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

12 Nov

Stephen Booth is a policy analyst and political commentator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Hannan: It’s time to explode the myth of Trump and his unique appeal

11 Nov

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

Has Donald Trump permanently transformed his party? Has the old GOP – the party of limited government, low spending, free trade and constitutional rectitude – metamorphosed into something altogether more nativist, protectionist and autocratic? Will the next Republican presidential nominee inescapably be a Trumpster – or, indeed, an actual Trump?

Hmm. As T.S. Eliot nearly wrote: “Gentile or Jew / O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Corbyn, who was once handsome and tall as you.”

Consider Corbyn. He, too, was said definitively to have refashioned his party. His eventual successor, we kept being told, would be chosen by the same Momentum-heavy electorate that had picked him. Communism was back, baby.

Yet here we are, less than a year on from his defeat, and Labour has swung so convincingly back to the mainstream that the Absolute Boy could be suspended with barely a ripple.

Trump and Corbyn have more in common than partisans of either man admit: outsiders who seized their parties by appealing to the base, but who never overcame the suspicion of their elected representatives; agitators who were more comfortable addressing rallies than working within democratic institutions; radicals who promised to bring down the old system; economic nostalgics who wanted to bring back manufacturing; political loners who were followed on their own account.

Might the GOP dump Trump as unsentimentally as Labour dumped Corbyn? Possibly. But there is a difference between what the two men stood for. Corbynism, although it had individually popular elements, was a fringe creed. Trumpery, by contrast – and I’m defining it loosely here as a combination of patriotism and economic activism with a dash of Führerprizip – has a certain appeal. Leaning Left on economics but Right on social and cultural issues is usually a vote-winner.

Most GOP Congressmen are uneasily aware that classical liberalism and strict constitutionalism have only limited appeal among their supporters. Almost every elected Republican I have spoken since the poll believes that Donald Trump lost, that his refusal to concede is petulant, and that his behaviour threatens their hopes of winning next month’s Senate elections in Georgia and thus keeping control of the chamber. But they won’t say so.

Why not? For fear of their base. Voice even the mildest criticism of Trump and his supporters will piranha-shoal around you in a frenzy (something else he has in common with Corbyn). I decided to test the premise while writing this article. Choosing my words carefully, so as not to be unduly provocative, I experimentally tweeted the following: “my hunch is that quite a few elected Republicans believe that Trump is behaving disgracefully, but won’t say so for fear of their audience.”

As expected, I immediately attracted 500 furious comments and lost a similar number of followers. But I have no real skin in the game: I am not an American politician. Perhaps we should feel some sympathy for those with actual votes to lose.

Still, Republican Congressmen and Senators cannot keep shtum forever. In the end, it is up to them to determine whether Trump will be an aberration, Corbyn-like, or whether the party of Reagan has gone forever.

Yes, Trump did some things that mainstream conservatives liked: cutting taxes, lifting regulations, appointing judges who ruled on the basis of what the law said rather than what they felt it ought to say.

But these are precisely the areas where he took little personal interest, and was content to leave the details to those swampy establishment Republicans he was so rude about. In exchange, traditional conservatives were astonishingly forgiving about every other aspect of his presidency. Foreign policy hawks overlooked his submissiveness before Vladimir Putin. Evangelical Christians ignored his lies and adulteries. Tea partiers did not protest when, pre-Covid, the deficit went above a trillion dollars.

With each passing month, the GOP attracted Trumpier representatives – for example, Josh Hawley elected to the Senate from Missouri two years ago, who blames what he calls “market worship,” for “the collapse of community.” At the same time, established figures, such as Florida’s Marco Rubio, began to shift their positions, dropping their former optimism and raging against the offshoring of jobs. The Coronavirus will almost certainly accelerate these authoritarian and anti-market tendencies: crises of this kind always do.

Yet the fundamental premise of Trumpism, namely that globalisation is bad for ordinary people, is false. Nothing has done more to boost the living standards of people on low incomes than the reduction in the cost of living brought about by the removal of trade barriers. Reagan knew how to win that argument. Who will make it today?

Let’s not fall for the idea, often asserted but never substantiated, that Trump has a unique capacity to reach blue-collar voters. This legend was born in 2016, as shell-shocked pundits scrabbled to explain why they had been wrong.

But it is impossible to reconcile with the way Trump was outpolled by down-ballot Republican candidates. This was clearest in the Senate races, where the electorates were exactly congruent. Trump did worse than Republican Senate candidates in almost all the swing states: Georgia, Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. He was five points behind John McCain in Arizona, three points behind Marco Rubio in Florida and nine points behind Chuck Grassley in Iowa. Although we must wait for the final tally to be sure, early indications are that something similar happened last week.

The myth of Trump and his unique appeal to callused Pennsylvania steel-workers or stump-toothed Appalachian mountain-men or whatever is so widespread that it is hard to prise away. But there is a more plausible narrative. In 2016, it was the Democrats’ turn to lose, and they picked an unpopular candidate. Despite her disqualifications, she still won a plurality of the vote against a Republican who was less popular than his party. Four years on, with a mildly more appealing candidate, the Democrats scraped over the line.

If that analysis is right, it is good news for traditional small-government Republicans. But only if they man up and do something about it.

Daniel Hannan: It’s time to explode the myth of Trump and his unique appeal

11 Nov

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

Has Donald Trump permanently transformed his party? Has the old GOP – the party of limited government, low spending, free trade and constitutional rectitude – metamorphosed into something altogether more nativist, protectionist and autocratic? Will the next Republican presidential nominee inescapably be a Trumpster – or, indeed, an actual Trump?

