Interview: Braverman says that what may emerge from Russia “is a basis for charges of genocide”

20 May

There is “emerging evidence now of genocide” in Ukraine, Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, says in this interview. She recently visited Ukraine, only the second British minister to do so, and describes how Britain is helping the Ukrainians to bring prosecutions for war crimes.

At home, Braverman says the Conservative Party needs to “stamp out this long tail of Blairism”, including “creations like the Human Rights Act and the equalities agenda, which has built up a whole industry of people who make their living from rights-based claims”, and has led to “a feeble approach to common sense, decency, British values”.

She is a passionate defender of British values:

“My background is one that is ferociously proud of Britain, Britain’s history, Britain’s welcome. My parents were born under the British Empire. They came to this country with a huge fondness for the British Empire. 

“What Britain brought to their countries, Mauritius and Kenya and India where we have our origins, was remarkable. And I get very saddened by this apology and shame, promulgated by the Left and commenced by the collective guilt that started under Tony Blair, that is pervading our society.”

In Braverman’s view Sir Keir Starmer  is “a child of Blairism in many ways, and that’s what’s very dangerous”  about the Labour Party under his leadership.

She wants the Conservative Party to replace its tree logo with the torch of liberty which was used in Margaret Thatcher’s day, opposes a windfall profits tax and would be happy to have her friend Lord Frost as “a colleague in the Commons”.

Braverman began by defending herself against attacks from the Left, and by insisting that the Government, and she in particular as Attorney General, are staunch upholders of the rule of law.

ConHome: “This hostility from the Left towards you: Nick Cohen has attacked you in The Observer for something you wrote on ConHome in 2019: ‘I was the shy Tory in my Chambers of ‘right-on’ human rights lawyers.’

“According to Cohen, your Chambers was actually full of ‘regular barristers fighting disputes about the licensing of pubs and betting shops, not human rights law’. What’s your response to all this?”

Braverman: “I’m not going to get into an argument about my old set of Chambers. What I will say is that in the late Nineties, when I was at university, when Blair had just won his landslide, it was unpopular to be a Conservative amongst under-30s.

“And I definitely felt that at university, although I was Chairman of Cambridge University Conservative Association, and I had my little close tribe of people.

“But the post-Blair years, in that immediate aftermath of 1997 to 2005 and even onwards, definitely I felt in professional circles in London among the university-educated, liberal arts community, there was definitely a Blairite bias.

“And actually that’s one of the challenges for us, as a 21st-century Conservative Party, we’re actually still dealing with the long tail of Blairism.

“And the legacy issues of that Blair era are what still motivate me to get into politics. I did stand for Parliament in 2005 [she was eventually elected for Fareham in 2015] so maybe I wasn’t that shy. I was able to put my head above the parapet.”

ConHome: “Peter Golds had schooled you, hadn’t he.”

Braverman: “Peter Golds is an old friend of my family and of mine, absolutely, yes. The force of nature that is Peter Golds. But yes, the long tail of Blairism, the creations like the Human Rights Act and the equalities agenda, which has built up a whole industry of people who make their living from rights-based claims, didn’t exist prior to Blair.”

ConHome: “This was also true of your Chambers then?”

Braverman: “I felt they were an excellent Chambers, and I was in the company of excellent lawyers. But I wasn’t out and proud as a flag-waving Tory at work, definitely.

“But I think they all knew I was a Conservative and they tolerated me. But there was no animosity or hostility and I’m not going to throw mud at them. They’re brilliant lawyers.”

ConHome: “Is Sir Keir Starmer a sort of continuation of this whole thing? He’s steeped in it, isn’t he?”

Braverman: “Yes, exactly, he is a child of Blairism in many ways, and that’s what’s very dangerous about a Labour Party under Keir Starmer.

“For the legacy of Blairism we will get quite a feeble approach to common sense, decency, British values.

“And the reasons why I’m a Conservative, my background is one that is ferociously proud of Britain, Britain’s history, Britain’s welcome. My parents were born under the British Empire. They came to this country with a huge fondness for the British Empire.

“What Britain brought to their countries, Mauritius and Kenya and India where we have our origins, was remarkable. And I get very saddened by this apology and shame, promulgated by the Left and commenced by the collective guilt that started under Tony Blair, that is pervading our society.”

ConHome: “The critique of you on the Left is that somehow you are a very political Attorney General, who’s sort of bending the law. So there’s this report in The Financial Times last week which suggested you were casting your net wider for advice on the Northern Ireland Protocol than you really should be.

“The accusation was that you’re going opinion shopping. What’s your response to that claim?”

Braverman: “Well I’m afraid I can’t talk about legal advice or how I’ve reached it, or indeed whether I’ve given it. That’s one of the frustrations of being in this role. I am gagged to a large degree.

“However what is completely normal practice is to consult specialists in their fields. We have gone to outside lawyers because they bring expertise and specialism.

“I think aspersions being cast on lawyers are actually very serious attacks on their professional reputations, when lawyers actually in private practice, they wouldn’t necessarily have a right to reply, and somehow trying to malign them is actually quite dangerous.

“Because lawyers take a case on the merits of the law, and they fight them for legal reasons, not because of political agendas. That’s what good lawyers do anyway.”

ConHome: “Pretty plainly this charge of opinion shopping you reject.”

Braverman: “Yes.”

ConHome: “And your reasoning on the Protocol, this is based on the idea that the Belfast Agreement trumps the Protocol because of something called “primordial significance”?

Braverman: “Again, I can’t get into the legal reasoning of any advice that may or may not have been given. What I can say is that the Foreign Secretary has said there is a lawful basis. We’re going to be issuing a statement in very high-level terms.

“But what we do know, in political terms, is very clear. There is a clear problem in Northern Ireland. I would say there’s an economic problem, the costs being imposed by the application of the Protocol on the trade of goods across the Irish Sea, the diversion of trade is another consequence of that.

“There are problems with the administration and the political institutions, the collapse of Stormont. And I would say there is a more profound challenge to the Good Friday Agreement that has been presented squarely by the Protocol.

“The Good Friday Agreement is premised clearly on the consent of both communities, and depends on a delicate balance and harmony between those two communities.

“The application of the Protocol has put that balance out of kilter and undermined the East-West balance in favour of the North-South balance.

“And therefore the Good Friday Agreement, the foundation of peace, is seriously affected by the operation of the Protocol.”

ConHome: “Without asking you to comment on the particular case, because you can’t, is ‘primordial significance’ a familiar concept in constitutional law?”

Braverman: “I don’t know where you’ve got that term from.”

ConHome: “Well it was quoted in the Financial Times story.”

Braverman: “Well there’s definitely a term in customary international law about the conflicts of treaties.  What’s been very interesting about the rule of law generally, and suggestions that this administration is undermining the rule of law – I take issue with what my friend David Gauke has written about extensively on ConHome – I actually think that these days there is a very high level of reverence for the rule of law.

“I would quote Sumption here. He talks about the empire of law defining our society. You see that by the prolific statutes that Parliament puts out, and regulation, and regulators. You don’t have to look very far in any sector before you come across rules, and checks and balances, and people who make their living trying to sniff out incidents where those rules are broken.

“From a governmental point of view, and on my watch, the government’s got a very good record in court. So it’s actively challenged, in judicial review, and a side issue is the expansion of judicial review that we’ve seen over recent decades, but we are challenged every day in hundreds of instances on all manner of decisions, and on the whole, and in the majority of cases, we win.

“The Good Law Project is one such example. They’ve taken it upon themselves as their raison d’être to challenge us regularly and actually in the majority of cases we’ve won, and they’ve been ordered to pay, at the last count it was £300,000 in our legal costs, and I think that was set to increase actually.

“So they are proving the point that the Government is adhering to the rule of law very very carefully on the whole in terms of our decision-making.

“And lastly I would say when it comes to the rule of law, and this expansion of judicial review, the debate, or the tension you could say between the rule of law and parliamentary supremacy.

“And I think that is an interesting debate, and jurists in the past have taken the view as to which one should prevail. Dicey is the founding father of our constitutional law and sets out how he defines the rule of law but also says that parliamentary supremacy is the foundation.

“He’s echoed by Thomas Bingham, former Lord Chief Justice, in his book, and I would say our modern-day leading mind on this is Richard Ekins.

“And they all say that parliamentary supremacy is the kernel, the founding element of our constitution. And that’s not a creation of the Common Law, that’s not made up by judges, that’s not something that statute can amend.

“I’ve got a quote from Thomas Bingham which I really love, which sums it up very well:

“The British people have not expelled the extraneous power of the papacy in spiritual matters and the pretensions of royal power in temporal in order to subject themselves to the unchallengeable rulings of unelected judges. The constitution should reflect the will of a clear majority of the people.”

“And I think that is where my heart and my legal mind lies. Of course there are many eminent jurists who disagree. Lord Steyn in particular in his decision on Jackson, Lord Hope and Brenda Hale. They are eminent lawyers who have taken another view, and would say that the rule of law acts as a curb and a limit on parliamentary supremacy.”

ConHome: “So you don’t feel the rule of law is undermined if members of the academy, as it’s known, argue that Parliament isn’t sovereign ultimately, and that the last word is with the judges?”

Braverman: “I actually think that partly because of our membership of the European Union, and Brexit, and this is the whole argument of sovereignty, actually, and taking back control – partly because of the Human Rights Act, which has acted, to some degree, as a check on parliamentary supremacy – Parliament, and our legislators, and therefore those representing the will of the people, have assumed a lesser position in our constitution.

“I think it’s now, post-Brexit, reclaiming our sovereignty and writing the next chapter in our history of democratic politics, it’s really up to Parliament and MPs to grasp the nettle of their new-found power.

“A reflection of that is the vibrant debate we have on some of these issues to do with trade deals. The fact that we can have those debates is a reflection of an empowered legislature, a renewed supremacy and sovereignty to Parliament, thanks to Brexit.

“The Rwanda deal, and immigration policy generally, we wouldn’t have been able to debate the substance of our migration policy were we still in the EU.

“The vaccine roll-out and how we were able to do that outside the auspices of the EU. That’s an argument of how our Parliament and our Government has been empowered to take decisions in its own right which have really paid off.”

ConHome: “You think it’s perfectly fine from the point of view of a consensus about the rule of law if some judges and members of the academy take the view that Parliament isn’t really sovereign, and there are certain human rights fundamentals that judges in the last resort must pronounce on?”

Braverman: “I actually think that most judges today don’t want to be dragged into the arena of making these decisions…”

ConHome: “It’s well known you were a Brexiteer. You weren’t just a Brexiteer. You were a Spartan. You voted against Theresa May’s deal three times. You were there with Steve Baker and Mark Francois and the rest of the resistance.

“So tell us a bit about your thinking on that.”

Braverman: “I’m very proud to have been a Spartan, and I think that what’s remarkable about what the Spartans did is that at the time it was incredibly hard. I’d go so far as to say the vote on MV3 was the hardest decision I made in my professional life, because I felt so torn.

“And I know that several of my fellow Spartans felt the same way. For me I had resigned already, I had resigned in November of 2018 over the terms of the deal, and it had been set in stone by that point, and it was clear the Northern Ireland Backstop was fundamentally undemocratic…

“As it got closer to MV3 many people were changing their minds and it was becoming very hard to sustain that position, particularly in the face of accusations of ruining Brexit, the Spartans are killing Brexit, we’re going to end up with a second referendum and Corbyn’s going to get in.

