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

21 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

Iain Dale: “The sun is incomparably more powerful than any work of man.” When Johnson’s guru on global warming was Corbyn’s brother.

20 Nov

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

So he’s gone. The departure of Dominic Cummings from Number Ten eclipsed the concurrent departure of Lee Cain, and understandably so.

But it is the latter’s exit which is already being noticed in broadcast studios up and down the country. Downing Street’s former Director departed a week ago today, and by last Monday Matt Hancock was appearing on Good Morning Britain. The boycott had ended.  However, rather than be welcoming and emollient, Piers Morgan did what Piers Morgan does, and gave Hancock a bit of a mauling.

There’s little doubt that the new regime headed by James Slack and Allegra Stratton is striking a very different tune. The tone is one of cooperation and helpfulness. And believe me, it’s a refreshing change.

The point that the Cain/Cummings regime failed to understand is that if Ministers aren’t put up to explain government policy, no one else will do it for them. It’s early days, but I hope the Slack/Stratton regime gets that. The early signs are good.

– – – – – – – – – –

It’s almost as though Boris Johnson has got religion. His zealous promotion of green policies have drawn widespread admiration from those involved in the environmental and climate change movements. And he’s done it without unsettling those on the Tory right who view the green lobby as the enemy.

His ten point plan contained some genuinely interesting proposals, albeit not fleshed out with a huge a amount of detail. I had to laugh, though, when Mishal Hussein on the Today Programme took Alok Sharma to task for “only” providing an extra £4 billion of money to fund the ten point plan.

It’s got to a pretty pass when £4 billion is considered a trifling sum. It wasn’t that long ago that £4 billion amounted to the entirety of the annual public sector borrowing requirement. Those were the days…

– – – – – – – – – –

The Prime Minister’s green credentials appear to have been burnished in recent times, and of course I’m scratching my head to think who on earth could have been whispering his ear…

Well, she has done a very good job, because it wasn’t so long ago that Johnson wrote a paean of praise to Piers Corbyn’s theory – yes, that’s Piers Corbyn, brother of you-know-who – that it is the sun’s activity rather than man’s which shapes our weather.

Here is an extract from a Johnson Daily Telegraph column in 2010:

“The question is whether anthropogenic global warming is the exclusive or dominant fact that determines our climate, or whether Corbyn is also right to insist on the role of the sun. Is it possible that everything we do is dwarfed by the moods of the star that gives life to the world? The sun is incomparably vaster and more powerful than any work of man. We are forged from a few clods of solar dust. The sun powers every plant and form of life, and one day the sun will turn into a red giant and engulf us all. Then it will burn out. Then it will get very nippy indeed.”

Five years later, in December 2015, he was at it again in the Telegraph. Concerned about an unseasonably warm winter, who did our future Prime Minister turn to again for some meteorological input?

Why yes, it was Piers Corbyn who was on Speed Dial One in the London Mayor’s office. The Jezzabrother reassured Johnson that the warm spell was “nothing to do with the conventional doctrine of climate change”. Johnson himself rejected any idea that recent changes in our weather were anything to do with man-made global warming.

I wonder if he holds that same belief five Decembers later? I’d love to ask him myself, but even despite the departure of Messers Cummings and Cain, I suspect I’m still on the naughty step.

– – – – – – – – – –

This week, I have been crippled by back pain. Anyone who has ever experienced it knows who awful it can be, yet those who haven’t can rarely resist the temptation to snigger. I’ve never understood why.

It culminated last Friday evening with me being able to barely put one foot in front of the other. Each night, after my radio show, I walk from Leicester Square to Charing Cross Station to catch the 10.10pm train. The walk normally takes me some four to five minutes.

I knew as soon as I embarked on the short trip, that I would miss my train. My strides became tiptoe steps of about six inches each. I shuffled along like a decrepit 90 year old. Halfway there, I was accosted by someone who recognised me and wanted to chat. I was almost in tears of pain by that point.

Eventually, I made it onto a train 20 minutes later. I sat down and realised the configuration of the seats would make the pain even worse. So I moved to a first class seat which had more support. I phoned my partner to ask him to come to collect me from the station as I knew I couldn’t walk to get my car in the station car park. Never have I felt so pathetic.

When the train arrived at Tonbridge I genuinely wondered if I would be able to get off the seat and get off the train. I managed it just in time. It took me five minutes to manoeuvre myself into the front seat of John’s SUV. I could barely string two words together I was in so much pain. I even wondered whether he should drop me off at the local A&E.

When we got home I then had to contemplate climbing the stairs of our house backwards. I went straight to bed, wondering if I could even lie down to sleep. I took my shirt off, and then the awful truth dawned on me. I couldn’t bend down to take off my shoes of my trousers. I had to call John.

It was at that moment that it all came out. I just started crying – not just because of the constant physical pain I was enduring, but because I realised I had turned into my mother. For the last 30 years of her life she was in constant physical pain due to terrible hip issues (she had five hip replacements), knee problems, osteoporosis and back issues.

But you always have to find humour in these situations. As John was pulling off my trousers I muttered: “I thought you’d be doing this in 20 years time, not now. But at least I’m not dribbling…” If looks could kill.

Iain Dale: “The sun is incomparably more powerful than any work of man.” When Johnson’s guru on global warming was Corbyn’s brother.