Hmm. As T.S. Eliot nearly wrote: “Gentile or Jew / O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Corbyn, who was once handsome and tall as you.”

Consider Corbyn. He, too, was said definitively to have refashioned his party. His eventual successor, we kept being told, would be chosen by the same Momentum-heavy electorate that had picked him. Communism was back, baby.

Yet here we are, less than a year on from his defeat, and Labour has swung so convincingly back to the mainstream that the Absolute Boy could be suspended with barely a ripple.

Trump and Corbyn have more in common than partisans of either man admit: outsiders who seized their parties by appealing to the base, but who never overcame the suspicion of their elected representatives; agitators who were more comfortable addressing rallies than working within democratic institutions; radicals who promised to bring down the old system; economic nostalgics who wanted to bring back manufacturing; political loners who were followed on their own account.

Might the GOP dump Trump as unsentimentally as Labour dumped Corbyn? Possibly. But there is a difference between what the two men stood for. Corbynism, although it had individually popular elements, was a fringe creed. Trumpery, by contrast – and I’m defining it loosely here as a combination of patriotism and economic activism with a dash of Führerprizip – has a certain appeal. Leaning Left on economics but Right on social and cultural issues is usually a vote-winner.

Most GOP Congressmen are uneasily aware that classical liberalism and strict constitutionalism have only limited appeal among their supporters. Almost every elected Republican I have spoken since the poll believes that Donald Trump lost, that his refusal to concede is petulant, and that his behaviour threatens their hopes of winning next month’s Senate elections in Georgia and thus keeping control of the chamber. But they won’t say so.

Why not? For fear of their base. Voice even the mildest criticism of Trump and his supporters will piranha-shoal around you in a frenzy (something else he has in common with Corbyn). I decided to test the premise while writing this article. Choosing my words carefully, so as not to be unduly provocative, I experimentally tweeted the following: “my hunch is that quite a few elected Republicans believe that Trump is behaving disgracefully, but won’t say so for fear of their audience.”

As expected, I immediately attracted 500 furious comments and lost a similar number of followers. But I have no real skin in the game: I am not an American politician. Perhaps we should feel some sympathy for those with actual votes to lose.

Still, Republican Congressmen and Senators cannot keep shtum forever. In the end, it is up to them to determine whether Trump will be an aberration, Corbyn-like, or whether the party of Reagan has gone forever.

Yes, Trump did some things that mainstream conservatives liked: cutting taxes, lifting regulations, appointing judges who ruled on the basis of what the law said rather than what they felt it ought to say.

But these are precisely the areas where he took little personal interest, and was content to leave the details to those swampy establishment Republicans he was so rude about. In exchange, traditional conservatives were astonishingly forgiving about every other aspect of his presidency. Foreign policy hawks overlooked his submissiveness before Vladimir Putin. Evangelical Christians ignored his lies and adulteries. Tea partiers did not protest when, pre-Covid, the deficit went above a trillion dollars.

With each passing month, the GOP attracted Trumpier representatives – for example, Josh Hawley elected to the Senate from Missouri two years ago, who blames what he calls “market worship,” for “the collapse of community.” At the same time, established figures, such as Florida’s Marco Rubio, began to shift their positions, dropping their former optimism and raging against the offshoring of jobs. The Coronavirus will almost certainly accelerate these authoritarian and anti-market tendencies: crises of this kind always do.

Yet the fundamental premise of Trumpism, namely that globalisation is bad for ordinary people, is false. Nothing has done more to boost the living standards of people on low incomes than the reduction in the cost of living brought about by the removal of trade barriers. Reagan knew how to win that argument. Who will make it today?

Let’s not fall for the idea, often asserted but never substantiated, that Trump has a unique capacity to reach blue-collar voters. This legend was born in 2016, as shell-shocked pundits scrabbled to explain why they had been wrong.

But it is impossible to reconcile with the way Trump was outpolled by down-ballot Republican candidates. This was clearest in the Senate races, where the electorates were exactly congruent. Trump did worse than Republican Senate candidates in almost all the swing states: Georgia, Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. He was five points behind John McCain in Arizona, three points behind Marco Rubio in Florida and nine points behind Chuck Grassley in Iowa. Although we must wait for the final tally to be sure, early indications are that something similar happened last week.

The myth of Trump and his unique appeal to callused Pennsylvania steel-workers or stump-toothed Appalachian mountain-men or whatever is so widespread that it is hard to prise away. But there is a more plausible narrative. In 2016, it was the Democrats’ turn to lose, and they picked an unpopular candidate. Despite her disqualifications, she still won a plurality of the vote against a Republican who was less popular than his party. Four years on, with a mildly more appealing candidate, the Democrats scraped over the line.

If that analysis is right, it is good news for traditional small-government Republicans. But only if they man up and do something about it.

James Frayne: Perhaps the Conservatives should simply revert to being southern and posh

10 Nov

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

In my twenties, I took a serious interest in US politics and campaigns, naively coming to think of the UK and US as culturally similar. It’s an easy mistake: a shared history; mutual respect for each other’s institutions; similar attitudes to the free market, individual rights and the rule of law; overlapping tastes in popular culture.

But it’s a mistake nonetheless. When I lived and worked in Washington DC and New York City for a couple of years – theoretically culturally familiar places – I came to realise how utterly foreign the US is. While I love the US and believe they’re our closest ally, I’m culturally European. I’m now firmly of the view those people seeking to apply political and electoral lessons from the US to the UK are usually wasting their time.

