Interview with Douglas Ross: Sturgeon is not in the clear, and is part of a “conspiracy against getting out the truth”

24 Mar

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin.” So says Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, at the start of this interview.

He goes on to condemn “the conspiracy against getting out the truth” which runs through the Sturgeon-Salmond feud, with the SNP Government promoting “a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability”.

Ross discusses how the Scottish Nationalists can be beaten in the forthcoming Holyrood elections, the need for the Union to be defended “as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border”, and the case for devolution from Holyrood to local councils.

He says he is looking forward to campaigning with Boris Johnson in the Holyrood elections, but points out that contrary to the Nationalists’ propaganda, he, not Johnson, is the Conservative leader in Scotland.

ConHome: “James Hamilton has cleared the First Minister of breaking the ministerial code, but the Salmond Inquiry Committee says its work was severely hindered by the Scottish Government’s reluctance to produce key documents. What’s your reaction to these verdicts?”

Ross: “James Hamilton has expressed frustration that redacted information risked an ‘incomplete and at times misleading version of what happened’.

“And the Salmond Inquiry Committee confirms that Nicola Sturgeon’s government hindered their work by withholding key documents and only willingly giving documents ‘that would advance a particular position’.

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin. The findings of this parliamentary committee are damning of her and her government and expose a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability.  And at the heart of this, women who came forward with serious allegations have been completely let down by the whole process.

“The thought that no one should take any responsibility for the many failings in this process is unbelievable.”

ConHome: “The Salmond-Sturgeon quarrel is surely unintelligible to many people who don’t follow politics. Their sense will be of a row about the former’s private life and who knew what when. Why is it important?”

Ross: “Well first of all it is really difficult for people to follow. It’s been ongoing now for several years, since the allegations first arose.

“Then there was the launch of the Scottish Government’s harassment procedure, and then the response from Alex Salmond, who challenged that.

“And since then we’ve had accusation and counter-accusation from Team Salmond and Team Sturgeon.

“And I’m not supporting one over the other. I’m just trying to get to the truth in all this.

“And it’s very difficult to get through to the truth when an inquiry that Nicola Sturgeon agreed would be set up, a cross-party inquiry, chaired by an SNP MSP, where the Scottish Government agreed the remit, the membership, and all aspects of how the committee could go about their business.

“It has been baulked on I think now more than 50 occasions by the Scottish Government, in terms of getting crucial information out there.

“And I think where we’ve got to now is a committee report that’s published, that believes Nicola Sturgeon did mislead Parliament. I believe on numerous occasions she’s misled the Scottish Parliament and Scottish people.

“At the heart of this, two women have been let down by a procedure that did not allow their complaints to be fully investigated and heard.

“The people of Scotland have been let down by a First Minister who’s not been truthful.

“And the people of Scotland have also been let down by a First Minister who has continued with action against the advice of her own lawyers that has cost in excess of half a million pounds.

“So these are all reasons why Scottish Conservatives believe Nicola Sturgeon’s position is untenable.”

ConHome: “Just leaving aside the money, the denial of information to MSPs, the Scottish Government going after publications like The Spectator that put up the reports, do you believe Salmond’s claim that there’s a conspiracy against him in which Sturgeon is implicated?”

Ross: “No I don’t. I believe there’s a conspiracy against getting out the truth. Everything seems to revolve around secrecy. The Scottish Government have been forced, after votes in Parliament which they ignored, with other measures we forced them to release some of the legal advice they’d received, but my conspiracy is more focussed on why can’t we just get the truth, rather than Salmond saying he was stitched up, or Sturgeon saying don’t believe him.”

ConHome: “Like many others, we’re concerned that the SNP may win a majority in this year’s Holyrood elections. How likely do you think this is to happen?”

Ross: “Well I’ve said since August, since I became Scottish Conservative leader, I didn’t think an SNP majority was inevitable, and I didn’t think another independence referendum was inevitable.

“I don’t underestimate the challenge we face in Scotland. The SNP have significant support among those who will vote for the party they think has the best chance to deliver them independence.

“We know back in 2014 45 per cent of Scotland wanted to separate from the rest of the UK. Therefore they see the SNP, for all their other failures, as being the party that could best deliver that.

“So it’s always going to be a challenge against them. But we have seen in recent weeks a shift away from the SNP.

“This image of them being no better than any other political party, having been in government for too long, and being shrouded in secrecy and sleaze, is having an impact.

“And I think at a time, particularly during a global pandemic, when we still need the trust of the public to follow the advice the Government are issuing, it not only is so damaging for Scottish politics as a whole, it could have an impact on our recovery out of this pandemic, if people don’t feel they can trust the First Minister.”

ConHome: “We’re not only worried the SNP may win a majority. We’re also worried about what will happen if they don’t. Down here in London, in Westminster, the UK Government will go ‘Phew, that’s all right then! They haven’t won a majority – we can stop worrying about the Union and think about something else.’

“Are we right to be worried?”

Ross: “I think it’s a genuine concern. I think there’s been a real shift in the emphasis from the UK Government. We’ve seen it in recent weeks and months – more focus on the Union, and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.

“I again have been beating this drum since I became leader. I gave the controversial speech at my first Scottish fringe event at the party conference, saying you know, we really had to wake up to the challenges.

“And when I say we, I mean the Conservative MPs, supporters and people across the rest of the United Kingdom who in some form or other didn’t think that Scotland leaving the UK would have a big impact on them.

