Johnson’s new Prime Minister’s Department is no substitute for a proper political mission

22 May

In 1915, Emperor Nicholas II took personal command of the hard-pressed Russian Army. After a brief surge in popularity, it was soon apparent that this hadn’t solved anything. Two years later, he was deposed.

That’s the history lesson out of the way. Now let’s talk about Boris Johnson’s decision to concentrate Whitehall power in his hands through the creation of a department for the Prime Minister.

According to yesterday’s Times, the current Cabinet Office is going to be split in two. Hundreds of policy officials will now answer directly to Samantha Jones, the new Permanent Secretary in Downing Street.

Meanwhile the other half of the current department “will serve as a “corporate headquarters” for the civil service and oversee reform of Whitehall”, the paper reports.

Johnson is not the first Prime Minister to contemplate such a move – according to this note from the Constitution Society, the debate stretches back to Heath, at least.

However, whilst there might be theoretical efficiency gains to concentrating power in this manner, it only really makes sense as a response to this Government’s difficulties if we believe the problem is that Johnson has not been in personal charge of the key policy areas.

Does anyone actually believe this? Before he became Prime Minister, a common argument made about Johnson is that he would be a good ‘chairman of the board’, a big-picture guy and affable public face of the Government.

Instead, his has shown little capacity for tolerating rivals in his Cabinet, and has concentrated three huge areas of responsibility – the Union, Levelling Up, and Housing, at least two which deserve a the full-time attention of a Secretary of State – in the hands of one man.

The more power is concentrated at the centre, the more the efficacy of the operation hinges on the character of the centre. And as Alex Thomas of the Institute for Government points out, the (likely deliberately) chaotic nature of Johnson’s court not only leads to disjointed policymaking, but will actively discourage able people from stepping up to replace those he fires in his increasingly frequent clear-outs.

Finally, there’s the Czar Nicholas problem: assuming direct control like this leave the Prime Minister with nobody to blame and nowhere to hide if the Government keeps failing to deliver. And no overhaul of the machinery of government is an adequate substitute for an actual mission.

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.

Stephen Booth: The Government’s regulatory reform plans. We know a lot about the principles…but not much about the practice.

10 Feb

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

Regulatory reform tends to receive far less attention than government policies on taxation and spending, but it is just as vital to the UK’s economic success and the country’s post-Brexit future.

Last week, the Government published The Benefits of Brexit: how the UK is taking advantage of leaving the EU to mark the second anniversary of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The document sets out how the Government is using post-Brexit freedoms to implement new policies in different sectors. From immigration to trade, and agricultural policy to government subsidies.

The White Paper also identifies future opportunities to develop distinct post-Brexit regulatory and policy approaches across a range of headings including: science, data, and technology; business and industry; infrastructure and levelling up; climate, the environment and agriculture; and Global Britain. Many of the opportunities identified correspond to those outlined in last year’s Policy Exchange report Post-Brexit freedoms and opportunities for the UK.

Critics have a point when they note that, so far, the Government’s rhetoric has been appreciably more ambitious than its actions. Regulatory reform is complex and individual reforms, be it to data protection or agricultural land management, are always likely to be politically contested.

Fundamental changes require a strong political focus because there are inevitably tensions between industry, consumers, government, and regulators. The pandemic and the fraught negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol have understandably used up much of the political oxygen and impetus required to drive changes through.

For example, in the financial services sector, reforming the Solvency II regime for insurance regulation has long been seen as an opportunity to diverge from EU rules for competitive advantage and to free up more capital to invest in long-term infrastructure projects.

However, the industry has warned that the Treasury and the independent regulator have been pulling in different directions. There is a risk that the UK ends up being less ambitious and less competitive than the EU, which is pursuing its own reforms of the rules.

Aside from individual rules, the major post-Brexit opportunity is to improve how the UK regulates, through reforms to the wider regulatory regime. This includes looking at the relationships between industry, customers, elected politicians and regulators. The impact of regulation on the UK’s global competitiveness is another crucial factor.  For example, the Treasury has proposed giving the UK’s financial regulators a greater focus on growth and competitiveness in new statutory objectives.

