Sarah Ingham: “Yes Please” to Nuclear Power

17 Sep

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“Atomkraft? Nein Danke!” Nuclear Power? No Thanks!

The slogan of the German anti-nuclear movement since the 1970s has finally been heeded. By the end of next year, the country’s last remaining nuclear power stations will be shut down, a process that has been underway for the past decade.

The rejection of nuclear by Europe’s mightiest industrial economy will have been welcomed by many on this side of the North Sea. Among those keen to say their own nein danke to nuclear are Greenpeace, the SNP and the Green Party. The Liberal Democrats, unsurprisingly, witter on about wind, but their website – like their 2019 manifesto – ducks the nuclear issue.

With Atomkraft abolished, what will be powering Germany in the future? Energy is needed to make all those high-performance cars. And with Porsche, Audi, BMW and Mercedes all recently developing electric models, what will be fuelling them along the autobahns? It turns out that, for the time being at least, it’s partly coal. The black stuff, along with other fossil fuels, are generating much of the country’s electricity.

At 10am Berlin-time on Monday, when the eco-ninnies of Insulate Britain were first bringing parts of the M25 to a halt, just over 69,000 megawatt hours of power was cooking in Germany; roughly 25,000 from coal and 8,000 from nuclear. The Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Industry points out that the country is currently transforming its energy system to make it climate friendly and sustainable, but that will take time. Meanwhile, ‘energy from conventional sources is helping us “keep the lights on”’.

A day after the first M25 protest, the initial findings of a Bath University global study on young people and climate change was published. It revealed high levels of anxiety about the issue among the 10,000 respondents aged 16-25, with nearly 60 per cent reporting they felt worried or extremely worried, to the extent that four in ten were hesitant about having children. Even the most hardened climate change sceptic – “it’s called weather” – will surely be concerned about the levels of psychological distress among the world’s youth which have led to more than half of those questioned (56 per cent) believing humanity is doomed. Elles/Ils sont Greta.

As the Government coats itself in greenwash ahead of COP26, it probably wants to play down last week’s return of Old King Coal to Britain’s energy generation. A, er, perfect storm of heatwave and no wind jeopardised the UK’s power supplies. The National Grid turned to the West Burton A coal-fired station to make up the shortfall. The plant is due to close in 12 months. In June, the government announced that from October 2024, coal will no longer be used to generate electricity, with the pre-reshuffle Energy and Climate Change Minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, stating that coal with be consigned to the history books and ‘the UK’s net zero future will be powered by renewables.’

With the continual trumpeting of 67 coal-free days in 2020 (which coincided with lockdown BTW), Pithead Revisited seems unlikely in Britain. However, the current faith in renewables rapidly and consistently to deliver our energy needs is idealistic not realistic. The only way the circle of carbon net zero can be squared with reliable, carbon-free and cheap supply is by embracing home-grown nuclear power.

On Wednesday, perhaps around the time the second M25 protest resulted in a serious crash in Surrey, a large fire near Ashford in Kent damaged the IFA1 interconnector, the main cabling bringing electricity from France. Supplies are expected to be reduced until at least March. This will put further pressure on prices, just as householders have been warned to expect increases on 1st October, following a rise in wholesale costs of energy of 50 per cent in the last six months.

For those prone to a meltdown at the prospect of nuclear power plants on British soil, just how do they think much of the electricity imported across La Manche is generated?

Accounting for about one fifth of Britain’s power supply in 2018, down from a quarter in the mid-1990s, nuclear in needed. In June, Dungeness B closed, leaving seven nuclear power plants; five more are expected to be shut in the next few years. Due to open in June 2026, the Hinkley Point C reactor is expected to power some six million homes.

HS2, with its £98 billion official budget, is a politically toxic vanity project, not Critical National Infrastructure. The Government must start understanding the term ‘critical’ and get behind nuclear. Last year’s Energy White Paper was full of the Green Industrial Revolution but gave a somewhat flaccid commitment to ‘aiming to bring at least one large-scale nuclear project to Final Investment Decision by the end of this Parliament, subject to clear value for money and all relevant approvals.’

Backing nuclear also means selling it to a public spooked by its association with weaponry and fearful of accidents. Given the Eastern bloc’s demonstration of technological prowess in the mid-1980s was the Lada and the Trabant, it’s surprising there weren’t more Chernobyls among its power stations. And the Fukushima plant held up pretty well in 2011, considering it was struck by the fourth largest earthquake ever recorded. The generally tsunami-free UK has been enjoying safe nuclear power since 1956.

Back in 2007, when four per cent of the UK’s electricity came from renewables, one survey found that ‘respondents appeared to be largely unaware that nuclear power is a low greenhouse gas emission technology’. The public still seems largely unaware.

Keeping the lights on, as well as the smartphones charged to access Deliveroo, TikTok and even the NHS app, is imperative. This isn’t the 1970s, when voters put up with the Three-Day Week power cuts in the “mustn’t grumble” spirit of the Blitz – which many of them would have experienced. Interruptions to the power supply today would mean that the prospects of Conservatives remaining in government are roughly net zero.

Ja, bitte to nuclear.

Garvan Walshe: Leaving Afghanistan wont’ stop terrorists using failed states. How do we learn from this failure?

16 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former national and internationals security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

The rewriters of history have got to work in the weeks since the American rout in Afghanistan. The mission failed because Afghanistan was a graveyard of empires. Or because humanitarian intervention never works, according to realist high priest Stephen Walt.

