Covid and restrictions – the end of an era?

20 Jan

After an incredibly tense Christmas, while the Government – and world – waited to discover the severity of the Omicron variant, this January could have looked very different indeed. The NHS could have been overwhelmed; the UK might have been in a “circuit breaker lockdown”, as many on the Left wanted; and there could have been huge uncertainty about the country’s ability to deal with future variants.

Yet none of this nightmare scenario has, so far, played out. In fact, the UK’s outlook has never looked more positive in regards to Coronavirus. On Wednesday (should one have noticed, with all the news about “partygate”), the Government announced a completely new road ahead, in terms of managing the virus. 

England’s Plan B measures –  including mandatory face coverings in public places, Covid passports and advice for people working from home – are all to be dropped from next Thursday, as the Government moves to what’s called “Plan A”.

Speaking about the latest developments, Sajid Javid said “This is a moment we can all be proud of”, while cautioning that it’s not the “finish line”, as future variants cannot be eradicated. Instead, “we must learn to live with Covid in the same way we live with flu.” 

Although “living with the virus” has been the goal for a while, it seems to be the first time a minister has actually meant that this will happen. One of the biggest indications of this is that the requirement for people to self-isolate, when they have Coronavirus, is due to expire on March 24 – and that date may even be moved forward. Like the flu, people will get to decide themselves whether they leave the house.

What is one to make of the UK’s direction? The Prime Minister said that Plan A was possible because of boosters and how many people had followed Plan B measures, and that’s certainly true. Medical developments, from the vaccine to anti-virals, have put us in a much better position in terms of how we cope with the virus. We have the infrastructure (even the infamous Test and Trace system) and expertise, in place should there be more variants of the disease – or totally new pandemic to deal with.

Another reason why we are moving in this way is, of course, the Plan B rebellion – the largest that Johnson has ever experienced – in mid December. When the Government has typically experienced resistance, in terms of Covid measures, its fiercest opponents have been the Left and teaching unions. Yet the rebellion was a lesson that other voices matter; and can clearly become more problematic in the opposite direction. Should the Government introduce any harsher measures, without providing solid evidence, and combined with the fact that many MPs want to get rid of Johnson, then the Prime Minister will be in real trouble.

Lastly, one reason the Government may feel more confident about opening up is that “lockdown scepticism” – or, simply, scepticism around the power of tough restrictions – has become a less controversial position, both in media coverage and the political arena. Members of the public have seen for themselves – having watched countries with tougher restrictions experience high cases than those without – that there is no clear correlation between measures and virus control. In years to come, who knows whether the lockdown sceptics will be vindicated and, if so, by how much?

Either way – and this hasn’t been something people could say throughout much of the pandemic – everything seems to be heading in the right direction. Even if that changes, perhaps we can allow ourselves, at this time, a little optimism this year.

Phil Eastment: One way to alleviate the cost of living crisis? Let parents take their kids on holiday in term time.

19 Jan

Phil Eastment works as a communications manager in Parliament.

If the Prime Minister survives “partygate”, he will remain under considerable pressure with a United Kingdom traversing deeper into a cost-of-living crisis.

In April the energy price cap will be lifted, possibly by as much as 51 per cent, potentially leading to an average increase of £700 to annual household energy bills. This increase is on top of rising costs of everything, from food to transport, and this combination of rising prices and tax hikes is an electorally toxic mix. It is one that will be seized on by opposition parties going into the next General Election.

There is a policy, a freedom, that the Government could grant parents that could potentially save families thousands of pounds. It is a policy based in the Conservative values of empowering the individual to make their own decisions and to take personal responsibility for their actions, and for their families. This policy is granting parents a certain number of days each year (ideally 10, to allow for two full weeks) to take their children on holiday outside the peak times of school breaks.

The present law against taking children out of school during term time is based on the logic that absenteeism is damaging for a child’s education and long-term prospects. However, it ignores the invaluable benefits that time away as a family brings to a child along with the educational benefits and joys of experiencing new cultures and activities.

Although it is a law that is often cited as a protection of the most vulnerable children, it is, in reality, hugely discriminatory against the poorest households. By mandating that families may only go on holiday outside term time, the laws of supply and demand dictate that the cost of holidays during school breaks are becoming ever further out of the reach for families on low incomes.

In 2019, research by online holiday giant Expedia revealed that 59 per cent of parents said that they were unable to afford to take their children away during the summer holidays as it is too expensive, rather electing to take their children out of school during term time and absorbing the government fine (around £120). This is a trend that has sadly been accelerated by the impact of travel restrictions during the pandemic and by the increase in demand for “staycations.”

