t want this government to succeed, who wanted to stop us delivering Brexit and all our other manifesto pledges – and I can tell you that no power on earth was and is going to do that – and I could refute these critics of my athletic abilities in any way they want: arm-wrestle, leg-wrestle, Cumberland wrestle, sprint-off, you name it.”

This is designed not only to convince those ready to be convinced, but also to infuriate those ready to be infuriated.

“Drivel” and “seditious propaganda” are deliberately insulting ways to describe all those high-minded columns by Sylvester and other distinguished pundits who devote their intellects to the task of demonstrating that Johnson is a scoundrel.

That he has the effrontery to accuse them of “sedition”, as if he were a monarch, just confirms his unfitness for office, a truth which will shortly become so obvious and embarrassing that Conservative MPs will bundle him out of power.

One day this forecast will turn out to be true, but meanwhile this kind of commentary runs the risk of underestimating the Prime Minister’s chances of success. As Tom McTague observes in The Atlantic, again and again Johnson has been written off, and again and again he has survived and in due course prospered.

Nor does the failure to understand Johnson end there. Members of the commentariat ask what his ideology is, and point out, after making their investigations, that he does not have one.

This is true, but what they fail to see is that this is in many ways a strength. He has not strapped himself, or had himself strapped by others, into an ideological straitjacket.

He is a Tory pragmatist, interested in what works in practice, not what looks good on paper.

Pragmatism is an unexciting virtue, but Johnson has a gift for making dull stuff sound more attractive than it would from some other speaker:

“It was offshore wind that puffed the sails of Drake and Raleigh and Nelson, and propelled this country to commercial greatness.”

One has only to imagine, with a shudder, how dreary the green energy proposals would have sounded in the mouth of any other party leader.

Johnson confirmed with this speech that he stands in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli. Here is Robin Harris, in The Conservatives: A History, explaining at the end of his two chapters on Disraeli what mattered most to that statesman:

“As Salisbury said in the Lords in tribute to his old chief – a man he increasingly grew to respect, though never to like: ‘Zeal for the greatness of England was the passion of his life.’ When the mythology is stripped away – the overwritten novels, the overwrought expressions, the mysterious allusions, all later wrapped up in the hugely successful and highly eccentric trappings of the Primrose League – that simple core remains. ‘The greatness of England’ (by which Disraeli meant Britain, but never thought it necessary to explain) is his decisive contribution to the idea which the Conservative Party has of itself, and which, down through the decades, it has wanted others to have of it.”

And here is Johnson at the end of his speech:

“That is the Britain we can build – in its way, and with all due respect to everywhere else, the greatest place on earth; indeed that is the country and the society we are in the process of building.

“And I know that it seems tough now, when we are tackling the indignities and cruelty and absurdity of the disease, but I believe it is a measure of the greatness of this country that we are simply not going to let it hold us back or slow us down, and we are certainly not going to let it get us down, not for a moment, because even in the darkest moments we can see the bright future ahead, and we can see how to build it, and we are going to build it together.”

Here, ignored by superior commentators, is the faith in the nation which Johnson believes can unite lifelong Conservatives with the traditional Labour supporters who voted Conservative for the first time last December.

Profile: Graham Brady, who played a quiet part in deposing May, and now keeps a watchful eye on Johnson

24 Sep

An adviser to Boris Johnson warned him earlier this year not to be alone with Graham Brady. Here already was a sign of prime ministerial weakness, or evasiveness, in the face of a determined upholder, not just of the rights of Conservative backbenchers, but of parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive.

Nobody would describe Sir Graham Brady as evasive. He is sincere, vigilant and as Chairman of the 1922 Committee, considers it his duty to convey, in the manner of a polite but implacable shop steward, the views of his members to the Prime Minister.

Like a considerable number of those members, he is furious that ministers have “got into the habit of ruling by decree” during the pandemic. In May, Brady called on ministers to look at “removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”, though he recognised that many voters approved of these restrictions:

“The public have been willing to assist. If anything, in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home.”

Last weekend, Brady went further, and told The Sunday Telegraph:

“In March, Parliament gave the Government sweeping emergency powers at a time when Parliament was about to go into recess and there was realistic concern that NHS care capacity might be overwhelmed by Covid-19.

“We now know that the NHS coped well with the challenge of the virus and Parliament has been sitting largely since April. There is now no justification for ministers ruling by emergency powers without reference to normal democratic processes.