“Of course it would. It would affect the whole of the United Kingdom. That fabric of our Union weaves through us all whether we’re Scots, English, Welsh or Northern Irish.

“But I do think the case for remaining a strong part of the United Kingdom has to be made as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border, and I’m seeing promising signs with that, in terms of the Government wanting to invest directly into Scotland through local councils.

“The SNP throw up their arms and say this is disrespecting devolution. But devolution is having two Parliaments, and both Parliaments and both Governments should work together to improve the lives of people in Scotland.

“It’s typical of the SNP, who claim to speak for the whole of Scotland, which they absolutely don’t, to decry any attempt of the UK Government to show where they invest in Scotland, and I just want to see more of that, and certainly from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and everyone in the Cabinet I get the reassurance that they’re up for this fight.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that the Conservatives, the Conservative and Unionist Party, can’t save the Union on its own. It’s going to have to work with other Unionist parties, in particular with Labour.

“Is that right, and how easy is it to work with Labour given their difference on what the political solution should be?”

Ross: “Well I think it’s absolutely right. We saw in the 2014 referendum that the parties put down their political differences and worked together to achieve success, with 55 per cent of the population voting to remain in the United Kingdom.

“However, since then we’ve seen a Labour Party in Scotland that’s been decimated, that’s a shadow of its former self. And sadly I think their response has been to out-Nat the Scottish Nationalists.

“And that is never going to win them back the support they need. So I’ve made the offer and I made the offer to Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader at the time, that I would work with him if we could kick the SNP out of power.

“And he turned that offer down. When his replacements were standing as the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party I said to Monica Lennon and Anas Sarwar, would they work with me to get rid of this tired and failing SNP Government, and they both turned that down within 30 seconds.

“So I’ll continue to hold out that olive branch. I think it is a way forward, I think it is what people want in Scottish politics, for the parties to work together, get away from this division of the past and focus on our recovery in Scotland.

“I’ll continue to make that offer and I hope at some point the Labour Party wake up to their responsibilities and accept it.”

ConHome: “In your speech on 3rd October to the virtual Conservative Party conference you said that

“far too many members in England…do not value the importance of the Union to their own British identity… They too often see Britishness and Englishness as one and the same. These attitudes extend to how we govern our country.”

“Are those attitudes improved now that Dominic Cummings has left Downing Street?”

Ross: “Well I always said those comments were not directed at any one individual. And indeed they weren’t just directed at the Conservative Party.

“I think we saw from the Labour Party, who oversaw devolution with the referendum in Scotland in 1997, that obviously led to the first Scottish Parliament in 1999, from Whitehall almost a view of ‘devolve and forget’.

“As if we could just provide funding to Scotland and not worry about how that was spent.

“And what we’ve seen over the last few years of SNP control in Holyrood is significant financial support going to the Scottish Government, the latest budget this year is the highest budget ever delivered to the devolved Scottish Parliament.

“But we’re seeing our standards in education falling. We’re seeing hospitals being built that can’t take any patients. We’re seeing our economy, pre-Covid, more sluggish than other parts of the United Kingdom.

“So it was a wake-up call to those within Government and outwith that we have to get rid of this devolve and forget attitude.

“Somehow a narrative that the English don’t care what happens to Scotland or the Welsh don’t care or those in Northern Ireland don’t care actually only aids the Nationalists.”

ConHome: “Some questions about the way the devolution settlement is working in Scotland.

“First of all, do you agree that Parliament should in some respects have more powers – for example, that MSPs should be covered by parliamentary privilege?”

Ross: “Yes. So I believe there are – I set out in a speech I did to Onward recently – some suggestions for strengthening the accountability within the Scottish Parliament.

“This should be done on a cross-party basis, I’m not saying the Conservatives have all the answers to this issue.

“But I think it was particularly revealing, to people across the country, that it took a Member of Parliament standing up in the UK House of Commons to reveal information that was not able to be revealed to MSPs sitting on an inquiry looking into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints and the procedure they set up.

“I’ve already raised issues about the Lord Advocate in Scotland being the head of the prosecution service, and also a political appointment sitting round the Scottish Government Cabinet table.

“I also think we could learn from the UK Parliament in terms of electing select committee chairs. I’ve sat in both Parliaments and been on committees in both, and I think we have far more rigour in our investigations and our questioning with select committee chairs who are elected by the whole House rather than party appointments that we have in the Scottish Parliament.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that a central problem with the devolution settlement in Scotland is not that there’s too much devolution but that there hasn’t been enough.

“And on that theme, you’ve called for local councils to have more powers, the power to set business-rate-free zones and to build more railways, deliver universal broadband. Could you expand on that?”

Ross: “Yes, so first of all I’m not advocating for more powers to go to Holyrood. I don’t think people suggesting now just devolve some extra powers and that’ll stop people wanting independence is credible.

“And I also say to the SNP, if you continue to call for more powers for the Scottish Parliament, just start using the ones you’ve got.

“In terms of devolution, what I want to see is more devolution from the Scottish Parliament to local councils.

“I do believe that local councils are better at delivering many of these policies. I was a councillor for ten years.

“For many people now in Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood seem as distant as the UK Government and the UK Parliament did in London prior to 1997 when there were calls for devolution.”

ConHome: “Aberdeen Council is reported to be applying for grants directly from the Shared Prosperity Fund. Do you know how that’s going?”

