Iain Dale: Starmer is right to appoint one of Blair’s former advisers. But if other MPs can’t see that, Labour are doomed forever.

25 Jun

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

The RT-watching conspiracy theory creating nutters have been in full flow this week. The fact that journalists were on board HMS defender means, according to them, that the Royal Navy deliberately provoked the Russians into firing warning shots and dropping bombs in the path of the ship to warn it to keep out of Russian waters.

It never ceases to amaze me how and why these disgusting individuals always take the side of any country – usually Russia – which gives a totally different version of events to our own. There’s a word for people like them.

On one of our Cross Question shows we invited Rivkah Brown from Novara Media onto the panel. She started asserting that the Americans see Britain as a sad little country that they no longer take any notice of, and Biden had made that clear at the G7 in Cornwall.

It was total bollocks of course and he never said any such thing, or even intimated it. At that point I’m afraid I lost my presenter impartiality and asked: “Where do you get this rubbish from?”

Of course whenever you ask them to justify themselves and provide some evidence they can never do so, so all she did was splutter. Why is it that the Left still don’t comprehend that it’s attitudes like this that help them continue to lose elections. The British people don’t like it and never will.

– – – – – – – – –

The appointment of Matthew Doyle as Sir Keir Starmer’s new Director of Communications has sent the Left into apoplexy. Why? Because he’s close to Tony Blair. Yes, the man who led Labour to three election victories.

The word Blair is considered a total anathema to anyone further left that Jess Phillips – i.e. most of the Labour Party. They cannot see any good that he did in 10 years as Prime Minister. And again, until they decide to revise that opinion they will keep on losing.

The trouble is, a weak opposition and a weak Labour Party – and that’s what we have at the moment – enable the Government to get away with things that ordinarily they shouldn’t.

I’ve described the current cabinet as the weakest in my lifetime, with very few transformational figures sitting round the cabinet table. But look down the list of Labour Shadow Cabinet members and it’s even worse.

Most of them are barely names in their own households, let alone known among voters. How many of them are capable of developing the kind of sensible but radical policy agenda that they will need to put to the electorate in less than two years time – yes, I mean May 2023.

Very few. It’s all rather depressing.

– – – – – – – – –

And then we come to the Liberal Democrats who are understandably triumphant in the wake of their victory in the Chesham & Amersham by-election. Wouldn’t you be, if you were part of the “yellow peril”?

I’ll admit, like most of the punditerati class I didn’t see it coming. It’s a long time since the Lib Dems won this type of by-election, and they did it very skilfully, even without the guidance of Lord Rennard.

They concentrated on two issues – HS2 and planning laws – and did them to death in their literature on the doorstep. And it worked for them, even though they were campaigning against policies they actually support. No change there then.

One swallow does not a summer make, though. They got one per cent in the Hartlepool by-election and I doubt they’ll do an awful lot better in Batley & Spen. The long-term consequences of this by-election, if there is one, will be to entrench the view among Lib Dem strategists that they should regard the Tories as their prime enemy or competition, and squeeze the Labour vote in southern, eastern and south western constituencies.

But they need to do it in a way which doesn’t frighten off moderate Tories who, for whatever reason, have tired of Boris Johnson.

– – – – – – – – –

I’ve been writing this column for a decade or more now. That amounts to more than 500 diaries. I’m sorry to say that this week’s column will be my last. All good things come to an end, and I think now is the time to end it.

It’s my decision to do so, and I am also giving up my weekly media review column on Reaction. Why? Well, I’ve just signed a contract for another book and I have to deliver the manuscript by January 31 2022, and frankly there are only so many hours in the day. I need to commit much more time to the book and this frees up two mornings a week.

It’s important for me to be open about that because I don’t want anyone to think there’s been any falling out. ConHome is a brilliant site, led by the excellent Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace. I’d like to thank Paul in particular for allowing me to write the column for so long and for being so supportive. And I’d like to thank you all for reading my words each week. I know that from time to time, I’ve tested your patience.

I’ve said to Paul I’ll happily contribute the occasional column or chair conference events, and I’d like to continue to support the work of ConHome where I can.

So as someone once said, that’s it. The end. Goodbye.

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.

Bob Blackman: Voters are understandably wary about planning reforms. Here’s why a street plans scheme is a viable alternative.