As Nick Timothy pointed out yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, the idea that Boris Johnson’s conservatism is damaged by Donald Trump’s defeat is ludicrous – the two are cut from different cloth, despite persistent but silly commentary linking “Brexit and Trump”.

So I stress: those looking to learn lessons from the US are mostly wasting their time. But one important consideration does arise for British Conservatives.

This is the electoral danger of letting down the new working class voters who have flocked to Trump’s GOP and the Conservative Party respectively.

In the US, these voters are often called Reagan Democrats or sometimes Springsteen Democrats; in the UK, we tend to call them the “traditional working class”; either way, they’re the working class of industrial and post industrial areas. While their similarities stretch only so far, given the differing nature of British and American labour markets and industrial history, the theme of working class disappointment is relevant.

We shouldn’t over-simplify: there were many reasons why Trump won in 2016; aggressive cultural conservatism was only one of them. But Trump partly carried so-called “rust-belt” states by promising to bring back long-lost manufacturing jobs and heavy industry. In short, he pledged to bring back dignity to hard-up places. The fact that this hasn’t happened – despite a surge in the national economy – dented his re-election chances.

A reality check: it doesn’t appear that Joe Biden truly surged amongst working class voters, nor did Trump collapse. But they do appear to have shifted markedly away from him. Given his narrow lead amongst the working class – and indeed his narrow lead in rust-belt states, full stop – this shift was enough to cause serious electoral problems.

British Conservatives face a similar problem. No, they didn’t make the same sorts of promises to the traditional working class in 2019; they didn’t promise the equivalent of, say, bringing back coal and steel to the North of England.

But while “getting Brexit done” was the most important part of their campaign last December, “levelling up” has become the party’s central public narrative (Covid aside) ever since; it runs through almost all of their policy communications. Their promises to the working class are far less outlandish than Trump’s, but they’re arguably more defined by their promises because they’ve talked of little else.

Trump’s winning coalition was large, but it was shallow, because of its reliance on new voters with no history of voting Republican. The same is true here. The Conservatives’ 80 seat majority looks massive, but it’s also precarious because again it’s built on new voters with few loyalties.

While working class people will cut the Conservatives slack because of Covid, they’ll soon be asking what progress the Government has made for them. They will certainly not accept the opposite of “levelling up” – the further decline of their towns and cities (which is already happening).

Just like those long-term Democrats who asked whether shifting their votes to their historical economic and moral opponents was worth it after all, so those traditional working class Labour voters from the Midlands, North and the Coast will pose the same sort of question. They’ll ask whether the Conservatives were all talk. And as I’ve written before, Keir Starmer is a very different proposition for the working class than Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s reported today that Rishi Sunak has promised Northern MPs more resources and more attention in the post-Covid period, largely, apparently, in the form of new infrastructure spending. This is welcome. (Though what about other areas – not least the Midlands and the coast?)

But time isn’t on their side, and the task is huge. Unless they can offer meaningful social and economic progress in such places as Walsall, Wolverhampton, Derby, Rotherham and Oldham, they will be out. Yes, they’ll be able to blame Covid-19 – but so what?

In fact, such little progress is being made, with time rapidly running out, it will soon be time to consider whether the Conservatives should junk their presumed working class strategy and focus once again on the affluent South. And it’s possible that the party should indeed take the easy route, follow its heart, and go back to being Southern and posh; yes, I’m serious.

Where should the Conservatives focus? Infrastructure matters. Ultimately, however, improving the economy outside the prosperous South East will require radically improving education and skills at all levels – seeking to build new businesses and industries from this new base of skilled workers. But you’re talking of two or three Parliaments to see the fruits of any such decisions made now. The Conservatives don’t have that luxury.

Rapid progress will depend on being able to show town centres – and specifically high streets – have improved. This doesn’t just mean defending commerce; it means making town centres safer and more attractive and, crucially, fostering local pride. The Party should be throwing itself into this task. A useful immediate start to focus minds: use all those screens in the Cabinet Office to display figures from a Towns Dashboard.

Radical: It’s time the Women and Equalities Committee was replaced

10 Nov

Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical.  She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.

We need to talk about the Women and Equalities Committee. Just take its name, for a start! The ‘women’ part incites ire both from those who find it patronising (“we’re 50 per cent of the population!”), and those who find it exclusionary (“what about men?”, “what about trans men?”, “why isn’t there a BAME committee, then?”). Whereas the ‘equalities’ part is symptomatic of the confused nature of state discussion of such matters: why the plural? If ‘equality’ is good enough for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Equality Act…

Parliament.uk lists 133 current parliamentary committees, the members of which are MPs and Lords (some only have MPs, some only Lords, and some both). Some are ‘general committees’ (focused on scrutinising legislation), some are ‘select committees’ (focused on the work of particular government departments, etc), and three are ‘grand committees’ (focused on devolved matters). Unsurprisingly, these committees cover a vast range of topics — from Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, to Fire Safety, to Pensions. 

The Women and Equalities Committee (WESC) is a select committee, set up in 2015 to scrutinise the work of the Government Equalities Office, on the recommendation of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in Parliament. It’s worth noting the involvement of this APPG. After all, the GEO focuses on many other ‘equalities issues’ aside from women; sex is only one of the Equality Act’s ‘protected characteristics’. Anyway, on this approach, aren’t women included in ‘equalities’, already? Isn’t the WESC a bit like a Mars Bars and Chocolate Bars Committee?