This is far from the truth, as Robert Kagan explains at length. We went into Afghanistan because of 9/11, not for purely humanitarian reasons. Even in more overtly humanitarian interventions, like NATOs in Kosovo or the removal of Gaddafi in 2011, strategic considerations mattered.

Success in Kosovo owed much to Milosevic, always an opportunist with a healthy sense of his own self-preservation, agreeing to give in after NATOs bombing campaign. The alternative, an invasion of Serbia and Montenegro through Albania and Hungary, while Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia rose up against the Dayton peace settlement would probably have led in Serbia to a destructive guerilla war not unlike that in Iraq or Afghanistan. The last minute paradrop into Pristina airport should remind us that even late Yeltsin Russia would not have been helpful.

Nonintervention is not the easy option frozen-blood realists like Walt would like it to be. They would have stood by as Kosovars were raped and murdered, or the inhabitants of Benghazi driven into the sea. They got what they wanted in Syria: hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of people displaced. Whether this sits more easily with their conscience or ideas of a globally influential West, I leave to readers to judge.

It is harder still where there is a strategic objective. How comfortable would we have been, for example, relying on Polish tanks to dash through Eastern Ukraine to protect Lviv? (Hint: it matters that the Poles call the city Lwów).

Or consider the French intervention in Mali, against central African jihadists. Would you be the President pulling troops out only to find your citizens attacked by a plot originating there? What of an allied government, with which you had important commercial or strategic ties, being toppled by hostile rebels?

Commercial ventures, military operations, people, religion and ideas now flow across borders more easily than they could in the past. Or rather, they have started to flow back the other way. Western business, armies, people and ideas have after all been flowing out of Europe to the Americas, Asia and Africa for five hundred years. Along with supply chains and investment flows, conflicts have become globalised.

It’s not viable any more for a single country to retreat, and there is no disputing the principle that if we’re to provide security at home, we need to get involved abroad. Disagreement is only over the manner of involvement.

In the last twenty years, the difficulty has never been to remove a hostile force from power, either through direct intervention, or Western air power supported by allies. Problems have set in afterwards, even though the need for long term post-conflict stabilisation is very much a “known known” (however much Rusmfeld himself was in denial about it). The question is why we’ve made the same mistakes over and over again.

Afghanistan suffered from intermittent attention and dispersed accountability. It only drew high level political focus at the beginning and when problems mounted. Different administrations tried varying strategies, with greater or lesser emphasis on state building, smaller footprints, or a “surge” of troops.

Meanwhile the mission was split, between the mission to capture bin laden and that to stabilise the country. The former a unilateral American operation. The latter a multilateral NATO one. Similar problems bedevilled the postwar reconstruction in Libya (with France and Italy backing rival governments), or Iraq, with the US reducing troops only to find it had to increase them to fight ISIS.

Without attention, disorder was allowed to fester, more civilians and troops got killed, and governments were unable to justify the intervention to their publics. Politicians picked up the public dissatisfaction, and rushed to leave as soon as they could.

Direct political control works best when there’s a single locus of accountability and continuous attention on the problem. In these multilateral interventions there’s neither, so public attention wanders, and the pressure on the different components of the alliance causes friction. This should not have been a surprise. These problems affect all complex and long-term international cooperation, which needs a certain amount of structure if it is not to become a sequence of ad-hoc adaptations to circumstance.

Towards the end of the Cold War, the CSCE (later OSCE) was set up to supervise disarmament, and continues to engage in security and democracy related aspects of the European international architecture. On climate change, the “Conference of Parties” has evolved into an organisation with an indefinite timescale (we are now on number 26).

A specific, but permanent organisation has a number of advantages: consensus on strategy is achieved through multilateral diplomacy. Participants allocate budgets that are spent by the organisation as a whole. A permanent secretariat maintains focus even when political attention is lacking. Membership can be limited to countries that agree with the organisation’s aims (to avoid the fate of the UN Human Rights Council).

Perhaps it is time to consider some sort of international stabilisation and counter-terrorist organisation.

Those establishing one will face a number of difficult questions about how it should work, not least over how to get security forces and human rights organisations to tolerate each others’ involvement, and over who should be included. For example, what roles should hostile powers like China, or highly relevant friendly countries with terrible human rights records, have?

But the last twenty years of unstructured unilateralism have hardly been an unqualified success. It’s surely time to give more structured alternatives a go.

Tim Montgomerie: Don’t write off GB News. The channel’s naysayers should put their champagne back in the fridge.

15 Sep

Tim Montgomerie is the founder of ConservativeHome and is a contributor to Reaction.

‘Your beard needs a trim’ (it often does). ‘Are you wearing the same shirt as last week on Sky?’ (yeah, but I do wash it!). ‘Your glasses are a bit small for your head’ (fair comment, but they’re cheap from Poundland).

Normally, I get just one or two texts or WhatsApp messages after a media appearance and – as often as not – they are about my appearance rather than my, er, brilliant commentary. It helps keep me humble.

Last Wednesday, however, I ‘talked pints’ with Nigel Farage on his new prime time show for GB News. I had a lager whilst we discussed God and politics; the centrality of national defence to conservatism; disagreed about the foreign aid budget; worried about Boris Johnson’s increasing opportunism; and wondered whether or not I’m likely to be on the Prime Minister’s Christmas card list. Spoiler alert… I think it unlikely!

