James Frayne: Can Johnson survive as Prime Minister? Here’s what the polls tell us.

15 Feb

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In June 2019, I analysed Boris Johnson’s polling numbers in detail in this column. You can read it here.

Given we regularly hear Johnson is irrevocably damaged amongst voters, it is helpful to repeat the exercise. So, what do the polls show? With the voters, is it all over?

Should he resign?

Starting with the most current question: should the PM resign? In the middle of January, YouGov showed by 64 per cent to 20 per cent people thought Johnson should resign. Only the scale of this result is important; like favourability, this is a question which invites partisanship and prime ministers are often in negative territory.

YouGov ran this question from his earliest days as PM, showing more people wanted him to remain as PM until the summer of 2021, when the numbers changed and where they have stayed ever since. Those identifying as Conservative changed their mind – saying he should resign – in January; working-class voters changed their mind in November.

A useful reality check, however: not everyone thinks he’s doing a bad job. In January, YouGov published a poll of party members showing they thought he should stay by 59-34; by 61-38 members said he was doing a good job as PM.

Performance as PM

On the straight question about performance: on January 13, YouGov showed people thought Johnson was doing badly rather than well as PM by 73-22. (Again, only the scale of the result is important.) He slipped into negative territory with those identifying as Conservative in December and in January he was in negative territory by 50-46.

At the end of January, Ipsos-Mori showed people were dissatisfied rather than satisfied at Johnson’s performance by 70-24. In early February, Deltapoll showed the public thought Johnson was doing badly by 68-29.

Johnson v Starmer

Although it’s all relative, Johnson’s numbers look better when he is compared directly with Keir Starmer. Deltapoll had Johnson and Starmer effectively tied on who would make the best PM at the start of this month (36-35 in favour of Starmer).

Other polls show a larger Starmer lead. Currently, YouGov’s tracker shows more people say Starmer would make a better PM than Johnson by 35-25 (the numbers saying “don’t know” are very high). Ipsos-Mori’s “Political Monitor” at the end of January put Starmer ahead on who would make the most capable PM by 49-31.

The nature of these results suggest Starmer’s lead reflects the deterioration in Johnson’s position, rather than people coming round to Starmer: Johnson had a consistent lead for a long period, until November 2021 when things started to go badly for Johnson and Starmer’s own favourability ratings are also in negative territory (in January, he was viewed unfavourably by 52-33; Deltapoll has a negative rating for Starmer but it’s smaller).

Ipsos-Mori’s recent February “UK Political Pulse” research compared Johnson and Starmer on a range of attributes, asking whether particular attributes “applied” to either. Johnson scored positively on “he has a lot of personality”, and negatively on everything else – particularly on honesty, attention to detail, whether he is in touch with ordinary people, and whether puts the needs of the country first. Starmer scored positively on “understands the problems facing Britain”, on capability, and whether he puts the needs of the country first.

Johnson v Sunak

YouGov’s members’ poll in January revealed that 46 per cent of members think Rishi Sunak would make a better PM than Johnson, compared to 16 per cent who think he would be worse and 30 per cent who think he would be much the same.

Arguably this is encouraging for Johnson: 46 per cent think Sunak would be better, while 46 per cent think Sunak would be the same or worse. For Liz Truss, the figures were 39/ 22/ 27 per cent respectively.

Ipsos Mori’s UK Political Pulse also compared Johnson to Sunak on a list of possible attributes. Sunak outperformed Johnson almost across the board (Johnson scored positively on personality, unlike Sunak). Sunak performed particularly positively on attention to detail, understands the problems facing Britain and good in a crisis. He performed badly on “in touch with ordinary people” and polled disappointingly on strength and capability.

The same Deltapoll results that gave Johnson a negative rating on job performance of -39 gave Sunak a positive rating of +21. It appears that a close link with Sunak drags Johnson up: Deltapoll had a particularly interesting question on whether people thought Johnson & Sunak or Starmer & Rachel Reeves would be better for the economy; it was essentially a dead heat, with people choosing Johnson and Sunak by 39-38.

Johnson v his predecessors

A number of pollsters have looked at Johnson’s ratings compared to previously unpopular prime ministers. At the end of January, Ipsos-Mori showed his ratings on satisfaction as PM were now -46, which, they wrote, roughly matched Theresa May’s negative ratings, but were not as bad as John Major’s in August 1994 (-59). They are similar to Tony Blair at his least popular and to Gordon Brown’s in 2008/09.

Competence, decisiveness, strength

YouGov have been running a tracker on perceptions of his competence since he became PM. His numbers began climbing from walking into No 10 and after prorogation and his December 2019 election win climbed into positive territory for the first time – ie more people viewed him as competent than incompetent (43-41).