The need to catch up after two years of educational disruption is a strong argument against granting parents this freedom. However, the experiences of parents throughout the pandemic suggest the opposite. When Covid-19 struck, the Government surrendered its responsibility to educate our children on site in schools and, literally overnight, transferred this responsibility to parents.

Throughout the UK, millions of parents had to adapt to balancing the responsibilities of home schooling their children with working from home themselves. Through the use of technology, and with the support of hundreds and thousands of dedicated teachers, many parents will attest that, although challenging, they were able to maintain their children’s educational development.

The technology, and professional expertise, has been refined to make granting this freedom even more plausible. Crucially, after two years of restrictions, lockdowns and all the emotional distress that the pandemic has inflicted on our children their need to enjoy the freedom that family holidays bring is more important than ever.

Denying parents the freedom to take their children out of school in a responsible manner, when a plan is agreed to make up for time away, to enjoy all the benefits that a holiday can bring is a control that isn’t conservative. Criminalising parents who are forced into unauthorised absenteeism as they cannot afford to take their children on holidays during term time is grotesquely immoral.

By giving headteachers discretion to allow this freedom, millions of families will be able to take advantage of more affordable holidays outside of peak times and countless children will benefit from the precious memories of that first flight or the excitement and intrigue of using a new currency. It is time that this ban is ended and the freedom for parents to make a responsible decision is granted.

Wakeford defects to Labour

19 Jan

In another dramatic turn of events for the Government, Christian Wakeford, the Conservative MP for Bury South, has defected to the Labour Party. The news comes shortly after he submitted a letter of no confidence in Boris Johnson, following the revelations of lockdown parties at Downing Street.

No doubt we will find the ins and outs of Wakeford’s departure in due course. Labour has clearly timed the announcement (above) before PMQs for maximum effect.

Although it is another blow for Johnson, it’s worth adding that with an intake as big as the last Tory one, you’re more likely to get candidates who are swept in on the margins. Will there be more defections to come? The next few days will be tense to say the least.

Charlotte Gill’s Podcast Review 9) Liam Halligan with David Frost, Brendan O’Neill with Carl Heneghan

19 Jan

Every fortnight, ConservativeHome will compile a handful of podcast recommendations – content that has been published in the weeks preceding – for its readers. Although these will mainly focus on podcasts for conservative listeners, we will try to include other options – should they be particularly interesting. Sometimes this feature will contain other types of media.

Title: Planet Normal
Host: Liam Halligan (who co-hosts Planet Normal with Allison Pearson. This segment has been extracted for Youtube)
Episode: ‘Stop this Covid theatre’: Former Cabinet minister Lord Frost speaks to the Planet Normal podcast

Duration: 37:56 minutes
Published: January 13

What’s it about?

What does Lord Frost think about Dominic Cummings, the Government’s Net Zero ambitions and the Northern Ireland Protocol, as well as pretty much every political issue of the day? Wonder no more; Liam Halligan manages to get a huge amount out of the UK’s lead Brexit negotiator, in this interview. Frost doesn’t hold back in his criticisms of government policy, and what it will take to better improve the machinery of Whitehall.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “I think, honestly, people are going to look back at the last couple of years, globally, and see lockdown as a pretty serious public policy mistake.”
  • “The teams managing Covid – not just in Number 10 – the fact that they were in the office and seeing people meant that you tended to forget what life was like for everyone else, because to you it seemed a bit normal. And I do think that meant we were more ready to reach for lockdown and coercive things than we might have been in other circumstances.”
  • “History shows that the best way of producing prosperity is free markets and free individuals pursuing their own lives.”

Refreshing to hear a conservative talk like a conservative.

Title: Desperately Seeking Wisdom
Host: Craig Oliver
Episode: Ruth Davidson

Duration: 54:28 minutes
Published: January 17
Link: Here

What’s it about?

This podcast recently attracted many headlines, due to how many revelations Ruth Davidson makes during the course of it. It is part of a new show, hosted by Craig Oliver, the former Director of Politics and Communications for David Cameron, that explores how people, mainly in media and politics, have achieved a better work/life balance. Davidson opens up about a number of areas, such as her battle with depression and her dismay at being described as a lesbian kickboxer during the 2011 Scottish Conservatives leadership election, while other candidates were referred to by their job titles.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “I’ll tell you why it annoyed me… One, because I’d stopped kickboxing years before, so it wasn’t even true. And two because it was so reductive, and it was reductive to try and make a point.”
  • “I didn’t want a sudden headline screaming that, you know, Tory leader’s a maddy, that should be locked up or something like that.”
  • “I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself more than the period that I had in the Territorial Army. There was something amazing about the physical tiredness that you get after a day of carrying, or however many tonne pack, and you know, yomping around fields and, and feeling like you’re learning and that you’re contributing, and you’re stretching yourself.”