But even more interesting than our 15 minute chat (not typical of our soundbite TV age) was the scale of reaction. Over the next day or so, I received about 50 messages. Not only was this way in excess of my normal experience, but the messages were largely about what we actually discussed.

Notably, nearly every person who contacted me was a conservative. They were fellow pundits, a handful of MPs, a few think tank folk, readers of this wonderful site and assorted friends from home in Salisbury.

And this, I’m sure, is the importance and potential of GB News. Its audience may not yet be huge, and it definitely still needs to overcome some considerable teething problems, but there are clear signs that it is already building a considerable following within ‘our big and small ‘C’ conservative family’.

While it needs to become weightier and avoid being Farage-dominated TV (as good as he is at it), it is succeeding in its mission of addressing topics that other broadcasters ignore or marginalise.

So, yes, it is disappointing that Andrew Neil resigned as its Chairman on Monday, and that his 8pm show has been cancelled. But the channel’s many naysayers should put their expensive champagne back in their fridges.

Some shows are really beginning to work, new stars are in the making and the station’s YouTube videos are beginning to go gangbusters. More importantly, GB News’ CEO. Angelos Frangopoulos, is ready to overhaul individual programmes and schedules until he is as successful with this latest venture as he was with Sky News Australia. Like any good businessman, he doesn’t try to cover up failures, he corrects them.

Moreover, the channel’s funders aren’t quitters. I know a few of them well. They will succeed, and the Tory leadership should take note. Many of the Conservative Party’s core activists and voters are consuming GB News in reasonable numbers already. The Party will shape and heed this new kid on the media block, or it’ll become the home for opposition and disgruntlement.

– – –

Talking of Farage and right-of-centre opposition to the government, I interviewed Richard Tice yesterday.

Tice is the leader of the Reform Party – the successor to the Brexit Party. In place of Europe as a defining issue, he is offering a menu of low taxes, NHS reform, lockdown-scepticism, market-orientated environmental policies and – to a much lesser extent than Farage – a tough approach to immigration.

On the face of it, Tice’s Reform is more of a Thatcherite party than a populist one. More orientated to the young than to the old. It’s far from clear to me that it yet has the recipe or personnel to help keep the Conservative Party honest and, well, a bit more Conservative! But Tice intends to field a candidate in every seat at the next general election and if Johnson keeps playing fast and loose with Conservative principles, he could yet make a difference in many marginal seats.

Emily Carver: Why ministers were wrong to overrule official advice on vaccinating school pupils

15 Sep

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Decision-making throughout the pandemic has been inconsistent, confused and often illogical. We’ve had a patchwork of ever-changing regulations, from ‘scotch egg gate’ and unevidenced alcohol bans, to the confused and unworkable traffic light system, school closures and work from home mandates.

This erratic approach may have been understandable at the start of the pandemic; 18 months on, it’s intolerable.

The Government’s latest announcement of a Covid winter plan will see the continuation of sweeping public health powers, including mass asymptomatic testing, contact tracing, and the possibility of mandatory vaccine passports – which were only days ago rejected publicly by the Health Secretary. At the same time, the threat of lockdown measures remains, with the Public Health Act, under which restrictions were legally enforced, still firmly on the statute book.

This week’s news that the Government has chosen to go ahead with the roll-out of vaccinations to children aged between 12 and 15, against the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), is troubling for many reasons.

The JCVI released a statement only days ago that explained that while the benefits from vaccination are “marginally greater than the potential known harms”, there is “considerable uncertainty” regarding the magnitude of these potential harms – and therefore the Government should not go ahead with a mass roll-out of vaccinations for children in this age group.

The argument has been made many times that inoculating teenagers will prevent transmission in schools – to the benefit of both the schoolchildren themselves, staff, and the wider community. The JCVI, however, noted that there remains the impact of vaccination on peer-to-peer transmission as well as transmission in the wider (highly vaccinated) population is far from sure; any impact on transmission would be, if anything, relatively small.

However, despite this recommendation, ministers, determined to push ahead with the roll-out deferred to Chris Whitty. Perhaps other factors, besides medical reasons, might tip the balance?

Chief Medical Officers swiftly recommended the jabs, not on strictly medical grounds, but as an “important and useful tool” in reducing school disruption in the coming months and thus minimising the harms to children’s mental health. To put it bluntly, the Government is overruling the JCVI scientific advice and concerns to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds on the grounds of preventing the disruption of school closures – which was always and remains a political decision.

The messaging is clear: have the vaccine, or risk not being able to go to school. Sounds suspiciously like coercion to me.

In any case, it’s certainly not clear cut that jabbing children will avoid loss of school time. `The JCVI flagged that delivery of a Covid-19 vaccine programme for children and young people is likely to be disruptive to education and that some children may have to miss schooling due to adverse reactions to the vaccination.

According to calculations by Professor David Paton of Nottingham University Business School, based on the Government’s own figures, the decision to authorise vaccinating this cohort was based on modelling that the programme will avoid the loss of only 15 minutes of schooling per pupil over a six-month period. That’s assuming no vaccinated children have been previously infected, that no time would be lost administering the vaccination, and that no school time would be lost from pupils suffering side effects from the vaccine.

More pressing is why this is the first time other factors, including the impact of lost education and the mental well-being of children, are being considered by the Government in their decision-making? Why were the deleterious effects on children’s mental health not taken into account when schools were locked down for weeks and months on end? The decision to close schools, like this decision to roll-out the vaccine to children, is a political one – surely it warranted a similar assessment of the various, and largely predictable, impacts on children’s wellbeing?