His competence numbers peaked in the early days of the pandemic (55-31), but headed back into negative territory in June 2020. They have been there ever since, although perceptions of incompetence grew sharply last summer and the last figures, for the end of December, showed the public viewed him as incompetent by 64-22. YouGov’s tracker on “decisivenessshows a similar pattern: his positive numbers climbed sharply in the early days and he sustained positive figures in the early days on the pandemic.

They then fell and sharply deteriorated from the autumn of 2020. As of the end of December they stood as 71-16 negative-positive. And the “strength” tracker is also similar, although perceptions of strength held up longer. As of December they stood at 59-23 weak-strong.

Likeability, trustworthiness

YouGov’s tracker on “likeabilityhas generally had Johnson in positive territory and his numbers were pretty consistent. In December 2021, he hit negative territory for the first time since his early days (51-36 dislikeable-likeable). YouGov’s tracker on “trustworthinesshas always had him in negative territory, but in December this reached 69-15.

What can we conclude from all this?

First, that Johnson is still viable with the public if he is constantly compared to Starmer as the alternative. Starmer has a lead, but Johnson’s negatives aren’t as serious when a choice between the two is forced.

Second, that a close association to Sunak will drag him up by essentially having Sunak fill in his gaps. Against the backdrop of a weak economy, forcing a choice between Johnson and Sunak and Starmer and Reeves looks fruitful.

However, it’s hard to know whether the benefits of such an approach could last. Not only would this effectively launch Starmer and Reeves amongst many voters – who might be reassured at what they see (they’re clearly getting their act together and articulating increasingly sensible positions) – but it might also further raise Sunak’s profile and make people (particularly Conservatives) ask whether it might be better if the Chancellor was the one in No 10.

Two other conclusions come to mind. Third, that, as a PM about to enter a set of serious crises (Russia, most obviously), Johnson has the ability to boost his numbers on competence, decisiveness and strength.

Fourth, if there’s one thing the PM is good at, it’s making people like him; this is his superpower.

In summary, while it’s difficult to say he’s not finished with the public, and while there is at least one big event that could just end it all overnight, there is at least a pathway for his near-term survival.

Sue Pascoe: Conversion therapy needs to be banned for gender identity

14 Feb

Sue Pascoe was a candidate for Yorkshire and the Humber in the 2019 European elections.

The consultation to ban so called “conversion therapy” closed on February 4. The Government Equality Office will now analyse the responses before preparing legislation which is expected before the Government’s flagship global LGBT+ “Safe to be Me” London conference commencing June 29.

The Prime Minister has called this an abhorrent practice and the UN regards it as a practice of “torture”. So what is it? It is when someone tries to exert coercive pressure over another to try and suppress, cure or change their sexual orientation or gender identity. It can range from pseudo-psychological treatments, deliverance prayer, to in extreme cases, electric shock treatment and “corrective” rape.

In my case I was six when my mother tried to crucify me to prove that God did not believe what I was telling her; that I was a girl and not a boy. I was 15 when my mother and the doctors ignored what I was telling them about my innate feelings and operated on my variation in sex characteristic condition to make me more functionally male.

I was 20 when I went to see a therapist asking for help to change my gender and I was given “conversion therapy”, and made to be totally ashamed of who I was. So I went into the world as best I could hiding my true self, deep inside suffering life-long pain resulting from these “conversion practices”.

I’m 61 now and finally after many years I have managed to fully transition to be Sue. I’m at peace with myself having aligned all my sex characteristics as best I possibly can.

I’m not alone having suffered conversion therapies. In 2017, the Government launched the largest national survey of LGBT people in the world to date of over 108,000 people.

It found “Five percent of respondents had been offered ‘conversion’ therapy (but did not take it up) and a further 2% had undergone it. These figures were higher for trans respondents (e.g. 9% of trans men been offered it and 4% had undergone it). Faith organisations were by far the most likely group to have conducted conversion therapy (51%), followed by healthcare professionals (19%)”, then parent, guardian or other family member (16 per cent). The survey showed that “Transgender respondents were more likely to have reported having undergone or been offered conversion therapy (13%) than cisgender respondents (7%).”

This information was reported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to the UN in 2019. This formed submissions from countries all over the world all showing similar results.

One study of 27,000 transgender respondents in the US found of the nearly 80 per cent that had discussed their gender identity with a religious adviser or secular therapist, 20 per cent had been subject to conversion therapies – and these had “shown that gender identity conversion efforts are associated with adverse mental health outcomes, including suicide attempts.” As therapists and religious practitioners are all online nowadays, what happens globally can now come into our front room or bedrooms.