A fun and light-hearted exchange.

Title: The Brendan O’Neill Show
Host: Brendan O’Neill
Episode: Why I spoke out against lockdown



Duration: 1 hour, 12 minutes
Published: January 13

What’s it about?

Though Carl Heneghan’s official titles include Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at the Department of Primary Care Services at the University of Oxford and Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Healthcare, among other things, he has become most famous for questioning the Government’s approach to Coronavirus. A modern day heretic, you might say. In this interview with Brendan O’Neill he comprehensively explains why he thinks the UK approach hasn’t been right, and who has been most hurt by it.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “The concept of academic freedom has gone out of the window… People will lose their jobs in the NHS or universities for speaking out…. what does that say about our society?”
  • “We can’t keep having this Doomsday prediction and assuming society can go forward.”
  • “The question is, why has the NHS not grasped this nettle and said we need a flexible health service that increases capacity by about 20 per cent” (around winter peaks).

A fascinating discussion, which will further the argument that lockdowns are a blunt instrument.

Emily Carver: Instead of faux apologies about partygate, Johnson should admit that Coronavirus rules were always wrong

19 Jan

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The drip, drip of accusations against the Prime Minister is enough to make even the staunchest Conservative loyalist feel a little bit grubby. His latest line that “nobody told me” the Number 10 garden party was against the rules is bordering on the absurd, not least because no one should have to remind the author of the contents of his own rule book.

Of course, the independent inquiry may conclude that events technically fell within the Covid regulations. That the party did constitute a “work event”. But whether the gathering was lawful will do little to repair his reputation. Weeks of revelations and emotional testimonies from members of the public have his approval ratings running below that of his predecessor Theresa May’s – and at her very lowest.

But, then again, opinion polls are notoriously fickle. With the inquiry allowing the Prime Minister some space to reconfigure, it may yet be possible for him to remind his disillusioned backbenchers and the public that he is a winner.

There’s also the possibility that members of the media have overplayed their hand in all this. It’s no secret that there are lobby journalists who harbour personal animosities towards Boris Johnson. It does seem rather convenient for those who have always found him unpalatable to latch onto recent events and push so relentlessly for him to resign.

It’s not too farfetched to believe that the public could run out of interest, fed up with the feeding frenzy around the Prime Minister, particularly when there are so many pressing issues to be dealing with, not least the cost of living – made worse by the Government’s endless interventions in the energy market and its seemingly incessant desire to tax and ban.

The hypocrisy from the likes of Beth Rigby sticks in the craw when she herself was found to have attended a rule-breaking party. And while many are happy to amplify Dominic Cumming’s accusations that Johnson lied to parliament, perhaps Cummings isn’t necessarily the touchstone we apply to judge activities in the spring of 2020?

Of course, none of this forgives the Prime Minister’s alleged behaviour – and that of those working at Number 10. But I can’t be alone in my concern that our democracy should not be decided by what can appear in some lights as a campaign of aggrieved advisers and enemies in the media.

However, if the Prime Minister manages to survive partygate, it’s clear he needs to change tack. The opposition may scoff that Operation Red Meat is “more like a wafer-thin slice of ham” – but that doesn’t change the fact the policies Johnson is now getting behind are popular.

Strong rhetoric on the BBC licence fee and on migrant crossings will be welcomed by many Tory voters – and, crucially, it looks like an acknowledgement that he’s aware his administration has so far failed to live up to the expectations of those who put him in power.

But this will not be enough. The disillusionment felt among backbenchers and Tory voters goes far beyond allegations of sleaze or misconduct – or indeed the scope of Operation Red Meat.

Conservative voters didn’t vote for the Government’s interventionist approach in the economy and people’s lives, or the failure to prioritise energy security and affordability over arbitrary net zero targets.

Nor did they think a Conservative government would be so reluctant to pursue a pro-growth agenda, instead pummelling them and their businesses with higher taxes, while finding new ways to add to the regulatory burden. In essence, the Government is getting it wrong on the big stuff.

Johnson made the right judgement on Omicron, and his strategy is beginning to bear fruit. We appear to be set to lead the world out of the pandemic and back to normality – for this he deserves credit, but he must capitalise on it.