The case has been made by some that the Government is simply making the jab available. Why shouldn’t parents and children be given the choice? The state surely shouldn’t stand in their way.

However, the idea that the Government is just making it available is naïve – we know state action won’t be limited to letting young people and parents know the jab is there if they want it. Schools will be used as vaccination sites and the threat of further school closures and lockdowns will act as indirect coercion, possibly causing distress and placing undue pressure on children to get jabbed. And while many parents will be understandably concerned that this vaccination is still technically on trial and only approved on an emergency basis, children will have the final say; the Government has itself conceded this.

Remember when Matt Hancock said that restrictions would end once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated? Now, several months on, it looks like freedom will be conditional on the continued inoculation of the population, including children – a reality that is not only ethically reprehensible but firmly at odds with the values of individual liberty and personal autonomy.

It may be that for those of a libertarian disposition, where you come down on this argument hinges on how benevolent you believe government to be. Sadly, nothing during this pandemic has given me hope that the Government won’t continue to use coercion to control our response to this, now endemic, virus.

Daniel Hannan: Powdered wigs, knee breeches, frock coats – all part of a vanished age. But I rejoice that male MPs must still wear ties.

15 Sep

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

I knew Michael Martin was a wrong ’un when he refused to wear the Speaker’s wig. It might seem a small thing, but accoutrements of office serve a purpose, reminding the wearer of his responsibilities.

When you settle that old horsehair on your bonce, you step up to your role. You cease to be Mr Martin and become Mr Speaker, the latest in a long line of defenders of parliamentary supremacy.

The grounds on which Martin defied tradition were telling. “It’s just not me,” he declared – thereby inadvertently advertising his belief that he was bigger than the office he occupied. Sure enough, he went on to become the first Speaker in 300 years to be removed from the chair after MPs had tired of his bias, his inability to follow procedure and, worst of all, his constant backing of the executive against the legislature.

I urged his successor, John Bercow, to restore the wig. He laughed at my suggestion and went on, sadly, to politicise the office in an unprecedented and unconscionable manner. Rules were twisted, broken or made up on the spot in an attempt to overturn Brexit. Bercow, too, refused to recognise that he was passing through an office bigger than himself, and ended up plunging Britain into the worst democratic crisis of the modern era.

What a relief, after all that, again to have a Speaker who sees himself as the neutral servant of the House of Commons. Lindsay Hoyle is a practical and level-headed Lancastrian. At the beginning of his term of office, he appeared on Radio 4’s Today Programme. Hearing that he was “coming up after the news”, I texted the interviewer, Justin Webb, and suggested that he put The Wig Question.

Webb did so, in his polite but searching way, and Hoyle replied, without hesitation, that he’d gladly wear the eighteenth-century headgear on important occasions.

I knew then that he was the man for the job, and so he has proved. Hoyle is impartial among the political parties, but strongly partial in the defence of parliamentary sovereignty. Eloquent and personable, he has no desire to place himself at the centre of attention. Nor does he presume to know better than all his predecessors. He sees the traditions of the Commons, not as fusty anachronisms, but as default settings that should be altered only when there is a persuasive argument for change.

Wigs have started to appear on the heads of some of his officials, and the dress code for MPs has also been tightened. Again, this might seem trivial, but it serves to dignify Parliament. Having to wear a tie, like having to use correct forms of address, elevates proceedings, reminding MPs of how extraordinarily privileged they are to be speaking for their constituents in the highest counsels of the realm.

Indeed, ties may come to be seen as a kind of unofficial uniform for male politicians – rather as bow-ties used to be for medical doctors. I can’t help noticing that, as people return blinking to their offices after the lockdown, ties have almost disappeared everywhere else.

Not for the first time, Parliament may end up trailing years behind the rest of the nation. I spent a whimsical afternoon last week looking at the pictures in the corridors: portraits of various heroes and villains and an occasional panorama showing some great debate. I’d Google what men were wearing at that time and, in general, I’d find a ten- or 15-year lag.

MPs and peers were slower than the population at large to get out of powdered wigs, to swap their knee breeches for trousers, to shrug off their frock coats, to doff their top hats. They were occasionally seen in stripy grey trousers and black jackets after the Second World War, when almost no one else affected that style. Indeed, I remember seeing Enoch Powell in his spongebags in the late 1980s.

On one level, I’m enough of a conservative to approve. Continuity, formality and, yes, a certain stiffness of style have their place in a legislature. MPs should not carry themselves in Parliament as they do in their homes. We want them to be our representatives in the sense of having a fiduciary responsibility to defend our interests; but that doesn’t mean we want them to dress the way we do when we’re lounging about.

At the same time, though, I’m slightly irked. You see, I have always hated wearing ties. I find them constricting, rash-inducing and useless – the only item of male dress with no function whatever. Yet I have ended up in almost the only place in Britain where wearing the bloody things is still expected. And, because I support the concept of formal attire as a general principle, I can’t in conscience complain. Ah, the burdens of being a conservative.

James Frayne: Johnson’s headroom to raise taxes, in the wake of the new levy, has been dramatically reduced

14 Sep

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

A few weeks ago, opinion polls showed three to one support for a national insurance rise to pay for social care. It’s hard to say for sure where the numbers on this question are now, but the evidence is they’ve moved considerably against the Government (although not irretrievably).

