“Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge”. Johnson’s Vince Vaughn advice to the Cabinet about how to tackle trans.

29 Mar

When those two great publications The Daily Telegraph and Pink News  both agree something is significant, you naturally take note. The Spring Statement may have overshadowed last Wednesday’s PMQs, but one answer from the session has been touted as representing Julius Boris Caesar wading into the murky Rubicon of the UK’s ongoing gender wars.

Angela Richardson asked Johnson about the Cass Review into the children’s gender identity services at the Portman and Tavistock Clinic, requesting he meet with her to discuss helping young people “who are experiencing gender distress”.

The Prime Minister responded that whilst “we must recognise when people want to make a transition in their lives that they should be treated with the maximum possible generosity and respect”, and added that “when it comes to distinguishing between man and woman, the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important”.

A few years ago, such a statement stressing the importance of both basic tolerance and basic biology would have been uncontentious. Yet the debate over transgenderism, self-identification, and its attendant implications for women’s rights has become so polarised that the Prime Minister was pillared by Stonewall and various trans activists.

But allegations of bigotry are hard to square with the words “maximum possible generosity and respect”, or the fact that – notorious 1998 comments about “tank-topped bumboys” asides – Johnson has been consistently progressive on LGBT+ issues.

He was one of the first Conservative politicians to back gay marriage, banned advertising for gay conversion therapy on the Tube as London Mayor, and nodded along vigorously as his wife listed Conservative successes in this area at last October’s Conservative Party Conference. He is hardly Section 28 in human form – an act that he broke the whip to repeal.

Instead, according to those who know his thinking on this personally, Johnson has a long-standing and nuanced position on the trans debate. Commentators who have treated Johnson’s PMQ’s comments as his first testing of the gender wars waters have missed that he used a similar formulation in an interview with GB News last year.

Asked if only women had cervixes – an issue his Opposition equivalent had struggled with – the Prime Minister’s response was hardly dripping in prejudice.  “Biology is very important,” he noted, “but we’ve got a system now in our country, for many, many years in which people… can change gender.” Moreover, “[we] help them to do that, and what I absolutely passionately believe – and I’ve thought this for a long time – is everybody should be treated with dignity and respect.”

It is an approach that he apparently replicates in Cabinet. He tells ministers to do two things. First, to copy Vince Vaughn in Dodgeball and to “dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge” the trans issue, to prevent opening a toxic culture war. He follows that with a simple exhortation: to be kind.

The desire for kindness motivates many Tories across this debate. Speaking to MPs on both sides, all are quick to stress that their motivation for their stance comes from a place of basic compassion. Whether they are championing gender self-identification or arguing to protect female-only spaces like refuges, all maintain their central objective is to make life easier for some of society’s most vulnerable.

There is widespread support across the party for taking practical measures to aid the average trans person in Britain. On average, as one MP told me, it takes three years for someone considering transitioning to get medical help and access to counselling. Speeding up that process would do much to make a lot of very unhappy people a little happier. These are measures that are supported, and separately suggested to me, by MPs publicly on different sides of the gender self-identification debate.

So if there is a large amount of consensus on these issues amongst Tories, why is the assumption still that it must be a divisive issue? Partially, it is because recent governments have made an active effort to push these issues forwards.

Consultations on reforming the law on gender self-identification were first launched by Theresa May’s government. Although Liz Truss decided against the need for legislation in that area, banning gay conversion therapy was a manifesto commitment in 2019, championed in the Commons by Alicia Kearns, and is likely to be put to a vote this coming year.

Simultaneously, questions of the implications of transgenderism for women’s rights have become regular headlines. A decade ago, stories about someone with a penis winning a female swimming race or of someone self-identifying as a woman committing a rape in a hospital would have seemed almost impossible.

That these are both from the last two weeks shows how trans issues have become part of the national conversation. A considerable number of elected officials privately, and a growing number publicly, are concerned by this, and worry that well-meaning efforts to help trans people may come at the cost of hard-won female rights.

