Bob Seely: What Moscow doctrine, and Putin, says about using nuclear and chemical weapons

9 Mar

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

There’s been a regular stream of statements from Vladimir Putin and others warning of Russian nuclear weapon use. These are chilling threats, but behind the bellicose language, what is the likelihood of their use, and what does Russian doctrine – and Putin – say?

Russian military doctrine reserves the right to use nuclear weapons either in response to their use by others or when the existence of the Russian Federation is threatened. Therefore, by our version of reality, there is no excuse for their use.

In addition, the 2020 State Principles in the Sphere of Nuclear Deterrence outlined four circumstances for nuclear use: an imminent attack on Russia (so pre-empting a pre-emptive strike); actual use against Russia; inhibiting Russia’s control of its nukes; and threat to the existence of Russia from their conventional or nuclear weapons.

However, if Putin feels that his ‘concept’ of greater Russia, which includes Ukraine and Belarus, is under threat, that could make him more desperate and angry – and the threats could become louder. Putin wants the destruction of an independent Ukraine to be his legacy. To get what he wants, he may push the world to the brink of war.

Outside doctrine, there has been a fetishising of ideas linking Orthodoxy, nuclear weapons, and Russian statehood in a narrative amongst ideologues that sees Russia’s nuclear arsenal and Russian Orthodoxy as the “sword and shield” – the so-called ‘Atomic Orthodoxy’ – against the chaos/the Antichrist, which the same ideologues suggest is the US and NATO. The sword and the shield are also the symbols of Putin’s old KGB and now the FSB.

But does Putin see tactical nuclear weapons, or chemical weapons, as usable?

It’s true that the Soviets (and Russians) have been more ambivalent about them than Western states. Can nukes be ‘de-escalatory’ – i.e. the scenario whereby they are used after a period of conventional conflict to halt the conflict? Whilst there’s allegedly been conversation in discrete Russian military publication over the years, there’s nothing in doctrine to support this.

But whilst Putin accepts the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) – the use of nukes gets everyone killed – experts who had studied his words suggest he has not ruled out limited, pre-emptive strikes.

Russia is clearly happy to use nuclear weapons as a threat, such as in 2016 against Denmark for joining the US missile defence programme. Putin also reminded Western states of Russia’s nuclear arsenal during the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian war. Such threats, as ugly and depressing as they are, send a message not to interfere in Russia’s military operations. They also suggest a fear that Russian conventional forces would quickly be overwhelmed in any fight with NATO.

A greater danger may be Russian chemical weapons use. These weapons were used by Syria, Russia’s ally, in that brutal civil war to clear Aleppo. Whilst chemical use would probably be successful from a military point of view – civilians would flee in panic – it would come at a remarkable price for Russia’s reputation. It would, however, signal a willingness for Russia to do anything to win this war.

More broadly, doctrine (military, national security, foreign policy, and information security) all show that Russian security leadership see the threat to them/their state as psychological as well as physical. Such is the language around this that, at its worst, the tiny Russian security elite are getting themselves into a state of near hysteria about the existence of a rival value system Western democracy, and its attempted adoption by Kiev.

As an example of the irrational language Andrei Ilnitsky, senior Russian defence advisor, declared last year that the historic and current policy of the West is to “exterminate Russia as a species.” The war against his country was “mentalyni voina”, a ‘war of consciousness’ aimed at the Russian mind so that Russians would stop being Russians.

The threat against Russia, in whatever guise, is being presented as mortal. We know this assessment to be, frankly, ridiculous but, the problem is that the language and tone gets worse.

But what constitutes a real, physical threat in the Kremlin’s eyes? Military doctrine cites two levels of danger, ‘military risk’ and ‘military threat’. A ‘military risk’ is defined as something that could, with other factors, lead to military threat. A ‘military threat’ is something that could directly lead to war.

Threats include a worsening of international relations and the creation of illegal armed formations in either Russia or its allies. This could include, at a stretch, threats to the ‘separatist’ republics (puppet creations entirely controlled by Moscow) or possibly the ‘real’ Ukraine opposed to the ‘Nazi’ puppet government of Volodymyr Zelensky (a Russian-speaking Jew who lost relatives in the Holocaust).

In the latest National Security Doctrine, updated last summer, the sense of physical and psychological threat has, if anything, increased. Specifically, it warns of the risk of escalation of local conflicts into regional wars with the participation of nuclear powers. Other factors too “contribute to the strengthening of military dangers and military threats to the Russian Federation.”

If the wording is being used in its doctrinal sense, this is the first time in doctrine that ‘military threat’ – the highest danger – has been cited in relation to NATO.

We need to stress that most Russians, who get most of their information from the broadcast media under de-facto control and de-facto FSB secret police censorship since the early 2000s, see an entirely different view of the world to us. They have also been prepared with the idea of conflict with the West for at least a decade.

Finally, the state of Putin’s mind: his physical detachment – hence the vast tables – and his isolation may be sending a signal. Some of those close to him, like his fellow ex-KGB, Nikolai Patrushev, share his world view. Putin sees himself, and Russia, as a victim of the West, which he despises. He has talked about the glory of dying for one’s country, and there is some evidence that, when asked, he talked about the importance of nuclear weapons and Orthodoxy as the physical and spiritual defenders of the Motherland (at a Q&A with journalists in Sarov in 2007).

