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).

Politics

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.

– – – – – – – – – –

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?

– – – – – – – – – –

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.

– – – – – – – – – –

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!

– – – – – – – – – –

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.

Matt Kilcoyne: Vaccine certification is an idea that should be allowed to sink or swim in a free market

31 Mar

Matt Kilcoyne is Head Of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.

Since vaccines started being approved by British regulators at the very end of last year, the country has undergone a psychological transformation unlike any in my lifetime.

From fear of an unending cycle of lockdowns and limited freedoms came news from one Kate Bingham. Her work gave purpose to the privations that were coming, helped all of us that kept faith that there would be end to this disease by human ingenuity and within time to mean our actions to save lives, avoid economic scarring and adaption to a non-normal economic situation that would then have to be readjusted to soon after at even further cost too.

Given the mortality rates we’ve seen across the world and even here with extensive curtailment of our ancient liberties, it is reasonable to say the number of lives Bingham has saved alone will number in the tens if not hundreds of thousands and given greater evidence to the rightness of the choice to retain the jobs held in stasis by Bank of England furlough scheme.

These people and jobs saved through her tight and spread-bet pre-purchase agreements and the use of Britain’s comparative advantage in legal agreements, trade credit and other forward payment mechanism, and experience dealing with and preparing for rogue states that shut down exports or expropriate private property mean I fully back calls for Bingham to be elevated to a Duchess should it please Her Majesty.

The change in the psyche and morale of the British people her decisions enabled means that Cabinet can take positive decisions of true gravitas in a time of true national and international crisis. This requires careful and assured action. It might require prompt, wide impacting, and sensitive personal and national topics.

It could, let’s say for the sake of argument, include things like vaccination certificates for Covid. The idea hits all the right buttons to rile everyone in such divergent ways that they’ll talk past one another and fail to see the issues that are being discussed, why, and what is actually being proposed.

The first thing to say is that you personally have a right to full knowledge of medical data and records that are kept on you, assuming you are of appropriate age and sound mind. The governments within the UK have a near monopoly of service provision for healthcare save for all the private GPs that actually have a local duty of care to you to hold and maintain your personal records. They also can, via their contracts of supply and commissioning of care of other services with the NHS and associated parts, pass data onto third parties with your consent.

The lack of a series of principles over the free use of data between consenting individuals and third parties, and the lack of direction even by government towards the suitability or otherwise, never mind the likely legal consequences of using the data of vaccine take up to determine suitability of access to new or existing roles.

In the space provided by a lack of determination in good time, trade associations burned by huge restrictions announced against their members’ interests and often provided with evidence after the event with the scope and scale of restrictions decided by committees rather than parliament in the primary role.

All action must now and in future, and should’ve been the case throughout the pandemic, be based upon scientifically testable hypotheses, all the reasoning deduced and relied upon and all assumptions set out.

It is telling of a lack of trust between governed and government that pubs do not trust the word of a party that prides itself as being one of business to promote policies as we get back to the business of living that would enable them as far as possible now they’ve jabbed enough arms to reduce risk of reinfection and mortality.

Laws from now should be freedom-oriented to remind Tory voters that actively value the ability to enjoy the things that make life worth living they will be able to enjoy them. Around 20 per cent of publicans say they want to access punters and staff for proof of vaccines to ensure their, their staff and all of their families’ health.

The Government’s role here is to ensure that individuals have access to the ability to consent to their records being displayed by an accredited source (whether just their GP signing and by word of their bond confirming, or a company that facilitates access that across multiple GPs in a usable format for other firms without contravening data protection rules).

We know well the issue of mission creep with ID cards a totemic Tory issue after the defeat of Tony Blair’s flagship policy and David Davis’ whole career centred around civil liberties. But this is a facilitation not a coercion or anything mandated. Even if Blair is a principle agent of the campaign to promote their use — and I share concerns about the number of meetings he has had with serious ministers and civil servants on the topic given a the financial gain any company could get from providing either national or international accreditation of such valuable information on behalf of an individual. And elsewhere yellow fever and rabies certificates are in use regularly when crossing borders. Nigeria could teach us a thing or two about digital storage and transfer of said data and forgeries still emerging.

Government can signal intent on rejection of mandate by declaring it will not check status upon leaving the country or ahead of access to existing NHS services. The areas where people will encounter officialdom most keenly.

Liberalism demands freedoms to associate and self organise, and Conservativism demands the liberties of the individual by upheld by institutions acting in their care. Vaccine certification is actually a simple idea that should be allowed to sink or swim in a free market. Let’s let them, and keep an eye on vested interests with cosy relationships benefiting friends for sure. But let’s enable anything that let’s us live our lives again.

How to advise Lord North, or Heath, or Thatcher, or Johnson

5 Mar

Political Advice: Past, Present and Future edited by Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose

The press is excited by stories about Boris Johnson’s advisers. Who is in, who out? Who is briefing against whom? Carrie Symonds is running the country from her sofa! The news that leopards are to be reintroduced into St James’s Park shows she is. And anyhow, who paid for the sofa?

