Ben Roback: Biden’s response to Russia shows a president desperate to repair his reputation at home and abroad

26 Jan

Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.

If a week is a long time in politics, then eight years is an even longer time in President Putin’s pursuit of “Novorossiya”. As the Prime Minister reminded the House yesterday, Russia’s incursion into the Donbas region led to the illegal annexation of 10,000 square miles of Ukrainian territory. Ukraine has lived in fear and without peace ever since.

The White House entered the New Year with an alarmingly long list of domestic priorities. Putin’s latest flirtation with international lawbreaking has upended that list and put international relations at the top of the political agenda. Over 100,000 Russian military personnel and assets have been deployed in Crimea and in the Voronezh, Kursk and Bryansk regions of Western Russia. Russian naval assets from the Baltic and Northern fleets have also been reported heading south.

Russia, of course, denies it has any plans to invade. Putin is seeking guarantees that Ukraine will not be admitted as a Member State.

The five statements posted on the White House Briefing Room website since the turn of the year have grown gradually more severe in language and tone.

On January 2, President Biden and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine “expressed support for diplomatic efforts, starting next week with the bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue”. On January 19, the President and Senators, who had recently returned from a Congressional delegation to Ukraine, “exchanged views on the best ways the United States can continue to work closely with our allies and partners in support of Ukraine, including both ongoing diplomacy to try to resolve the current crisis and deterrence measures.”

Later that day, the President warned that any Russian forces moved across the Ukrainian border “will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies”. Yesterday’s call with allied leaders across Europe warned of “reparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia for such actions as well as to reinforce security on NATO’s eastern flank.”

So, what next?

The President is scarred by his disastrous mishandling of the Taliban’s summer takeover of Afghanistan. “Biden warns Russia that if they invade Ukraine, America will evacuate and leave $86bn in weapons behind”, joked one parody Twitter account. The administration cannot afford to make such vast mishaps again.

The Biden administration, desperate to repair its reputation at home and abroad, held two classified briefings yesterday for congressional leadership aides and committee staff on the deteriorating situation in Ukraine. The remaining Members of the House and Senate will have to wait until Congress returns from recess next week. There have reportedly been nine inter-agency briefings for the national security committees and eight briefings for leadership, committee and personal office staff.

Washington is spearheading a pro-Ukraine defence alongside its NATO allies in the face of Putin’s parading. The Pentagon has put 8,500 troops on standby for possible deployment to Eastern European allies and Baltic nations. Denmark is sending a frigate and deploying F-16s to the region. France has expressed readiness to send troops to Romania under NATO command. If Russia invades Ukraine, Boris Johnson warned the UK “would look to contribute to any new NATO deployments to protect our allies in Europe”.

The diplomatic toolkit has not yet been fully deployed. Calls to eject Russia from the SWIFT global banking system are growing louder, whilst MPs on both sides of the House of Commons urged the Government to do more to limit the flow of Russian money in the City of London in a Ministerial statement yesterday.

Global Britain at work

This column is hardly the place to determine whether the bubbling crisis in Ukraine is a welcome or irrelevant distraction from the Prime Minister’s travails spearheaded by the Metropolitan Police and Sue Gray. But what is undoubtedly clear is that a muscular UK presence so far in efforts to deter Putin alongside our closest allies is a visible display of what “Global Britain” at its best could be capable of.

Indeed, the seriousness of the situation in Ukraine is such that there has been no room for domestic political point-scoring so far. But it must be recognised that the UK’s freedom from the shackles of the European Union means that it is free to tie itself as close to the United States’ position as possible. EU Member States, meanwhile, must balance their position delicately given Germany’s refusal to upset its main domestic gas supplier – Russia.

White House and NATO allies are not wasting time in preparing to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, initially via diplomatic routes (including sanctions) and then providing defensive weapons systems and readying troops. President Biden might have misspoken earlier this week when he said the expected the Russians would “move in” given White House spokespeople has spoken carefully to try and clarify those remarks.