“It is essential that going forward all of these massively important decisions for family life, and affecting people’s jobs and businesses, should be exercised with proper supervision and control.”

In other words, Parliament must have the final say on any new measures the Government introduces to fight the pandemic. That is the amendment to the Coronavirus Act 2020 demanded by Sir Graham, which as Paul Goodman noted here on Monday, could command widespread assent on the Conservative benches:

“The danger for Downing Street, if it comes to a debate and a vote, is that it faces a coalition of high-minded constitutionalists, supporters of a Swedish option, low-minded opportunists who dislike Johnson, feel under-promoted, are grievance-haunted (or all three), plus backbenchers who are simply unhappy and bewildered.”

Every Tory leader has to be mindful of what his or her own troops will wear. The Conservative Party is a coalition of such disparate or even contradictory elements that many people, unaware of the lesson (“never again”) learned from the disastrous split over the Corn Laws in 1846, cannot comprehend why it remains together.

Brady possesses a resolute independence of mind. “He really couldn’t stand David Cameron,” one of his colleagues remarks. Nor, one may surmise, is he particularly keen on Johnson.

For in Brady, we find a Conservative of a different stamp. He was born in Salford in 1967 and educated at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, an establishment to which he remains fiercely loyal, after which he read law at Durham, where he was immensely active in student politics and married Victoria Lowther, with whom he has two children.

In his twenties, he earned his living by working for public affairs companies, and also for a couple of years for the Centre for Policy Studies, before gaining selection for his home seat of Altrincham and Sale West, which in the Labour landslide of 1997 he retained by the slender margin of 1505 votes.

At the age of 29, he was the youngest Conservative MP, and in his maiden speech he declared his passionate loyalty to grammar schools:

“In the borough of Trafford, successive Conservative administrations have worked, not only to preserve our excellent grammar schools, but to raise standards in the high schools as well. What we have achieved is an example of selective education that works and it should be taken as a model for improving education across the country.

“I believe passionately in the role of the grammar schools as the greatest of social levellers and I fear that before long I will be called upon to defend my old school, Altrincham boys grammar school, from those who would see the remaining 160 grammar schools destroyed. As a believer in grammar schools, I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools.”

He served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Ancram, a junior Whip, Education spokesman and in 2003 as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the new Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard.

The following year he became Shadow Europe Minister, a post he retained under Howard’s successor, David Cameron. But in 2007, when a tremendous row erupted within the party over grammar schools, Brady resigned because “in conscience” he had to be free to speak his mind, and to argue his unfashionable case:

“Grammar schools in selective areas are exactly the motor that does drive social mobility more effectively than comprehensive areas.”

A generally sympathetic colleague says of Brady that when grammar schools are mentioned “his eye lights up with insanity”, an expression coined by Disraeli, who reported that this was what happened to General Peel on hearing the words “household suffrage”.

Cameron says in his memoirs, For The Record:

“I felt that the call to ‘bring back grammars’ was an anti-modernisation proxy, and I wasn’t going to stand for it.”

There was a class element in this row. Etonians couldn’t generally see the point of grammar schools. Conservatives from less gilded backgrounds often knew from personal experience that such schools could transform lives.

In 2010, Brady stood for the chairmanship of the ’22, just after Cameron’s brazen attempt to neuter that committee as the voice of backbenchers had been seen off, with his proposal to allow members of the Government to vote in its elections being withdrawn.

Brady’s resignation three years earlier had proved his independence, and he had indicated, after the 2010 election, that he and other Tory MPs would have preferred a minority Conservative Government – “That, I think, is generally the feeling of colleagues” – to the coalition formed by Cameron with the Liberal Democrats.

In a piece for ConHome he explained why he was standing:

“Coalition government has been hailed as a part of a ‘new politics’. I believe that enhancing the role of Parliament and the status of MPs as the elected champions of our constituents is just as important. For too many years the Executive has eroded the power of Parliament and back benchers have increasingly been marginalised, I want to play a part in reversing that process.”

Brady defeated the other candidate, Richard Ottaway, who was thought to be favoured by Cameron, by 126 votes to 85.

If one wants to see how deeply Brady feels about things, one has only to read the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture which he delivered under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2014. He began by quoting with approval Margaret Thatcher when she gave the same lecture in 1996:

“In politics, integrity really lies in the conviction that it’s only on the basis of truth that power should be won – or indeed can be worth winning. It lies in the unswerving belief that you have to be right.”

