Royston Smith: I was lent an e-bike to trial – and see now why they could help power a green revolution

23 Nov

Royston Smith is MP for Southampton Itchen

With more homes being needed in already congested cities, policy makers have a huge challenge in how more people are going to be able to move around efficiently. The coronavirus pandemic is making us rethink a lot about our lives, but will it really bring an end to our reliance on cars for many of us?

Probably not – but if we are to see the green transport revolution that the Prime Minister has announced, the case must be made for more accessible sustainable transport options, such as e-bikes.

Last month, my local Halfords store in Southampton lent me an e-bike to trial for a few weeks. When Simon, the branch manager, set me up on the impressive Carrera Vengeance, I had my doubts. His advice was straightforward – ‘just ride’. I expected I would need to do something with the throttle to boost the motor. Instead, it really was that easy, the constant feeling of riding in the lowest gear, unless I chose to add some resistance.

The effect of this was to make even the mightiest hills feel flat; very welcome in a hilly city like Southampton. It really couldn’t have been easier, and made cycling a viable option for me in a way it probably wouldn’t be for most slightly overweight men in their mid-fifties who have fallen out of the habit of cycling regularly.

I was also impressed that e-bikes maintain their charge for so long. Halfords showed me that on average charging is required every 30-50 miles, making e-bikes a practical alternative to using the car and public transport for many. E-bikes are included in the Cycle to Work scheme, which allows employees to spread the cost of a new purchase through tax free salary installments over 12 or 18 months making getting one a more affordable prospect than ever.

As with most urban areas, Southampton has a relatively well-mobilised cycle lobby. They frequently present it as a binary choice: you are either with them, or against them. Many of them have decided I am anti-cyclist because I maintain cycling isn’t a realistic choice for everyone, and have concerns about the delivery of cycle infrastructure in the city.

The Government is frequently happy to grant generous sums of public money to help deliver more sustainable cities, with green transport at the heart of this. The job of local authorities should be to be realistic about how this is spent, they know their locality and should deliver infrastructure which is sensitive to differing needs.

In Southampton, the Labour-led council has spent £11.5 million on the first phase of its cycling strategy, with many of these new cycle lanes having been left largely abandoned. Why? Because creating cycle lanes does not make cycling more accessible to all. The gridlock that resulted from halving road capacity to make space upset motorists and made air pollution even worse.

My experience of an e-bike showed me how they make cycling accessible to many more people than regular cycles. Halfords reported a tripling of sales of electric bikes this year. With the technology being cheaper and better than before, a quiet e-bike revolution is already taking place. E-bikes are perhaps not the entire solution – but they have great potential and should continue to be supported by policy makers.

Richard Holden: This week’s spending review must show voters in Red Wall seats like mine that they were right to trust us

23 Nov

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

“I will repay your trust” was the message loud and clear to the people of North East England on December 14 when the Prime Minister came to Sedgefield.

The result of the general election was first landslide Conservative victory that I can remember. The atmosphere was jubilant and newly elected MPs like me from County Durham and Teesside, alongside our local supporters, cheered him to the rafters. Coming to the North East, to the seat of the former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to ram that message home mattered, and showed to everyone how much Boris Johnson meant those words.

There’s a lot of guff written about our Prime Minister, but there are a few things I know from having spent time with him on the leadership campaign. He barely lets other people draft a quote for him, never mind a speech. He meant what he said on those days following the election. And crucially, he also helped define the landscape for the next general election with them.

The twin punches of ‘getting Brexit done’ and the promise to ‘level up’ the country had cut through. Our task was aided by a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes that appeared to the people as desperately divided – amongst other things. With Corbyn, it wasn’t a question of trust that he’d carry out his promises: they believed him. And that scared the bejesus out of a large portion of the electorate.

Living up to that trust started at a pace with the legislation to leave the EU passed within a month, and then we left the EU on January 31st. The big Greenwich speech laid out the path forward on the international stage in early February –  in a speech incandescent with positivity about Britain re-launching herself out into the world.

Events then interceded. The global Coronavirus pandemic has knocked every nation in the world for six. The March budget focused on support during Covid-19, and leant heavily into the key general election promises on our NHS: more nurses, new hospitals, GP appointments.

Since then, the virus and and the response to it has been dominant. Massive support for jobs and businesses has been forthcoming – and welcomed. Rules have been written, changed and re-written, as we’ve learnt more about the virus. Vaccines, thank God, now look to be on their way with roll-out, hopefully, beginning to the most vulnerable in a matter of weeks.

But the Prime Minister’s commitment to repay the trust of the electorate has continued alongside the Covid-19 response. In September, the Government made on one of the biggest announcements around levelling-up to date – the expansion of education and training for post-18.

It was the Prime Minister who made the announcement, not the Education Secretary. When Downing Street take an announcement, it’s something that the Prime Minister personally both cares about and gets the importance of. For levelling up skills and wages, this is a big one. Interestingly and importantly too, the big recent announcements regarding both defence, and the environment and future industries, have included heavy focus on them delivering good jobs in the UK as part of the package.

This week, the Spending Review is a crucial next step on that programme of building trust by delivering. It will cover only a year, rather than the three years that were planned, but it’s vital that, for those long-term promises: on education, policing and infrastructure, as much clarity is given as possible to departments as possible in terms of long-term funding.

Having worked inside ‘domestic delivery’ departments myself in my previous life as a SpAd, if these are going to help deliver, this is very difficult to do overnight, so anything that gives them the ability to plan will really help.

No-one is in any doubt that things will not be as straightforward as they would have been without the pandemic, but Rishi Sunak has sensibly already laid the groundwork for the necessity to level with people: decisions cost money.