Readers who wish to take a longer view of political advice are advised to get hold of this book. But be warned: it does not offer a crib, a cut-out-and-keep guide to how to be an adviser.

The lesson of the book is that there are no lessons. If this volume were by a single author, we could perhaps deduce from it a doctrine, but it is actually the work of 14 different contributors, who on 8th June 2017 met for a one-day conference on Political Advice at All Souls College, Oxford.

We are not fed anything so misleading as a theory of advice, but in these 14 essays we do find intimations, continuities and recurrences as we travel with these authors from Periclean Athens via the Renaissance, Tudor England, the Scottish Enlightenment, British orientalists in Persia, Edward Heath’s managerialists in Whitehall and astrologers at the court of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, to an account of the impossibility of advising Donald Trump.

Nobody can govern alone: every ruler needs help, and as the editors, Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose, remark in their introduction, the people running the show today “have no more time or concentration than their predecessors in antiquity”.

There is a limit to how much advice anyone can take in, let alone make use of. William Waldegrave writes, in this volume, about his experience of being a member of the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) from 1971-73.

Heath, both as Leader of the Opposition and from 1970 as Prime Minister, had a tremendous appetite for policy advice. He was a man of his time, for as Waldegrave reminds us,

“the late 1960s had seen much discussion of whether Britain’s institutions had sufficiently modernised themselves: the civil service was among those subject to criticism, including self-criticism. This had led in 1966 to the establishment, after a select committee of the House of Commons had levelled the accusation of amateurism at the modern service, of the Fulton Committee…it made trenchant criticisms of what it saw as the cult of the generalist, the lack of influence by scientists, poor training and recruitment practices and other matters.”

The CPRS was one way in which Heath was determined to modernise the machinery of government, by creating a central strategic staff who would engage in long-term thinking and apply the latest management techniques, many of them imported from the United States, to which “two exceptionally able younger Conservatives”, David Howell (now Lord Howell) and Mark Schreiber (now Lord Marlesford) had been despatched on a mission to find out what was happening there.

In 1970, Howell made, in his pamphlet A New Style of Government, the first use in the United Kingdom of the word “privatisation”. According to Waldegrave, these British experts “linked management theory to political doctrine in a more interesting way than is found in most of the American work of the time”, relating “managerial efficiency…to the development of modern liberal free-market doctrines”.

What happened? Heath made a complete hash of things, and in February 1974 the British people threw him out of office. His administration had been characterised, not by long-term thinking, but by desperate short-term expedients which culminated in the lights going out.

And yet all that advice was not entirely wasted. After 1979, privatisation became, with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, one of the Government’s most significant and successful policies.

She too was tremendously keen on getting good advice. She and her advisers learned from Heath’s mistakes, and for a long time her judgement of what was politically possible proved better than his.

But as Waldegrave goes on to say, both Houses of Parliament continue to feel “a deep suspicion of Bonapartist tendencies on the part of the Prime Minister”.

We don’t want a presidential system in this country, and got the central staffs created by Lloyd George and Churchill to fight the two world wars disbanded as soon as those conflicts were over.

Waldegrave, who served as a minister from 1981-97, regrets “the steady erosion” in recent times

“of a sense of Cabinet collectivity. Mr Blair is perhaps most to blame for this, but Mr Cameron is not innocent either. What the press has called ‘sofa government’ – combined with an over-intrusive regime of freedom of information – has taken us back to the time before Maurice Hankey and the establishment of the Cabinet Secretariat in 1916. Some major items of policy are not discussed collectively at all, and if they are discussed, little is recorded for fear of an immediate and politically driven application under the Freedom of Information Act. This is a recipe for bad decision-taking, as well as for ultimate lack of accountability.”

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister too recently for his behaviour in office to be considered in this volume. But one can’t help wondering whether his critics have been asking the wrong question.

They have assumed he is too weak: that he will soon be swept from office. Perhaps they should have been asking, instead, whether he is too strong: whether Bonapartist tendencies are beginning to manifest themselves.

For whoever occupies Number Ten has a near monopoly of the political advice which other ministers would need in order to make forceful arguments in Cabinet, or Cabinet committee, about any subject beyond their departmental responsibilities.

Sajid Javid refused, on being told he would not be allowed to choose his own advisers, to continue as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jesse Norman, currently serving as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, contributes to this volume an essay entitled Smith as SpAd? Adam Smith and Advice to Politicians.

The first part of this title has a Wodehousian ring. It prompts the thought that in modern English literature, the greatest provider of advice is Jeeves, and the greatest recipient Wooster.