20 Nov

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

So he’s gone. The departure of Dominic Cummings from Number Ten eclipsed the concurrent departure of Lee Cain, and understandably so.

But it is the latter’s exit which is already being noticed in broadcast studios up and down the country. Downing Street’s former Director departed a week ago today, and by last Monday Matt Hancock was appearing on Good Morning Britain. The boycott had ended.  However, rather than be welcoming and emollient, Piers Morgan did what Piers Morgan does, and gave Hancock a bit of a mauling.

There’s little doubt that the new regime headed by James Slack and Allegra Stratton is striking a very different tune. The tone is one of cooperation and helpfulness. And believe me, it’s a refreshing change.

The point that the Cain/Cummings regime failed to understand is that if Ministers aren’t put up to explain government policy, no one else will do it for them. It’s early days, but I hope the Slack/Stratton regime gets that. The early signs are good.

– – – – – – – – – –

It’s almost as though Boris Johnson has got religion. His zealous promotion of green policies have drawn widespread admiration from those involved in the environmental and climate change movements. And he’s done it without unsettling those on the Tory right who view the green lobby as the enemy.

His ten point plan contained some genuinely interesting proposals, albeit not fleshed out with a huge a amount of detail. I had to laugh, though, when Mishal Hussein on the Today Programme took Alok Sharma to task for “only” providing an extra £4 billion of money to fund the ten point plan.

It’s got to a pretty pass when £4 billion is considered a trifling sum. It wasn’t that long ago that £4 billion amounted to the entirety of the annual public sector borrowing requirement. Those were the days…

– – – – – – – – – –

The Prime Minister’s green credentials appear to have been burnished in recent times, and of course I’m scratching my head to think who on earth could have been whispering his ear…

Well, she has done a very good job, because it wasn’t so long ago that Johnson wrote a paean of praise to Piers Corbyn’s theory – yes, that’s Piers Corbyn, brother of you-know-who – that it is the sun’s activity rather than man’s which shapes our weather.

Here is an extract from a Johnson Daily Telegraph column in 2010:

“The question is whether anthropogenic global warming is the exclusive or dominant fact that determines our climate, or whether Corbyn is also right to insist on the role of the sun. Is it possible that everything we do is dwarfed by the moods of the star that gives life to the world? The sun is incomparably vaster and more powerful than any work of man. We are forged from a few clods of solar dust. The sun powers every plant and form of life, and one day the sun will turn into a red giant and engulf us all. Then it will burn out. Then it will get very nippy indeed.”

Five years later, in December 2015, he was at it again in the Telegraph. Concerned about an unseasonably warm winter, who did our future Prime Minister turn to again for some meteorological input?

Why yes, it was Piers Corbyn who was on Speed Dial One in the London Mayor’s office. The Jezzabrother reassured Johnson that the warm spell was “nothing to do with the conventional doctrine of climate change”. Johnson himself rejected any idea that recent changes in our weather were anything to do with man-made global warming.

I wonder if he holds that same belief five Decembers later? I’d love to ask him myself, but even despite the departure of Messers Cummings and Cain, I suspect I’m still on the naughty step.

– – – – – – – – – –

This week, I have been crippled by back pain. Anyone who has ever experienced it knows who awful it can be, yet those who haven’t can rarely resist the temptation to snigger. I’ve never understood why.

It culminated last Friday evening with me being able to barely put one foot in front of the other. Each night, after my radio show, I walk from Leicester Square to Charing Cross Station to catch the 10.10pm train. The walk normally takes me some four to five minutes.

I knew as soon as I embarked on the short trip, that I would miss my train. My strides became tiptoe steps of about six inches each. I shuffled along like a decrepit 90 year old. Halfway there, I was accosted by someone who recognised me and wanted to chat. I was almost in tears of pain by that point.

Eventually, I made it onto a train 20 minutes later. I sat down and realised the configuration of the seats would make the pain even worse. So I moved to a first class seat which had more support. I phoned my partner to ask him to come to collect me from the station as I knew I couldn’t walk to get my car in the station car park. Never have I felt so pathetic.

When the train arrived at Tonbridge I genuinely wondered if I would be able to get off the seat and get off the train. I managed it just in time. It took me five minutes to manoeuvre myself into the front seat of John’s SUV. I could barely string two words together I was in so much pain. I even wondered whether he should drop me off at the local A&E.

When we got home I then had to contemplate climbing the stairs of our house backwards. I went straight to bed, wondering if I could even lie down to sleep. I took my shirt off, and then the awful truth dawned on me. I couldn’t bend down to take off my shoes of my trousers. I had to call John.

It was at that moment that it all came out. I just started crying – not just because of the constant physical pain I was enduring, but because I realised I had turned into my mother. For the last 30 years of her life she was in constant physical pain due to terrible hip issues (she had five hip replacements), knee problems, osteoporosis and back issues.

But you always have to find humour in these situations. As John was pulling off my trousers I muttered: “I thought you’d be doing this in 20 years time, not now. But at least I’m not dribbling…” If looks could kill.

Henry Hill: Johnson may have just broken a devolutionary spell two decades in the weaving

19 Nov

As I noted earlier this week, the clearest evidence that Boris Johnson was on to something with his remarks about devolution having been a disaster is the response of his critics – especially his Tory critics.

Nowhere to be found were any paeans to devolution actually being a success. Instead, the new devolutionary defence is to claim that the problem isn’t the constitutional settlement itself, but merely the people currently in charge of it. If only the Conservatives could take over the reins then all would be well.

