Our Cabinet League Table. Wallace top again, Patel up, Johnson down – and Sunak in the red

25 Apr
  • This is Ben Wallace’s third table-topping month (with 85 points his rating has barely moved), and a pattern is beginning to form below him – as Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi and Anne-Marie Trevelyan come in variously at second, third and fourth (with scores in the mid to low sixties).  Both the first of those and now the second are being written up as potential leadership candidates.
  • Priti Patel was bottom of the table last month on -17 points, having languished at the lower end of it for some time – not least because of the small boats issue.  The Government now has a policy to deal with it, and her rating consequently jumps to 31 points, near the middle of the table.
  • Boris Johnson was in the same zone last month, having been in negative ratings for the previous three, and is now back down again – third from bottom.  Ukraine will have pushed him up last month; partygate will have pulled him down this. But the driver of his low scores is that the Government is too left-wing, at least in the view of many activists.
  • Rishi Sunak plunged last month to third from bottom in the wake of the Spring Statement (on plus eight points).  He drops to last place this month, coming in at minus five points, in the wake of the furore about his wife’s tax affairs and former non-dom status.  It is perhaps surprising that his fall isn’t larger; it may even be that the worst is behind him – in this table at least.

Is whipping Conservative MPs a mission impossible, or a lost art?

22 Apr

Chris Heaton-Harris has not had the best 48 hours. The Chief Whip spent Wednesday evening engaged in writing and re-writing an amendment designed to derail Labour’s attempts to trigger an inquiry into whether the Prime Minister lied to Parliament over Partygate. His Thursday then evolved into the farce of a growing number of Conservative MPs refusing to back the amendment, forcing Number 10 into the embarrassing climbdown of scrapping the amendment and abstaining on the vote.

Heaton-Harris’ failure to get a hold of the situation, to cajole MPs to stick with the Government, raises series questions about his capacity in his new role. Mark Spencer, his predecessor and now the Leader of the House of Commons, came a cropper over the shambles of the Owen Patterson affair. This new Whips Office was supposed to be more effective, a vital bridge between Number 10 and MPs. And Heaton-Harris, as a former Chief Whip in the European Parliament, was just the man to lead it.

These calamitous last two days understandably have raised fears that little has changed. That the Government was taken aback by the growing popularity of Labour’s motion on Wednesday evening shows a failure to plan for a possible consequence of doubting Tory MPs conversing in bars and lobbies together. Once the Whips authority had visibly begun to sap, the decision to surrender and abstain made Heaton-Harris and his team appear fully powerless.

This is a surprise, to say the least. Heaton-Harris was appointed as Chief Whip following his successful efforts, alongside Grant Shapps, Nigel Adams, and Conor Burns, to rally support for the Prime Minister over ‘cake ambushes’ only a few short weeks ago. Moreover, with his experience in Strasbourg, it was hoped that he could replace Spencer relatively smoothly, as his predecessor’s judgement, commitment, and readiness for the challenge were increasingly facing criticism.

But no dice. It might be a new set of faces placing Francis Urquhart, but they have still struggled to keep the parliamentary rodeo under control. Which raises an intriguing question – just how hard is it to whip Conservative MPs today? Rumours about various backbenchers and the odd dominatrix or two may abound, but here we shall limit our speculation to the purely political.

It is certainly the case that MPs are becoming more rebellious. Almost half – 44% – of all Conservative MPs had rebelled at least once since the 2019 election by February this year. Rebellions were not solely over Covid, or from one wing of the party. Previously loyal long-serving MPs, ‘Red Wallers’ and those in-between have rebelled over legislation ranging from abortion at home to the Police and Crime bills. At least one MP has voted against the Government in around a quarter of all divisions.

Compare that to 2015, in which the last Conservative majority government saw just 18% of backbenchers rebel in the first session. Further back in time, many will have seen James Graham’s excellent play This House, which documents the travails of the Labour and Conservative Whips offices from 1974 to 1979. Even then, with a minority government, a Labour party split between left and right, and an economic crisis, large rebellions were very rare.

Having referenced Del Boy earlier in the week, it is now my chance to go full Uncle Albert. The MPs of the 1970s may have not been as ethnically or sexually diverse as today’s crop, but they were largely united by a shared culture of duty and loyalty inherited from service in the war. Powerful personalities were kept in check by a habit of following instructions, and an understanding of oneself as a loyal foot solider in the forces of either labour or capital. How times have changed.

