Sarah Ingham: Greensill – not so much “what does Jeremy think?” as “what on earth was Jeremy thinking?”

17 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

The Greensill controversy has come like pennies from heaven – and definitely not in a brown envelope – for the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

After a year as Labour leader, his personal Key Stage 1, SKeir Starmer’s approval ratings are at best tepid. Unsurprisingly at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, he sought to join various dots – ‘dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates’ – to conjure up a picture of the return of Tory sleaze.

The former Director of Public Prosecutions clearly wishes to make the case that this Conservative administration is as tainted by corruption as John Major’s was almost three decades ago.

Sir Keir might have leapt on the Greensill bandwagon a tad hastily, without really knowing where it might end up. Although a former Conservative Prime Minister is ostensibly the star of the saga, it is becoming clear that this is might not be a story about Westminster, but Whitehall; about mandarins, not MPs and ministers.

Photographed with Lex Greensill, David Cameron’s very own Deal in the Desert raises a number of questions, not least whether the Aussie has shares in R.M Williams. But surely the most famous blue-suited bromance since Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper were at Centre Court for the 2013 Wimbledon Men’s Final – however funny-odd the image is – has begun to fade compared with the more recent revelations about civil servants’ moonlighting.

The United Kingdom’s Chief Procurement Officer oversees a budget of £40 billion. The demands of looking after that huge amount of taxpayers’ hard-earned money apparently failed to preclude a side-hustle of working for Greensill for a couple of months. And it seems that Bill Crothers’ ‘one man, two guvnors’ approach might not be an isolated instance in Whitehall.

On Thursday, Lord Pickles, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which guides former ministers and civil servants on outside employment, stated there ‘doesn’t seem to have been any boundaries at all’ between civil servants and the private sector.

The previous day at Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson suggested that it was not clear that those boundaries ‘have been properly understood’, although he thought that ‘it is a good idea in principle that top civil servants should be able to engage with business and should have experience of the private sector.’

As Crothers’ former boss, the late Lord Heywood of Whitehall, found, private sector experience is complicated. What Does Jeremy Think?  written by his widow Suzanne, details his three-year mid-career stint at Morgan Stanley, a job he took up in early 2004 ‘following the three months of unpaid leave required by the Cabinet Office’).

On his return to the civil service, working for Gordon Brown in the Cabinet Office, Heywood’s banking experience and contacts proved invaluable following the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath. Conversely, Morgan Stanley may have benefited from Heywood’s input in its pitch to work for QinetiQ, the former government defence research agency, which the bank hoped it would be able to help float on the Stock Exchange.

Ever since the Greensill story broke, the media has been gripped by an ethical panic, emulated this week by MPs. Sir Keir’s call for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the saga was defeated by 95 votes. This reminder of dismal political reality for the Opposition turns out to have been unnecessary. In a Parliamentary pile-on, no fewer than seven inquiries into lobbying have been set up, including by the Treasury Select Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Such inquiries are pointless – creating as much hot air as the demands this week that Something Must Be Done. Something usually involves political grandstanding, followed by gratuitous legislation.

These inquiries should save themselves their time and our money by examining the existing ethical framework that governs the conduct of MPs, civil servants and others in the public sector. If the 1990s is being revisited by anyone trying to build a case concerning Conservative corruption, they should focus not on cash for questions, but the answers provided by Lord Nolan’s 1995 Report on Standards in Public Life.

This sets out expected ethical standards – including honesty, openness and integrity – because, as Nolan stated more than a generation ago, ‘people in public life are not always as clear as they should be about where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie’.

In a 1993 MORI poll cited by Nolan, only 14 per cent of respondents generally trusted that politicians would tell the truth, opposed to 37 per cent trusting civil servants. MPs planning to involve themselves in Greensill autopsies should perhaps reflect on the finding that 69 per cent thought it wrong to accept free tickets to Wimbledon or other sporting events. Whether the public’s attitude towards freebies has changed since then is surely something to be considered by the Committee on Standards. Its on-going inquiry into the Code of Conduct for MPs is timely.

As Cabinet Secretary to two Prime Ministers and Head of the Home Civil Service, Heywood sought to modernise the mandarinate, while adhering to the overarching principles of public service, first set down in the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report: honesty, integrity and political impartiality.

Westminster and Whitehall are already bound by numerous laws and rules and, overseen by supervisory bodies such as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The thickets of formal regulation that have grown up in the past few decades did not prevent Greensill or the MPs’ expenses’ scandal.

In January, the Standards Committee heard that the plethora of existing guidance can be ‘byzantine’. In his evidence, Graham Brady observed that something is lost if we move to a world where we are expecting absolute, detailed compliance with a detailed set of rules, ‘rather than an overarching expectation that members should behave with integrity and honesty’.

The rush towards Something Must Be Done should be paused. How about dusting off Nolan and Northcote-Trevelyan – and having a fresh look at ethics, values and standards, as well as the concept of trust?

Or, in another echo of the 1990s, going back to basics.

Iain Dale: On my radio show, I asked Salmond who he would side with out of Putin or Biden. Can you guess his answer?

16 Apr

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

On Wednesday night I interviewed Alex Salmond for half an hour. I think it was the first lengthy broadcast interview he has done recently.

He and I have history. Back in 2015-16 he used to come into the studio once a week and we’d co-host a phone-in together. I knew him a bit anyway and it went quite well. We had a few rumbustious exchanges along the way and the listeners liked it. I have always respected him as a canny political operator and I always relished our half hour combat sessions.

And then he joined RT (Russia Today). We fell out over that. I could not for the life of me understand how a former First Minister could lend credibility to a Kremlin front organisation. His defence was that his programme was independently made and free of editorial influence from the RT bosses. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Just by appearing on the channel he gave it credibility. And if he couldn’t see that, he was clearly content in being the Kremlin’s tame puppy. Although the interview was about the Scottish elections I made it clear that I wouldn’t do it if any subjects were off limits, and credit to him, he didn’t lay down any conditions at all.

So I asked him if he would say Putin or the Kremlin were behind the Salisbury attacks. I asked him what he thought 85,000 Russian troops were doing on the border of Ukraine. I asked him if he thought the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been poisoned by the Russian State. Answers came there none. Just a flow of evasiveness.