Systemic and cultural change takes time. However, the prize on offer is a regulatory system that is more –

  • Agile and dynamic, allowing regulators to act quickly and decisively, as we saw in the development and authorisation of covid vaccines;
  • Proportionate, sensibly weighing consumer/citizens’ welfare against innovation and investment;
  • Responsive and accountable to UK interests, without the need for qualified majority voting among EU nations or co-decision with the European Parliament.
  • Focused on the challenges and opportunities of the future, on new technologies and new consumer realities.

The Benefits of Brexit paper provides the Government’s response to a wide-ranging consultation on reforming the better regulation frameworkand sets out five new regulatory principles to make the UK the “best regulated economy in the world”.

There are several welcome statements of intent outlined under these principles: regulating only where absolutely necessary, ensuring regulators have the right powers and duties, working more collaboratively with businesses to ensure there is a clear feedback loop between the regulated and the regulators, a target to cut the cost of EU inherited red tape, and a greater focus on reviewing the real-world impact of regulation that has been implemented.

However, there is little detail about how the Government intends to put these principles into practice. Ministers announced over a year ago that the current Business Impact Target, which measures the costs of regulation to business, would be replaced. But we still have little sense of what the new system to measure the impact of regulation will be.

Meanwhile, the White Paper’s £1 billion target to reduce the costs of inherited EU red tape to business appears relatively unambitious. But the real problem with such a target is that there is no agreed baseline of total regulatory costs against which to even assess the level of ambition. Last year’s consultation raised the prospect of measuring and baselining the total regulatory burden in the UK, as Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands have done, but there is no mention of such an exercise in last week’s White Paper.

The Government has also ruled out a return to the ‘one-in, two-out’ policy adopted by previous governments. The case for such a regime is that it enforces regulatory discipline by requiring departments to identify regulatory savings before introducing new rules.

However, it can also be argued that ‘one in, two out’ is a blunt instrument. Poor regulation should be identified and amended or repealed as a matter of course, rather than overlooked or deliberately kept until an offset for a new regulation is needed. The central question is how to ensure that departments and regulators are incentivised to routinely root out poor or overly burdensome regulation.

This poses another fundamental question, which is one of political oversight and application. Lord Frost was the driving force for this agenda across government from the Cabinet Office and, in the weeks after his departure, it was unclear where responsibility for regulatory reform would reside. This week Jacob Rees-Mogg has been given the responsibility in a new Cabinet Office role as Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency. Such an agenda requires long-term commitment throughout government and, ultimately, strong support from the Prime Minister.

The Government has set out principles which promise a more coherent and modern regulatory regime. The challenge now is to move from these statements of intent to implementation and tangible reforms. Over the next six months, Policy Exchange’s Re-engineering Regulation Project will take evidence from those in the private and public sector, and provide the concrete policies required to turn such a vision into a reality.

Peter Franklin: Downing Street is no place for a government

31 Jan

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

In this life, nothing lasts forever. Not even the nightmare that is Partygate. At some point, hopefully this decade, it will be over. Sue Gray’s report will have seen the light of day; the police will have done what they need to do; and it will be time for British politics to move on.

A line must be drawn under the whole affair — the sort of line that leaves heads rolling. But as much as we need a change of personnel, this won’t on its own be enough. This Government also needs a change of scene. Specifically, it needs to get out of Downing Street.

No matter how many of its inhabitants get the chop, the building will remain. And that’s a problem, because just about every part of it is a reminder of the last two years. The upstairs flat, the downstairs offices, the press briefing room, the garden and even the basement: the entire property is blighted.

Even before Partygate, there was something off about the place. The fundamental problem is the architecture. Downing Street was built as row of terraced town houses — and from the outside that’s how it still appears. But once you’re through the famous front door at Number 10, you realise it’s a trick. The terraces have long been knocked-through into a sprawling complex of oddly proportioned spaces and impossible dimensions. It’s an exercise in Georgian psychedelia and it messes with your head.