This is what the young people call a ‘cope’, and not just because the odds of the Tories taking office in either Edinburgh or Cardiff are currently very long indeed. It also overlooks the fact that devolution has managed to deliver the same toxic combination of bad governance and diminished Britishness in three very different sets of political distance: the intended hegemony of a ‘unionist’ Labour Party in Wales; the unexpected dominance by separatists in Scotland; and mandatory deadlock in Northern Ireland.

Of course, the Prime Minister has immediately rowed back from his remarks and tried to take the ‘blame the SNP’ line. But one suspects that this is a grenade he won’t be able to un-throw.

An undercurrent of devosceptic sentiment has been bubbling up inside unionism for some time now. Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, felt compelled to hit out at colleagues who think devolution has opened a ‘Pandora’s Box’ before Johnson dropped his bombshell. In Wales, where the Tories face a challenge from an explicitly anti-devolution party which looks set to enter the Senedd next year, the issue is fuelling what could become a proper rift between the grassroots and the leadership.

Whilst there hasn’t yet been any proper study of this change in attitudes, two possible drivers suggest themselves.

First, devolution hasn’t ‘worked’ as a pro-UK strategy. There are plenty of people who support it for its own sake, but the whole project was sold to sceptical unionists on the promise that it would “kill nationalism stone dead”. It obviously didn’t, and every subsequent one-more-heave concession of powers has sapped the credibility of devolutionary unionism as the separatists have got stronger and stronger.

Second, more unionists are waking up to the fact that there is more to their beliefs than merely the continued existence of anything calling itself ‘the UK’. They are unenthused, to put it mildly, at the prospect of going into another referendum defending a ‘radical’ or ‘federalist’ blueprint which turns the country into a ramshackle confederation, squeezing out what remains of the British political community in favour of horse trading between the Home Nations.

The pro-devolution consensus on the pro-UK side is broad, but fragile. It is to a great extent the product of preference falsification, wherein people with a dissident view pretend not to hold it and thus reinforce the illusion that they’re on their own (a good explanation of the dynamic is in this piece). Few of the activists and none of the politicians who have ever agreed in private with the arguments I’ve advanced in this column over the years (and there are enough) have aired such views in public. Enduring anti-devolution sentiment amongst the electorate is actually pretty remarkable when one considers that for the most part this attitude has been unrepresented in politics, think-tanks, or the media since the 1990s.

Which is why I said that the Prime Minister has just “has broken a spell more than two decades in the weaving”. Retracted or not, his comments will embolden people who share his view. And if they start speaking out, they will realise that they are less alone than they supposed. They may even think that if they organise, and start actually making the devosceptic case, it isn’t impossible that it might have an impact on public opinion (the same way pro-independence campaigning does).

All of this will horrify those drawing up plans to fight an imminent re-run of the 2014 referendum, and rightly so. It is quite possible to be very unhelpfully right, and if winning a vote in the near future requires selling the promise of a pseudo-federal dreamland then the very last thing needed is Johnson absent-mindedly prescribing constitutional red pills.

But if that is what it takes to win a near-future referendum, that is simply strong grounds for not holding one. It is all very well for the Prime Minister to have set up a new ‘Union task force’ to make the “social and cultural case for the UK”, but he must recognise that such policies will need the generational breathing-space unionism won in 2014 to have time to work. The case for the Union rests on utility and identity. Neither can be fixed overnight.

Garvan Walshe: Gloomy Sturgeon projects competence. The Government doesn’t – and the Union may be the price it pays.

19 Nov

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

The Prime Minister’s reset has had immediate effects on Scotland. Out with “devolution is a disaster”, in with a “Union task force” (£). And in the Financial Times to boot, no longer boycotted by the No 10 media operation, but graced by a Prime Ministerial op-ed.

Details about the task force, which is to include English, Welsh and Scottish Tory MPs, are scarce. As the party with no Northern Irish MPs, it would be wise to add a Northern Irish peer, and David Trimble is an obvious candidate. Its mission to make the emotional and cultural case for the Union is welcome. Merely pointing to the fiscal benefits of Scottish membership of the Union is too easily spun as “we pay for you, so shut up” (a problem that scuppered Arthur Balfour’s unsuccessful “killing home rule with kindness” in relation to Ireland at the turn of the century).

The Scottish experience in the Union in the 100 years before the independence push has been a good deal better than the Irish (it’s only a decade since the last Scottish Prime Minister), but that hasn’t stopped the SNP dominating Scottish politics as Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond dominated the Irish scene.

Unlike Redmond and Parnell, the SNP doesn’t hold the balance of power at Westminster, but it has, because of the devolution, a platform to show how it would govern an independent Scotland.

Though it might irk unionists, who can point at failures in education, a self-inflicted wound over trans self-ID, the grubby mess involving Alex Salmond’s trial, and cruelty of anti-Covid measures applied to Scottish students, it’s a platform the SNP has made good use of.

It took maximum advantage of two events — Brexit and the Covid pandemic — to switch the balance of risk away from independence and convince Scots that leaving the Union had become the safer option. Brexit moved public opinion to give independence a slight edge. Covid has turned that slender lead into a solid advantage of around ten points.