I then asked if he had to side with Putin or Biden, which would it be? 99 per cent of the British population would only give one answer to that, but even on this, Salmond was equivocal. I didn’t need to ram home the point. People could draw their own conclusions.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Greensill scandal shows no sign of abating, with fresh revelations emerging almost every day.

David Cameron will no doubt have been very happy to see someone else copping some flak, in the form of Bill Crothers. Shockingly, he was working for Greensill while also being in charge of procurement in the Cabinet Office in the very area Greensill was operating in.

I’ve been around the political lobbying world for 30 years, and am very aware of some of the more unsavoury practices, but this one genuinely floored me.

How on earth can that be allowed to happen, and it if happened with Crothers, who is to say that the practice isn’t more widespread?

– – – – – – – – – –

On Wednesday night we had Fay Jones, the Conservative MP for Brecon & Radnorshire, on the Cross Question panel.

What a breath of fresh air. She answered questions fluently, without trying to avoid difficult issues and displayed a great sense of humour too. One to watch.

– – – – – – – – – –

The last time I was able to go to my house in Norfolk was at the beginning of November. I have a feeling I wrote at the time about how the A11 was shut at Thetford due to roadworks. On Wednesday night I was very excited to be going back again. Some degree of normality, it seemed, was about to resume.

Boy was I right. Five months on, and the A11 was still shut overnight at Thetford! Unbelievable. I’ve heard of Groundhog Day, but this is ridiculous. It’s like the Highways Agency is on a mission to cut Norfolk off from the rest of the country. But then again, there are quite a few people in Norfolk who would be quite happy for that to happen!

– – – – – – – – – –

In my job, I get very little time to read for pleasure. Most things I read because I have to, rather than because I choose to.

But there’s nothing I like more than a good political diary. In the last few weeks I’ve completed the Chips Channon diaries and now I’m in the middle of Alastair Campbell’s dairies volume eight, covering 2010-15, and I’m also a third of the way through Alan Duncan’s diaries.

They are all incredibly different, but all equally enjoyable. And in the case of the last two, you need to put any preconceived ideas to one side. Both Campbell and Duncan have certain reputations, but what you get here is a raw contemporary account of events.

Campbell’s book is in parts intensely emotional and if you don’t know him personally, you’ll be astonished at how open and honest he is about his state of mind, motivations and his relationship with his partner and children. You don’t need to have read the previous seven volumes to enjoy volume eight, but I guarantee if you read volume eight, you’ll line the others up too.

Henry Hill: Anger at Westminster as Scottish Tories put SNP’s referendum pledge at the heart of their campaign

15 Apr

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece explaining why Conservative voters in Scotland should resist the siren call of George Galloway and his ‘All for Unity’ party (A4U), who are urging unionist voters to abandon the main parties on the regional list vote in next month’s Holyrood elections.

The backlash from A4U’s most committed online partisans has been spectacular. Critical journalists are now ‘sophists’ and ‘poison-pen men’, agents of the major parties using ‘the blackest of tactics’ to try desperately to head off this threat to their paymasters.

Nonsense, of course, but it true we would seem to have earned our thirty pieces of silver: the most recent poll found A4U’s support has halved over the last two weeks, and it looks increasingly unlikely to return any MSPs at all. This will doubtless only make its Twitter warriors even more vicious: just yesterday, their constitution spokesman threatened to change the party’s tactical vote recommendation based on whichever candidate was nicest about A4U, rather than best-placed to beat the SNP.

However there is one downside of Galloway’s campaign which I didn’t account for in my piece: that it increases the temptation for the Scottish Conservatives to indulge their worst instincts and run a core-vote campaign that puts the party’s immediate electoral needs over the best interests of the UK. And lo, so they have.

The problem here is that whilst they bitterly disagree over the substance of the issue, both the Tories and the Nationalists benefit electorally when the constitution is the issue at the centre of the debate. The former in particular benefited hugely in 2016 by corralling a broad range of pro-UK voters behind them as the party best-placed to take the fight to the SNP.

Which is probably why the Nationalists’ central election message – that a vote for them is a vote for the Scottish Government to hold another independence referendum – is all over Conservative election messaging. Even though it directly contradicts Conservative policy, which is that the Prime Minister has quite rightly ruled out granting another plebiscite.

Ian Smart, a Labour blogger, has set out why the Tories’ current strategy is so counter-productive. But I know that his frustrations are shared by senior Conservatives at Westminster. Not only does focusing on independence make it harder to scrutinise the Nationalists on their abominable record in government, but it also complicates Boris Johnson’s job when it comes to holding the line after May. How much harder will it be to argue that these elections are not about independence if the Scottish Tories have spent the whole campaign insisting that they are all about independence?

When I first complained about this on Twitter, they got in touch to provide a clarificatory quote:

“The SNP have made it abundantly clear that they will hold another divisive independence referendum, even a wildcat referendum, regardless of what the UK Government says. Our position remains the exact same – that the last thing Scotland needs is another independence referendum and we will be doing everything we can to stop an SNP majority, stop them holding that illegal and divisive referendum, and get all of the focus back on rebuilding Scotland and supporting Scotland’s recovery.”

But none of this nuance is on their literature. It would be a matter of a couple of words to say that the SNP were threatening a ‘wildcat referendum’, or something else to make it clear that we’re talking about potentially unlawful strategies of the sort Alex Salmond and Alba are so keen on.

One of the big problems with devolution has always been the way it aligns the short-term political interests of devolved politicians against the long-term best interests of the United Kingdom. We can only hope that the Prime Minister ignores those clueless ministers sounding off in the Sunday papers about granting a referendum in the middle of the pandemic and refreshes himself on the strong case for a moratorium on Scottish independence.

Garvan Walshe: Russia’s building up troops on Ukraine’s border. Here’s what we can do to stymie Putin.

15 Apr

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

Tanks rolling towards the Ukrainian border. Paratroopers in Crimea. Mechanised troops to the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic sea between Poland and Lithuania. A “rotational” but in effect permanent presence on Ukraine’s frontier with Belarus.