He’s also made it clear that the Green Book – that’s to say, how the Government works out the various worth of major projects – needs review: something critical to ‘levelling up.’ On both these points, reality is necessary for trust too – openness on the challenges we face will put our successes, when they come, in the right context. And, post-Coronavirus, is a difficult context.

As strategists look towards the next election, we need to remember that the twin sledgehammers in voters’ minds of Corbyn and Brexit will have fallen away by 2024.

But Keir Starmer will have an issue on trust on both which lasts longer than the individual issues themselves. He sat in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, worked to make him Prime Minister and, even when Sir Keir had won his party’s leadership poll, he thanked Corbyn for what he’d done as leader.

On Brexit, we all know that it was Starmer who pushed and wrote the policy of a second referendum. It is clear what he wants to do is to hold the Labour Party together at all costs – trying to play both sides on Corbyn with public praise, then denunciation, and then secret half-way house deals fool no-one. As Starmer continues to struggle to tack both ways simultaneously, on both Brexit and Corbyn, he may well come unstuck. But that’s a matter for him, and we can only control our own actions.

Against the context of Starmer and trust, the spending review gives us a golden opportunity to remind the electorate that they can trust us, just as it did in December last year. Yes, we need the realism about the situation that Britain faces and the impact of Coronavirus has had. But we do need to show that we’ll stick to our levelling-up agenda too.

At the last general election, the final three or four days of knocking on doors in North West Durham were surreal. I didn’t need to convince people anymore – they just wanted to know that their vote would matter, that other people were thinking like them, and they knew that it would a close-run thing.

Next time, they’ll already know that it’s going to be close in seats like mine. What they need is the assurance that their trust was well placed in the Prime Minister, in the Conservative Party and in each individual MP last time. Whatever else it does, this spending review must do that.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan: The suggestion that those in the North don’t care about the environment is incredibly patronising

21 Nov

Anne-Marie Trevelyan is MP for Berwick. She was the Secretary of State for International Development until that post was abolished in September.

This week, the Prime Minister set out an ambitious ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution in our country over the next decade. This is welcome news and marks the beginning of the UK’s path to net zero, with further plans to reduce our emissions whilst creating the green jobs of the future. In recent days, some have sought to characterise this as somehow a shift to “softer” issues, or away from the core levelling-up agenda for our swathe of new seats across the Midlands and North. That analysis is, I’m afraid, as lazy as it is fundamentally wrong.

Far from being part of some woke agenda, going green is a hard-nosed, economically vital policy choice. A choice that will give our country a competitive advantage in securing the massive investment, jobs, and export opportunities that are up for grabs as the entire world rises to the challenge of tackling climate change.

The plans set out by the Prime Minister will see over £12 billion of government investment into our green industries that will create and support 250,000 highly-skilled green jobs in the UK and send a message of confidence to businesses making their own investments in the UK.

Make no mistake, the direction of travel is only going one way across the world. Just this year, in a hugely significant step, China committed to going carbon neutral by 2060. 73 countries committed to Net Zero by 2050 at COP 2019, with the UK being the first major nation to legislate for it. And with a new President soon to be in the White House, many expect America to recommit to reducing its carbon emissions.

Meeting these targets will require huge changes, whether that be with electric vehicles, research projects for zero-emission planes, making our homes more energy efficient, carbon capture, or new hydrogen technologies.

Those countries that establish these new technologies, advanced manufacturing methods, new engineering and scientific expertise, will see both huge inward investment and massive export potential as countries across the world seek to reduce their emissions.

And all that means the creation of high skilled, well-paid jobs, across fields like engineering, manufacturing, specialist construction, to name a few. In many towns across the Midlands and North, there exists residual skills and expertise in these areas and we are well placed to take advantage of any green investment. Take Teesside, where in 2015 sadly thousands of steelworkers lost their jobs as the Redcar steelworks closed. Plans are now underway to turn the old steelworks site into a carbon capture project, supporting up to 5,500 new jobs. Getting ahead in green technologies holds the potential for nothing short of an industrial renaissance in our country, and a clean one.

Indeed, at the centre of the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan are the UK’s industrial heartlands, including in the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, West Midlands, Scotland and Wales, who will drive forward the green industrial revolution and build green jobs and industries of the future.

And this isn’t all pie-in-the-sky ambition. We are already the world leader in offshore wind, in part thanks to early government interventions, such as the decision by a Conservative government in 2013 to authorise the system of subsidised 15-year contracts, which have proved so successful. Offshore wind directly supports 11,000 skilled jobs here in the UK, and that is projected to rise to 27,000 jobs by 2030. Jobs in places like Hull, where Siemens and Associated British Ports built a £310 million blade plant, Barrow-in-Furness for the Walney Extension windfarm or Hartlepool for the massive Dogger Bank project.

Our experience of offshore wind, with early government support and commitments helping to develop a world-leading industry, shows why the government is bang on to be committing to our green industries now. It sends a strong message to investors that the UK is a place to invest and create the jobs of the future.

Recent research estimated that 700,000 new jobs could be created in green industry over the next decade alone. If you take the offshore wind sector, over a quarter of jobs are occupied by workers under 30, so green industry will clearly be hugely important as we build back from the pandemic.

Leaving what I believe is the unarguable economic case aside for one moment, I also find the sweeping suggestion that those in the North or the Midlands just don’t care about the environment incredibly patronising. Why should a parent in Newcastle be any less concerned about the quality of air their kids are breathing than a parent in London? You don’t have to live in a leafy suburb in the South to care about the environment your kids and future generations will inherit.