You don’t have to believe in feng shui or genii locorum to see the psychological danger of turning a building into something it was never intended to be. Downing Street was meant to be a home, indeed several homes. Yet over the years it’s also become the heart of government. The place has a split personality — it is both formal and informal, institutional and domestic, professional and amateur. It’s no surprise that a “frat house culture” took hold of it.

I don’t believe there’s any excuse for the events of Partygate. But for an explanation as to why so many lapses of judgement could have been made by so many people, the physical environment is a useful place to start. As Winston Churchill once said, “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Moving on from Partygate isn’t the only reason why government should leave Downing Street. It was a sick building long before Covid. As a workplace, it’s overcrowded. A lot of it is surprisingly shabby too. Even the nice bits generate a den-like atmosphere, which isn’t conducive to good governance. Time after time, we see Prime Ministers become isolated from their Cabinet colleagues, locked behind living walls of scheming flunkies. And, needless to say, the dark corners and labyrinthine corridors provide ideal conditions for in-fighting too.

Boris Johnson has implored the British workforce to stop working from home. He — or his successor — should lead by example. The promised reboot of government should begin with the creation of a proper Prime Minister’s Department working out of a proper HQ. But where exactly?

I know just the place. It’s officially known as “Government Offices Great George Street” or “GOGGS” for short. It’s better known as the Treasury building. It’s not as fancy as the neighbouring Foreign Office, but it underwent a major refit a few years ago — and so wouldn’t need much work done. It would make a fine and functional home for the Prime Minister’s Department, co-located with Her Majesty’s Treasury under one roof.

When Dominic Cummings was in Downing Street, one of his best ideas was to integrate the teams surrounding the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The aim was to mend the most damaging fault-line in Whitehall. Needless to say, this reform went out the window after Cummings was shown the door. The relationship between Johnson and Rishi Sunak has come under growing strain ever since.

And that’s just one of many dysfunctional relationships. The departmental structure of Whitehall  creates distance between ministers, both literally and organisationally. Communication between democratically elected decision-makers is mediated through siloed civil service hierarchies with agendas of their own. In order to compensate for the bureaucratic disconnect, Downing Street — as the only bit of Whitehall where political appointees rule the roost — brings as much power as it can in-house, thus further marginalising the rest of the Cabinet.

However, there is an alternative. It’s called the “Beehive” model — named after the round-shaped building where the ministers of the New Zealand government work together in the same location, not in separate departments. When David Cameron was Leader of the Opposition there was talk of creating a British Beehive. The complications of forming a Coalition government meant that those plans were dropped; but — again — there’s now an opportunity to revive them.

The layout of GOGGS provides an ideal hub for the heart of government. The best rooms are in the middle the building, arranged in ring-like storeys around a circular courtyard. Key ministers would have their own offices, but on the same gracefully curving corridor. As in any other human context, communication is best facilitated by physical proximity.

Is there enough room, though? Not at the moment, but GOGGS currently houses various other agencies and departments — like HMRC and the DCMS — that don’t need to be there. Turf them out and there’d be plenty of space for the core functions of the Treasury, plus the Prime Minister’s Department, plus offices for the Cabinet and key support staff.

I’ll admit there’s one big drawback to this scheme. By bringing Cabinet ministers closer to one another, we’d be increasing the distance between them and their own departments. Who, then, would keep an eye on the civil service in the rest of Whitehall? One solution would be to be to appoint a Deputy Secretary of State for each department — someone with experience of managing complex organisations. I doubt we’d find enough talent in the Commons, but suitable candidates could be obtained through the Lords instead.

Finally, what would happen to the largely vacated Downing Street? Would it become a museum? Absolutely not. The downstairs rooms could still be used for Cabinet meetings and other ceremonial events. As for the upper floors, those could be devoted to the building’s true purpose — which is to provide an official residence for the Prime Minister (not to mention the Chancellor). Bearing in mind the relative youth of today’s politicians, both flats should be big enough to provide a growing family with space and privacy.

Or to put it another way, let’s make Downing fit for actual children.

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.

Bernard Jenkin: Four lessons for government from the fuel shortages

8 Oct

Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee, and MP for Harwich and North Essex. He was Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee when it produced three reports about improving strategic thinking in government.