So it’s really not surprising that the Scottish Human Rights Commission issued a statement to the Scottish Parliament in August 2021, based on the UK being a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Ratified by the UK in 1988, it said: “the UN Committee Against Torture has expressed its grave concern in relation to reports about the existence of “conversion therapies.” Based on the obligations set forth in the Convention, the Committee has determined that States are required to:

a. Take the necessary legislative, administrative and other measures to guarantee respect for the autonomy and physical and personal integrity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons and prohibit the practice of so-called “conversion therapy,” and other forced, involuntary or otherwise coercive or abusive treatments against them”

With this evidence and the EHRC being described as the UK’s “National Human Rights Institution, we monitor the UK’s compliance with the seven United Nation’s human rights treaties it has agreed to follow.

It was quite extraordinary to find the EHRC submitting a statement on conversion therapy which said that due to “the lack of evidence about conversion therapy in relation to being transgender and the importance of any ban not preventing appropriate support for individuals with gender dysphoria”, no ban should take place for gender identity at the same time as the ban on conversion therapy for sexual orientation.

What is perverse is that Minister Freer will be steering this legislation through Parliament, and as the consultation document itself makes clear, therapeutic support for people with gender dysphoria will be unaffected and that it is right and proper that exploratory therapies and consultations are required in order to determine if someone is or isn’t gender dysphoric.

What is also very strange is the EHRC ignored the qualitative study commissioned by the Government Equality Office from Coventry University and the Stonewall Gender Identity Conversion Therapy Study of 2020, both of which evidenced conversion therapy harms against transgender people happening in the UK now.

So what’s going on? Frankly, how much evidence of harm do you need? Are we also to ignore our UN treaty obligations? The call for more evidence by the EHRC appears to be just a way of trying to put the gender identity part of the ban into the long grass. For our human rights organisation to do this is shameful.

But the EHRC then gets itself into very dangerous territory. It says: “The Government should make clear that psychological, medical and healthcare staff can continue to provide support to people experiencing gender dysphoria; this should include support to reduce distress and reconcile a person to their biological sex where clinically indicated, including for children and young people aged under 18 if this is in their best interests.”

I’m not sure if the EHRC realises that if a person has been diagnosed as gender dysphoric and you then try to “reduce distress and reconcile a person to their biological sex”, as it suggests, this could be tantamount to trying to cure, suppress or change a person’s gender identity if a pre-determined outcome is set by a clinician to do this – and that is conversion therapy!

I am deeply troubled with the breakdown in trust that has now occurred with large swathes of the LGBT+ community and the EHRC as a result of its statements on conversion therapy and Scottish gender recognition. There have also been significant allegations of bias against transgender people made against the Commissioners in the online magazine Vice, with whistleblower revelations and staff leaving the organisation as a result.

Major LGBT+ charities are now refusing to work further with the EHRC. This is not sustainable especially not with the Government’s “Safe to be Me” conference to be held soon. I too have lost trust and confidence in the leadership of the EHRC to act to properly protect the rights of LGBT+ people.

I retain trust in Lord Herbert, the PM’s LGBT+ Envoy and Minister Freer. I was pleased with his response to everyone’s concerns about the EHRC statement where he posted on twitter:- “Everyone should be free & safe to be themselves. No one should be subjected to conversion practices because of who they are or who they love. Trans people will be protected by the upcoming Bill to ban conversion therapy practices.”

I trust and pray the legislation will reflect this and we will get a comprehensive ban on all types of conversion therapy practices covering both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Living with Covid. What does the future look like for England?

11 Feb

In somewhat surprising news this week, Boris Johnson said he plans to end all Covid restrictions in England by the end of this month.

It means that people who test positive for the virus will no longer be legally required to self-isolate. Instead, the UK will move to a model rather like that applied to flu, where people can determine their own ability to go out. Law will soon be replaced with guidance.

The current restrictions had been due to expire on March 24 and, undoubtedly, unions and Labour frontbenchers would have said that this was too early. So the fact that restrictions have been phased out a month sooner will cause even more outrage. Unions have said Johnson is “going too far, way too soon”.

With all that being said, is the Government right to go ahead? And what kind of future can England look forward to without restrictions? Here are some predictions for the road ahead.

Social behaviour

Although the restrictions will end shortly, there’s little evidence that people’s behaviour will shift markedly – at least, not in the short term. 

A recent YouGov poll of almost 4,500 Britons suggested that three quarters of people believe the legal requirement for self-isolation should stay in place for at least the next few months, with half wanting it to remain forever. So it’s safe to assume that a lot of the population will continue to self-isolate should they test positive for Coronavirus, even without the rule.

Furthermore, given how cautious people have appeared in previous polls, it wouldn’t be a great surprise if a sizeable amount of the public also want to continue with other Covid measures, such as wearing face masks on public transport, over the next year – and particularly when the virus peaks again.

The working world

Public fears about the virus will, in turn, shape the world of work, and whether people want to return to the office.

Currently, tens of thousands have been off work every day, as a result of the restrictions. When the legal requirement for self-isolation goes, workplaces could still struggle to get employees back. That’s because they are protected by law if they feel their workplace presents a serious and imminent danger to them.