Instead of faux apologies in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister should admit to the nation that the rules imposed on this country were always wrong. That what happened at No 10 illustrates just how disproportionate the Covid regulations always were. At the very least, this must mean no more lockdowns, no more Covid restrictions, and the immediate repealing of the Coronavirus act.

Then, if he uses this moment as an opportunity to take head and reassess his priorities, the Prime Minister may have a chance to win back lost support. But if he is to get his disgruntled backbenchers and, crucially, the country back on side, Operation Red Meat isn’t going to be enough to save Big Dog.

Richard Holden: With Labour as the alternative, Conservatives cannot afford any more divisions

18 Jan

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

West Shield’s Farm, Satley, Co. Durham

There are fewer better reality checks than meeting a handful of County Durham farmers, on site, as the light fades and the temperature drops, in the bleak mid-winter. They had got in touch with me about small gangs of people trespassing on their land with dogs and guns, causing repeated criminal damage and leaving them in fear for their families, livestock and their own safety if confronted.

These aren’t the poachers you might find in a by-gone episode of The Archers or Jake from Withnail and I – with a brace of pheasant in his jacket and an eel down his trousers. They’re just thugs who often leave what they shoot in their late-night “sport” and cause lots of damage to farmland and property as they do it. My local farmers have come together in the worst hit areas to fight back, sharing descriptions and number plates caught on cameras with each other and the police.

Any farming community has long memories and lots of small, mostly friendly, local rivalries. Sometimes these are more serious with little schisms and long-running, low-level animosity between, and even within, farming families. But usually, like with this mutual interest to get these local thugs off their patches, they come together in mutual benefit, for their shared interest when they need to and for the benefit of all.

Seeing those farmers reminded me of a time before I was an MP, when I was working behind the scenes. In various roles at Conservative HQ and in different government departments there were tough times. The most challenging time I had wasn’t Boris Johnson or Theresa May’s leadership campaigns, or during the 2015/6 Lords V Commons (unprecedented war) on Universal Credit, or ISIS in Iraq/Syria when I was at the MoD, or DfE battles with The Treasury over funding. The toughest time I had working in politics was at the end of May’s time in No 10 when I was at the Department for Transport.

There were events – drones at Gatwick at Christmas – that caused chaos. This happened at the same time as the Department was facing relentless attacks, trying to undermine our negotiating position with the EU and our ability to withstand a no-deal Brexit, which anyone interested in delivering the best deal with the EU needed to keep on the cards. The cabinet minister I worked for at the time eventually became the only Brexiteer left in cabinet. Others were picked off or left and we were very vulnerable to attacks, mostly motivated by other parts of government and the Conservative Party at the time, egged on by the media and the Opposition, who basically said that Brexit would never work and that they didn’t want it in the first place.

It was horrible. It was nasty, internecine warfare played out daily in the press. It was a political civil war in the governing party and in the country. It could have ended in a Corbyn-led Labour government and at times it was a bloody close-run thing that it didn’t.

Out of that chaos, eventually, Johnson emerged. He faced down the Brexit deniers and eventually forced a General Election. That delivered the first big majority in over three decades and allowed him to deliver on the express mandate of the British people to “Get Brexit Done” – whatever side they’d been on in 2016. The world then got side-swiped with a pandemic. Initially, we didn’t know much about it except that there were bodies being piled in football stadiums in Italy and elsewhere. Even now it is evolving. The calls that our Prime Minister and senior members of the cabinet have made and make on this are massive and have had to be done with far less idea about the outcome than any Brexit negotiation.

But unlike Brexit, the decisions being taken, at pace, have also been potentially matter of life and death for people. They’re also about the survival of many jobs, businesses and education across the country. And we have the same armchair generals thinking their solution is the right one as we did during Brexit. I’m as much a freedom loving Conservative as the next. I joined the party well over 20 years ago when William Hague was our leader – even first term Blair/Brown was too much for that Northern teenager then who felt that London-centric Labour had nothing to offer and did not understand the towns and villages he was growing up in. I don’t have all the answers to what we should do now and I trust that my colleagues in government come from the issue from same starting point as me in their decision making about the future.

Just before Christmas, our party looked like it might eat itself up over the response to Covid-19 – and we’ve got further big decisions before my next column. The damage we do ourselves if we constantly second guess everything ministers do is deep, not just to ourselves but to public confidence. Starmer, Streeting and Co have already proved their instincts are not ours. They wanted to keep lockdown back in July when it wasn’t needed. They would have kept us in the European Medicines Agency for ideological reasons. They wanted more restrictions over Christmas. And they are licking their lips at the prospect of facing a divided party.