Inflation is already causing policymakers headaches in the United States and the United Kingdom. Any ground conflict in Ukraine will only add to those pressures given the inevitable rise in gas prices or reduction is Russian-sourced supply. Democratic leaders must decide if that is a price they are willing to pay.

This isn’t the first time in recent years that the police have probed Downing Street

25 Jan

In another dramatic day for the Government, the Metropolitan police has said it will be investigating the allegations around Downing Street and Whitehall parties. Cressida Dick explained that the force had launched a criminal investigation, following information coming in from the Cabinet Office.

Clearly this is an extraordinary event, as evidenced by the media, many of whom point out how “damaging” and “extraordinary” this is for the Prime Minister, already under huge pressure as a result of the rest of “partygate”. Speaking of the update, Angela Rayner, Deputy Labour Leader, said: “With Boris Johnson’s Downing Street now under police investigation, how on earth can he think he can stay on as prime minister?”

Even for something so drastic, it is interesting to note that this is not the first time the police have investigated Downing Street, having previously looked into the-cash-for-honours scandal under the last Labour Government. To give a brief summary of events: this debacle began in 2006 when Angus MacNeil, of the SNP, complained that four wealthy businessmen had been nominated for peerages by Tony Blair, after they had lent the Labour Party £5 million.

Although the peerages were blocked by the House of Lords appointments commission, it wasn’t long before the police launched an investigation into whether laws banning the sale of honours had been broken. A total of 136 people were interviewed. Blair himself was questioned by the police, albeit not under caution (for which he would have probably had to resign) and instead as a “witness”. Labour’s chief fundraiser was arrested twice on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. More on the timeline of events here.

Eventually the police, which compiled a 216-page report on the cash-for-honours scandal for the Crown Prosecution Service, said it had insufficient evidence to bring charges against anyone. But people have pointed out just how destabilising it was for Blair’s government. Perhaps Iain Dale put it best today, when he tweeted: “When it happened to Blair, his government was thrown off course by it. It’s a terrible indictment of the whole No 10 operation.”

Blair, of course, stepped down the following year. Who knows what Johnson’s fate will be through the next few weeks, but it looks like deja vu in one sense.

John Redwood: What the Prime Minister can learn from Thatcher about running a successful Policy Unit

24 Jan

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

In the early days of this government, I was asked by the Prime Minister how I ran the Policy Unit for Margaret Thatcher. I sent him a presentation on options for establishing a strategic policy vision and direction, and briefly described the way Number 10 worked when I was a young senior adviser there.

I urged him to keep the crucial manifesto headline promises of levelling up, getting Brexit done and not raising the main taxes as central drivers of policy. The overall aim must be the greater prosperity of the many by expanding the economy, making and growing more things at home and showing how Brexit freedoms could lead to more and better paid jobs and more businesses.

These aims could then fuel matters for Prime Ministerial leadership and decision, and delegated matters for the different departments of state. Each Cabinet Minister should be told what is expected of them and how their department fits in with the general strategy. That needs to be agreed on appointment.

Thatcher had a much smaller staff at Downing Street than more recent Prime Ministers. There were three of us, senior civil servants, who talked to her a lot, knew her mind and helped her fashion government speeches, decisions and interventions and chair committees to resolve disagreements. The Principal Private Secretary ran her diary, ensured two way communication with all government departments and Ministers, organised meetings, sent out letters of confirmation and instruction following individual or collective decision and filled her daily boxes with work.

As Head of the Policy Unit, I provided briefs on all the main meetings she attended or initiated, ensuring her views and the strategic vision of priorities and aims could be reflected in what she and the government did. I sent her proposals to start work streams in government to fulfil manifesto and other promises, and to remove or amend departmental proposals that did not fit with the strategy.