Therefore, employers are likely to continue keeping their workplaces as “Covid safe” as possible, by way of distanced desks, masks, sanitisers and other measures. Given that many employees have adapted to working-from-home, and the fact that it can save businesses money on renting offices/ other space, we can expect more of a move to a hybrid model going forward.

As usual, however, one can expect Covid to exacerbate social divisions in the world of work. Businesses and employees in the most precarious industries – such as delivery services – or those on Zero Hour contracts will have less choice about how to stay “safe”, given that they cannot work from home, or don’t have a safety net if they take sick days. Small businesses will find it harder to pay for things that improve Covid safety, such as glass screens between desks.

Noisy opposition for the Government

It’s already clear that the unions and Labour aren’t happy about the Government’s current trajectory, believing that Johnson is taking too many risks in removing the self-isolation requirement. As data on the virus improves, though (which is currently happening), their protests may cause less of a stir, however.

Yet one criticism which will haunt the Government is what it’s doing to protect vulnerable people – particularly the immunocompromised, some of whom do not respond as well to the vaccine. People with Myeloma, for instance, are significantly less likely to have a strong immune response, even after two doses. Ministers intend to set out further information for vulnerable groups, but they also need to provide better funding packages for self-isolation and other means of support.

Better treatments

One thing that will almost certainly improve is treatments for the virus, which make it easier for those for whom the vaccine did not work as effectively to stay safe. A number of future medical treatments are being made, such as nasal sprays, vaccines that can be delivered in alternative ways; and a whole range of products that will make “living with the virus” much easier.

A more fractured UK?

We have seen over the course of the pandemic that leaders of the devolved nations have very different views on how to manage the virus. Scotland’s Covid powers, for instance, are set to be extended until September 24. Fractures between administrations, around their separate approaches, are likely to continue, but it’s not clear who they will reflect worst on. Nicola Sturgeon may find that her cautious approach begins to backfire should it cause unnecessary economic damage.

A new legacy for England – and Johnson?

In general, the Government’s approach may convince people that England is more aligned with “Sweden” than any other country in the Covid wars.

At the outset of the crisis, Johnson was one of the most reluctant leaders in Europe to lockdown, seemingly because of his libertarian views, and he is now gaining a similar reputation because he has relaxed measures quickly. 

Some of this may simply be because he is concerned about the next move of Conservative lockdown sceptics (having faced his biggest rebellion months ago). Others will say he is trying to distract from the ongoing partygate saga. Either way, it helps him try to create a new legacy. He will be hoping, at the very least, that an economic advantage from reopening quicker will give his brand a boost.

David Willets: Johnson’s reorganisation of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office hints at bigger problems than partygate

11 Feb

Lord Willetts is President of the Advisory Council and Intergenerational Centre of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.

Boris Johnson’s proposed reorganisation of 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office is being seen entirely through the prism of partygate. But there is more to it than that.

These two institutions at the very centre of government do not appear to be operating the way they should. This is not simply a matter of the PM’s personal style – the structures should be sufficiently flexible to adjust to the distinctive ways of working of different leaders. The problem is deeper than that.

First, a bit of constitutional doctrine. There is a locked door – and now its modern equivalent – between No 10 and the Cabinet Office. This is not just for security. It also signifies the difference between the office of the Prime Minister and the office serving the Cabinet as a whole. Blurring this distinction as if it is all a single entity weakens government it does not strengthen it.

On one side are the PM’s own staff. When I worked in Margaret Thatcher’s No 10 Policy Unit we were very aware of this responsibility. We might give her our personal advice but once we were dealing with anyone else we should be setting out her views – and if she had not yet reached a view on a particular policy option we should make this clear.

The cardinal sin was to present our personal views as the PM’s if they were not. There are now many more people in No 10. And it is no longer always clear if they really are transmitting the PM’s own views or not.

On the other side of the door is the Cabinet Office which serves Cabinet and all its committees. Some key committees will be chaired by the PM but many will not. The Cabinet Office’s job is to identify all the different departmental angles on an issue and ensure they are all heard before a decision is taken.

This may sound bureaucratic and slow – sometimes it is. But it is also key to good government. The media narrative all too often presents every decision as if it is right v wrong. If only! Most decisions get to high level cabinet committees because they are difficult trade-offs between good things which are all government objectives.

It is important to bring out what these trade-offs are. That involves government departmental ministers playing the roles allotted to them. I learned this lesson very early on when I was a Treasury official working on the Thatcher government’s first public spending round. Keith Joseph was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and so committed to Thatcherism that he agreed to all the cuts we were asking for with no argument. At last we thought we had a proper departmental minister who was on our side.

But within a year the Government was in an unexpected political crisis as every steel plant in Britain was due to close as all funding for British Steel was stopping. Ministers were taken by surprise and an expensive ad hoc rescue package was cobbled together to slow the rate of closure and keep one or two open. The original decision had been taken without enough proper assessment of the implications because nobody in the room was willing to warn of them.