Green industry is undoubtedly one of the biggest growth industries of the future, and we either take action right now to benefit from that growth, that investment, those new skilled jobs, or we get left behind. That’s not going soft, that’s going hard-headed to secure our economic prospects as we build back better and greener from Covid.

David Gauke: Next week’s spending review – and why our holiday from spending restraint is coming to an end

21 Nov

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

For reasons that some readers will understand, the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street was not a source of great sorrow for me. It appears that I am not alone. Nonetheless, Cummings’ resignation/dismissal makes the Prime Minister’s job much harder in at least one respect.

We are already pushing the limits on when a free trade agreement with the EU can be agreed in order for it to be in place by the end of the year. Boris Johnson continues to appear to be undecided as to whether he is willing to make the necessary concessions in order to get a deal (thus upsetting hardline Brexiteers) or leave without a deal (wreaking further damage to the economy and the integrity of the United Kingdom).

Both options have been apparent for some time, and they are sub-optimal for the Prime Minister and the country. Now he really has to choose.

If he compromises, some people will say that, without Cummings, the Prime Minister lacks a spine. Cummings may well be one of the people making this point.

If he does not get a deal, the Prime Minister’s strategy must be to convince the Leave half of the country that the ensuing mess is the fault of the European Union (it will be a hopeless task to avoid the blame with the other half of the country). To do that, he will need a communications strategy that is ruthless, aggressive and lacking in self-doubt, entirely untroubled by the overwhelming evidence pointing to a different interpretation of the situation. These are exactly the circumstances in which Cummings has a track record of success.

This is a bad time for the Prime Minister to fall out with his most influential adviser.

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Anyone entering politics will be aware that there may come a moment when there is a conflict between what one perceives as the national interest and the furtherance of one’s career.

We can currently see this playing out in the United States, as Donald Trump continues to refuse to accept the election result. With a few honourable exceptions, most senior Republicans have gone along with this nonsense. Presumably, none of them believe the election was rigged in favour of Joe Biden, but they dare not say so because of the fear of offending the Republic base.

Although not as egregious, there are similarities in the UK. Fear of offending the Conservative grassroots has inhibited too many senior Tories in setting out the realities of our departure from the European Union for far too long.

At this particular time, the talk of Westminster and Whitehall is that the overwhelming majority of the Cabinet favour a compromise with the EU because they are conscious of the consequences of failing to get a deal. But the ambitious amongst them know that to be seen to be associated with compromise on Brexit is a career damaging move.

As a consequence, they keep their heads down, content to let others challenge the prejudices of their party’s more extreme supporters. If things ultimately go as badly as they might, history will not judge kindly.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Prime Minister’s announcement of an ambitious green agenda will, we are told, help create thousands of green jobs. The increase in defence spending will, we are told, help create 10,000 new jobs. Such announcements are always treated as being good news – a further justification for a policy.

There are good arguments to be made for reducing carbon emissions and improving our defence capabilities but, while the fact that pursuing these policies requires the employment of more people may be good news for the individuals concerned, for the Government and society as a whole, this is a cost not a benefit. Employing people is expensive. And if they are employed to do one thing, they are no longer available to be employed to do something else which society or the economy might value.

I do not always agree with everything Nigel Lawson says, but he has a point when he states that “a programme to erect statues of Boris in every town and village in the land would also ‘create jobs’ but that doesn’t make it a sensible thing to do”.

To give an equally absurd example, it is not a cause of celebration that, from January, the country is going to require an additional 50,000 customs agents because of increased bureaucracy involved in trading with the EU. I repeat, this is a cost not a benefit.

– – – – – – – – – –

Wednesday will see the Spending Review, albeit one that is less comprehensive than first intended. I suspect much of the focus will be on the Office for Budget Responsibility’s assessment of the public finances, which is likely to be ghastly.

Borrowing this year will certainly be a peacetime record and might not be far behind a wartime record, either. To some extent, that does not matter as much as it might do – we can get our debt away easily and cheaply enough in a world where markets are much more forgiving of high levels of Government debt than they were even a few years ago.

But the worry will be that, even a few years down the line when the virus is behind us, we will still be borrowing very large sums of money. Exceptional borrowing in an exceptional year is one thing, but one cannot expect to get away with that forever.

Something will have to be done – but when? One of the many challenges for the Chancellor is that the political and economic cycles are misaligned.

Politically, he would want to get tax rises or spending cuts (and it will be mainly the former) in place early in a Parliament so that the pain is well out the way by the time we get to 2024.

Economically, the consensus view is that early tax increases might choke off a recovery so better wait a while. On that basis, even with the recent good news on vaccines, 2022 would be the earliest point for tax increases (and plenty would argue for later).

The politics of tax increases also appears to be immensely difficult. The Prime Minister seems dug in on the tax lock (preventing increases in the rates of income tax, national insurance contributions and VAT, which between them raise two thirds of Government revenue) whilst the back benchers also appear squeamish about any kind of fiscal consolidation.

As a country, we have given ourselves a bit of a holiday from thinking about the public finances. This coming week might indicate that this holiday will soon be coming to an end.

– – – – – – – – – –

Should we relax Covid-19 restrictions to save Christmas? It would be lovely to have a normal Christmas, but I am not sure proponents of seasonal break in restrictions have thought this through.

There is every reason to believe that Christmas would be a super spreader event, resulting in the deaths of thousands just weeks before we will have vaccinated the vulnerable.

For too many families, making the wrong decision about Christmas 2020 could mean that all future Christmases will be tinged with sadness, loss and guilt. Just be patient; we are nearly there.