I ensured she had bilaterals with leading Cabinet members to avoid misunderstandings and to enable them to voice their worries or request more support when carrying through agreed major policies. The Head of the Press and media department was her voice to the third estate, reflecting her views and answering criticisms as need arose. She had a Political Secretary for Conservative events and party correspondence.

She was pleased with the results of this structure and said she thought it helped her achieve more. For example we helped her drive through the whole wider ownership policy of everyone an owner. The work embraced home purchase, more self employment, personal pension savings, employee share schemes and the privatisation programme.

The Social Security Secretary led a wide welfare review with emphasis on personal pensions and other savings, the Treasury led the share ownership and privatisation policy , the Employment Department worked on qualifications, training and simplifying self employment, and the local government and Environment department pursued the housing initiatives led by Right to buy.

The system worked for a variety of reasons. The most important was we three knew her mind or made sure we found out her view on a topic before telling the rest of Whitehall or the press. They knew when we spoke we spoke for the PM. It was relatively easy for other departments to work out the view in many cases, as there were some clear precepts and priorities that would always influence decisions.

The occasional much-debated big speech charted the future in important areas and led to work across relevant departments to see it through to implementation. The speech was always thoroughly prepared and shared in draft with those Ministers likely to be affected. We tried to ensure there was always consistency, clear direction and language that made it relevant to people’s lives. I tried to keep our work strategic, as the PM should not try to do the jobs of Whitehall departments for them. Number 10 is a leader and change maker, not a means of implementing policy.

The work of the PM and Ministers was not done once the policy was announced. Indeed that to me was the formal commencement of the actions, not the end result after a sometimes long and argumentative process to arrive at an answer.

It was important to supervise implementation and check that all was working as intended. It would be no good for the PM to set out what she wanted, for there to be no follow up work to make sure it happened. This might well be the job of named Ministers, but for the big items there also needed to be reports back to the centre. The twice weekly briefing sessions for PM Questions ensured departments had to keep the PM up to date with topical or fast changing items.

The task of writing the big speeches gave me plenty of time with the PM on a regular basis for what was in effect a series of long seminars and reviews of government policy and actions. We checked the speech drafts for accuracy and for relevance to the state of play the government needed to manage or alter.

Policy Unit members had access to the PM on their specialist topics as well as through me. They did not have any licence to instruct Ministers elsewhere in government, and were urged to be careful if Ministers asked for a steer. There was no Policy Unit view for outside consumption, only the Prime Minister’s view. The Policy Unit view was worked through and argued out in private and put to the PM who could run with it if she wished.

We adjusted the view in the light of her responses. I met the Special Advisers in other departments from time to time but did not regard it as any part of my job to guide or employ them. Our relations with Whitehall usually took place via a formal Private Secretary letter from Downing Street reflecting the PM’s view or informal guidance and arguments in official meetings preparatory to briefing Ministers or in our case the PM. I ensured the Policy Unit was at all times a working part of the civil service with career civil servants as well as directly recruited experts.

There is a modern relevance to all this. A Prime Minister needs a few advisers that he trusts who have sufficient delegated authority to get things done across Whitehall. It needs to be done in a constitutional way, respecting the fact that Cabinet members should be the main source of advice and information on their remits.

Where a senior adviser thinks a department and its Cabinet member are taking a wrong direction which can damage the overall government strategy and outturn that has to put privately to the PM and the two of them have then to agree how change will be achieved with minimum damage and preferably with no press knowledge. There can only be one government policy at any time, so where there is disagreement advisers need to help the senior politicians arrive at a suitable collective decision.

This should not always be a compromise as sometimes one course is right and the other full of danger, so a clear choice needs to be made. Any good Cabinet Committee required careful preparation to ensure Cabinet members could freely express reservations amid criticisms whilst keeping the integrity and coherence of the overall aims and vision. Where the dispute was the usual Treasury versus spending department one the PM was usually the decisive voice. Number 10 needed a strong negative capability to stop needless change or complexity, as well as a strong positive view of what government could and should do to improve the lives of the nation.

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.