22 Jun

Bob Blackman is MP for Harrow East.

I have worked in local politics for over 30 years: 24 as a councillor leading Brent council, or the Conservative grouping there, and 11 as MP. My seat, Harrow East, is about nine miles away from Chesham and Amersham, with two Conservative constituencies in between – one of them the Prime Minister’s own constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. While Harrow is more suburban than Buckinghamshire, we treasure the fields and green open spaces in the area no less and are no more willing to see them concreted over.

The notion that everyone is Conservative about what they know best is a pretty good summary of the results in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Given the impression that planning changes would lose them control of development in their green and pleasant land, voters reacted with a protest vote, in good by-election tradition.

This does not mean, however, that locals are opposed to any and every bit of development that happens. Most of my constituents understand that the country needs more homes, and that some development must happen in their area. What they object to is development foisted on them, and which they feel they have no control over. They are worried when even members of our own party say that local democracy will be overruled to force through new development.

The Housing, Communities, and Local Government committee, on which I have sat since 2010, has a Tory majority and yet our report on the upcoming Planning Bill, or at least on those bits of it that have been released to the public or heavily signposted, could be described as “wary”. Many of us do not want to force sprawling new developments on places that cannot cope with them, leaving both new and existing residents badly off in terms of congestion, school places, and access to natural amenity.

The party may find itself at an impasse. We know that the country needs more homes – so people can live closer to the best jobs and afford to buy a home and raise a family. We know that the Conservative Party needs more homes – as homeowners with families always end up being the ones who vote for us. However, if more homes mean building over the landscapes that our voters hold dear, it may risk our core voters in places like Chesham and Amersham turning on us.

I think there’s another way. Earlier this year I contributed to a Policy Exchange paper called Strong Suburbs which outlines an extension to neighbourhood planning called “street plans”. These would allow individual streets, when a large majority of homeowners agree, to give themselves permission to increase the size of their houses. They could add bedrooms for children, granny, or a lodger, or even turn a large semi-detached house into two larger terraced homes. In many areas the value uplift, after building costs, could be several hundred thousand pounds for every homeowner on the street.

There are encouraging signs that this alternative to towers on the skyline, or building over fields, can carry a wide coalition of supporters. Six Tory MPs, including me and my colleague David Simmonds, whose constituency lies directly between mine and Amersham, have endorsed the idea. So has Tony Burton, the key inventor of neighbourhood planning, and chairman of the London branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). The idea also boasts the support of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies, with more than 100,000 underlying members. Indeed, CPRE’s Hampshire branch recommended the report as part of its submission for the Winchester local plan.

These point the way to a compromise solution on housing, where we make it easier to build, but give local communities the final say, directly, about what goes where. Streets that want to retain their existing character can vote to do so. Those that opt to build more can do that, reaping the benefits, just as many homes opt for more limited loft extensions under the current system. This means that we will be developing places that are already built on and protecting green fields and other natural spaces. Locals always have the final say and cannot have their wishes overridden by the local council or Westminster.

If the idea works, it will be because it gives full control to the local people who are affected most by development. Instead of bearing only the burden of housing, they share in the benefits it delivers, and control the shape and form it takes. If we give power back to communities in this way, we can create a new generation of homeowners, without letting down our most loyal voters.

Ministers mustn’t let down future generations over housing – whatever happens in by-elections

21 Jun

After last week’s disastrous by-election result, some MPs have blamed the Government’s homes plan for alienating Tory voters in the South. It is clear that the Liberal Democrats were partly able to overturn the Conservatives’ 16,000 majority in Chesham & Amersham by weaponising constituents’ concerns about houses being built in their area, as well as HS2, and their environmental impact.

The news has furthered some Conservatives’ conviction that the Government should scrap, or at least rethink, its radical proposals to get housing done. “Look Boris Johnson, the electorate has given its verdict!” is the message they are hoping the Prime Minister hears, with up to 50 to 60 MPs reportedly prepared to rebel against the reforms. Many have been against them from the start, due to the impact that they will have on the greenfield sites.

With all of these objections, the question many renters will wonder is: what do those against the planning reforms propose instead? Because the housing crisis is urgent and not going away – prices have soared throughout the pandemic. Far from solving the crisis, the Conservatives have introduced policies that can increase demand, such as scrapping the net migration target. Do they realise the contradictions here?