However, he has also been highly controlled, cautious and with a track record of long and protected periods of thought. These are followed by actions that combine surprise with swift action and effectiveness, especially when combined in the “integrated” strategy outlined in Russian doctrine and developed in the first decade of the 2000s. This integration sees military tools and non-military tools combined into a unified whole with unity of purpose.

What is so surprising now is that, compared to the relatively successful proxy/hybrid wars in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine in 2014, the invasion of Ukraine feels so Soviet – sloppy and badly organised. This failure maybe panicking him, hence the threats.

Sarah Ingham: The Government’s Covid response could soon look like the biggest public policy disaster in Britain’s history

21 Jan

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

The reckoning begins.

As Plan B restrictions expire, the pandemic becomes endemic and the perceived threat from the virus diminishes, the public is beginning to awaken to the possibility that much of the Government response to Covid-19 over the past two years has been sub-optimal. By the time of the next General Election, it could look like the biggest public policy disaster in Britain’s history.

In the past few weeks, with the emergence of Tales of the Unexpected Frat House in Downing Street, that “cockpit of the emergency crisis response” (©Dominic Raab), the electorate has become increasingly baffled. After all, since March 2020, the Government has repeatedly reinforced the impression that this new Made in China Coronavirus is the 21st century Black Death.

As they learn that a wine suitcase is the latest must-have accessory in Whitehall, confused constituents are left puzzling whether anyone working at No10 bothered to heed the macabre warning “Don’t Kill Your Gran”. And if not, why not?

Before too long, the penny – or rather the £37 billion wasted on Test and Trace – is going to drop that, just as the Omicron variant seems more akin to Cold-22 than Ebola, perhaps for the vast majority of the public, but especially for those under 30, the threat from Covid-19 was overblown.

While the public is always supportive of a government at a time of national emergency, it is none too appreciative when it realises it has been misled, not least thanks to dodgy data.

Back in February 2003, perhaps one million people marched through central London to stop the war against Iraq. They were accused of appeasement, of siding with the dictator

Saddam Hussein, of ignoring the threat that Britain was 45 minutes from attack by Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. These surrender monkeys were the Covidiots of their day.

To underscore the peril facing us, the Blair government ordered tanks to be parked at Heathrow Airport and dossiers of evidence to be published. Military action against Iraq, the Prime Minister assured the nation, was justified in order to uphold successive UN Security Council Resolutions which Baghdad had breached.

This was a Baghdad which, he claimed, might possess warheads armed with Anthrax, might have nuclear weapons capability, and might have associations with terrorist groups. The PM avoided mentioning al-Qaeda, but by invoking 9/11, he wanted the public to join the dots.

With the backing of the Duncan-Smith-led Conservatives, Blair easily won the Parliamentary vote to go to war. As part of the US-led Coalition of the Willing, British Service personnel went into action two days later.

“They may ring their bells now; before long they will be wringing their hands.” On the eve of war with Spain in 1739, Prime Minister Robert Walpole was sceptical about future support for the conflict. The “rally around the flag” effect characterises the beginning of every war. After all, with service personnel being about to put their lives on the line for their country, the least the civilian public can do is support them. Overcoming their reservations, the majority of the public backed the Labour government’s war of choice in Iraq – until they didn’t.

By May 2003, Saddam had been overthrown and President George W Bush declared mission accomplished. This was somewhat premature, as it would be six years before British combat operations in Iraq ended. By then, back home, support for the war had long evaporated. In March 2007 a BBC/ICM survey found that 60 per cent thought the intervention a mistake. We heard less shrieking about surrender monkeys and more demands that soon-to-be-former Prime Minister Blair be put on trial in the Hague for war crimes.

Iraq casts a long shadow. A humanitarian disaster for Iraqis, it destabilised the Middle East, polarised Britain and led to a schism within the Labour Party. Hostility towards Tony Blair continues, reflected by the reaction to his Knighthood of the Garter. The intervention had a disastrous impact on trust between the elected and the electorate.

Back in 2003 few people could imagine their government was not being entirely straight with them about going to war, which cost the lives of 179 British Service personnel and severely injured others. Today, at present, voters are similarly reluctant to imagine that the government-imposed restrictions on their lives, livelihoods and liberties were generally pointless and performative.

“We are all in this to gather.” Did mocking the locked-down public add to the revelry of the No10 revelries? When the architect of the Covid restrictions, Kate Josephs, held a leaving do, did she and her senior civil servant colleagues raise a toast to the gullibility of men and women whose businesses were being destroyed?

Whoever leads the Conservatives needs to anticipate that before too long, the public will decide that locking Britain down was wrong, that the collateral damage was too great.

To avoid any replay of the Iraq-induced damage done to Labour, in the context of the Covid response, Conservatives should be thinking ahead and taking the initiative. Voters will not welcome being told that, Sue Gray-style, they should wait for the result of Baroness Hallett’s Inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic.

On Tuesday in a Westminster Hall debate, Bob Seely drew attention to scientists’ risible modelling of the pandemic, in which, for some reason best known to themselves, ministers placed such faith.

Perhaps one of Seely’s colleagues could find out who, during a cost-of-living crisis, thought it politically astute to write off £4.3 billion of fraudulent furlough claims and bounce back loans? Do Conservatives really want to be tainted by those less-than-fragrant contracts for PPE?