These are just the most obviously military steps in Russia’s campaign to divide and confuse the West, and test the mettle of the Biden Administration.

They come as tensions increase in East Asia, with China increasing pressure on Taiwan, and the US trying to enlist Japan into backing up the island. The question on Russia’s mind is who are the Japans – the large, democratic American allies – of Europe?

Moscow could be forgiven for thinking there aren’t any. France was suckered into attempting a “reset” in relations in exchange for cooperation in the North Africa that never materialised. How seriously can Germany be taken until it cancels Nordstream 2? And the UK has just released a review of strategy promising a military tilt towards the Indo-Pacific.

Russia’s big disadvantage is that its economy is still relatively small (its GDP is the same as that of Spain and Portugal, or the Nordic countries), and its autocratic regime needs an expensive repressive apparatus to hold onto power.

Its advantage, however, is that such wealth as it has comes from natural resources, and these are easy for the ruling elite to capture. It’s much easier for the “Collective Putin”, as the ruling elite is sometimes known, to spend them on internal security, military hardware and foreign subversion than it is for a democracy constrained by law, voters unhappy about tax rises, and expensive welfase states.

Putin’s central belief is that the world is a transactional place where raw power is decisive. He finds it difficult to understand the Western talk of values, and dismisses it as cant, just has he knows that Russian lines about non-interference in the affairs of other nations or respect for international frontiers are empty propaganda – to be used, or discarded, as convenient.

But if he cannot quite fathom the levels of trust that Western countries still have for one another, he knows how to erode it by supporting nationalists from Marine Le Pen (whose party received loans from a Russian bank) to Alex Salmond (still a presenter on Russia Today), and of course, Donald Trump.

But 2021 has worsened the strategic environment. Biden has bluntly called him a “killer”. The autumn’s elections in Germany could deliver the Greens (who are not only anti-Putin, but anti-the oil and gas from which he makes his money).

His only solid European ally is Hungary, whose government has bought Russia’s vaccine, hired Rosatom to renovate its nuclear power plant, agreed to host and give diplomatic immunity from regulatory oversight,to the Russian state International Investment Bank, and provided a permissive environment for Russian spies. Viktor Orban’s collaboration with Putin, is however, enough to neutralise the EU’s Russia policy and limit the effectiveness of NATO.

The latest military build up is another attempt to increase pressure on the alliance now that Trump is no longer in a position to destroy it. Ukraine, which was formally offered a path to NATO membership in 2008, has repeated its request to join, splitting its friends from those who profess to be afraid to “poke the bear.”

But if immediate NATO membership for Ukraine is currently off the table, there is an opportunity here for the UK to be a “North European” Japan, and anchor North European security against Russia in support of the US-led alliance. This role should naturally fall to the UK, since France is heavily committed in North Africa, and Germany cannot be expected to be decisive, especially during a year where the election coincides with Russia’s annual Zapad military exercises.

Britain is in a position to convene a coalition of European countries worried about Russia, including Poland, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the Baltic states, possibly with Ukraine in association. A semi-formal initiative and northern analogue of France’s European Intervention Initiative, but obviously more defensive in nature, could focus on reinforcing the territorial integrity of its members, as well as security of the Baltic sea, and develop programmes of mutual assistance in civil resilience for circumstances below those that would warrant the invocation of NATO’s Article Five.

Such an initiative would, I believe, be well received in Washington, where a reinforcement of Britain’s role in the Euro-Atlantic, and not just the distant Indo-Pacific, theatre would bring significant relief.

Daniel Hannan: A tribute to Jens-Peter Bonde. A devastatingly able campaigner and giant of the Eurosceptic movement.

14 Apr

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.

A giant of the Eurosceptic movement died last week, unreported and largely unremarked. Jens-Peter Bonde, who spent 29 years in the European Parliament and was, for much of that time, the closest thing it had to a Leader of the Opposition, passed away at his home near Copenhagen, aged 73.

There has, of course, been a more newsworthy death grabbing our attention. But, even without the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh, we would not have heard much about the cheerful, detail-obsessed Danish campaigner.

This is partly because Brexit has short-circuited the arguments about the decentralisation of power. I have written more than my share of papers on how a looser, more flexible EU might have worked. But all that is over now. Eurocrats responded to Britain’s withdrawal by pushing ahead with the integrationist schemes that had previously been held up by our veto – tax harmonisation, an EU army, the lot. A country can either get with that programme or leave. A Europe of nations is no longer on the agenda, if ever it was.

There is another reason, though, that Bonde faded from public consciousness. He might have been the moving spirit behind the Euro-critical movement, but he does not fit the popular image of the anti-Brussels campaigner. Thoughtful, polite and Left-of-Centre, he was the Eurosceptic whom federalists found it hardest to dislike. He worked on various projects with Romano Prodi, Guy Verhofstadt and Jean-Claude Juncker, who remarked on hearing of Bonde’s death that their clashes over the burgeoning EU budget “didn’t take away from the friendship I had with him”.

Bonde began as a revolutionary and ended as a reformer. He had campaigned against EEC membership in Denmark’s referendum in 1972 – a campaign at that time dominated, like its British equivalent, by the Bennite Left – and was elected as an MEP for the People’s Movement Against the EEC in 1979. After Denmark voted against the Maastricht Treaty in June 1992, he established the June Movement, reaching out to those Danes who had been happy enough with the EEC, but who disliked the new push for political and economic amalgamation.

That made him the de facto head of something that had not existed until that moment: a Europe-wide anti-federalist movement. As the leader of the tiny Eurosceptic bloc in Brussels, Bonde had the time and the resources to co-ordinate the efforts of new allies: Philippe de Villiers’ souverainiste movement in France, the successors to the various Scandinavian “No” campaigns from 1994 and, in Britain, Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party and Alan Sked’s UKIP.

I remember asking him, when I was first elected in 1999, whether he thought it was acceptable to use EU money that way. Then, as now, the European Parliament made resources available to individual MEPs and their parties for political projects. The idea, of course, was that the moolah would translate into greater support for the EU. But there was no way to draw up the rules so as explicitly to exclude Eurosceptics. Did he think it was okay to finance his projects with Brussels cash?