As I have written before, I suspect part of the reason many MPs are relaxed on this issue is it doesn’t affect them. They earn enough to get out of the rental market and/ or live outside the South East, where demand is concentrated. They are insulated from the problems of Generation Rent. But sooner or later this problem is going to hit the Tories – hard – due to the demographics the party needs to attract at the next election (and that’s before we get to the societal consequences – birth rate etc).

As Stephen Bush has pointed out, it’s voters between 30 and 50 who will be the most vital group for parties to win over the next election. Sometimes this fact seems to be missed, due to lots of political conversations now revolving around regional demographics. Conservatives have been blamed for neglecting the South in the by-election, for instance. But we shouldn’t forget that renters, and the young, are people who also need their own “levelling up” push, and could be easily enticed by a party that understands this.

To be fair to Johnson and Robert Jenrick, the housing minister, they have made great efforts to get housing done. Steve Baker, too, is trying to find a way forward – suggesting that homeowners whose views or peace and quiet are affected by developments could receive cash compensation. There is still widespread inertia, however, and this is not only from the Tories.

Indeed, other parties that have spotted an opportunity in kicking off about “green spaces” and environmentalism. It’s interesting to note that Ed Davey – whose party succeeded in Chesham & Amersham because of its green space obsession – wants the UK should reopen negotiations with the EU on free movement. But where does he think people should live as the population expands?

Either way, Conservatives have to get a move on with housing, which is having a knock on effect on so many other parts of life. Today, for instance, Downing Street said it was finalising “proposals for coming up with a long term solution for social care”. But it seems ridiculous to think you can solve the issue without getting people housed. There are huge ramifications when one half of society (renters) has no security or way to save.

Yes the Chesham & Amersham result was disappointing. But it cannot be used to kick the can down the road on housing. The crisis needs a similar amount of urgency applied to it as has been done with climate change, in which the expression “what about the young’s futures?” was cried by the same parties that now see developers as the enemy. But what about the young’s future, hey?

Alex Morton: Ministers can have more houses or higher immigration. But they won’t be able to get away with both.

21 Jun

Alex Morton is Head of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and is a former Number Ten Policy Unit Member.

A very large part of the Chesham and Amersham result was driven by the shamelessly and ruthlessly NIMBYist approach of the Liberal Democrats on both housing and HS2.

As Ed Davey put it just before the election, “we are seeing a promising number of Conservatives switching to us, because they want to say no… we don’t want these planning reforms.”

This now-notorious Lib Dem leaflet sets out the strategy: no policies bar opposing development. MPs who campaigned state the issues on the doorstep were new housing and HS2. Pure NIMBYism is a powerful force in the South of England.

So how do the Conservatives tackle the issue? The Government certainly needs to adjust its course – but it cannot ditch planning reform altogether. Ultimately, we still desperately need more homes, especially in London and the South-East where pressures are greatest. The current reforms contain a great deal of good.

But the truth is another issue sits alongside planning, which Westminster is not focusing on, but which sits on voters’ and MPs minds when contemplating new homes: immigration.

The politics of new homes in London and the South is complicated

A critical political argument for new housebuilding is it will protect the Conservatives majority longer term. Homeowners vote Tory, renters don’t. The argument made to Southern MPs is more homes and more homeowners will secure their electoral base.

But, while correct on a macro scale, this argument is not necessarily so on the micro. Many MPs note that the new homes built in their constituencies are often most attractive to, and affordable for, those leaving London. But as London’s housing pressures spill over into the Home Counties, so do London’s political attitudes.

This helps to explain why commuter constituencies like Canterbury and Bedford are becoming marginals: internal migration drives up anti-Conservative ex-London voter numbers. While Brexit accelerated this, between 2010 and 2015 Outer London (the ‘doughnut’ that twice elected Boris Johnson as Mayor) swung from Tory to Labour, even as the rest of the country moved the other way.

In the North, nice new homes often bring Tory voters – as Peter Mandelson noticed revisiting his old Hartlepool seat.  But new housing in the south annoys existing Conservative voters without always bringing new ones.  The conversion process will still probably work longer-term, as new voters relax into home ownership and shed London attitudes.  But MPs understandably think in five or ten year horizans.