“Accusations of disloyalty to the party. So that was very heavy social and political pressure… It was a very difficult time.

“But I do believe it was thanks to that rebellion that the deal didn’t go through, that Boris secured an 80-seat majority, and actually was able to get Brexit done. He’s the one who started Brexit, this massive, important, transformative mission for our country of which we are reaping many benefits.

“And I think it’s right that we support him in tidying up this outstanding issue of the Protocol now.”

ConHome: “Clearly Brexit and self-government and all that was very important to you. Can you just say a bit more about how your approach to politics developed as you were growing up.”

Braverman: “Well I think there’s definitely this strand of being very grateful to and having a deep love for this country, born out of my parents’ experience of coming here with nothing from former British colonies, my father was effectively exiled from Kenya as part of the Asian diaspora, my mother was recruited as a nurse and came here [from Mauritius] to work for the NHS.

“And they as I said had a real admiration for what Britain meant to them in their childhoods. Britain brought the rule of law. Britain brought statecraft. Britain brought military traditions. Members of my mother’s family fought in World War Two with the British in Egypt.

“Britain brought the civil service. My grandfather on my father’s side worked for the civil service in Kenya. Britain brought huge amounts of good. I think it was Cambridge University that was the examining board for my mother’s O levels. And of course the English language.

“They came here with huge admiration and a sense of great luck and they instilled that in me. Growing up, I come from Wembley, I went to school in Harrow, again your ConHome piece, I really loved what you wrote about the Asian vote wot won it, and I really relate to that.

“What’s wonderful, and I know I’m harking back to the days of empire and the mother country, but there’s a real visceral connection through my parents, growing up, admiring the Queen, and coming to this country, the country offering them opportunities and security.

“And then myself being brought up in a part of London where many Asians congregated, and this is what the Asian vote in Harrow, Wembley, north-west London is defined as, and this is what you picked up on in your column, why they are in growing numbers supporting the Conservatives.

“They are plucky. They are resilient. They are aspirational, ambitious. I’m very proud of the cliché of the Asian doctor or the Asian pharmacist or the Asian lawyer, and we are all products of plucky, pushy Asian parents who wanted to get their kids into the professions, into med school or law school.

“And you see that in modern Britain today. You see that in the Cabinet. Isn’t it remarkable, a Chancellor, Home Secretary, a Health Secretary, a Business Secretary, an Education Secretary, a COP 26 Secretary, an Attorney General, we all have linkages to Britain’s past, and we are now Britain’s present and Britain’s future.

“And that’s informed my conservative philosophy. That pride in our nation, but also the resilience of the individual against the odds.

“And I think my parents were very, very keen to invest in education. The little they had, they put into my education after starting in a state school, in the 1980s beset by strikes. My mother, a huge admirer of Margaret Thatcher, put me into the independent sector.

“My father had some years unemployed in the recession in the 1990s. We really experienced the pain of unemployment. It’s morally debilitating. As the so-called breadwinner in a family it’s crushing.

“And it was reskilling, and getting back into the workplace, that restored his sense of value in our country, and in our family…

“I get very frustrated with these leftie activists who want to decolonise our curriculum and cancel our culture and pull down statues.”

ConHome: “Is this why Ukraine has been such a big thing? Because people feel instinctively these are people who want to have their own country, have their own sovereignty…”

Braverman: “Yes, this is a battle for western civilisation, western values like the rule of law and democracy and civil liberties. Having visited Ukraine very recently, I’ve been working with the Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova for a few months since the conflict started, and I’ve wanted to help her in her mission to keep justice going and prosecute war criminals.

“The Ukrainians are very keen to move quickly, which is quite remarkable. In all of the instances of war crimes prosecutions in the past, they’ve all pretty much started after the end of the conflict.

“Here the conflict is live and they are already beginning their legal processes, which is amazing. They’ve got 11,000 cases, 5,000 suspects. They’ve got hundreds of detained prisoners of war. And just last week she commenced her first prosecution, against a young commander accused of killing an unarmed civilian.

“This is very powerful as a message that people implicated in this illegal war will face very harsh consequences. So I think it’s brilliant. I want to help her on that mission.

“The first thing I’ve done is appoint an expert, Sir Howard Morrison QC, a former war crimes judge. He is working with her, at my behest, on an almost daily basis, advising and supporting her.

“Howard and I went to Ukraine last week to see more close-up where the gaps are and how we might help.

“We’re seeing some emerging evidence now of genocide. I would not want to say definitively, from a legal point of view, but there’s definitely genocidal talk from political leaders in Russia, like eradicating Ukrainians, and we’ve got some stories of forced deportation.”

ConHome: “We’re following very closely the conversation in Russia about genocide, because it’s possible that what may emerge from that is a basis for charges of genocide.”

Braverman: “It’s possible. It’s possible.”

ConHome: “You said this morning there might be in certain circumstances a legal basis for action from this country on cyber. Could there possibly be a legal basis for supplying the Ukrainians with tactical nuclear weapons?”

Braverman: “In the context of cyber what I’m stating in my speech today is that there’s currently a vacuum in terms of rules and frameworks that govern what’s acceptable and unacceptable.

“There’s a principle of non-intervention. And if you were on the receiving end of a hostile activity in cyber space you would have a legal right of retorsion, or counter-measures, which is to take action, proportionate and necessary to remedy the negative effects.

“Very difficult to say yes or no. It would all depend on whether it’s a proportionate response.”

ConHome: “Do you have a view on a windfall tax?”

Braverman: “I don’t think a windfall tax would be a great idea, if I’m honest. I think that we want to incentivise investment. Profits are not an enemy of Conservatives. Profits mean more investment. Profits mean more research. Profits mean more jobs.”

ConHome: “Would you welcome your former colleague, Lord Frost, in the House of Commons?”

Braverman: “Listen, I worked closely with Frosty, he’s a good friend of mine. Yes, having him as a colleague in the Commons would be brilliant.”

ConHome: “Someone said somewhere, this may be quite wrong, that you’d got a view on the party’s logo?”

Braverman: “Oh yes, absolutely, right. So the old logo, the torch of liberty, wouldn’t it be great to bring that back?

“I’m not saying I don’t like the tree, but if we really want to, as I say, stamp out this long tail of Blairism, and define ourselves as Conservatives who value liberty, who trust individuals, who know that it’s responsibilities and duties that bind us as communities, as a country, as families, which actually bring that collective contentment, that’s why I’m a Conservative, then yes, let’s try the torch of liberty.

“I think one of the challenges for us as Conservatives is to make sure we get back to this more responsibility-focussed approach to our responsibilities and our society.

“So when it comes to human rights, and the Equality Act, for example, and I think that those are Blair creations generally, and we are seeing insidious effects of some of the expansionism of the interpretation of rights, this is some of the work that Dominic Raab is doing, I’ve worked with him on this, and we’ve worked closely on the British Bill of Rights.

“But we’ve also seen on the transgender issue, we’re getting into identity politics, which is very divisive, where people’s personal characteristics as defined in rights documents have now become fragmenting of the fabric of our society, and where you’re getting clashes and a lot of uncertainty.

“And that’s why this instance of the girl being thrown out of the school is outrageous. What’s really worrying is there’s a lot of confusion, and actually the Equality Act, there is no duty on schools – legally if you’re under-18 you can’t change sex – so if you are a male child who is saying I’m a trans girl, legally they are still treated as a male child, as a boy, and schools do not need to go to this extreme position of throwing other children out of schools to accommodate this group.

“I believe in aspiration, and that’s why I helped to cofound Michaela School, with Katharine Birbalsingh and Anthony Seldon, I was Chairman of the Governors for several years until we got our first Ofsted rating which was Outstanding, and that is a great template of what high standards, restoring the authority of the teacher, a traditional curriculum, and a zero tolerance approach to discipline can achieve, because we have turned around children who came to us at 11 with a reading and numeracy age of way below where they should be.”

Crick shows how Farage forced the Conservative Party to pull itself together and get Brexit done

4 Mar

One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage by Michael Crick

There is a marvellous insolence about Michael Crick. Nobody questions the fleeing politician better than he does – see this highly enjoyable compilation of some of his greatest moments as a television reporter.

Crick adds insult to injury by sounding polite. He conveys an innocent desire to get the answer to some inquiry about which the politician, hastening along the pavement or through the conference centre, is too embarrassed to speak.

The vain attempt by Crick’s quarry to look at ease, the unconvincing pretence of deafness, the search for some lavatory in which to hide, gratify our desire to see our politicians taken down a peg or two.

And that is something which Nigel Farage, the subject of Michael Crick’s latest biography, is very good at too. Brexit felt so satisfying to its supporters because it was a way of confounding the prosy, prating liberals who thought they could tell everyone else what to think and how to vote.

Crick begins with high drama:

“Sweating heavily, the pilot put out a Mayday call. His passenger awaited his fate, having decided there was nothing he could do, or say, to help. He considered calling or texting his ‘nearest and dearest’, but didn’t see how that would assist much either. He thought about lighting a cigarette, but then remembered how a lot of fuel might be spilt if the aircraft had to crash-land.

“Which it soon did.”

That was Farage on election day in 2010, when he was standing against John Bercow in Buckingham, and went up in a small plane towing a banner which bore the words:

VOTE FOR YOUR COUNTRY – VOTE UKIP

The banner got wrapped round the rudder, the plane crashed, and Farage and the pilot, Justin Adams, were extremely lucky to survive.

Adams did not remain lucky. His mental health deteriorated, his business and marriage collapsed, and he threatened to kill Farage, whom he blamed for ruining his life.

In 2013, Adams committed suicide. It is characteristic of Crick that he relates these unhappy events in some detail.

Crick writes of Farage:

“This is the extraordinary story of one of the most important politicians of modern British history; he’s been a more significant player than most leaders of the traditional political parties, more influential than quite a few prime ministers. Nigel Farage is the only man ever to have won a nationwide election as leader of an insurgent party. And he managed that astonishing feat twice, five years apart, leading two different parties. Yet Farage has never been elected to the House of Commons, never served as a government minister and will almost certainly never achieve either role. He will go down as one of the great political communicators of our age, a man with a rare instinctive feel for public opinion, yet someone who managed to fall out with many of those, in his parties and beyond, who were committed to the very same cause.”

All this is true. I am well aware that Farage is still alive, still communicating via GB News, and that politics is full of surprises. But for the purposes of this review I shall follow Crick and assume that Farage’s political career is probably over.

Why was Farage such a success, and such a failure? The success sprang from his ability to attack the Establishment prigs from the opposite direction to the one they expected.

They assumed that any young firebrand would be even more progressive, even more pro-European, even more susceptible to every bit of fashionable claptrap than they were themselves.

Instead of which, Farage came before the British public as a City trader, a man in a pin-striped suit and a covert coat, with an unconcealed love of golf, cricket, fishing and military history, and at the end of a hard morning on the London Metal Exchange utterly delighted to go for a proper, old-fashioned lunch with any amount to drink. According to Crick,

“The favourite venue was the eighteenth-century Simpson’s Tavern, in Ball Court, a narrow alleyway off Cornhill, which served traditional steaks and chops, and spotted dick for pudding, and which boasts of being ‘the oldest chophouse in London’.”