Damian Green: Why a forced choice between a Brexity North and a Globalist South would be a false one – and damage our Party

16 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

2020 has brought many words to the forefront of our conversations: pandemic, lockdown, mask. Suddenly “reset” has become the latest addition to the thesaurus of 2020, as politicians and commentators ponder the future of the Government in the post-Dominic Cummings era. Is Boris Johnson about to head out in a new direction, or would any deviation from the path of 2019 be a politically unwise heresy?

We should start with the Prime Minister’s own favourite self-description. He always refers to himself as a One Nation Conservative. So I take it as a given that he wants to run a One Nation Government: one which seeks to unite, heal and provide opportunity for all. The interesting question is what does this mean for the coming decade, as the country seeks to recover from Covid-19 and make the best of Brexit.

The first change will need to be a simple change of tone. Crossing the road to pick a fight may be a rational strategy in the period of a campaign, especially one which you are not confident of winning, but it is a rotten way to run a government. There are absolutely battles that need to be fought and won, but any administration can only fight on so many fronts at once. If too many people are potential enemies to be denigrated and then crushed, then you rapidly run out of friends. Every government needs loyal friends.

This is a relatively easy reset. The deeper question is whether there also needs to be a significant change of substance. What will a One Nation Government concentrate on, and would that produce a more contented country, and therefore a platform for re-election in 2024?

The short answer is that the Government should re-read the manifesto on which it was elected, and concentrate its efforts on the big promises in it. Brexit has happened – so it should now move on very rapidly to making a reality of levelling up.

Every One Nation Conservative applauds the concept of giving particular help to parts of the country that have been left behind, but also thinks that there are national policies that allow us to do this without creating a competition between North and South.

Much better training and education, both for young people and older workers whose job skills have become obsolete, would benefit everyone, but would have particular effect in towns and cities where jobs have been harder to find.

In health policy, one lesson we have learned from Covid is that it is the co-morbidities that come from poverty and disadvantage that make people more likely to die. So meeting the manifesto commitment to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 can only be done through reducing health inequality. This in itself would be a One Nation priority, but its practical benefits would be most obvious in the Blue Wall seats.

I observe that there is a rearguard action from climate sceptics against this week’s environmental announcements from the Prime Minister. This takes the form of claiming that no one in the North cares about the environment, as they really want jobs and prosperity.

There are two answers to this. The first is that these policies contain vital measures to make sure that the jobs of the future come to this country rather than others. You can, as I do, want more power generated from wind, and want the people making wind turbines to do so in areas of the UK with traditional manufacturing skills. The second is that to assume that no one in the North cares about the future of the planet is patronising nonsense.

This attack on green policies that were also in the manifesto is a symptom of a wider misconception which is already beginning to spread: that the Conservative Party has to choose between the gritty Brexity immigration-sceptic North and the soft, affluent globalist South.

This is a counsel of despair, as it suggests that there is no way Conservatives can win a stable majority in the long term. More importantly it ignores the capacity of this Government to produce a raft of policies which unite large parts of the country. Strict immigration control (and indeed Brexit) are as popular in my Kent constituency as they are in Stoke, Wigan, or Darlington.

Crucially, though, so are policies which help people into jobs, which preserve a decent welfare system in a time of trouble, and which create the economic conditions that encourage the creation of new businesses. It is not northern or southern (or English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish) to want people to stand on their own and take their own decisions, while being entitled to help from society when they need it. This Conservative version of the welfare state is at the heart of modern One Nation thinking, and our longest period out of power was when Tony Blair and New Labour stole it.

Conservatism needs to be more than libertarianism, and more than small-statism. There are different traditions that come together in the Conservative Party, but what unites them is a respect for our country, out history and our institutions. We will never be “woke” because too much of what passes for progressive politics is transient and illiberal.

But if fighting a culture war from the right involves trashing our institutions, like Whitehall, the judiciary or the BBC, it is dangerously unconservative. A wise Conservative Government will always reform, but very rarely offer revolution. Above all, it should respect the rule of law.

A reset Government will double down on the many excellent promises it made the country last December, knowing that after the worst of Covid has passed it has three years to demonstrate to Conservative voters old and new some visible improvements in public services and communities. The One Nation Caucus is producing a series of policy papers to provide new ideas to help the Government on this course. Let’s hope the new word for 2021 is “recovery”.