Sue Gray’s investigation, which we await the results of will be the short-term determinant of what comes next for our party’s leadership. Many colleagues in Parliament and Conservative supporters in North West Durham have reflected to me that it will determine their view in coming days. But wherever it goes and whatever its consequences, it needs to be a moment where we draw a line under the questions being faced by the Government – one way or the other.

Like my North West Durham farmers facing the anti-social behaviour of the new breed of poachers, we Conservatives need to come together as we face our own anti-Conservative vote poachers in the opposition. Labour would love to see our freedom curtailed permanently for ideological reasons. In government we Conservatives have had to for short-term practical reasons. We are not the same and need to show the public we’re ready to move towards an endemic, rather than pandemic health response.

We have a common enemy as a nation in Covid. As Conservatives we have a common opposition in those whose instincts are not ours on how to deal with it in Labour. Labour would pursue a different path for ideological reasons – they’ve pushed for a different response throughout. I know that Conservatives in government want the same thing as backbenchers and the people who voted for me: freedom returned, Brexit delivered, levelling up in action, crime fought and borders secure, long-term fiscal stability with sound money and fairer, lower taxes, where work is always rewarded and our public services sustainably funded. Let’s allow Sue Gray get on with her job then get on with ours.

Paul Howell: Locally-led institutions are crucial to the Government’s levelling up agenda

17 Jan

Paul Howell MP for Sedgefield & co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.

If there is one New Year’s resolution that the Conservative government should keep to, it’s to make progress on its nascent levelling-up agenda. In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson pledged to lead a government that would finally answer the pleas of the “forgotten people and the left behind towns” that had backed Brexit.

This covenant was sealed when the same communities delivered the Prime Minister his stonking majority in 2019. The interruption of Covid has frustrated action so progress is now imperative to show us what makes levelling up truly distinct. Another election really isn’t that far away.

The Government has made some progress, with the first allocations from the Levelling Up Fund and the Towns Fund. The Levelling Up White Paper, delayed until early this year, must finally provide the clarity and direction the Government’s admirable yet frustratingly abstract ambition has so far lacked.

One aspect might be that levelling up cannot be delivered by Whitehall fiat. Communities don’t want the Government in London to tell them how to make their lives better, they want the opportunity to make that change themselves. While the state still has an important role to play, it is trusted locally-led institutions that must lead the way. This principle must be at the heart of the plan.

Conservatives recognise, in particular, the need to build and protect institutions, especially for local communities. Institutions leverage and support individual behaviour, bringing different people together in pursuit of a common good, so that social cohesion and capital is strengthened. Thriving local institutions are thus vital for levelling up so-called “left-behind” areas.

So what are these key local institutions that can support and transform individuals and communities in deprived areas? Conservatives have traditionally looked to the Church and charities, but housing associations are also increasingly critical anchor institutions in “left-behind” areas.

As local institutions with a proven track record of supporting and transforming individuals and communities in deprived areas across the country, housing associations are a key lever for unlocking the potential of “left-behind” areas. Almost half of all socially rented homes are located in the most deprived 20 per cent of areas in England. More than 2.4 million households live in accommodation provided by housing associations, particularly in the Midlands, the North East, and North West of England.

Today, the PlaceShapers network of community-focused housing associations, working with Bright Blue Intelligence, launches a new report, Stay Local, Go Far. The report encourages us to cast regeneration as central to levelling up, and think about four dimensions of regeneration: physical, economic, social, and democratic. Housing associations can and do, support such regeneration.

Livin is a housing association in my constituency. I have seen how it has supported these four dimensions in its work. Livin’s approach is based on improving the prospects of whole places, rather than just individuals.

First, the restoration of physical infrastructure is essential. Housing associations ensure access to affordable and sustainable housing. Private funding contributed £6 for every £1 of public funding for housing associations in 2019, representing £13.5 billion of new private finance. A 1930s estate known for high levels of anti-social behaviour, was unattractive for private investment, but £5.4 million from Livin helped to transform the area, increasing homeownership from 32 per cent to 62 per cent and halving energy bills. Leveraging such investment, in partnership with both the state and market, makes housing associations such critical enablers of levelling up.

Second, on economic regeneration: housing associations act as significant providers of jobs, both directly and indirectly, with around 140,000 people employed, often involving apprenticeships and specialist training for the members of the community. Many housing associations support young people not in education, employment, or training with support to get into employment, often using their strong connections with local businesses and other quality training providers.