The Cabinet Office exists to ensure that trade-offs are properly analysed– even if the PM may think he or she already knows what they want. There is often a key trusted figure – Willie Whitelaw for Thatcher or Damian Green and then David Lidington for Theresa May – to chair these discussions.

That role in turn depends on the Cabinet Office being trusted by all the players. But if the Cabinet Office itself becomes a player it loses that role. And now it is accruing so many different special units and operational responsibilities it becomes the shaper of policy. Some of these Cabinet Office responsibilities can themselves become drivers of bureaucracy – Whitehall departments end up spending a lot of time dealing with reviews and information requests initiated by the Cabinet Office.

Johnson’s own style of government needs a strong effective Cabinet Office with clear but limited role and commanding the trust of respected departmental ministers. And to move from constitutional doctrine to practical politics; Prime Ministers fall when they lose the confidence of their Cabinet colleagues.

So instead of bringing together No 10 and Cabinet Office in a single department, it might be better to do the opposite. Carve out a distinctive small No 10 operation which has Johnson’s voice and his personal priorities. Then keep the Cabinet Office separate serving all of Cabinet. It should build and respect strong departmental ministers.

They should then give a sense of momentum to the Government as a whole as they get on with things. And they should be delivering big thoughtful speeches explaining what they are trying to achieve instead of being bogged down in negotiating slots in the No 10 grid which can get in the way of proper planning of such interventions.

Its preoccupation with the theme of the week and specific narrowly policy statements can be an obstacle to ever getting these big arguments across. Then the stature of Cabinet ministers would rise and the PM would find he had what any PM needs in difficult times – a strong Cabinet supporting him.

Mark Brolin: Ignore Johnson’s moralistic detractors. Many voters may end up thinking that we’re lucky to have him.

9 Feb

Mark Brolin is a political analyst, economist and author. His most recent book is titled Healing Broken Democracies.

The anti-Boris Johnson forces, both inside and outside his own party, have trumpeted the “clown-and-a-liar” message ever since the day he entered politics.

Yet he won both Brexit and the 2019 general election – to no small degree because numerous voters know that Johnson is no more evasive than most other politicians, just more attacked when it happens.

In fact, part of his voter appeal is that he sometimes calls a spade a spade. Such as over the EU. And wokery. Unless brought down during the following weeks, Johnson is likely to emerge from partygate as underestimated as almost always.

Most Labour commentators are totally relaxed about Keir Starmer having a beer with his colleagues while up in arms about the Prime Minister having the same thing. Still, an opposition expressing tribal outrage surprises no one. Partygate developed into a major drama only after two aggrieved Conservative subtribes, Remainers and Covid libertarians, decided to exact revenge by siding with Labour’s Johnson bashers.

A key message highlighted by all Johnson’s detractors, such as Covid libertarian Fraser Nelson, is that the Prime Minister is irreparably damaged. This is a classic tactic when trying to topple a leader. Simply because the prophecy turns self-fulfilling if it influences key backers to redraw support. Yet, for three reasons, the damage to Johnson is arguably far from irreversible.

First, he is strong where it counts. In fact, he is one of remarkably few key politicians in sync with the voter majority over both Brexit and lockdown. Conservatives not in sync with Johnson over these issues remain vocal but still represent minority opinion only. It speaks volumes that the Prime Minister’s enemies have had to dig out their inner Cromwell (puritan) to find common ground surrounding an obvious Johnson weak spot.

Following all personal scandals throughout Johnson’s career, it is hard to believe anyone voting for him in 2019 is too surprised about some garden beer or birthday cake rule stretching. Meaning that, despite today’s proactively inflamed moralism, many will eventually write off partygate as “Boris being Boris”.

Not a chance, you say? Well, remember when most commentators lined up to claim “Boris the lying clown” would never pull off Brexit. Yet he did. Why? Partly because voters could tell that singling out Johnson and then going on and on about his missteps, as if he is the only one in Westminster bending the truth when cornered, reeks not only from double standards, but from an anti-coalition ganging up to cut down a feared political rival through bullying.

When the dust has settled many voters are likely to deduce, regardless of current opinion polls, that the UK has in many ways been lucky to have been led by outside-the-box Johnson during the outside-the-box Brexit and Coronavirus years. Since hard to see how a “system clone” Prime Minister would have done a better job. Would, for example, anyone more strongly steeped in the establishment ways have allowed Kate Bingham to run her highly successful task force largely outside the Whitehall structure?

Second, the flipside of moralistic battles is that these easily transgress into silliness. Take Daniel Finkelstein, normally one of the most thoughtful Remainers. He now argues that no heed should be paid to the proportionality argument. Downing Street rule breaking has, as he sees it, severely violated the bond of trust between politicians and voters. If Johnson stays, he continues, it weakens the integrity of nothing less than democracy itself.