Nevertheless, disputes also arise from participants in this debate talking at cross-purposes. A failure of communication is to blame if MPs from different sides can privately agree over the importance of improving healthcare access for trans people and keeping transwomen out of female-only sports, yet publicly appear poles apart.

Undoubtedly, culture warriors have an interest in riling things up for their fifteen minutes of fame. But the experience of Surrey’s Police and Crime Commissioner Lisa Townsend also indicates how conversations can be blunted through a fundamental failure to understand what the other side wants.

Townsend shared a Tweet of J. K. Rowling’s last year which suggested biologically male rapists were not female. Three men, including local MP Crispin Blunt, complained. Although Surrey’s Conservatives gave Townsend their overwhelming support, she was understandably aggrieved. Blunt had acted from a position of wanting to ensure trans people did not feel victimised – but Townsend has suggested his failure to mention women when reporting her showed that he did not understand that her actions came from a genuine desire to protect women’s’ rights, not blind prejudice.

That is the central issue. Those wishing to protect rights won by women over the last century confront those fighting to extend trans rights in this one. But there is hope that this can be done without public acrimony.

Polling suggests the Prime Minister’s attitude is very similar to that of the general public – supportive, but conscious of issues surrounding biology in particular circumstances, whether the velodrome or female prisons. With a consensus over the importance of practical improvements to help trans people, and as Labour’s frontbench still struggle to define what a woman is or whether they can have a penis, the government – and the Conservative party as a whole – have an excellent opportunity to lead the way.

Viva the vaccine passport rebellion

10 Dec

What a week it’s been for the Government. With the furore around whether or not Downing Street had a party – or three – the Electoral Commission’s verdict on Boris Johnson’s wallpaper and the arrival of his and Carrie Johnson’s baby daughter, the media has had no end of things to write about.

Unfortunately for the Government, much more negative attention is on its way, due to a growing Conservative rebellion around Coronavirus vaccine passports, which, on Wednesday, Johnson announced would be implemented in England (in what some have called a “diversionary tactic”). 

Although Conservative MPs have been generally supportive of measures to combat Coronavirus, from the Emergency Powers Bill to curfews, something about the passports has pushed them to their limits.

Tens of Conservatives, including Dehenna Davison, Andrew Bridgen and Johnny Mercer have tweeted their disapproval of vaccine passports (which have been introduced in Scotland and Wales), with William Wragg, a member of the Covid Recovery Group, being so brazen as to call for Sajid Javid to “resign” over the latest measures. Expect a mega rebellion on passports on Tuesday, when they’ll be voted on, with talks of up to 100 MPs rejecting the plans.

The Government’s justification for passports has been the quickly-spreading Omicron variant, which has prompted it to unleash its “Plan B” set of restrictions. This includes asking people to work from home when they can from next Monday, as well as making masks compulsory in many indoor settings; two requirements that have received much less, albeit some, criticism compared to passports.

Part of the reason why MPs may have become more concerned about these is the events elsewhere in Europe, which have brought into sharp focus how illiberal restrictions can become. Austria’s decision to make vaccines mandatory has been a wake up call – to say the least. The more cynical will say that some MPs are simply using passports as an opportunity to kick Johnson when he’s down, having disapproved of his policies for a while.

My own view, in regards to the introduction of vaccine passports, is one of mild disbelief that the Government ever contemplated them in the first place, never mind that Johnson said there should be a “national conversation” on mandatory jabs. 

There seem to be far more arguments against passports than those in favour (many of which are based on emotional reasoning – “well I like the idea” – and a desire to conform – “well France has done it”). They are divisive, literally separating society into two; don’t completely stop transmission; no one knows where the cut off point for such passports should be (flu?) and will make life complicated and miserable, with large economic consequences. The Night Time Industries Association has already said passes have caused a 30 and 26 per cent trade drop-off in Scotland and Wales, respectively.

Perhaps the most worrying thing, though, is we simply don’t know the long-term impact. Passports are one giant experiment, which we have discussed with all the seriousness of whether someone should change bank accounts.