The road fuels crisis is still playing out in some parts of the country. It was predictable, and predicted by some.

Such a failure is inexcusable in a modern, resilient economy. Government has been blindsided by decisions which have led the UK to be far too exposed to foreign electricity and gas supplies. (Did nobody imagine that Vladimir Putin might use gas supplies as a weapon of disruption? They did – but warnings were ignored.) Covid also blindsided Minister, even though a flu or coronavirus pandemic was a known risk. There was even Exercise Cygnus in 2016, which modelled the disaster that might happen.

Some of us are looking again at the challenges facing the centre of government, and the need to strengthen strategic thinking and foresight. Here are four lessons I was promoting during conference week at fringe meetings.

Lesson One: resilience

The UK needs to develop more resilient supply chains for vital commodities like road fuels. The present model may minimise working capital for supermarkets, but we can see from this experience (and form previous experiences such as in the 2001 tanker drivers’ strike) that the present supply model is much too risky.

Lesson Two: communication

In a crisis like this one, the public will not be flannelled by mere ‘messaging’ from Ministers. Success of government communications during Covid is based on –

  • Press conferences from Number 10 giving real, detailed and comprehensive information to the public.
  • Simple, understandable data expressed in tables and graphs, which people can readily understand and interrogate; and
  • Presentations by permanent and impartial Whitehall figures (such as the Chief Scientist and Chief Medical Officer) who are much more likely to inspire public confidence.

All this should be supported by clear, memorable guidance to the public. All crises should use this template to secure public confidence and support.

Such an approach requires ministers to stop pretending that there is not a crisis much sooner than they did with road fuel shortages. The press have constantly sniped at the government about the Covid response. The Government was extremely vulnerable, because it has had to learn from mistakes throughout, but a responsible and the well-planned communications operation headed this off. The fact that the public can see the government is constantly implementing lessons as they arise has also helped.

Lesson Three: preparation

If there is a known and persistent problem, such as the shortage of HGV drivers, there must be someone in the system who is responsible for picking up the problem and addressing it. This should happen as soon as the problem is known – not years later, once a new crisis has broken. Ministers cannot be held accountable if they are not being informed by their officials.

Sooner or later, a problem such as the present one lands on government anyway – so it may as well take action to prevent the crisis in advance. This is not to make Ministers responsible for what others should be doing. They should, however, have been holding industry accountable for addressing this skills shortage, not just passing the buck to it in the hope that it was in their own interests to sort it out for themselves. That approach has failed here.

Lesson Four: organisation

There should be a unit in the Cabinet Office, probably reporting to the National Security Council, constantly scanning the horizon for potential crises like this.

There is a Civil Contingencies Unit. What was it doing? It should have been alerting departments, to ensure that they are coordinating a response to the problem. It should provide briefings to the Prime Minister, Cabinet Secretary and National Security Council on unaddressed issues which might lead to a crisis.

This involves external engagement with relevant and informed experts, industry, academics, and stakeholders. This process and thinking demands new skills and capabilities in strategic thinking, which the Government barely possesses. There needs to a new culture of contingency planning, red-teaming and challenge to accepted truths.

Governments find this tiresome. Some ministers would see this as civil servants causing trouble. The responsible minister, and most particularly the Prime Minister, does have to want this work – or Ministers will just keep shooting the messenger, in which case civil servants won’t risk telling the truth.

The M25 protesters were the last straw that broke the petrol supply and road infrastructure’. Peter Bryson is an ex-logistics manager from Tesco who built much of their distribution network. He has explained the origins of the crisis: HGV drivers’ wages being undercut by the European Union over 18 years; the UK becoming dependent upon two choke points (Port of Dover and M25); the disruption from Brexit (plenty of warning for that!), the pandemic…and finally protesters blocking the M25, which was merely ”the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

Better machinery of government and a new culture of inquiry and challenge are essential if government is to be better prepared for what ministers cannot be blamed for failing to anticipate themselves.

Sarah Ingham: The Government could learn a thing or two from Britain’s panic buyers

1 Oct

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Who said Britain’s bureaucrats have had an irony-bypass?