Yet it is hard to square Finkelstein’s outrage and sudden championing of the voter bond with his always relaxed attitude towards the massive EU democratic deficit, the EU consistent rule-stretching and the lack of voter insight in Brussels. Also, UK democracy never has been at risk due to Johnson’s Downing Street birthday cake or thank-you-drinks, despite the exceptional circumstances and legal grey area involved.

Democracy is only at risk if a) voters are not allowed to know about doubtful activities and b) voters are not themselves offered an opportunity to pass judgement. Nobody can claim voters have not been made aware of partygate. In fact, Putin is probably still laughing about how a few beers and an HR-investigation has brought the UK government to its knees.

Third, Johnson’s outsider credentials have been boosted by all the PM-bashing. Eton you say? Yes, obviously. But he is still an outsider in a much more politically important sense. Since not thinking and acting in the way of Westminster officialdom. Incidentally this is why he irritates, to bits, so many Westminster insiders. Does anyone really think that Starmer would have faced a similarly moralistic onslaught had he had a beer or a slice of cake in Downing Street during a lockdown? Precisely.

Tribal groupthink is again in play when Johnson is slapped and slapped in the face until he is forced to promise a Downing Street shake up. Unsurprisingly, many staffers immediately start looking elsewhere for opportunities. Whereupon the anti-Johnson forces are publicly gloating: “See, what did we tell you, everyone is leaving”.

Johnson-bashers do not seem to get that many voters can sense such partisan scheming from a mile away. Also undecided voters might very well deduce that if the establishment wants Johnson gone so badly he must be doing something right. This is incidentally one of the best points rarely made in the emotional debate surrounding his future. Since the prime reason democracy must always be upheld is that only the people can be relied upon to offer push back against the paternalist tendencies often developing within an administration class.

Among Johnson’s rivals for the top job, is anyone really better suited, currently, to offer such pushback? The administration class does not seem to think so. It does however seem to love to hate the Downing Street “drinking culture”. Perhaps while seemingly so swimmingly verifying an always much favoured self-image among paternalists: “refined philosopher Kings” versus “vulgar people’s tribunes”.

Nonetheless, even though premature to talk about Johnson as a necessarily spent force, the key reason not to oust him over partygate is much bigger than both Johnson and the Conservative Party. Just think about the precedent it would set if the wording of an unelected civil servant, Sue Gray, is allowed to play a key role in deciding the political fate of a British Prime Minister – following an attempt by that Prime Minister to relax for a few minutes after a number of frantic months.

Political robots will then turn into a permanent feature at Downing Street. Why? Since every Prime Minister will be terrified to put a foot wrong. Well aware that any day the leading civil service “HR-inquisitor” might be tasked to scrutinise, given only yet another bandwagon witch-hunt, if Downing Street has fully followed a “protocol” largely determined by the inquisitors themselves. “What did you see? Alcohol! So you feel it was a ‘party’ rather than a ‘work meet’? Tell me and you might save your own skin.”

Given how moralism as a political weapon has crept back into society – and through mission creep transformed HR-departments from non-entities into rightfully feared internal affairs units – it was probably always only a question of time until this weapon was to be used against one of the last influential anti-moralists still standing. Johnson.

Nonetheless, whatever we personally think of him and partygate, democracy weakens big time if HR-inquisitors can be used to deny voters the chance to pass balanced judgement on the pros and cons of an elected Prime Minister.

Duffield and Labour’s internal tensions over trans rights. Will Starmer intervene?

7 Feb

Over the last week, readers of ConservativeHome may have noticed that an internal dispute within the Labour Party has reached a critical point. Tensions have been brewing between members of the party and Rosie Duffield, the MP for Canterbury, over the abuse she has received for making comments on transgender issues, and the party’s apparent reluctance to defend her.

Duffield, who was elected in 2017 and Labour’s only such representative in Kent, has been one of the most active MPs in voicing concern around the protection of women’s spaces. She believes, in short, that anyone born male should not be allowed into domestic violence refuges and prisons allocated for women, and is against people being able to self-identify as trans to use those spaces. Her view is characterised as “gender critical”.

For expressing this position, as well as liking a tweet saying that women were people with cervixes, Duffield has attracted both fans and opponents, but the latter are causing her considerable alarm. Last year she did not attend the Labour Party Conference, due to concerns about safety after finding herself the subject of intense criticism.

Duffield has since said that she will be considering her future in the party – blaming “obsessive harassment”. She believes she is being targeted in multiple ways for her views; for instance, a blog recently accused her of living in Wrexham (aka not her own constituency) with her partner, in what she called “personal, libellous, nasty and fictional crap”.