Crick reminds us that the City in the 1980s was a mixture of public-school types such as Farage and barrow-boys from Essex. Farage himself has written:

“I liked the mix in the City – nobody cared how posh or how rough you were; you were rated on how much money you could make.”

Huge energy, high-stakes risk-taking, the go-for-it spirit and a complete absence of cant: these were useful qualities if you wanted to go into politics, where many of the established figures suffered from low energy, risk aversion, the safety-first spirit and an incurable addiction to spouting high-minded platitudes, usually in order to conceal even from themselves their reluctance to get to grips with things.

Just as he had plunged straight into the City without first having his head filled with nonsense at university, so Farage plunged straight into politics, and discovered what worked, and what didn’t, by actually having a go, indeed by having many goes, during none of which did he manage to gain election to the House of Commons, for he provoked enmity as well as adulation.

There is far too much in Crick’s book – far too much for this reader, at least – about the details of UKIP’s internal intrigues. David Cameron sought, as Conservative leader from 2005 and Prime Minister from 2010, to finesse the European issue, and to get his MPs to stop banging on about it.

Farage at the head of UKIP prospered in this empty space; forced Cameron to concede, in the Bloomberg speech of January 2013, a referendum on EU membership; and continued ten weeks later to advance in the local elections.

Here’s what a certain newspaper columnist wrote just before those elections in The Daily Telegraph:

“Take Nigel Farage, whom I met years ago and who has always struck me as a rather engaging geezer. He’s anti-pomposity, he’s anti-political correctness, he’s anti-loony Brussels regulation. He’s in favour of low tax, and sticking up for small business, and sticking up for Britain.

“We Tories look at him – with his pint and cigar and sense of humour – and we instinctively recognise someone who is fundamentally indistinguishable from us. He’s a blooming Conservative, for heaven’s sake; and yet he’s in our constituencies, wooing our audiences, nicking our votes, and threatening to put our councillors out of office. We feel the panic of a man confronted by his Doppelgänger…

“Rather than bashing UKIP, I reckon Tories should be comforted by their rise – because the real story is surely that these voters are not turning to the one party that is meant to be providing the official opposition. The rise of UKIP confirms a) that a Tory approach is broadly popular and b) that in the middle of a parliament, after long years of recession, and with growth more or less flat, the Labour Party is going precisely nowhere.”

Crick quotes part of this, which impelled me to reread the whole piece, in which one finds Boris Johnson – at this time Mayor of London – indicating how under a new leader – who will need to be a showman and a risk-taker as unabashedly old-fashioned in manner as Farage – the Conservatives can win back those UKIP voters.

The second to last chapter in this 550-page book is called Nigel versus Boris. We have reached the showdown between the showmen.

Farage, who has an unfortunate tendency to fall out with his allies, is by now leading a specially created vehicle, the Brexit Party, which in the European elections of May 2019 took 30.5 per cent of the vote, while the Conservatives fell to fifth place (the Greens were fourth) with a derisory 8.8 per cent.

This was the death zone for the Tories. May announced she was stepping down, and Johnson won the leadership race because he was the only candidate who could be relied on to beat Farage.

“The moment Boris was elected our support started to slip away,” the then Chairman of the Brexit Party, Richard Tice, told Crick.

Johnson had reunited the Tory tribe, an achievement overlooked by those who focus on his ability to woo Labour voters.

By November 2019 the Brexit Party was pitifully weak, and as a source at the centre of the party told Crick at the time:

“Now the whole house is coming down; now the recriminations begin; now it’s an absolute bloodbath. It is like in Downfall where Hitler is dismissing his generals…It’s total chaos.The Tories have absolutely outmanoeuvred Tice and Farage. It’s over.”

On 11 November 2019 Farage was forced to announce the withdrawal of the Brexit Party’s candidates in all 317 seats won by the Conservatives in 2017. In the general election held on 12 December Farage’s party got a derisory two per cent of the vote.

What a reversal of fortune! Crick’s admirable account shows us a man who was brilliant at disrupting, but no good at co-operating, and whose greatest achievement may well have been to force the Conservative Party to pull itself together and get Brexit done.

Profile: Steve Baker, Christian Conservative, ERG organiser, small stater – and thorn in Johnson’s side

22 Dec

“The more Steve Baker is in the papers, the worse the Conservative Party is doing,” a senior Tory remarked this week.

Baker is in the papers quite a bit. Sam Coates of Sky News reported a few days ago that Baker had sacked Nadine Dorries from the “Clean Global Brexit” WhatsApp group of Tory MPs, after she had the temerity to defend Boris Johnson as “the hero who delivered Brexit”.

“Enough is enough,” Baker declared on removing her, and posted a thumbs-up emoji of himself, before suggesting that the Conservatives’ victory at the last general election was by no means entirely thanks to Johnson:

“Someone (ahem) but not him persuaded Farage not to run against incumbents.”

George Parker of The Financial Times cites another striking comment by Baker, made during last week’s rebellion by 99 Conservative backbenchers:

“There is now a party within a party,” winced one Tory official after the Commons vote. Steve Baker, a former minister, quoted Romans to fellow rebels in a WhatsApp message, urging them to show magnanimity as they inflicted humiliation on the prime minister: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Baker’s Christian faith is more important to him than his politics, though for most purposes the two are indistinguishable. He was baptised in the sea off his native Cornwall as a teenager, and told Sebastian Whale, who wrote a long piece about him for PoliticsHome at the start of 2020:

“‘It is absolutely fundamental to who I am that I am a Christian. I don’t think of myself as a religious person, I just am a Christian.’… When asked if there is space for religion and politics to co-exist, Baker replies: ‘What happens I’m afraid with my Christian brothers and sisters, as so often in politics, is they allow themselves to be shown the landmine and then they jump on the landmine with both feet.’ His political mantra is: ‘Do not give into evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it.'”

His determination to combine confrontation of evil with practical politics is seen in his role as the principal organiser of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Conservatives.

“He is one of the most organised and effective people you could work with,” a senior ERG person told ConHome. “He understands technology – he knows how to make systems work.”

But Baker is no dry-as-dust technocrat, Two days before the third Meaningful Vote, held on 29th March 2019, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, told Conservative MPs at a meeting of the 1922 Committee that if they voted for the Withdrawal Agreement, she would in due course stand down as Prime Minister and as their leader.

The pressure on members of the ERG to support the deal was intense, with other Conservatives shouting at them to do so. But immediately afterwards, the ERG held a meeting of its own, which was addressed by Baker, who said:

“I am consumed by a ferocious rage…after that pantomime of sycophancy and bullying next door.

“It is a rage I have not felt since the time of the Lisbon Treaty, when I realised that those who govern us care not how we vote.

“For what did our forebears fight and die? It was for our liberty. And what is our liberty, if not our right to govern ourselves, peacefully at the ballot box?

“Like all of you, I have wrestled with my conscience, with the evidence before me, with the text of the Treaty, and I resolved that I would vote against this deal however often it was presented, come what may, if it meant the fall of the Government and the destruction of the Conservative Party.

“By God, right now, if I think of the worthless, ignorant cowards and knaves in the House today, voting for things they do not understand, which would surrender our right to govern ourselves, I would tear this building down and bulldoze the rubble into the river. God help me, I would.”

The speech is printed in Spartan Victory, by Mark Francois, which will be reviewed on ConHome in January. And one can perhaps see from it why someone like Andrew Mitchell, in whose recent book, reviewed here in October, Baker is not mentioned once, nevertheless told ConHome:

“Steve Baker is as straight as a die. He is unusual in politics in that he says what he thinks and means what he says. His instincts on liberty and the rights of the citizen are thoroughly admirable.”

But some Tories do find Baker, with his willingness to contemplate the fall of the Government, destruction of the Conservative Party and demolition of Parliament, a bit much to take.

In his Diaries, reviewed here in May, Sir Alan Duncan, admittedly a man ready to be annoyed, variously describes Baker as “the most useless minister”, “the little wanker”, “the vacuous little upstart”, “the turd” and “the nutjob” who “should be taken away by the men in white coats and certified as clinically insane”.

One cannot help feeling astonished that Conservative Party has remained, roughly speaking, intact.

Baker was born in Cornwall in 1971. His father was a carpenter and his mother an accounting clerk. He was educated at Poltair School in St Austell, studied Aerospace Engineering at Southampton University, and served in the RAF until 1999, after which he took an MSc in Computation at St Cross College, Oxford and held a variety of senior positions as a software engineer and consultant. His wife, Beth, served as a senior officer in the RAF medical branch until 2010.

His enthusiasms include skydiving, motorcycling, and Austrian economics, about which he discoursed with evangelical fervour when interviewed by ConHome in 2014.

The economics, and his conviction that a small state is better for the poor, came before the politics. Daniel Hannan has said of him:

“He is one of the few people who I have seen physically flinch at the thought of the Government spending more money. Really, his issue was not initially the EU except insofar as he was generally sceptical of big government and saw the EU as part of that. The Euroscepticism developed out of that.”

Wycombe was the first seat Baker put in for, and with his innocent boyish sincerity, and a twinkle in his eye, he carried all before him, and defeated Kwasi Kwarteng in the final of the selection process.

He was elected in 2010 with a majority of 9,560, which shrank in 2019 to 4,214. In Parliament, he has distinguished himself as an organiser of rebellions.

After the 2017 general election, Theresa May made him a junior minister in the Brexit department, but after she had tried to sell her version of Brexit to the Cabinet at Chequers in the summer of 2018, and his departmental minister, David Davis, had resigned, Baker too resigned, and resumed the life of a rebel organiser, for which, perhaps, he is better suited.

And yet most insurgents dream of taking over one day. That, along with the moral unacceptability of the present regime, is why they rebelled in the first place.

One may surmise that Baker is not spared such visions. He sees with brilliant clarity how he would reform the banking system, so at last it accords with the principles set down by Cobden and von Mises.

Baker is only 50. He is said to want, like most of his colleagues, to succeed Boris Johnson as leader. In August of this year, he got 4.69 per cent in the first ConHome Next Tory Leader survey for two years. He can build on that.

Vox Pub in Sidcup: “I think that Boris will get in and Labour will have to have a rethink”.

1 Dec

The traveller who arrives in Sidcup by train and turns up Station Road towards the town centre comes almost at once upon a sign to Orpington, scene of the astonishing Liberal by-election triumph in 1962.

It would be still more astonishing if the Liberal Democrats were to win tomorrow’s by-election in Old Bexley and Sidcup. In the Alma pub, just off Station Road, the Lib Dems were mentioned only once, by a voter still angry with them for supporting the Conservatives in 2010.

Many more people mentioned Labour, but again in tones of anger and disappointment, with Sir Keir Starmer not yet thought to have made the party fit for its former supporters to return to, and a vote for the Conservatives still reckoned by some to be needed in order to make Labour come to its senses.

Several people mentioned Richard Tice, who is standing for Reform UK, successor to the Brexit Party, but no one thought he is as formidable a campaigner as Nigel Farage.

Boris Johnson came in for heavy criticism from Conservative voters for his recent performances, but few could yet name an alternative leader they would rather see in Downing Street.

Hence perhaps the confused state of British politics: Johnson has become less popular, but no clear rival to him has emerged, and even some of his critics said they will still vote Conservative in the by-election, or indeed that they have already done so by post.