The Cabinet Office’s deadline for evidence to formulate the Government’s new National Resilience Strategy was on Monday.

This was of course the day when the fuel crisis intensified and the Governor of the Bank of England suggested an interest rate rise might be on the cards before Christmas. He also confessed to having wondered if locusts might be another calamity to afflict the country.

Biblical plagues make a change from overworked Black Swans, those metaphors for malign events so rare they are only meant to happen once in a lifetime. Except, at present, Britain seems to be visited by a lamentation – an all-too-apt collective noun – of these supposedly rare birds.

Resilience is the ability to withstand or come back from difficulties. This week, ministers were quick to condemn the public for “panic-buying” its petrol, as if vehicle owners have been in a ditzy tizzy rather than acting out of rational self-interest.

For those of us not being swooshed around town in the back of chauffeur-driven Zil limousines – sorry, taxpayer-funded Jaguars – taking opportunities to diesel up cabs and white vans at a time of possible shortage is actually acting with prudence and foresight.

Filling up during a fuel crisis is “identifying, assessing, preparing for and responding to risks”, which, according to 2020 National Risk Register, is what the Government is meant to be doing. But isn’t.

Among the 38 possible threats identified in the Register, including earthquakes and a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear attack, is a pandemic. Covid-19 makes a brief appearance, although it is excluded from the Register’s Matrix of Risk: included, however, is “Undermining the Democratic Process”.

Unlike “Severe Space Weather” or the meteor strike mentioned in the Strategy’s evidence call, this risk actually came to pass, thanks to the Government’s hysterical over-reaction to an illness whose lethality in a historical context is comparatively minor.

Lockdown, which included putting the economy in deep-freeze and led to the greatest interference by the state in our personal liberty in the country’s history, has so far cost Britain an estimated £400 billion. No risk-benefit analysis was carried out before we were all put under house arrest and made poorer.

Trainee reporters used to be told to exercise their judgment. As the saying has it, “If someone says it’s raining, and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the ******* window and find out which is true.”

Labour shortages. Supply bottlenecks. A national debt of £2,225 billion (“V-shaped recovery”: what “V-shaped recovery”?). An energy crisis. Chaos in airport arrivals halls. Inflation. A dearth of doctors and critical care capacity in the NHS. The M25 repeatedly brought to a halt. Whatever next; a run on the pound?

Instead of designing matrixes and writing a Strategy to be published next March, those ministers and officials allegedly overseeing Britain’s resilience should start looking out of the ******* window right now. Ta-da! Evidence.

Last week there were calls for soldiers to man ambulances; this week, it’s fuel tankers. Next week, the Border Force? Next month, the Police? National resilience includes the Armed Forces playing their part; Military Aid to the Civilian Authorities.

Increasingly, it seems that expensively trained personnel are viewed by the Government as little more than uniformed agency staff, deployed at whim to fill the chasms in our civilian infrastructure. Britain is beginning to resemble some sub-Saharan nation like Guinea where the Army is about the only properly functioning arm of the state.

This summer, thousands of DVLA staff stopped pushing their pens and started downing tools as part of industrial action by the Public and Commercial Services Union.

Targeted was the Drivers Medical group, chosen “due to its strategic importance to the Agency and the fact that Ministers are assigning huge importance to backlogs in this area” according a post on the PCS website on July 21. Instead of solely blaming Brexit for the HGV driver shortage, should we also be factoring in shrewd Union tactics? Mark Serotkwa, the new Arthur Scargill, discuss.

Working From Home has had a corrosive impact on the efficiency of most workplaces, including the DVLA. Last week, a Permanent Secretary extolled the virtues of being out-of-office. 

Should she really wish to spend more time with her family as she claims, let her quit the public payroll. Otherwise she should be ordered off her Peloton, onto her bike and back into the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, now overseen by the refreshingly bracing Nadine Dorries.

Conservatives are supposed champion and celebrate the country’s business-folk. The Party used to applaud personal resilience and self-reliance, which can boil down to something as simple as having savings or a pension plan. Those waiting their turn on Britain’s fuel station forecourts are showing the sort of foresight that enables them perhaps to get to work or care for an elderly relative.

