Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Johnson beams like a schoolboy who has got his hands on an enormous cake

30 Dec

“A majority is always better than the best repartee.” So said the greatest and wittiest parliamentarian ever to lead the Conservative Party, a statesman who could disguise headlong retreat as triumphant advance: Benjamin Disraeli.

Boris Johnson came to the House today with a stonking majority. He had repartee at his command too, but the majority is what matters.

Many of the best judges had predicted his Brexit negotiations would fail. Five former Prime Ministers had denounced his tactics. Deadline after deadline had passed without agreement.

Yet here he was, certain in this afternoon’s vote to gain a vast majority, with his own party’s sternest and most unbending Eurosceptics declaring themselves satisfied by his Christmas Eve deal, but set to be joined in the division lobby by the Leader of the Opposition, and by as many Labour MPs as accept Sir Keir Starmer’s instruction to vote for the deal.

What a triumph, to have resolved the choice into one where even devout Remainers have to support him, and only the Scottish Nationalists, who had hoped and prayed for no deal, would vote in substantial numbers against him.

Johnson avoided triumphalism. The last thing he wanted to do was to shatter the consensus he had created by striking a partisan note.

He communicated instead an impregnable benevolence. Every so often he could not help breaking out in a smile of pure enjoyment, like a schoolboy who has managed to get his hands on an enormous chocolate cake.

Ian Blackford, for the Scottish Nationalists, tried to disconcert him, by objecting that Johnson refers to the Scottish Nationalist Party, when actually it is the Scottish National Party.

Johnson remained undisconcerted, indeed amused: he remarked ingeniously that he uses the word “nationalist” with a small “n”.

The Prime Minister proceeded to show he is now on the best of terms with everyone else, including Ursula von der Leyen and Michel Barnier. He thanked “all our European friends for their pragmatism and foresight”, and assured them that they could look forward to “a fantastic new relationship” with “a prosperous, contented” United Kingdom which is “at once European and sovereign” and will be “the best friend and ally the EU could have”.

“We were told we could not have our cake and eat it,” Johnson added, looking more than every like a schoolboy with a cake so enormous that however much he eats of it himself, and however much he shares with the friends now crowding around him, there will always be more.

In any election campaign you will find most of the candidates assuring the voters, “You can have your cake and eat it.”

For that is what most people long to believe, and it is certainly what Johnson loves to tell them, though not at excessive length, for that way boredom lies. In under half an hour he sat down.

Sir Keir swallowed his bitter medicine with good grace, while declining to swallow some of the Prime Minister’s more exuberant assurances.

“Will there be no non-tariff barriers to trade?” Sir Keir demanded. So we still have a functioning Opposition.

But the day belonged to Johnson. In the autumn of last year, he had no majority in the Commons, and the Remainers sought at every turn to confound him.

Now they have been forced to surrender, and he has a huge parliamentary majority.

It probably won’t last: these things seldom do. But this morning one could not blame him for looking like a schoolboy with a cake of quite extraordinary dimensions.

What Thatcher’s response to the AIDS crisis teaches us about tackling the present pandemic

1 Dec

“There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,” the soundtrack begins. “It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure…”

A volcano erupts, a hail of boulders rains down a cliff, and to the sound of wild, funereal music a pneumatic drill and a chisel carve from the solid rock a tombstone bearing the single word AIDS, on which a bunch of lilies is thrown.

This must be one of the most frightening public information films ever made, directed by Nic Roeg, voiced by John Hurt, and intended to strike fear into viewers and get them to read the “Don’t Die Of Ignorance” leaflet which was distributed to 23 million households.

On World AIDS Day, it is worth recalling that in the 1980s another pandemic struck: a lethal and mysterious illness for which there was no cure.

The parallels between AIDS and Covid-19 should not be pushed too far, but are nevertheless illuminating, and in the fulness of time have even become encouraging, for the HIV Commission today publishes its plan for England to become by 2030 the first country in the world to eliminate the transmission of the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

The Commission’s key recommendation is “test, test, test”, and as one of its members, Steve Brine MP (Con, Winchester), yesterday told ConHome, “in the context of the last nine months, you really get what we’re saying”.

Both pandemics struck during periods of Conservative government, and posed enormous troubles for the Prime Minister of the day.