Ross: “There’s been an awful lot of positive discussion. I’m in regular contact with Douglas Lumsden, Co-Leader of Aberdeen City Council, he’s one of our excellent candidates on the North East list for the election in May, and with Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, who sees this as a way forward.

“He can see the frustration of councils in Scotland, particularly those outwith the central belt.”

ConHome: “Do you believe that Westminster should deploy the powers it has: for example, the Political and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee could launch an inquiry into the conduct of the civil service in Scotland, over why laws seem to have been crafted especially to investigate Alex Salmond, even after the Head of Propriety and Ethics in Whitehall expressed discomfort.”

Ross: “I think we have to look very closely at how the Scottish Government civil service worked throughout this process, and obviously the head of the Scottish civil service is answerable to the head of the UK civil service.

“I also think there’s an opportunity for the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, which I sit on, to look into it. It’s chaired by an SNP member, so we may have some challenges in getting that into our future work programme, but absolutely, I think there is a clear role for scrutiny within the UK select committee system, following on from the report of the Scottish Parliament committee.”

ConHome: “Should the UK Government here do more to involve the Governments of the devolved administrations in their decision-making, over immigration, say, or trade deals?”

Ross: “Well I mentioned that in my Policy Exchange speech, and it was more just about more dialogue, it’s not saying direct decision making.”

ConHome: “At one point last year, Michael Gove was reported to think that just occasionally, there’d be a case for inviting Nicola Sturgeon and the leaders of the devolved administrations to sit in at Cabinet meetings. What do you think?”

Ross: “No I don’t think that would be particularly helpful. Clear, distinct subject matters which affect the whole of the UK such as travel arrangements, quarantine arrangements, restrictions that may differ north or south of the border or into Wales, are right to be focussed on a small committee, and I’ve sat in on a number of these committees when I was a Scotland Office minister, so I can see the value of them.

“I think inviting devolved leaders to actual Cabinet meetings is a step too far, and I’m not sure it would be reciprocated by offers of the Prime Minister to go to the Scottish Government Cabinet meetings or the Welsh Assembly Cabinet meetings.”

ConHome: “How substantial a problem for your election campaign this year is Boris Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland?”

Ross: “I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as an opportunity for me to continue to show that I’m the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. I am the leader standing for election to Holyrood.

“NIcola Sturgeon and the SNP are already using this in their leaflets, saying ‘vote for the SNP or vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party’.

“But the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His policies are having a positive impact in Scotland, such as the vaccine rollout; the levelling up funding will see investment into Scotland.

“But in terms of the running of the party here, our manifesto, our team, it’s led by me. I think that’s right for the Scottish Conservatives and it’s certainly the approach I’m taking into the election.”

ConHome: “Are you looking forward to Boris joining you on the campaign trail?”

Ross: “Yeah. It’ll be a very different campaign trail, so let’s be honest, he’s not going to be popping up every couple of days to do visits, and we’re all trying to get our head round exactly what this campaign’s going to look like.

“But I was at Political Cabinet last week, we had a good discussion on the election in Scotland, and obviously in Wales, and there’s big elections in England, we’ve got by-elections coming up as well, so the Prime Minister’s going to be busy all over the country.

“But we’re probably going to do an awful lot of it like this. It’ll be Zoom meetings. We’ll see how it all pans out.”

ConHome: “Do you know Oliver Lewis?”

Ross: “Yes.”

ConHome: “What was your take on him?”

Ross: “Yeah, I worked well with Oliver, first of all he was always extremely engaged with Scottish MPs during the Brexit negotiations, and then when for a short time he was the head of the Union Unit I spoke to him a number of times, and I think he had some really good things to offer.

“Clearly it didn’t work out, but he is someone I will still look at what he says and listen to what he says.”

ConHome: “It doesn’t make a difference that the Unit’s no longer there?”

Ross: “I don’t think so. Clearly the change in personnel was something that attracted quite a lot of media attention. I actually think the move to the Cabinet committee system, with senior members of the Cabinet, is a good thing, having the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Minister of the Cabinet Office, the Secretaries of State like Alister Jack, it’s a powerful committee.”

ConHome: “One of the things people know about you is that you’re a great football referee. What help is that to you in your present role? Because your role now is partisan, you’re on the pitch, you’re trying to wipe the floor with the opposition.”

Ross: “Well I don’t quite get onto the pitch, because I’m an assistant referee, just from the sidelines, and I’m not even doing that at the moment, I’ve got a hamstring injury.

“But I do think for political leadership it’s a good thing, because you’ve got to take instant decisions, based on what you see in front of you, knowing that that decision will not please everyone, in many cases my decision will please no one, and you’ve got to have a pretty tough skin to do it in the first place and to defend and stick by your decisions.”

Presenting ConservativeHome’s Spring Conference online fringe events

17 Mar

We’re very pleased to announce that, following the success of our online fringe events during last year’s Conservative Party Conference, ConservativeHome will be putting on a programme of free, online fringe events during the Conservative Party’s Spring Conference, on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th March.

Click here to see details of our full line-up of speakers and topics. We do hope that you can join us for discussions ranging from the reform of business rates and the future of the asylum system to the Government’s plans to fulfil its promises on levelling up and net zero, featuring guests including Sajid Javid, Robert Jenrick and Paul Scully.

As ever, ConservativeHome’s journalists will also be putting your audience questions to our special guests.

All of our events will be broadcast for free on the Conservative Party’s conference website, the ConservativeHome YouTube Channel and via Zoom. Zoom signup links for all events can be found on our listings page.