The effect of Brexit will not be possible to address in the short term. There’s simply a difference of belief between the Government, which was elected to get Brexit done, after all, and Scottish public opinion, which is strongly against it, but safety and predictability are things the Government should, in principle, be able to get a handle on.

Number 10 has come in for heavy criticism for its management of the pandemic, which, however true it may be in an absolute sense, feels distinctly unfair when compared to Scotland.

England’s record has not been particularly good, but then neither has that of France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, the United States, or most pointedly Scotland. All have had high death rates, found their test and trace systems overwhelmed, and struggled to gain acceptance for public health restrictions. These serious problems are common to almost all Western countries. An independent Scotland is just as likely to suffer from them.

What the SNP has been able to do has been to communicate stability (something that comes more naturally to Sturgeon than the bombastic Salmond). Unlike the Government in London, which has veered between seriousness and hope, Sturgeon has been consistently sober and gloomy. She has avoided overpromising on test and trace, and did not convert useful rapid antigen testing into a grossly over-the-top operation moonshot. This has allowed her to be perceived as far more competent despite having the same Western Standard Average performance in managing the disease.

There is, however, a useful lesson to be drawn from this. Projecting competence does not require achieving excellence. The public will react positively to a government that provides a realistic assessment of the difficulties faced. They understand that governing a country isn’t like pitching for investment in a start up, and would prefer a tolerably realistic assessment of the difficulties ahead then to endure an emotional rollercoaster of hopes raised only to be dashed.

This is not to rule out inspiration as a part of political rhetoric, but it is best for mobilising support for very long-term struggles, like the fight against climate change.

Scots go to the polls next May, and whether the SNP can get an overall majority at Holyrood will be a key test of their movement. Douglas Ross has an uphill battle to stop them, but reset towards realism from the Government could just convince wavering Scots that it’s safe to stay in.

Robert Halfon: Who’s up for a Southern Research Group?

18 Nov

Political fusion

Is it really true, as has been suggested over the past few days, that Conservatives can only appeal to either blue-collar voters or the professional classes – but not both?

Those who know me will not doubt my commitment that the Conservative Party should be the party for workers; indeed, I’ve written that about the Workers Party many times on this website.

But, my passion for the Workers Party does not mean that we cannot, nor should not, appeal to the public in cities, as well as towns – the Putneys as well as the Pudseys.

It seems to me there is confusion about so-called metropolitan views. Of course, there is left-of-centre “wokeist metropolitanism” – a school of thought that is unlikely to ever vote Conservative, whatever policies the Government come up with.

But, protecting the NHS, cutting taxes for lower earners, freezing fuel duty, boosting skills and apprenticeships, helping small businesses, offering affordable housing (such as the £12.2 billion investment announced recently by Robert Jenrick) and Help to Buy schemes are policies that transcend the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’ divide, as noted by David Goodhart.

Even measures on environmental issues, for example, can have widespread appeal, so long as they are not balanced on the backs of the poor (such as ever-increasing energy bills due to “green” taxes) and are focused on a cleaner, greener Britain (including cleaning up our beaches, tackling litter and safeguarding our forests and countryside). Those who are more sceptical about Brexit might be a bit more optimistic if they could see the reduction in VAT once we’re out of the transition period and we control our own VAT rates.

Similarly, Overseas Aid. At a time when our public services at home are financially strained, spending huge amounts on international development is extremely frustrating to many voters. However, it could be made more palatable if taxpayers money was used to fund thousands of British apprentices to work overseas in developing countries, or even to support our armed forces in some of their peacekeeping roles.

It is dangerous if we are perceived to be identifying solely with one group of citizens or class over another. If the Conservatives are truly the One Nation Party, the Government needs to find political fusion. Whilst, thanks to Boris Johnson, the Conservatives have a solid majority, to be diminished as we are in the great cities like London is neither healthy nor desirable for our party in the long run. Yes, absolutely a Workers Party…but a Workers Party that represents young professionals as much as white van men and women.

Please don’t forget the Southern side of the Blue Wall either

I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t read the words “Red Wall” in a national newspaper. Don’t get me wrong, I am as delighted as any Conservative by how we won so many seats in the North. All the more extraordinary given the long-standing Labour MPs that were deposed. I would, of course, prefer it if the media wrote about the “Blue Wall” rather than red.

But, my point is a different one. Both the Government and the media classes should not forget the Southern side of the ‘blue wall’ either. The politicos and the press seem to be under the illusion that the South is paved with gold; that there are no road, rail and infrastructure issues; that every pothole is magically filled, and that no one lives in poverty.

What about the deprivation and lower educational attainment in the Southern New Towns, coastal communities, inner cities, rural coldspots?

The Centre for Education and Youth’s 2019 report, ‘Breaking the Link? Attainment, poverty and rural schools’, found that in areas designated as “countryside living” – a vast proportion of the South West – the correlation between the proportion of pupils on Free School Meals and their attainment 8 scores was 0.58 – the highest of all types of local authority area. In other words, “rural schools have particular difficulty breaking the link between poverty and low pupil attainment”.

Seaside village Jaywick, in Essex, was named the most deprived area overall for the third time in a row in 2019. We also know, from the Social Market Foundation’s 2019 research, Falling off a cliff, that average employee annual pay in coastal communities was about £4,700 lower than in the rest of Britain in 2018. These areas also saw “much weaker economic growth since the financial crisis than other parts of the country” which will demand urgent Government attention as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Does the South not feature in policy making? Perhaps if there was a Southern side-of-the-wall Research Group, then these MPs might be invited to breakfast at Number 10 and policy meetings with Ministers.  Anyone for another MP Whatsapp group? Perhaps we have enough already.