David Kelly, no WMD, a country engulfed in anarchy, the legitimacy and legality of the war called into question … The drip, drip, drip of Iraq-related stories eventually eroded public support for the conflict – and ended not just Blair’s career but terminally undermined New Labour.

In comparison with what happened in Iraq, Downing Street parties are piffling. They might yet, however, cost the Prime Minister his job. They also highlight the nascent scepticism about the government’s pandemic response which, unless honestly confronted, will inflict long-term damage on the Conservative Party.

‘Location, location, location’ vs ‘a property-owning democracy’. Are we seeing a shift in Tory housing priorities?

30 Jul

After the flash floods in London and the horrible sights of communities getting washed out in Germany, it is perhaps not surprising that the Government intends to (finally?) restrict developers from building houses on land in danger of flooding. The Daily Telegraph reports:

“New powers will also be given to the Housing Secretary to block “inappropriate development” on land threatened by flooding. The Government is introducing the reforms after 866 homes were granted planning permission in 2019/20 despite formal warnings from the Environment Agency (EA) about flood risk.”

But sensible as this is, it is also yet another weight on the scales against the Government’s housebuilding ambitions, and will put more pressure on Robert Jenrick to get things built elsewhere.

In fact, the importance of location is a theme that crops up quite a lot when you talk to Tories about housing. For example Ben Everitt, the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Housing Market and Housing Delivering (henceforth ‘APPG for Housing’), set out his mission statement to me thus:

“We need more homes, in the right places, at the right time, and I don’t really care who builds them or who owns them.”

It seems the old Conservative preoccupation with building a ‘property-owning democracy’ is over, at least amongst a section of the back benches. Instead, Everitt reports that there is little in the way of partisan divisions on the APPG, with the Tories all on board with building more council or Housing Association homes.

What does ‘in the right places’ actually mean, though? A cynical observer might plot its use onto a spectrum of meaning, with ‘don’t build on a floodplain’ at one end and ‘more homes yes, but not here!’ on the other. There is a definite keenness, for example, to tie housebuilding to ‘levelling up’ and, as a result, shift the focus of housebuilding northwards – which has the handy side-effect of reducing pressure (at least in theory) on the southern shire constituencies that return many of these very Tory MPs.

But the case can be put more or less persuasively, and it basically depends on whether one tries to put cart or horse first. Everitt, for example, wants to make sure that areas of the country around freeports and other ‘levelling-up’ initiatives are able to rapidly building new housing to meet need once those projects have generated new demand. This makes more sense than building hundreds of thousands of extra properties in places where housing is already affordable in order to try and drive recovery, as Bob Seely seems to advocate.

What about the South, where the demand is right now? In the first instance, according to Everitt, the priority is speeding up development where communities have already “been through the pain” and planning permission has been granted. This is the popular ‘stop land-banking’ case.

There are two potential problems with this. First, as the Centre for Cities sets out, it is no silver-bullet to getting supply up. Far from being merely a tactic by greedy developers to keep prices up, ‘land banking’ is often simply a side-effect of how long and fraught with danger the planning process is. Over-bidding for permissions is one way of making sure developers have a steady supply of projects.

Second, there is currently a shortage of building materials. Trying to force developers into rapid building via some kind of legal stick would only exacerbate this. (Everitt points out that it isn’t MPs’ job to solve that, which is fair enough, but the Government must nonetheless keep it in mind when regulating the sector.)

If he and the APPG are representative of backbench Conservative thinking on housebuilding, there have definitely been some hopeful developments. There is broad support for planning reform, albeit with more input for communities in ‘growth zones’, and recognition that clever demand-side wheezes without supply-side solutions just “make housing more unaffordable”. It isn’t hard to see why the APPG has apprently found MHCLG willing to listen to their advice.

But the apparently low priority placed on expanding home-ownership is significant. It does not yet seem to be shared by the Government, whose “preferred discounted market tenure”, the First Homes scheme, instead involves a state-maintained discount and sale restrictions on what is otherwise private housing.

Nor ought it to be. Whilst there is certainly a place for council and housing association property in the system, to allow this to become the main way of getting people into their own homes would be to abdicate half the point of planning reform.

Conservatives have a bad habit of neglecting the importance of structural reform. For example, successive education secretaries have allowed the heat to come out of the schools revolution, even though the pandemic spotlit the dividends of Michael Gove’s changes as academy chains fought to open whilst the teaching unions fought to keep schools shut.

Housing is the same. The reason reform of this sector is so important is because of the impact it has on the entire structure of society – and the electoral map of the South East, too. A vast expansion of state tenantry would be no substitute for giving the next generation the opportunity to actually own their own home, as their parents did. It would just be a blueprint for more Brightons and more Canterburys.

Johnson’s unpopular but urgent task on planning: to be the champion of the not-yet-propertied

10 Jun

The planning debate is quite possibly the most important domestic battle that this Government will fight. Cracking this country’s broken housing market and giving young people a chance to own property and start families is Boris Johnson’s best shot at a transformational legacy (and a generation of Conservative hegemony).

Doing this will not be easy. It risks angering a substantial chunk of the traditional Tory coalition. This could be especially dangerous in seats the party is defending against the Liberal Democrats, who are reportedly preparing to disregard their progressive pretensions to go all-out against planning reform.