Making things worse, many Southern MPs face not Labour, but the Lib Dems or the Greens, boasting to middle-class voters they are pro-immigration (unlike ‘nasty’ Tories), while also shamelessly arguing they will block new homes locally. Labour cannot do this, as it knows that it must deliver if it wins.

Meanwhile, Tory-inclined voters are susceptible to another simple message: new homes are only needed due to migration. They feel the problem is hundreds of thousands of new arrivals a year, who need extra homes, meaning concreting over the South-East.

The current system of housing targets enables a dishonest political debate

So how do Conservatives tackle this problem? This, I am afraid, is where it gets technical. But it first involves admitting voters have a point about immigration.

Currently, Government housing targets are based on a 2014 estimate (using data from 2012-2014) that we are creating 214,000 new households a year. Various tweaks are done to turn this household number into a housing target, including adjustments based on affordability. The end result is a national target for new housing of 297,000 a year.

The 214,000 households figure assumes net international migration (i.e. the difference between those arriving and leaving) of around 170,000 people annually (see here). So, under current estimates, around 37 per cent of all new homes are needed due to net international migration (see here). So the anti-immigration lobby have a point. But even with zero net migration, we would need many more homes.

However, immigration is very clearly pushing up the numbers needed, and has a disproportionate effect in the South. For the key years 2012-2014, around 50-60 per cent of net international migration went to London, the South East, and the East. This pushed up their housing need most. Even pre-pandemic, London’s population would be falling without international migration, but international migration drives it back up, rippling out over time in terms of housing targets across the South.

Why does this matter politically? It shows it is logically absurd for any party to promise both higher levels of net immigration and yet lower housebuilding in the South. But that is exactly what the Lib Dems and Greens do. And they get away with it because of the current lack of transparency around housing need calculations.

We need to include net migration figures in the local plans

We’d need more homes even if with zero net migration – because we have not built enough for years. As I pointed out in my day job at the Centre for Policy Studies, the 2010s were the worst modern decade for housebuilding – and every decade has got worse since the 1960s.

But one way for the Conservatives to change the politics of planning – and show their immigration controls are crucial – is a clearer link between migration numbers and local housing need. The new Planning Bill should ensure that each local plan periodically adjusts housing targets and housing need in line with net migration. This would inject honesty into the housing debate.

As noted, current housing plans are based on net international migration of 170,000 a year. If net migration fell to 50,000, we would need 60,000 fewer homes a year (assuming roughly one home for two new people). If it rose to 350,000, it would mean 90,000 more homes each year.

If the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens, want to argue for more immigration nationally, it should be clear this means more homes in each area. This would fundamentally change the debate in the South. In Chiltern District Council, home to Chesham and Amersham, the difference between annual national net immigration going down to 50,000 or up to 300,000 would be several thousand extra homes in the next ten years. Pro-migration, NIMBY parties would have to choose.

The worst outcome would be higher net immigration and weakened planning reform

The worst outcome for home ownership is higher net immigration plus weaker planning reform. Yet in the wake of Chesham & Amersham, this seems very likely. Currently, annual net migration is running at 281,000 – or around 110,000 more people a year than 2014 projections. This means 55,000 more homes a year since the 2014 projections – more than the entire rise planned last year after the planning reform row.

Higher migration but no planning reform is also the worst possible result for the Conservative Party. It would exacerbate London and the South’s problems – creating new voters who don’t vote Tory through higher migration, annoying existing Tory voters with new homes, but not delivering enough home ownership to capture new voters.

Housing numbers and migration are an example of Morton’s political triangle. You cannot please everyone. Government policy is currently pro-migration (in numbers not rhetoric) and pro-housebuilding. Both positions put off voters in Chesham. Yet ditching planning reforms while keeping higher migration dooms the Tories in London and the South longer term. The best shot for the Conservatives in the South is more homes and lower immigration – and this, not ditching planning reform, should be their next step.

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.

It’s too soon to judge how the boundary review will impact the next election – but it’s fun to try

8 Jun

There was some excitement in this morning’s papers about the impact of the proposed reforms to constituency boundaries. Suggestions that Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, might lose his seat have made headlines.