There’s more to be said about the foregrounding of the term ‘women’, here. But, beyond specific frustration at perceived condescension or exclusion, there’s a longstanding general debate about the state’s involvement in such matters. This ranges from the claim that the state does nowhere near enough to further the life chances of people from oppressed groups, to the claim that the state shouldn’t be involved in these matters at all. Many argue, for instance, that such involvement can be divisive and counterproductive, and represents serious overreach. And that seems a convincing argument to us at Radical, with regards to matters such as state-enforced positive discrimination. 

However, it also seems clear that there are certain such matters that do require state involvement. Indeed, in writing this regular column, we hope to remind Conservatives of this, in relation to the way in which, so often, the interests of women have been forsaken amidst the gender-identity lobby’s capture of our institutions.

Beyond this, however, it’s hopefully uncontroversial to emphasise, for instance, that it’s good and right that FGM is illegal, as it has been under UK law since 1985. And also that the state should do a much better job of enforcing this, to protect girls from these mutilations. Then, there’s the decades-long failure of UK institutions, including police forces, to stop large-scale sexual abuse in towns including Rotherham and Rochdale. The state is involved in these matters, and its actions — for good or bad — must be scrutinised.

Again, maybe you believe the state has no role to play in proactively addressing what are typically seen as hot ’equalities’ topics — such as mandating pay gap reporting, or quotas on boards. And those particular policy approaches run very much against our beliefs.

But hopefully you’d agree that equality itself is a crucial societal value, relating to our basic rights as human beings and as consenting members of a shared political society. And that situations in which members of certain sets of people are treated as if they are lacking the fundamental equal status that we all share, can be a matter for the state. And that this can move beyond instances of direct harm. For instance, policy issues like prisoner voting, and asylum seekers’ right to work, relate to equality in this sense.

But does the WESC spend its time addressing these kinds of matters? Is it a champion of girls’ safety? Are its members engaged in considering fundamental questions of equality? Do they work hard to defend their existence by engaging with underlying debates about the role of the state, and which kinds of state intervention can be justified?

Well, if the WESC has made any impact at all, it’s been solely on the question of gender self-ID. Perhaps it was inevitable that a committee with its remit would be susceptible to capture by gender-identity interest groups like Stonewall. It stands to reason that sceptics of the equalities agenda would avoid engaging with such a committee, while lobbyists for each protected characteristic under the Equality Act would see it as a political platform for their cause. And, as the most vocal identity-related cause of recent years has been that of transgender people, the most high-profile inquiry of the WESC was on transgender equality. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that, only weeks after Liz Truss published the government’s response to its long-running consultation on self-ID, the WESC felt the need to re-litigate the matter, opening its own, second inquiry into reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

This is neither to say that the interests of transgender people are unimportant, nor that the WESC has not produced interesting publications. Its 2016 report on sexual harassment and violence in schools made for sobering reading. Indeed, you might have thought WESC members would’ve reflected again on their earlier findings on the ease with which people should be able to change their legal sex. Their 2016 conclusions included not only the importance of accurate data — currently under serious threat following the capture of the census ‘sex question’.

But also the urgent need to ‘engage with men and boys’ on matters of sexual violence: ‘the focus in [Sex and Relationships Education] has been often based on girls changing their behaviour, rather than addressing the culture that leads some boys and young men to sexually harass and abuse girls and young women’. We hope the WESC pays more attention to such matters in their new inquiry, and recognises that effectively denying the existence of biological sex is not an option for a state institution.

Or maybe we should hope for something else. The WESC has shown itself to have been captured by a single-issue political campaign, and as such is clearly incapable of properly holding the state to account on the important matters within its remit.

The WESC has even shown itself incapable of advocating for the one group specifically named in its title — women — and has focused instead on privileging the interests, at all costs, of people identifying as transgender. Perhaps, therefore, parliament should bring the WESC to an end? Perhaps it should be replaced with a committee charged with scrutinising the way in which the state upholds the equally-held freedoms and rights of all, rather than viewing these matters through the contested post-modern lens of identity politics?

We therefore call on MPs to halt the WESC’s waste of taxpayer-funded state resources, and propose it should be replaced by a Civil Rights and Freedoms Committee, at the earliest opportunity. Focused on questions of equality before the law, instead of the grouping of people by particular identities, this committee could tackle everything from the privileges of citizenship, to the question of economic ‘levelling up’, to the risks of government by decree in the age of Covid-19. These are matters related to the fundamental values of equality and liberty, which can be approached by conservatives and progressives in common cause, without conceding to identity politics at the outset. 

Richard Holden: The age at which National Lottery games can be played should be raised to 18

9 Nov

Castleside Old Church Yard, Consett, County Durham

For me as a new Member of Parliament, my first Remembrance Sunday is certainly not a day that I’ll ever forget.

The knowledge that there’s a strong possibility that, at some point, I may be called upon to vote about sending British troops into conflict becomes very real when you see names carved in stone or cast in bronze above where you lay your wreath to remember the fallen on behalf of your constituents.

War or no war is clearly the biggest decision that a state can make. For MPs though, decisions and votes in Parliament extend to everything between these momentous calls to voting on much more every-day matters – and everything between. It is a responsibility that no MP I know, from any party, takes lightly.

The Conservative Manifesto I was elected on touched on many areas, but one of those somewhere between war and the mundane was a pledge that, if elected, we would launch a review of the regulation of gambling laws.