In anticipating possible difficulties and making a risk assessment, these “panic-buyers” are setting an example to the Government and its officials.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 3) The dissolution and calling of Parliament Bill

13 Jun

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

2) The dissolution and calling of Parliament Bill

What it is

This is the Bill to scrap the Fixed Terms Parliament Act and restore the Royal Prerogative arrangement that preceded it.  It has a brief six clauses in all – four of which concern the matters above.  (The two remaining clauses are relatively minor.)

Essentially, Clauses One and Four cover the fixed terms aspects, repealing the Act and confirming that no Parliament can last longer than five years.  Clauses Two and Three deal with restoring the Prerogative “as if the…Act had never been enacted”, as Clause 2 puts it.  Clause Three seeks to place this revived Prerogative beyond the reach of the courts.  This is a so-called “Ouster Clause“.

Responsible department

The Cabinet Office – and the dissolution and calling of Parliament Bill has already received its First Reading in the Commons.  This took place on May 12.

Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is thus the lead Minister. Chloe Smith, Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, who also sits in the Cabinet Office, would be expected to take Bill through committee.

Carried over or a new Bill?

A new Bill – but it has already had pre-legislative scrutiny through a joint committee which reported in March.

Expected back when?

Sooner rather than later.

Arguments for

The basic case for the Bill is that fixed terms are inflexible – and that they’ve not been observed in any event, with general elections coming early in 2017 and 2019.

This being so, the most practicable alternative is to fall back on the status quo ante under which, as a Government command paper on the Bill has put it, “Parliament will be dissolved by the Sovereign, on the advice of the Prime Minister”.  Which means, given the Supreme Court’s judgement on prorogation, putting the matter beyond reach of the courts.

Arguments against

These fall into two parts, mirroring the Bill’s case and stucture.  First, that it’s a good thing in principle for Parliaments to work on the assumption that they will last for a fixed term.

And that fixed term can indeed be shortened if necessary, as it has twice been, then what’s the problem?  Second, that the status quo ante can’t be restored, since a prerogative is a non-statutory executive power and common law is created by courts and not legislatures, as Anne Twomey, a constitutional law professor, argued in evidence to the joint committee (and shouldn’t be anyway).


The Liberal Democrats were the co-creators of the Fixed Terms Act, along with their Conservative co-partners in the Coalition Government, and can be expected to oppose the Bill.  One might presume Labour unwilling to allow Boris Johnson greater flexibility over a general election’s calling, especially with talk of a poll in 2023.  However, one Tory source says that current feedback from the party is “supportive”.

Brenda Hale, who presided over the Supreme Court’s prorogation judgement, disagreed with Professor Twomey – telling the joint committee that in her view the prorogative can be restored.  But if one takes such a view, it doesn’t necessarily follow that one also believes the prerogative should be placed beyond the reach of the courts.  So what Labour says and how it votes will be worth watching

Controversy rating: 5/10

It’s hard see a Conservative backbench revolt that either supports the Act or opposes a restored prerogative.  But Opposition MPs, enthusiasts for judicial power, and supporters of the prorogation judgement will portray the Bill as an executive power grab.  So opponents of the Bill are more likely to stress opposing ouster clauses, not supporting fixed parliaments.

Nick King: Levelling up. The challenge is less defining it than delivering it, for which Johnson will need the private sector.

25 May

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.

To level up or not to level up? That is certainly not the question. If theres one thing the Government has been admirably clear about, it is its determination to do it. But that begs rather a lot of other legitimate questions, such as: what does levelling up really mean? How will we level up? What level are we levelling up to? How will levelling up be measured? And if answers to these questions are not forthcoming, how can we ever really know whether weve levelled up or not?

Some of these points were recently put to ministers from the Business and Housing departments by the Business Select Committee. The answers forthcoming were clearly not to the (Labour) Chair of the Committees satisfaction. He suggested there was no clarity in terms of understanding what levelling up means or the policy which sits behind it.