Tweeting about the ongoing dispute, Duffield said that “Neither the Labour party or either the former or current Leader or the Whips’ Office have done anything at all to stop it, to offer me any support, help or legal assistance. I am financially unable to pursue a libel action”. She has subsequently been in talks with senior officials about her position, and last week, there was even speculation over whether she will defect.

What is one to make of this debacle? Keir Starmer, and senior officials, have repeatedly been accused of failing to protect Duffield. Will this change any time soon?

One imagines not, for a number of reasons. First is that Labour doesn’t seem to have a clear position on this subject. That much was obvious at the party’s conference last year, where Starmer seemed completely taken offguard when Andrew Marr grilled him on whether only women have a cervix. Questions around the cervix became a common theme at the conference, exposing that the party has huge internal disagreements over the matter.

When Starmer did work out his reply to Marr, he chose to side with activists than Duffield, saying that it was “not right” to say that only women have a cervix. Whether this makes him popular with most members of the public, one isn’t so sure. In the past, he has backed what looks fashionable, according to social media activists, only for voters to tell him otherwise (see: the second referendum).

Perhaps, however, Starmer has simply concluded that with the Tory Party in such disarray, he can continue with constructive ambiguity on women’s spaces. After all, why put out a clear statement, either way, on whether Duffield is right or wrong, when voters are more interested in Boris Johnson’s party antics. Duffield’s misfortune here is timing, given the other distractions going on. But as soon as Conservatives get their act together, Starmer will be under pressure here, and may yet again find himself on a losing path.

Howard Flight: Here’s what we can expect for 2022. For one, there’s nothing Johnson can do to restore his reputation or popularity.

7 Feb

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The UK economy has performed well in recovering the lost growth from the period of the Covid pandemic; but there are changes and developments which are likely to be with us for the longer term.

This starts with Covid itself, which I expect to see settle into a regular pattern of short-term illness on a similar basis to flu.

While I expect the overwhelming majority of the workforce to return to operating from “a place of work”, I expect executive and professional employees to continue to work partly from home e.g. two or three days per week.

Amongst other factors this helps address the expensive task of hiring help for the raising of children, where one or other of the parents are at home – e.g. for 50 per cent of the child raising term. I expect it to become a normal pattern of Western economies for some 50 per cent of output to be from a home base.

At the time of writing, it is not clear how Russian aggression towards the Ukraine will develop. To march over 100,000 troops up to the border and then to retreat is hardly Russia’s style, where it looks as if Putin may have cast the Ukraine talks with the West to fail deliberately.

Putin’s home popularity ratings have slumped with falling living standards. The West, led by the USA, has organised some powerful counter measures to Putin’s initiatives which are relatively well placed to have serious impact.

Currently consumer prices are up seven per cent in the US and 5.4 per cent in the UK – driven largely by oil and gas price increases. Total increases in NI tax per household will be £600pa.

This is more than the rise in fuel costs from £2,000 to £1,277 per household. Total increase in tax and fuel are likely to be £877 pa. One in four will suffer where at least 10 per cent of family income is spent on fuel. There are also eight million elderly worried about their costs of heating. A short term solution could be to end VAT on fuel bills.

What is permitting and financing the pickup in inflation is the increase in the money supply, caused by Government and Central Bank policies. This is likely to prevail for some time in order to negate the huge increase in money supply during the Covid crisis. I expect “The West” to have to learn to live with higher inflation for the next few years until the increase in the money supply has been contained. This may prove to be the bigger non “back to normal” factor.

It looks as if Boris Johnson may “hang in there” for a while longer, although his days are surely numbered. He has lost the support of the coalition of parties which elected him. The longer he limps on the more damage he does to the Conservatives.

A replacement Prime Minister will also need adequate time to settle into the job ahead of a General Election. Johnson will get some credit for his vaccination success, although this is already history. I do not see there being anything he can do to restore his reputation and popularity. It is also clear that Rishi Sunak is positioning himself to be able to take over as PM.

At the time of writing, Sue Gray’s Report of “No10 parties” has not yet arrived. I do not see it as being capable of “whitewashing Civil Servants” or specifically Johnson’s behaviour.

Whoever ends up as Prime Minister will need to give priority to keeping up economic growth rates. It looks as if the period we have moved into will have some ongoing comparison with the 1970s.

A generous idea of the British nation is needed in order to keep the UK together

5 Feb

The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland – Realities and Challenges edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith

The other evening I was having dinner in London with three liberals and when the subject of Northern Ireland happened to come up, all of them said that of course within the near future, Irish unification would take place.

I said this was not my opinion, which surprised them. They wondered how I could be so oblivious to the way the world is going; so at odds with the progressive consensus.

And I was unable to think, on the spur of the moment, of any arguments for the continued Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which might have the slightest impact on my companions.