Back in July, James Wild and I led the Public Accounts Committee investigation into the role of the Gambling Commission, the industry regulator and did a joint piece for ConservativeHome on our thoughts then.

Since that point, things have moved at pace. The House of Lords has done a superb and wide-ranging report into all aspects of gambling – and has now signed up 150 peers to champion it from across the House.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Gambling Related Harm has launched its own report hitting at many areas of concern, including advertising and sport.

And our Public Accounts Committee report has been published and been responded to (generally favourably) by the Government. These moves, alongside increasing interest from the media and, rumour has it, a will from inside Government point to a review into the regulation of gambling, which, when it comes, will be wide-ranging, which is very welcome.

Like many readers, my desire to go out and about and meet friends has been dramatically curtailed by the latest national restrictions and I have found myself, late of an evening in front of the TV much more than I normally would.

The preponderance of gambling adverts has really struck me and, as I’ve flicked between channels and, ahead of the wide-ranging review, I have become more convinced that swift action is necessary, and think there is one move that the Government should make before others. This is to tackle under-18 gambling.

One of the biggest loopholes – and easiest to close – it appears to me is the ‘Lottery Loophole’. This was re-enforced to me this week in an APPG evidence session from the National Lottery.

Currently, lotteries are regulated differently to other aspects of the gambling market because, traditionally, they’ve been very different beasts. Small stakes, long-odds, and a time delay of days between the bet and the result. However, I’m afraid things have changed a lot since the launch of the weekly draw in 1994.

It could be you! was the lottery’s slogan then. Most people remember paying £1 for a pink piece of paper that got put in a wallet, purse, drawer or pocket and then was madly searched for when it was headline news that someone hadn’t claimed the jackpot.

And back in 1994, the weekly draw lottery had an age limit of 16. It has clearly raised vast fortunes for various good causes, and ensured a healthy profit for its operator throughout, Camelot. Since then, however, things have changed dramatically.

The advent of instant win games has not just turned up the dial, it has flipped the lottery into becoming a different beast altogether. First, scratchcards and now instant win online games have moved the dial far from the ‘bit of fun’ to more than a bit of a problem. Together, scratchcards and online instant win now make up almost as much in revenue terms as the four weekly (two lottery and two Euromillions) draws combined.

The Lottery tried to skirt around the subject, but scratchcards and online instant win are fixed odds gambling. And for clarity, the term instant win is clearly a misnomer as, with returns of c.50 per cent, even if you do win, keep playing and it’s essentially instant loss.

The Lottery says that it has very small numbers of 16 and 17-year-old players, but the truth is that they really don’t know, because there is no real age breakdown from retail sales of scratchcards. More important still is that all Lottery players, of whatever age, are able to spend £350 a week online.

It seems clear to me that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds (who we now require to be in education at least part time until they’re 18) to lose £350/week in fixed odds online gambling – and obviously unlimited sums in retailers – is madness. We’ve raised the age at which you do everything from buy cigarettes to the age at which you can serve on the front line to 18, and therefore it appears perverse that we allow the spending of such large amounts by 16 and 17-year-olds.

Given that the Lottery doesn’t seem to understand that continuing to allow this is seriously tarnishing its brand and its reputation as “a bit of fun that raises cash for good causes”, and is unwilling to call for it’s licence to be changed itself, it’s time for MPs to act to save the good from the bad.

The Government has already had a call for evidence on under-18 gambling and we’re awaiting it to publish its plans. Without needing to be part of the broader review of gambling, I believe that the case is clear for raising the age at which you can play National Lottery games to 18. Ahead of launching the review, it’s time for the Government to crack-on with measures that crack-down on this sort of instant-loss gambling which exposes young people to the potential of losing hundreds of pounds a week.

“When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do?” – as has been said. Well, facts about the Lottery have changed substantially since it came into being more than a quarter of a century ago. Instant win and online has replaced the sedate once-weekly draw.

The Lottery’s defence is that this all means more cash for good causes but where – or more specifically who – you’re getting that cash from really does matter. I don’t think it should be from the pockets of 16 and 17-year-olds gambling up to £350 a week on instant win games.

This quick and relatively easy change to the licence of the Lottery could happen within a matter of weeks. It has already got plans in place if it does. All it needs now is for the Government to act to protect under-18s from potentially serious gambling harm. This is one decision I think the Government can be guaranteed overwhelming support for and one I’m very happy to help them make.

David Gauke: If Johnson goes for a Brexit trade deal, as he should, he should also go for a further implementation period.

7 Nov

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

It is time to talk about Brexit again.

Understandably, the country’s attention has been focused upon the second wave of Covid-19 and the Government’s response to it. And in the past few days, many of us have welcomed the chance to change the subject and follow every twist and turn of the US Presidential election. But it is all too easy to miss the fact that the next week will be one of the most important in the protracted saga of the UK’s departure from the European Union. Just this afternoon, the Prime Minister is speaking to the President of the EU Commission.

We are so used to deadlines whooshing past with little or no practical consequence, there is a temptation to be complacent about the EU’s position that, for a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU to be ratified in time to take effect by the end of the transitional period, such agreement would need to be concluded by 15 November. After all, the Prime Minister has previously said that talks would need to conclude by 15 October in order to reach a deal and – save for a brief and rather unconvincing walk-out – the parties carried on talking.

This time, however, the difficulty is that we are not dealing with a deadline imposed for political reasons in order to focus the minds. We are now at the stage of running out of time to go through all the practical hurdles to ratify any agreement amongst member states and the European Parliament.