In August 1975, when there had been 206 confirmed cases of AIDS in the United Kingdom, of whom 114 had died, Margaret Thatcher was told by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson, that it was likely AIDS could be transmitted heterosexually as well as homosexually.

What message was to be given to the public? In his brilliant account, beginning on page 71 of Herself Alone, the third volume of his life of Thatcher, Charles Moore quotes David Willetts, then a member of Thatcher’s Policy Unit, who told her, “We have to walk a difficult tightrope between being accused of bureaucratic inertia, and being so active as to whip up public hysteria,” and went on:

“We simply don’t know whether everybody with the virus will eventually go down with the symptoms of the disease. So we would be telling people that they may get the clinical disease, but we don’t know; and if they have got it, we can’t cure it. That’s not a very satisfactory message, but seems to be the best course out of several unattractive alternatives.”

The problem was rendered still more difficult by the close association which emerged between AIDS and homosexuality. Some people seized the chance to express the disgust and hatred they felt for homosexuals: as Willetts warned, there was a danger of fomenting public hysteria.

Some Conservatives, and some religious leaders, urged the Prime Minister to preach the virtues of abstinence.

Thatcher declined to treat AIDS as an opportunity for moralising. For her it was a scientific and medical problem. As Moore writes, she was happiest “when she had a concrete and exact point to advance”.

She was a Tory pragmatist: she wanted to solve the problem, not prate about it. Those who have insisted on understanding her in ideological terms have often overlooked how practical she was.

But part of being practical was framing a public message about the dangers of anal sex, and here she took some persuading, which was done by the Health Secretary, Norman Fowler, who in March 1986 told her that the advice to avoid anal intercourse, “which has been linked with 85 per cent of AIDS cases so far”, must remain in advertisements to be placed in the press, or else these would lose all “medical authority and credibility”.

Lord Fowler, who has worked to this day to reduce and at length eradicate HIV, has recalled how difficult things were in the 1980s, and why at the start of 1987 a yet bigger public health campaign, which included the television advertisements, was warranted:

“We had no knowledge of this disease and no drugs with which to treat it. I was reading a note the other day from the Chief Medical Officer at the time and some of the predictions as to what could happen were terrifying – we were talking millions and millions of people becoming infected. That’s why we launched what is still the biggest public health campaign there’s ever been in this country with leaflets sent out to every home.”

In the 1980s, the predictions of the scientists did not always prove accurate. So too today. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock prefer to present themselves as following the science, than as adherents of a theory of freedom which would allow them to ignore what the scientists were saying.

They too are Tory pragmatists, most interested in what works, even if that has to be discovered by an agonising process of trial and error.

Thatcher was always worried, and with good reason, that although she and her colleagues insisted “the Health Service is safe in our hands”, the voters would not believe them. Johnson can be seen guarding at every turn against that danger.

Caroline Slocock, the first female private secretary at Number Ten, has described a visit Thatcher eventually undertook to an AIDS hospice, without any press in attendance, partly because she did not wish to seem to be competing with the well-known work already done in this field by Diana, Princess of Wales.

The first patient she sees is clearly “very ill and has no hope of recovery”. Slocock goes on:

“I feel out of my depth. I have never been at the bedside of a dying person before and I feel strongly that family and friends should be there at this moment, not us… She [Thatcher] responds by taking a seat by his side, asking questions, expressing sympathy, connecting in a simple and genuine way, to which he responds sweetly. She comes across as more of a mother than a Prime Minister…

“After about ten minutes, we leave him and go into the second room. Inside, sitting in a chair beside his bed, is a young American man, also extremely thin. The virus has attacked his brain too, as it does in the final stages, we are told afterwards, and he is excited and confused. At first he thinks she must be a creation of his own mind, a delusion. But then he begins to believe that she really is Margaret Thatcher, but sent to him miraculously to hear his thoughts and to pass them on to President Bush. He tells her to ring the President. It is imperative that action is taken now to help people like him – that is his message. He is overexcited, it is very difficult to know how to respond, and it is very, very sad.

“I desperately want to get out of the room. I feel responsible for putting them both through this awkward scene. Margaret Thatcher is unfazed and behaves as if she has all the time in the world. She places her hand on his arm, asks him a few questions about his life and listens, in a way that demonstrates that she is real, not a phantom, and is there because she cares and wishes him well. He calms down in response. It is simple, human stuff, but I am in awe of it.