A curious dynamic could be detected, whereby Labour might help to prop up the Tory vote by itself being even less convincing.

James Brokenshire, who died on 7th October, held Old Bexley and Sidcup for the Conservatives at the last general election with a majority of 18,952 over Labour, who received 10,834 votes, with the Lib Dems in third place on 3,822.

So Labour ought to be the main challenger here, but Sir Keir has stayed away from the by-election, and may have timed this week’s Shadow Cabinet reshuffle to forestall criticism in the event of a weak performance tomorrow.

The Lib Dems recently showed what can be done in a by-election by turning the Tory majority of 16,223 in Chesham and Amersham into a majority for their candidate of 8,028.

It would be amazing if Labour achieve anything comparable in Old Bexley and Sidcup, especially when one considers the story of this man, who works in insurance and wants to “punish Labour”:

“I’m not from South-East London [Sidcup is on the border with Kent]. I’m from East London. I’ve been here for 20 years.

“I grew up in Cable Street, Stepney. My parents were Irish Catholics, working class, who came over here in the 1950s.

“I first voted in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher got in. I despised her politics – she was a fantastic politician, I respected what she did, but I was never going to be a Tory.

“I voted for a Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson! The only thing I would say is the reason I did that was I was actually trying to punish the Labour Party for being so absolutely stupid.

“I just hated and despised them for finding a winning formula [under Blair], and then moving to the Left. And then Corbyn – are you completely mad?

“He’s like Dennis Skinner and those guys – I admire them for the fact they stick to their principles – Tony Benn, Michael Foot, great men – but Corbyn, I just thought you cannot be serious.

“Tony Blair – he won three elections – two landslides.

“We didn’t win because we didn’t take it far enough to the Left? Are you stupid?

“So what do you do, you put up Boris Johnson who is the antithesis of Jeremy Corbyn and he wins and takes your heartlands away from you.”

ConHome: “What do you think of Keir?”

The insurance worker: “I like him. He is a good guy. I think he’s fighting an internal battle that I’m not sure he’s going to win.”

ConHome: “And what do you think of Boris Johnson?”

The insurance worker: “He might get away with it. He is what he is. He wouldn’t be my choice of PM in a million years. I think he’ll get in and Labour will have to have a rethink.

“In 2019 I voted Tory for the first time ever. I didn’t vote for Boris. I got very annoyed when the Liberals went with the Tories. I got so annoyed with Labour when they went for Corbyn.

“This experiment of going Left didn’t work, so they went further Left! I am Labour, and Tony Blair gave me the Labour Party I wanted.

“I voted Tory in the by-election [by post] because I’m still pissed off with the Labour Party. They need to persuade me.

“I do beat myself up voting Tory. I’m one of those people, I have to vote. I’m just that annoyed. Someone that grew up on Cable Street, in Stepney, Tower Hamlets as it’s now called, I shouldn’t be in this position. Labour need to persuade me to vote for them again.”

A retired man having a drink with two of his friends said: “It’s sad that the incumbent MP has died. I’ve not met the new MP. I’m a traditional Conservative voter and I will vote Conservative, I have already [by post].

“But my comment would be it’s time Boris went and we got someone more competent in the job. We call him the buffoon.”

Second man: “I think he did well with Covid.”

The first man: “I support the Conservative Party but I’m not a member of the Conservative Party. I’m not quite sure who there is who I’d like to take over.

“He falls over his tongue so often it’s embarrassing. And now he’s upset Macron again, not that that’s difficult to do. He’s texted him a letter. What’s he doing behaving like a teenager?”

Third man: “I’ve been Conservative most of my life. I’m not sure about Boris lately. Just lately he’s been a bit of an idiot.”

First man: “At the back of my road there’s the playing fields. The Round Table on Guy Fawkes Night would always have a fireworks display to raise money for charity. I was waiting with some of my friends and we saw Ted Heath rushing down the road with some policemen.”

Heath, who died in 2001, served as MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup until 2001, having first won the seat of Bexley (which had different boundaries) by 133 votes from Labour in 1950.

“I said, ‘Mr Heath, would you like to come for a short cut through here?’ He said ‘Thank you very much’ and his shoulders shook.”

So he showed Heath through his own house and back garden onto the playing fields. He remembered the former Prime Minister with respect:

“He was a good constituency MP. I had cause to write to him on a couple of occasions and I always got a reply. I think he was a nice chap and he suffered a lot at the hands of the press. I guess if you put yourself in that position you have to put up with it.”

Not all Conservative voters will stick with the party tomorrow. Richard Payne, aged 72, who until the age of 44 was a foreign exchange dealer but later worked as a milkman and a plumber, said he could be called “pissed off from Sidcup”, and will “definitely” be voting for Reform UK:

“Well I think the Government’s in a state. The Tories are letting everyone down. Boris is letting everyone down. Immigration, people coming over willy-nilly, it’s ridiculous.

“They’re kowtowing to the French all the time. We didn’t vote for that. And believe it or not, I’m a lifelong Tory supporter. I’ve always voted Conservative in the past.

“At the end of the day you need strong leadership. And the only person in my time who’s had strong leadership is Maggie. She’s my hero.

“To begin with, Boris was all right. All right, he’s had a tough time with the pandemic, it’s not easy to walk into something that’s never been known.”

ConHome: “He got Brexit done?”

Payne: “Well yeah, but he wouldn’t have got back in otherwise. His trade agreement with the EU wasn’t much better than Theresa May came out with, and that was rubbish.

“As far as I’m concerned you can forget Labour. Blair was bad. Corbyn was even worse. Starmer reminds me of John Major. Faceless. Grey man.

“Excuse me. We’ve got to look after the British people. You’ve got to look after your own. The duty of a government is to protect its people. If Nigel Farage was standing I’d vote for him. He seems to be the only one who’s got the courage of his convictions.”

ConHome: “What’s the name of the guy who’s taken over from Farage?”

“Richard Tice. He hasn’t got his persona. I can’t believe that Farage would not be there in the background. This really came out in the Brexit vote. He was saying stop all the immigrants coming over. He was accused of being racist. We do need immigrants obviously, but not uncontrolled. It has to be controlled.

“The NHS is a – forget the NHS – I’ve been waiting for a knee operation for goodness knows how long. I can’t get to see my doctor. They said you need a new knee three years ago.

“He’s done a good job in rolling out the vaccinations. I’m not anti-vax. I’ve had them all. Booster. Flu jab. If they had another booster I’d have that.

“Boris has got to follow through with it. It’s no good promising the world and you end up with nothing, or very little. You can’t keep deceiving the British public. If Labour had a stronger leader he might well get kicked out.

“There’s too many bleeding heart liberals in the country. There are. I’m not racist. Racism is a two-way street, but it doesn’t seem to work that way in reality. We can’t call these people coming over in boats illegal immigrants, we’ve got to call them migrants.

“He’s trying to appease everybody and you can’t do that. You’ve got to say this is where we stand and that’s it. But he doesn’t do it.

“If he doesn’t pull his finger out he’s going to be out.

“Though without the help of Macron we can’t do anything, and Macron is a little shit, all five foot three inches of him. Him, Sarkozy, Napoleon. At the end of the day, I don’t think the French people hate the English. It’s just him.”

Before going to the Alma, I spoke to a group of six ladies, friends from Holy Trinity Church, who had just had lunch in the Pascal Bistro, Station Road, and were drinking coffee.

“Jeremy Brokenshire will be a very, very hard act to follow,” one of them said.

“We miss Jeremy terribly,” a second agreed.

“The young man who’s being put forward [by the Conservatives, Louie French], I’m glad he’s local, but otherwise we don’t know anything about him,” the first woman remarked.

“He sounds all right to me,” a third said.

“We haven’t really heard anything about him,” a fourth said.

“We’ve had lots of literature. But then I’ve had a bit from Reform UK and from Labour,” the first woman said.

“I think the Conservatives will get in because of the area.” the second woman declared. “I will vote Conservative – I can’t imagine voting for anyone else. But just recently there’ve been a number of gaffes and I don’t think that’s going to help.”

“He’s making silly mistakes,” the first woman said. “For example the open letter to the French president. What’s that all about, stupid man?”

“Whoever happened to come in just at the beginning of the pandemic was going to have a difficult time,” the second woman said.

“But there was nothing wrong with that letter,” a fifth woman put in. “Apparently it was read out on the radio to a French MP and he agreed with every item on it.”

“So why did they cancel the invitation to Priti Patel?” the first woman asked.

“We don’t like him to make mistakes,” the second woman said.

“We like Boris,” the first woman said. “For a few years I voted for the Green Party.”

“Bring back Margaret Thatcher, that’s what I say,” the fifth woman said.

Gales of laughter, and cries of “No! No!” from some of her friends.

“I voted for Margaret Thatcher but I’ve completely changed my views since,” the first woman said.

“I would be surprised if they weren’t voted in again,” the second said. “The Reform guy has been round door to door,” she added.

“He’s certainly put in the hours of work,” the first agreed.

It did not sound to me as if Reform is going to peel off a very large chunk of the Tory vote. But I may have been misled by the sheer friendliness with which I was received by almost everyone in Sidcup.

Interview: Osborne – “Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. In terms of local taxation, double it.”

29 Nov

George Osborne urges Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and their colleagues to pursue devolution of powers to metro mayors with indefatigable determination:

“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of local taxation, double it.”

Osborne recounts how as Chancellor of the Exchequer he launched the Northern Powerhouse, abandoned during Theresa May’s prime ministership but now revived by Johnson as the centrepiece of the present Government’s levelling up agenda.

He looks forward to the forthcoming White Paper about levelling up, on which Gove and Neil O’Brien are at work:

“I’m optimistic about the White Paper because of who’s drafting it, and I would only tell them, not that they need my advice, to trample over anyone who gets in the way.”

In Osborne’s view, the benefits of elected mayors should be spread to the English counties, regardless of any opposition from Conservative councillors:

“The Conservative Party is quite easily led if it’s given a strong direction.”

At the end of the interview, he dismisses as “nonsense” the idea that Johnson needs a new team of advisers, and insists that success lies within the Prime Minister’s grasp.

Osborne describes how, having spent his childhood in London – “I’d grown up I guess with that world view that nothing of any importance happened outside the M25” – he came round, after becoming MP for a northern seat, to the idea of decisive action to revive the cities of the North of England.

He urges the Government to be ambitious:

“I would say…to the current crop of Conservative ministers and to the Prime Minister…you never know how long you’ve got in office, and the wheel turns, and then suddenly you’re out.

“And I can tell you as someone who’s been out of office and out of politics for five years, you look back on the big things you feel you got right, and they’re often the things against which there was the most opposition, the hardest internal arguments in your party, but they’re also the most rewarding things.”

ConHome: “Let’s start with a broad-brush question. How do you think the Government’s doing?”

Osborne: “I think the Government has every opportunity to be a great success, and it has hit what all Governments hit, which is that kind of mid-term moment when people think, you know, is the focus there, is the direction there, are they going to deliver.

“It’s not unique to the Boris Johnson Government. Something quite similar happened to the Cameron Government in 2012, 2013.

“And, you know, we got our act together and won an election. And so it’s perfectly within the capability of Boris Johnson and his team to do the same. But they do need to act.”

ConHome: “How do you assess their chances of winning the next election?”