Adam Smith often advised politicians:

“In 1766-7, he supplied information about French taxes to, and corrected the calculations of, Charles Townshend, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in relation to the Sinking Fund designed to repay debt incurred during the Seven Years’ War; the fund was topped up in Townshend’s 1767 budget. He also advised Lord Shelburne on colonial policy at this time. Lord North thanked Smith for his advice on his 1777 Budget, when he took ideas from The Wealth of Nations for two new taxes, on manservants and on property sold by auction. He took two more ideas in 1778: the malt tax and a very Smithian duty on the rentable value of buildings. Also in 1778, Smith wrote ‘Thoughts on the State of the Contest with America’, a long and considered memorandum setting out different options for British policy towards the American colonies, then in revolt, at the request of his friend Alexander Wedderburn, the Solicitor General.”

We also find Smith advising on trade between Britain and Ireland. Just now his help would be invaluable. He recognised, as Norman puts it, “that the world was an imperfect place, in which evils could exist and persist”.

Smith was not the laissez-faire ideologue for which he has sometimes been mistaken. Nor was he the kind of generalist with which the Fulton Committee, and latterly Dominic Cummings, considered the civil service to be over-provided. Smith was a Commissioner of Customs, active in the regulation and suppression of smuggling.

Colin Burrow remarks, in his essay entitled How Not To Do It: Poets and Counsel, Thomas Wyatt to Geoffrey Hill:

“The figure of the frank speaker condemned to the margins of political life, and thus unable to deliver counsel to his monarch, became one of the major literary personae of the later Henrician period.”

Twitter is just now infested with such frank speakers, who do not turn out to be gifted poets, but spend their days denouncing with hysterical self-righteousness anyone with whom they disagree.

The adviser has to be willing to compromise; often works for palpably inadequate leaders; but is at least on the field of play.

Liam Fox: Are we really going to close down the global economy every time a new virus emerges?

24 Jan

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.

Over 71,000 more people died in 2020 than would have been expected in a normal year. Apart from a deluded and dangerous minority whose addiction to conspiracy theories leave them in denial about the impact (or even the existence) of Covid-19, most people recognise that these excess deaths are due directly or indirectly to the pandemic.

The UK has been recognised as one of the world leaders in the vaccination programme. Britain has made £548 million available to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access facility (COVAX), to support equitable and affordable access to new coronavirus vaccines and treatments around the world.

The rollout of the vaccine to the UK population has also been impressive, although there is growing concern about the decision to extend the period between doses of the Pfizer (but not the Oxford AstraZeneca) vaccine.

If we are to continue to lead globally on the issue – and this year’s G7 summit gives us an ideal opportunity to do so – we must be clear about the reality in which we find ourselves, and recognise that the data systems we currently have will be inadequate to deal with the challenges of global pandemic.

We need to understanding that, contrary to a great deal of assertion, this is unlikely to be a “once in a generation” event.

The first major, and deadly, coronavirus outbreak of the 21st century was SARS in 2002.  The second was MERS in 2012. So we are now in the third major global coronavirus outbreak in 20 years.

While the first two had higher death rates than Covid-19, it is the transmissibility of the latest viral variant that has caused such damage. There is, however, no guarantee that we will not get both a more deadly and more transmissible outbreak in the future.  It is likely that Coronavirus is here to stay, and that we will have to deal with potential new variants emerging from time to time around the world.  To have any chance of dealing with this effectively, we need to develop international protocols, and this means having standardised recording of data.

In the UK, there is no single measure to calculate the mortality rate for Covid-19 accurately . We use inferences from total excess death rates, the number of people who have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test, and those who have had Covid-19 mentioned as a contributory cause on their death certificate.

None of these on their own can give us a truly accurate picture about the cost in lives of the virus.  There are three different types of patients who may fall within the excess mortality figures.

The first group is those who have died of Covid, i.e: where this was the main cause of death.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 made changes to death certification which may cloud the waters in this regard. While it is still intended that the doctor who attended the deceased during their last illness should, where possible, complete the death certificate, the Act also allows this to be completed if a patient was not seen by any medical practitioner during their last illness.

If that happens, a doctor would need to state to the best of their knowledge and belief the cause of death.  Covid-19 is now an acceptable ‘direct’ or ‘underlying’ cause of death for the purposes of the certificate but, although it is a notifiable disease, this does not mean that deaths from it must be reported to the coroner.

This may well result in fewer post-mortems being conducted, and a valuable source of data missed.  Some autopsy studies of patients who died of “influenza” during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic showed that, while almost all patients had evidence of bacterial pneumonia, fewer than 50 per cent tested positive for influenza viral antigens or viral RNA. In other words, there was a significant overestimate of the numbers who had actually died of influenza itself.

The second group is those who died with Covid19, that is, those who had been diagnosed with a positive test ,but who may have died of other, unrelated causes.

It seems strange to many that someone who tested positive for the virus but was hit by a bus within a month is counted as a Covid-19 death.

The third group is those who have died as a consequence of Covid-19, including those who did not access medical care because of lockdown, or those who were unable to access the appropriate care because hospitals were overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.