Levelling up isn’t just about pure economics, of course, it’s also about making places feel more liveable and boosting civic engagement and pride. It is the “place” where people live that determines how good they feel about their lot. Social landlords invest £750 million each year into community work, beyond the core provision of housing. They provide financial and administrative support for community projects.

All of these community benefits are enhanced by democratic involvement of housing association residents in decisions and projects that affect them. Autonomy over running properties and shared spaces, including budgets to spend on improvements, builds trust and enhances engagement. But communities need support to do this.

Levelling up so-called “left-behind” areas, especially in coastal and former industrial areas, is a noble aim, but it is hard work, requiring significant investment and patience. No government working alone can transform deprived communities.

Modern conservative politicians and thinkers are looking to improve the security – not just the liberty – of people living in this country, especially those on lower incomes who voted for a Conservative government for the first time in a generation, sometimes ever. Looking more to its communitarian traditions, the Conservatives in office today need new allies and institutions to build economically, socially and environmentally vibrant communities in traditionally poor areas. Housing associations are here to help.

Peter Franklin: Don’t write off the possibility of Hillary Clinton re-running for President

17 Jan

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

With so much going on at home, Brits may be forgiven for not noticing the political crisis brewing in America. Nevertheless, last week was almost as bad for Joe Biden as it was for Boris Johnson.

The leader of the free world is coming to resemble that most pathetic of creatures: the first-term lame duck President. Of course, there was always a risk of that. At 79, Biden is by far the oldest person to have occupied the Oval Office. Running for re-election and completing a second term would mean carrying on until he’s 86.

However, it’s not infirmity that looks like dooming the Biden administration, but unpopularity. Last week a Quinnipiac poll recorded a new low — an approval rating of just 33 per cent. That’s lower than at the same stage of Donald Trump’s Presidency. It should be said that Biden does a bit better with other pollsters, but not by much.

There are multiple reasons for what has gone so wrong so fast: the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan; the ongoing Covid crisis; and inflation like Americans haven’t seen in decades. Biden is also having trouble getting his agenda through Congress. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona were elected as Democrats, but on key measures they’ve sided with the Republicans.

Things could go from bad to worse. The mid-term elections coming up later this year could produce Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. That could mean complete legislative gridlock and the confirmation of Biden’s lame duck status.

Still, never mind. At least the old stager’s had his last hurrah. Instead of running again in 2024, he could retire gracefully and everyone would understand. He could simply pass the baton to his much younger Vice President. Kamala Harris is ready-and-waiting to become America’s first female President.

Sounds like a plan. Except there’s one tiny problem with it: Harris is unpopular too. She’s not a calamitous Veep like, say, Dan Quayle; it’s just that voters don’t like her. I think it was Bob Monkhouse who quipped “people like sincerity — and if you can fake that you’ve got it made.” Whether for good or ill, Harris can’t fake sincerity. In fact, she’s hampered by an inability to communicate any sort of emotion without it sounding forced.

She’s a poor campaigner too. Her attempt to win the 2020 Democratic nomination went badly. She was monstered in one of the early debates by Tulsi Gabbard — and withdrew not long after. Luckily for her, the eventual nominee Biden was determined to pick a woman as a running mate and she got the nod. And thus she found herself one heartbeat away from the Presidency.

But for how much longer? Even if Biden runs again in 2024 there’s talk of dropping Harris from the ticket. The idea would be to nominate her to the Supreme Court, while he finds a more popular running mate. If, on the other hand, Biden doesn’t run again, then the Democratic nomination is likely to be contested — and Harris can’t count on a coronation.

Let’s not forget that the current favourite for the Republican nomination is Donald J Trump. Should that remain the case, then the Democrats will be desperate to stop his comeback. If that means dropping a persistently unpopular President and Vice President, then they’d be stupid not to.

And yet that would place the Dems in a difficult position. Holding on to the White House without either the incumbent President or Vice President isn’t easy. In fact, it hasn’t happened since 1928 when Herbert Hoover succeeded Calvin Coolidge — and those, of course, were Republicans.

In 2024, the Dems would have to stand before the American people and say “sorry about the previous President and VP, folks — they were hopeless, but please vote for us again.”

There’s also the risk that, in an open race for the nomination, a candidate from the so-called “progressive” wing of the party might win. The nightmare nominee is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who’ll be old enough to run next time). The Congresswoman may be an ultra-woke firebrand, but she’s popular with the party’s rising generation of millennial activists.

So, in the absence of Biden and Harris, the Democratic establishment would need to pull a really big name out of the hat. Big enough, in fact, to distract voter attention from the party’s disarray and to bulldoze any challenge from the Left.