As I wrote in the first section of this article, we must be careful not to ‘politic’ or govern in silos. We should not Balkanise the Tory Party. Conservatives must genuinely be a One Nation party for all our country – not just parts of it.

Home education

Given the name of this website, I suspect many readers are fully in favour of home education if that is what a parent decides. Although personally I think a child is better off at school – not just for daily education, activities, wellbeing and socialisation with other pupils, I also believe in a free society by which we support parents’ decisions about educating their child. Clearly, many parents who teach their children at home give them a wonderful education. However, this is not always the case across the board.

The Department for Education has a duty to ensure that every child has a proper education – that doesn’t stop just because the child is learning from home. There should be a national register or regular inspections to ensure that these pupils are getting the education they need for their futures. Perhaps, each home educated child could be linked to a nearby school for this purpose. These are all matters that my Education Select Committee is considering as we begin an inquiry into home education.

Rightly, schools are held accountable for the learning and environment they provide, whether that be through Ofsted, local councils, the regional school commissioners or the Department for Education (DfE).  So, too, must there be transparency and accountability for parents providing an education to their children at home. The DfE should have a national register of all home educated children and gather data to assess levels of attainment.

In a recent report on home education, the Local Government Association stated:

“Using evidence provided by councils, school leaders and parents, the LGA estimates that in 2018/19, 282,000 children in England may have missed out on formal full-time education – around 2 per cent of the school age population – but this figure could be as high as 1.14 million depending on how ‘formal’ and ‘full-time’ is defined…. gaps in the coordination of policies and guidance around pupil registration, attendance, admissions, exclusions and non-school education is allowing children to slip through the net, with children with additional vulnerabilities – such as social, behavioural, medical or mental health needs – most at risk of doing so.”

Whilst many parents educate their home educated children to the best of their ability, and with much success, there are too many children falling through the cracks. It is right that there are changes.

Andy Street: We must do more to save struggling town centres. Tackling business rates is a good place to start.

17 Nov

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Our traditional town centres and high streets have faced unprecedented challenges in recent times. First, our town centres were impacted by the drive towards out-of-town retail parks. Next, the rise of digital shopping impacted, as doorstep delivery hit footfall.

Then came Coronavirus, and restrictions that have brought town centres to a juddering halt. Now, in what retailers call the “Golden Quarter” – the critical run-up to Christmas – they are coping with another month-long closure.

Through the Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund, the Government is backing town centres, on top of the unprecedented support already shown for business throughout the pandemic. I believe that we must double down on this investment to secure the future of our high streets, but the challenge we face is also reliant on generating fresh ideas and local buy-in. It is not just about money – it is about how we spend it too.

While 2020 has brought unprecedented challenges, I firmly believe in the future of our towns and cities, and evidence suggests that many others do too.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many reconnected with their local high streets. In lockdown, many chose to return to traditional butchers and grocers rather than face supermarket queues. When volunteers mobilised to deliver food to the vulnerable, it was often the local convenience store that provided a base, looking out for their regular customers.

And, when restrictions relaxed, people wanted to reconnect with town centres. Here in the West Midlands, Halesowen Town Centre saw the biggest bounceback in trade of anywhere in the country. Despite all the challenges, towns like this have a future because we are fundamentally a social species. After so long apart, we want to return as soon as possible to culture, to sport, to conferences – social pursuits that are so often in town and city centres.

However, it’s clear that investment is needed. Why? Our high streets matter. They matter because they are the heart of local communities. They matter politically, as they provide a tangible, visible sign of economic success. The Government recognises this, through its Towns Fund investment programme, as it seeks to “level up” the economy and reach out to former “Red Wall”’ areas. But we must think afresh.

Before Covid struck, we drew up our West Midlands blueprint to revitalise local high streets, the ambitions of which are even more pertinent today.

The blueprint aims to encourage a more personal shopping experience – the type you can’t get from a phone screen – while bringing local services into town centres, broadening appeal beyond retail.

We want to encourage more urban living in our town centres, which should also be the natural place for public services. The blueprint also aims to make our town centres greener and cleaner – with more opportunities to cycle and walk – and safe and secure with good lighting, proactive policing and CCTV.

Above all, strong local leadership must drive these ambitions, to build the partnerships and attract the investment needed. A key part of that leadership is pushing for a fairer tax system that levels the playing field between high street and online retailers.

Taxation remains a real issue. If a swift bounceback is evading us next year, then exemptions will be vital – but we must also tackle the long-term problem of business rates. They are simply outdated and, given the financial challenge we now face, the often-suggested online sales tax looks even more attractive.

Investment is also key to repositioning our high streets. In the West Midlands, we are putting millions on the table to back our blueprint.

Schemes vary in size from our £95.5 million investment in the Coventry City Centre South scheme, which will transform the City’s future, to £5 million towards a transformation of Kingshurst, in Solihull, creating a new village centre with shops, medical and community facilities.

Sometimes, it’s about removing eyesores that have blighted places for decades. The demolition of the Cavendish House office block symbolises that the regeneration of Dudley Town Centre is no longer a hope – it’s happening, thanks to regional funding. In West Bromwich, we are pulling down the hideous Bull Street Car Park, reclaiming the site to build new homes in the town centre – bringing much-needed footfall to existing businesses.