This will be of importance in determining how we run our healthcare services, especially if pandemic is likely to occur more frequently.  It has long been the practice in the NHS to run at very high bed occupancy rates.

We have to ask, if pandemic is going to be potentially a more frequent event, whether this is tilting the balance between efficiency and resilience in the wrong direction.  Given that we have spent billions of pounds trying to stop the capacity of our healthcare system being overwhelmed, would it not be more sensible (and potentially more financially prudent) in future to run the system with many more beds available than we expect to need at any one time?

Given the overall cost to our economy and the impact on the future of our public finances, perhaps we need to re-visit some of the assumptions that have underpinned policy under governments of all political colours. ,

Britain has a real opportunity to lead the global debate and the government can lead the way with the shakeup of Public Health England and the Resilience Unit within the Cabinet Office, both of which should have been better prepared for any pandemic.

I have supported the Government in all the lockdown measures they have taken in relation to Covid-19 but, in future, are we really going to close down the global economy every time a new virus emerges?

If not, what are the international protocols that we will need to develop as a global community and what are the metrics that we will require to make them work? Without proper information, how will we be able to determine the case fatality rate (the deaths from a disease compared to the total number of people diagnosed in a particular period) which will be one of the key measures that we will have to make in the event of a new outbreak?

We will also need enforceable global rules around transparency and notification. As we head for the G7, there can be no better example of “Global Britain” than for Britain to take a lead in pandemic preparedness and work towards global definitions that will enable us to avoid the uncoordinated global response that we have seen during Covid19.

James Frayne: Perhaps the Conservatives should simply revert to being southern and posh

10 Nov

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

In my twenties, I took a serious interest in US politics and campaigns, naively coming to think of the UK and US as culturally similar. It’s an easy mistake: a shared history; mutual respect for each other’s institutions; similar attitudes to the free market, individual rights and the rule of law; overlapping tastes in popular culture.

But it’s a mistake nonetheless. When I lived and worked in Washington DC and New York City for a couple of years – theoretically culturally familiar places – I came to realise how utterly foreign the US is. While I love the US and believe they’re our closest ally, I’m culturally European. I’m now firmly of the view those people seeking to apply political and electoral lessons from the US to the UK are usually wasting their time.

As Nick Timothy pointed out yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, the idea that Boris Johnson’s conservatism is damaged by Donald Trump’s defeat is ludicrous – the two are cut from different cloth, despite persistent but silly commentary linking “Brexit and Trump”.

So I stress: those looking to learn lessons from the US are mostly wasting their time. But one important consideration does arise for British Conservatives.

This is the electoral danger of letting down the new working class voters who have flocked to Trump’s GOP and the Conservative Party respectively.

In the US, these voters are often called Reagan Democrats or sometimes Springsteen Democrats; in the UK, we tend to call them the “traditional working class”; either way, they’re the working class of industrial and post industrial areas. While their similarities stretch only so far, given the differing nature of British and American labour markets and industrial history, the theme of working class disappointment is relevant.

We shouldn’t over-simplify: there were many reasons why Trump won in 2016; aggressive cultural conservatism was only one of them. But Trump partly carried so-called “rust-belt” states by promising to bring back long-lost manufacturing jobs and heavy industry. In short, he pledged to bring back dignity to hard-up places. The fact that this hasn’t happened – despite a surge in the national economy – dented his re-election chances.

A reality check: it doesn’t appear that Joe Biden truly surged amongst working class voters, nor did Trump collapse. But they do appear to have shifted markedly away from him. Given his narrow lead amongst the working class – and indeed his narrow lead in rust-belt states, full stop – this shift was enough to cause serious electoral problems.

British Conservatives face a similar problem. No, they didn’t make the same sorts of promises to the traditional working class in 2019; they didn’t promise the equivalent of, say, bringing back coal and steel to the North of England.

But while “getting Brexit done” was the most important part of their campaign last December, “levelling up” has become the party’s central public narrative (Covid aside) ever since; it runs through almost all of their policy communications. Their promises to the working class are far less outlandish than Trump’s, but they’re arguably more defined by their promises because they’ve talked of little else.

Trump’s winning coalition was large, but it was shallow, because of its reliance on new voters with no history of voting Republican. The same is true here. The Conservatives’ 80 seat majority looks massive, but it’s also precarious because again it’s built on new voters with few loyalties.

While working class people will cut the Conservatives slack because of Covid, they’ll soon be asking what progress the Government has made for them. They will certainly not accept the opposite of “levelling up” – the further decline of their towns and cities (which is already happening).

Just like those long-term Democrats who asked whether shifting their votes to their historical economic and moral opponents was worth it after all, so those traditional working class Labour voters from the Midlands, North and the Coast will pose the same sort of question. They’ll ask whether the Conservatives were all talk. And as I’ve written before, Keir Starmer is a very different proposition for the working class than Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s reported today that Rishi Sunak has promised Northern MPs more resources and more attention in the post-Covid period, largely, apparently, in the form of new infrastructure spending. This is welcome. (Though what about other areas – not least the Midlands and the coast?)