Iain Dale: If Milling isn’t up to being Party Chairman, why was she appointed in the first place?

9 Oct

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

I have to admit that I didn’t watch any of the Conservative virtual conference online. Judging by the number of registrations, it can be deemed a success. Twenty thousand people registered, and there were often more than 6,000 people watching.

I’m told fringe meetings proved more popular than the set-piece cabinet minister speeches (wasn’t it ever thus?) with some events, including those hosted by ConHome) attracting online audiences in four figures.

Given that normal fringe meetings might attract a couple of hundred people at most, this ought to give the conference organisers food for thought for the future. CCHQ told me this week that future conferences would almost certainly be hybrid events, and that’s exactly right. The more people who are able to take part, the better.

– – – – – – – – – –

Watching highlights of the US Vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, it almost seemed like normal politics had returned.

For the most part, the debate was conducted with mutual respect, good humour and dignity from both candidates. Yes, there were some interruptions, but that happens in debates. We had none of the abuse, insults and acrimony that characterised the debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a week before.

And it wasn’t just the President who was guilty. We don’t know yet whether the next debate, due to take place in Florida next week, will go ahead. If it does, let’s hope that it’s more edifying than the first one.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Tuesday, I deputised for Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph.  I thought long and hard about writing what I did – but it had to be said.

I wrote about the role of the Party Chairman, and how its importance has diminished over the years, and how the present incumbent, Amanda Milling, was performing no useful role, except to travel the country and eat a few rubber chickens

It gave me no pleasure, and in many ways it’s not her fault. She’s performing the role dictated by Number Ten. She has no power to change anything, and scant little influence. Her co-chairman, Ben Elliot, is the one in control and we all know it.

The one role she could perform, but hasn’t got the experience to do, is to get out there on the media and be a lightning rod for the Prime Minister. That’s what Cecil Parkinson did. It’s what Norman Tebbit used to do. It’s what Brian Mawhinney did for John Major. And it’s what Brandon Lewis did for Theresa May.

Amanda Milling went on Any Questions last Friday, and proceeded to read out lines from her briefing notes. It was buttock-clenchingly embarrassing. A programme insider reckoned she was the worst guest they had had on in recent memory.

Again, in many ways, I don’t blame her for that. Everyone tells me that Milling was an excellent Deputy Chief Whip, but we all know that whips don’t do media, and don’t speak in the chamber.

So to appoint someone with little media experience as co-Party Chairman was bizarre to say the least. It did her no favours whatsoever. By all accounts, the Number Ten machine is frustrated by her performance. No shit, Sherlock. Well, they shouldn’t blame her for it, they should apportion the blame to the person who made the appointment.

– – – – – – – – – –

I was disappointed but not surprised to see Liam Fox fail to reach the final two in the race to become the next director general of the World Trade Organisation.

The EU was always determined to scupper him, which says far about them than it does about him. He is very well qualified to do the job, which will now be a straight fight between candidates from South Korea and Nigeria. Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, has spoken out and said the whole charade has not been “to the greater glory of the European Union”.

– – – – – – – – – –

Just as the Conservative Party has had to put its conference online, so have literary festivals – or at least some of them. I’ve done quite a few on Zoom over the last few months, but appeared in person last Saturday at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, as trailed on this site last week.

The event was organised it very well, ensuring that both speakers and audience were safe. Next Friday ,I’m doing the Bristol Festival of Ideas remotely, but the Wells Festival of Literature in person on the same day.

Then on Sunday October 18, I’m in Twickenham being interviewed on stage by LBC’s Steve Allen, and then on  October 24 in Diss, Norfolk.

On that occasion Brandon Lewis will interview me, which I suspect he’s going to relish, given he tells me I always give him such a hard time when he comes on my show. Ticketing details can be found here.

All of ConservativeHome’s 2020 fringe event videos in one place

8 Oct

Whether you’d like to rewatch an event, catch up on one that you missed, or share them with friends and family, here is the full collection of videos of our 2020 ConservativeHome fringe events.

Having brought you over 70 speakers, including no fewer than six members of Cabinet and a former Chancellor, in 18 events over three days – making for over 22 hours of top-flight political insight and debate – we hope you enjoy the show.

Saturday 3rd October

9am-10.30am

In Conversation with Steve Barclay MP

Held in partnership with Heathrow.

11am-12.30pm

The role of responsible business in preventing offending and reoffending

Held in partnership with FTSE 100 Landsec.

1pm-2.30pm

How to ensure low-income families with children get through the crisis

Held in partnership with Save the Children.

3pm-4.30pm

Supporting UK economic recovery: how can the financial and related professional services industry accelerate the return to growth?

Held in partnership with TheCityUK.

5pm-6.30pm

Firing up the engines of the economy – the key to future trade resilience

Held in partnership with Port of Dover.

 

Sunday 4th October

9am-10.30am

Setting the standard: exporting our values

Held in partnership with National Farmers Union (NFU).

11am-12.30pm

Back in business: what can modern universities do to support Britain’s recovery?

Held in partnership with MillionPlus and Hepi.

1.30pm-2.45pm

Unleashing Great British Enterprise: delivering on digital to drive a productivity revolution

Held in partnership with Atos.

3pm-4.30pm

Protecting a Generation: UK Leadership in the Global Education Emergency

Held in partnership with Save the Children.

