David Gauke: There are signs that the Treasury is winning. And that more tax rises are coming.

19 Jul

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.

When asked about the proposal by Henry Dimbleby that a new Salt and Sugar Reformulation Tax should be introduced, the Prime Minister responded by saying that he is ‘not attracted to extra taxes on hard working people’.

At one level, this is what one might expect him to say, given his reluctance to be the bearer of bad news. But some have taken this to be not just a holding response to the publication of the National Food Strategy, but a firm determination to hold the line against tax rises. If so, there may be problems ahead.

It was only a few months ago that Rishi Sunak delivered a tax-raising Budget, with the freezing of allowances and thresholds in the personal tax system, plus a hefty increase in the rate of Corporation Tax (which, in the end, will be paid by people because all taxes are). These increases may well be sufficient to meet the Chancellor’s fiscal rules ,but only if he maintains the current spending plans.

This looks unlikely. To take just three examples, the cost of Covid catch-up, social care reform and net zero could easily cost £10 billion a year a piece. Add to that the cost of levelling up, plus the risks that debt interest payments could increase significantly, the Chancellor’s target of current expenditure being paid for by current revenue and debt falling as a proportion of GDP looks precarious.

It would be fair to say that the cause of spending control has been strengthened in recent days. The Government saw off attempts to block the cut in overseas aid more comfortably than expected, with Sunak very heavily involved in talking round potential rebels.

The temporary uplift in Universal Credit is looking like it will indeed be temporary (although this is likely to store up problems, I suspect) and the Chancellor has – to all intents and purposes – ruled out a huge increase in the state pension, which would happen if the triple lock was applied in the normal manner. On the latter point, this is entirely sensible and has been met with little opposition.

A month ago, there were complaints from the Treasury that the Prime Minister was going around making unfunded spending commitments but Boris Johnson appears to have been reined in. Big promises on climate change seem to have been deferred to the autumn, and a supposedly big speech on levelling up involved a spending commitment of just £50 milliom. Whereas most observers considered the Coventry address to be one of the least impressive set-piece Prime Ministerial speeches ever delivered, the Treasury would have considered it a triumph.

An announcement on social care reform is imminent, but this does look like it may be properly funded by additional taxes, suggesting that ‘not attracted to extra taxes’ does not mean ‘no extra taxes’ after all. It is reported that it is the Chancellor who is sceptical about the proposed policy, although I suspect this is driven by Treasury doubts about pursuing a Dilnot-style cap on social care costs (which benefits those with the largest estates most), rather than by an objection to the principle that new spending commitments have to be paid for.

For the first time in a while, the cause of fiscal conservatism – ensuring that public finances are sustainable – is gaining the upper hand. There are two reasons for this.

First, the Chesham & Amersham by-election has caused some nervousness. The fear within Government is that high spending is all very well, but a section of the Conservative voting electorate will draw the conclusion that they are the ones who will have to pay for it. It was striking that the Prime Minister spent much of his levelling-up speech saying that he does not want to make rich places poorer, which may come as a disappointment to parts of the Red Wall, but is clearly designed to reassure the South East.

The second reason why a more cautious approach to the public finances might be pursued is the apparent return of inflation. This may be transitory as we return to some kind of normality, and adjust to Brexit frictions and labour shortages, but it may not be. If it results in higher interest rates, the costs for the exchequer in funding our debt could rise very quickly – as the Office for Budget Responsibility has pointed out. An increase in interest rates of one per cent would add £21 billion to our debt interest bill. If our fiscal policy is considered to lack credibility, our problems could be worse.

There remains, however, the question of how the Conservative Party maintains the support of the new supporters it gained in 2019, whose views on tax and spend are much closer to those of the Labour Party than the traditional Conservatives. On spending on public services in general ,plus investment in their localities, they will want to see evidence of delivery.

Boris Johnson will be given the benefit of the doubt and, I suspect, be able to retain most of the Red Wall at the next general election but the pressure to spend money – not least from Red Wall MPs – will be considerable. The Treasury has won a few battles of late, but with a Prime Minister prone to change direction like a shopping trolley (as one prominent Westminster pundit likes to put it), he may be on the other side of the aisle before long.