Brave New World

15 Nov
  • One of this site’s favourite sayings is that character is destiny.  This being so, it would be unlike Dominic Cummings to go quietly.  At some point, he will surely drop a bunker-busting bomb on Downing Street – his version of recent events.  It will not make happy reading for the Prime Minister.
  • This position overlaps with Lee Cain’s, but isn’t identical.  Like Cummings, Cain is a core member of Team Vote Leave.  Unlike him, he worked for Boris Johnson previously as a SpAd at the Foreign Office, and then as his aide after the Chequers resignation.  “Caino” has a real attachment to his former boss.
  • At any rate, both are gone, and the sum is that certainty has been changed for uncertainty.  With the Johnson/Cummings duo, the Government’s political strategy was a known – and and a core part of it was winning and keeping support in parts of England with a Labour history, from those famous Just About Managings.
  • Does the new Downing Street aim to carry on marching north, as it were, but with fewer male, macho officers in charge: more Allegra Strattons (not to mention Carrie Symonds, now fully politically engaged?), fewer Cains   If so, will such a switch work?  Isn’t in-your-face anti-establishment aggression an integral part of the exercise?
  • Or does the Grand Old Duke of Johnson intend to march his army back south towards its home counties comfort zone – to make a greener, kinder, gentler and more female pitch to a more familiar Tory audience, with today’s Prime Minister magically recreated as yesterday’s London Mayor?
  • Either way, it is, in principle, a bad thing for a Government to seek to reinvent itself after less than a year in office.  If it’s messed up the past – by its own tacit admission – why trust it in future?  In practice, it is also swapping certainty for uncertainty: Johnson risks becoming a blank sheet of paper on which others will scrawl whatever they wish.
  • Which is what’s happening now.  So it’s necessary to discount much of what you are currently reading and seeing as rumour and speculation.  What’s certain is that the Prime Minister needs to make some decisions fast: first, about Downing Street itself.  Second, about the Government.  Third, about policy and strategy.
  • On Downing Street, he needs a permanent Chief of Staff.  What would fit the bill is a senior civil servant, not an MP, with political views.  That sounds a lot like David Frost, when the Brexit negotiation is over.  Sajid Javid’s name is presumably being floated because Symonds was his SpAd, but he would be wrong for the post.
  • Which takes us to government.  Able politicians should be running departments as Cabinet members, not working as staffers in Number Ten.  Johnson cannot now avoid a reshuffle at the top.  That means bringing in talent old and new: Javid, Tom Tugendhat, Jeremy Hunt, Kemi Badenoch, Liam Fox.
  • And, on the subject of governing better, Cabinet members should be given their heads and not micro-managed.  There can be no repetition of the Cummings experiment – not least because it would be impossible to find a substitute for him, anyway.  Circumstances make it inevitable to try a more traditional style of government.
  • That also suggests: a single elected MP, who has independent political authority, as Party Chairman; a new Chief Whip and more experience in the Whips’ Office; an Andrew Mackay-type senior MP to sit in the key Downing Street meetings and to work the backbenches.
  • Next, and turning to policy, the Brexit trade talks.  Cummings’ departure raises two possibilites.  First, that any deal is written off as a “betrayal of Vote Leave’s legacy” and “a stitch-up by Remainers” (point of information: Symonds and Stratton both voted Leave).  And that No Deal leaves Johnson bereft of Cummings when he most needs him.
  • Then there is Covid-19 – and the December 2 deadline for returning to the three-tiered system.  The emergence of the Covid Recovery Group is a sign of a rising backbench revolt against lockdown.  Attempts to prolong it would blow up the fragile truce currently in place between Downing Street and MPs.
  • On policy, other quick points.  MPs opposed to the Government’s housing plans are moving in to try to kill them off; others who back a “war on woke” are mobilising (in the wake of reports that Johnson wants to steer clear of one); and all agree that the Prime Minister is increasingly preoccupied by the possibility of losing Scotland on his watch.
  • What will any new stress on green policy mean, as COP26 looms into view?  One version would be a softer-focused one, focused on emissions, climate change and animals (a passion of Symonds).  Another would be harder-edged: preocuppied with growth and “green jobs” – that stressed by such pro-Brexit provincial politicians as Ben Houchen.
  • Uncertainty reigns elsewhere, too  For example, does the Prime Minister really want to recreate a Cameron-era style Policy Board – led by an MP: reportedly, our columnist Neil O’Brien? If so, how would it, and new taskforces with MP members, dovetail with the Number Ten Policy Unit, as led by Munira Mirza?
  • The media is currently trampling on the grave of Dominic Cummings.  At some point, much of it will turn on Symonds.  Her backers will point out that she is a communications professional, and entitled to have views.  Her critics will argue that she is unelected, and holds no official position.  There are claims of sexism.  This is where we are going.
  • And finally, there is one very senior Conservative politician indeed who is keeping well out of it – and, no, we don’t mean Michael Gove, who is still our candidate to bring order to policy and process.  Rather, we are thinking of the man last seen placing his rangoli outside Number 11 for Diwali: Rishi Sunak.

Stephen Booth: Brexit-related concerns about a Biden presidency are overblown. The reality is more nuanced.

12 Nov

Stephen Booth is a policy analyst and political commentator.

Much of the media commentary in recent days has suggested a potential Biden Presidency will create short-term diplomatic problems for the UK. From this viewpoint, the prospect of a Biden White House in January 2021 – pending the resolution of the US election process and President Trump’s legal battles – heralds a diminishing of London’s standing in Washington and therefore increases the pressure on the UK to accept the EU’s terms for a trade deal.

The reality is likely to be more nuanced and a Biden Presidency would also present opportunities for Britain to work closely with the US post-Brexit.

In certain EU capitals, a Biden win is seen as strengthening the EU’s leverage in the end game Brexit negotiations over the coming days. Asked whether Biden’s projected win would impact the Brexit talks, Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, replied: “I think perhaps it does.” EU diplomats have been quoted as saying a Biden win would “put a squeeze” on the UK, as the prospect of a UK-US trade deal could slip down the agenda.

The risk is that Brussels overplays its hand. Past evidence would suggest that the current UK negotiating team is more likely to judge a potential UK-EU deal on its merits rather than on what the occupant of the White House might think. An independent trade policy was viewed by many Leave voters as a benefit of Brexit, but this is not the same as believing Brexit was contingent on a trade deal with the US, much as it might be nice to have.

From what little has emerged from the UK-EU talks in recent days, it appears that the EU remains unwilling to bend on fishing, confident that the prize of market access for other more economically significant sectors is more important to the UK. This still assumes the UK is not prepared to walk away on the point of principle – that Brexit means regaining sovereignty over UK waters – which this government appears willing to do, however reluctantly.

The EU is also confident it has Biden on its side in the row over the Internal Market Bill, which would enable ministers to override aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the absence of a UK-EU settlement. Biden’s comments during the election campaign about a US trade deal being contingent on respect for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) were significant, but ultimately, it’s not clear how much has changed on this score.

Indeed, the Government’s very argument is that the powers it is seeking are a necessary “safety net” in order to uphold the UK’s commitments under the GFA. And that it is the EU’s maximalist interpretation of the Protocol which threatens to undermine the GFA.