5pm-6.30pm

Turbocharging the UK’s transition to electric vehicles

Held in partnership with Uber.

 

7pm-8.30pm

Medical Cannabis and the UK: Becoming a global leader

Held in partnership with The Centre for Medicinal Cannabis.

Monday 5th October

7.30am-8.45am

In Conversation with Sajid Javid MP

Held in partnership with UK in a Changing Europe.

11am-12.30pm

A digital strategy for a digital society

Held in partnership with Atos.

1pm-2.30pm

Social care and beyond: delivering for older voters in the ‘Red Wall’

Held in partnership with Age UK.

3.30pm-4.30pm

A new generation of good jobs to secure an economic recovery for all of us

Held in partnership with JRF.

5pm-6.30pm

In conversation with Ben Wallace MP, Secretary of State for Defence

Held in partnership with Raytheon.

7pm-8.30pm

The Business Conversation with Alok Sharma MP: How to make small business the centre of a post-Covid UK

Held in partnership with FSB.

Tuesday 6th October

7pm-8pm

The Moggcast – Live

Sponsored by Thorncliffe.

The ConservativeHome 2020 Conference Programme is kindly sponsored by TheCityUK.

Johnson believes faith in the nation can unite lifelong Tories and traditional Labour supporters

6 Oct

Before Boris Johnson delivered his conference speech, Rachel Sylvester suggested, in her column in The Times, that he

“is fortunate to be speaking on a video link rather than in person because he might have received a less rapturous reception than normal.”

It is true that the Prime Minister is, as often happens to holders of that office, less popular than he used to be. But the idea that he was lucky not to be performing in front of a live audience is preposterous.

His difficulties spring not only from the often inadequate response by the authorities to Covid-19, but from the impossibility, during the pandemic, of engaging with live audiences.

Johnson is one of the few speakers in any party who has taken the enormous trouble needed to master the art of the conference speech. For year after year on these occasions, he would for an hour or two steal his party leader’s thunder, by showing he knew better than David Cameron or Theresa May how to make Conservatives feel good about being Conservative.

This year, one cannot judge how his oratory went down in the hall. He spoke, however, in much the same manner as he would have employed if he had been in front of a live audience:

“I have read a lot of nonsense recently, about how my own bout of Covid has somehow robbed me of my mojo. And of course this is self-evident drivel, the kind of seditious propaganda that you would expect from people who don’t want this government to succeed, who wanted to stop us delivering Brexit and all our other manifesto pledges – and I can tell you that no power on earth was and is going to do that – and I could refute these critics of my athletic abilities in any way they want: arm-wrestle, leg-wrestle, Cumberland wrestle, sprint-off, you name it.”

This is designed not only to convince those ready to be convinced, but also to infuriate those ready to be infuriated.

“Drivel” and “seditious propaganda” are deliberately insulting ways to describe all those high-minded columns by Sylvester and other distinguished pundits who devote their intellects to the task of demonstrating that Johnson is a scoundrel.

That he has the effrontery to accuse them of “sedition”, as if he were a monarch, just confirms his unfitness for office, a truth which will shortly become so obvious and embarrassing that Conservative MPs will bundle him out of power.

One day this forecast will turn out to be true, but meanwhile this kind of commentary runs the risk of underestimating the Prime Minister’s chances of success. As Tom McTague observes in The Atlantic, again and again Johnson has been written off, and again and again he has survived and in due course prospered.

Nor does the failure to understand Johnson end there. Members of the commentariat ask what his ideology is, and point out, after making their investigations, that he does not have one.

This is true, but what they fail to see is that this is in many ways a strength. He has not strapped himself, or had himself strapped by others, into an ideological straitjacket.

He is a Tory pragmatist, interested in what works in practice, not what looks good on paper.

Pragmatism is an unexciting virtue, but Johnson has a gift for making dull stuff sound more attractive than it would from some other speaker:

“It was offshore wind that puffed the sails of Drake and Raleigh and Nelson, and propelled this country to commercial greatness.”

One has only to imagine, with a shudder, how dreary the green energy proposals would have sounded in the mouth of any other party leader.

Johnson confirmed with this speech that he stands in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli. Here is Robin Harris, in The Conservatives: A History, explaining at the end of his two chapters on Disraeli what mattered most to that statesman:

“As Salisbury said in the Lords in tribute to his old chief – a man he increasingly grew to respect, though never to like: ‘Zeal for the greatness of England was the passion of his life.’ When the mythology is stripped away – the overwritten novels, the overwrought expressions, the mysterious allusions, all later wrapped up in the hugely successful and highly eccentric trappings of the Primrose League – that simple core remains. ‘The greatness of England’ (by which Disraeli meant Britain, but never thought it necessary to explain) is his decisive contribution to the idea which the Conservative Party has of itself, and which, down through the decades, it has wanted others to have of it.”

And here is Johnson at the end of his speech:

“That is the Britain we can build – in its way, and with all due respect to everywhere else, the greatest place on earth; indeed that is the country and the society we are in the process of building.

“And I know that it seems tough now, when we are tackling the indignities and cruelty and absurdity of the disease, but I believe it is a measure of the greatness of this country that we are simply not going to let it hold us back or slow us down, and we are certainly not going to let it get us down, not for a moment, because even in the darkest moments we can see the bright future ahead, and we can see how to build it, and we are going to build it together.”

Here, ignored by superior commentators, is the faith in the nation which Johnson believes can unite lifelong Conservatives with the traditional Labour supporters who voted Conservative for the first time last December.