It is thus no surprise that parts of the Party are determined to insist we can solve the housing crisis without troubling the base. Loudest and proudest of these is Bob Seely, who at the weekend wrote for this site about why I was supposedly wrong to insist, as I did the month before, that ‘the Government must deliver more homes, and they must be in the South‘.

Despite this, I stand by my argument, and with the make-or-break votes on planning reform legislation still to come it is worth setting out why. There’s no need to relitigate every detail of the last two pieces, they’re there to be read. But Bob asks more than once whether or not he’s ‘missing something’. Let’s find out

Levelling Up

I described the insistence that ‘levelling up’ requires us to redirect housebuilding to the Red Wall as “breathtakingly disingenuous”, and nothing in Seely’s response dissuades me of that.

Whilst it is certainly true that some of those constituencies will need some housebuilding – where doesn’t? – it remains absurd to pretend that access to housing is a major structural impediment holding back economic development in ‘left behind’ bits of the country. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that are already affordable that played a big role in the Conservative breakthrough here in 2019!

And how can it possibly be the case that “a dozen midland and northern cities have seen absolute declines in population” need more houses? Logically, they have a surplus already.

Then we come to infrastructure:

“The Government has said that housing will be pump-primed with infrastructure funding; ergo: the more infrastructure projects in the South, the less in the Red Wall. One can’t spend the same money twice, all the time, as we are beginning to find out.”

Any infrastructure spending linked to new building in the South is intended specifically to offset the impact of building houses in the South. If we moved that building northwards, it would still be linked to offsetting the impact of the new houses – they would just be new houses the area didn’t need, and a glut that might push existing homeowners into negative equity.

That the North of England needs infrastructure spending – on rail transport, broadband internet, and more besides – is undeniable. But that doesn’t mean it needs this infrastructure investment. The only way this money could be usefully spent in the North is if it were uncoupled from development and we didn’t build the houses. (Will this be a theme?)

Targets

In a similar vein, what about housebuilding targets? The Government was fiercely criticised for its ‘mutant algorithm’ that tried to force southern councils to build. But Bob objects even to the headline 300,000 per annum figure:

“If Boris Johnson’s target – which, by the way, is completely arbitrary – had been 250,000 rather than 300,000 homes a year, we would already be on target.”

It is indisputable that we could more easily hit our targets if we lowered them to whatever our present rate of housebuilding is, although I’m not sure what this proves. There is also no argument offered as to why 250,000 is any less arbitrary than 300,000, save that it would mean we wouldn’t have to build the houses. (This is a theme.)

The Government’s case is simple: that house prices in the South are so overheated because demand far outstrips supply, so we need more houses. The current 300,000 target is arbitrary principally because the actual number needed to make housing generally affordable is higher.

Land Banking

This is a common argument deployed by people hoping to conjure up a straw man of cartoon-villain developers. Whilst there are no doubt some bad players, it is also a fact that ‘land banking’ is in large part an artefact of our dysfunctional planning system.

Ant Breach at the Centre for Cities covers this in detail, but the short version is that there are so many points of failure for an application that securing excess permissions is one of the few ways developers can secure the reliable flow of work their businesses need.

Home Ownership and Local Democracy

These last two points are deeply entwined, and cut to the very heart of the Tory clash of worldviews over planning. The anti-development case is distilled into near its purest essence in this section of Bob’s piece:

“In a place like the Isle of Wight, that means building houses which are genuinely affordable (so yes, Council or Housing Association), in sensitive numbers, in a local style, in existing communities, for our local people and with their support.”

Much to unpack there, but the obvious place to start is the eyebrow-raising suggestion that the only route to affordable housing is one form or another of state tenantry.

The top of Bob’s article proclaimed a shared understanding of the importance of expanding home-ownership, both to the fortunes of the Conservative Party and the futures of the individuals given a chance to get on the property ladder. What happened to that? Very “one rule for thee”.

But even more problematic, if we’re honest, is the dogmatic insistence that any and all new homes must be “for our local people” (or “their kids”). Bob strongly objects to the word ‘NIMBY’. In another piece (a response to another of mine) he offered the term ‘local patriots’. It paints a portrait of people defending their patch against villainous developers.

Thing is, local people are not the only stakeholders in the planning debate. That’s the entire root of the problem, and why appeals to the supremacy of “local democracy” fall short. The nation needs houses. It needs them in the South of England, where the demand is. And the Government has a duty to represent the interests both of the nation as a whole, and the generation of people who deserve a chance to own their own home but are locked out of the market by a cripplingly restrictive planning system.

Towns, villages, London boroughs – none of these are islands, entire of themselves. They are not sovereign. The case for building new homes in them is not simply a matter of whether or not it pleases those who already live there. That is not how those towns and boroughs came into being in the first place, after all.  It is about whether other people deserve a chance to live there, and the nation needs the space.

Yes, that should involve building an appropriate mix of attractive and appropriately-styled properties, and investing in necessary infrastructure alongside development. But that does not mean that communities should be able to stymie expansion as effectively as they can at present. The population is growing, and our towns and villages must grow with it. How is a fair question; if is not.