Today’s Tory MPs have much more in common with the habitually constituency-championing Liberal Democrats. Yes, the 2019 intake provided its share of habitual careerists – Oxbridge, SPAD, private sector, safe seat in Surrey, and up the greasy pole. But, and they are especially those sitting on small majorities, it produced a variety of MPs from unusual – read, normal – backgrounds for MPs, who are much less interested in the ministerial Jag, and much more interested in batting for Blyth or Bishop Auckland.

Social media also plays a role. As well as raising the fears of MPs who don’t wish to be targeted by Labour’s viral ads accusing them of condoning Prime Ministerial law-breaking, WhatsApp has also been a Tory plotter’s dream. MPs now have a constant channel in which to discuss potential rebellions, common interests, and issues over which they want to show their hands, in all manners of subdivisions and group chats. The Red Wall’s ‘WhatsApp Warriors’ are just the crest of a wave.

It is also the case that many in the 2019 intake have not been entirely, well, House-trained. No sooner were new MPs setting up their offices than the lockdowns robbed them of the opportunity to interact with their colleagues in person and learn about the ins and outs of Westminster. As such, doing parliamentary democracy via Zoom hardly encouraged a sense of esprit de corps. Hence why it was usually newer MPs who were the most willing to call for Dominic Cummings to depart in 2020.

Nevertheless, before this becomes solely a sociological study of the average new MP, it must also be remembered that it is not only them with a habit of rebelling. Take a bow, Mark Harper, Steve Baker, Theresa May et al. 12 years in government provides plenty of time for tensions to rise, ex-ministers to fester, and egos to be bruised. As this is a government whose origin lay in failing to back its predecessor, it is hardly surprising if some don’t feel they owe Number 10 a huge amount of loyalty.

So all of these factors merge and meld to produce a situation hardly conducive to a quite life for Heaton-Harris. He may have adopted a tactic of Gavin Williamson’s in choosing to abstain on Labour’s motion, but he must have hoped shepherding a majority of over 70 would be easier than Williamson’s task of overseeing a minority government. But whipping appears to be a harder task than ever before – and an art the Prime Minister will be hoping Heaton-Harris very quickly masters.

Our Cabinet League Table. Sunak plunges to third from bottom.

4 Apr
  • Last September, I reported that Dominic Raab had plummeted third from top in July to fourth from bottom in our Cabinet League Table.  Today, he is back to sixth from top, having worked his way out of the relegation zone.
  • I write this to offer comfort to enthusiasts for Rishi Sunak, who was eleventh last month, but now finds himself plunged to third from bottom, in the wake of a Spring Statement with which the majority of our panel is dissatisfied.
  • Having managed the table for a long time, I know that what goes down can come up again – and vice-versa.  Our respondents are very knowing, and many use the table as a form of running commentary rather than a means of permanent judgement.
  • At the top, the changes are very marginal, with Steve Barclay’s fall of nine points from 64 to 55, and drop from second to fifth, being the largest movement in the top ten – and it’s not a very large one in the great scheme of events.
  • At the bottom, Priti Patel falls into negative ratings after a month’s bad headlines over Ukrainian refugees.  The Home Office is so permanently troubled that it’s hard to see her moving up towards the comfort of mid-table in the near future.
  • Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is out of negative ratings, where he had been for three months running, and into the middle of the table.  This is at once an impressive recovery from where he was and a lacklustre rating given his position as Prime Minister.
  • Johnson will undoubtedly have gained from his handling of the Ukraine, which received an overwhelming thumbs up from our panel.  Ninety-three per cent took a positive view of it and 58 per cent a negative one of Sunak’s Spring Statement.

Shapps has spotted a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give Britain world-class railways

28 Nov

What a wonderful time to be in charge of Britain’s railways. The pandemic both demands and enables a programme of improvements which would otherwise have taken many years to achieve.

Since March, about £10 billion of public money has been spent to keep the trains running. At first sight, that looks like an unmitigated disaster. It is certainly unsustainable.

But it also means the strike weapon has lost its edge. To threaten to bring empty trains to a halt is no threat at all.

Nor can the rail unions divide and rule, as they did when services were divided between different train operating companies, a system which had already collapsed before the pandemic.

This is a moment of central control, when the Government is paying the bills and can insist that the interests of passengers and taxpayers take precedence over the desire of the unions to prevent change.

Ministers recognise this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sweep away the accumulated absurdities, ranging from outdated working practices to the ludicrously convoluted fare structure, which are holding the railways back, and to press ahead with such innovations as the introduction of driverless trains, first seen on the Victoria Line in 1968 and the Docklands Light Railway in 1987.

In March this year, ConHome can reveal, a committee on rail reform was set up within the Department for Transport and began meeting weekly.

It is chaired by Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and attended by the Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, but nobody supposed the DfT could provide the specialised knowledge of how to run a railway.

