Henry Hill: Lewis to fly the Union Flag from Stormont House all year round

22 Apr

When the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport issued an edict last month that the Union Flag should henceforth fly from Government buildings all year round – as opposed to roughly a score of ‘designated days’ – there was a problem: the move apparently excluded Northern Ireland.

The official release included a note to editors, picked up by the press, to the effect that “there is specific legislation setting out the arrangements for the flying of flags from government buildings” in the Province. This was taken by some papers, such as the Guardian, to mean that “the new regulations will not apply to Northern Ireland”.

Critics were swift to point out that once again, the Prime Minister’s efforts seemed only to have confirmed Ulster’s semi-detached status.

This obviously wasn’t good enough. As I noted in this column a couple of weeks ago, and for the Belfast News Letter, such policies would only help to undermine unionist and loyalist support for the Belfast Agreement, especially when delivered on top of the ongoing problems caused by the Protocol. As I put it for the paper:

“Coming hot on the heels of the collapse of the Downing Street ‘Union Unit’, it highlights how difficult it will be to drive forward a strongly pro-Union policy agenda against the entrenched attitudes of Whitehall mandarins. Excluding Ulster once again from a visible expression of its British status smacks strongly of the Northern Irish Office and its institutional culture of exaggerated neutrality.”

Fortunately, for once it seems my pessimism was misplaced. Sources in the Northern Ireland Office report that, having reviewed the legalities, Brandon Lewis has ordered that Stormont House, the Department’s headquarters in the Province, will fly the national flag all year round, bringing it into line with the DCMS guidance. The Secretary of State apparently takes the view that, as a UK-wide institution, UK Government buildings in Ulster should not be treated differently to those in other parts of the country.

This will doubtless set spluttering those commentators who view anything that irritates nationalists as a violation of the ‘spirit’ of the Belfast Agreement. But it is an important, if small, step towards demonstrating that the Government is taking its commitment to Northern Ireland, and its place in the United Kingdom, seriously. Lewis should follow it up by teaming up with the law officers to develop a long-overdue understanding of what the UK’s obligations under the Agreement actually are – rather than getting sold on fictitious obligations by Dublin, as Theresa May was.

Scottish Tories double down on SNP rhetoric… as Nationalists back off referendum

Last week, I wrote about how the Scottish Conservatives have angered their Westminster colleagues by putting the Nationalists’ central election message – that an SNP majority means another independence referendum – at the heart of their own campaign.

Perhaps that’s one reason why Douglas Ross confirmed this week that the Prime Minister will not be heading north of the border to campaign before election day.

But the dissent is not confined to London. Over the past week Scottish figures have also got in touch to vent their frustration at a strategy seen as putting the scramble for second place ahead of the best interests of the country. Worse, if you genuinely believe that Boris Johnson can and will refuse a referendum – and you should – then its actually misleading the electorate.

And it continues to undermine efforts to scrutinise the SNP’s woeful record in government, with the Daily Record pointing out that the Tories’ own manifesto mentions independence more times than the NHS.

Most bizarrely of all, they are persisting with this even whilst the Nationalists themselves start backing away from a referendum. They have opted not to refer to it on their ballot paper description, and Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that the pandemic might need to push any poll back to 2024 – a move which leaves her vulnerable to Alex Salmond and his Alba Party, who have been quick to seize the opportunity.

(This might have something to do with the fact that it turns out that several major polls for the Scotsman newspaper failed to properly weight for likelihood to vote and thus overstated support for both the SNP and independence, as the Spectator’s Mr Steerpike sets reveals.)

The oddest part is that wouldn’t even be difficult to fix the messaging. Just replace ‘only’ with ‘best’ in the tweet below and it not only retains its crystal clarity, but it becomes true, allowing the Scottish Conservatives to mobilise their voters without undermining the Prime Minister’s prerogative to maintain the UK.

One, two, three – and now Truss tops our Cabinet League Table for the fourth time

4 Apr

The table now seems to be in set pattern established soon after Britian’s vaccination success became apparent.

The same Ministers remain at its top and the same too at its bottom.  Consider the case of Kwasi Kwarteng, up a place this month at fourth: his score, 64.7, is exactly the same as it was then.

There are a mix of small score and table movements up and down, but none of them worth expending many words about – though we pause for the Ministers at the very top and bottom of the table.

At the top, there is Liz Truss, on her fourth table-topping month – and a record high of 89 per cent.

That’s a reflection, in a minor key, of her decisive handling of the Equalities brief and, in a major one, of the rapid succession of trade deals: most of them rollovers, true – but accomplished more speedily than some anticipated.

At the bottom, there is Gavin Williamson – on minus 27 per cent.

That’s a dreadful rating, but less so than the -43 per cent he scored last month, or this – 36 per cent and -48 per cent during the previous ones.

Our reading is that his early and emphatic support for free speech during the Batley Mohammed cartoons row, which we haven’t heard the last of, accounts for his improvement.