The 29 Conservative MPs who supported the China genocide amendment

23 Mar
  • Adam Afriyie
  • David Amess
  • Bob Blackman
  • Crispin Blunt
  • Peter Bone

 

  • Andrew Bridgen
  • Reman Chishti
  • Christopher Chope
  • David Davis
  • Richard Drax

 

  • Ian Duncan Smith
  • Mark Francois
  • Nusrat Ghani
  • Sally-Ann Hart
  • Philip Hollobone

 

  • Jeremy Hunt
  • Bernard Jenkin
  • Andrew Lewer
  • Julian Lewis
  • Tim Loughton

 

  • Craig Mackinlay
  • Kieran Mullan
  • Caroline Nokes
  • Matthew Offord
  • Andrew Rossindell

 

  • Bob Seely
  • Derek Thomas
  • Charles Walker
  • David Warburton

The 33 Conservative MPs who rebelled over the Genocide Amendment

19 Jan
  • Ahmad Khan, Imran
  • Amess, David
  • Blackman, Bob
  • Blunt, Crispin
  • Bridgen, Andrew

 

  • Crouch, Tracey
  • Davis, David
  • Djanogly, Jonathan
  • Duncan Smith, Iain
  • Ellwood, Tobias

 

  • Francois, Mark
  • Ghani, Nusrat
  • Gillan, Cheryl
  • Gray, James
  • Green, Damian

 

  • Hart, Sally-Anne (pictured)
  • Hoare, Simon
  • Hollobone, Philip
  • Jenkin, Bernard
  • Latham, Pauline

 

  • Lewer, Andrew
  • Lewis, Julian
  • Loughton, Tim
  • Mackinlay, Craig
  • Nokes, Caroline

 

  • Richards, Nicola
  • Rossindell, Andrew
  • Seely, Bob
  • Tugendhat, Tom
  • Wakeford, Christian

 

  • Walker, Charles
  • Warburton, David
  • Wragg, William

Today’s genocide amendment had no relation whatsoever to recent votes on Covid – or other major rebellions that this site has been chronicling.

But there is considerable overlap between the rebels on those lists and on this one.  And even newcomers to our records such as Sally-Ann Hart and Nicola Richards have voted against the Government previously (though rarely).

Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the amendment, lists of those defying the whips now have a certain predictability.

The forty-two Conservative MPs who voted against the Government on the 10pm curfew

13 Oct
  • Ahmad Khan, Imran
  • Amess, David
  • Baker, Steve
  • Baldwin, Harriett
  • Blackman, Bob

 

  • Blunt, Crispin
  • Bone, Peter
  • Brady, Graham
  • Chope, Christopher
  • Clifton-Brown, Sir Geoffrey

 

  • Daly, James
  • Davies, Philip
  • Davis, David
  • Davison, Dehenna
  • Doyle-Price, Jackie

 

  • Drax, Richard
  • Fysh, Marcus
  • Ghani, Nusrat
  • Green, Chris (pictured)
  • Hunt, Tom

 

  • Latham, Mrs Pauline
  • Loder, Chris
  • Loughton, Tim
  • Mangnall, Anthony
  • McCartney, Karl

 

  • McVey, Esther
  • Merriman, Huw
  • Morris, Anne Marie
  • Redwood, rh John
  • Rosindell, Andrew

 

  • Sambrook, Gary
  • Seely, Bob
  • Smith, Henry
  • Swayne, rh Sir Desmond
  • Syms, Sir Robert

 

  • Thomas, Derek
  • Tracey, Craig
  • Vickers, Matt
  • Wakeford, Christian
  • Walker, Sir Charles

 

  • Watling, Giles
  • Wragg, William

Plus two tellers – Philip Hollobone and Craig Mackinlay.

– – –

  • Seven Tory MPs voted against the Government on renewing the Coronavirus Act.
  • Twelve voted against the Government over the rule of six.
  • Now we have 42 this evening – enough to imperil the Government’s majority in the event of all opposition parties that attend Westminster voting against it too.
  • Fifty-six signed the Brady amendment, but it was never voted on, and wasn’t a measure related directly to Government policy on the virus.
  • We wrote last week that Conservative backbench protests would gain “volume and velocity”, and so it is proving.
  • There’s a strong though not total overlap between these lockdown sceptics and Eurosceptics.
  • We count eight members from the 2019 intake – and a big tranche from pre-2010 intakes.
  • Chris Green resigned as a PPS to vote against the measure.
  • He’s a Bolton MP and there’s clearly unhappiness there about these latest restrictions.

Bob Seely: Ministers must revise the housing plan to give our cities the homes they need

8 Oct

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto made a clear pledge to Northern voters. We said: “We will use … historic investment to level up and connect this country, so that everyone can get a fair share of its future prosperity.”

I support levelling up 100 percent. Yet the Government’s housing targets now threaten that agenda and whilst, for the moment, it is suburban and shire Tory MPs who are speaking for their constituents and opposing these new and damaging targets, it is Red Wall and swing-seat MPs who perhaps have the most to lose.

Today, I am leading a Backbench debate in Parliament on the housing targets and the Housing and Planning White Paper. Politically, getting this policy right will help us to win the next election; getting it wrong will result in electoral pain for years, to say nothing of the wider economic, social and environmental ramifications.

If ‘levelling up’ means anything, it surely means an integrated Government plan to support infrastructure, jobs, and housing to revive the Midlands and Northern towns overlooked in recent decades, and to stop the endless drift of jobs and opportunities to the shires.