Osborne: “Well the odds are greatly in favour of the Conservatives winning, because the Labour Party has not yet done enough in my view to make itself electable.

“Though Keir Starmer is a very presentable Leader of the Opposition, he has not distanced himself from the Jeremy Corbyn era enough, apologised to the public for presenting Corbyn to the country as a serious candidate for Prime Minister.

“He has not done internal reform to reduce the influence of the trade unions.

“When I look back at my own career, I spent half my time in Government and half my time in Opposition. Opposition is in many ways harder than Government, because you don’t have the kind of natural agenda that a Government has.

“You certainly don’t have the full weight of the British state carrying you forward. The Leader of the Opposition – the Shadow Chancellor, which I was for five years – if they don’t do something that day, nothing’s going to happen.

“And if you look at the enormous efforts which Gordon Brown and Tony Blair went through in the 1990s – I was at the time a junior staff person in Downing Street and I saw at first hand their efforts to make the Labour Party electable.

“If you think of the huge efforts that David Cameron and myself and the people we worked with went through 15 years ago to make the Conservative Party electable, you just don’t see the hunger, the effort, the appetite in the Labour Party at the moment to do what is required to win back the trust of the British people.

“But the Conservative Party cannot just sit there and rely on their opponents failing to get their act together.

“And if the Labour Party were to get its act together, which is perfectly possible, there are still a couple of years to go until the election, yes, then the Conservative Party could be in real trouble.

“It doesn’t need to be, because it has all the instruments at its disposal to make itself eminently electable and to get itself re-elected.”

ConHome: “So let’s get on to the main subject of the interview, which is the Northern Powerhouse, devolution, elected mayors and all that.

“The Treasury is often viewed as an anti-localism, anti-devolution department. In Opposition, you yourself were a bit of a sceptic about localism.

“When did you become a convert to localism and mayors, and why?”

Osborne: “Yes, my own thinking on this did change over time. I remember early on thinking the Conservative Party had made a mistake in not initially opposing the creation of the Mayor of London.

“And then once we got into office, I think the definition of localism we had was a little bit limited. It was all about giving parish councils a bit more power over planning.

“There were some ideas, actually from the Liberal Democrats, that there had to be a referendum, because at that time there were lots of Liberal Democrat councillors in those cities.

“And so the whole agenda basically went nowhere for the first two or three years of the Government I was part of, and I guess around 2012, 2013, essentially the kind of emergency job on the economy was beginning to bear fruit and we were moving out of the financial crisis period, I became very focussed on what we could do with our opportunity of being in Government to tackle the really, really big economic problems the country faced, rather than the very immediate ones of the deficit and the recovery from the financial crisis.

“And I guess because I was a northern MP, you know, I’d grown up in London, educated in London, I’d grown up I guess with that world view that nothing of any importance happened outside the M25, and one of the luckiest and best things that happened to me in my political career was that I got selected for a seat in the North of England.

“It completely changed my perspective on the country, and it changed my perspective on how the rest of the country sees London.

“And for a long time I was one of only a couple of MPs for the Conservative Party who were even remotely close to Manchester. There was basically me and Graham Brady.

“And I’d already begun to get more involved as an Opposition MP in what we could do in Manchester as a party. I supported for example the BBC’s move to Salford.

“All this kind of thinking was evolving in my head, and we got to the middle period of the Government, 2013, and I thought why not take on the biggest domestic challenge of all, which is that the North of England has lagged behind the South – and the greatest political challenge, which was that people thought the Conservative Party had nothing to say about that.

“So it was both an economic and a political challenge, and I threw myself into it, and the Treasury is sceptical of devolution, for the simple reason that it always has to pay up when devolution fails, because people will not let local public services fail, let cities fail, and in the end the Treasury has to step it.

“But the Treasury is also an amazing department, full of incredibly talented and committed people, and if they’re given direction, they have the best chance of anyone in Government of delivering.

“And so with a selection of very talented civil servants, one in particular, John Kingman; my special adviser at the time, Neil O’Brien; with one of my Treasury ministers at the time, Jim O’Neill; we really focussed on would it be possible to reverse a century-old trend in British economic geography.

“High Speed Rail was already there, in fact an idea originally born of the Conservative Opposition, not the Labour Government, so High Speed Rail, High Speed Rail across the Pennines, and devolution and the creation of metro mayors, not just city mayors which had been the original idea in 2010.

“And so a much bigger economic geography than just Manchester city centre, they’ve got all of of Greater Manchester including places like Bolton, Bury and so on, and within Merseyside, South Yorkshire and so on, real devolution, allied with a big commitment to what I would call the social capital of the cities, the teaching hospitals, the universities, the science facilities, the cultural facilities, that would make these cities really attractive places to live and to commute to work in, so that it would also help the surrounding towns.

“And that became known as the Northern Powerhouse because the speech I gave launching it was in the Power Hall of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, and right from the start in the front row I had Labour councillors, the Leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, who’s just retiring, the then Leader of Liverpool, and so on.

“So right from the start I thought it was never going to work if it’s not a bipartisan effort, and they’re never going to trust the Conservative Government, these big Labour urban fiefdoms, if they don’t see that there’s a Chancellor who’s prepared to share the credit with them.

“And I always thought the political gain, which was very much a secondary consideration, would flow from that. People would blame the Government when things go wrong, they would give the Government credit if things went right.

“If I have a regret it’s that I’d have either started earlier or had longer in office, to really cement it, because we made enormous progress in those subsequent three or four years, we got metro mayors created in all these places, which people had been trying for decades to set up.

“We got the plans in place for the railways, we created organisations like Transport for the North, so there was enormous progress.

“We then hit unfortunately the buffers of the Theresa May Government. She was not interested in it and basically ditched it.

“And then what excites me genuinely is that the Boris Johnson Government – which calls it levelling up, which is a good slogan – had doubled down on something I thought was very important.

“So all the political stars are aligned. Of course the really hard thing in government is then actually getting the job done.”

ConHome: “Was there ever any element of wanting to push the responsibility for public spending consolidation out and down to local authorities, many of them Labour?”

Osborne: “Well yes, at the time the country was spending too much, whether at national or at local level, so there were reductions in local authority budgets.

“But we gave them more freedom, we removed a lot of the ring fences that dictated how they spent money, something I think we should go much further with.

“If I had my time again, I would have doubled down on that.

“We explicitly said, for example, if they allowed more development in their area then they would keep the proceeds, the extra council tax receipts which would come from having more homes, the extra business rates which would come from having more businesses.

“Until then they didn’t see any benefit from that, so there was zero incentive to consent to planning or to encourage economic growth.

“One of my proudest achievements was that by the time we left office Manchester was the fastest growing city in Europe. And that was certainly not all down to me and I pay a lot of credit to people like the Labour Leader Richard Leese and people who worked for him and around him.

“I should particularly credit by the way Howard Bernstein, who was the Chief Executive of the Council, who was also brilliant.

“And that partnership really delivered Manchester. And we were starting to deliver in Liverpool, in Sheffield, in Leeds, in Newcastle and so on, and I think laid the groundwork for the Conservative revival in Tees Valley as well.

ConHome: “You outlined what you did in terms of allowing councils to keep more of business rates and so on. How far do you think the tax-raising powers should go, and what should the Government do?”

Osborne: “I think you could go quite a lot further. I think you could give local authorities, I wouldn’t do it at an individual council level, I think it has to be at a metro level or a big county level, but I don’t see why you couldn’t give them their own proper business-rate raising powers.

“So it’s a choice an area would make, you could either cut your local taxes to encourage business, or you could raise your taxes and spend on infrastructure.

“I think it’s worth looking at local income taxes as a supplement. I mean after all we have that arrangement in Scotland, I wouldn’t necessarily say you have to go that far in English devolution, but I was one of the architects as Chancellor of giving Scotland more tax-raising powers, and I think as a result, by the way, the SNP is being held much more to account for its own domestic performance, and they can’t keep saying we want more money from Westminster, because everyone goes hold on, you’ve got the power to raise taxes if you want to.

“So the public are not stupid. I think it’s really interesting that when the metro mayors have come up for re-election, the good ones have been re-elected – Andy Street in Birmingham, I was also very involved in creating a West Midlands Mayor.

“I’ll give you a local example where I don’t particularly agree with the approach the Government is taking, in London, where I was for several years editor of The Evening Standard.

“Sadiq Khan is saying Transport for London – we’re having a set-to about a Tube strike – he is the Mayor, he’s the Chairman of Transport for London, and he should have responsibility for running the transport system in London.

“And the freedom to run that system as he sees fit, to raise fares if he is prepared to. And what’s happened instead is the Government has stepped in and is trying to micromanage how he runs Transport for London.

“I would let him take responsibility, because then I think the public would say, ‘Are you doing it well?’

“At the moment you’re giving him a free pass of saying ‘Well, you know, the Government’s not giving me enough money.’

“I suspect it’s not a ministerial failing, it’s just the Whitehall system seeks to take control when it has the opportunity – it’s often the simpler solution to a problem, when, you know, Covid means the Tube’s gone bust.

“But the harder solution, but the better one, is to put the Mayor in charge.

“I think it’s a great shame that Transport for the North has been downgraded – I would upgrade it with more powers, make it more like Transport for London.

“I would give the metro mayors more responsibility. For example, we devolved the NHS in Manchester, which was a really bold thing to do.

“It’s the only place in England where that’s the case. It integrates social care. There’s no reason why the Conservatives should be afraid of this.

“Fundamentally, it should be in the Conservative DNA, if you go back to Edmund Burke etcetera, that they trust local communities.

“I remember at the time, when we started all this, there were some prominent members of the Cabinet who said, ‘We’re just handing power to the Labour Party in Birmingham and Teesside and so on – we’ll never ever have Conservatives elected there.’

“And I would reply, ‘We don’t have Conservatives there at the moment – it’s not as if we’re starting from a position of giving away power.’

“And the election of Conservative metro mayors in the West Midlands and in Teesside essentially proved that point. And I would also say there’s nothing really to be lost.

“The best news at the moment from my point of view is that Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien have been given the opportunity to demonstrate this, because I think they’re two of the smartest and most creative Conservative thinkers we’ve got at the moment.

“And I would just say – well they don’t need my advice, they’re both good friends of mine – just let them get on with it.

“Every time you’re confronted with something which is, you know, ‘Oooh, should we trim a little, this is a little bit too radical, the Treasury’s got a problem with this,’ I would go for the reverse.

“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of local tax-raising powers, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolving the NHS, double or triple it.

“That is why we have ministers, and we have political leadership in government: to push the system where it doesn’t want to go. For the Conservatives, this is really the once in a generation opportunity to show the whole country it can deliver.

“And if you just limit yourself to a couple of town-centre funds, which by the way the Cameron Government had, the Blair Government had, they’re not new, that’s not what’s needed.

“What’s needed is proper economic theory about creating big economic clusters in the North, bringing the cities closer together, connecting them to the towns that surround them, connecting them with real transport links that work, and attracting business, which cannot be done by the public sector alone, which is another classic mistake.

“You’ve got to make business feel that these are the places to go to, to create jobs and invest, the wonders of the free market will then work, and in a way that no Government White Paper will ever predict, real activity will happen.

“I’m optimistic about the White Paper because of who’s drafting it, and I would only tell them, not that they need my advice, to trample over anyone who gets in the way.”