Steve Baker and Dominic Grieve: Saturday’s vigil, its mishandling – and why we should be wary of this plan for more police powers

16 Mar

Steve Baker was a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Wycombe.  Dominic Grieve is a former Attorney General and MP for Beaconsfield.

Sarah Everard’s killing and the subsequent charging of a police officer with her murder are horrors which will have struck us all. Men need to relearn the basic courtesies that enable women to feel safe in public – including challenging those who continue to ignore them – and heed the message that so many women have tried to convey over the last few days.

In its aftermath, Saturday’s events on Clapham Common were a disaster for the image of policing by consent and a vivid illustration of the consequences of the enactment of bad law. Policymakers and lawmakers must learn the right lessons from this as we consider the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The police have been put in an invidious position by poorly enacted Coronavirus law. The police may consider that protests are banned, but as a briefing by Big Brother Watch explains that “whether or not protests are legally prohibited remains unclear.”

While the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 contain a specific exemption on gathering for protests in Tiers 1-3, in Tier Four this exemption has been removed.

However, there is a credible argument that silent protest is still allowed as a common law right which has not been specifically banned. That has created an ambiguity which inevitably undermines Dame Cressida Dick’s claim in relation to the Clapham Common events that “unlawful gatherings are unlawful gatherings”.

Given the testimony to Parliament that there is very little evidence of outdoor transmission and no outbreaks linked to crowded beaches, it is hard to see how it was a good policing decision at this stage in the pandemic to break up a vigil for Sarah Everard by force – a vigil attended privately earlier by the Duchess of Cambridge for very good reasons.

This serious fiasco has also become the context for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but it is not necessarily the right context through which to consider all the public order powers in the Bill. The willingness of contemporary protestors to use non-violent mass law breaking to pursue political ends by bringing our cities to a halt and by placing massive pressure on policing resources cannot just be ignored.

In January, Brandon Lewis clarified in the Commons that the Government did not consider Extinction Rebellion an extremist group. But others have suggested that some within it may aspire to undermine liberal democracy by mass protest of this kind, although it must be rather doubtful that this is the agenda of most of its supporters.

If the powers available to deal with such improbable radicalism in practice are really insufficient at present, then this may justify changing the law. But in doing so MPs must uphold the fundamental right to protest along with the rights and freedoms of those whose lives may be seriously disrupted by such demonstrations.

The problem is that there is much in Part Three of the Bill to raise concerns that it may create uncertainty by giving far too much discretion to the police in determining this balance, and far too much power to the executive to change the law by decree if it chooses – a practice of which our experience over Coronavirus ought to make us very wary.

In a free and democratic society, the right to protest in public is fundamental, and the presumption in favour of maintaining that right, even at the risk of its being occasionally abused, is paramount. The criticisms of this part of the Bill from many quarters should not be ignored, even as we ask critics to face up to new policing challenges.

The Bill, being so wide in its scope, also deals with many other issues unrelated to public order and demonstrations. Those voting against it at Second Reading, as the Official Opposition apparently intends to do, must explain and justify their doing so when there will be much in it that their constituents will want. South Buckinghamshire residents will want to deter unlawful encampments, for example.

Conversely, those MPs voting for the principle of the Bill today, because they wish to see parts of it enacted, must make clear their intent to improve it at later stages and address the fundamental matters that go the heart of our civil liberties. Meanwhile, at this stage in the pandemic and the vaccination programme, the Government should proceed immediately to repeal all Covid-related restrictions on the right to protest, and remove the possibility of a recurrence of Saturday’s events.

Our Cabinet League Table: Sunak is still top, and Johnson is back in positive territory – just

2 Nov
  • Rishi Sunak’s favourability rating is down from 81.5 per cent to 81.1 per cent – in other words, by so infinitesimal a margin as to make no difference.  In other polls, his soaring rating would be driven by the subsidies that the Treasury is paying out.  In this one, his resistance to lockdowns will be a significant contributor to his popularity.
  • Boris Johnson was marginally in negative territory last month (-10 per cent) and marginally in positive terroritory this month (13 per cent).  We can think of no reason why, given the panel’s decision to mark him down, the late September finding should have been in the red and the October one in the black (or vice-versa had it been case).
  • Matt Hancock slides a bit further into the minus ratings, Gavin Williamson a bit back towards the plus ones.  Liz Truss is up a little and Priti Patel by more, having had a sticky summer over the channel crossings.  All in all, it’s much of a muchness – with Douglas Ross down by about 25 points, now that his Party Conference coverage has faded.
  • These ratings were taken at the end of last week, before the Prime Minister’s emergency press conference on Saturday.  We suspect that it would have lowered his rating and that of the Cabinet; you may disagree; perhaps we will hold a snap survey later this week to find out…

Iain Dale: If Milling isn’t up to being Party Chairman, why was she appointed in the first place?

9 Oct

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I have to admit that I didn’t watch any of the Conservative virtual conference online. Judging by the number of registrations, it can be deemed a success. Twenty thousand people registered, and there were often more than 6,000 people watching.