But who? Writing in The Wall Street Journal last week, Douglas E. Schoen and Andrew Stein make the case for Hillary Clinton. Yes, that Hillary Clinton — the one who lost against Trump in 2016. They can’t be serious, can they?

Well, there is a case. First, instead of scrabbling around for some obscure Governor or junior member of the Biden administration, the party could put forward a household name. Second, she’s a woman — which would erase the embarrassment of sidelining the first female Vice President. And third, there’s the delicious prospect (for Democrats) of righting the “wrong” of 2016.

But isn’t she just too old and controversial? Not really — at least not anymore. Biden has extended the acceptable limit of age (Clinton is five years younger), while Trump has done the same for disagreeability.

So could we see a Trump-Clinton rematch in 2024? Not if there’s any chance of Trump winning again — she surely wouldn’t run the risk of a second humiliation. However, if the Republican nominee (whether Trump or someone else) looks beatable, then why not?

Indeed, there’s a scenario in which Clinton becomes the best hope of victory. If the Republicans winning a crushing victory in the mid-terms, it may dawn upon the Democrats that the party’s wokeness, which Biden has pandered to, is electoral poison. A particular worry is the Hispanic vote, which is showing signs of a historic shift to the Republicans.

In such a bind, the only way out for the Democrats would be to triangulate between the extremes of Right and Left just as they did in the 1990s under Bill Clinton. So could Hillary emerge as the triangulator of the 2020s?

She starts off with the right ideological bona fides. She’s a moderate, but a liberal moderate. If anyone can talk her fellow liberals back from the edge of lunacy it’s her. Furthermore, she’s tough, outspoken and, most importantly, she’s got nothing much to lose at this stage. Assuming she’s not succumbed to the woke mind virus herself, no one is better placed to save the Dems from their own worst instincts.

Right now, the mainstream reaction to the idea of a Clinton comeback is “you’ve got to be joking!” But by the end of the year it could shift to “isn’t there a better candidate?” If that becomes the question, then she’s in with a shot.

Spare a thought for those on zero-hour contracts as you mull the downside of restrictions

14 Jan

When Boris Johnson announced at a press conference on December 8 that the UK would move to “Plan B” of Coronavirus restrictions, one could almost hear the collective despair of those running hospitality and retail businesses. Many saw the writing on the wall about what this would mean for Christmas trade, normally their best time of the year.

The Prime Minister’s warning, along with the rise of the Omicron variant, led the public to engage in “voluntary lockdown”, avoiding the places they would normally frequent (and spend a lot of money in) come December. The Government, having not technically ordered a lockdown, was under no obligation to provide financial support to businesses that suffered the consequences. Pub owners, among other employers, became a common feature in television interviews, often venting about the situation. 

Perhaps less has been said, however, about a secondary casualty of the Government’s “Plan B” measures; that is, those on zero-hour contracts, and in other types of insecure employment, who have very little rights as businesses respond to declining custom. Employers can simply cut their shifts as they wait for things to improve. Meanwhile, those affected may find themselves suddenly financially insecure and/ or unable to plan for the future.

Whether zero-hour contracts are good or bad has been the subject of considerable debate over the years. Proponents argue that they give employer and employee better flexibility; opponents say that they are exploitative. It could be considered a “grey” political area in usual times.

But under pandemic conditions, it’s clear employees on such contracts are some of the most vulnerable when the Government starts closing down parts of the economy. In July, research from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) showed the extent of despondency among those on such contracts. Forty per cent of those in unstable roles (including casual or seasonal employment) said that their working conditions had become worse over the past year, compared with 27 per cent in secure roles.

Furthermore, 72 per cent of people surveyed on zero-hour contracts said that they had lost out on shifts during the pandemic. Some of the roles that were most affected were taxi drivers, shop assistants and security guards.

Zero-hour contractors do not represent a small segment of the population. Research from Statistica in 2021 shows that there are 917,000 people on these contracts, with a net increase of over 692,000 since 2000. It isn’t unreasonable to imagine these figures may grow substantially as a result of the pandemic. Employers, having endured years of precarious economic conditions, will be less likely to gamble on long-term employees.

Whatever the case, the combination of lockdowns, and de facto lockdowns, with zero-hour contracts, is not a successful one, and the Government should show more awareness of this – especially one that wants to “level up” the country. People can feel “left behind” when the working-from-home elite shows no consideration for industries that don’t have this advantage. It is yet another example of how the pandemic has affected members of the public differently. Too often our political class, and the media, forgets that every cry for more restrictions leaves a huge dent in someone else’s trade.