But time isn’t on their side, and the task is huge. Unless they can offer meaningful social and economic progress in such places as Walsall, Wolverhampton, Derby, Rotherham and Oldham, they will be out. Yes, they’ll be able to blame Covid-19 – but so what?

In fact, such little progress is being made, with time rapidly running out, it will soon be time to consider whether the Conservatives should junk their presumed working class strategy and focus once again on the affluent South. And it’s possible that the party should indeed take the easy route, follow its heart, and go back to being Southern and posh; yes, I’m serious.

Where should the Conservatives focus? Infrastructure matters. Ultimately, however, improving the economy outside the prosperous South East will require radically improving education and skills at all levels – seeking to build new businesses and industries from this new base of skilled workers. But you’re talking of two or three Parliaments to see the fruits of any such decisions made now. The Conservatives don’t have that luxury.

Rapid progress will depend on being able to show town centres – and specifically high streets – have improved. This doesn’t just mean defending commerce; it means making town centres safer and more attractive and, crucially, fostering local pride. The Party should be throwing itself into this task. A useful immediate start to focus minds: use all those screens in the Cabinet Office to display figures from a Towns Dashboard.

Paul Maynard: Here’s why I believe as an ex-Minister that a hard rain may indeed be coming for the civil service

31 Aug

Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

When an early morning call from Number 10 is scheduled on reshuffle day, then the writing is on the wall. The only question is where you want to be when you are asked to “step aside” from Government. Clearly not my Commons office – like the rest of the estate, mobile reception is at best intermittent.

I sat Portcullis House, but then thought better of being dumped in front of passing colleagues, so I strolled down the Embankment a little to receive the inevitable. The Prime Minister was friendly and had perfected the art of the rueful rejection. No-one will ever describe it as pleasant – unless they had pre-planned their departure.

Rather than head straight back to Parliament, I strolled across Waterloo Bridge in dismal drizzle. Never has the location felt so far removed from the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset. I certainly wasn’t in paradise, and rather hoped that the only sunset wasn’t that of my political career. From that bridge, I could gaze upon the Whitehall skyline as if it were some hermetic village, peopled by a priestly caste who floated high above my constituents’ supposedly more mundane concerns, and start mulling over my conclusions about how government does and doesn’t work.

More time in my Commons office then lockdown gave me an opportunity – and how we ex-Ministers seek them – to reflect on whether I felt I had achieved much in office, and whether the machinery of government is best equipped to help ministers do what they both wish and need to do to achieve their lofty ambitions.

Indeed, I felt I had achieved, though others may disagree with the footling nature of my supposed achievements. HS2 anyone? I looked back fondly on my promotion of the “sunflower” lanyard across the transport sector as part of the Inclusive Transport review I oversaw when first a transport minister.

That was until I read Michael Gove’s recent and insightful lecture to the Ditchley Foundation – “inclusive lanyards” came in for a bit of stick as a poor substitute for achieving radical change. The sight of so many such lanyards in supermarkets now has given me pause for thought also.

Gove made so many points which did resonate with me though. Not the least was the need for greater specialism by both ministers and civil servants. As the Major Rail Projects Minister, I literally begged to be sent on some course that might enable me to do a better job of holding delivery bodies to account – yet it was always “just around the corner” until the axe fell.

Excellent officials populated all my three differing ministerial stints, yet many seemed to be in perpetual motion as they moved from role to role, barely staying long enough to finish a project they started. There were exceptions – and they were all the more effective for it.

Ministers are often advised to pick three things to achieve within their average 18 month tenure, but even that degree of longevity seems optimistic these days – so fast is the hamster wheel of ministerial life. You realise things are dysfunctional when you find that you know more about an issue than the officials briefing you, or when you seem to be scheduling farewell drinks for someone in your private office every couple of months.

Individual civil servants are sincere, capable and enthusiastic. I was one of those ministers who knew we were just hot air without people to turn our vision into reality. They are easy targets for ministers lacking that subtle art of both listening and hearing.

However, I remember with enthusiasm that, in opposition, think tanks were a steady stream of innovative policy ideas. In particular, I recall Oliver Letwin’s pamphlet on the conveyor belt to crime – but the conveyor belt of fresh ideas seems to have gradually slowed down.

Within Downing Street, we need to reach out and ensure the hothouse of talent can be harnessed better. We have started to shy away from difficult complexity in addressing our policy challenges on the occasions we do decide to try and deal with them.

But for too long, whichever party may be in government, as a nation we have failed on some of the grand challenges. As a party, we have great ideas and insights, but they fail to see the light of day when they come to be put into practice.