Some suggest that the mess in the media flipped the polls against the Conservatives and put Labour ahead; I think there’s much more to it than this but it clearly didn’t help.

So what went wrong? What were the alternatives that the Government should have considered? And what are the medium-term implications for the Conservatives?

Admittedly, I haven’t tested my sense in detail yet, but it is that three reasons help explain the the shift against the national insurance announcement.

First, and most importantly, it became clear that revenue raised by this higher tax won’t be ringfenced for social care. After a day or two of briefing that higher taxes would pay for care, the Government clarified that revenue raised would also pay for the hole in the NHS finances created by Covid.

Ordinarily, adding the letters “NHS” to a political message adds several points to a political message (ask Vote Leave). Here, it simply made people think (rightly) that pretty much all revenue raised would go into the great bottomless pit of NHS finances. It’s not that people don’t love the NHS; nor that they want to change the way the NHS is funded. It’s just that they quickly realised the Government wasn’t making a social care announcement but a debt repayment announcement.

Second, people got out their calculators quicker than I can ever recall – with the extra they’d pay pushed around widely by the likes of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Politicians have long liked using national insurance as a tax-raising device; not only does it have perfect branding for health and social care announcements, but even people on PAYE – who see the national insurance line on their payslip each week – inexplicably find it less offensive than income tax. This time, a combination of media and social media scrutiny showed people what they’d be paying, and its transparency felt like a council tax rise.

Third, the announcement was too detached from the policy conversation on social care. People care deeply about it, as the Conservatives discovered to their cost during the 2017 election; social care is regularly raised as an issue in focus groups without prompting.

But it’s a complex area, and the Government would have done well to have reheated the policy conversation on social care for several weeks before springing this announcement on the public. Ordinarily, for a policy announcement of this magnitude, you’d expect (some) cross-party support, endorsements by experts from the sector, a formal announcement with the Health Secretary flanked by care workers and all the rest. This time, there was nothing.

Two alternatives would have been better.

The Government could have announced that the country was going to have to cope with a few years of financial pain via higher taxes to pay off Covid debts – and not to have beamed in on social care at all.

I don’t understand why they didn’t do this. Polls have consistently showed the public supported the massive crisis payments to the NHS and furloughed workers. They’re well aware this led to massive debt and they’re also aware debt must be paid off – at least in part with higher taxes.

They would have completely accepted a straightforward explanation that taxes were going to rise – for everyone – to deal with this. Sunset clauses would have made this all go down better, but there’s something in the English psychology that revels in harsh, shared sacrifice. It was a huge, missed opportunity; it’s possible that the Government would even have secured a bounce from it (assuming they said they were going to tackle waste at the same time).

The alternative option would have simply been to have announced a smaller national insurance rise and explained it was going to be strictly ringfenced for social care. This would have given them the option to raise taxes again later. Wrapping social care, the NHS and Covid debt repayment looked shifty and ill-thought-through.

What are the implications for the Conservatives? It’s been said all this undermines the Party’s reputation as a low-tax party. I don’t think this is quite right; most of the public have rightly not viewed the Conservatives as a low-tax party for many, many years, but rather as a lower tax party than Labour.

There are worse things to be: in 2019, this contrast certainly made lower middle voters even more wary of Jeremy Corbyn. But it means that the sort of messages the Conservatives pump out at the annual party conference – around low tax, free enterprise, a small state etc – have zero traction with the public. (It’s weird to think that until a few years ago the party’s logo was a torch of freedom; the rainbow associated with the NHS would be more appropriate.)

If Corbyn were still Labour leader, it’s possible that the Conservatives would have retained this lower-tax advantage regardless of national insurance. Under Starmer, I think it’s reasonable to assume this advantage will no longer be there.

In turn, all there will be to choose between the Conservatives and Labour on the economy will be competence and stability – in the Conservatives’ case, because they’re in Government, this will be defined entirely by delivery. In other words, if the economy appears stable and grows, they’ll be fine; if not, they’ll be in a mess.

It also means that the party’s freedom on other issues is dramatically reduced. There’s no way now the Government can introduce any new tax rises; at that point, their polling numbers really would go off a cliff; everything now needs to be revenue neutral, with taxes raised balanced out by taxes cut. Most obviously, this somewhat complicates their Net Zero strategy; you would have expected fiscal policy increasingly to have rebalanced towards green taxes.

Richard Holden: It’s a mistaken to conflate backbench Tory rebels on the NHS, social care and tax with Red Wall MPs

14 Sep

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The restrictions of the Corornvirus pandemic showed us that it doesn’t take long to adapt to a new ‘normal.’ As Parliament returned last week, the Palace of Westminster is feeling very much ‘back to normal’.

Whether it was the crowds massed on the pavement outside the Red Lion in Westminster, MPs in the chamber of the House of Commons, or the huge numbers of people at the Wolsingham, Stanhope and Weardale Agricultural Shows in North West Durham during the last few weeks, people have been voting with their feet as restrictions have been eased.

While the attitude towards the lifting of restrictions is ubiquitous, returning to my constituency after a week in Parliament reminded me just how stark the divide between ‘the bubble’ and the people can be.

For the last eighteen months, MPs have had to rely on what’s been happening on social media and been coming into their inboxes. Aside from individual casework issues, those channels are used by the most politically engaged members of the electorate with regard to policy. Since the easing of restrictions though, it’s been good to have those chats in the pub, shop, or at the local shows – with the nine in ten members of the public who don’t regularly reach for their keyboard to share their views.

