Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Confidence in the Prime Minister
Despite opposing the Government’s Brexit deal as it stands, I voted for Theresa May in last week’s confidence motion. It wasn’t a difficult decision.
First, I didn’t think it was right to change the Prime Minister in the midst of Brexit negotiations.
Second, Theresa May has a great deal of support and sympathy from the public outside Westminster – even from those who aren’t in favour of the deal and want a “clean” Brexit.
Third, I didn’t want to go down in history as a Conservative MP who helped depose an existing Tory Prime Minister: the ties of loyalty that bind us remain still strong.
Fourth, if there is to be a leadership contest, I would like it to be a lengthy one, in which leadership candidates are tried and tested in all parts of the country with national and local media and hustings with members. I found it very difficult to believe the narrative from the coup d’etat supporters, that a new leader could, or should, be selected in two to three weeks.
Besides, even if this was possible, who was this new, magical Father Christmas, who was going to climb down the Commons’ chimney with presents that bring together the Conservative Party, unite Parliament and produce a deal that everyone can rally around? However much I miss them, my days of believing in Santa Claus are far behind me.
Finally, I still have a hope that once Brexit is over with, Theresa May will return to being the Prime Minister she was in 2016 – galvanising the nation in dealing with the burning social injustices in our country.
All this doesn’t mean that I think everything in the Downing Street Garden is rosy. Certainly not. But I was prepared to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt and don’t resile from that, nor regret it.
I have always believed in the politics of language. It amazes me just how the centre-right has allowed Labour to commandeer the language of compassion and social justice. As The Times highlighted last weekend, Conservatives are associated with ‘austerity’, ‘kill zones’, and ‘a noose’ around the Prime Minister’s neck – terminology that should remain in a Stephen King novel.
All the while, Labour are associated with terms of benevolence, sympathy for those in poverty (John McDonnell’s remarks about Esther Mcvey being long forgotten). The divisions and violent language between different Tory factions make us look more like a Mad Max film than a governing party. If we are not careful, we will re-toxify ourselves late-1990s style – and if we don’t stop, Conservatives will be whacked by voters at the ballot box.
As an aside, it is interesting that Remainers who won’t accept the 2016 result have come up with the ‘People’s Vote’, whereas Leavers, once associated with great terminology such as ‘take back control’ or ‘more money for the NHS’ are now associated with ‘no deal’ (rather than a ‘clean Brexit’), or arguing about the unintelligible ‘backstop’.
Amidst the fog of Brexit, some lights occasionally shine brightly. Especially when it comes to workers. In the Budget, the Chancellor cut taxes for the lower paid and increased the National Living Wage by 4.9 per cent.
On Monday, Greg Clark announced icing on the cake with a huge strengthening of workers rights – the biggest upgrade for over 20years. There is some great stuff here, including scrapping the Swedish derogation, which brings an end to the legal loophole allowing some firms to pay agency workers less than permanent staff. Prior to this legislation, temps working “anti-social shifts” could be earning as much as £7 less an hour than their permanent counterparts, according to the TUC.
Under the new measures, staff will made aware of their rights on their first day of employment in a statement which sets out eligibility for sick leave, maternity and paternity leave. More powers will be granted to impose harsher penalties on employers for non-payment of wages.
Seasonal workers will also see a boost in holiday pay, with companies now having to calculate holiday pay based on a 52-week period, rather than a 12-week period. Outlined in the Government’s Good Work Plan, employers will be banned from exploiting staff by retaining tips, ensuring that customers can be confident their money is going where they have intended.
All-workers, including those on zero-hours contracts, will be entitled to “request a more predictable and stable contract”, tackling the prevalent one-sided flexibility.
Workers of Britain unite. It is a Tory Britain, not Labour that is really making a difference.
I’ve written before on ConservativeHome about the EU Withdrawal Agreement meaning that we have to give £39 billion of taxpayers money to the EU. If the transition period is extended by two years, that could be another £10-15 billion a year, on top of the £39 billion.
But there is another elephant in the room. The EU principle of harmonisation entails that, as long as we are in the EU, we abide by the rule that the five per cent rate of VAT on household bills in Britain cannot be scrapped or lowered. Citizen’s Advice suggested that cutting the five per cent rate to zero would save households, on average, £60 a year on their domestic energy bills. If the EU withdrawal agreement goes through, the Government have indicated that the UK will remain compliant with EU VAT laws during the transition period.
Article Nine of the Northern Ireland Protocol sets out a different picture under the backstop arrangements, stating “Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK’s VAT area, with HMRC continuing to be responsible for the operation and collection of VAT, and Parliament for the setting of VAT rates”.
But that being said, the European Scrutiny Committee suggest that the real question is what will happen after the transition period, since the Government is “yet to specify clearly what its actual plans are for a new arrangement with the EU on VAT after the end of the proposed transitional period”. Will hardworking families be paying the higher rates on their household bills – or will we really leave the EU and be able to cut VAT for hardworking families?
After glancing at first-edition Sunday Times and Mail On Sunday papers late on Saturday night, I nearly choked on my Lemsip. I was dismayed to read reports suggesting that David Lidington and Gavin Barwell were planning, preparing and talking with opposition MPs about having a second referendum.
By Sunday morning, both Gavin Barwell and David Lidington had responded to my tweet on enquiry – stating that they are opposed to a second referendum. Although the detail of the newspaper reports were not denied (particularly in relation to Cabinet Office planning), it was reassuring to hear the Prime Minister speak robustly in the Commons on Monday, guaranteeing that there would be no further referendum of any kind. A second referendum would not be a People’s Vote, but a Cheater’s Vote.
Happy Christmas and New Year to all Conservative Home Readers.