“I used to wonder the same thing when I arrived here 20 years ago, Daniel. In the end, I asked a man who had been one of my mentors. He was a partisan leader in the war, and he told me, ‘Jens-Peter, when we siphoned gas off German vehicles during the occupation, it wasn’t an act of theft – it was an act of legitimate resistance.’”

I laughed out loud at the mental picture the mild-mannered, bespectacled Bonde stealing petrol by moonlight. In truth, by then, he was already more interested in making the EU less intrusive than in taking his country out of it. But he remained a devastatingly able campaigner.

The following year, he and I worked together on the “No” campaign in Denmark’s single currency referendum. We started more than 20 points behind in the polls, but Bonde knew how to appeal to waverers. He block-booked advertising space with bus companies all over the country. A week before polling day, a question appeared on the side of almost every Danish bus: “Do you know enough to abolish the Crown forever yet?” It was the “yet” that did it, rallying undecideds to the status quo and carrying us to a surprise victory.

For all that they found him personally agreeable, the EU’s leaders could not forgive such behaviour. Had they been a bit cleverer, they would have treated Bonde and his allies as a kind of loyal opposition, engaging with his ideas on democracy and transparency, and using his presence to show that the EU was not an intolerant monolith. But, subject to their federalist purity-spiral, they could never bring themselves to do it.

As the EU pushed ahead with deeper and deeper union – Maastricht was followed by Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon – the idea of devolving power fell away, leaving withdrawal as the only alternative. Bonde was replaced by Nigel Farage as leader of his group and, more broadly, as the voice of Euroscepticism. While he was shifting from secessionism to constructive criticism, the Eurosceptic movement was going the other way.

Bonde’s idea of a Europe of nations now survives only as a counterfactual, a might-have-been, like Gladstone’s Home Rule proposals or Pitt the Elder’s plan to conciliate America. The EU’s leaders may soon wish they had taken the well-mannered Dane more seriously.

Radical: The ideology of gender identity has been adopted at UK prisons, putting biological women at serious risk

14 Apr

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.

Transgender prisoners hit the US headlines last week, after it was revealed that hundreds of male prisoners in California have applied to transfer to women’s prisons under a law that came into force at the start of the year.

Under the new law, The Los Angeles Times reports: “all inmates will be asked upon admission about their gender identity, their pronouns, whether they prefer the female or male search policy, and if they want to be housed in an institution that aligns with their gender identity”.

It has been disclosed that 261 prisoners have requested to be transferred, of which only six wanted to be moved to a men’s prison. Twenty one requests have already been granted (and none have yet been refused) to trans-identifying male prisoners, meaning they will be moved to women’s correctional facilities, to the horror of many female prisoners and officers.

You may think this is just an example of the “woke” agenda being pursued by Democrats under the Biden administration. But regardless of your views on American politics, you should be aware that the UK has had such policies in operation for several years.

In England and Wales, under the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service’s policy, set out in The Care and Management of Individuals who are Transgender, prisoners are accommodated by default in accordance with their “legal gender”.

This means that biologically male offenders who have a gender recognition certificate (GRC) — and are, therefore, legally regarded as female (for almost all purposes) — are automatically housed in the women’s prison estate. In theory, if these prisoners are determined to pose a high risk to other prisoners, then they could be moved to the male estate. But owing to the policy’s extreme interpretation of the Equality Act (EA), the prison service is only meant to do this if they would take the same step in respect of a high-risk natal female prisoner — to avoid the risk of discrimination on the basis of gender reassignment.

However, male prisoners who do not have a GRC, and are, therefore, still legally regarded as male regardless of how they “self-identify”, may also request a transfer to a women’s prison, if they “express a consistent desire to live permanently in the gender with which they identify, and which is opposite to the biological sex assigned to them at birth”. In these cases, the matter is considered by a specialist board. If the members of the board find strong evidence that the prisoner is “living in the gender they identify as”, they may decide that a male prisoner should be accommodated in a women’s prison.

In Scotland, the policy is even more permissive. The Scottish Prison Service 2014 policy document Gender Identity and Gender Reassignment Policy for those in our Custody is proudly emblazoned with the logos of trans pressure groups Stonewall and the Scottish Trans Alliance. It states that “the accommodation provided […] should reflect the gender in which the person in custody is currently living”. There is no requirement for a GRC.

Both policies bear all-too-familiar hallmarks of regulatory capture: they refer to a person’s sex as “assigned at birth”, and uncritically adopt the ideology of gender identity. Both also purport to treat prisoners in accordance with the requirements of the EA. The England and Wales approach, for instance, proceeds on the basis that “[w]here individuals have gained legal recognition, they must be treated in accordance with their legally recognised gender in every respect” — citing the EA.

But this is, at best, a contestable assertion. Gender reassignment is a protected characteristic under the EA, and discriminating against a transgender person on that basis is indeed generally unlawful. This kind of discrimination is legally permitted, though, where it is a proportionate way of achieving a legitimate goal. Yet there is no evidence in either policy that the prison authorities considered whether excluding biologically-male prisoners from women’s prisons might be a proportionate way of protecting female prisoners and prison officers from the general risk posed to them from male offenders.

Fears about such risk are clearly not just a matter of abstract principle. Nor is it fair to claim, as one often hears, that they must simply be based in transphobic hostility towards transwomen. Rather, these fears stem from the unarguable position that women are at general risk from men owing to biological differences and patterns of offending. It is also important to note that the data on transgender prisoners in the UK prison systems is of poor quality — partly because of the recording of legal gender instead of sex — but that such information that has been pieced together shows that up to half of transwomen prisoners are sex offenders. Moreover, there have been horrifying documented instances of male prisoners who identify as female assaulting the women with whom they have been imprisoned.

On topic, you may have heard the news that a female prisoner who was sexually assaulted by a transwoman prisoner (who was serving a sentence for serious sexual offences against women and a child) has applied for a judicial review of the policy in England and Wales. The case derives from the claim that the policy indirectly discriminates against women, and violates their human rights, such as the right not to be subject to torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The application was heard in early March this year. The transwoman prisoner concerned was still at that time being held in the general population of a women’s prison.