As I have written previously, a workable compromise on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol is in both sides’ interests. This has been underlined this week with Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers jointly writing to the EU describing the “unacceptable” and “real threat” to food supplies being shipped to Northern Irish supermarkets from Great Britain.

The cross-community plea from the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders for greater EU flexibility on the need for checks should illustrate to Dublin and Brussels that they cannot take consent for the Protocol for granted if it cannot be made to work for individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, despite a large defeat in the House of Lords on the Bill, in the absence of a satisfactory UK-EU deal, there is every sign that the government plans to proceed with its current approach with the Internal Market Bill and forthcoming Finance Bill.

However, if there is UK-EU agreement on the implementation of the Protocol – eased by a wider UK-EU trade deal – the issue could be easily defused as there would be no need for the powers. If a solution is good enough for Dublin and Brussels, it will be good enough for Washington. If there is no deal, everyone will be in uncharted territory, including the US.

Meanwhile, Biden’s historical opposition to Brexit should not be discounted but does not mean it will determine his attitude to Britain now that Brexit is a reality. Following his congratulatory call with the Prime Minister, reportedly the first European leader he spoke to, Biden’s team stressed its desire to work with the UK on global issues such as security cooperation via NATO.

We also know that Biden shares the UK’s view that urgent global action on climate change is required. This presents an obvious opportunity, since the UK will host the 2021 United Nations climate summit, COP26.

Biden is certainly more pro-EU than Trump has been but it should be noted that President Obama arguably did as much as anyone to pivot the US’ focus and attention from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific. This reflected long-term global trends, which individual leaders can amplify or camouflage, but they cannot reverse.

Equally, international alliances are not zero-sum. A rejuvenation of US-EU relations does not have to come at the expense of the UK. Trump’s often combative relationship with the EU has risked forcing the UK to choose between Washington and Brussels when, ideally, it should have workable relations with both.

A US-UK trade deal may well slip down the short-term agenda under Biden but would remain doable. Bilateral trade agreements would not necessarily be his immediate priority, since domestic matters are more pressing. However, post-Brexit, a close UK-US relationship, including deepening the trade relationship, still makes strategic and geopolitical sense, whoever the occupant of the White House.

The UK is a major European power and a top-ranking middle power globally. Nevertheless, the UK might need to be prepared to think more creatively about strengthening US-UK ties. A Biden administration might prioritise large multilateral agreements, such as the Common and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the UK also hopes to join.

Equally, some of the biggest domestic obstacles to a US-UK trade deal, or indeed UK accession to CPTPP, have not gone away. Improved access to the UK’s agricultural markets is a bipartisan interest in the US. The UK will need to be prepared to liberalise in this area if it wants to further its trade ambitions with US and other trade partners, including Australia and New Zealand.

The UK and the US continue to have many shared interests. And, ultimately, while personalities matter in international relations, interests matter more.

Alistair Burt: Global Britain can also be European Britain

11 Nov

Alistair Burt is Chair of the Conservative Group for Europe’s Foreign Affairs Policy Group and former Minister of State at both the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.

Change is happening. Our relationship with Europe is changing, the United States is changing – Joe Biden will be the 46th President – the Foreign & Commonwealth Office has merged with Department for International Development, and the Government is undertaking the ‘Integrated Review’ of security, defence, development and foreign policy.

All of these changes, and others, provide the UK with unique opportunities to make a success of Global Britain. We must now be bold enough – and honest enough – to seize them.

During the summer, the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE) established a Foreign Affairs Policy Group, which includes experts in diplomacy, business and politics. Our first publication – Foreign Affairs and International Relations Post-Brexit – will be launched today at a webinar with William Hague, David Lidington, the Chair of CGE, Tom Tugendhat and Neale Richmond, the Fine Gael TD. We will discuss the paper and the future of UK foreign policy.

The Conservative Group for Europe, formed over 50 years ago, has a long history of promoting constructive European engagement within the Conservative Party. But being a pro-European Conservative today inevitably means something different to being a pro-European Conservative in 1970, or even in 2016. Debates move on and times change – as does the CGE.

As the UK forges a new foreign policy, which both reflects and responds to the constantly evolving world, we should not be driven by ideology or old biases. In the realm of foreign affairs, if continuing cooperation and coordination with Europe is in our best interests, we should say so. Adopting a ‘go it alone’ approach, simply to prove a point, would be both wrong and dangerous, and I hear no serious talk of this in foreign affairs. But being outside of the EU will allow for even greater innovation and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking in how we approach foreign policy in the future.

A common theme running throughout the paper is that multilateral political cooperation with the EU, as well as the bilateral relations with its member states in other international fora like the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe and NATO where we continue as full members, remains in the UK’s best national and independent interest.

In global affairs, UK and EU interests are often aligned. UK values have influenced Europe and vice versa, so in many ways these are intertwined in facing growing challenges, and our foreign policies will rarely be contradictory but more often mutually reinforcing. To make a success of Global Britain, we can also be ‘European Britain. We can achieve far more on the world stage by working collaboratively, as an equal partner, with our European allies. At the same time, we must seize new opportunities, think innovatively and engage in parts of the world previously overlooked.

Foreign Affairs and International Relations Post-Brexit is a Conservative contribution to the ongoing discussions about the UK’s role in an ever changing and challenging world, where resources will be stretched, and priorities must inevitably be chosen. The paper covers the EU; the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and East and South Asia. It offers an overview of each region, the UK’s involvement and highlights potential future opportunities and dangers. Crucially, it offers practical and positive suggestions to help ‘Global Britain’ succeed.