So the expertise is provided by members of the committee including Sir Peter Hendy, Keith Williams, Andrew Haines and some of the Non-Executive Directors of the DfT, notably Tony Poulter.

Hendy, appointed by Ken Livingstone to run Transport for London, was kept on by the winner of the 2008 mayoral election, Boris Johnson, received a knighthood after the London Olympics of 2012 in recognition of the excellent transport arrangements during the games, and since 2015 has chaired Network Rail.

Williams, a former Chief Executive of British Airways, has since September 2018 chaired the Williams Rail Review, set up to make recommendations for reforming the entire structure of the industry, with the interests of passengers and taxpayers put first. Its work has not been published, but is being drawn on now.

Haines is Chief Executive of Network Rail, a former Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority, and before that was Managing Director of South-West Trains.

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this week that Shapps has asked Haines to produce a 30-year strategy for the railway called the “The Whole Industry Strategic Plan”.

And earlier this month, The Sunday Telegraph revealed that Haines has been asked by Ruth Hannant and Polly Payne, joint DfT directors general for rail, to report on the future of the East Coast Main Line, and to do so “from the perspective of a neutral single guiding mind”, rather than in his capacity as Chief Executive of Network Rail.

Hannant and Payne have for many years operated a job-share, and before arriving at the DfT in December 2017 were joint Directors of Higher Education Reform at the Department for Education.

One does not have to be Dominic Cummings to reckon this is perhaps not the best way to run a railway. Many in the industry think so too.

But the paucity of deep expertise within the DfT, and its propensity to meddle counter-productively with such matters as the timetable, demonstrate the need for another body, or “neutral single guiding mind”, to be in overall charge.

We require what the press likes to call a Fat Controller, though one cannot help reflecting that the original Fat Controller’s safety record was poor.

The safety record of Britain’s railways has in recent years been good. Some of the credit for that belongs to Mark Carne, Chief Executive of Network Rail from 2014-18, whose previous career at Shell was coloured by the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988.

Nothing, evidently, must be done to put safety at risk. But just as it is no longer necessary to check the oil in a car by opening the bonnet and inspecting the dipstick, for there is a light on the dashboard which will tell you if more oil is needed, so it is no longer necessary for each train to be checked every 24 hours by a driver who walks all round it at ground level, on a path wide enough to keep out of the way of other trains, and well lit enough to be used at night.

The unions insist on this ritual, which has become a ridiculous waste of the highly paid driver’s time, and of taxpayers’ money. Like modern cars, modern trains tell you when something goes wrong.

In the era of nationalisation (1948-93) the railways appeared to be in inexorable decline, and the most famous figure associated with them was Dr Beeching, who proposed to close a third of the network, which is pretty much what happened.

Since privatisation, passenger numbers have doubled, the network has undergone many improvements, there is a lot of new rolling stock and some of the lines closed by Beeching are being reopened.

Lord Adonis has argued with his usual brio the case for doing this, while Larry Elliott has pointed out that without Beeching, which left so many towns cut off, Brexit might never have happened.

One of the great attractions of creating improved railway services is that this cause appeals far beyond the ranks of Conservatives.

Good railways, railways of which everyone can feel proud, are a quintessentially One Nation policy, levelling up in action, and the 2019 Conservative manifesto rightly promised that

“we will restore many of the Beeching lines, reconnecting smaller towns such as Fleetwood and Willenhall that have suffered permanent disadvantage since they were removed from the rail network in the 1960s.”

There is now every prospect that passenger services between Ashington and Newcastle, lost in the 1960s, will soon be restored. The line runs through Blyth, long a Labour stronghold but captured by the Conservatives last December.

Ashington itself is in the constituency of Wansbeck, held last December by Ian Lavery for Labour with a majority of 814, compared to a majority of 10,435 in 2017. Perhaps the new line will help tip Lavery into oblivion.

Beeching was a blunder of Harold Macmillan’s later and less happy years as Prime Minister. It ought now to be undone, along with the destruction of the Euston Arch.

This cannot, however, become an excuse for wasting taxpayers’ money on “fantastically overpaid and inefficient” train drivers, as one source close to the reform committee describes them.

Nor does anyone know how quickly or fully the demand for rail travel will revive. The likelihood is that some commuters will decide they would rather work from home.

And there are many demands on the Treasury’s funds. Rishi Sunak will heed the calls of the NHS, social care and other good causes before he listens to the railways, especially if he thinks the latter are squandering taxpayers’ cash.

So a realistic deal has got to be made with the rail unions. The powers that be are disposed to allow existing drivers, who are mostly quite old, to retain their perks, but not to show the same indulgence to new recruits.