The Prime Minister’s full text. He says that, like Churchill’s wartime government, his is sketching out a vision of a new Jerusalem

6 Oct

“Good morning conference, I want to begin by thanking you for everything you did at the election, pounding the streets in the middle of winter, prodding leaflets through the letterbox and into the jaws of dogs, to save this country from socialism and to win this party the biggest election victory in a generation.

I was going to say how great it is to be here in Birmingham but the fact is that we are not in Birmingham. This is not a conference hall, and alas I can’t see any of you in front of me.

There is no one to clap or heckle, and I don’t know about you but I have had more than enough of this disease that attacks not only human beings but so many of the greatest things about our country: our pubs, our clubs, our football, our theatre and all the gossipy gregariousness and love of human contact that drives the creativity of our economy.

So I want to thank you all for zooming in, and I can tell you that your government is working night and day to repel this virus, and we will succeed, just as this country has seen off every alien invader for the last thousand years and we will succeed by collective effort, by following the guidance and with the help of weekly and almost daily improvements in the medicine and the science, we will ensure that next time we meet it will be face to face and cheek by jowl, and we are working for the day when life will be back to normal, flying in a plane will be back to normal, and hairdressers will no longer look as though they are handling radioactive isotopes, and when we can go and see our loved ones in care homes, and when we no longer have to greet each other by touching elbows as in some giant national version of the Birdie dance.

I know the people of this country are going to defeat this virus because I have seen how the country has responded before, with the energy and self-sacrifice of the NHS, the care workers, the armed forces – the spirit that was incarnated in the bounding, boundless devotion of captain Tom Moore.

But after all we have been through it isn’t enough just to go back to normal. We have lost too much. We have mourned too many.

We have been through too much frustration and hardship just to settle for the status quo ante – to think that life can go on as it was before the plague; and it will not. Because history teaches us that events of this magnitude – wars famines, plagues; events that affect the vast bulk of humanity, as this virus has – they do not just come and go.

They are more often than not the trigger for an acceleration of social and economic change, because we human beings will not simply content ourselves with a repair job.

We see these moments as the time to learn and to improve on the world that went before.

That is why this government will build back better.

And to explain what I mean by build back better, I will use a medical metaphor.

I have read a lot of nonsense recently, about how my own bout of Covid has somehow robbed me of my mojo. And of course this is self-evident drivel, the kind of seditious propaganda that you would expect from people who don’t want this government to succeed, who wanted to stop us delivering Brexit and all our other manifesto pledges – and I can tell you that no power on earth was and is going to do that – and I could refute these critics of my athletic abilities in any way they want: arm-wrestle, leg-wrestle, Cumberland wrestle, sprint-off, you name it.

And yet I have to admit the reason I had such a nasty experience with the disease is that although I was superficially in the pink of health when I caught it I had a very common underlying condition.

My friends I was too fat. And I have since lost 26 lbs, and you can imagine that in bags of sugar and I am going to continue that diet, because you’ve got to search for the hero inside yourself in the hope that that individual is considerably slimmer, and when you look at the general economic condition of this country when we went into lockdown there was a similarity because we were on the face of it in pretty good shape.

We had a record number of people in jobs. We had record low unemployment. We were seeing growing exports; and the only reason as Rishi Sunak pointed out in the last few months that we have been able to cope with the cost of the pandemic – to look after jobs and livelihoods in the way that we have – is that in the previous years we had sensible conservative management of the public finances.

And yet if you looked more carefully you could see – and indeed many of us said so at the time – that the UK economy had some chronic underlying problems: long-term failure to tackle the deficit in skills, inadequate transport infrastructure, not enough homes people could afford to buy, especially young people – and far too many people, across the whole country, who felt ignored and left out, that the government was not on their side; and so we cannot now define the mission of this country as merely to restore normality.

That isn’t good enough.

In the depths of the second world war, in 1942 when just about everything had gone wrong, the government sketched out a vision of the post war new Jerusalem that they wanted to build. And that is what we are doing now – in the teeth of this pandemic.

 

We need to move fast, not just to deal with the immediate economic fall out, but because after 12 years of relative anaemia we need to lift the trend rate of growth. We need to lift people’s incomes, not just go back to where we were.

And it is clear from Covid that we need the economic robustness to deal with whatever the next cosmic spanner may be hurtling towards us in the dark; and the only way to ensure true resilience and long term prosperity is to raise the overall productivity of the country – and the bedrock of national productivity is of course something that we are responsible for, having great public services on which everyone – families, business, investors – can rely.

That means first a great health service; and so it is right that this government is pressing on with its plan for 48 hospitals. Count them. That’s the eight already underway, and then 40 more between now and 2030.

We need to get on with recruiting the 50,000 more nurses – and I am proud that we have 14,000 more since this government came into office; 14,000 more nurses now, under this Conservative government in the last year – and yet that isn’t enough.

We have seen the frantic global scrabble for vaccines, for therapies – and so now we are doubling our funding for all types of revolutionary scientific breakthroughs, with a national Advanced Research and Projects Agency; and while we are at it we will do what all governments have shirked for decades.

We will fix the injustice of care home funding, bringing the magic of averages to the rescue of millions.

Covid has shone a spotlight on the difficulties of that sector in all parts of the UK – and to build back better we must respond, care for the carers as they care for us.