There is also another reason for raising taxes, as well as funding public services. Tax can be used as a lever to change behaviour. The Prime Minister has declared that he is on a mission to reduce obesity, and it is hard to see how this could be done without using tax to change behaviour.

Ultimately, this may not mean consumers paying much of a price because producers reformulate their products (as happened with the Soft Drink Industry Levy) in order to prevent consumers facing higher prices. It was an effective way of using the price mechanism to achieve a Government objective, but it did mean legislating for a new tax.

A similar argument can be made for using taxes to help achieve net zero. If we want people to consume less carbon, the most efficient way to do this is to ensure that the cost of carbon is incorporated into the price of products by using a carbon tax. (By the way, those of us who value markets as a means of allocating resources should be instinctively more sympathetic to meeting environmental objectives by using the price mechanism where possible, rather than through regulation which can be cumbersome and ill-targeted.)

In both cases, tax increases, as a behavioural stick, may be required. They are also likely to be regressive, which may mean compensating mechanisms of some description which – in turn – will need to be paid for.

All of this means that extra taxes on hard working people may be necessary to deliver sound public finances and to meet other Government objectives, however unattractive the Prime Minister considers them to be.

Joseph Baum: As a senior Chesham and Amersham Conservatives, I’m dismayed by our defeat. But there’s fight in us yet.

23 Jun

Joseph Baum is the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the Chesham and Amersham Conservative Association, A Councillor on Buckinghamshire Council and a Town Councillor on Chesham Town Council.

Waking up in Chesham on Friday June 18 was not an experience that I would ever like to repeat. As residents across the constituency were greeted to a torrential downpour that morning – a month’s worth of rain in one day I was later told – the pathetic fallacy of that moment was not lost on me.

As with any severe weather event, of course, the warning signs had been there for some time. I am afraid to say that the same is true of this by-election defeat. 

For those of you have never been to the constituency, Chesham and Amersham is a beautiful part of the world. Like many people in our country, we don’t like to make a fuss here in the Chilterns – we quietly get on with our lives and look out for each other in our community. Bubbling under the surface, however, was a quiet frustration – a concern about the future and the impact that this would have on what made our area special. 

The sudden death of our long serving Member of Parliament, Dame Cheryl Gillan, gave our residents the once in a generation opportunity to articulate that frustration without any risk of changing who runs our country. By now, most ConservativeHome readers will probably appreciate the key issues for residents in this area – HS2, the much anticipated planning reforms, not to mention the continued fallout of our exit from the European Union – something which many Liberal Democrat activists have long been at pains to stress that this constituency did not vote for.

In my view focusing on these issues distracts from the real problems that we must begin to respond to in order to properly recover – we must acknowledge what our opponents did well. From the outset, the Liberal Democrats ran an organised and well run campaign – using the momentum of the local elections to propel their candidate, Sarah Green, and sell her to the public as the only viable alternative to the Conservatives.

Despite the occasional ridicule on social media, few can deny the hunger of the Lib Dem activists who threw everything at this campaign, with daily leaflets, handwritten letters and targeted social media adverts. “Winning Here” posters were so common that they easily outnumbered the “For Sale” and “Sold” notices, let alone those of our Conservative supporters.

That is not to say, of course, that we did not work incredibly hard in this by-election campaign either – we simply could not have asked for a more hard working candidate in Peter Fleet, an eminently qualified man who led from the front from the start. Charges of complacency are misplaced; I fear that any candidate would have suffered a similar fate at this by-election due to the unique circumstances in which we found ourselves in. 

In time, there will be other reasons that we must acknowledge and other lessons that we must learn. Because if we don’t learn those lessons, then we run the real risk of repeating this at the general election, not to mention in other constituencies too. There are currently 80 seats where the Liberal Democrats are in second place. And of those 80 sets, 44 have a majority less than what we recently enjoyed here in Chesham and Amersham.

So, how do we turn this around? That is a question that will only be answered in the fullness of time, but in my view it starts by identifying what our opponents do not have. Despite fielding tellers at every polling station and seemingly Lib Dem activists on every street on polling day, the vast majority of those activists came from outside the area for one day only, arriving on the tube and in need of directions. As one teller said to me on polling day “By elections are a day out for us” – and wasn’t that true here.