Given that it is January – when activity, particularly in hospitality, tends to be at a low point – one imagines that insecure employment may be even more of an issue than it was when Johnson spoke of Plan B. Add to this the cost of living crisis, and we are no way (economically) out of the woods yet. Either way, the Government must not lose sight of this part of the electorate. Ignoring this matter will merely ensure that those against zero-hour contracts have a better case.

Alan Mak: The Government’s new NHS Reservists will ensure we adapt to today’s health challenges

14 Jan

Alan Mak is the MP for Havant. He introduced the NHS Reserve Staff Bill in Parliament to create the NHS Reserves in November 2020.

“Our NHS is the beating heart of this country” the Prime Minister stated after receiving his own lifesaving treatment for Coronavirus. His words reflected those of everyone in our country when it comes to the health service.

For many voters on the doorstep, the NHS remains a central issue they want us to focus on. YouGov tracks weekly the issues that are on the mind of the British public. Since the start of the pandemic, more than half of voters have consistently said health is one of the three biggest issues facing the country.

Therefore, as the party of government, it’s more vital than ever that we demonstrate our ability to manage and shape an NHS that can respond not only to today’s immediate demands, but which is also fit for the future. Adapting to societal change, innovating to meet patients’ needs, and reform to become more agile and productive are all key. These must remain key Conservative priorities, as they have been throughout our stewardship of the health service.

For over 40 of the 73 years that the NHS has been in existence, it has been under the care of Conservative governments. We have nurtured and transformed it from the fledgling organisation proposed during Churchill’s wartime administration to the £162 billion NHS that today deals with one million patients every 36 hours and 20 million hospital admissions every year.

Despite its growing and committed workforce, unexpected peaks in demand still arise. Whether it’s dealing with Coronavirus admissions, seasonal upticks, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, health and civil emergencies or major incidents such as traffic accidents, the NHS needs a flexible workforce.

We also need to continue tackling the backlogs caused by Coronavirus. The Health Secretary has rightly recognised we need to take action and as he said in his Conference speech “No government, no health secretary, no society can accept” an NHS waiting list that has been driven by pandemic pressures.

A commitment to innovation and ensuring the health service moves with the times are just two reasons why the Government has announced that the NHS Reserves will be launched as a new member of the NHS family. In November 2020, I proposed the NHS Reserve Staff Bill in Parliament, and I’m delighted to see the NHS Reserve Programme being rolled out across the country.

The new NHS Reserves will provide both clinical and non-clinical staff to supplement full-time NHS workers during times of high demand.

It’s part of the refreshing, reforming zeal the Health Secretary is bringing to the job. He wants to “embrace innovation and to build a truly modern” and “sustainable service for the future”. The NHS Reserves achieves this by building upon the work many NHS Trusts have already done throughout the pandemic through the return to work of thousands of former NHS staff.

Following the introduction of my bill in Parliament, NHS England launched initial NHS Reserves pilots. They proved popular, with 17,000 reservists already recruited from just eight pilot schemes. From April this year, the NHS Reserves Pilot will be expanded and fully implemented across all 42 integrated care systems in every part of England.

The Reservists provide NHS employers such as hospitals and trusts with a flexible but reliable workforce to supplement the permanent workforce and to help protect elective care.

While the priority for patients is ensuring that they have care when they need it, they also need to have the utmost confidence in the treatment they receive. The hallmark of the NHS has always been and always will be the quality of care received.

Everyone in this country knows that they will receive the highest compassion, support and care from our world-class doctors and nurses. So it’s vital that whether care is provided by regular staff or a reservist it should be the same high quality. That is why the NHS Reservists will have the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to provide care and treatment, night or day, 365 days a year. Through the NHS Reserve system they will be given training and in-role experience to keep qualifications up to date, just like their Armed Forces counterparts.

As a Conservative family, we should be proud of our party’s stewardship of the NHS. I hope the creation of the NHS Reserves will show that once again it is us Conservatives that are leading the way when it comes to thinking about how our health service adapts, innovates, and thrives in response to new challenges. Whilst the Covid-19 outbreak has brought so many negatives, the new NHS Reserves can serve as permanent and positive legacy that we can all support with pride.

As the Prime Minister said the devotion, duty and love of those in the NHS makes it the organisation it is today. We have the opportunity to build a better NHS through those who are willing to serve as NHS Reservists, giving it the flexibility it needs to provide care no matter the pressures on its service.

I hope ConservativeHome readers will consider signing up as NHS Reservists in the future.