In general, vaccine passports seem to symbolise a wider issue with the Government, in the Covid wars, which is that it hasn’t completely decided how to be “Global Britain” yet. Post-Brexit it has the opportunity to show the world a different approach to the pandemic; one that respects civil liberties, and isn’t so far away from Sweden’s more relaxed strategy. Instead, we seem to be “Herd Britain”, constantly keeping an eye on what France and Germany are up to, with a view to emulating them.

Either way, something has changed in the equation. The crucial question next week is how the Government groups the votes on “Plan B”. If MPs can vote on vaccine passports as a lone category, it makes it far easier for the idea to be shot down. On the other hand, if vaccine passports, masks and working from home are placed into a single “Plan B” vote, the Government might find all of its plans in disarray; as Bridgen warned “I will vote against any legislation that sees [passports’] introduction“. That, or it’ll be easier to sell to Labour, which is pro restrictions. Whatever the case, we need a cut off point as to how far measures can go; viva the vaccine passport rebels, I say.

The Paterson fallout. If your plan depends on Labour’s co-operation, might it not be a good idea to be sure that you have it?

4 Nov

Johnson – off the hook with some voters, on it with more Conservative MPs

  • “If the row drags on for a few days, let alone gets noisier, he will fall back from that dead end”, I wrote of Boris Johnson on Tuesday evening – suggesting that the Government had advanced into a cul-de-sac from which only the escape route was retreat.
  • The Prime Minister didn’t get where he is today without knowing when to cut and run.  And so he did – even faster than I expected.  Downing Street sources say that he was outraged by Owen Paterson’s unrepentant interview with Sky on Tuesday.
  • That the Paterson story was bursting through on news bulletins and front pages, and that the Government’s plan to deal with it won by a majority of only 18; that this slender majority confirmed backbench discontent and that the Opposition made the scheme inoperable…all this may say more about why Johnson fell back.
  • Downing Street knows that claims of “Tory sleaze” are like a fire in a wood.  Most of the time, it will burn itself out.  But there is always a risk that it will set the forest ablaze.  Hence the Prime Minister’s rush to stamp the flames out quickly.  My best guess is that he has succeeded.
  • Then again, constituents aren’t marched up the hill and down again – as Conservative MPs were yesterday.  They went under fire in that dead end.  They felt the heat from the flames.  Andrea Leadsom fronted for the plan.  John Whittingdale was approached to chair the new committee.  And all for nothing.
  • Which is part of a repeated pattern – stretching from the privatisation of forests in David Cameron’s time to the treatment of sewage only last month.  The Prime Minister has lost a bit more capital in the bank of his backbenchers’ good will.

Who’s to blame for the debacle: Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Spencer…or all of them?

  • If you’re backing a scheme that requires Opposition support – such as a new Select Committee to examine the Paterson case, specifically, and the Standards regime, more broadly – it’s essential to have it in the bag before launching it in the Commons.  So why did the Government press ahead without it?
  • Jacob Rees-Mogg backed the plan in the Chamber: it was plain both from his speech and from this week’s Moggcast that he was opposed to the Standards Committee’s Paterson proposal.  However, some of his friends blame the whips for screwing up the numbers.  “Not the Chief Whip’s finest hour,” said one.
  • Certainly, whips rang round backbenchers urging them to sign the amendment that Andrea Leadsom presented.  Some of them did so on trust, and later regretted it.  “I felt sorry for Owen because of his wife’s death,” one said, “and didn’t know that Labour weren’t squared”.
  • But while those friends of Rees-Mogg blame the whips, friends of the whips blame…Rees-Mogg.  “The plan was pushed by the Leader’s office,” said one.  “We rang round backbenchers over the weekend about the original proposals. But there was no time to do so over the amendment.  Or to square the Opposition”.
  • Nonetheless, the source of the plan wasn’t the Leader of the Commons, let alone the whips.  Rather, it was Paterson’s backers and friends in the Parliamentary Party. But the reticence of MPs who weren’t among them turned out to be a better guide to the backbench mood than the protests of those who were.
  • The Prime Minister must be added to this contested roll-call of those responsible – not so much for his place at the head of the Government as his history with the Standards Commissioner who, remember, found that he was in breach of Commons rules over his Mustique holiday.