It starts with Africa, the world’s fastest growing continent which has all too often been overlooked. The UK should seek more active engagement with Africa by extending its diplomatic outreach and having an Embassy or High Commission in every African state.

These need not be large or grand undertakings; success can be achieved with just a few staff. Likewise, we should consider appointing a dedicated Ambassador to the African Union – as have with the European Union – and further engage with regional groups such as Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS). Over the last 30-40 years British business has overlooked African markets – we have lost export market share to Asia, the Americas and even some European countries. Increasing our diplomatic presence and engagement will help foster growth in UK-African trade.

Moving from Africa to the USA, the paper considers the potential foreign policy implications of Joe Biden’s upcoming presidency, his stated aim to rebuild traditional links with Europe and the future role that the UK can play. As President, Biden is committed and experienced in collective international action. He will want a UK working closely with European partners an essential and vital ally, further enhancing the UK’s opportunity for global influence. However, if we were to turn our back on Europe, the UK risks being marginalised and losing its unique and historic role as a bridge between the US and Europe.

Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement on the first day of his presidency and with the UK hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) next year, an immediate opportunity exists to strength the UK-US relationship beyond trade and security, as the Prime Minister has noted. A good trade deal is obviously in both our best interests as a good foundation to our new relationship. It may not be without its concessions on both sides, but this might be best for the recovery of our economies post Brexit- some give now on both sides might be politic.

Turning our attention to Europe, the UK cannot be considered as simply ‘another third country’ by the EU, given our security surplus and P5 status. We should seek to establish structured cooperation on Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defence Policy matters.

This could be done by developing new structures, or reinventing older ones – like the Western European Union (WEU) – to help formalise foreign policy, defence and security dialogue between the EU and UK. We might also consider including certain non-EU NATO to develop wider European cooperation.

In the Middle East and North Africa, we should welcome the opportunity to use all our diplomatic skills in such a conflicted area: Libya, Yemen and the Middle East Peace Process should be a priority, as should be helping to de-escalate tensions surrounding Iran and the Gulf. The E3 working alliance with Berlin and Paris will remain crucial in the MENA region.

We should continue to work with partners who share our values to promote good governance, human rights, economic reform, ending corruption, and consent in government as the bases of stability. (We should work especially with states promoting religious tolerance, which has a resonance unappreciated in a largely secular UK and Europe. The absence of tolerance, and oppression of minorities, is one of the key recruiters for conflict.)

Defence policy is largely decided in European capitals – and not Brussels – meaning scope exists for future cooperation outside of the EU structures that we are leaving. With constrained resources, we must think carefully about our future defence capabilities. A suggestion in the paper for counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and stabilisation missions, promotes the idea of the UK focusing on high-end capability, including drones. This would allow us to worth collaboratively with Europe, supporting large deployable gendarmerie forces from countries such as France and Italy.

Whatever the future relationship between Britain and its allies – the US, its longstanding Commonwealth friends and, in particular, the EU – the British Government has some very tough choices to make. I hope this paper makes a timely contribution to the on-going discussions about Britain’s future foreign policy, and I wish the Government, and the UK, well as Global Britain.

Eamonn Ives: The Government should be doing all it can to give Britain’s green entrepreneurs a head start

6 Nov

Eamonn Ives is a researcher who specialises in environmental and energy policy. He is the author of Green Entrepreneurship, which was published by The Entrepreneurs Network with the Enterprise Trust.

Unless you have spent the last several months under a rock – which is, admittedly, not the least attractive proposition right now – you’ll know that the economy has taken a beating.

Unemployment and the public debt are up, while gross output and business investment are down. For many of those who have managed to hold onto their jobs, their situation is precarious.

As well as fire fighting various economic challenges, the Government is also contending with the small matter of ensuring the house is in order before it hosts COP26.

Delivering on these two objectives need not be mutually exclusive endeavours. A new report, published by The Entrepreneurs Network and the Enterprise Trust, highlights a handful of ways in which the Government can unleash the inventiveness of Britain’s environmental entrepreneurs – simultaneously giving the economy a shot in the arm, and helping to deliver the sustainability solutions necessary to clean up our planet.

So, how do we advise the Government proceed? Fundamentally, the report argues that more needs to be done to address instances of environmental market failures.

This is not to say that we should be ruthlessly clamping down on every single source of carbon, or simply throwing what precious little cash the Treasury still has at every eco-idea under the sun. Rather, it means recognising that it is not unreasonable to expect polluters to take more responsibility for the harms they inflict on third parties. It also means that innovators who are developing solutions should be supported in doing so – such as through targeted R&D grants – given the benefits they bequeath to us all.

These are inherently conservative ideas, and it does appear that in the current Government the broad principles underpinning them are reasonably well understood.

As well as this general thesis, we make 20 separate policy recommendations. These focus on how to improve the environmental credentials of the energy we produce, the transport we make use of, and the consumer goods we buy. They are not an exhaustive list of how to combat each and every environmental issue, but taken together should at least point the country in a greener direction.

For instance, instead of using Britain’s foreign aid budget and export credit agency to promote fossil fuel projects abroad, why not funnel that money into renewables or ‘cleantech’ solutions being worked on by British inventors? Not only would the climate and green entrepreneurs benefit, but taxpayers would too, if it means less of a risk of loans defaulting on polluting projects which could soon become stranded assets as the pace of renewables accelerates.

Or, instead of effectively banning genetic engineering techniques, why not listen to the scientific community and allow trials to take place, opening up a huge market for crop scientists? Bigger yields would minimise how much space is necessary to grow the food we need, and this regulatory reform is a genuine example of a Brexit dividend, given how the obstacle to doing so emanates squarely from Brussels.