I’m told fringe meetings proved more popular than the set-piece cabinet minister speeches (wasn’t it ever thus?) with some events, including those hosted by ConHome) attracting online audiences in four figures.

Given that normal fringe meetings might attract a couple of hundred people at most, this ought to give the conference organisers food for thought for the future. CCHQ told me this week that future conferences would almost certainly be hybrid events, and that’s exactly right. The more people who are able to take part, the better.

– – – – – – – – – –

Watching highlights of the US Vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, it almost seemed like normal politics had returned.

For the most part, the debate was conducted with mutual respect, good humour and dignity from both candidates. Yes, there were some interruptions, but that happens in debates. We had none of the abuse, insults and acrimony that characterised the debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a week before.

And it wasn’t just the President who was guilty. We don’t know yet whether the next debate, due to take place in Florida next week, will go ahead. If it does, let’s hope that it’s more edifying than the first one.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Tuesday, I deputised for Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph.  I thought long and hard about writing what I did – but it had to be said.

I wrote about the role of the Party Chairman, and how its importance has diminished over the years, and how the present incumbent, Amanda Milling, was performing no useful role, except to travel the country and eat a few rubber chickens

It gave me no pleasure, and in many ways it’s not her fault. She’s performing the role dictated by Number Ten. She has no power to change anything, and scant little influence. Her co-chairman, Ben Elliot, is the one in control and we all know it.

The one role she could perform, but hasn’t got the experience to do, is to get out there on the media and be a lightning rod for the Prime Minister. That’s what Cecil Parkinson did. It’s what Norman Tebbit used to do. It’s what Brian Mawhinney did for John Major. And it’s what Brandon Lewis did for Theresa May.

Amanda Milling went on Any Questions last Friday, and proceeded to read out lines from her briefing notes. It was buttock-clenchingly embarrassing. A programme insider reckoned she was the worst guest they had had on in recent memory.

Again, in many ways, I don’t blame her for that. Everyone tells me that Milling was an excellent Deputy Chief Whip, but we all know that whips don’t do media, and don’t speak in the chamber.

So to appoint someone with little media experience as co-Party Chairman was bizarre to say the least. It did her no favours whatsoever. By all accounts, the Number Ten machine is frustrated by her performance. No shit, Sherlock. Well, they shouldn’t blame her for it, they should apportion the blame to the person who made the appointment.

– – – – – – – – – –

I was disappointed but not surprised to see Liam Fox fail to reach the final two in the race to become the next director general of the World Trade Organisation.

The EU was always determined to scupper him, which says far about them than it does about him. He is very well qualified to do the job, which will now be a straight fight between candidates from South Korea and Nigeria. Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, has spoken out and said the whole charade has not been “to the greater glory of the European Union”.

– – – – – – – – – –

Just as the Conservative Party has had to put its conference online, so have literary festivals – or at least some of them. I’ve done quite a few on Zoom over the last few months, but appeared in person last Saturday at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, as trailed on this site last week.

The event was organised it very well, ensuring that both speakers and audience were safe. Next Friday ,I’m doing the Bristol Festival of Ideas remotely, but the Wells Festival of Literature in person on the same day.

Then on Sunday October 18, I’m in Twickenham being interviewed on stage by LBC’s Steve Allen, and then on  October 24 in Diss, Norfolk.

On that occasion Brandon Lewis will interview me, which I suspect he’s going to relish, given he tells me I always give him such a hard time when he comes on my show. Ticketing details can be found here.

Our Cabinet League Table. The Prime Minister falls into negative territory.

3 Oct
  • It’s not unprecedented for a Conservative Prime Minister to fall into negative territory in our monthly Cabinet League Table.  In April last year, Theresa May set a new record of scoring the lowest rating it has ever recorded – at -74. Compared to that, Boris Johnson’s -10.3 this month looks tame.
  • Nonetheless, it’s a rotten springboard from which to vault into Party Conference as it begins today.  As we wrote yesterday, it reflects weariness with curbs, frustration with what seem to be fluctuating and arbitrary rules, a sense that Ministers at the top of Government are divided – and a certain frustration with the Prime Minister himself.
  • Liz Truss up to second in the table, from 62 per cent to 70 per cent.  Dominic Raab and Michael Gove’s scores are both down but, with Steve Barclay and Truss, they are the only Cabinet Ministers to clear 50 per cent.  As recently as last December, the entire Cabinet was in the black, with 18 of its members above that 50 per cent rating.
  • Matt Hancock joins Gavin Williamson, Robert Jenrick and Johnson in negative territory. Amanda Milling clambers out of it (just about).  On a happier note, Douglas Ross more than doubles his rating from 26 per cent to 61 per cent: his aggression and energy in Scotland are getting noticed.
  • And finally: the Prime Minister has been low, though not nearly by this much, in the table before – shortly before he resigned as Foreign Secretary.  He bounced back then, and could do so again.  Once again, we make the point that this is much the same panel as gave him a 93 per cent rating after the last election.