Despite the enthusiasm, the fact remains that the local Liberal Democrats pale in comparison to our membership base, which totals more than 1,000. That is a huge asset that we should be proud of and make more of in the years ahead.

It is true that more people voted Liberal Democrat than Conservative at this by-election. And yet just over one month ago, at the same polling stations, the people of Chesham and Amersham also elected 27 local Councillors to Buckinghamshire Council, 26 of whom are Conservative. These 26 people are talented and capable individuals who are already delivering for communities across the area as members of a Conservative run Council. We need to champion that work and do more to communicate it to residents.

And if our opponents are going to scrutinise our record nationally, then let’s talk about our successes too. Let’s talk about a vaccine roll out that is the envy of the world. Let’s talk about the millions of small businesses that this government is supporting and helping to get back on their feet as soon as possible.

And yes – let’s never tire of reminding our opponents that this is a Government which continues to create the conditions within which more people can get a job, keep more of the money that they earn, get on the housing ladder, get a great education and live in an environment that is cleaner and greener.

Those are the terms on which we must weather the storm and fight the next election here in Chesham and Amersham. That task starts now and I look forward to working with others in the crucial months ahead.

Reports of Johnson’s political demise are greatly exaggerated

20 Jun

Vote Leave‘s successor was Change Britain – a name that says much about the country’s decision to leave the European Union five years ago.

Brexit was a vote for economic as well as constitutional change: to shift from a model based on financial services, high immigration and London’s hinterland to one more favourable to manufacturing, lower migration and the provinces.  You might call it “levelling up”

If you doubt it, look at this constituency-based map of the results.  West and South of London, you will find a kind of Remain Square.  Its eastern boundary is Hertford and Stortford, more or less.  Its western one is Stroud.

Its northern frontier ends at Milton Keynes and its southern one at Lewes.  Admittedly, this square has a mass of holes punched into it: much of Hampshire, for example, voted Leave.  And some of the Remain majorities within it, like some Leave ones, were narrow.

Levelling up is a term of art.  It can mean enterprise zones, freeports, better schools, improving skills, devolving power – none of which necessarily imply rises in or transfers of public spending.

But to some in that Remain Square, and elsewhere, it is coming to mean taking money in higher taxes from people who live in the south and transferring it to people who live in the north.

This truth would hold had the Chesham and Amersham contest never taken place.   Obviously, it was a lousy result for the Conservatives – for the Party to lose a by-election without seeing it coming, let alone by some eight thousand votes.

There should be a searching post-mortem. But why would any canny voter back the establishment in a by-election?  Isn’t it best to send it a message – namely: “don’t take our votes for granted”?

In the north, that establishment is still Labour.  Hence Hartlepool.  In the south, it’s the pro-levelling up, Red Wall-preoccupied Conservatives.  Hence Chesham and Amersham.  Now on to Batley and Spen.

Come the next general election, the Liberal Democrats won’t be able to concentrate their resources in a single seat, as they did last week.  Nor will they necessarily be the opposition front-runner in the Remain Square, or elsewhere.

Which suggests that last month’s local elections are a better guide to the future than last week’s by-election.  Crudely speaking, they found the right-of-centre vote uniting behind the Tories, and the left-of-centre equivalent divided between Labour, the LibDems and the Greens.

ConservativeHome will take no lectures from anyone about the potential threat to the so-called “Blue Wall” – to the seats within the Remain Square that we identify.  Henry Hill published an analysis of it on this site on May 11, which we re-ran last Friday in the by-election’s wake.

But the good news for Boris Johnson is that the Blue Wall is crumbling more slowly than the red one.  So time is on his side rather than Keir Starmer’s, which is why we still believe that the Prime Minister will be pondering a dash to the polls in 2023.

The bad news for him is that no party can hold a monopoly on much of the country forever.  Tony Blair had one even more extensive than Johnson.  He got three terms out of it (which will encourage the Prime Minister), but Labour eventually ran out of time and votes.

Its backing melted away at both ends.  In the blue corner, their new-won support from 1997 eventually returned to the Tories or went LibDem.  In the red one, their base was eaten away not so much by economics as by immigration and culture.