“When we leave them, we ask the staff about their families. It turns out that neither have felt able to tell their parents that they are gay, let alone that they have AIDS, and so they are dying alone.”

For a quite different reason, the need to prevent infection, many sufferers from Covid-19 have lived and died alone.

While reading about the 1980s, it struck me that there was often no correlation between a politician’s views on other questions, and what he or she thought about AIDS.

This elementary point has sometimes been overlooked in coverage of the present pandemic. The urgent need to get things done, in order to avert or relieve suffering, trumps whatever abstract views one may have about the right way to set about this.

In January 2019, when Steve Brine was serving as Public Health Minister, and three charities – The Elton John AIDS Foundation, National AIDS Trust and Terrence Higgins Trust – came to him with proposals for the eradication in England of HIV, he gave the Government’s support and approval to what they wanted to do, as did Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary.

Brine said yesterday:

“We had a policy decision, we had the science that allowed us to approve it. The science of PrEP [Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis], which has been a huge game-changer, now allows us to finish the job.”

A connecting thread of pragmatism links the 1980s to the present day. Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s official historian, traces this tradition of unmoralistic pragmatism further back:

“‘Sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas’: Disraeli’s famous misquotation from the fourth century Vulgate in the course of his great three-hour speech in Manchester in April 1872 defining modern conservatism rings down the years. He understood that moral censoriousness had no more place in health policy than in private life. In this respect, Boris Johnson, like successful Tory leaders before him, follows in the great Disraelian tradition.”

Dean Godson: It’s easier for the right to a left on economics than for the left to move right on culture. That’s a plus for Johnson.

21 Nov

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.

Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.

Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.

Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).

But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.

The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.

A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.

This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.

There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.

Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).

This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.

Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.

Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.

That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.

The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.

The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.

The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.

From Disraeli to Johnson, the Left has never understood the Right, and Fawcett shows us why

31 Oct

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett

Edmund Fawcett, “a left-wing liberal” (his term), here performs, with grace, acuity and good humour, a signal service for conservatives. He introduces us to each other.

Reading his book is like being at a vast family party, where as one glances round the marquee one is struck by the affinities between people who have never met, but have much in common.

Here one encounters cousins of whom one may, perhaps, have heard, but about whom one knows next to nothing.

In one of the most delightful parts of his book, published as Appendix C, Fawcett in under 40 pages gives us brief lives of over 200 conservative politicians and thinkers, drawn from Britain, France, Germany and the United States, all of whom have attained some degree of eminence since the French Revolution.

This brevity is wonderful. It is not difficult to find a long book about any of these people. To find a dozen lines that are worth reading can be almost impossible.

And conservatism is itself an almost impossible subject. As Fawcett remarks in his preface, “A chaos of voices has often made it hard to say what, if anything, conservatives stand for.”

He notes a paradox:

“Puzzling as it sounds, conservatives have largely created and learned to dominate a liberal modern world in which they cannot feel at home.”

He remarks that he is not writing solely or even primarily for the benefit of conservatives:

“Readers on the Left will get a view of their opponent’s position, which they are prone, like rash chess players, to ignore.”

And he adds a pointed question for his companions on the Left:

“if we’re so smart, how come we’re not in charge?”

Part of the answer to that question is that the Left often fails to take the Right seriously. Moral condemnation forestalls understanding.

Another part of the answer is that the Right does take the Left seriously, is indeed terrified of the damage it can do. Fawcett begins with two conservative opponents of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.

Burke is for British and American conservatives a marvellous source of wisdom, endlessly invigorating and enjoyable. Few of us have ever felt at ease with Maistre’s savagery, but Fawcett insists that although “Maistre was never going to sit well in conservatism’s front parlour”, he “belongs in the household as much as Burke”.

We are happier to be told that Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832), a Prussian who studied under Kant, worked for the Austrians and took a retainer from the British, translated Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution into German, “teasing out Burke’s thought in long footnotes that tidied up the argument in rationalist spirit”.

Gentz, Fawcett suggests,

“was an early model of a familiar present-day figure, the clever policy intellectual with top degrees circulating between right-wing think tanks, conservative magazines, and political leaders’ private offices.”