ConHome: “This question of doubling everything you’re doing, does that extend to more elected mayors outside cities, in counties with smaller populations?”

Osborne: “Yes, I think it would be great to have elected mayors. I was an MP in Cheshire for 16 years, and I remember the time when we were in Opposition, I was a junior MP, and there was a plan to create unitary authorities in Cheshire.

“Pretty much all the MPs in Cheshire, led by the redoubtable Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Labour MP, and Sir Nicholas Winterton, led the fight against it, and thankfully we were ignored by the Government and unitary authorities were created, and it’s a much more efficient and effective way to run Cheshire.

“No one likes local government reorganisation, and local MPs and councillors have got to resist because it’s your local power base, but on a country-wide scale you could easily have mayors for Cumbria or Cheshire or wherever it happens to be.

“And I think the point about a mayor is it provides a point of accountability, an individual who can’t really pass the buck and is held to blame or indeed applauded for what they do.”

ConHome: “A former Conservative Leader of a big county said, ‘When I was the Leader, I had to oppose having an elected mayor in our area, because of all my Cabinet colleagues – they would all have protested and given me a lot of political trouble if I had come out in favour.

“Now I’ve gone, I’m all in favour of an elected mayor. So that leads to a political question, which is how do you deal with a mass of Conservative Cabinet members, county councillors and district councillors who won’t want any change, at a time when the Government is moving towards an election and you really need their good will.

“You should arguably have done this much earlier. Can you do this politically in the next few years?”

Osborne: “Yes, absolutely. The Conservative Party is quite easily led if it’s given a strong direction. We did succeed in creating these metro mayors in large parts of the country where there were no Conservative councillors.

“Let’s take Manchester. I remember Trafford Council, it was Tory-run, and they were like, why would we want to give power to a metro mayor in the middle of Manchester.

“The truth was the council leader at the time, the Conservative council leader was very courageous and led his group in support.

“And I always thought the best way was never to try to impose these metro mayors – to use the carrot, not the stick – so I would pile up all the advantages that come from having a metro mayor, the additional money, the support for local transport – and that did work. The hardest area was West Yorkshire and Leeds, it was politically contested, but even that now has come into line as they’re seeing the benefits.

“So you can show them the treasure at the end and they will follow the trail.

“In any organisation, it’s quite hard to lead from behind. You have to have a view, and ultimately if people don’t like you, they’ll get rid of you.

“There’s no point just occupying those offices. I always felt [as Chancellor of the Exchequer] there was a ticking clock, I never knew when the axe would fall, and I would try to be as bold as possible.

“I would say the same to the current crop of Conservative ministers and to the Prime Minister, which is you never know how long you’ve got in office, and the wheel turns, and then suddenly you’re out.

“And I can tell you as someone who’s been out of office and out of politics for five years, you look back on the big things you feel you got right, and they’re often the things against which there was the most opposition, the hardest internal arguments in your party, but they’re also the most rewarding things.”

ConHome: “So far, hasn’t levelling up really been a bit of a mess? You’re right to say that Michael Gove is a great executive politician – Neil O’Brien a huge brain, did a column for us – they will instil some order and political shape to it.

“But so far, hasn’t it been a bit incoherent? And has it had the strategic grasp the Northern Powerhouse had, in terms of a very clear plan to link up the cities, make them bigger, establish an economic counterweight to London?

“Hasn’t levelling up by contrast been a bit of a shambles?”

Osborne: “Well I am a glass half full person. I would say it was moribund for several years after I left office, as an agenda, and obviously there were enormous distractions, Brexit and then more recently Covid.

“But I think Boris Johnson deserves full marks for picking this up as the big domestic agenda. That’s what a Prime Minister does. A Prime Minister says ‘My Government’s going to be defined by a few things’, and he has decided levelling up is one of them. So I strongly applaud him for that.

“I also applaud him for now having the right people in place to deliver it. I wish he had stuck with, and I think he will end up recommitting to, elements like the High Speed line in Yorkshire, the Eastern Leg, and the Trans-Pennine route, because those are long-term infrastructure projects which you don’t want to throw away and start again on some other project that’ll never get off the ground.

“So I’m quite optimistic about it all. What it needs is proper intellectual underpinning. If you think it’s all just about planting some civic flowerbeds in northern towns then the Tories will be out on their ear.

“It’s got to have proper, serious economic thinking about it, which Jim O’Neill, a world-class economist, provided me with on this, and others like Neil O’Brian and Rupert Harrison.

“There are around the world great city clusters. They are where the action is. The towns around them benefit as well, but a bit more slowly.

“And you have to do the things that make those cities work, so you have to make them exciting places that attract professional people, you need the buzz of universities and cultural institutions, you need excellent transport links between the cities and commuter links into the cities, and you need to empower the city leadership.

“If you’d said to me 30 or 40 years ago that Manchester would be the fastest growing city in Europe I would have thought it was an impossible ambition, because the Manchester area was on its knees.

“You have to think big, you have to be ambitious, and you have to realise that Government puts the kind of instruments in place, but then it’s the private sector and the business community, and not just the big corporates but every little small business, every entrepreneur that decides actually I’m not going to move out of Manchester, I’m going set my new web design business in Manchester rather than move to London. That is how progress is made.

“I think the Johnson Government can do it. It’s got the majority, they’ve made this its central domestic agenda, and if it sticks with it it can work.

“One of the things I find annoying, having been a political secretary in Downing Street in the distant past, is all this ‘Boris Johnson needs a new team in Downing Street. He needs grey hairs around him. He needs as Deputy Prime Minister a Willie Whitelaw-type character.’

“All of that is such nonsense. Actually in my view the Downing Street team is pretty talented at the moment, and they are a good team.

“And there are some real issues the Government’s got – it’s got a difficult economic backdrop, falling real incomes, it’s got to repair the relationship with Europe, which is absolutely critical to Britain’s economy, its immigration policy, its security policy.

“These are the big tasks alongside levelling up. But the idea it’s all going to be solved with some reshuffle of the kitchen cabinet or indeed the Cabinet is in my view nonsense.”

ConHome: “You’re really saying the problem with Boris Johnson isn’t his team, the problem with Boris Johnson is Boris Johnson.”

Osborne: “No I’m not actually, because I think Boris Johnson has the kind of charisma and leadership to deliver a lot of what he’s set out to do.

“But governments in the mid-term, they have to kind of refocus, and the glittering prize is there if they just reach out and grab it.”

Interview with Tobias Ellwood: Johnson lacks “serious expertise, people with political acumen, over in the Number 10 machine”

11 Nov

Boris Johnson does not have the advisers he needs at Number 10, has exposed himself to comparison with the Hungarian leader, Viktor Orban, and is “losing sight of what parliamentarians and the Conservative Party would naturally do and see as right to do”.

These are among the lessons drawn by Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, from last week’s debacle on Commons Standards, when Tory MPs were whipped to vote in support of a course of action which only hours later the Government abandoned.

Ellwood, who abstained in that vote, has sat for Bournemouth East since 2005. He protests at the sacking of Robert Buckland in the last Cabinet reshuffle, and laments that the Government is failing to use the talents of the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs, and indeed has no idea how to set about doing so.

As a specialist in international relations, Ellwood is deeply worried by the lack of resolve shown by the United States in Afghanistan, and by the West’s lack of strategy in the face of Russia and China, but sees opportunities for British leadership.

He warns against allowing the argument over the Northern Ireland Protocol to become a running sore which prevents the much needed defence co-operation between Britain and France:

“There’s a 1930s feel to the world. Weaker international institutions, countries weaponising, the authoritarianism on the Right, lack of western leadership.”

ConHome: “In your Sun on Sunday piece last weekend you wrote,

‘the Government thought it acceptable to overrule the punishment [of Owen Paterson] and rewrite the rules. If this happened in Poland or Hungary, we would not be surprised. But in Britain?’

“Orban is corrupting Hungarian government and society. Is that an apt comparison to make about Boris Johnson and the Government?”

Ellwood: “It’s a warning. It’s to say, ‘Is this who we want to be compared to?’ That itself can’t be a good thing. In that article I mention a couple of times ‘the mother of Parliaments’, how proud we are of the journey we’ve taken over centuries.

“But that journey of advancement has actually almost stopped. We’ve refused to look at further ways we can continue that journey on.”

ConHome: “What are the most dangerous things Number 10 is doing?”

Ellwood: “It’s losing sight of what parliamentarians and the Conservative Party would naturally do and see as right to do. Clearly there was something wrong with this decision. You yourself pointed that out.

“So our loyalty was tested, 250 of my colleagues actually held their noses and walked through those lobbies because they somehow assumed it was in the interests of the party, and clearly it wasn’t.

“So two questions there. Why, first of all, did the executive think they could do this?

“And secondly why weren’t more of my colleagues willing to stand up and say ‘No, this is actually wrong’?

“To give them their due, I can’t actually find a single Member of Parliament who did not express views to the Whips’ Office that this was completely wrong.

“So somehow something went wrong with the reporting mechanism to Number 10, to say ‘Don’t pursue this route’.”

ConHome: “This is part of a wider pattern?”

Ellwood: “That’s the concern I have. It’s part of a wider pattern, of us veering away from sound policy, of explaining to the British people what needs to happen, the difficult decisions.

“And two great examples where you could win over the public, actually I can think of three.

“Firstly to do with Trump and Afghanistan. Much easier to say ‘Bring troops home’ – that’s a vote winner – rather than explaining to the American people why keeping 2,500 troops there is actually in our longer-term interest strategically.

“Bringing troops home shows success, job done. Clearly it’s more complicated to explain to the electorate that keeping troops there, in that neck of the woods, between Russia, Iran, China, not a bad bit of real estate to keep control of, it will take time though, it’s going to take much more patience than we’re currently showing at the moment.

“That’s one example. The other one is DfID, the cuts in that. You explain to the British people, as has been done since that cut was made, that actually we lose leverage, we get replaced by Russia and China with their projects, or extremism then fills in, because of us pulling out.

“The British people would actually say, ‘Well, that’s wisely spent.’ But if you sell to the British people, ‘We’re going to take that money and we’re going to slide it to Red Wall seats,’ well which is going to win?

“Now ultimately the needle has moved on the support for DfID funding, because it’s actually part of our DNA, it’s what we do on the international stage.

“It’s a wiser, more cognitive approach to taking the electorate with you. It’s more complicated, it’s more taxing, it’s not simple, it’s not banner bumper stickers or banner headlines, but it’s what we should be doing.”

ConHome: “You also wrote that ‘at every reshuffle, MPs who have become experts in their fields are demoted or sidelined in favour of the uber-loyal.’ Who were you thinking of?”

Ellwood: “I mentioned Robert Buckland. Everybody was astonished by this decision. Everybody expected him to become potentially Home Secretary or certainly to stay in Cabinet.

“Go back to balance if you like of the spectrum within our party, he’s seen as a moderate, a sound voice, willing not just to toe the party line but occasionally to add another dimension to it.

“That’s just one of many examples. I’ll just mention another. A Cabinet member, now doing brilliantly, but it took 11 years to get there. What a lot of patience you have to go through. How many sycophantic, underarm-bowling questions do you have to ask?

“What often happens is that people lose patience with the machine itself.”

ConHome: “Are we not recruiting enough high-grade candidates? Because this will put good people off.”