The issue is complex, not least because there are clear risks for transwomen prisoners in men’s prisons. But what is not clear is why those prisoners’ interests should be (seemingly unquestioningly) prioritised over the interests of the vulnerable women in women’s prisons.

The MoJ argues that a legitimate aim of its policy includes “facilitating the rights of transgender people to live in and as their acquired gender (and) protecting transgender people’s mental and physical health”. This is may well be a legitimate aim — but it cannot be the only legitimate aim of the policy. Why have the MoJ, and UK prison services, defaulted to the assumption that biological women prisoners must be placed at any level of increased risk, in order to protect a certain category of male prisoners, many of whom have been convicted of violent or sexual offences, without even considering the exceptions available under the EA that allow for separate provision by sex?

In light of all of this, it is extremely disappointing that the chair of the Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee takes such a flippant and ill-informed view on the issue, claiming that concerns about transgender prisoners reduce to one isolated case.

It is also interesting to reflect on how recently overturned demands to introduce self-ID — both in relation to the Gender Recognition Act, and to the collection of Census sex data — would have played out in this context. The current “prisoners dilemma” exemplifies how distorted sex data, the GRA’s poor drafting, and questionable interpretations of the GRA and the EA by authorities, are already placing biological women at serious risk.  

James Frayne: What the polls tell us about the health of the Monarchy

13 Apr

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

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has inevitably sparked a wave of interest in what the monarchy means to Britain. His death marks the beginning of the end of the second Elizabethan era and attention will soon be paid to what the Queen’s death in turn will mean for the future of the monarchy. Where does the monarchy sit in the minds of the British people and how might this change over time? Will the monarchy be fighting for its survival after the Queen dies? I have been through all the recent polling on the monarchy to try to answer these questions.

1) Support for the monarchy is very broad

Let’s deal with top line results first. On the basic popularity questions – in fact on every way you ask them – the British public supports the monarchy by a large margin.

YouGov’s tracker asks whether the monarchy is good or bad for Britain; the last result showed by 55 per cent to 11 per cent people say it’s good (with 27 per cent saying neither good nor bad). Savanta ComRes asked whether people agreed the monarchy was good for Britain; by 61 per cent to 15 per cent people agreed (with 18 per cent saying they neither agreed nor disagreed).

Ipsos-Mori recently asked whether it would be good or bad for Britain’s future if the monarchy was abolished; by 41 per cent to 19 per cent, people said it would be bad (with 31 per cent saying it would make no difference). Perhaps more interesting from a policy perspective, another YouGov poll asked whether Britain should continue to have a monarchy or replace it with an elected head of state; people chose the monarchy by 63 per cent to 25 per cent.

The Queen enjoys even higher levels of popularity: a separate YouGov tracker shows 79 per cent of the public think she has done a good job during her time on the throne.

Despite the large numbers of people who are either disinterested or unsure about the monarchy – figures which are surprisingly high for such a high-profile issue – support for the monarchy is very broad; it would take a catastrophic reversal of fortune for it to change significantly any time soon.

2) The Harry and Meghan affair hasn’t made much difference – yet

It’s hard to imagine worse coverage for the Royal Family in the last few months; the Oprah interview was, in PR terms, a total train wreck. However, despite all the shocking coverage in the media and online, the Harry and Meghan affair doesn’t seem to have changed public support much either way. Ipsos-Mori’s question on whether Britain’s future would be better with or without the monarchy was asked just before and just after the Oprah interview and there was only a very mild shift against the monarchy.

It is, of course, early days, and it’s possible the impact will take longer to be felt, but it certainly hasn’t been any sort of game changing event yet. In fact, the biggest shifts in the polls have been associated with Prince Harry’s personal reputation, which has dropped significantly; he has fallen a long way quickly; in 2018, a YouGov survey put him as the most popular Royal – above even the Queen. (It will be interesting to see how he handles any public appearances this week).

3) Younger people are again different

Drill into the numbers in more detail and of course the popularity of the monarchy doesn’t look so universal. As is becoming increasingly common, the biggest gaps are visible on age. In all of the polls I refer to above, the numbers change dramatically when you look at the tabs on age.

For example, the Savanta ComRes poll shows that 18-24s agree the monarchy is good for Britain only relatively narrowly, by 48 per cent to 37 per cent. More worryingly, in the YouGov question as to whether we should have a monarchy or an elected head of state, while the over-65’s believe we should have a monarchy by 77 per cent to 17 per cent, 18-24s support an elected head of state by 42 per cent to 37 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, the Harry and Meghan affair has been viewed differently by different age groups; young people are generally still positive towards the couple. Such were the allegations made by Harry and Meghan – on issues that we know the young care particularly passionately about – we don’t know whether all this will have a longer-lasting impact on the monarchy.

The great question is, of course, whether young people will, as it were, “grow out” of republicanism; their consistency across a range of cultural issues, and the intensity of feeling on cultural issues, suggests probably not – but this doesn’t mean the next generation will be the same.

4) Scotland lags behind

Only narrowly – by 41 per cent to 32 per cent – do Scots agree the monarchy is a good thing; the English agree by 63 per cent to 13 per cent and the Welsh by basically the same margin. As with the tabs on young people, this is also no surprise; the independence movement is completely entrenched in Scottish politics and the monarchy is seen by many in Scotland as an integral part of the Union, which of course it is.

The SNP has been careful on the monarchy, trying to avoid opening up an additional campaign front; after all, there will be some that would favour an independent Scotland with a shared head of state, but it’s clear that at least a significant minority of Scots view the Royal Family as a fundamentally English institution.

5) There’s a right-left split

Activists are always a bit odd; yes, that includes all of us that write for and read this website; we’re more likely to be ideological, to take an usually keen interest in politics and to have views on issues most people would find irrelevant or obscure.

But many of Labour’s activists are currently way out of the mainstream on an array of issues, with the monarchy being right up there. A YouGov poll of members in 2019 showed that 62 per cent of Labour members believe Britain should become a republic; the numbers for Scottish members were even higher (but the sample on Scottish members was tiny, so not robust).