The stand-off remains as it has been for months. The two sides remain some way apart of the level playing field provisions, particularly on state aid, and how any agreement is enforced. In addition, the economically irrelevant issue of fish continues to be contentious.

Progress has been made on many of the technical issues, but on these fundamental points the talks have stalled. Both sides have given some ground, but will have to move further. And the side that is going to have to move the furthest will have to be the UK. If Boris Johnson wants a deal, at the very least he will have to accept something which recent leaders of the Conservative Party would consider to be desirable regardless of the EU implications – a robust and independent state aid regime.

I do not know whether the Prime Minister will decide to go for a deal. As far as I can see, it is not clear that he knows himself. Making decisions is not always a strong point for Johnson, and he made one big difficult decision a few days ago by re-imposing a lockdown. Now he has to make another.

At one level, the decision should be straightforward. The right to waste public money by subsidising loss-making businesses has never been a demand of most Eurosceptics, save for a few Bennites, and was a non-issue in the 2016 referendum campaign. (Johnson has praised the EU on this point.) He went to the country in 2019 promising he had a deal: failing to conclude an FTA looks like a failure of competence and a breach of trust. An already fragile economy will suffer a further blow.

However, it has been reported that the Prime Minister is ‘emotionally drawn’ towards a WTO Brexit. Why might that be? It is possible that he believes that any constraint on decision is an unacceptable suppression of sovereignty, but that suggests a purity of view that would make a free trade agreement with anyone impossible.

The politics and the Prime Minister’s perceptions of his own self-interest may tempt him to turn down a deal. Nigel Farage is relaunching himself (again) and is ready to cry betrayal (again) which will panic plenty of Conservative MPs (again). Johnson will also be aware that he has taken on many of his Parliamentary colleagues over the Government’s response to Covid-19 – he might not want to take on many of the same people on a second issue. And – a point I made back in February  – even a deal will cause economic disruption. If the Prime Minister agrees to a deal in the next few days, he will have to proclaim a triumph, but also explain to businesses that time is running out to prepare for it being much more difficult to trade with the EU.

The evidence that – even with the thin deal we may get – the end of the transition period will damage the economy is growing. On Thursday, the Bank of England pointed out that the UK’s trade and GDP will be adversely affected in the first half of 2021, even with a deal. On Friday, the National Audit Office published a report expressing concerns that UK business will face widespread disruption in 2021 because of failures to prepare for post-Brexit borders. A deal will help because it might provide an opportunity to ease rules in particular circumstances but the fundamental problems remain the same.

The approach of the Government has been to blame businesses for not being prepared. Some businesses may have been complacent about the consequences of the end of the transition period, but they can hardly be blamed when the Government, until relatively recently, has not been able to provide details of our future relationship and presented this moment as an opportunity. It simply is not. At a practical level, leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union only makes it harder to trade with the EU.

The Prime Minister might be tempted to try to escape responsibility for the predicament that he, more than anyone, has got us in. He could collapse the talks, and blame the EU for the consequences that the country will face in January. We saw how Brexiteers rather enjoyed the prospect of the talks collapsing in mid-October. A bitter dispute with the EU which could last for years would be truly thrilling to some. And quite a lot of the public would swallow mendacious claims for the reasons of the negotiations breaking down. In terms of the next few weeks, walking away from the talks might be the easier path to tread.

It would also be grossly irresponsible. In the medium term, it would not be possible for Boris Johnson to escape responsibility for a decision that will have a major impact on many people’s lives and livelihoods. The timing could not be worse with the economy already shrinking and businesses restricted in what they can do because of Covid restrictions for at least four of last nine weeks until the transition period ends.

If the Prime Minister wants a soft landing for Brexit, he will need to make concessions, but he needs to do more. Time has run out to prepare properly for 31 December. Even at this late stage, he should ensure that his deal has a further implementation period of another 12 months. A combination of Covid and the Government’s failure to prepare the nation for the realities of Brexit means that ending the transition period at the end of the year will cause even greater problems than necessary. A responsible Prime Minister should seek to prevent that from happening. He should get a deal that gives everyone time to implement it.

Iain Dale: Trump is displaying all the signs of believing his own lies. And he is undermining democracy itself.

6 Nov

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

As I write this column on Thursday lunchtime, we still do not know for sure who will be inaugurated in Washington on Wednesday 20 January next year.  As Sky’s Mark Austin said earlier this week, the Americans will never be able to take the micky out of us for cricket – a game that can go on for days without a result.

It looks more than likely that Joe Biden will be the next President, which didn’t seem to be the case when I finished presenting LBC’s marathon seven-hour overnight election show.

At that point, it seemed clear that Donald Trump would be staying in the White House. He was ahead in most of the crucial swing states. But when I woke up after three hours’ sleep on Wednesday morning, the situation was beginning to change.

By the end of Wednesday, Biden had pulled ahead in both the popular national vote. Michigan became the American equivalent of Nuneaton or Basildon.

When he saw which way the wind was blowing, Donald Trump did what he does best: disrupt. He went on TV to say that there was widespread vote fraud in the states that he now appeared to be losing, and that all vote counting there should stop. However, the counts should continue in all the states where he was ahead. Brazen.

Rudi Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer – a man who has lost all of his previously respected reputation – made public pronouncements in which he speculated on whether the Democratic National Committee was behind multiple voting, and even went so far as to ponder whether Joe Biden himself may have voted 5,000 times. He demeaned himself – and not for the first time.