Brady went on to say:

“Political parties have become over-reliant on focus groups and opinion research to identify the key target voters in the key ‘swing’ seats. The message is too often crafted to appeal – not to be right, and the biggest focus group of all – the British electorate – grows ever more disenchanted.”

Conservative backbenchers have not grown disenchanted with Brady. Sir Charles Walker, who became Vice-Chairman of the ’22 in 2010, the same year as Brady became Chairman, told ConHome:

“He’s a man who believes in Parliament and a man who believes in doing things properly. Graham is straight as a die. He’s straight in his dealings with people. So it’s no surprise he’s moving this Amendment. The Chairman of the ’22 should be spiky. That’s his role – to be a critical friend. The ’22 is rightly regarded as being a powerful organisation and leaders are best advised to be wary of it. But it’s also capable of providing great support in time of difficulty.”

The most difficult period in Brady’s chairmanship came during the last two years of Theresa May’s prime ministership. He was knighted in the 2018 New Year honours, the investiture taking place in March 2018, so at this point in the story he becomes once more Sir Graham.

The ’22 was fractious and divided, and Sir Graham was the recipient of the letters from Tory MPs which, if and when the 15 per cent threshold was reached  – 48 MPs out of 317 – would mean she faced a motion of no confidence.

Nobody knew how many letters he had received, for he did not breathe a word, but nobody doubted he was showing complete integrity in his counting of them.

In December 2018 the 15 per cent threshold was crossed, but the Prime Minister survived the subsequent ballot by 200 votes to 117. This supposedly meant she could not be challenged by this method for another year.

But on 24th May 2019, after the Conservatives had performed disastrously in European elections which would not have taken place in the UK had she managed to get Brexit done, out she went.

Brady’s role in this was one of the utmost delicacy. He reckoned the game was up, but had to say so with discretion, for not all his colleagues agreed with him.

Once she realised she had to go, he wished to take soundings to see whether he could launch his own leadership bid. Since the ’22 would be running the leadership election, he stepped down.

He soon found he had no support, so he did not run. Nor, to the astonishment of more worldly figures, did he endorse any other candidate: not even his fellow Leaver, Boris Johnson, when it became evident that Johnson was going to win.

Others who rushed to join the winning side were rewarded with Cabinet posts. A minister told ConHome: “I know Graham believed he was going to be offered a job, and thought it should be a Cabinet position.

“But he had never come out for Boris, and Boris’s whole operation is based on people who are loyal to him.

“Graham was disappointed he didn’t get anything, went back to being Chairman of the ’22, and since then he’s been quite grumpy.”

This reading of events comes from a Johnson loyalist, and others will feel it was to Sir Graham’s credit that he did not sell out his long-established independence.

Sir Graham, who is still only 53 years old, is in person an affable figure, ready to be amused by things, unperturbed by journalists, and not inclined to idealise Tory MPs, of whom he remarked at the 2018 party conference, when the question of letters demanding a vote of confidence was starting to become of interest:

“The distance between what some of my colleagues say they might have done and what they actually have done can be considerable.”

On another occasion, interviewed by ConHome, he lamented the “ennui, apathy and cynicism” shown by colleagues who declined to use the machinery set up to enable them to feed in policy proposals for consideration in the 2015 manifesto.

He is loyal, as we have seen, to an idea of truth which stands above party politics. Sir Graham is now a severe impediment to any attempt by Downing Street to go on running things without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

And if and when Johnson suffers a severe loss of confidence on his own side of the House, Sir Graham will once more find himself being asked from day to day, indeed from hour to hour, how many letters he has received.

Bill Cash: We would be within our rights to override the Withdrawal Agreement. And in any event, the EU itself is a law-breaker.

21 Sep

Sir William Cash is Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, and is MP for Stone.

Disraeli, the inspiration of One Nation, predicted in 1838 that “the continent will not suffer England to be the workshop of the world”. He wrote Sybil – or A Tale of Two Nations, mirroring much today. Our manifesto in the general election to level up the more deprived areas in Britain demonstrates why the whole United Kingdom must be freely competitive in global trading – guaranteeing our jobs and businesses (and given Covid).