I know ministers are often frustrated that they don’t feel they get the guidance they need as to what the centre wants. Involvement only seems to come when something goes wrong. In Canada, on appointment, ministers receive a “mandate letter” setting out what they are expected to achieve by the Prime Minister. Such a move would be both radical and positive, I believe, in this country. In addition, Canadian ministers don’t have to locate themselves in a departmental silo. The team of officials is built around their briefs – relatively narrow briefs which change as political priorities wax and wane.

So we need to try much, much harder to burst the departmental silos. Whilst some ministers sit across government departments, and the Cabinet Office has at times acted as an enforcer of key themes, on some of the really big thematic underpinnings of policy, Whitehall has not been able to effectively co-ordinate.

Ministerial committees are flabby, too full of a mix of posturing and defensiveness, as ministers defend the turf or score points off colleagues rather than collaborate to achieve. They always struck me as akin to the “boardroom” section of The Apprentice. It isn’t enough just to have someone in your private office picking up the phone to a distant department a small part of whose remit you hold the brief for, if only in theory. Build the structure around the minister’s mission.

That’s why I think we should appoint a pair of cross-government thematic ministers based in Cabinet Office, with the right to attend cabinet, focusing on social justice, infrastructure or inter-generational solidarity – as a test-bed for a new way of structuring Whitehall.

Is the answer to relocate Civil Service decision-making, as some suggest? If it is a case of aping the BBC and transplanting the denizens of Barnes to equally affluent Bowdon, modish Hackney to already-gentrified Hale, then the answer is no. Was the sole reason it was mooted sending the Lords to York was because senior civil servants had found some highly desirable Victorian villas they could afford in Harrogate?

If it is locating, not just processing, PIP claims to Blackpool (hundreds are already here), but those who come up with the processes and financial provisions within which those decisions have to be made, then yes. It needs to be more than a sop to the newly-won constituencies. Indeed, we’d be happy to host the Lords in Blackpool’s magnificent Winter Gardens ballroom where so many of them once strutted their stuff at party conferences.

History is littered with temporary bursts of enthusiasm for reforming the machinery of government or replanting clumps of civil servants in stonier ground. Often this is because it is seen to be an end in itself, rather than measured by whether the fundamental outputs change. Maybe this time will be different – the very scale of the challenge we now face with Covid will force through some radical innovation.

My knowledge of the Wade-Giles romanization methodology for Mandarin doesn’t allow me to confirm whether the Chinese characters for “crisis” and “opportunity” are in fact one and the same, as one endlessly-repeated ‘fact’ that is trotted out states. But even if they aren’t, it has to be how we approach the coming years.

The machinery of state has shown itself to lack the bandwidth and agility required to deliver complexity at pace. A hard rain may indeed be coming, if only because there is no alternative. Far worse, perhaps, would be the ‘spits and spots’ of precipitation beloved of BBC forecasters. Do it properly or not at all.

Allan Mallinson: What is the army for?

30 Aug

Allan Mallinson is a former soldier, novelist and writer. 

So it leaked out that the MoD is considering scrapping its tanks. And Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, says it would be better if the MoD waited for the strategic direction to emerge from the Cabinet Office’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

They’re both right. Logically, decisions about tanks – the heavy end of army business – ought to follow from how the Review sees the future. On the other hand, the MoD has a budget to manage and can’t assume it will get bigger. They’ve been looking at options for a “strategic pause” in procurement for the past two years. That’s what staff work is about: possibilities, options, risks. Besides, they’ve been asked specifically by the Review “What changes are needed to Defence so that it can underpin the UK’s security and respond to the challenges and opportunities we face?”

I know this because I’ve been asked the same. Last week I received an invitation from the MoD to enter a submission. It was no particular honour. Everyone is invited: see the link here.

We’ve been here before. In 1998 the new Blair government had celebrity focus groups for its Strategic Defence Review. It made participants feel important. They bought into the outcome, which by and large they agreed was a good one, which it would have been if only the premises had held good, which they didn’t, and if Gordon Brown’s Treasury had funded it, which they didn’t. Perhaps this time things will be different.

The Integrated Review intends to “define the Government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade”. It will set “the long-term strategic aims of our international policy and national security, rooted in our national interests, so that our activity overseas delivers for the British people.”

It will “re-examine the UK’s priorities and objectives in light of the UK’s departure from the European Union and at a time when the global landscape is changing rapidly.” For it foresees “increasing instability and challenges to global governance”, adding that last year witnessed the highest number of state-based conflicts since 1946.

In the last decade it estimates that “more than half the world’s population lived in direct contact with, or proximity to, significant political violence”, and that by 2030 some 80 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile states.

It’s not all bad news, though. The Cabinet Office believes that in 2030 the UK will be “stronger, wealthier, more equal, more sustainable, more united across nations and regions.”

In asking what changes are needed to Defence, the Review adds that submissions “focusing on the changing character of warfare, broader concepts of deterrence, technological advantage and the role of the Armed Forces in building national resilience are particularly welcome.”