But, broadly speaking, the new housing algorithm undermines our Levelling Up pledge. It concentrates the biggest falls in housing targets in the urban North and Midlands – the very areas we pledged to level up, and the biggest increases in requirements in London and the South, where the wealth already is.

Worse, if infrastructure funding is going to follow housing, as the Government says, that means that money which Northern and Midland MPs hoped, indeed assumed, would be invested in their patches is instead going to the suburbs and shires.

In general, the case for Levelling Up is overwhelming. Just looking at population alone, whilst the population of the North East has grown by just two percent since 1961 in the South East it’s 28 percent, in North West it was seven percent and opposed to the South West’s 31 percent.

Northern cities fair even worse. Since 1961, the cities of: Newcastle, Sunderland, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Stoke, have all declined in absolute numbers, according to research from the House of Commons Library. Liverpool alone has seen an absolute population decline of over 300,000 people since 1910. The revival of Northern and Midland cities is vital both for those cities but also the suburbs and rural areas around them.

Yet the housing targets for major cities are set to decline. Targets for Liverpool and Newcastle are 48 per cent and 56 per cent lower than recent building rates. In Preston the new targets see a decline of 24 percent over the local plan for – 1,827 fewer homes over 15 years. In Doncaster the new targets see a decline of 22 percent over the local plan for a total of 4,039 fewer homes.

These are not isolated cases; there are more than 30 northern Local Planning Authorities with targets less than their local plan. This isn’t ‘build build build’, it’s ‘please don’t build, build, build’.

Whilst city targets are being lowered, the targets for suburbs and shires around them, including in the Midlands and North, will be raised substantially. So, over 15 years and compared with local plans, Manchester is expected to build less, but the suburbs and rural seats around it will be expected to build much more, and on greenfield too.

Let me give you another example. Targets for Nottingham city, where there are three Labour seats, fall by 3,700, whilst Nottinghamshire rises an additional 25,000 to 71,000 – the equivalent of 14 new small towns. Many of those major new developments will be in four historic Labour/Tory swing seats, three of which are now Tory but were Labour a decade ago. This is bad environmentally and economically, but also politically.

Whilst we don’t yet know the long-term impact, if any, of Covid, it is likely to speed-up the process of home working, which means less office space in cities and more space for housing. Therefore, the ‘rebalancing’ away from cities seems even more bizarre. So whilst these planning targets are bad for the South, they are equally damaging for the Midlands and the North.

The worst of all worlds is to hollow out our cities, urbanise our suburbs, and suburbanise the countryside, and in doing so, focus infrastructure spending away from where it is needed. I fear that this is what we may accidentally achieve, despite our good intentions.

This is not levelling up. It is concreting out. Tory shire voters will be furious. Red Wall voters will feel betrayed. This is lose/lose.

Conservative MPs need to work with Government to inject a dose of common sense to develop housing policy which supports home-owning aspiration as well as protecting and respecting the environment. The fate of our newly-elected friends in the North may, in part, depend on it.

Bob Seely: The Government must urgently re-assess its misguided housebuilding strategy

11 Sep

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

Across rural shires and southern England, the Government is set to impose unachievable and damaging house-building targets which will undermine the levelling up agenda.

Environmentally, they will heap pressure on shires, whose infrastructure is already under strain. Economically, they will reinforce jobs and growth in the South when we have promised to level up the North. Politically, they will prove deeply unpopular.

This latest piece of self-induced, foot-shooting has come in the form of the new Standard Method for house-building. It accompanies the Government’s White Paper on housing, Planning for the Future. Whilst the White Paper itself will face debate and potential amendments, the new Standard Method can apparently simply be adopted. It will damage this Government.

MPs and councillors across Britain are slowly waking up to this. Ministers belatedly claim to be listening; they need to.

If ‘levelling up’ means anything, it means an integrated Government plan to support infrastructure, job creation and house building to revive the Midlands and North, especially towns overlooked in recent decades, and to stop the endless drift of jobs and people to the South. Yet this housing  strategy, as Neil O’Brien has outlined in his well-researched article, results in much lower targets in Northern cities, where we should be kickstarting revival, and significantly higher targets in rural and suburban areas.

This disjointed policy demands significant greenfield development. I know not a single Tory voter in the last election who voted for this. If this is an example of co-ordinated Government, it is a well disguised one.

The 12 biggest absolute decreases in housing targets by local planning authority on 2018/19 delivery are generally Labour controlled Midlands and northern cities and towns, with few exceptions: Salford (-59 per cent, -1882 dwellings per annum (dpa)), Birmingham (-27 per cent, -1131 dpa), Liverpool (-48 per cent, -1063 dpa), Leeds (-30 per cent, -1040 dpa), Southampton (-48 per cent, -784 dpa), Newcastle upon Tyne (-56 per cent, -978 dpa), Manchester (-30 per cent, -699 dpa), and Nottingham (-38 per cent, -559 dpa).

Instead, rural and suburban England is going to be hit. This will alienate both millions of Conservative voters and thousands of Conservative Councillors. Moreover, the withdrawal of powers from local Government suggested in the White Paper will undermine local democracy and the important role of councillors.