The medium-term danger to Johnson should start kicking in – unless inflation speeds the process up – in two to three years, when the vultures from post-Brexit and post-Covid spending really start coming home to roost.  He may well be on a second term by then.

But at that point the Prime Minister could find himself trapped in what William Hague, referring to potential British membership of the euro, described as “a burning building with no exits”.

The cornerstone of Government economic policy to date is “no return to austerity” – which we crudely interpret to mean questionable control of the country’s public finances.

This being so, the only weapon left for Ministers to deploy is tax rises: and the tax burden is already forecast to hit the highest level since the late 1960s – 35 per cent of GDP by 2025/26.

We all have a way of reading into by-election results whatever we want to read into them.  Undoubtedly, HS2 was a factor in Chesham and Amersham.  So was planning.  Above all, Blue Wall voters were asking for what Red Wall ones are getting: a little bit of love and attention.

Beyond that, anti-lockdown campaigners claim that the result was powered by opposition to shutdowns.  Pro-aid ones assert that Buckinghamshire’s voters stand behind the 0.7 per cent.

Those suffering from Johnson Derangement Syndrome, such as Dominic Grieve, claim that Buckinghamshire’s “sophisticated” voters see through the Prime Minister.  But if so, why did they chuck Grieve out of Beaconsfield less than two years ago?

So we make no special claim about what happened in Chesham & Amersham last week, other than to take some of the more exotic claims with a lorryload of salt.

But we do make a forecast about what will happen there and elsewhere within the Remain Square in future – regardless of whether or not the seat, like Newbury and Christchurch and Eastbourne and other Liberal by-election gains of the past, duly returns to the Tory column.

Namely, that the good voters of Chesham and Amersham won’t tolerate more tax rises for long.  Not that voters in Red Wall or provincial English seats would do so either.

But the private sector in the Remain Square is relatively big; employment in public services relatively smaller; exposure to property and pensions taxes relatively bigger.

Sooner or later, Johnson and Rishi Sunak will have to revisit the other side of the financial sustainability ledger: spending control.  With over a third of it going on pensions and healthcare, that will mean tough choices, in Chesham, Amersham – and everywhere else.

As for the Prime Minister’s prospects, we are where we were before. He can have all the Turkmenbashi statues he wants, and more, for getting Brexit done – and for saving the country from metaphorical if not literal Dreyfus affair-style strife.

ConHome believes that he should have his chance to “Change Britain” (with a majority of 80, he has earned it; anxious backbenchers please take note) while having little confidence that he actually will.

What’s left of this term risks being frittered away in bread, summits, and circuses, Roman-style.  The possibility is frighteningly plausible.  We devoutly hope that we’re proved wrong, as we sometimes are.

David Gauke: Chesham and Amersham. Yes, a realignment is taking place in British politics. But it is likely to happen slowly.

19 Jun

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Conservative MPs should take the Prime Minister at his word. He has told them what he is going to do and they should trust him to do it. He won’t let them down. There. I have said it.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not talking about promises to level up, prioritise the education catch-up, simultaneously keep taxes and borrowing down while ending spending austerity, avoid new non-tariff barriers with EU trade, prevent new checks on Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade, stop veterans being pursued in the courts, deliver net zero without any pain for taxpayers or consumers, or maintain all existing agricultural standards at the same time as obtaining comprehensive trade deals around the world. Some of those promises might not be kept.

But when the Prime Minister says that he intends to open up on 19 July, I am sure he means it and I think he will be able to do so.

On Boris Johnson’s intentions, nobody should be in much doubt that he is an instinctively reluctant implementer of lockdowns and, if they were, the evidence of Dominic Cummings should dissuade them.

Over the course of 2021, the Prime Minister has been more cautious in unlocking (with considerable justification) but it is worth noting the reasons. Of most relevance is the fact that we have vaccines which are demonstrably the way out of lockdowns without yet further vast numbers of deaths. The existence of vaccines has meant that the end is in sight, but also that the case for caution is strengthened because further deaths are avoidable. It is this insight that has driven our lockdown policy for the last few months, and drove the decision to delay easing once again.