With the party conference season about to begin – the fleeting moment when each of our major parties gets guaranteed extensive news coverage – if I were Keir Starmer or a Labour MP thinking about my future, I would be deeply concerned.

Beside my little gazebo at the Stanhope Show on Saturday, it was patently obviously that the Labour leader isn’t making inroads. For the constituents who knew his name unprompted, he appeared to be synonymous with playing politics during the pandemic and, as one constituent put it, “just like Corbyn, going against just for the sake of saying something.”

Labour’s recent stance ron delivering extra funding for the NHS has caused further puzzlement at best, but more oftem derision. “Everyone knows that the pandemic has caused a build up of waiting lists. I don’t understand what he’s doing!” said one 2019 Labour voter. “I don’t want too much more tax, but I heard Labour voted against more money for the NHS – I don’t understand how they could do that” said a traditional Labour voter who didn’t support that party in 2019, following up her comment with the view that she was very unlikely to vote Labour ever again.

Amongst those who are aware of him, Starmer has established a toxic dual reputation as both flip-flopping and politically opportunistic. It is possible that a 14,000 word essay that – according to media briefings – contains no policy will change that view, but I find that unlikely.

The real contrast between Westminster and the Wear Valley this week, though, has been on policy. It was always going to be tough bringing some of the financial support that was there during the pandemic to an end.

However, much of the coverage within the Westminster bubble has been quite lazy. “Red Wall Revolt” seems to have been the tone of much of the media coverage.  The majority of last week’s Conservatives rebels, such as John Redwood, were long-standing Conservatives MPs.

With the bubble chatter obsessed by a potential reshuffle and the personalities involved (who’s in/out/up/down/sideways) it feels as though the journalists have got a headline, and decided they want to facts to fit it – while elsewhere they concentrate on the personalities. My constituents definitely don’t want to see money wasted. But they really do seem to grasp the bigger issues of the NHS and Social Care.

Lynton Crosby used to talk of ‘barnacles on the boat’ and, 21 months in, three national level barnacles now concern me ahead of the next election: the post-pandemic jobs recovery, NHS waiting lists, and getting a handle on illegal migration.

The first two look well within the Government’s sights, and the Immigration Bill is currently making its way through Parliament to deal with the third. These are big issues that need to be constantly monitored – but it’s clear that Ministers recognise how important they all are and are working on them.

That leaves the floor open for the Prime Minister to be positive – to be able to push the vision as well as show that we’re dealing with the big issues facing the country. I hope that he ‘doubles down on levelling up’ in his Party Conference speech. With Labour unwilling – and perhaps unable – to really change because they’re so divided, he has a clear opportunity to move on from the difficulties of the pandemic and to set out what I know he’ll have been wanting to talk about for the last 18 months.

Conveniently, Starmer is still stuck in an internal debate deciding whether or not Jeremy Corbyn can be both, neither, or one of a party member and a Labour MP. The Conservative Party are lucky with our enemy, and must make the opportunity that Starmer is presenting to us.

David Gauke: Johnson’s health and social care plan. A betrayal of Conservative principles? No – because, at one level, there aren’t any.

13 Sep

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

The Government’s plan for increases in National Insurance (NI) contributions to fund higher health spending and increased health spending has provoked a furious response from some on the right.

It “sounded the death knell to Conservatism” and drove “a coach and horses not only through the Tory Party manifesto, but Toryism itself”  according to Camilla Tominey in the Daily Telegraph.  In the same paper, Allister Heath fumed “shame on Boris Johnson, and shame on the Conservative Party…they have disgraced themselves, lied to their voters, repudiated their principles and treated millions of their supporters with utter contempt” and that “an entire intellectual tradition now lies trashed”.

In the Times, Iain Martin declared that “at this rate, the Conservative Party might as well rename itself the Labour Party”  and in the Spectator, Fraser Nelson questioned whether the “Boris Johnson” definition of conservatism as “a protection racket, where the tools of the state are used to extract money from minimum-wage workers and pass it on to the better-off?”

Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings has argued that “if you think you’re ‘conservative’, and you give those speeches about ‘enterprise’ and ‘responsibility’, why would you support making many more dependent on state money and bureaucracy?”

It’s all jolly strong stuff. And there are elements of the criticisms with which I have sympathy. I share the scepticism about prioritising a tax-funded social care cap, in that those who will gain most are those who have the most (thanks to rising house prices) and that is the wrong priority for public money.

There is a need for risk-pooling, but I think Peter Lilley’s proposal on this site is worth close examination (I suggested something similar when in Government). I also dislike NI as the choice of tax because of the narrowness of its base – and the distortions that this causes – and the dishonesty of employers NICs (no, Prime Minister, it is not a tax on business: it is a tax on jobs and employees’ wages).

In fairness to the Government, raising taxes is difficult, NI is less unpopular than income tax (largely because much of the public misunderstand it) and, being cynical, it is not surprising that Ministers exploit that misunderstanding.

Having said all that, is it a fair criticism to state that Johnson’s Health and Social Care plan undermines everything for which the Conservative Party stands? For a number of reasons (some of which reflect better on the Party than others), I think not.

First, the Conservative Party has an honourable record of fiscal responsibility. When the public finances are in trouble, Conservative governments have been willing to raise taxes in order to put the public finances on a sound footing – not least Margaret Thatcher’s, when Geoffrey Howe raised taxes in 1979 and 1981. The advocates of Reaganomics always find this disappointing, but responsible Conservatives do not believe that lower taxes will pay for themselves (as they did not for Reagan).