Ellwood: “It will put good people off. I won’t make a judgment about not recruiting them, because I think we’ve got some really good talent on our backbenches.

“But they’re not utilised. And the difference between this new intake that’s just come in, particularly as we suddenly got all these Red Wall seats, so these are people who are running businesses, they’re doing, you know, exciting things.

“If they are not utilised, you know, they’ve come in to be part of politics, to represent their constituents, but to affect the political agenda.

“And if all they’re doing for years is just ask simplistic questions which are just handed out by the Whips’ Office, that’s not really utilising their strengths that they bring to the Chamber.

“So what I’m suggesting is this, which I think there would be a lot of appetite for. You come in and you’re invited to suggest a spectrum of interest for your career.

“It might be local government, it might be health and social services, it might be education, it might be science, it could be in my case international affairs.

“And within that spectrum there are things that you could do. Not necessarily being a minister, but certainly things which will allow you to advance and progress with an interest, and to influence policy.

“But no. There is no HR. There is no managing of anybody’s career whatsoever.

“So you end up, and this leads into the very topical debate at the moment, with people finding outside interests, and that also affects how this place looks.”

ConHome: “Were you thinking of yourself? You’re an expert in your field, you were a minister, you’re now not a minister.”

Ellwood: “No, not at all, because being on a committee is another great way in which you can affect the agenda, hold Government to account, and come up with ideas.

“And certainly being the chair of that. If you are a round peg in a round hole you are very, very lucky indeed.”

ConHome: “Can Johnson revive his Government, though. He’s just had a reshuffle. But can he revive it without sweeping changes in his team, both his team in Cabinet and in Downing Street, to take more account of what the backbenchers are now thinking and saying?”

Ellwood: “I think we do lack some serious expertise, people with political acumen, over in the Number 10 machine. It’s a tough gig, but you need to have your political antennae about what does and doesn’t work.

“Now on the actual team of the reshuffle, it’s that wider picture of making sure you take advantage of the skill sets that you actually have.”

ConHome: “Fundamentally, do you have confidence in Boris Johnson’s leadership?”

Ellwood: “I worked for Boris Johnson in the FCO, and he brings an element of energy and vibrancy to the party which I’ve not seen for a long time.

“And in today’s cut and thrust of 24-hour news that’s actually important, that he’s actually inspired a lot of people to vote Conservative, in a way that many other leaders have actually failed to do.

“But you need to be supported then by genuine strategy, when it comes to policy formation. For me there’s a gap in the market in the area I’m particularly interested in. What is Britain’s place in the world? What does global Britain mean?

“There is a leadership role, I think, that the world is calling out for.

“He needs the team around him to support the energy he provides.”

ConHome: “After David Amess was murdered, you said that MPs should pause holding face to face surgeries. Do you think that pause should now cease, and if not, when should it cease?”

Ellwood: “I look from a security and defence perspective. Clearly the situation has changed, we can reassess, and everybody has taken stock of their own situation, so it’s right that we can then downgrade or reassess the situation.”

ConHome: “You’ve been a soldier, and soldiers have to confront danger and death, but you’ve had two very personal encounters with it.

“You wrote last weekend about shaking hands with the Taliban, who were harbouring the group who killed your brother. What effect did his murder have on the way you think about security?”

Ellwood: “I don’t go past a barrier now outside the gates here without thinking about the wider security environment. I think the sadness of the 9/11 anniversary with all those documentaries we saw again – we are no better at tackling extremism, if we’re honest about it.

“We’re no better at dealing with the ideology that encourages somebody to put on a suicide vest to kill themselves, to kill westerners in the belief that they’re going to be rewarded with a place in paradise.

“And until we deal with that – and that’s not for us so much to deal with the interpretation of the Koran, that’s actually a wider theological challenge for the Islamic world to deal with too, but until we’ve done that then I’m afraid ISIS-K, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda, they will continue to be able to recruit.”

ConHome: “You also fought to save the life of PC Palmer.”

Ellwood: “That happened in 2017, it was a reminder again. Bali was 2002, 9/11 2001, David Amess 2021. There is a correlation between all those events, which link myself and indeed other people in our community together, and shows you what an enormous challenge still exists.

“We’ve now absented ourselves from Afghanistan, handing the country back to the very insurgents that we went in to defeat. When I met the Taliban it was very, very clear why they are trying to still pursue a ruthless, quite a tough interpretation of Sharia law, because if they didn’t they would actually haemorrhage more people to ISIS-K.”

ConHome: “You’re an interventionist, both for security reasons and for moral reasons: you’re helping to spread and sustain liberal democratic values by intervening.

“Do you feel that you’re part of a beleaguered minority now – that the trend here in Britain as in America has been to withdraw, to try to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world?”

Ellwood: “We’re feeling very, very bruised. It’s been provoked by Covid as well, our retreat from global exposure, becoming more isolated, more protectionist.

“Populism also is on the rise – why should we have a responsibility for what’s going on abroad? Let’s look after ourselves. Times are tough here.

“From where I sit, we’ve got a bumpy decade ahead. There’s a 1930s feel to the world. Weaker international institutions, countries weaponising, the authoritarianism on the Right, lack of western leadership.

“On top of that you’ve got three other factors. Climate change, which is going to bring its own scale of problems. Biblical movements of people that are displaced.

“Advances in technology that then allow non-state actors to incite real harm onto communities. And the rise of extremism.

“And if Russia wants to harm Britain, it can just play with the gas taps and watch the prices ripple through and cause problems.

“Look how that one ship caught in the Suez Canal caused problems across the world. I tried to get my lawn mower repaired the other day, and they couldn’t get the parts. They said, ‘You take your choice, it’s either Covid, Brexit or it’s that Suez Canal blockage.’

“How easy it is to cause harm to economies using non-military means.

“And there’s a gap in the market for international leadership. We’ve seen America retreat slightly, give up essentially in Afghanistan. This was the biggest military alliance arguably ever formed and we were defeated by an insurgency armed with AK-47s and RPGs, and we just decided to go home.

“So where is America’s commitment? If they’re not going to step up, we had to do it a couple of times in the last century. Different circumstances, I recognise that.”

ConHome: “What about NATO?”

Ellwood: “I was in Norfolk, Virginia only two weeks ago, headquarters for NATO in the US, scratching their heads, what is their purpose?

“We don’t do out of area operations any more. So there is a purpose, you go to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, they’ll say absolutely, NATO is critical. NATO itself will retreat to what it knows best, dealing with the old Cold War-esque challenges.

“Putin has a strategy. President Xi has a clear strategy on the international stage. The West lacks one. We don’t have a strategy. We have an attitude towards China, towards Russia, but we don’t have a strategy.

“And again, this is Britain, going back to Boris Johnson and what Britain can actually do, this is where we normally have an insight and an understanding, a means, a desire to help shape the world.”

ConHome: “Our relationship with France is currently extremely bad. We and the French are the two military powers in Europe. How bad is it and what should we do about it?”

Ellwood: “So this is a great example of us enjoying an old rivalry that goes back centuries. What we forget is that as we fail to reconcile our differences with continental Europe, our adversaries are enjoying this blue-on-blue, which is essentially what it is.

“We and the French are not working together to recognise what Russia is doing in the Arctic, what China is doing in the South China Sea, and AUKUS was a great illustration of how things could have been done better.

“Absolutely right for Australia to move from diesel electric to something better, you’re offered a Ford Focus and suddenly you see a Ferrari, which one are you going to take?

“You’re going to go for the upgrade nuclear deal, nuclear powered, so France should accept that. But if you want a strategy to deal with the South China Sea, finally standing up to what they’re doing in that neck of the woods, which is pretty concerning, then include Japan, India, include the United States, Britain and France, and that’s the quad that should be invited, allowing AUKUS to be a procurement process.”

ConHome: “If we’re going to have a better relationship with the French, is that really consistent, given the French view of themselves as one of the guardians of the integrity of the EU, with moving Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol?”

Ellwood: “You then move into a very awkward space. This was always going to be a problem. I served in Northern Ireland and it’s not until you go there that you realise how critical trade of the entire island is in keeping the peace and helping both economies.

“We need to make sure we solve this, because it’s turning into a sore, which is then used by other countries to prevent us drawing a line and finally moving forward and advancing, where we don’t then say I’m a Brexiteer or I’m this, but this is the norm.

“We are still in transition, I’m afraid. And as long as that is the case, it will poison discussion on other, bigger issues, such as our reflections on international security that we need to be having with our continental partners.”

Andrew Mitchell’s entertaining memoir shows the British Establishment riven by dissent

23 Oct

Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey by Andrew Mitchell

A distinguishing feature of present-day members of the Establishment is their insistence, usually quite sincere, that they do not belong to it.

Andrew Mitchell says in his Preface that he “resigned” from the Establishment in 2013. He makes it sound like the Garrick Club, from which it is indeed possible to resign.

Leaving the Establishment is more complicated. Mitchell was born into it: his father, Sir David Mitchell, was a Conservative MP for 33 years.

And Mitchell himself has passed, as he writes, “through most British Establishment institutions”, including prep and public school, the Army, Cambridge, the City of London, the House of Commons and the Cabinet.

His account of his experiences is often highly entertaining, though there are moments, oddly enough, when one could have wished for more detail, as in this scene from 2007 after David Cameron had addressed the Rwandan Parliament:

“Inevitably tempers frayed and later in the day David had to intervene physically to stop a fight breaking out between me and Steve Hilton, who has a ferocious temper. In spite of being nearly a foot shorter than me, he was poised to spring into a violent attack.”

In this vignette, we begin to see that the Establishment, which may seem from the outside, or in lazy journalistic usage, to be a monolithic organisation with a single Establishment view, is actually riven by dissent.

Hilton wants to beat up Mitchell. No doubt from Hilton’s point of view, Mitchell had been unbelievably annoying, probably by insisting on some point with which Hilton disagreed.

All three men were under severe strain, for there were floods in Witney, Cameron’s constituency, and the press was attacking him for instead being in Africa, advertising the Conservative Party’s new approach to international aid.

The Establishment engages in continual argument. Its greatest institution, the House of Commons, is set up for argument, so too are the law courts and so is the press.

The Conservative Party has survived, indeed flourished, by having the necessary arguments, including the argument about Europe.

This is something which people who see disagreement as a sign of failure – who presume, in their innocence, that politics can be reduced to an ideology, a set of immutable principles – will never understand. To them, Boris Johnson will remain incomprehensible, and so will the Conservative Party.

Mitchell has an amusing chapter entitled “Boris: My Part in his Ascent”. In 1992, John Major had made Mitchell the Vice-Chairman in charge of the Candidates’ Department at Conservative Central Office.

In June 1993, Johnson applied to become a Conservative candidate. He wanted at that point to be an MEP, not an MP.

Richard Simmonds, the senior MEP on the selection board, said Johnson would be admitted to the candidates’ list “over my dead body”. At the crucial meeting of the assessors, the merits of the 47 other applicants were quite quickly decided, but a tremendous argument developed over Johnson:

“Ned Dawnay was firm: Boris was a most impressive applicant; he was clearly a proper Conservative; his intellect, knowledge and energy marked him out; he must be admitted. Richard Simmonds, supported by the other five MEPs, was adamant: Boris was a cynical journalist, a chancer, a brand not a politician, a less than honest political thorn in Prime Minister Major’s side; taking him into the party’s candidates list would be embarrassing for the Conservative group in the European Parliament. Were he to be elected as an MEP it would be a nightmare.”