The EU pursues a cardinal principle: that we must not benefit from Brexit. Its origins lie deep in the supranationality of the EU treaties themselves and, originally, of the Commission and the European Coal and Steel Community. In Sheffield, I witnessed the destruction of our steel and coal industries, thanks to the unfair and discriminatory EU state aid regime.

Recent misconceptions have been generated in Parliament and outside regarding our compliance with international law. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and is often 60 per cent politics, 40 per cent law. The Internal Market Bill provides that the Government may need to override Withdrawal Agreement provisions derived from bad early negotiations.

There are dozens of documented overrides of international treaties worldwide by democratic countries without penalty. According to the German Federal Constitutional Court in 2015, international law leaves it to each state to give precedence to national law.

There are numerous statutory precedents in the UK, such as the Finance Act 2013, relating to anti-abuse tax powers, and whether UK prisoners could vote in elections. As the Attorney General stated in her published legal position, Parliament’s capacity to override international agreements was unanimously approved by the Supreme Court in the Miller case, and through clear “notwithstanding” provisions in Section 38 of the European Union Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020.

Lord Diplock ruled in 1968 in a Post Office case that Government “has a sovereign right, which the court cannot question, to change its policy, even if this involves breaking an international convention to which it is a party and which has come into force so recently as fifteen days before”. Laying a Bill is not a breach of international law. and is privileged. If a treaty is entered into on the reasonable assumption that a state of affairs would exist which does not transpire, the treaty is voidable.

The Withdrawal Agreement was written on the basis of recognising our sovereignty – which has not happened. This UK Internal Market Bill is a necessary insurance policy preventing us from subjection to EU jurisdiction, and ensures the necessary competitiveness upon which the jobs and businesses of every voter in every constituency depends, with our own state aid rules.

The EU itself frequently violates international law, as demonstrated by its own fishing policies in the waters of occupied Western Sahara.

Likewise, the EU’s penchant for instructing member states to defy Security Council rulings. So, too, sending migrants back to North Africa and Turkey. In 2010, the EU broke the Lisbon Treaty. Christine Lagarde admitted that “we violated all the rules” over the Greek and Irish bailouts. The EU is now unilaterally changing the bilateral Channel Tunnel Treaty without our being able to prevent it. The EU has demanded jurisdiction over crucial aspects of UK sovereignty, despite our lawful exit, as a precondition to concessions on trade. It has threatened to use WTO’s “most favored nation” principle against the UK – contrary to state practice, core principles of world trade and requirements to negotiate “in good faith”.

Look, too, at the track record of EU Member States. Germany blatantly breached international law when, during the EMS in the 1970s, it released the Bundesbank from the duty to intervene against the dollar. The then Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, stated: “we breached applicable international treaty law, the IMF treaty, in multiple ways. We have neither complied with all the rules, the procedural rules of the treaty, nor have we complied with the substantive provisions.”

Angela Merkel suspended the Dublin Regulation unilaterally in August 2015, letting into Germany up to 600,000 Syrians. In 2020, Germany’s highest court ruled on the European Central Bank’s public sector purchase programme, subordinating EU law to German law. The EU took no action.

The undemocratic European Commission threatens to take legal action against the UK for what is not even an established breach of international law. They dare to tell our democratic sovereign Parliament to abandon essential proposals in this Bill. What a nerve.

Johnson benefits from the scorn of critics such as Parris, for it suggests the PM is still an outsider

28 Jul

“There seems no pressing need to embark on the second volume, provisionally entitled The Statesmanship of Boris Johnson, which I hope one day to offer the world.”

So I wrote in 2007, for the paperback edition of my account of his early life, published in hardback the previous year.

Distinguished commentators of the Right and Left, including Alexander Chancellor, Stephen Glover and Paul Routledge, were among those who had greeted with incredulity my suggestion that Johnson might yet become Prime Minister.

David Cameron was firmly in the driving seat as Conservative leader, and in the reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet which he conducted in the summer of 2007 – necessitated by Gordon Brown’s Cabinet reshuffle on becoming Prime Minister a few days earlier – had kept Johnson at arm’s length, as Shadow Spokesman on Higher Education.