Richardson restored, Bryant triumphant…and the Commissioner still in place

  • Angela Richardson must enter the lists for the quickest sacking and reappointment in history.  On Wednesday, she was out: dismissed as PPS to Michael Gove for refusing to back the amendment.  By earlier today, she was back in.
  • Chris Bryant and his committee have been criticised not so much for the verdict they passed on Paterson as for the sentence – not least by me.  But whether they were right or wrong, Bryant has emerged as a winner.  Johnson’s plan would have scuppered his committee.  Instead, his Commons speech scuppered the plan.
  • Above all, Kathryn Stone is still in place.  Some Conservative MPs believe that she is biased generally against them and specifically against Brexiteers.  But fear of their constituents ultimately proved a stronger force than revenge against the Commissioner.

The tragedy of the Paterson family

  • Spouses matter in politics: think Denis Thatcher or Cherie Blair…or, for that matter, Carrie Johnson.  So do children.  Paterson’s resignation statement suggested that they persuaded him to quit – and its account of Labour MPs mocking his bereavement was heartbreaking. Be sure that they will be named and shamed.
  • But in any event, the Prime Minister’s U-turn left him nowhere to go.  Suspension for 30 days and a recall petition loomed.  Yes, he could have sought the Tory by-election candidacy.  And yes, he could have stood as an independent had he been denied it – exposed, as the Conservatives now are, to a latter-day Martin Bell.
  • It would have been a humiliating end to a fine career.  Though his fate is scarcely better: his name tarnished, his wife dead, and the good work of the trust named after her endangered.
  • Had he bent to the prevailing wind and apologised, he would have faced a lesser penalty and be an MP still.  But Paterson has never been a man to bend.  It was his making, and has been his undoing.

Churchill, walking with destiny. Johnson, winking at destiny.

6 Oct

Never underestimate most people’s lack of interest in politics – as practised at Westminster, anyway.  Here at ConservativeHome, we’re obsessed by it.  Our readers are at the very least interested in it.  So it’s sometimes an effort to remember that most of Britain is Rhett Butler: “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

But now and again, a politician breaks through the cloud of unknowing and becomes a Given, a Fact – like the weather.  Modern Britain has seen three.  The first was Margaret Thatcher.  The second, Tony Blair.  The third, Boris Johnson.

Each vanished inside themselves and returned as an icon.  Thatcher was embraced first hesitantly, then decisively, as embodying the end of a clapped-out post-war settlement.  She became, with apologies to Dominic Raab and the gang, Britannia Unchained.

Blair was the beneficiary of revulsion at Conservatives who had run out of steam, and he projected an archetype of the age: of youthful, ideology-light, transformative leadership – a standard model in the west since J.F.Kennedy.

The Prime Minister has a smaller majority than either (though at 80-plus it is perfectly satisfactory) but a bigger inheritance: indeed, nothing is ever more likely to become him like his victory of almost two years ago.

After inheriting a broken party on nine per cent of the vote, expelling a swathe of his senior MPs, falling into an even bigger Parliamentary minority, wrangling with the judges and somehow gaining an election, Johnson won it and delivered Brexit.

This was more fundamental break with the recent past than Blair’s or even Thatcher’s.  So if Thatcher was Britannia and Blair Kennedy, who is the Prime Minister?

We won’t for a moment waste our time and yours by probing what he passed off yesterday as a speech.  Insofar as it was one, its content was levelling up – a traditional Tory idea of a One Nationish kind, to be achieved by electic mayoral methods: more Blair than Thatcher.

No, what Johnson did yesterday was less to make a speech than paint a picture: “generally funkapolitan party”…”my chestnuts out of Tartarean pit”…”chewed his pensive quill”…”raucus squaukus from the anti-AUKUS caucus”…“reprendre le control”…

“Build Back Beaver…the greatest Frost since the great frost of 1709…fibre-optic vermicelli…66,000 sausages aboard…”aquatic forest of white turbines”… “if you can steal a dog or cat there is frankly no limit to your depravity”…

This is what he has been doing all the way from his stint as the Daily Telegraph‘s Brussels correspondent (“Brussels bureaucrats have shown their legendary attention to detail by rejecting new specifications for condom dimensions”) to the premiership.