All candidates are entitled to challenge a count if they genuinely fear there has been foul play. In this country that rarely, if ever, happens. It has to be said that in the US it has happened rather too often.  But if you accuse your rivals of interfering in the electoral process, you need to have some evidence for your accusation.

This is dangerous talk from Trump, since it completely undermines any trust in the democratic process. It is now easy to imagine a situation in which Biden scores a higher number of electoral college votes than Trump did in 2016 – and yet the President still doesn’t accept the result. There will also be protests, and maybe even violent riots, which seek to keep Trump in the White House.

Being a disrupter is not necessarily a 100 per cent bad thing. But being a president who cannot accept a basic tenet of democracy – i.e. the acceptance of electoral loss – is not a good look. The trouble is that Trump displays all the signs of being someone who comes to believe his own lies.

The fact, however, that he has won five million more votes than he did in 2016 does tell us something important. We cannot write him off as an aberration. Trump caught a political wave in 2016 – one of dissatisfaction with politics in general and Washington in particular. If it hadn’t been him it would have been someone else.

The Tea Party’s rise in the 1990s and early 2000s was the first sign that something was changing, but the Washington elites chose to ignore it. It’s a bit like the Labour Party telling the electorate here that they keep getting it wrong, and what they really want is something that the elites in Islington tell them they should want. The electorate resile against this, and do the very opposite.

On Wednesday morning, I was watching the BBC’s election coverage and heard one of its journalist saying that to appeal to working class voters amounts to “economic populism”. It’s that kind of elitist arrogance that turns people off the so-called mainstream media – and plays into the hands of Trump.

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Rishi Sunak seemed to catch Labour off balance yesterday, when he announced that the furlough scheme is to be extended until the end of March. This will provide a lot of reassurance to a lot of people who previously must have feared they would lose their jobs entirely.

It is a legitimate criticism that this announcement came very late in the day, and too late for many thousands of people who had already been laid off – but better late than never.

There is still not enough support of the self-employed, and those who operate limited companies. After eight months, this is simply not good enough. To say “it’s all too difficult” just does not wash. These are, as Margaret Thatcher, might have said “our people” – and they deserve better treatment than they have so far had from a Conservative government.

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On Tuesday I achieved a lifetime ambition – to interview Sir Cliff Richard.

I have a very short list of people I would like to interview before it’s too late, and he was top of it. I spent an hour with him via Zoom, and it was all I hoped it would be.

I told him I wanted it to be a conversation rather than an interview, and that’s how it turned out. I didn’t want it to be an hour where he would just come out with well-worn anecdotes and lines, and I didn’t want to just ask the usual questions he gets asked in interviews.

The fact that I had an hour meant that it really could be a proper conversation. He talked openly about his religious faith, the sex abuse allegations that he had to endure, what he really thinks of the BBC and why he’s fallen out of love with Britain. And of course we talked about his music career.

Even if you’re not his biggest fan, I think you’ll enjoy the interview, which you can hear on my Iain Dale All Talk podcast.

Henry Hill: The public want UK-wide rules for Christmas, but we’re a long way from a ‘Four Nations’ approach

5 Nov

The ‘Four Nations’ approach to lockdown – where is it now?

As we noted earlier in the week when looking at the Government’s decision to pivot to a full lockdown, one of the casualties of this summer’s coronavirus confusion has been the ‘four nations’ approach to combating the pandemic. Instead of operating in lockstep, the different devolved governments are now all operating different restriction regimes – raising for the first time the prospect of ‘hard borders’ on the British mainland.

Polling suggests there are limits to the public’s appetite to this – a clear majority of Brits think that there should be uniform policies towards Christmas across the United Kingdom – but for now the Government is unlearning its reflexive deference to devolution too slowly to hope this will be acted on. So what is going on in other parts of the country?

Wales made national headlines with their ‘firebreak’ lockdown. Straying beyond the public health remit of coronavirus regulations (and thus perhaps opening themselves up to judicial challenge), Cardiff Bay ministers decided that ‘essential’ shops which stayed open would nonetheless be forbidden to sell ‘non-essential’ goods, in order to prevent supermarkets having an unfair advantage over smaller retailers.

Despite this, and a raft of other mishandled elements earlier in the pandemic such as priority food deliveries and coordinating volunteers, the latest polls suggest that opposition parties are not yet managing to capitalise (although more on those polls below).

In Scotland, the pandemic is giving the Scottish National Party a chance to give its authoritarian tendencies full vent. In recent weeks the Scottish Government has drawn fire over its puritanical approach towards banning alcohol, and the uneven-handed manner in which Nicola Sturgeon appears to have imposed regional lockdowns on different parts of the country.

This week, Sturgeon has been challenged over proposals to impose movement restrictions, limiting how far Scottish residents are allowed to stray from their homes. In response to suggestions that this might breach human rights legislation, the First Minister merely asserted that “it’s not respecting human rights to leave a virus to run unchecked”.

She has also warned Scots that a broader range of tough new restrictions may be in the offing, and picked a very favourable battle with the Treasury over furlough cash which only ended when the Government announced a full lockdown in England and turned the taps back on. The Scottish Parliament has also accused her administration of ‘disrespect’ over ” the way plans for scrutinising covid restrictions were announced”, according to the Daily Record.

(In other Holyrood news, MSPs have voted for the Scottish Government to publish its legal advice in the Alex Salmond row, with all the opposition parties including the Greens backing a Scottish Conservative move to force ministers’ hands.)