Council colleagues should know the following local planning authorities will all be required to more than double their 2018/19 delivery rate. This is likely to result in a tsunami of local anger from those who believed they could trust a Conservative Government not to concrete the countryside. It will fire up our political opponents and may suppress our support in future elections, beginning next May. Here is a modest selection, with hyperlinks:

Arun in Sussex (+239 per cent, +1454 dwellings per annum – dpa), Thurrock (+263 per cent, +1075 dpa), Tonbridge and Malling (+241 per cent, +1018 dpa), North Somerset (+134 per cent, +979 dpa), Teignbridge (+138 per cent, +888 dpa), Dover (+187 per cent, +833 dpa), Southend on Sea (+169 per cent, +832 dpa), Swale in Kent (+120 per cent, +809 dpa), Thanet (+246 per cent, +727 dpa), Havant (+261 per cent, +696 dpa), Isle of Wight (+199 per cent, +695 dpa), Canterbury (+162 per cent, +695 dpa),  Somerset West and Taunton (+129 per cent, +694 dpa), Blaby (+120 per cent, +626 dpa), Shepway (+134 per cent, +597 dpa), Basildon (+141 per cent, +480 dpa), Worthing (+198 per cent, +579 dpa) Sevenoaks (+222 per cent, +565 dpa), Reigate and Banstead (+104 per cent, +556 dpa), Mendip (+108 per cent, +552 dpa), Ashfield (+171 per cent, +513 dpa), Harborough (+170 per cent, +509 dpa) Waverley (+148 per cent, +499 dpa), Bromsgrove (+244 per cent, +492 dpa), Hinckley and Bosworth (+109 per cent, +464 dpa), Fenland (+114 per cent, +450 dpa), Lewes (+126 per cent, +446 dpa), Epping Forest (+104 per cent, +442 dpa), Epsom and Ewell (+266 per cent, +439 dpa), Three Rivers (+292 per cent, +438 dpa), Oxford (+262 per cent, +406 dpa), North Hertfordshire (+181 per cent, +403 dpa), Guildford (+208 per cent, +381 dpa), New Forest (+102 per cent, +395 dpa), Eastbourne (+274 per cent, +356 dpa), Cannock Chase (+146 per cent, +341 dpa), Forest of Dean (+125 per cent, +338 dpa), Rochford (+124 per cent, +324 dpa), Tandridge (+118 per cent, +289 dpa), Broxtowe (+128 per cent, +275 dpa), Hastings (+146 per cent, +269 dpa), Gosport (+461 per cent, +254 dpa), North East Derbyshire (+121 per cent, +230 dpa), Adur in Sussex (+188 per cent, +213), Oadby and Wigston (+132 per cent, +123 dpa), and Rossendale (+153 per cent, +164 dpa).

(A full list is available here.)

Take my constituency, the Isle of Wight; the proposals will see our target increased by over 50 per cent. Half the Island is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, yet we will be ordered to build more houses per year than either Portsmouth or Southampton, both cities with major infrastructure and services, and populations almost 70 per cent larger. This is just nonsense.

Why? First, our services and infrastructure are already overwhelmed with the increases we have already had. We have basically the same Victorian country lanes we had two centuries ago, minus most of our railways. Second, we are dependent on a tourism economy that crammed roads and shoe-horned housing estates will undermine. Third, our island building industry produces between 250-400 homes per year. It can’t build more. Our current targets are already unachievable. The Government might as well order the Island’s Council to develop a Moon Landing programme for all the likelihood of achieving these new targets.

It won’t help our young, either. Increasing in housebuilding do not necessarily result in increased affordability. (The FT explains why here.) Factors such as low interest rates, slow wage growth, and a need for the right type of homes are key. As with many other parts of the UK, we need one and two bed homes for residents, built in sensitive numbers in existing communities, with rent-to-buy schemes to support the young. We get three- and four-bed, generic (sorry, ‘superior’) housing in soul-destroying, low density, greenfield estates because that is what suits developers. From all sides of the political spectrum, people are fed up.

The Government’s Standard Method produces unviable, undesirable targets for swathes of rural England. What is being proposed is not levelling up, but a levelling down – from the cities to the shires. It will cost us economically, environmentally and politically. It will not help young people. It will worsen quality of life. It is not what many of our electorates voted for.

Rob Sutton: Introducing the top 50 Conservative MPs on Twitter

29 Jun

Conservative MP Twitter power rankings: the top 50

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Amongst the social media giants, Twitter is the primary battleground for political discourse. It’s also one of the key avenues by which MPs convey their message, and has near-universal uptake by members in the current House of Commons.

The effectiveness with which Twitter is utilised varies considerably between MPs, but it is difficult to compare like-for-like. How does one take into account the differences between, for instance, a freshman MP and a veteran Cabinet member? Length of service in Parliament and ministerial rank give a considerable advantage when building a following.

In this article, I have compiled a power ranking of MPs in the current Parliament, with the top 50 shown in the chart above. The MP’s follower count was adjusted by factoring in their previous experience, to better reflect the strength of their following and their success at engagement on the platform.

Being Twitter-savvy is about more than just a high follower count: any Secretary of State can achieve this just by virtue of the media exposure their office brings. Building a Twitter following based on thoughtful commentary and authentic engagement requires skill ,and can be achieved by members across all Parliamentary intakes and ranks of Government.

Though the top 10 is still dominated by MPs holding senior ministerial offices, the composition of the list beyond it is far more variable. A number of prominent backbenchers are in the top 20, and four members from the 2019 intake make the top 50, beating longer-serving and higher-ranked colleagues.