I don’t have available corresponding figures for Conservative members, but the split between Conservative and Labour voters on a standard question as to whether we should keep the monarchy or have an elected head of state was 85 per cent to 10 per cent and 48 per cent to 40 per cent respectively – in favour of the monarchy.

Sir Keir Starmer has always been positive about the Royal Family (I have no idea of his personal views) and knows he needs to retain this line; but it’ll be interesting, given his grassroots, whether he feels pressure to say something like after the Queen’s death we should reform/slim down the monarchy, cutting off less popular minor royals. This would have at least some traction with the public.

6) King Charles looks set to inherit a less popular monarchy

The numbers on Prince Charles are at best mixed; YouGov’s tracker on whether he’d make a good king show the public are divided – with a third saying yes, a third no, and third unsure. On a straight question on ratings he’s currently viewed favourably by 49 per cent to 42 per cent (this dropped significantly in March; we need to keep an eye on this as it feels implausible that he’d fall so much, while others were pretty static).

Asked whether they’d prefer to see Prince Charles become king after the Queen’s death or Prince William, a poll in the autumn showed people would narrowly choose Prince William; Savanta ComRes’ more recent poll showed a significantly larger margin for William.

Will his low numbers damage the monarchy as an institution? That’s hard to say, but it requires working out what the numbers are telling us. While many on the right have been irritated by Charles’ pet political projects, the numbers don’t suggest that this irritates the public at large – probably because they don’t hear them. In fact, most people think it’s reasonable for him to speak out on issues that he worries about.

It’s more likely that he suffers from three things: (a) the fact he isn’t the Queen; (b) he’s not great on TV; (c) the legacy of his bitter divorce from Diana. In other words, I think the public are making a relative rather than an absolute judgement.

What does all this mean for the future of the monarchy? We should assume the Queen’s death or, more accurately, the coronation of King Charles will see support for the monarchy fall somewhat. This is inevitable; the Queen is so popular that any replacement will struggle – and Charles is starting from a low base.

But it’s hard to imagine this will lead to a serious, popular campaign for the end of the monarchy. Not only are the monarchy’s numbers as an institution sound, but let’s be honest: the public hate politicians so much, the idea that they’d like to see, say, an elected Labour or Conservative politician as head of state is mad (for realistically, this is who we’d get). For the foreseeable future, this will be a devastating counter-narrative.

The question is: will the monarchy’s numbers drop to such an extent that this doomsday argument needs to be made? Will we get to the point that we need to say: be careful what you wish for?

On this, I do indeed worry that this is where we might end up. Why? Because I fear the Royal Family is losing touch with the people who really support it: the English working class and lower middle class. It wouldn’t be one of my columns – would it – without this pivot to these voters? (Sorry.)

But look back at the polls I cite above and look at the tabs on SEG: time and again, you see C1/C2s and non-professionals giving the monarchy the greatest levels of support. These are the sorts of people who raise their love for the monarchy spontaneously and unprompted in focus groups; they’re the people who talk about day trips to London to “do all the Royal stuff”; they’re the people that attend the great public events and love them entirely at face value.

Perhaps because the popular press no longer sustains the massive levels of interest in the Royal Family that was evident even a decade ago (Harry and Meghan’s recent attacks aside), the Royal Family as an institution just don’t seem to have their finger on the English pulse like they used to. Simply put: the Daily Mail doesn’t force them to think of ordinary people as they once did.

And I fear Charles particularly lacks this insight; his concerns about the environment, modern architecture etc are all important but they’re inevitably niche issues for this audience; his public support for the military is a different matter, of course. He will need to learn about what it is these people really care about. (I could be wrong, but I suspect Camilla and her family are the best people to show him.)

In short, the monarchy will ultimately be safe in King Charles’ hands – but I suspect he’ll have to work hard to make it so.

David Gauke: Cameron’s values in government may be out of favour, but they are not wrong

13 Apr

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

The Government’s announcement that it is undertaking an independent enquiry of the Greensill Capital affair is unlikely to bring much cheer to David Cameron. He has endured weeks of bad publicity, and there is little chance that the story is imminently going to ‘move on’.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the former Prime Minister’s actions – and he has acknowledged making mistakes – the furore is all the more painful because his reputation as Prime Minister was already at a low ebb. Critics of his economic policy accuse him of inflicting austerity which, they argue, were unnecessary, stunted growth and damaged public services; he is castigated by Remainers for calling and losing the Brexit referendum and by Leavers for being a Remainer; some on both sides accuse him of deserting his post by resigning the morning after the poll; his electoral successes have been surpassed by Boris Johnson’s thumping majority in 2019. Not unrelated to this, neither the man nor his political values appears to have much influence on the modern Conservative Party.

Defending Cameron’s record in office is deeply unfashionable. So I will do so.

Let us start with the economy. There are few defenders of ‘austerity’ in today’s public debate. Labour still want to argue that the electorate got it wrong in 2010 and 2015, just as they tried to do in 2017 and 2019 (which, incidentally, suggests that this might not be a guaranteed route to success). Johnson, meanwhile, is not temperamentally an austerian and enjoys the opportunity to demonstrate that he is new and different from recent Conservative history.

The economic debate has also moved on. Governments have been able to borrow vast sums of money in the last year without much of a risk of a sovereign debt crisis. Central banks have played a more active role, debt servicing costs have fallen and international organisations have advocated expansionary fiscal policies. This may all go wrong at some point – there is more reason to worry about inflation than for many years – but it hasn’t gone wrong yet.

None of this means, however, that the concerns of fiscal conservatives back in 2010 should be dismissed. The global financial crisis had resulted in substantially higher spending and permanent damage to tax revenues. The risks of a sovereign debt crisis – with consequences for inflation, debt interest costs and consumer and business confidence – were not imaginary. The IMF and the OECD advocated that countries needed to have credible plans to put the public finances on a sound footing, and many countries did just that. In short, the balance of risks and the expectations of the markets in the years after 2010 were very different to where we are now.