Expert psephologists are being rather more cautious about projecting any partisan impact of the changes. These are, after all, only initial proposals. Whilst MPs won’t get an opportunity to vote the Boundary Commission’s eventual map down, the parties do now have an opportunity to feed back.

Historically, the Conservatives have not always handled this process well. Anthony Seldon, in his book Major: A Political Life, noted how in the 1990s: “weak local organisation and coordination led to the fumbling of the opportunity presented by the Boundary Commission review.”

With discipline breaking down as the post-Thatcher era began, apparently there was at least one instance of two associations turning up to a boundary meeting with separate barristers. As a result, an anticipated 40-seat gain for the Tories ended up being a mere five.

There may be a lesson there for today. Not because of a similar risk of association infighting – the process is, like everything else, much more centrally organised these days, and is in the hands of the veteran Roger Pratt at CCHQ. But because there’s also another reason not to jump to conclusions about “the biggest shake-up of boundaries in decades”, which is that the old logic of the reforms has been rather overtaken by the 2019 election.

When the plans were first mooted under David Cameron (alongside the unsaleable intention to cut the number of seats), equalising constituency sizes hurt Labour, which won large numbers of disproportionately small seats, and thus boosted the Conservatives. But with the Tories having broken through in a lot of those seats at the last election, that happy outcome is now much less certain.

And when we examined this question as part of our ‘Securing the Majority’ series last summer, some MPs also warned that a serious boundary shake-up could wipe out the first-term dividend newly-elected parliamentarians often enjoy.

So a full picture of the partisan impact of the changes will have to wait. But it nonetheless interesting to take two snapshots of the battlefield – one in the ‘Red Wall’, and one in the ‘Blue Wall’ – and prognosticate a little. Follow along at home with this very handy interactive map, courtesy of Election Maps UK.

Blue Wall

For the latter, let’s look at true-blue Buckinghamshire. All seven seats here returned Conservative MPs at the last election, and most by comfortable margins. What impact are the proposed changes likely to have?

Overall the county gains a seat, rising to eight. This has been done by carving the new seat of Princes Risborough out of the southern parts of the Aylesbury and Buckingham constituencies.

Despite this Milton Keynes notionally loses one, with Ben Everitt’s seat of Milton Keynes North, already a county constituency, shedding its remaining territory in the town and becomes Newport Pagnell, likely to be rock solid. Meanwhile Buckingham would absorb parts of the old Milton Keynes South to become Buckingham and Bletchley. Given that Greg Smith enjoys a majority of over 20,000, this is unlikely to cost him much sleep.

Milton Keynes South, what’s left of it, becomes just Milton Keynes. As a more urban seat it is likely to be closer to Labour than it was, although Iain Stewart’s comfortable majority of 6,944 ought to see him through.

Aylesbury changes shape quite dramatically, shedding a swath of southern territory. The new seat is much more concentrated on the town itself, and may also therefore be more competitive for Labour.

Both Chesham and Amersham and Wycombe remain roughly the same, although the latter becomes ‘High Wycombe’ – a rare example of the Boundary Commission’s enthusiasm for longer names being a force for good. It is the county’s most marginal seat and will probably continue trending away from the Party. On the other hand, Beaconsfield becomes Marlow and South Buckinghamshire for no obvious reason.

Overall then, little for CCHQ to complain out. These changes might put one or two seats slightly closer to the opposition, but this is probably offset by creating a new, quite safe Tory seat.

Red Wall

Now let’s look at an offensive battlefield: South Yorkshire. The Conservatives made a handful of gains here in 2019, but there is plenty of scope for growth – especially in the wake of the dramatic results at the locals, which saw the Party go from zero seats to 20 on Rotherham Council.

According to local sources, “winning all three Rotherham seats on these boundaries is a decent prospect.” Minor changes to Alexander Stafford’s seat of Rother Valley are unlikely to make much of an impact, Rotherham itself becomes “slightly more winnable”, and Wentworth and Dearne loses the Dearnes (the area with the weakest Tory vote) and is reborn as Rawmarsh and Conisbrough.

Doncaster Central (Labour majority: 2,278) becomes Doncaster Town by taking part of Don Valley that is “very good for us” – in fact local Tories suggest that “on these boundaries we should be looking to win it.” The consequence is that Don Valley itself may be harder to hold, although Nick Fletcher should probably be OK. Likewise, minor changes to Penistone and Stocksbridge are apparently unlikely to cause Miriam Cates much difficulty.