We’ve backed opening hotels in Walsall Town Centre and the heart of Coventry, and even helped bring an old rival from my John Lewis days, Marks and Spencer, into Sheldon’s high street in Birmingham.

Targeted investments like these demonstrate a confidence in the future of communities, and we are determined to do more locally. However, I want these investments to be a pilot for securing hundreds of millions from the Government’s Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund. Across the region we have seen enthused communities, businesses and councils come together to work on their bids for this funding.

Perhaps the most ambitious of these is in the Black Country, where an energised Wolverhampton partnership is pitching for £48 million not just in the city centre, but crucially for high streets in Bilston and Wednesfield too. This funding would go alongside our own investment in the City’s future, like the £150 million new railway station and metro link which is nearing completion.

Elsewhere in the Black Country we have more towns in the running for game-changing investment – Brierley Hill, Bloxwich, Dudley, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Walsall and West Bromwich – each with their own distinct pitch.

A great example is Brierley Hill – a traditional town centre that was badly hit by the opening of the huge Merry Hill shopping centre in 1990. Now we have the chance to reconfigure the town centre to open it up and ensure that shoppers visiting big retailers like Asda can easily access the rest of the high street. The extension of the West Midlands Metro into Brierley Hill will link it to the wider region.

Communities around smaller suburban high streets are grasping the opportunities of the Future High Streets Fun too. Erdington, in Birmingham, has a brilliant scheme designed not only to boost retail but to make the best of their assets, by opening up the historic Churchyard area to provide better, high-quality open space. They also want to turn the boarded-up Victorian baths into a job-creating business hub.

Too often the debate over “levelling up” is reduced to North versus South. Here in the Midlands, where the Red Wall was first breached, we are engaging with the opportunities to bring investment into our communities that will drive tangible, visible improvements.

The Government is putting in money. But as we plot our way out of the pandemic, it must be ready to double down on this investment, while enthusing communities to play a part in revitalising the civic centres they so cherish.

Neil O’Brien: The plans we must make now to ensure that our ship doesn’t hit the rocks

16 Nov

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

I’ve been thinking about endurance. HMS Endurance specifically. It was a little ship the Royal Navy used to send down to the South Atlantic.

A friend used to serve on it, and I’m haunted by his description of life out on a tiny ship in some of the world’s roughest seas: the vast winds that endlessly circle Antarctica, with no land anywhere to slow them; the huge waves down in Drake Passage, with the green water coming over the bow and even hitting the bridge; and of wondering whether the ship would be broken by the sheer power of the ocean.

A bit after he was on it, the ship nearly sank following an accident. It filled up with freezing water, and with all power lost, amid a gathering storm, it started drifting towards the rocks. The crew spent 24 hours fighting for their lives: bailing out the ship by hand, and eventually escaped from a gathering hurricane in the nick of time. While the story of how they survived is an inspiring one – the account of the mistakes that were made that led to the accident in the first place is an informative one.

As so often with disasters, the warnings were all there: the wrong sort of ship; no proper maintenance; too many key staff absent; major problems with the culture…

As with so many disasters, in retrospect the warning signs were all there.

One of the great arts in politics is to see the problems and the big choices coming, so that you can solve them before the ship starts sinking. 2021 is shaping up to be a year where we make some very big choices that will define the coming years.

And I what I really want is readers’ views on what the big choices are. But let me start with my own mental list for later next year.

Let’s assume for a moment that we have come out of the other side of Coronavirus and Brexit. It’s 2021, the vaccine is rolling out, the virus is dying out, the economy is recovering. Still a long way to go, I know. But what will happen then? I think there are four really big choices:

First, the big fiscal choice. At present the focus is rightly on helping support the economy until we get into sustained recovery. But it seems likely there will be some kind of structural deficit afterwards, because the economy will be behind where we hoped it would be. We won’t know how big or small the deficit will be for quite a while. It may be small enough that we can take some time. Or so big that we can’t. So we may face some big choices on (a) how fast to try to close any gap, and (b) what mix of tax and spending decisions to use to fix it.

The second choice is our plan for growth. Western countries have had a rough decade, and some economists worry about “secular stagnation”. How do we get the economy moving faster? How can the tax system better support investment and innovation? How can we change the composition of government spending on research to better support business growth? How attract more inward investment in higher skill, higher tech, higher wage industries?

Third, we face big choices about the future of the UK. The Scottish Parliament elections on 6 May may herald a dramatic new phase in the debate. The bookies (though they’ve been wrong before) give the SNP a 95 per cent chance of being the largest party and a 66 per cent chance of an outright majority, either of which they would use to rev up their demands for another referendum. The breakup of Britain would lead to a decade or more of catastrophic paralysis. Years of arguments over currencies, pensions, debts, mortgages and state assets. Officials working to unpick hundreds of years worth of stitching. All parts of the UK would suffer economically, and it would make the Brexit rows of 2016-2019 look like a walk in the park. Yet even with the virus raging, the SNP are preparing to go into overdrive to force a second referendum. An equally strong campaign will be needed to fight back. How do we fight it?

The fourth big choice is about the levelling up agenda: and how far and how fast we can go. The lead times on getting things done can be daunting. For example: in 2014/15 we decided to phase out rubbish “pacer” trains in the north. But last won’t leave service in the north until next month. We need policies which will genuinely help poorer places catch up, but also need to show significant progress by 2024.