Both men had been to Eton and Oxford, but as I attempted in a subsequent update of the book to explain, their temperaments were incompatible:

“There is something about Boris which is an affront to serious-minded people’s idea of how politics should be conducted. By refusing to adopt their solemn tone, he implies that they are ridiculous, and the dreadful thing, from their point of view, is that a large part of the British public agrees with Boris. So it is not just lefties, but people from every part of the political class, who cannot bear his unwillingness to take them as seriously as they take themselves. It was after all a Tory leader, Michael Howard, who had sacked Boris [in 2004], and Howard’s chosen successor, Cameron, has similar instincts about what does and does not constitute reliable behaviour…

“For while Cameron is a favoured son of the Establishment, and takes the Establishment’s view that there are certain things which are just not done, Boris is an outsider, a loner, a man who likes to be on genial terms with everyone but who has no circle of political intimates. Cameron is a man of astonishing gifts, including cool judgement under pressure, but his instinct is to work within the existing framework of rules. Boris frets under such restraint and is always ready to drive a coach and horses through it. Cameron believes in order: Boris believes in being free. Cameron is bound to regard Boris as a bit disreputable, while Boris is bound to regard Cameron as a bit limited.”

This divide had a decisive influence in 2016, when Brexit was the issue. Cameron sought to uphold the status quo, but Johnson drove a coach and horses through it.

So now we have an outsider as Prime Minister, a situation less unusual or paradoxical than one might suppose, for an essential features of our tradition, and a reason why it has survived, is that the Conservative Party has often been led by outsiders.

Margaret Thatcher, Harold Macmillan, Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli are four obvious examples: all on occasion could not, as a matter of temperament more than ideology, stomach the Establishment line taken by the then party leader.

All at one time or another – though not of course in perpetuity – were able as a result to appeal to parts of the nation which were far removed from the Establishment, and which regarded the Establishment’s moralising with disgust.

This is the line in which Johnson belongs. He has a particular affinity with Disraeli, a scandalously disreputable figure in his youth, this early history obscured by his ability to charm Queen Victoria, and by posthumous adulation.

Like Disraeli, Johnson has dismayed his liberal opponents by winning support from patriotic working-class voters who believe in the greatness of Britain, symbolised today by Queen Elizabeth II and our armed forces.

The present Queen would never dream of being partisan in the manner of her great great grandmother, but Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm for her or the armed forces, and sympathy with various terrorist movements, cost Labour dear in December 2019 among its traditional supporters.

Matthew Goodwin suggested, in a piece yesterday for Unherd entitled “Why Boris Johnson keeps on winning”, that the Prime Minister has so far retained the support of these patriotic working-class voters because like them, he rejects the view of many on the Left that Britain is in decline:

“Ever since the vote for Brexit, Left-wing and liberal writers have been consumed by ‘declinism’: the belief that Britain’s best days are in the past. Declinists are united by the assumption that, because of decisions that went against their own politics, Britain has become a diminished world power, is falling behind other states and is led by incompetent, amateurish elites who either lack the required expertise or ‘correct’ ideology to reverse this decline or, worse, are actively perpetuating it…

“One reason why declinists are so vicious is that they have found themselves written out of the national story — election defeats or referendum outcomes have left them on the sidelines, with little power or influence. One reason why Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and Munira Mirza have been so strongly attacked is not only because they committed the double sin of being Conservatives and Brexiteers, but because they are essentially the first group to have gone up against the ‘liberal establishment’ and won.”

Johnson benefits from the disdain of his critics, for it shows his supporters that he is still, in some respects, an outsider, one who is despised rather in the way they were despised when they voted for Brexit. Here is dear old Matthew Parris in a recent column for The Times:

“his colleagues always knew his shamelessness from his personal history. That he isn’t even clever, however, they are only now discovering. If competence shone through then I think the shamelessness would remain an embarrassment that his colleagues would be prepared to suppress. But he’s losing, and the combination of incapacity and shamelessness is beginning to curdle.”

A dozen other commentators might be quoted, all as determined as Parris to take the lowest possible view of the Prime Minister.

One day they will almost certainly be right. Johnson will fall: he will take the blame for something he has done, or even, it may be, for something he has not done, or something many of us thought at the time was a good idea. The role of Prime Minister is essentially sacrificial: ask Lord North, Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden or Tony Blair.

But until the culminating debacle, whatever it turns out to be, Parris and the rest render Johnson incomprehensible. How can a man who “isn’t even clever” have won two London mayoral elections, the EU referendum, the leadership of the Conservative Party and a general election?

A second volume is required to plumb this mystery. Is Parris clever enough to see through Johnson, or Johnson clever enough to incur the enmity of Parris? I shall endeavour, while writing it, to provide evidence for both schools of thought.