But there’s actually a strong argument – although you wouldn’t expect the ministers themselves to make it – that the lack of specificity around levelling up, and the catch-all nature of the term, have added to its value as a concept.

The Conservative Partys last general election manifesto talked about levelling up every part of the UK, levelling up skills and levelling up through investment in infrastructure. Prior to that manifesto, I produced a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, which called for greater devolution, enhanced skills, increased infrastructure investment and new Opportunity Zones as the principal means of levelling up.

Since the election, various other think tanks have put their own spin on levelling up, with Onwards taskforce looking at levelling up the tax system and innovation, the Centre for Progressive Policy developing its own Levelling Up Outlook, the Institute for Public and Policy Research suggesting we level up health, and Bright Blue looking at levelling up in the context of deprivation.

This all-encompassing nature of the phrase, not yet defined by any mainstream dictionary, is surely more of a strength than a weakness. We saw this during the election. Then, across the former ‘Red Wall’ seats of the Midlands and the North, people voted in their millions for levelling up, without needing a detailed policy prospectus outlining which departments would take the lead and what metrics they would apply. Yes, they wanted to ‘get Brexit done’ – but getting Brexit done was just one half of the equation to making their lives better: levelling up was the improvement that would come afterwards.

For all of its lack of explicit definition, those of us who are who committed to the levelling up cause – and I include myself in that number – feel we know what it’s aiming at. We know that at its heart it is about addressing the long-standing inequalities which exist in the United Kingdom.

Levelling up is about the life chances of people, the prospects of places and about making sure our country is the United Kingdom it should be, not the divided realm it risks becoming. In that spirit, it can be seen as a continuation of One Nation Toryism, of efforts to extend social mobility and even of various Governments rebalancing efforts.

Perhaps that is why, when Boris Johnson returned to Downing Street, having won his crushing majority in the election, he stood on the steps of Number 10 and promised to unite and level up’ our country. There followed measures such as substantial increases in infrastructure investment, the creation of the Towns Fund and, more recently, the creation of the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Renewal Fund. These all suggested a centrally-driven, targeted approach, relying on the funding of specific projects to level up specific places.

But the ambition to level up goes much wider and deeper than that. Ever since the election, every Government department has been tasked with thinking about levelling up and how to deliver it. In education, that means better schools and improved skills outside London and the South-East. For the Transport and Culture departments, that means greater national transport and digital connectivity respectively. For the Department of International Trade, it means getting more investment into the regions and more companies around the country exporting.

Now, to bring coherence and strategic intent to the levelling up agenda, the Government has promised a Levelling Up White Paper. This White Paper is to be produced by ConHome columnist, Harborough MP and the Prime Minister’s Levelling Up adviser, Neil OBrien. He is, in many respects, the perfect man for the job, with a first class brain and a long history of considering these issues, raised in the North but representing a Midlands constituency, and someone who knows his way around Whitehall.

This last point is critical given the clear intention to make this a ‘whole of government’ exercise. Virtually every department has been instructed to play its part in levelling up; the Prime Minister and the Chancellor recently put it at the heart of their Plan for Growth, and OBriens White Paper is being run out of Cabinet Office, suggesting an ambition to reach into various Whitehall departments.

He will, no doubt, have received direct orders from the Prime Minister as to what he wants in the White Paper and perhaps the slight shift in language within the Queen’s Speech gives us a clue as to what to expect. That speech promised to level up opportunities’ and the accompanying Briefing Note – prepared by the Treasury – tied the levelling up agenda much more closely to public services, such as health, education and policing. 

This suggests the Government will be looking as much at the opportunities presented to people, and within places, as the outcomes which those opportunities might lead to.For my part, the most important factor I would urge the Government to remember, is that whether we want to improve opportunities, or outcomes, levelling up needs to be centred on the potential of the private sector. As I argued in my recent Centre for Policy Studies paper with Jake Berry on rejuvenating the North, only the private sector can offer the scale of investment, the jobs and the opportunities which can lead to long-term sustainable change.