Over in Northern Ireland, there is growing unease amongst the Democratic Unionists about lockdown, mirroring that increasingly found on the Conservative benches in the Commons. Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP, has clashed very publicly with the local head of the BMA over the measures, and some of the party’s MLAs are also starting to voice concerns.

The News Letter reports that opposition MLAs (of which there are a tiny handful) are also increasingly angry that the NI Executive is preventing Stormont from debating its Covid-19 measures until only a few days before the current set of restrictions expires.

Poll suggests devosceptics could win seats in Wales

As mentioned above, there is new Welsh polling out: Professor Roger Awan-Scully has released the new Welsh Political Barometer. The top line is that Welsh Labour’s vote is holding up – if the results came through in a general election it might wipe out all but one of the Tories’ 2019 election gains. For the Senedd it would see the Tories rising from 11 seats to 16 but getting nowhere near a position to take power, which is the stated objective of the current Welsh Conservative leadership (although it would take Labour and the Lib Dems below the 30 MSs needed for a majority).

But as Awan-Scully points out, perhaps the most intriguing result is that Abolish the Assembly, the insurgent anti-devolution party, has matched its highest-ever polling showing. With seven per cent support, Abolish would pick up four regional list seats, giving organising devoscepticism a political voice for the first time since the advent of the system in the 1990s.

And their support could rise further still. The Barometer also shows the Brexit Party, which too has pivoted to a devosceptic position, picking up a further five per cent support (although no seats). If Abolish can poach this vote – and they recently poached Mark Reckless from the Brexit Party – then it would put them at the same vote share that delivered UKIP seven AMs in 2016.

Suffice to say that if Abolish can establish themselves as a permanent fixture on the unionist right of Welsh politics, there will almost certainly be no pathway to government for the Conservatives that doesn’t involve a deal with them.

Meanwhile one Tory MS is also having to fend off a deselection battle, according to Wales Online. Nick Ramsay, who has represented Monmouth since 2007, faces a fight for his seat after more than 50 members signed a petition calling for a meeting to ‘discuss his future’.

Garvan Walshe: How to shape UK foreign policy for the Biden administration

5 Nov

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

As I write, it is almost certain that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States. He leads in Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, and could yet overtake Donald Trump in Georgia.

Without Georgia, his electoral college margin would match Trump’s against Hillary Clinton’s (and hang-on margins as thin in key midwestern states). Counting in Pennsylvania will take a little longer, but postal votes appear to be sufficiently in his favour to allow him to narrowly carry the state. Recounts and litigation may slow down a final result, but it’s hard to see how Trump can overturn this lead. Bush v Gore in 2000 this is not.

However, elections for the Senate aren’t however going so well for Biden. Republicans will probably retain their majority, and therefore be able to block his domestic legislative agenda. Stymied at home, Biden, once a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will have far more freedom in foreign affairs.

But he will have his work cut out.

Trump gutted the State Department, failing to appoint the political staff to which he was entitled, and doing nothing to prevent an exodus of career foreign service officers. Biden will have to put it back together.

The new President will also have to show how he can deliver for the Midwest that so narrowly put him in the White House. So though he’ll keep the United States in the WTO, he can be expected to lead an extremely tough trade policy.

This clashes with his other main policy goal – to repair relationships with America’s democratic allies and rebuild the international system. Expect strong gestures of support for NATO and South Korea, both neglected by Trump, and a restoration of good relations with the EU. Like Trump, he’ll want its members to spend more on defence; whether his more conciliatory approach will meet with more success is another matter.

Nevertheless, a Biden administration will remove the main source of instability in international affairs that has bedevilled the UK’s attempt to find a foreign policy role after Brexit, and given any attempt to give definition to “Global Britain” an air of unreality. After all, how can a medium-sized power contribute to a rules based international order when the existing superpower seems determined to destroy it, and the emerging one, in Beijing, to bend it to its own imperial ends?

The return to stability gives the UK the chance to define its national interests outside the EU. While a substantive trade deal with the US is likely to be extremely difficult, contributing to the defence of the Baltic and Eastern Europe (particularly in maritime and air theatres where the UK still has relevant capacity), support for America’s return to the Paris Climate Change Accords, and even sparking a renewed effort to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, are all ways the UK can work with the US and European partners to contribute to international stability.

Britain can also act alongside the US, the other Five Eyes powers, Japan, and major European nations including France and Germany to craft a strategy to counter Chinese expansionism. It will, unfortunately, also need to continue cooperation in the fight against Islamist terrorism, which has not receded as a threat, as the recent attacks in France and Austria have shown.

If Biden does indeed win, Britain will find a familiar foreign policy world that it can work in. Though it is hard to see how the UK can be a global full-spectrum military power without spending far more on defence than is currently contemplated, and direct involvement in EU defence structures is out of the question, it can slot into a space as a “Bigger Sweden”: an independent-minded, respected, capable, and effective part of the international system. Britain is a nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council (not to mention a key supplier of defence equipment), and leading participant in the multilateral efforts in support of international peace and security that a Biden administration would like to promote.

If this is is not the most romantic vision available, it is at least commensurate with the resources the UK is willing to deploy. If the White House would be delighted by a large and sustained increase in UK defence and security expenditure, that is hardly something that can realistically be sold to furloughed voters closer to home.

A medium-sized power like the UK depends on international structures to exercise power on the world stage. Biden would restore them, and it should be our duty to be present at their recreation.