The Indian/Delta variant has disrupted the plans, because it is evidently much more transmissible and a single dose is less effective than against earlier strains. This has not resulted in abandoning the vaccine strategy but raising the thresholds. In broad terms, the Government has moved from being satisfied in unlocking, when 80 per cent of adults will have had the benefit of one dose and 60 per cent two, to moving up the thresholds to roughly 90 to 95 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.

A fair proportion of the Conservative Parliamentary Party is sceptical that the July unlocking will happen, presumably because they think that cases and hospitalisation will be high when the decision will be made. If that were to be the case, that might also suggest the decision to delay the June unlocking was wise.

But July 19 does – at this point – look like the right date. We will still get the benefit of summer, the long school holidays will reduce transmission and the vaccine programme will be very nearly done. Assuming that the vaccines work – and the evidence continues to be very encouraging – and we are not struck by a variant that looks as though it will escape the effects of the vaccine, the case for unlocking at that point will be very strong. I think he will do it.

– – – – – – – – – –

I have written elsewhere about the Chesham and Amersham by-election. It is a constituency I know well, having represented the neighbouring seat of South West Hertfordshire for some years, and I live just a short walk from the constituency boundary. The two seats have much in common.

During the course of the 2019 general election campaign I had lots of encouraging conversations – usually in Berkhamsted High Street – in which people would wish me luck before declaring that they lived in Chesham and could not vote for me. Presumably, most of those voters went Liberal Democrat on Thursday.

I have for some time argued that we are undergoing a political realignment.  As far as the Conservative retreat from the Home Counties is concerned, I think that is more likely to be apparent in by-elections before we will see it in general elections, because it is seen as risk-free to vote elsewhere. In 2019, the soft Conservative vote stayed Conservative because of the fear of Jeremy Corbyn, whereas no such threat exists in a by-election.

Even accepting all of that, the result seems to have caught most observers by surprise. Given that I am almost a local, a few people asked me if I had expected it, and I confess I hadn’t (a sharply reduced Conservative majority – yes; a comfortable Liberal Democrat majority – no).

However, on reflection, the only person in the constituency I had spoken to in the last week was the nice man from the Amersham branch of Majestic, and we didn’t discuss politics.

– – – – – – – – – –

As someone who is happy to defend Boris Johnson’s decision to delay the next stage in easing the lockdown, I do think he has rather got away with causing the delay in the first place. I listened to PMQs this week (as it happens, driving to receive my second dose in Watford Town Hall) and Keir Starmer asked a series of questions on the delay in restricting travel from India.

The Prime Minister responded with a series non sequiturs and evasions. Pakistan and Bangladesh went on the red list on 2 April, India (where cases were far higher) not until 19 April (and implemented four days later). I have not seen a good explanation for the difference in approach.

It is clear that the Delta variant was seeded in the UK because of extensive travel with India over that period. Despite our superior vaccine rollout (although the gap is closing by the day), the UK now has more cases per head of population than anywhere in Europe

At some point, the Government is going to have to explain what happened. If not, people will only assume it was because the Prime Minister did not want to abandon the chance to make a trip to India. It is a serious charge and deserves a serious response.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Chesham and Amersham by-election may be uncomfortable for the Conservatives but that is likely to be as nothing compared to the Labour discomfit if they lose Batley & Spen. In large part, this looks likely to be as a consequence of George Galloway’s campaign, and his criticism of Starmer for being insufficiently critical of Israel.

Assuming Labour loses, I wonder if the approach the Labour leadership should take is to lean into the issue and argue that – whatever the electoral consequences – the Labour Party under Keir Starmer (in contrast to his predecessor) will take a mature and balanced approach to the Middle East, and not put political expediency above responsible diplomacy.

I am not sure that is entirely true (there seems to me to be too much pandering to radical anti-Israel sentiment as it is), but it might not be a bad issue to be debating the wake of a by-election loss. Frame the debate as Starmer against the Galloway/Corbyn worldview.

As it is, Labour is in an impossible and ghastly position. It is either seen as too anti-Semitic to be elected or, in some places, not anti-Semitic enough.

Is the Blue Wall around London in danger of cracking?

18 Jun

This year’s local elections are at least as good a guide to the future as by-elections. ConHome therefore republish my post-May analysis of the threat to the Conservatives in the South.