In reality, even putting aside any new commitments on social care spending, the prospects for the public finances are not great. Not only do we face some immediate challenges (Covid catch up, net zero and levelling up), but demography and rising health expectations will mean a tax-funded healthcare system will require higher taxes.

Some on the Right will argue for further cuts in spending or an alternative health model, but the political feasibility of such an approach is highly dubious. If we are going to spend more (and we are), taxes will need to rise to pay for it.

Second, the idea that a Conservative government prioritising homeowners is a complete break from the past does not bear scrutiny. Look at the arguments that Thatcher made in resisting the removal of mortgage interest tax relief (although the Treasury rightly prevailed in the end), or the general dislike of inheritance tax from the wider Conservative world. The reaction to Theresa May’s social care policy in 2017 suggests that the instinct to ‘defend our people’ (and their inheritances) amongst Conservatives is a formidable one.

Third, complaints about the Conservative Party not being the party of business are (how can I put this?) a little rich from some quarters. Imposing higher taxes, whether on employment or profits, is not great for business – but making it substantially harder to trade with our largest trading partner is a bigger problem.

It is all very well complaining about the anti-business instincts of this Conservative government, but hard to do if you have been a cheerleader for anti-business policies or, for that matter, Boris “f*** business” Johnson. If your expectation is that the Conservative Party would automatically be on the pro-business side of the argument, you have not been paying much attention in recent years.

The reason why the Conservative Party moved in the direction of an anti-business Brexit is that was where the votes were. And this brings me to the fourth and most important observation about the Conservative Party.

It has one purpose: to be in power. At one level, it is not possible for it to repudiate its principles because it does not have any. This can give it a tremendous advantage in a democracy because the public, as a whole, does not have political principles either – opinions and political alignments shift over time.

The Conservatives have been protectionists and free traders, the party of Empire and the party that facilitated the retreat from Empire, Keynesians and monetarists, the party of price controls and wages policies and the party of market economics, the party of Europe and the party of Brexit. It never stays on the wrong side of public opinion for long.

What is happening to our politics at the moment is that party support is realigning along cultural lines and, as a consequence, much more along generational lines. This has worked to the advantage of the Conservatives, so it is no surprise that it pursues policies that prioritises health spending over lower taxes for people of working age.

Polling suggests that the new, Red Wall voters who switched to the Conservatives at the last election are notably more left-wing on economic issues than traditional Conservative voters who are, in turn, to the left of Conservative MPs. The decision was made to pursue those voters and, if the Conservative Party wants to keep them, it cannot risk the NHS collapsing under financial pressure – which means higher spending and, ultimately, higher taxes.

Johnson’s critics are right to think that this will not be the end of it. Last week’s package was supposed to be an answer to how we fund social care. The reality is that it was a package to boost spending on the NHS. As Damian Green has argued on ConHome, it is hard to see how resources will be taken out of the NHS and switched to social care in three years’ time – and that, at that point, some expensive social care commitments will come into effect.

here will another funding gap and, on the basis of last week’s revealed preference, a further increase in the Health and Social Care Levy. Those who see the purpose of the Conservative Party as delivering low taxes are right to be glum.

Radical: Fear of violent men is not the only reason why women want female-only spaces

10 Sep

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and co-founder of Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate. She and Rebecca Lowe, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.

During the last few weeks, we heard more lurid and shocking outcomes from the pernicious influence of gender ideology.

An incident at the Wi Spa in San Francisco brought home the practical consequences of allowing people to use whichever (nominally sex segregated) spaces they feel most comfortable in or that accord with their gender identity. A video that went viral showed women upset and confused at having encountered a naked male in the women’s area of the spa.

As is now customary, the incident sparked protest and counterprotest – at times violent, as those seeking to defend the legal right of the transwoman to use the women’s spa attacked those who would rather transwomen didn’t, and were upset at the laws in California that seem to give trans identifying people this right.

Trans rights activists in the UK defended the spa and the trans person, and some went as far as blaming women and girls for impolitely looking at male genitals in their changing rooms. The tone shifted when it emerged that the transperson in question is a convicted sex offender, who has been charged with indecent exposure in connection with the incident.

– – –

Here at home, Mridul Wadhwa, the head of Rape Crisis Scotland (a leading charity that supports victims of rape and sexual assault) , said in an interview discussing the charity’s approach to women who preferred to be assisted by a female counsellor that “sexual violence happens to bigoted people as well”.

Wadhwa generously conceded that the charity was there for these so-called bigots too, but warned rape survivors that “if you bring unacceptable beliefs that are discriminatory in nature, we will begin to work with you on your journey of recovery from trauma’” adding, “but please also expect to be challenged on your prejudices”.

To this end, she urged them to “reframe their trauma” and “rethink your relationship with prejudice”. Wadwha is a transwoman, and Rape Crisis Scotland has declined to confirm that women who need its services and wish to be assisted by a fellow biological woman will have their wishes respected.

Now, the Equality Act is reasonably clear that providers of services such as rape counselling and refuge are permitted to operate on a single sex basis and exclude males (including transwomen) from either accessing the service or employment in service delivery.

It also seems clear that facilities such as spas, changing rooms and toilets would fall within the scope of the exception that allows discrimination on the bases of sex and gender reassignment where it is proportionate in the pursuit of a legitimate aim.