Elsewhere there is churn but less change: the rejigged boundaries in Barnsley will apparently produce broadly similar results to the status quo, as will alterations to Ed Miliband’s seat in Doncaster North (although this remains winnable). Likewise, nobody seems to expect any exciting results from a relatively conservative reshuffling of Sheffield.

On the face of it, a rosy outlook for the Party. But of course, South Yorkshire is an area where the old electoral map survived the last election. There are others, such as South Wales. But the impact of the reforms could be quite different elsewhere.

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!

Fleet wins the Conservative selection for the Chesham and Amersham by-election

5 May

Tonight, members of the Chesham & Amersham Conservative Association have selected Peter Fleet to be the Party’s candidate for the upcoming by-election.

Fleet, the Chairman of the Retail Automotive Alliance and former president of Ford Asia Pacific, won outright in the first round, with more than 50 per cent of the ballots cast.

He beat Nikki da Costa, the Director of Legislative Affairs at Number 10, and Olivia Seccombe, the Head of External Affairs at the National Farmers’ Union.

At the by-election he will be defending the majority of 16,223 secured by the late Dame Cheryl Gillan in this safe Tory seat.

In memory of my formidable, kind and imposing former constituency neighbour, Cheryl Gillan

5 Apr

When I was elected as MP for Wycombe in 2001, Cheryl Gillan was one of five constituency neighbours: the others being David Lidington, Dominic Grieve, John Bercow, and two future party leaders: Boris Johnson (across the county border in Oxfordshire) and Theresa May (ditto, Berkshire).

Cheryl had been in business in marketing, and was first elected to the Commons in 1992 – at a time when Conservative women MPs were fewer.

By 2001, she was senior, experienced and, with Lidington, the longest-serving of my four Bucks colleagues.  Cheryl was also able (having served as a junior Minister in the John Major Government at Education) and was a consistent presence on the Opposition front bench during my ten years in the Commons.

My sharpest memories of her are Bucks memories: that’s to say, of her around the table at joint meetings of the County Council Cabinet and those local MPs.

Kindly one-on-one, she was formidable across the table – woe betide the unfortunate person who happened to cross her – and in my view the most imposing character of the five of us, at a time when that smaller number of Tory women MPs had to work even harder for their place in the sun.

She was also what Conservative MPs call “a good colleague”: that’s to say, any disagreement she had with you would be argued out privately, and in public she would “have your back”.

A key to Cheryl was her husband, John “Jack” Leeming, a former senior civil servant, to whom she was devoted, and the attachment was mutual.  It was a warm, close family circle that kept her going during “expenses”, and his death two years ago will have been a terrible blow to her.

At one point, she was ready to stand down in 2019; changed her mind; stood again and won.  Part of the explanation for the back-and-forth may be found in the leadership contest of earlier that year.

Graham Brady’s leadership aspirations effectively excluded him from acting as returning officer for the election.  So Cheryl, by then a Vice-Chairman of the 1922, acted as returing officer with the other Vice-Chairman – Charles Walker or “my beautiful assistant”, as she referred to him while announcing the result [see picture right].

Cheryl may have stood for Parliament again believing it possible that Brady would not contest the chairmanship of the ’22 post-election, leaving the way open for her to do so.

It is not at all surprising that, back in 2010 after her long front bench stretch in Opposition, she survived the cull of Conservative Shadow Cabinet members when the Coalition was formed – moving from shadowing the Welsh Secretary to serving in the post herself.

Other Tory MPs might have been intimidated by Labour’s stranglehood on the politics of the country – her main claim to the office was that she had been born in Cardiff – but Cheryl was a vigorous presence in post, and didn’t want to leave it when dismissed by David Cameron in 2012.

In retrospect, it may have been for the best, since the tensions between serving as a loyal Minister, which she was, and opposing HS2, which she did, were rising.

She was a vociferous, well-informed and constant opponent of the project, and of its consequences for her Chesham and Amersham constituents.  Cheryl leaves a majority of 16,223, and the coming by-election will be a test for Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats, who will want to mount a challenge, and to the Tories, who will be expected to dismiss it.