Overall, the local elections in England have produced great results for the Conservatives. They have enjoyed high-profile victories for the mayoralties in the West Midlands and Tees Valley, and seen gains in councils across the north.

But whilst they currently benefit from a divided opposition, Tory strategists would do well to remember that a realignment can be a two-edged sword. As the party focuses on broadening its appeal to a new coalition of voters, it risks alienating parts of its traditional base.

This is the basis for what some are starting to call the ‘Blue Wall’: more than 40 constituencies “which have been held by the Conservatives since at least 2010, where Labour or the Liberal Democrats have overperformed their national swing in 2017 and 2019 and where the Conservative majority is below 10,000”, as Matthew Goodwin explains. If CCHQ isn’t careful, these could follow those London seats where the party was competitive, or even won, in 2010 but is deep underwater now.

Some results from the weekend, such as the Conservatives’ loss of control in Cambridgeshire, are already being held up as examples of this trend, which as our Editor reported yesterday were described by one pollster as “big red flashes which under someone better than Starmer could cause chaos”.

But what is the situation in other Tory heartlands, such as the Home Counties?

In Hertfordshire, the party retained overall control but lost five seats – including that of David Williams, the council leader – whilst the Liberal Democrats made gains. It was a similar story in the Isle of Wight, where the Tories lost four seats and their leader.

In Kent, the Tories fell from 67 seats to 61, whilst Labour and the Greens advanced.

Buckinghamshire was electing a unitary authority for the first time, so there is no direct change, but according to the Bucks Herald “their lead over other parties has slimmed down slightly this time”, again whilst the Lib Dems gained ground.

On and on it goes. In Surrey, the Tories fell from 61 seats to 47 at the expense of the Lib Dems and various independents and residents’ associations.

In Oxfordshire they lost seven seats whilst the Lib Dems gained seven, leaving the two parties almost neck at neck at 22 councillors to 21.

They lost three councillors in East Sussex, and eight in West Sussex.

And despite the Conservatives advancing across the North, its a different story in one of the areas where they have traditionally done well: they lost four councillors to Labour in Trafford, cementing the Opposition’s control over what was once ‘Manchester’s Tory council’ by picking up Ashton upon Mersey, Daveyhulme, and the village of Flixton.

Whilst local trends don’t necessarily presage Westminster ones (Watford has a Conservative MP and not a single Tory councillor), Sir Graham Brady’s majority in Altringham and Sale West was halved in 2017 and contracted again in 2019, even as the party made gains elsewhere. Might it be that this prosperous suburban area, which returned a Conservative MP even in 1997, might drift out of the Tory column over the next decade?

Naturally, it doesn’t follow that all of these results are part of some grand pattern. Local issues will invariably be in play, and some of it may be the sort of backlash against a ruling party that one normally expects to see in ‘mid-term’ contests such as these.

For example in Tunbridge Wells, the LibDems caused much excitement by seizing control of the borough council. But all five of the wards at county council levels remained in Tory hands.

But the example of Oxfordshire, where the party held 51 out of 73 seats in 2009 ,but has been on a downward trajectory ever since, suggests that CCHQ can’t take such comforting explanations for granted. And by the time it becomes obvious that a council is properly trending away from the party, the best moment to take action will have passed.

Down the line, this would have implications for general elections if London overspill and sky-high house prices see more seats follow Brighton and Canterbury into the Labour column – a prospect which is reportedly already concerning Tory MPs.

But will it be enough to spook those MPs into doing what’s necessary to fix it? The Government is right to believe that its hold on the ‘Red Wall’ rests on expanding home ownership. But it has so far failed to overcome the self-interest of southern MPs and get them accept the blunt fact that the same thing is true of the ‘Blue Wall’ too. Somehow, ministers need to get sufficient houses built to put home ownership and family formation within reach of young professionals.

It will take much greater study to assess the true nature and scale of the problem. But the party needs to be across it and prepared to act. The sorry state of the Labour Party shows just how badly the voters can punish those who take their homelands for granted.

The voters of Chesham and Amersham remind the Prime Minister that he is mortal

18 Jun

The voters of Chesham and Amersham have given their message loud and clear. One of the safest Conservative seats has been lost to the Lib Dems. A Conservative majority of 16,223, only 18 months ago, was overturned yesterday to become a Lib Dem majority of 8,028.