Did fiscal consolidation significantly hamper our economic recovery? It is true that economic growth in 2011 and 2012 was disappointing (although not as bad as it appeared at the time when the ONS early estimates suggested that we had had a double dip recession), but it is worth remembering that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility put this down to the lasting effects of the banking crisis, higher commodity prices and the Eurozone – not fiscal consolidation.

Looked at in the round, over the 2010-2016 period, the UK had the joint highest growth for a G7 economy, level with the US. It was also a period of rapid jobs growth, with the highest employment rate in our history and income inequality falling. Had the Brexit referendum gone the other way, there is every reason to believe that the post-2016 UK economy would have been characterised by high economic growth, rapidly rising living standards and strong public finances, as opposed to us falling to the bottom of the G7 league table.

Were public services were unduly damaged? Difficult decisions had to be made, but many of them were unavoidable given that the spending plans that we inherited were based on an over-optimistic, pre-crash assessment of what was affordable. It was possible to drive greater efficiencies and find ways of getting more for less. The British state has been placed under enormous strain in the last year by Covid but there have been some real successes. Just looking at two areas where I have some familiarity through Ministerial experience, HMRC was able to introduce the furloughing system in a matter of weeks, and the Department for Work and Pensions was able to cope with an extraordinary surge in benefit claimants. Neither would have been possible without reforms undertaken by the Cameron Government.

Having said all that, we relied too heavily on spending cuts over tax rises. It was politically easier at the time to cut spending rather than raise taxes and, as time went on, we got the balance wrong. Some areas of government spending – justice, for example, or social care – were squeezed too hard. But a period of spending restraint was necessary and inevitable and too many of Cameron’s critics fail to acknowledge that.

It was the decision to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and then lose it that hangs most heavily over Cameron’s reputation. It will, unfortunately, always be for what he is remembered and, for many Remainers, this will never be forgiven. The referendum result created huge uncertainty and will, in my view, inflict lasting damage to the UK. But we should not kid ourselves that had he adopted a different approach our membership of the EU would currently be assured.

The Conservative Party was moving in the direction of being a Vote Leave Party – in part because of the fear of UKIP peeling off Tory votes – and the decision to offer a referendum was motivated both by a desire to win the 2015 general election by winning back UKIP voters but also by a recognition that a post-Cameron Conservative opposition would, in all likelihood, favour Brexit.

The best chance of staying in the EU, Cameron concluded, was to settle the issue early with a decisive Remain victory – the longer the issue was left, the greater the chance we would leave the EU. As it turned out, he was wrong to believe that he could deliver a Remain victory but he may have been right that this was the best chance of defeating Brexit.

As for the criticism that he should not have resigned following the poll, one lesson of the last five years is that the referendum did not tell us what exactly ‘Leave’ meant. I do not believe it is plausible to think that the European Research Group would have allowed the leader of the Remain campaign to define the answer.

More broadly, much of his political approach has stood the test of time. In wanting more women and ethnic minority MPs, caring about climate change and the environment and introducing equal marriage he took positions that were controversial at the time but have aged well.

Yes, Johnson’s majority in 2019 – and continued strength in the polls – exceeds anything achieved by Cameron, but it is not clear that a political strategy based on white voters without post-16 academic qualifications is the right long-term strategy for an electorate that is becoming more diverse and better educated.

Cameron represented fiscal conservativism, social liberalism and internationalism. These values may be out of favour but they are not wrong. It is too early to say to what extent his personal reputation will – in time – recover but the dismissal of the achievements of his Government is undeserved.

Iain Dale: Starmer’s grip on Labour is already loosening. Defeat in Hartlepool would be a disaster for him.

9 Apr

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

I suppose we should beware of polls in by-elections, but Conservatives in Hartlepool will have been buoyed by a Panelbase poll showing a seven-point Conservative lead.

Only three times in history has a governing party won a seat from an opposition party in a by-election. Trudi Harrison was the last to do it when she won Copeland from Labour a few years ago.

A Tory win here could have huge consequences for Keir Starmer. There’s always been a suspicion in Labour circles that he isn’t the man to breach the Red Wall and win seats back in the north and the midlands. If Labour was to lose Hartlepool, which in many senses is emblematic of Labour’s issues, his critics will feel vindicated.

Although he has a nominal majority on Labour’s National Executive Committee, his grip is loosening. Take what has happened in Liverpool. Starmer and his chief of staff Jenny Chapman wanted Jacqui Smith to chair the investigation into the Liverpool Labour Party. The NEC thought she was too factionally on the right (translation: Blairite) and vetoed it, giving the job instead to former MP David Hanson.

Strong Labour leaders get their own way. The fact that Starmer didn’t, shows a political weakness which hasn’t been evident up until recently. This really is a space to watch.

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On Wednesday I went into London by train for the first time since the middle of December. Over the last five weeks I’ve been driving in, but I was left with no choice but to go by train because of the closure of the M25.

It was interesting to note that in the immortal words of Theresa May, nothing has changed. There are if anything fewer cars parked in the car park at Tonbridge station, and I was more or less alone on the train. SouthEastern have also cut trains from the schedule, meaning that if I travel home by train after my LBC show, I don’t arrive home until 11.30pm.

If I drive, I get home by 11pm. So guess what, I’ll be continuing to drive in.

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I’m sure most of you have been reading the Daily Mail serialisation of Alan Duncan’s diaries. Many of you will have got the impression that the whole book is just one giant bitching session, with insults to his colleagues littering every page.

I am interviewing him tonight (or last night, if you’re reading this on Friday) for an hour, so I have been reading the whole manuscript over the last 24 hours. I’m 200 pages in and I can tell you that the serialisation is a grossly unfair representation of the book. It’s much more thoughtful and nuanced than the Daily Mail would have you believe.

I suspect the serial will have put many loyalist Conservatives off buying it at all. That would be wrong. It covers the four years from 2016-20 and is of course dominated by Brexit. However, it’s Alan’s insights into the role of a foreign office minister which I think provide many of the highlights of the book. I won’t give away the details here, but safe to say I am enjoying it immensely.