Government, of course, has a pivotal role to play. It needs to think about where it invests, about the implications of the gravitational pull of London and the South East and how it can best break the trend of self-perpetuating economic failure in the least successful parts of our country. But, most importantly, it can help create the conditions in which private enterprise can thrive.

After all, to business-loving, capitalism-supporting types like me, levelling up can only really be delivered through the dynamism of the private sector. It is its agility, investment and innovation through which life-changing opportunities will be created. Absent of that, levelling up will mean very little at all.  

Iain Dale: On my radio show, I asked Salmond who he would side with out of Putin or Biden. Can you guess his answer?

16 Apr

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

On Wednesday night I interviewed Alex Salmond for half an hour. I think it was the first lengthy broadcast interview he has done recently.

He and I have history. Back in 2015-16 he used to come into the studio once a week and we’d co-host a phone-in together. I knew him a bit anyway and it went quite well. We had a few rumbustious exchanges along the way and the listeners liked it. I have always respected him as a canny political operator and I always relished our half hour combat sessions.

And then he joined RT (Russia Today). We fell out over that. I could not for the life of me understand how a former First Minister could lend credibility to a Kremlin front organisation. His defence was that his programme was independently made and free of editorial influence from the RT bosses. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Just by appearing on the channel he gave it credibility. And if he couldn’t see that, he was clearly content in being the Kremlin’s tame puppy. Although the interview was about the Scottish elections I made it clear that I wouldn’t do it if any subjects were off limits, and credit to him, he didn’t lay down any conditions at all.

So I asked him if he would say Putin or the Kremlin were behind the Salisbury attacks. I asked him what he thought 85,000 Russian troops were doing on the border of Ukraine. I asked him if he thought the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been poisoned by the Russian State. Answers came there none. Just a flow of evasiveness.

I then asked if he had to side with Putin or Biden, which would it be? 99 per cent of the British population would only give one answer to that, but even on this, Salmond was equivocal. I didn’t need to ram home the point. People could draw their own conclusions.

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The Greensill scandal shows no sign of abating, with fresh revelations emerging almost every day.

David Cameron will no doubt have been very happy to see someone else copping some flak, in the form of Bill Crothers. Shockingly, he was working for Greensill while also being in charge of procurement in the Cabinet Office in the very area Greensill was operating in.

I’ve been around the political lobbying world for 30 years, and am very aware of some of the more unsavoury practices, but this one genuinely floored me.

How on earth can that be allowed to happen, and it if happened with Crothers, who is to say that the practice isn’t more widespread?

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On Wednesday night we had Fay Jones, the Conservative MP for Brecon & Radnorshire, on the Cross Question panel.

What a breath of fresh air. She answered questions fluently, without trying to avoid difficult issues and displayed a great sense of humour too. One to watch.

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The last time I was able to go to my house in Norfolk was at the beginning of November. I have a feeling I wrote at the time about how the A11 was shut at Thetford due to roadworks. On Wednesday night I was very excited to be going back again. Some degree of normality, it seemed, was about to resume.

Boy was I right. Five months on, and the A11 was still shut overnight at Thetford! Unbelievable. I’ve heard of Groundhog Day, but this is ridiculous. It’s like the Highways Agency is on a mission to cut Norfolk off from the rest of the country. But then again, there are quite a few people in Norfolk who would be quite happy for that to happen!

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In my job, I get very little time to read for pleasure. Most things I read because I have to, rather than because I choose to.

But there’s nothing I like more than a good political diary. In the last few weeks I’ve completed the Chips Channon diaries and now I’m in the middle of Alastair Campbell’s dairies volume eight, covering 2010-15, and I’m also a third of the way through Alan Duncan’s diaries.

They are all incredibly different, but all equally enjoyable. And in the case of the last two, you need to put any preconceived ideas to one side. Both Campbell and Duncan have certain reputations, but what you get here is a raw contemporary account of events.

Campbell’s book is in parts intensely emotional and if you don’t know him personally, you’ll be astonished at how open and honest he is about his state of mind, motivations and his relationship with his partner and children. You don’t need to have read the previous seven volumes to enjoy volume eight, but I guarantee if you read volume eight, you’ll line the others up too.