But, er, just what was the message?

If it was to abandon HS2, why vote for the Lib Dems – a Party which supports the astonishingly expensive transport scheme?

Were voters protesting against “Freedom Day” being delayed on the grounds that continuing with restrictions is disproportionate? Or has Dominic Cummings alarmed them that the Government is too complacent and that lockdown should have been longer and more draconian?

Are the residents of beautiful villages in the Green Belt warning against “concreting over the countryside” with ugly planning developments? Or after a year where house prices have sharply risen, are aspirational younger voters showing their frustration that under a Conservative Government the dream of home ownership remains just that?

Amidst this array of grievances, the Yellow Army entered. The Lib Dems are very good at by-elections. The first “upset” was their victory in Orpington in 1962 – in their previous incarnation as the Liberal Party. In the decades that followed such “shock” triumphs have become a staple of the political diet.

The Lib Dems are shrewd at detecting where victory is viable and then in throwing everything at it. It is not just a question of manpower – though bussing in cheerful and dedicated activists has been important. It is more sophisticated than that. Protest votes are wooed with the soothing message that the Government will not be overturned. The Lib Dem vote harvesting machine of contradictory messages is carefully honed to suit the whims of each household. A pious tone is combined with shameless opportunism and base dishonesty.

This boost does come at an important time for the Lib Dems, however. The local elections were disappointing for them – partly because coronavirus restrictions thwarted their chance to gain an edge from targeted campaigning. Some recent opinion polls have had the Green Party ahead of the Lib Dems.

Against that background, the Prime Minister might be tempted to shrug off the result. That would be a mistake. The electorate of Chesham and Amersham is telling him something important:

“Remember you are mortal.”

Or, as the Prime Minister would be more likely to mutter to himself during his next jog around St James Park with Dilyn:

“Memento Mori.”

The G7 Summit went smoothly. Perhaps a little too smoothly. A bit too much of a smug mutual admiration society. All these world leaders flying in – Boris Johnson on a private jet from London to Newquay – to then lecture us about climate change and issue targets that (if taken remotely seriously) would mean very considerable costs and restrictions for ordinary families. At the Summit we would saw ostentatious elbow bumping by these international statesmen on arrival – but then we saw them putting arms around each other at the grand looking soirées. The numbers seemed to exceed the limit the rest of us are obliged to observe at our more humble gatherings. They know how to count in the Chilterns. All the swanking and swaggering might have seemed a bit much. Such irritations would be less likely to sway votes at a General Election.

Then there is the southern discomfort over “levelling up.” Ambiguity has been allowed over quite what the policy objective means. This has allowed resentment to fester in the South that it means money being taken from them to give to the North. As with the indignation at the assumption in Critical Race Theory of “white privilege”, it rankles that those in the South are assumed to be rich and thus undeserving of training schemes, or road improvements, or whatever other goodies are on offer.

Yet the whole point of “levelling up” was supposed to a retort to the socialist idea that we are in a “zero sum game” where resources are fixed and the only means to help the poor is to take from the rich. The term “levelling up” was not invented by Johnson.He took it from Margaret Thatcher. The Right Approach, published by the Conservative Party in 1976 stated:

“Conservatives are not egalitarians. We believe in levelling up, in enhancing opportunities, not in levelling down, which dries up the springs of enterprise and endeavour and ultimately means that there are fewer resources for helping the disadvantaged. Hostility to success, because success brings inequality, is often indistinguishable from envy and greed, especially when, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, it is dressed up in the language of the ‘class struggle’.”

That same clarity needs to be restored.

A final thought. The person who should be most relieved this morning is Sir Keir Starmer. That might seem perverse. Labour only got 622 votes in the by-election – that put them in fourth place coming in behind the Green Party. The Lib Dem campaign must have squeezed their vote very hard. As recently as the 2017 General Election, we had Labour coming in second place in Chesham and Amersham with 11,374 votes.

But what matters for Sir Keir is the Batley and Spen by-election in a couple of weeks. If Labour lose, as many expect, could it prove a tipping point? Could Labour descend into recriminations and division, forcing the resignation of Sir Keir? The Chesham and Amersham result makes that less likely. It will be easier to explain away…just one of those by-election “upsets.”