Then there’s all the other things.

Decisions to take about the future of devolution and local government in England, with a White Paper out in the spring.

There’s a second year of tough decisions to take on school exams. The Welsh government has already cancelled next year’s exams. Assuming we can still hold them in England, there are unavoidable choices on how to mark them. Given the disruption to schooling, mock results will likely be worse, but not evenly so across different types of schools – for example, the crisis has affected state and private schools very differently. So how do universities assess potential? And should we measure pupils against each other with the same distribution of grades as earlier years? Or maintain comparison with previous years, which would likely see grades drop across the board?

There’s a long-expected decision to take on universities. Do we keep the current system? Or build up technical education, and try to reduce the number of students on low value university courses which lead to low earnings while consuming lots of taxpayer subsidy?

At the start of November next year, the UK will host the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. There are big choices to make about how and how fast to pursue decarbonisation at home, and lots of questions about what the UK should be pushing for at the conference.

MPs voted for net zero, but massive questions about how to do it remain open. Are we aiming for heat for people’s homes to come from electricity in future, or by pumping hydrogen through the current gas grid? If more and more vehicles will be electric, what mix of (and how much) electricity production are we aiming for?

Then there’s big questions in foreign and security policy. The Integrated Review is due out, which (sensibly) combines the questions of our future defence and security spending with questions of economic security – given a world where we face ruthless technology competition, not least from China.

But there are other big security questions: France is suffering a wave of brutal Islamist terror attacks – is there more we need to do to pre-empt such atrocities here? The Prime Minister and President-Elect Joe Biden have both floated new ways to get the world’s democracies working together, including those like India and Japan that are outside NATO. Can something new be brought together?

These are just my starters for ten – so readers, it’s over to you. What are the biggest choices? What are the problems that we have to get ahead of to keep this ship afloat?

Iain Dale: Carrie Symonds is well placed to take a view on Tory communications. But she won’t want to become the story.

13 Nov

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

The knives are well and truly out for the Vote Leave contingent in Number Ten.

Lee Cain resigned in dramatic style on Wednesday night and, although he didn’t have the public profile of Alastair Campbell, Boris Johnson will feel his loss just as acutely as Tony Blair did when Campbell departed Number Ten.  Now it seems that Dominic Cummings will go in the New Year.

All Prime Ministers need trusted aides around them who act as their praetorian guards. Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell did that for Margaret Thatcher and were there until the bitter end.

Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, were let go as collateral damage after Theresa May barely won the 2017 election. Sacrificial lambs often have to be made, particularly when Conservative backbenchers are foaming at their collective mouth.

Cain never made his mark with them and, by all accounts, is quite an abrasive character. I haven’t had many dealings with him, but on the rare occasions I encountered him, I didn’t recognise the caricature I have read in the papers over the last couple of days.

He certainly wasn’t popular with all special advisers in departments – with one telling Times Radio‘s Tom Newton-Dunn: “Literally no one in here is mourning Lee this morning. A rude, needlessly abrasive, insecure clown with no brain for government, who crashed Boris’s comms into the ground before flouncing off in a huff without an apology”.

There will be few in the broadcast media who mourn his departure, given the number of programmes that he barred ministers from appearing on. I don’t think I was ever put on his banned list – although at times it felt like it, given the rarity of ministerial appearances on my show.

My point is: if Government ministers won’t appear on shows such mine to explain government policy, who do they think is going to do it for them? The Number Ten strategy seems to have been to try to go over the heads of the mainstream media. Well, good luck with that. It will be interesting to see how this changes in the next few months.

What sparked Cain’s resignation appears to have been the unwillingjness of the Prime Minister in the last resort to appoint him to the job of Chief of Staff. If we are to believe what we read in the newspapers ,this was predominantly because Carrie Symonds put her foot down.

Carrie is a communications professional herself, and can obviously see what the failures are in the Number Ten operation. She feels that the Prime Minister is being let down by the bad advice he has been receiving – not just from Cain, but others too.

Some think that Johnson’s consort should keep her views to herself, and be seen and not heard. Others believe that, given her knowledge of the personalities involved and understanding of the world of communications, she is entirely right to be giving him advice.

What she needs to avoid, though, is for her to become the media story. The last thing the Prime Minister needs at the moment is a succession of newspaper stories about how it is she who wields the real power in Number Ten.

– – – – – – – – – –

Extinction Rebellion continued their decline and descent into the political gutter on Wednesday, when they decided to hijack the Cenotaph.

What an absolute shower of an organisation they have become. Sarah Vine described them as “bellends” on Twitter, and it’s hard to disagree with her.

When they burst onto the scene several years ago they made a real impact on the debate on climate change. They genuinely seemed to want to engage in a debate, and raised awareness of the issue in constructive ways. Even their protests seemed different.

They were then taken over by the usual kind of radicals who infest protest organisation and, instead of gaining widespread support, their protests began to attract horror and ridicule in equal measure. The digging up of the lawns at Trinity College and the occupation of a Docklands Light Railway Train were particular lowlights.

In the immortal words of Gavin Williamson, they should just shut up and go away. They’re now doing more harm to their cause than good.

– – – – – – – – – –

Yesterday was publication day for my new book The Prime Ministers: 300 years of history.