And if we are to raise productivity and encourage investment in the UK, then there is one thing we must do as a matter of basic hygiene; and that is to fight crime.

And so yes, we are fulfilling our manifesto commitment to put another 20,000 officers out on the street – and I am proud that we have already recruited almost 5000. But fan though I am of the police, we need to see results, not just spending; and so we are also backing those police, and protecting the public, by changing the law to stop the early release of serious sexual and violent offenders, and stopping the whole criminal justice system from being hamstrung by what the Home Secretary would doubtless and rightly call the lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders.

And in spite of the pandemic the Home Secretary and I are having regular CompStat style sessions with the chief constables, when we look at the crime data across the country, and compare performance, and work out what we can do to help.

Town by town we are rooting out the county lines drugs gangs that are causing so much misery – and in that sense our agenda is basic social justice.

When I talk about levelling up, I mean making the streets safer for everyone; and when I talk about levelling up, I mean not just investing massively in our schools, delivering on our promise to raise per pupil funding to £4000 per head in primary school and £5000 per head in secondary school, as well as a £30k starting salary for teachers.

I am thinking not just about the inputs, but about the outputs – the changes in the lives of young people. And so I want to take further an idea that we have tried in the pandemic, and explore the value of one-to-one teaching, both for pupils who are in danger of falling behind, and for those who are of exceptional abilities.

We can all see the difficulties, but I believe such intensive teaching could be transformational, and of massive reassurance to parents.

It is in a crisis like this that new approaches are born, and last week grasped a nettle that has intimidated governments for the last century – we effectively broke down the senseless barrier between Further Education and Higher Education, so that it is just as easy to get the funding you need for a training course in engineering or IT as for a degree in politics or economics; because we are offering every adult four years of funded post-18 education – a lifetime skills guarantee. A lifetime skills guarantee.

From internet shopping to working from home, it looks as though Covid has massively accelerated changes in the world of work; and as old jobs are lost and as new jobs are created we are offering free training for adults without A-levels in vital skills from adult care to wind turbine maintenance.

The Covid crisis is a catalyst for change, and we need to give people the chance to train for the new jobs that are being created every day.

And there is one area where we are progressing with gale force speed; and that is the green economy, the green industrial revolution that in the next ten years will create hundreds of thousands if not millions of jobs.

I can today announce that the UK government has decided to become the world leader in low cost clean power generation – cheaper than coal, cheaper than gas; and we believe that in ten years time offshore wind will be powering every home in the country, with our target rising from 30 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts.

You heard me right. Your kettle, your washing machine, your cooker, your heating, your plug-in electric vehicle – the whole lot of them will get their juice cleanly and without guilt from the breezes that blow around these islands.

We will invest £160m in ports and factories across the country, to manufacture the next generation of turbines.

And we will not only build fixed arrays in the sea; we will build windmills that float on the sea – enough to deliver one gigawatt of energy by 2030, 15 times floating windmills, fifteen times as much as the rest of the world put together.

Far out in the deepest waters we will harvest the gusts, and by upgrading infrastructure in such places as Teesside and Humber and Scotland and Wales we will increase an offshore wind capacity that is already the biggest in the world.

As Saudi Arabia is to oil, the UK is to wind – a place of almost limitless resource, but in the case of wind without the carbon emissions, without the damage to the environment.

I remember how some people used to sneer at wind power, twenty years ago, and say that it wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding.

They forgot the history of this country. It was offshore wind that puffed the sails of Drake and Raleigh and Nelson, and propelled this country to commercial greatness.

This investment in offshore wind alone will help to create 60,000 jobs in this country – and help us to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Imagine that future – with high-skilled, green-collar jobs in wind, in solar, in nuclear, in hydrogen and in carbon capture and storage. Retrofitting homes, ground source heat pumps.

Mother nature has savaged us with Covid, but with the help of basic natural phenomena we will build back and bounce back greener; and this government will lead that green industrial revolution.

We will create the conditions for individuals and for companies to flourish, with a high-skilled low-crime economy, and if there was a physical audience in front of me now I would solicit cheers by shouting out the details of our revolution in transport infrastructure – the A roads we are going to upgrade, the rail lines we are building or electrifying, the simple ways in which we will improve your lives, your daily commute.

But we must be clear that there comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it.

I have a simple message for those on the left, who think everything can be funded by uncle sugar the taxpayer.

It isn’t the state that produces the new drugs and therapies we are using. It isn’t the state that will hold the intellectual property of the vaccine, if and when we get one. It wasn’t the state that made the gloves and masks and ventilators that we needed at such speed.

It was the private sector, with its rational interest in innovation and competition and market share and, yes, sales.

We must not draw the wrong economic conclusion from this crisis.

Rishi Sunak the Chancellor has come up with some brilliant expedients to help business to protect jobs and livelihoods; but let’s face it, he has done things that no Conservative chancellor would have wanted to do except in times of war or disaster.

This government has been forced by the pandemic into erosions of liberty that we deeply regret, and to an expansion of the role of the state – from lockdown enforcement to the many bail-outs and subsidies – that go against our instincts, but we accept them because there is simply no reasonable alternative.

And yet on the left, in the Labour party, there are many who regard this state expansion as progress, who want to keep the state supporting furlough forever, keep people in suspended animation, and who want to keep the state pre-empting and spending almost half our national income.

We Conservatives believe that way lies disaster, and that we must build back better by becoming more competitive, both in tax and regulation.