Iain Dale: The student said men are physically stronger than women. Now she’s been referred to the Student Disciplinary Board.

21 May

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

On Wednesday, Ryan Stephenson was selected as the Conservative candidate in Batley & Spen. The way some Tories are carring on, it’s already in the bag.

This is dangerous talk. Hartlepool is not Batley & Spen. Not all northern constituencies are the same. Indeed, this used to be a Conservative seat, with Elizabeth Peacock representing it from 1983 to 1997.

Since then, it’s been fairly solidly Labour, although at the last election the majority was reduced to 3,525. That year, an independent candidate, Paul Halloran, polled more than 6,400 votes, the majority of which seem to have come from Labour, if you compare the 2019 result with that of 2017.

Will Halloran stand again? I’ve had a look at his Facebook page, and he’s certainly strongly hinting that he might. However, if Jo Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, gets the Labour nomination – the party is selecting on Sunday – that might put him off.

Labour seem to have learned their lesson from the disastrous imposition of their candidate in Hartlepool from a shortlist of one. This time, the local party will have a selection of candidates to choose from.

Everyone is assuming that Leadbeater is a shoo-in, but one should always remember that local candidates, though often seen as a real advantage by commentators, usually have local enemies. And local Labour Parties are usually a hotbed of plotting and chicanery.

Finally, it appears that George Galloway will be throwing his Fedora into the ring. He will try to win the substantial Muslim vote, which would normally be expected to row in behind Labour. The result of this by-election could well depend on how successful Galloway is.

For that and many other reasons, this by-election is likely to become the most well covered by the media for many years: indeed, this site carried a report from Andrew Gimson yesterday. Put your seatbelts on and hold tight.

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The other by-election on the horizon is Chesham & Amersham, on June 17th. The Conservative candidate, selected a fortnight ago, Peter Fleet, has a majority of more than 16,000 to defend.

On the fact of it, the seat doesn’t look like the place where political earthquakes take place, but stranger things have happened. I was listening to the LibDem podcast this week (so you don’t have to), and they certainly have their dander up and think they can win it.

They base this on the fact that the seat had a 55 per cent Remain vote (or at least did in 2016). I’m not sure how relevant this is any longer. I mean, ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ worked for them so well in 2019. The vaccine rollout has certainly converted many people to the Brexit cause as well.

But complacency is the enemy of victory, and Conservative strategists should certain not rest on their laurels.

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Yet another example of the world going completely mad. A student at Abertay University, Dundee has been referred to the Student Disciplinary Board because in a seminar on Gender, she had the temerity to state that men are physically stronger than women.

This is obviously a thought crime and, in true Orwellian style, she must be banished to the Student Disciplinary Board for correctional training. And they say there is no need for a Free Speech Bill (Universities) Bill…

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Looks like the West Ham Variant will be hitting Europe in August… Come on You Irons!

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For the last three and a half years, I have hosted an hour-long panel show called Cross Question on a Wednesday evening on LBC. It’s similar in format to Any Questions or Question Time  with the main difference being the questions come from our callers.

We had to pause it during lockdown, because we couldn’t have four guests in the studio. But, since the beginning of March, we’ve had them all on a giant Zoom wall, and it’s worked rather well.

I deliberately keep the tone light and discourage too many heated confrontations. If people talk over each other on Zoom it sounds far worse than it does if they’re physically present. What I have found is that this engenders an atmosphere of positivity, with panellists agreeing with each other surprisingly often.

As well as big name politicians and commentators we’ve also used the show to try to discover new talent too. This week, we had Ndidi Okezie, chief executive of UK Youth on. She was an absolute revelation, with original things to say on every subject we covered. And we covered a lot of ground.

The show has been so successful that from next week we’re going to be doing it three times a week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), live from our new studio in Westminster.

On Monday, we have a very tasty first panel with Diane Abbott, Sarah Vine, Polly Toynbee and Brandon Lewis. Our challenge is to keep up the quality of the guests, given that we’ll have three programmes to fill every week. And the great things is, as well as listening people are able to watch via the Global Player or Youtube. That’s modern radio for you!