It tells the story of each of the 55 people who have held the office since 1721. In a moment of madness, I decided to try to rank them in a list from best to worst. It was a fool’s errand in many ways, given it’s practically impossible to compare a Prime Minister from the 18th century to one in the 21st. The challenges and modus operandi could not be more different. Anyway, with the help of the 55 contributors to the book, I had a go. And here’s the top ten

Henry Hill: Sturgeon’s timeline on Salmond scandal called into question as MSPs demand evidence

12 Nov

SNP timeline on Salmond grows ‘murkier’ as MSPs demand legal advice

Two weeks ago, this column had a section entitled “SNP woes deepen again”, the latest in what is becoming a regular feature on the growing laundry list of problems besetting the Scottish Government (not that you’d know it from the polls).

At the top of quite a long list of new challenges was a call by Alex Salmond for the ongoing inquiry into the handling of allegations against him by the SNP administration should be ‘broadened’ to look at “whether the First Minister would be investigated for potentially misleading parliament and failing to act on legal advice”.

It’s been a little while since we last had a proper look at how this row is developing, but this week saw a couple of important developments as the former First Minister, and opposition MSPs, continue to pick through the Nationalists’ story.

The first, reported here in the Courier, is that Nicola Sturgeon appeared to write to her most senior civil servant to confirm that the Scottish Government’s new harassment policy would apply to former ministers only two days after a meeting between her principal private secretary and one of the women who made allegations against Salmond.

As the paper notes, the timing of these events will only encourage those who accuse Sturgeon of being out to get her predecessors. This group certainly includes the man himself and his supporters, but opposition MSPs have also suggested that the two events “appeared to have been co-ordinated”.

Meanwhile Sturgeon has also been trying to claim that she has forgotten the details of a ‘bombshell’ meeting at which she first learned of the allegations against her predecessor. Jackie Baillie, a Labour MSP, attacked her administration’s “pervasive culture of secrecy” after it provided the same “no information” answer to five separate questions about the incident.

The SNP suffered another setback when they were ordered by the Scottish Parliament to hand over the legal advice it received during its ‘doomed’ legal battle with Salmond, according to the Herald. The defeat led to the current Holyrood inquiry after the former First Minister mounted a successful legal challenge to the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against him, accusing it of bias. His victory cost the taxpayer over £500,000.

Now MSPs have apparently given ministers a Friday deadline to hand over the documents. Writing in the Scotsman, Murdo Fraser suggests that the “only reason for the Scottish Government not to publish legal advice is if they have something to hide”.

Yet typically, the SNP’s woes were not confined to this single front. It is reportedly refusing to reveal the final destination of cash the party raised through an ill-judged sale of branded anti-Covid masks, which was promised to charity.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Sun reports that the Scottish Government’s test-and-trace system “is performing up to five times worse than previously claimed”. According to a ‘bombshell report’: “Staff at the virus defence scheme failed to contact around half of recent positive cases within 24 hours of being told of their swab results, revised official stats reveal.”

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, has attacked the SNP for “peddling wildly inaccurate data”. This is a key issue for the Tories because the Nationalists’ perceived competence in handling the Covid-19 crisis is one of the big drivers fuelling support for separation in the polls.

Elsewhere on that front, Alister Jack appears to have hardened the Government’s opposition to a second independence referendum by reiterating once again its “once in a generation” argument (more robust arguments are available) whilst Sir John Major suggested offering the SNP a two-vote plebiscite instead.

Loyalist protests anticipated against backdrop of Stormont’s ‘rank incompetence’

The police are reportedly ‘actively’ monitoring loyalist groups in the expectation of organised protests against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. Activists may ‘descend’ on ports to oppose the new Irish Sea border the Prime Minister signed up to when he capitulated on the Irish Protocol.

Unionist opinion is rapidly hardening against the deal, which sees sweeping new checks imposed on commerce between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, as the scale of the impact becomes clear. Owen Polley provides an overview at CapX, but the most visible symbol of unease is the joint letter from Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, and Michelle O’Neill to the European Union urging it not to impose checks which risk severely restricting Ulster’s food supplies.

Advocates of the Irish Protocol insisted on a sea border over a land border because the latter was easier to police. But this failed to factor in that the volume of trade between the Province and the mainland vastly exceeds that with either the Republic or the rest of the European Union, so any checks there would affect a much greater slice of Northern Irish economic life.

It is also notable that nobody is suggesting that loyalist protests against a sea border render it a breach of the Belfast Agreement, despite the prospect of republican anger at landward checks being taken as evidence of such – another sign of the Government’s hapless failure to develop its own interpretation of the treaty.

One concession ministers did secure was the right of Stormont to set aside the Protocol. Obviously neither Brussels nor Dublin expected it to do so, now that unionists have lost their majority – but a unionism with fight left in it would recognise that protecting east-west commerce could be grounds on which such a campaign could be won.

Yet such a campaign seems a long way off with the DUP, unionism’s pre-eminent party, deeply embroiled in an entirely dysfunctional Stormont system. This week the News Letter has run some truly excoriating reporting on the “rank incompetence” of the Executive, a DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly.

Over the years since this column started, we have covered several attempts to establish new forces in Northern Irish unionism, focused less on little-Ulster rent seeking. In these stories one can see the space where such a party, running against the Protocol and the Stormont system, could make headway. But it remains nowhere to be seen.