For now, let’s put to one side that Stonewall and other activist organisations disagree with this interpretation of the law, and have, as we’ve reported many times, managed to propagate their self-serving and tendentious alternative interpretation through the public and private sector bodies they interact with, from universities to Marks & Spencer.

Regardless, the way the Act is set out – with a general ban on discrimination unless in pursuit of some legitimate aim – means that businesses and organisations that wish to maintain single sex services are forced to construct robust-sounding justifications.

This is why we hear so many lurid tales of flashers and voyeurs, and why examples concerning safety and sexual assault are used so often in the debate surrounding sex and gender. The definition of a ‘gender reassignment’ is so broad that it does not offer meaningful ways for women to exclude biological men, other than invoking the exceptions by raising highly emotive and serious risks.

This is not to downplay the seriousness of such offences in any way, and they are indeed extremely compelling reasons why sex-segregated changing rooms, dormitories and toilets are essential. Fear of male violence is a good reason for trying to keep (all) men out of spaces where women may be vulnerable for whatever reason, and it’s always been a strong reason to this end, to date. But it is not the only reason.

Sometimes, women (and men) simply prefer being away from the opposite sex for a time. Some women may be happy to include transwomen in their conception of a women’s association, but others may not. And this does not make them bigots who need to have their prejudices challenged and overruled by force of law. Sall Grover, founder of a female social network, noted on Twitter this week:

‘very few people stop to think “hey! Maybe women enjoy being in female-only spaces occasionally, for camaraderie, connection & conversation! Maybe it’s just fun!*” But no. Instead we’re forced to retell the worst things that have ever happened to us to justify them.’

This is the consequence of the Equality Act’s hectoring prohibition on discrimination unless it can be actively justified as legitimate, and the way in which the bar for legitimacy is being raised ever higher.

It seems too much to hope that the present government will amend the Equality Act to address the illiberal – and un-conservative – way it prescribes how private citizens and businesses are allowed to interact with each other.

But surely it’s time for the misconceptions about what is and is not legitimate to be addressed. Women should not be forced to assert their worst fears and experiences just to be allowed to enjoy female only spaces in peace.

 *For the record, your columnist would also respect the interest that men have in single sex, men only association.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon distracts her troops with promises of another independence ‘prospectus’

9 Sep

Sturgeon starts another independence push

It must be coming up to the Scottish National Party conference, because Nicola Sturgeon is talking up her administration’s plans for independence again. But although the First Minister has apparently promised a “detailed prospectus”, according to the FT, she hasn’t gone so far as to give any dates about when she’s going to table the necessary legislation.

Funny that. Sturgeon knows that the Government, quite rightly, is not going to grant her permission to hold another vote in this Parliament. But she needs some read meat to keep her increasingly fractious activists in line. Hence yet another study, yet another commission, more delaying tactics.

Not that those efforts are even going especially well. This week, it emerged that one of the First Minister’s new hand-picked economic advisers warned that separating from the United Kingdom would be “Brexit times ten”. Professor Mark Blythe, in an interview conducted days before his new role was announced, is the last thing Sturgeon needed as she tees her members up to debate the proposition that a hard border with England could “favourably benefit” Scotland.

Grace periods on Northern Irish trade extended indefinitely

Back in March, I wrote about how the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint David Frost to the Northern Irish trade brief signalled that the Government was much more serious than some people seemed prepared to credit about securing meaningful change to the Protocol.

Autumn is here and so far, it looks as if that reading was right – and perhaps Brussels is starting to realise it.

Why else would the EU have agreed to the UK indefinitely extending the grace periods which are allowing fresh produce from mainland Britain to cross unhindered into Ulster, in defiance of Brussels’ ‘external frontier’ at the Irish Sea?

Perhaps they have realised, as I noted earlier this week, that it’s no good demanding that the Government ‘honour what it signed’ when taking preventative measures to prevent ‘diversion of trade’ – for example, forcing Northern Irish supermarkets to find new, EU-based supply chains – is right there in the text of Article 16? Over the summer, senior sources told me that London’s red line was maintaining food supply chains across the Irish Sea. Hence the earlier, unilateral extension of grace periods.

Some critics wondered why, if the Government was serious, it didn’t immediately trigger Article 16. But doing so precipitately would make it look as if the UK were merely spoiling for a fight. Instead, the months of extensions have simultaneously demonstrated Britain’s seriousness about finding a low-key resolution and the complete absence of any ill-effects on the Single Market from the unfettered flow of British produce.

Of course, its a big leap from a fudge such as this to actually re-opening and renegotiating the Protocol. But patience is baked in to this Fabian strategy. By consenting to an indefinite extension, it looks as if Brussels understands that the Protocol can’t operate as currently drafted without diversion of trade – and it explicitly does not permit diversion of trade.

Welsh boundary review proposals published

The BBC reports on the publication of the proposed new parliamentary constituencies for Wales. The principality’s representation at Westminster is being cut from 40 to 32 as part of the Government’s push to equalise constituency boundaries.

If the new boundaries went ahead in their current form it could leave several Conservative MPs scrapping for new seats, with 2019 gains Clwyd South and Vale of Clwyd getting absorbed by other seats as well as Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, held by Simon Hart, the Welsh Secretary.

The changes could also hit Plaid Cymru quite hard, with several of their seats making unhelpful acquisitions from neighbouring constituencies.