This is less a real though dead American president than another great and imaginary British archetype, but with a twist: Boris Johnson is John Bull with his trousers down.  Or should that be Winston Churchill?

Johnson, after all, has written a light but vivid book about the great Conservative and Liberal.  Perhaps it is impertinent or, worse, simply wrong to seek comparisons between the psychology of the two.

But we think there’s something in it, and the temptation is irresitible.  In his essay on Churchill and his “Black Dog” – i.e: his depression – Anthony Storr zeroes in on the former Prime Minister’s paintings.

“I must say, I like bright colours.  When I get to heaven…I shall require a still gayer palette than I get here below…there will be a whole range of wonderful new colours that will delight the celestial eye,” Churchill himself wrote.

Storr goes on to write that “in psycho-analytical jargon, this is manic defence.  The counterpart to the gloomy, subfusc world of the depressive is a realm of perpetual excitement and action, in which colours are richer and brighter…

…gallant deeds are accomplished by heroes, and ideas expressed in language replete with simile, ornamented with epithet, and sparkling with mellifluous turns of phrase.”

We can’t help but find parallels in the life of Churchill’s successor, who could himself produce striking doodles during Telegraph editorial conferences, and is the child of two artists.

One, in words (Stanley Johnson won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry at Oxford); the other, on canvas.  Charlotte Johnson Wahl‘s struggle with depression and OCD is well known enough not to need repetition.

“That’s the trouble with Anthony—half mad baronet, half beautiful woman”, Rab Butler said of Eden, whose mother was a beautiful woman and whose father was, well, you get it.

There is a lot more to the Prime Minister, or to anyone else, than being half each of both parents, but we think that there is something in it – and that, whether so or not, many people want nothing more than being cheered up.  Which Johnson does in spades.

All this is a long way from Italian condoms, let alone levelling up and Johnson’s speech today, but it may offer a surer guide to his success.  At any rate, his connection to the unpoliticised – his being a Fact and a Given – leaves the next election his to lose.

The Conservatives are on their fourth term in government, but neither David Cameron nor Theresa May won a solid Tory majority.  That Johnson did so two years ago made the Manchester Conference feel like that of a governing party for the first time since 2010.

In other words, Brexit has given him a first term, rather than a Conservative fourth one, and he still leads in the polls despite Covid, shortages, Chesham & Amersham, the Northern Ireland Protocol, the endless redefinings of levelling up – much, really.

Yet what would embarrass another leader somehow washes over him.  Take the absurd spectacle of the most important woman in his private life, Carrie Johnson, speaking at a conference reception co-hosted by Stonewall…

…Which the most important woman in his public one, Liz Truss, has slated – urging government to pull out of its employment scheme.  And, yes, the Foreign Secretary was actually there at the event.

“Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman wrote.  “Very well then I contract myself…I am large, I contain multitudes.”  He might have been summing the Prime Minister up in a couple of sentences.

The time may come when the show stops going on because the audience has had enough.  Most governments are felled by the question: “where’s the delivery?”  Somewhere in their second term, they usually run out of steam, and luck too.

Johnson’s great-grandfather, a liberal Turkish politician and journalist, was strung up by a group of paramilitary officers – in legend, a mob.  We’ve sometimes wondered if the Prime Minister will meet an end less bloody but no less dramatic.

The more those failed Remainers rage at him, the more he laughs, as he winds them up like a watch.  His hold on his party is brutal.  But one day, the worm – sorry those backbenchers – may turn.

And the British people will have had enough of this Given and Fact, whose authority comes partly from being a known quantity.  As this site has written for two days running and now writes for a third, the state is too big, taxes too high and levelling up too inchoate.

But for the moment, he is in pole position and poll position – shortages, price rises, queues and all.  “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial,” Churchill wrote as he entered Downing Street in 1940.  Where he walked with destiny, Johnson winks at it.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 10) Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill

29 Aug

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, on 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.

10. Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill

This is the second of no fewer than three animal-related bills in the Speech.  We’ve already covered the first, the Animal Welfare Sentience Bill, in this series.

This Bill aims to “protect pets, livestock and wild animals”.  Ministers claim it will “improve welfare standards through a wide range of measures”, and the Government refers specifically to three aims: enhancing protections for kept animals in Great Britain, new powers to tackle puppy smuggling and livestock worrying, and delivering the Bill in the context of its Action Plan for Animal Welfare.

Responsible department

As with the Animal Welfare Sentience Bill, the Department of the Environment. But unlike that measure, it is being introduced first in the Commons, not the Lords.

None of the Commons Defra Ministers have responsibility for animal welfare, but Victoria Prentis took a Westminster Hall debate on the Action Plan recently.  So she will presumably deal with at least part of the Bill in committee.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New

Expected when?

Currently under consideration – it received its First Reading in June.

Arguments for

Essentially, that animal welfare legislation needs updating from time to time, and that, beside combatting puppy smuggling and livestock worrying, it is now right to ban the keeping of primates as pets.  And to increase the minimum age of imported puppies, as well as restrict the import of pregnant dogs and dogs with mutilations such as cropped ears and tails.

The Bill also proposes to end the ban on the export of live animals for slaughter and fattening.  The UK’s capacity to do so was a feature of the Brexit debate.  “Live animals can endure excessively long journeys during export, causing distress and injury. EU rules prevented any changes to these journeys,” the Government claims.

Arguments against

One might be this Bill is unnecessary – because all three of the animal-welfare related Bills should have rolled into a single piece of legislation.  MPs are unlikely to queue up in order to argue that the Bill goes too far: for example, that people should have the freedom to keep primates as pets (or, say, wild cats without a licence, like the 1960s lady who walked a leopard through the streets of London).

They are more likely to maintain that the Bill doesn’t go far enough.  So for example, statements from Labour MPs about the Bill include calls for: tougher measures on pet theft, animal welfare to be included in the consideration of online harms, and establishing an independent Animal Welfare Commissioner.

Politics

Ministers will doubtless fall back on procedural and legal arguments in making the case for three animal welfare-related Bills rather than one.  But the real point of these legislative arrangements is political. Chris Hopkins, Political Research Director at Savanta ComRes, has said that animal welfare is unlikely to ever feature on pollsters’ metrics when voters are asked about the issues that matter to them.

However, he adds that it may play a more symbolic role in voter decisions, and that “animal welfare issues are about detoxifying the brand”.  Carrie Johnson will make a difference to the Government’s approach.  But a Tory shift was visible before the last election – see for example, the increases in sentences for animal cruelty and the ban on puppy farming during Michael Gove’s term at Defra.

Controversy rating: 4/10

Our score would be higher had not Ministers closed off most of the main avenues for criticism.  We make no comment in this article over whether the Government was right to give priority in the Kabul departures to Pen Farthings’ cats and dogs.  But the support he has gained in some media outlets helps to explain why politicians sometimes treat animals at least as well as people.

Lord Ashcroft: Exclusive – My next book will be on Carrie Johnson

29 Jul

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

As I prepare to publish my biography of Sir Keir Starmer on August 19, I am pleased to announce that my next project will be a book about Carrie Johnson.

Carrie has interested me for some time. Many people know her as Boris Johnson’s wife, but her influence developed long before she moved into 10 Downing Street via her work over the last decade within the Conservative Party and also through the posts she has held working for government ministers. Aside from politics, she has campaigned in the fields of the environment and animal rights, both of which are areas of great interest to me.

As with all of my political biographies, this project will be independent, objective, open-minded, fair, factual and even-handed. The research I’ve done already has proved fascinating.

As well as my forthcoming book on Starmer, titled Red Knight, I have published biographies of David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Rishi Sunak in recent years. I anticipate Carrie Johnson being every bit as intriguing and rewarding a subject. I expect this book to be published early in 2022.