And Gentz in his essay “On the Balance of Power”, published in 1806, developed the ideas which would guide the post-Napoleonic settlement, upholding peace between nations while retarding not just revolution but democracy.

Fawcett is excellent at giving us a feeling for his conservatives by quoting remarks which a less worldly Lefty would not find funny, and might therefore be inclined to censor.

So at a dinner at the Congress of Aix in 1818 we get Gentz telling Robert Owen, pioneer of utopian socialism and of the co-operative movement:

“We do not want the mass to become wealthy and independent of us. How could we govern them if they were?”

But Gentz was not some blinkered reactionary, who supposed the ruling classes could restore to themselves the privileges they had enjoyed before 1789:

“Revolution had to be fought, Gentz insisted, not with nostalgia but with modernity’s own weapons.”

Here is another part of the explanation for conservative incomprehensibility. Intelligent conservatives are at once more attached to the past than their opponents, and more anxious to understand what will work in the future.

This mixture of mixture of emotion and pragmatism cannot be reduced to an ideology – the very thing that leftish commentators consider it a mortal weakness not to possess.

Fawcett’s book is brilliantly organised, so one can without difficulty find what conservatives in Britain, France, Germany and the United States were saying and doing in any particular period.

He himself worked for The Economist as its chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, and also as its European and literary editor.

As in that magazine, his eye for what is happening overseas is very good, but the texture of British politics is sometimes smoothed away in order to make it fit some editorial analysis.

Fawcett does not get Benjamin Disraeli. Few historians of ideas do, for by the time the butterfly has been pinned to the page, he is dead.

Millions of voters did get Disraeli, loved his patriotism and felt exhilarated by his impudence. He is the only Prime Minister who has inspired the creation of a posthumous cult: the Primrose League.

When he comes to Stanley Baldwin, Fawcett attributes his description of the new Conservative MPs elected in 1918 as “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war” to Lloyd George, as if only a Liberal could see how repulsive the Tories were.

Baldwin succeeded in part because he well understood how repulsive the Tories might seem, and took enormous pains to create a more favourable impression.

In 1980, Fawcett introduces us to “the hard right”. It is an unsatisfactory label, for the word “hard” makes it sound more defined, and less yielding, than it really is.

Fawcett knows the term is not satisfactory, for he keeps worrying away at it, and trying to justify it. In the course of a passage about Donald Trump, he writes:

“The hard right, in sum, was not weird or extreme. It was popular and normal. Indeed, it was alarming because it was popular and normal.

“Lest the term ‘hard right’ here sound loaded, and the account of events overdrawn, the passion and dismay with which mainstream conservatives themselves reacted needs recalling. They did not, in detached spirit, dwell confidently on the hard right’s visible weaknesses and incompatibilities. They did not ask if there was here a pantomime villain got up by the liberal left.”

Trump was and is an opportunist, a huckster who has belonged to three different political parties, and who seeks, as American presidential candidates since Andrew Jackson have sought, to get himself elected by expressing the anger of poor white voters who loathe the condescension of the East Coast establishment.

When he comes to consider Boris Johnson, Fawcett quotes The Economist‘s description of him as “indifferent to the truth”, and its advice to voters last December to vote Liberal Democrat – a way, perhaps, of feeling virtuous, but also of opting out of the choice actually facing the country.

Fawcett goes on to attribute a “forceful hard-right style” to Johnson, and a “disregard for familiar liberal-democratic norms”. The author is worried, for as he declares in his preface:

“To survive, let alone flourish, liberal democracy needs the right’s support… When, as now, the right hesitates or denies its support, liberal democracy’s health is at risk.”

The conservative family is in danger of going to the bad. This is true, but has always been true, and sometimes the warnings have turned out to be exaggerated.

Johnson enjoys teasing liberals, but has lived much among them, craves their approval and himself possesses many liberal characteristics.

Fawcett will know this, for he is the Prime Minister’s uncle: a brother of Johnson’s mother Charlotte.

The near impossibility of defining Johnson, something of which his critics complain, could even be a sign that he is a conservative.

These quibbles about the last part of the book in no way diminish admiration for it as an astonishingly accomplished survey of the last two centuries of conservative thought.

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.