I hope that this list serves as recognition of the skill and contribution by Conservative members to public debate and engagement, beyond ministerial duties which so often dominate any mention in the media.

Building a model of Twitter power rankings

Success is judged by number of followers, with higher follower counts indicating greater influence on Twitter. The follower count was adjusted using three key parameters:

  • The number of years since an MP was first elected to Parliament.
  • The number of years the MP’s Twitter account has been active.
  • Their highest rank within Government achieved since 2010.

Higher values for each of these would be expected to contribute to a higher follower count. I built a model using the open-source Scikit-Learn package, and fitted it to data from the current Parliament.

The model was then used to predict how many followers a given MP might expect to have based on these three factors. The steps taken to produce a final “Twitter power score” were thus as follows:

  • Using these three factors, multiple linear regression was used to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers an MP might have.
  • Their true follower count was divided by the expected follower count to produce a single number which represented the MP’s performance at building a following.
  • Finally, a logarithm was taken of this ratio to make the number more manageable and to produce a final Twitter power score.

The final step of taking a logarithm means it is easier to compare between MPs without those who have very high follower counts (such as Boris Johnson) making the data difficult to compare, but it does not affect the order of the ranking.

Compiling the data

Having decided which factors to correct the model for, I collected the required information. All three factors were easy to find reliable sources for. The Twitter page for each MP displays the date the account was created, and the Parliamentary website provides the date of their first election to Parliament and previous government posts.

Members who are newly returned to the backbenches following governmental duties (such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt) are scored at their highest government rank since 2010 to recognise this. I was able to find the Twitter accounts and required information for 319 Conservative MPs who were included in this ranking.

To build a model based on this data required incorporating the highest government rank numerically. To do this, I assigned scores according to their rank. These grades recognised their relative seniority and media exposure associated with the office, with higher scores assigned to more senior positions:

  • Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State, Speakers, Leaders of the House and Chief Whips are scored 3.
  • Ministers of State, Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chief Whips are scored 1.
    Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Whips are scored 0.5.
  • Backbenchers score 0.

When assigning these values, I considered the typical sizes of follower counts of MPs in each category. When comparing Secretaries of States to Ministers of State, the median follower count is around twice the size, but the mean follower count is around eight times the size, as a handful of very large follower count skews the results upwards.

Deciding on weightings requires a (somewhat arbitrary) decision as to which measures to use when comparing between groups, and the scores I decided on were ultimately chosen as a compromise across these different measures, which produced stable results when used in the model.

It is also worth explaining why Prime Ministers are grouped with Secretaries of State, despite the far higher media exposure and seniority of their post. When deciding on the respective weighting for different levels of government post, a sufficiently large pool of MPs was needed to produce a meaningful comparison. The only data points for comparison of Prime Ministers are Boris Johnson and Theresa May, so it is difficult to give them their own weighting without it being either unreliable or arbitrary.

While grouping them with Secretaries of State and other senior positions might be perceived as giving them an unfair advantage in the weighting, I felt it justified given these challenges in determining the “fair” weight to assign them. With this done, I had three parameters for each MP on which to build a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers.

Calculating the number of expected Twitter followers

I built a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers using the Scikit-Learn, a popular machine learning package in the Python programming language. The model used multiple linear regression to fit the input parameters to the known follower count.

The input data was prepared by removing extreme high outliers in the data which skewed the fit toward high numbers and away from the vast majority of MPs before fitting. Once fitted, an “expected value” of Twitter followers could be calculated for each MP, based on the year of their first election to parliament, the number of years on Twitter and their highest government rank since 2010.

Including more parameters increases the ability of the model to describe the difference between MPs’ follower counts (the variability). By increasing the number of input variables included in the model, more of the variability is captured:

  • One variable captures between 20.3 per cent and 36.1 per cent of the variability.
  • Two variables capture between 39.1 per cent and 43.1 per cent of the variability.
  • All three variables capture 48.7 per cent of the variability.

These three variables are therefore responsible for almost half of the variation between MPs in their follower counts. The remainder of the variability is likely due to a range of factors which the model does not include, of which the MP’s Twitter-savviness is of particular interest to us. I discuss these factors further below.

Limitations in the model

There are multiple other parameters which could be included in future iterations which I did not include in this model. In particular:

  • Membership or Chairmanship of Select Committees.
  • Previous election to a council, assembly, devolved legislature or the European Parliament.
  • Membership of the Privy Council.
  • Government positions prior to 2010.
  • Prominent positions within the Conservative Party, such as the 1922 Committee or European Research Group.
  • Twitter-savviness and effectiveness of their comms team.

Another limitation was not accounting for the perceived relative importance of various governmental departments: a Great Office of State or Prime Minister is scored the same as any other Secretary of State. The difficulties involved in ranking governmental departments were beyond this first model. The length of service in a given government post was also not considered.

Finally, the choice of model to fit the data may not be the optimal choice. Multiple linear regression assumes, per the name, that the distribution is linear. But the large outliers might be better described by a power law or Pareto distribution, or the non-linearities of a neural network.

During next week, ConservativeHome will produce profiles of six individual MPs who have performed notably well in the power rankings, and who reflect the contributions brought by members beyond their ministerial duties, if they have any.