We need to make this the best place to start a business, the best place to invest, and we need to unleash the urge not just to build but to own.

We need to fix our broken housing market.

When Covid struck there were millions of people, often young people, who found themselves locked down in rented accommodation, without private space, without a garden, forced to use ironing boards for desks and bedrooms for offices.

I know that many people are of course happy with renting and the flexibility that it offers. But for most people it is still true that the overwhelming instinct is to buy.

Many of them simply can’t – not because they can’t afford the mortgage, but because they can’t afford the deposit, and the disgraceful truth is that levels of owner occupation for the under forties have plummeted in this country, and millions of people are forced to pay through the nose to rent a home they cannot truly love or make their own, because they cannot add a knob or a knocker to the front door or in some cases even hang a picture – let alone pass it on to their children.

Yes, we will transform the sclerotic planning system. We will make it faster and easier to build beautiful new homes without destroying the green belt or desecrating the countryside.

But these reforms will take time, and they are not enough on their own.

We need now to take forward one of the key proposals of our manifesto of 2019 – giving young first time buyers the chance to take out a long-term fixed rate mortgage of up to 95 per cent of the value of the home, vastly reducing the size of the deposit, and giving the chance of home ownership – and all the joy and pride that goes with it – to millions that feel excluded.

We believe that this policy could create two million more owner occupiers, the biggest expansion of home ownership since the 1980s.

We will help turn generation rent into generation buy. We will fix the long-term problems of this country not by endlessly expanding the state, but by giving power back to people – the fundamental life-affirming power of home ownership, the power to decide what colour to paint your own front door.

With our long-term fixed rate mortgages we want to spread that opportunity to every part of the country; and that is the difference between us Conservatives and the Labour opposition.

They may have million pound homes in North London, but they deeply dislike home ownership for anyone else.

We want to level up – they want to level down.

We are proud of this country’s culture and history and traditions; they literally want to pull statues down, to re-write the history of our country, to edit our national CV to make it look more politically correct.

We aren’t embarrassed to sing old songs about how Britannia rules the waves – in fact, we are even making sense of it with a concerted national ship-building strategy that will bring jobs to every part of the UK, especially in Scotland, and we believe passionately in our wonderful Union, our United Kingdom – while the Labour opposition who have done frankly nothing to defend the Union, and continue to flirt with those who would tear our country apart.

And I say frankly to those separatist Scottish nationalists who would like this country to be distracted and divided by yet more constitutional wrangling, now is the time to pull together and build back better in every part of the United Kingdom.

We believe in Global Britain as a proud independent and outward-looking country, and next year we will lead the world in the G7, and at the cop 26 summit in Glasgow, with three great campaigns to bring the world together – to heal the world, tackling the virus, tackling climate change, and global free trade.

We have the confidence in our values and diplomacy – and be in no doubt that they are secretly scheming to overturn brexit and take us back into the EU.

We believe in our fantastic armed services as one of the greatest exports this country has.

They, the Labour party can’t even vote for measures to protect veterans from vexatious prosecutions, fifty years later, when no new evidence is supplied.

And throughout this pandemic it is this government that has taken the tough decisions, because we believe that there are no easy answers, while they have simply sniped from the side-lines.

Well, my friends, we have no time now to focus on Captain Hindsight and his regiment of pot-shot, snipeshot fusiliers.

I want to raise your eyes, and I want you to imagine that you are arriving in Britain in 2030, when I hope that much of the programme I have outlined will be delivered, and you arrive in your zero carbon jet made in the UK and you flash your Brexit blue passport or your digital ID, you get an ev digital taxi; and as you travel around you see a country that has been and is being transformed for the better – where young people in their 20s and 30s have the joy of home ownership, and where they can bring up their children in the neighbourhoods where they grew up themselves, in the confidence that the schools are excellent and that crime is down; and instead of being dragged on big commutes to the city, they can start a business in their home town, a place that has not only superb transport connections and green buses, but gigabit broadband, and where the workforce is abundantly equipped not just with university degrees but with the technical skills that the new economy demands.

And among other new landmarks you will see 48 new hospitals, and a population that is healthier and happier and quite a bit thinner from better diet, and taking so much exercise in the new cycle lanes, and walking among the millions of trees that have been planted, and going for picnics in the new wild belts that now mark the landscape.

You will notice that the air is cleaner because most people are now driving EVs, while some of the trucks are actually running on hydrogen, and even some of the trains.

And I believe you will see a Britain that is more united than for decades in its constitutional settlement, where Brexit has delivered a new excitement and verve – not just free trade and free ports, but control over our fisheries, and the ability to do things differently and better, from innovation in tech and data and finance to improving our standards of our animal welfare.

Yes, you will see a country that scrupulously controls its own borders, but which is in some ways more cosmopolitan than ever before, welcoming scientists and artists and people of talent from around the world, a Britain that is proud of our culture and history and unashamed of our heritage, but also unblinkered about the present – embracing every person with love and respect whatever their race or creed or gender or orientation.

That is the Britain we can build – in its way, and with all due respect to everywhere else, the greatest place on earth; indeed that is the country and the society we are in the process of building.

And I know that it seems tough now, when we are tackling the indignities and cruelty and absurdity of the disease, but I believe it is a measure of the greatness of this country that we are simply not going to let it hold us back or slow us down, and we are certainly not going to let it get us down, not for a moment, because even in the darkest moments we can see the bright future ahead, and we can see how to build it, and we are going to build it together.