So, not exactly blue-sky thinking, but certainly not (too) constrained. My inclination, however, as I was first a soldier, is to leave vexed questions such as Trident replacement, the superiority of land-based airpower, and the vulnerability of our “carrier-strike”, and instead ask rather more basically “What is the army for?” (Not “will be for“, because that implies it has no enduring purpose).

For the army is in a very present predicament. According to one former Chief of the General Staff, the robustly pragmatic Sir Mike Jackson, the army is probably no longer capable of war because it is simply too small, a “shadow”, he says, of what it was just a few decades ago.

Too much of it is part-time, with all that that means for quality and readiness. At the end of the Cold War the regular army was more twice its present size, and the Territorials were 80,000. Now the regulars can barely muster 80,000, and the Reserve 30,000.

How did it happen? The answer could be instructive.

John Major cut numbers drastically at the end of the Cold War – his “peace dividend”. The then CGS, Sir John Chapple, argued in vain that the army needed the dividend more than the Treasury because the future was so uncertain. Indeed, at the time the army was still liberating Kuwait. But as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, wrote, “Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer”; and Major saw that the future was peaceful.

Blair and Brown, despite their interventionist appetites – Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan – cut troop and equipment numbers even further, justified by novel doctrines of limited scale and “fast in, fast out”, as if the enemy had no vote.

Worse still, in 2010 the Coalition government all but emasculated the infantry and armoured corps, even while fighting continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. The chancellor, George Osborne, anticipating the end of both campaigns and the coming of the elusive “summer”, demanded more chimneys be blocked up. Both Iraq and Afghanistan had been policy mistakes, ran the logic; policy mistakes could be avoided, and “winter”, if it returned at all, needn’t be too severe. Indeed, if there were a smaller army there’d be less incentive to use it.

This was nothing new. Writing of the Duke of Wellington’s struggle with the Whig government in the 1830s, the historian Sir John Fortescue concluded “Wellington’s care was less to improve the army than to save it from destruction.”

The same could be said of all army chiefs since the end of the Cold War. With no threat of invasion, no threat to internal security requiring a military response, and little need to defend overseas possessions, all that they’ve been able to do is point to residual Nato commitments, “defence engagement” (working and training with local forces in areas of instability) and peacekeeping.

But in auditing the manpower bill for this, the Treasury has always been able to find further economies because they’re good at measuring finite things. More cuts followed in 2015. Consequently there are now more postmen than regular troops.

The problem is that the MoD is always made to answer the wrong question. Or chooses to.

The Greeks had a word for it. They called their army stratos, “a body of men”, while the Romans called theirs not by what it was but by what it did: exercitus – “practice”, “training”. Both took for granted the fundamental need for a body of men that trained constantly.

When in 1906, however, Britain’s great reforming war minister, the philosopher Richard Burdon Haldane, famously asked “What is the army for?” he posed a different and existential question. Did the army, like the Royal Navy, have a specifiable purpose that not just determined its form but justified its very being? 1914 rudely interrupted the discussion.

What answer should the Integrated Review expect of the same question today? The Royal Navy is responsible for the strategic nuclear deterrent, and minds Britain’s trade routes as advocated by Sir Walter Raleigh. The Royal Air Force exists for the air defence of the United Kingdom, for which it was founded in April 1918, the air arms of the other two services having been judged not up to the task.

These functions are 24/7. But the army has no comparable purpose. Not, at least, one that justifies its existence beyond its original purpose in 1660: a few guards and garrisons. It should therefore refuse battle on terms of mere accountancy.

Trotsky explained why: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Only during the Cold War has Britain had remotely adequate defence insurance. Instead it has preferred to pay ruinous repair bills. In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, defence spending was 5.1 per cent of GDP. At present, as a Nato member the UK is committed to just two per cent of GDP.

In real terms, this will not fund armed forces capable of full-spectrum war. Can it really make sense for post-Brexit “Global Britain” to be paying an insurance policy comparable to those of Belgium and Luxembourg?

Indeed, rather than insurance, shouldn’t the Defence budget be regarded as infrastructure investment, like HS2?

Rather than trying to justify itself by specific tasks, which come and go at a whim, the army should insist on funding for its fundamental, enduring purpose: to be ready for war, war that cannot be foreseen or its character predicted – even, paradoxically, by the army itself.

That, ultimately, is what the army is for.

Radical: While political leaders hide from confrontation, activists are winning the war on self-identification

18 Aug

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and co-founder of Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate. She and Rebecca Lowe, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.

Regardless of commitments about a summer announcement, Parliament went into recess without any further clarity from Liz Truss on the Government’s plans for reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Nonetheless, there has been no let up in the debate.

It had been expected that the changes to the law that the May government had consulted on – which would have allowed people to change their legal sex without a medical diagnosis, or evidence of having lived for some time as a member of the opposite sex – would be abandoned by the current Westminster government.