Of course, the first thing I did was look in the index to see if I got a mention. I did. Two. I rather gingerly turned to the pages in question and was relieved I had been spared a monstering. The second mention was a rather amusing text exchange we had after I had published a diary entry of mine from 2002 where I related something I observed during a lunch with Alan. Basically, he was eyeing up the waiters. But you’ll have to buy the book to find out more… 😊.

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I’ve written a full tribute to CheryI Gillan on my website, and Paul Goodman wrote a terrific tribute to her on ConHome too, but I wanted to just say a brief word in this column as well.

I first met Cheryl in the mid 1980s when she interviewed me to be a member of the Bow Group, back in the days when it was highly respected. They didn’t accept any old rif-raff! Then after she was elected we met occasionally, but it was in 2005 that our friendship blossomed.

Cheryl was on David Davis’s Shadow Home Affairs team and a key supporter of his in the leadership contest. She was what one call a real trooper. There were a few big egos in that team and she would delight in puncturing them. She was happy to accept any task for the team no matter how menial. I was David’s chief of staff and she would pop down to my office with increasing regularity to check how it was all going and ask what she could do to help.

As time went on, and I was enjoying the job less and less, she became my mother confessor. If it hadn’t been for her I might not have lasted the course.

She was born in Llandaff, Cardiff and remained intensely proud of her Welsh heritage. She may have had a quintessentially English voice, but how honoured she was when David Cameron asked her to be Secretary of State for Wales after the 2010 election. She rolled up her sleeves and was instrumental in backing Matt Lane, the then Director of the Conservative Party in Wales, in his plans to revive Tory fortunes there. And boy were they successful.

She didn’t have an easy time in the job at first, with the Welsh media and the Labour Party revelling in pointing out that she represented an English constituency. But she won people round with the warmth of her character and personality, and her intrinsic sense of duty and calm perseverance.

So it was with a great deal of upset that she learned in 2012 that she was being sacked, in favour of her junior minister, David Jones. She was devastated. It had been a job she had loved.

I last saw Cheryl over dinner in the Members’ Dining Room in the House of Commons in the autumn of 2019, six months or so after her husband Jack had died. During the meal various Conservative and Labour MPs came over to pay court to Cheryl. She was liked and respected across the House. We had a right old gossip, but in a nice way. She didn’t like the cruel side of political gossip, but loved to be in the know on who was on the way up or down and who was misbehaving.

Cheryl was a very important figure in encouraging more women to stand as MPs and I’ve lost count of the number of female MPs who I have seen on Twitter say how important she was in giving them advice and guidance when they were first elected.

She really is going to be missed by so many of us. A truly great lady, who deserves all the kind words that have been said about her this week.

Henry Hill: If Johnson wants to save the Belfast Agreement, he must act to restore unionist confidence in it

8 Apr

Last month, I wrote about what the appointment of Lord Frost signalled with regards to the Government’s intentions over the Northern Ireland Protocol. This week’s loyalist violence shows the importance of Boris Johnson getting this policy right.

The division inside the Government is not between people who like or dislike the Protocol. Nobody likes it.

Rather the divide is between those such as Michael Gove, who believe that the Protocol can be made to work (and has striven to sand off its roughest edges), and the likes of Frost, who don’t. The latter camp maintain that because the Protocol is a ‘living document’ rooted in EU law, it is almost certainly going to metastasise rather than stabilise, and lay a heavier and heavier burden on Ulster’s connections with the mainland.

Of course there is no avoiding the fact that the Prime Minister signed up to it, but the defence offered for that is that after the passage of the Benn Act the Government didn’t have the leverage to get rid of it before leaving the EU. Nor was the mistake his alone.

For all that some commentators like to talk up Theresa May’s alternative approach, in truth the critical mistakes on Northern Ireland – especially allowing Britain’s rhetoric about no return to “the borders of the past” to mutate into a commitment to an invisible Irish border which is not in the Belfast Agreement – were made when she was in office. Ireland and the EU deliberately pushed a maximalist line on Ulster and credulous British ministers swallowed it whole.

The Protocol isn’t the only factor contributing to the violence. The visible refusal of the PSNI to act on blatant lawbreaking by senior Sinn Fein politicians is another. But they are part and parcel of the same trend of unionists and loyalists feeling that the structures and processes of the post-1998 settlement are being stacked against them.

There is no plausible reading of the Belfast Agreement that could offer the nationalist community a right to an invisible border with a neighbouring state but not protect unionists from a visible border inside their country. Yet that is how it has been defined, if not in court then by the political debate around the Protocol. The Agreement is supposed to guarantee Northern Ireland’s British status, yet the Government will not fly the flag there. Some people even thought the Democratic Unionists propping up the May Government – i.e. participating in their national government – a breach of the deal.

As a result, the loyalist paramilitary groups have already withdrawn their support for the deal and there is an increasingly real prospect of political unionism following suit. If the major parties get spooked into collapsing Stormont, it may not come back.

This is a test for both sides. The EU has been keen to talk up the importance of the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement and ‘the peace’ when doing so meant maximally enforcing the EU’s interests. Will it continue to prioritise them if it means going against its perceived interests? It would be a surprise.

But it is even more a test for the Government, because Northern Ireland is British and thus ultimately our responsibility. That means that yes, Johnson needs to back Frost to the hilt if he has a long-term strategy for delivering fundamental changes to the Protocol. But he should not stop there.

As I wrote in the News Letter last week, he should overturn the decision to exclude the Province from the new policy of putting the Union Flag on UK Government buildings and authorise Brandon Lewis to undertake root-and-branch reform at the NIO to get rid of the entrenched neutralist attitudes that rule there. He should also task whoever is in charge of formulating constitutional policy to sit down and develop a proper British vision of the Belfast Agreement and its obligations, to help prevent future generations of lazy and/or uninterested ministers getting memed into terrible decisions by those selling the myths that seem to comprise the ‘Good Friday Agreement’.

For too long, the Government has relied on the old trick of staging interminable rounds of talks and then basically bribing the local parties back into Stormont for a bit. If the Prime Minister wants to save the Belfast Agreement, he must demonstrate to unionists that its guarantees of their British status – including the ability to participate fully in British political and economic life – are real.