In his introduction to this collection of essays, John Wilson Foster laments that my inarticulacy is widely shared:

“What swells unionist alarm is the absence of influential support for the pro-Union cause from anywhere outside the Northern Irish pro-Union political parties. Irish republicanism (by which I mean nationalism that actively seeks a united separate Ireland) suffers no such political privation; it enjoys assent and promotion around the world even from those who know nothing about Ireland north or south…

“Reviewing a Sean O’Casey autobiography in 1945, George Orwell asked: ‘Why is it that the worst extremes of jingoism and racialism have to be tolerated when they come from an Irishman?’ His answer was ‘England’s bad conscience… It is difficult to object to Irish nationalism without seeming to condone centuries of English tyranny and exploitation.’ Northern Irish unionism has unjustifiably inherited this dilemma.”

Hence the production of this admirable collection of essays. Its 21 authors throw much light on various aspects of the problem, but less on how to solve it.

Indeed, an earlier version of the collection was published in 1995, without, so far as I know, doing more than to make existing supporters of the Union better informed.

As Foster remarks, within Northern Ireland itself, landowners, and senior figures in business and the professions, who used to make the case for the Union, have generally fallen silent:

“For some decades, public defence of the Union has cascaded down the social scale. It has now fallen through classless academia and come to rest mainly with loyalists (i.e. working-class unionists), whose reflex is to assert rather than articulate the Union. And they are targets for those who wish to denigrate the Union and dismiss the culture of unionism as all bonfires and marching bands.”

The London media generally feels “no warmth or enthusiasm” for the Union. The cultural riches of Ireland, wonderful poets from Yeats to Heaney, add lustre to Irish nationalism, whatever reservations those writers may actually have expressed.

The cultural riches of the British isles don’t count in the same way, are indeed discounted. Some Remainers wanted quite consciously to reject Britishness and to declare their European identity, and felt bereaved when they were told they could not remain in the European Union.

In vain Boris Johnson pointed out to them that it was still feasible for them to learn French and German if they wish – two languages of which the teaching had actually declined in our schools while we were in the EU.

Nationalism of every kind includes a strange process by which the bogus comes to be seen as genuine. The House of Windsor has been brilliant at doing this. We observe with pride an immaculate ceremonial which satisfies our craving for ancient splendour, much of which was invented between 1901 and 1910 under the joint patronage of Edward VII and the Daily Mail, founded in 1896 and eager for royal pageantry with which to fill its pages and sell newspapers.

Arthur Aughey remarks in his essay, The Idea of the Union, first printed in the 1995 version of this book, that it was at about the same time that the Union commanded close attention:

“The question of the Union was one which for two decades either side of the turn of the century concentrated the mind of the entire British Establishment and encapsulated the preoccupations of an empire. It brought forth a vast literature on the value of the Union as a political idea. Like conservatives in 1789, unionists in both Great Britain and Ireland had been ‘alarmed into reflection’. They were forced to make intelligible that which hitherto had been instinctive and natural.”

When the convulsions of that time were over, the Ulster Unionists found they had both won and lost:

“They had been able to prevent their absorption into a narrow and authoritarian Catholic, nationalist state. What they had not been able to assert convincingly, and what they had been unable to make the British Government in London fully acknowledge, was their full and unequivocal membership of the United Kingdom. After 1920 Unionists were cast back upon their own resources. They depended on their capacities and strength of will alone to ensure that Northern Ireland remained a part of the Union. What ensued was a dialectic of stubborn self-righteousness within Northern Ireland between Unionist and Nationalist.”

He wants to get beyond this self-righteous Unionism to one which is founded on equal citizenship:

“The idea of the Union is the willing community of citizens united not by creed, colour or ethnicity but by a recognition of the authority of the Union. Its relevant concept is citizenship and not nation.”

Aughey asserts at one point that there is “no such thing as the British nation”, and there are “only British citizens who happen to be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and some who would be none of these”.

This seems to me to be plain wrong. There is a British nation, comprising not only the four home nations, but people from all over the world who have chosen to live here, and to become British citizens.

As Henry Hill remarks in his contribution to this book, entitled The Re-emergence of Devosceptic Unionism,

“an underlying sense of nationhood is the essential cement of any long-term political union – especially if it cannot avail itself of near-universal elite buy-in as the EU can.”

Hill challenges, as ConHome readers will know, the fatuous assumption that the only way to deal with any failure of devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is to devolve yet more powers.

Brexit is the beginning not the end of making the positive case for the British nation. I have sometimes done this in conversation about the Union with Scotland, contending that if it were to end, both England and Scotland would be diminished, becoming narrower and less generous places.

In Northern Ireland, as various contributors to this volume remark, there are almost certainly many people who are content to remain part of the United Kingdom, but have no words in which to express that preference.

A generous Unionism, of a kind which can be commended at dinner even to London liberals, requires a generous understanding of Britishness, and that in turn cannot be the creation of politicians alone, but must depend, as any nation does, on poets, novelists, historians and essayists.