In Scotland, reforms of the law to this effect in are still expected to proceed, after having been put on hold during the Covid crisis. But the signs had been pretty clear for months that Westminster had decided against so-called “self-ID” for England and Wales.

In the weeks before recess, however, trans rights activists became ever more vocal in their efforts to mobilise support for self-ID. Publications such as Pink News worked hard, misusing survey data (and misrepresenting the current law), to try to create the impression of a country in which the vast majority of people favoured self-ID, and with it the ability for male-bodied transwomen to use women-only facilities. As ever, mainstream-media reporting too often went along with this false narrative.

Perhaps the influence of these activist groups is one reason for the Government’s delay in confirming its position formally, as promised. After all, government departments and quangos, from the Cabinet Office to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), have signed up to receive guidance and training from Stonewall, through its Diversity Champions programme – and Stonewall is a highly political organisation, which has been lobbying the Government particularly strongly on trans issues.

Transactivist talking points have also been adopted by representatives within the Conservative Party. Many common examples of transactivist misinformation can be found in this piece by Crispin Blunt and Sue Pascoe, for instance – ironically, in a section devoted to “myth-busting”. So it would not be surprising if the Minister for Equalities has faced the pressure of opposition from within the party over her rethink on pushing forward with self-ID.

The EHRC itself joined the fray last week. Not, however, as might have been hoped, to clarify and improve its guidance on the existing laws protecting women that have been the subject of widespread misunderstanding (as seen in the Blunt and Pascoe piece referred to above). But, rather, to publish another tendentious survey, and remonstrate with its respondents who didn’t support transwomen’s access to women-only spaces and services.

Whilst she acknowledged that a great majority of British people broadly support trans people’s rights to live free of discrimination, and do not consider themselves to be transphobic, Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, also noted that “people were found to be less supportive of trans people in specific situations”. The specific situations in question included women’s refuges and facilities such as public toilets.

Yet far from acknowledging that there are good reasons, and legal support, for such views, Hilsenrath seems to consider that the people holding them need to be helped to change their minds, by bringing about a better “level of understanding on the key facts surrounding the debate” by “both sides improving the level of discourse”.

This seems, again, rather ironic considering the poor guidance the EHRC has published on the legal facts of the matter. Indeed, although Hisenrath called for a constructive, tolerant, and fact-based dialogue on law and policy, it seems very clear what the EHRC considers to be the “right” outcome of any dialogue.

In a recent thoughtful piece for The Spectator, James Kirkup called for the Government to take the sting out of the issue by first publishing a “drily technical” announcement that: self-id would be dropped, tweaks made to existing processes regarding legal sex changes, to make them faster and cheaper; and, proper clarity provided in guidance on single-sex provisions. Then the “wider issues” of “reconciling conflicting rights and addressing the woefully poor evidence-base on trans issues, should be kicked even further into the long grass, with a proper fact-finding ‘further investigation’ that must report before any major change can come”.

Now, apart from the fact that what Kirkup considers would be an undramatic, “technical” announcement is, in effect, exactly what the trans lobby have been campaigning against – and publicly positing as a “rolling back” of trans rights – this calm approach seems sensible.

However, it comes with risks. Conservative governments have not traditionally been good at making conservative appointments, and trans lobbyists and activists have excelled at capturing public bodies. There is surely a serious risk, therefore, that any investigative commission, instead of fearlessly finding and reporting on the truth in medical and legal matters, would be susceptible to the same forces that have caused scientific papers to be withdrawn, and legal “guidance” to distort the law.

Certainly, however, there is no reason for Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, or Keir Starmer for that matter, to get personally involved in the unedifying social-media gender wars. But, it is also the case that they should not allow themselves to get caught up in the “both sides are equal” fallacy that the EHRC and others have been perpetuating.

Legal rights associated with sex have become a political matter, whether we like it or not, and a Conservative government should not hide from making necessary political decisions to acknowledge the reality of sex, and the legal and policy considerations that flow from that. In real life, public bodies continue to adopt policies that are in conflict with current law. Yet these decisions seem to undergo little or no consultation or scrutiny – until, as seen with the spate of legal action against guidance to schools, brave individuals stand up and challenge them.

NHS Lanarkshire recently announced an HR protocol , which effectively makes staff changing rooms mixed sex, included people who dress as the opposite gender for “erotic pleasure” under the umbrella of “trans”, and by claims that staff could be discriminating against trans colleagues by “not thinking” of them as the gender they present.  A Labour MSP who tried to hold NHS Lanarkshire to account over this, and who questioned how a medical organisation could propagate the idea of a baby having its gender “assigned at birth”, was met with calls that she should be disciplined by her party.

These are the consequences of political leaders leaving the field. Hiding behind a commission of experts, therefore, in order to avoid offending the groups of highly engaged and influential activists who have occupied that field, would itself be a political decision, and one that seems unlikely to improve the quality of the debate.