Or, to help deliver on a clean, modern transport system, what about committing to a comprehensive liberalisation of the rules pertaining to e-scooters, instead of clouding the industry in uncertainty? This would be a victory for common sense, carbon emissions, and air quality – and also for the entrepreneurial tech start-ups involved in developing software for platforms associated with them.

From polling we commissioned for the report, it seems that the business community is on board for the shift to a greener economy, too. Fully three-fifths believed that opportunities await them in a more sustainable future, while a mere eight per cent did not. Meanwhile, over half of businesses agreed that employees increasingly want to work in environmentally responsible firms – again, just eight per cent did not. We also found that there was no end to the sorts of environmental problems businesses believed their customers wanted to see addressed – from embracing sustainable packaging, to sourcing greener materials, to using cleaner energy.

British entrepreneurs could be at the forefront of developing solutions to all of these challenges and more – and indeed many already are. But the Government must go further still. In the case of environmental innovation, the case in favour is all the stronger.

Consider what the major industries of the future will be – green, clean, and environmentally conscious. The Government should be doing all it can to give Britain’s entrepreneurs a head start in these markets, lest it want the jobs, investment, exports and growth potential to be captured by other economies. 

With our hosting of COP26 just one year away, there is no time to waste. If the UK is to not be embarrassed in its own backyard, it has to be as ambitious as possible. The Prime Minister talks the talk better than most, but that counts for little if it isn’t backed up by a suite of tangible policies which facilitate entrepreneurs and the business community to do the heavy lifting behind the scenes.

Our report maps out a few extra ways he can make that a reality – delivering a cleaner, more competitive economy.

Damian Green: We have a chance to show the world what Conservative environmental leadership looks like

5 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

As we approach the depressing depths of the Covid winter, let’s cheer ourselves up about one of the other big global challenges. It’s been a good couple of months for global action on climate change as some of the biggest emitting countries set net zero targets.

China started off the chain with a surprise commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2060. In the last few weeks, EU governments agreed to make their 2050 net zero target legally binding, while Japan and South Korea committed to a 2050 net zero deadline. And finally it looks possible that the US will also join the net zero club.

Heading into next year’s UN climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow, the British presidency has momentum, which it must now capitalise on.

In the past month, the UK has also made good progress on its domestic climate policies, with a new £2bn Green Homes Grant for households to insulate homes and a commitment to quadruple the UK’s offshore wind capacity. In his upcoming net zero speech later this month, the Prime Minister should show his commitment to climate leadership once again.

In particular he should announce two policy ideas from the One Nation Caucus’ ‘Building Back Greener’ paper, including an earlier 2030 phase-out date for new petrol and diesel car sales and a multi-year home retrofit scheme. Insulating Britain’s homes better than we do is profoundly unglamorous but amazingly effective.

A strong domestic record matters because it gives the UK credibility on the world stage when we try to persuade others to clean up their act. Crucially, we can provide an attractive example that other countries want to follow, by showing that ambitious emissions reductions can go hand in hand with economic growth. This is especially important at the moment as countries decide how to kickstart their economies after the Covid lockdowns.

There is one audience in particular where the UK’s record on clean growth can really resonate around the world: among conservatives. In many countries, conservatives have historically eschewed leadership on climate change. Sometimes they’ve been sceptical of the science of man-made climate change, or they’ve rejected what are perceived to be left-wing solutions. Sometimes they’ve been ignored or overlooked by the climate movement, who have often preferred to speak about climate in language that appeals more to the left.

Whatever the cause, the net result has been that climate is perceived as a left-wing issue. Yet this really shouldn’t be the case. There is no more conservative idea than intergenerational responsibility, and no more important application than climate change. The alleged trade-off between climate action and economic growth – if it ever existed – has been comprehensively shattered by the dramatic reductions in the costs of clean technologies and the proliferation of jobs in the booming clean energy industry.

We also shouldn’t forget that the first significant international climate change speech by a major global leader was delivered by a conservative – Margaret Thatcher – 31 years ago this month.

Conservatives are essential to solving climate change because they are in power across the world right now. They control the public investment, regulation, and taxation policies of many national economies, and so they have to be part of the solution. Some conservatives, like Norway’s or Germany’s, are already doing fantastic work on tackling climate change, and we should make common cause with them. Others such as the US and Australia have made some progress in recent years, particularly at state level, but still have a way to go.

Conservative Environment Network (CEN) research has revealed that a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from countries with conservative governments. On top of this, even where conservatives don’t control the national government, they form a sizable share of electorates, they sit in large numbers in legislatures, and they run many municipal and state governments. We can’t ignore this third of global emissions, any less than we can ignore the significant proportion of the global electorate with conservative values who need to be brought with us on climate change.

Conservatives in the UK now have to join up with our counterparts overseas. We’ve been fortunate to enjoy a cross-party consensus on the need to tackle climate change since well before the Climate Change Act was passed nearly unanimously in 2008. During the past ten years of Conservative Governments we’ve enjoyed the fastest decarbonisation rate of any G20 economy and have established the world’s largest offshore wind sector. We now need to share these conservative success stories with our political allies, and embolden them to lead on climate change in their countries too.

I am delighted to be working alongside colleagues in CEN to reach out to conservative legislators in the US, Australia, Germany, Canada, France, and elsewhere to build a global centre-right alliance in favour of action on climate change that supports economic growth and job creation. I look forward to their international launch event on 9th November with the Alok Sharma, the COP President.

International climate leadership is the perfect role for global Britain in the 2020s, and the year-long countdown to the Glasgow summit has got off to a terrific start. With the UK at the forefront, I hope to see conservatives leading this next decade of decarbonisation.