Mitchell gets Johnson on the list by one vote; tells the Party Chairman, Norman Fowler, that he, Mitchell, will resign if the decision is overturned; but is summoned to see John Major in the Prime Minister’s office behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons:

“The meeting did not start well. As I entered his office, he was standing by the fireplace. ‘Ah, Andrew, thanks for coming: what the fuck do you mean by putting Boris Johnson on the candidates’ list?'”

As part of his explanation to Major, Mitchell says he has extracted an agreement from Johnson not to stand in a winnable European seat. Johnson scrapes through onto the list, soon afterwards tries to stand in a winnable European seat, is dissuaded by Mitchell from doing so, but in 1997 stands instead for the then unwinnable Commons seat of Clwyd South.

We see the Conservative Party having the necessary argument about whether or not Johnson is a fit and proper person to become one of its candidates, and perhaps, in due course, a senior member of the Establishment.

Anyone thinking of embarking on a political career could with profit read Mitchell’s memoir, and so could anyone who wants to know how Conservative policy on international aid was revolutionised after 2005, with the author serving first as Shadow International Development Secretary and then from 2010 in the actual job.

A paradox of elective systems is that one needs, generally speaking, to possess more than normal push in order to put oneself forward. A reluctant sense of public duty is not generally speaking enough.

Mitchell is a gung-ho character: he goes for things; at an early stage runs for and gets the Presidency of the Cambridge Union, a school of argument.

The question in politics, perhaps in life generally, is when, having gone for something, to settle, as the lawyers put it. And this is what goes wrong in Plebgate, the wretched altercation in 2012 between Mitchell and the police officers guarding the Downing Street gates.

Some of the officers behaved abominably: that was established by, among others, the journalist Michael Crick. There was a public interest in having the necessary argument about this: almost a decade later and after much worse failings have come to light, the condition of the Metropolitan Police continues to be a cause of grave concern.

But Mitchell overplayed his hand: as he himself says, instead of walking away with his reputation “largely restored”, he made the “fatal mistake” of suing The Sun for libel, and lost. The ordeal is set out here.

Part of the delight and terror of politics is the sheer unexpectedness with which one can rise and fall, the snakes and ladders aspect to it. Perhaps that unpredictability is one of the things people like about Johnson.

In 2019 Mitchell obtains various assurances from Johnson – the preservation of the 0.7 per cent aid target, DfID to remain an independent department, Mitchell himself to play some key though not quite specified role – and backs him for the leadership:

“I was genuinely surprised and dismayed at the incredibly strong and angry reaction of many of my closest friends who regarded my support for Boris as simply unconscionable. The reaction of my children was unprintable. At a Robert Harris book launch attended by many of my old friends from Cambridge days I was literally put up against a wall, interrogated and denounced.”

The Establishment was divided against itself. In the 1990s Mitchell served as a Whip, and one evening was told to go and give Sir Peter Tapsell “a bollocking” for voting against the Government. This Mitchell could not do: Tapsell was far too senior and dignified a figure to be bollocked.

So Mitchell instead walked silently at Tapsell’s side, in the early hours of the morning, down the stairs through the Members’ Lobby and out through the cloakroom at the Members’ Entrance, hoping “he would feel the reproach of a younger colleague through my silence”.

As they left the Members’ Entrance, Tapsell turned to him and said:

“You see, Andrew, there is nothing I want from your office. I am rich – very rich – I advise central bankers around the world; I am already a knight and I certainly have no wish whatsoever to be a member of this benighted government. The only thing I want is to have my dead son back, and there is nothing you can do about that.”

Andrew Gimson’s Conference sketch: Never has a British Chancellor sounded so optimistic about fiscal responsibility

4 Oct

“Can you imagine him as Prime Minister?”

“Yes, he is the Conservative dream.”

This exchange between hard-bitten colleagues in the press room confirmed, if confirmation were needed after the standing ovation in the hall, that Rishi Sunak’s speech had been a success.

Seldom can the doctrine of fiscal responsibility have been preached with such Californian optimism.

“The years I spent in California left a lasting mark on me,” Sunak said. He had worked there with “some of the most innovative and exciting people in finance and technology”.

One of the engaging things about Sunak is that he sounds excited to be addressing the Conservative Party Conference. There is no trace in his manner of a duty reluctantly undertaken.

Just in case he might be suspected of becoming over-confident, he worked in a self-deprecating joke near the start, telling his audience what a joy it had been to meet so many members of the party face to face, and to hear so many of them say, “Wow! You’re even shorter in real life!”

He also worked in a declaration of loyalty to

…. the person who made all this possible…

… the person who delivered a thumping Conservative majority…

…my friend, our leader, the country’s Prime Minister…

… Boris…JOHNSON.”

This was the first word in the official version of Sunak’s text to appear in capitals, but by no means the last. JOHNSON was sitting in the front row, to the right of Sunak, exuding benevolence, nodding his approval at frequent intervals.

Sunak said “mindless ideology is dangerous”, a sentiment with which the Prime Minister agrees. But there followed a passage which it was impossible to imagine JOHNSON uttering:

“I believe in fiscal responsibility.

 Just borrowing more money…

…and stacking up bills for future generations to pay…

… is not just economically irresponsible…

… it is…. IMMORAL.”

IMMORAL is not a word for which JOHNSON has much use. He does not care to political choices in moral terms. Sunak does, and in this recalls the greatest Conservative Prime Minister of modern times, Margaret Thatcher.

But let us not suppose that nothing unites these two statesmen. Both are boundless optimists. Candide meets Candide.

Sunak spoke of his “unshakeable optimism”. Everything is for the best in the best of all possible countries.

Tory pessimists will have derived no comfort from this speech.

“I believe we’re going to make the United Kingdom the most exciting place in the planet,” Sunak added.

Only the Labour Party has failed to get this: “It’s not just that they don’t like us…they don’t even like each other.”

An enjoyable line. Labour, he indicated, is the party for people who suffer from fear of change and fear of the future.

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, finds himself in danger of being swept away by a tidal wave of optimism.

Payne journeys through the Red Wall seats to discover how Labour lost them and Johnson won

18 Sep

Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England by Sebastian Payne

The first thing Sebastian Payne prompted me to do was to order a copy of English Journey by J. B. Priestley. For Payne starts his book in Gateshead, where he grew up, and is sporting enough to quote what Priestley wrote about it in 1933:

“No true civilisation could have produced such a town, which is nothing better than a huge dingy dormitory.”

Payne is not a second Priestley. He is neither such a good writer, nor so rude. But he is a good investigative journalist, who wants to understand what happened in the Red Wall seats where the Conservatives made such inroads in 2019.

The term “Red Wall” was coined by the pollster James Kanagasooriam to describe seats which had never returned a Tory MP since 1997 (or in some cases since the Second World War); voted on average by 63 per cent for Brexit (compared to the national average of 52 per cent); had a substantial Labour majority during the 1990s; and also had a substantial minority Tory vote.

Four such seats went blue for the first time at the 2017 general election: Mansfield, North East Derbyshire, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Walsall North.

Thirty four went blue in 2019, and another 14 stayed in Labour hands. Payne quotes a Labour aide who says the 2019 result could have been even worse:

“We looked at the North and Midlands and thought the whole thing could just go, it could have been another Scotland for us.”

But to lose 34 seats is still pretty bad, and Payne sets out to discover what happened, and whether 2019 “was a fluke, or a realignment”.

His method is to visit ten Red Wall seats, each of which gets about 30 pages of text: Blyth Valley, North West Durham, Sedgefield, Wakefield, Don Valley, Great Grimsby, North East Derbyshire, Coventry North West, Heywood and Middleton, and Burnley.

In the course of his researches he interviews 120 people, including many former Labour MPs, often spoken to remotely, in part because of the pandemic. So we hear from Tony Blair, David Blunkett, David Miliband, Alan Johnson and many others.

In Blyth Valley, he meets Ronnie Campbell, former miner, Labour MP there from 1987-2019, when he retired because of a heart complaint; and Ian Levy, former mental health nurse, who proceeded to win the seat by 712 votes for the Conservatives.

Levy told Payne how he came to stand:

“We would often go out for a meal or a drink, me and my wife Maureen. On the wander back, when I’d had a few beers, I would start complaining about the state of the town centre: the state of the bus shelters, the feeling of despondency there was in the town where people feel really, really let down, and that their vote is taken for granted.

“I think she was happy to hear this, once, twice, maybe 30 times. But once it got to 40 or 50, she’d absolutely had enough. I remember this one night in particular she said, ‘Either do something about it or shut up.’ And I said, ‘Right, OK then.'”

The next day he told her he was going to stand for Parliament. His “gut feeling” took him towards the Conservatives, but he found there was no Conservative Association in Blyth Valley, so he wrote to David Cameron, explaining his passion for Blyth, the problems he had identified and how he intended to fix them.

Much to his and Maureen’s surprise, he received a positive reply, and in 2016 was invited to CCHQ for an interview, after which he became the prospective parliamentary candidate.

His first campaign, in the 2017 general election, was run with £500 donated by Matt Ridley, described by Payne as “the aristocratic science writer and libertarian campaigner based in Northumberland”.

Levy’s daughter and her friends distributed leaflets, and the Conservative vote rose to 15,855 (it had been 8,346 in 2015), but the genial Campbell was still well ahead, with 23,770 votes.

Two years later, the Conservative vote increased again, to 17,440, while Campbell’s successor fell back to 16,728. Levy in his second campaign had won a famous victory.

“One of the nuisances of the ballot,” Lord Salisbury once remarked, “is that when the oracle has spoken you never know what it means.”

There is a temptation, when seeking to explain what happened in the Red Wall seats, to pretend to greater knowledge than is actually possible.

It can be difficult enough to know what is going on inside one’s own head, let alone anyone else’s, as one makes up one’s mind how to vote. Here is Payne on his own decision in the EU Referendum of 2016:

“On both sides of my family, almost everyone voted Leave. I was deeply torn: my northern hinterland and instincts pulled me towards Brexit, but after twenty minutes in the polling booth, my head put a tick in the Remain column.”

One rejoices to find such a balanced outlook, such conscious doubt, in a reporter for a newspaper, The Financial Times, which expressed such dogmatic enthusiasm for remaining in the EU.

There is an overwhelming sense, in every place visited by Payne, of having seen better days. Great industries have collapsed,  so has the communal life which they engendered, and handsome town centres are left to rot.

Local pride is wounded at every turn by evidence of neglect, shoddiness and former greatness. The prosperous, of whom there are more than one might think, flee to houses on the periphery.

And as Payne explains, the Labour coalition has broken down:

“From its inception, the party was built on a Hampstead-to-Humberside electoral alliance, bridging metropolitan liberal voters, typified in the north London enclave, to the working-class voters in England’s working-class towns. Brexit annihilated this alliance, but Labour’s shift on other matters set the stage for the demise, according to Blair.”

Blair talks at considerable length to Payne. The ingenuity with which he justifies himself is impressive, and his self-righteousness is insufferable.

Nothing is ever Blair’s fault. Norman Tebbit, speaking from his office in the House of Lords, strikes a different note:

“There were mining communities in rural areas where there was very little other work. Unfortunately we could have run those mines down much more slowly. We could have done more to help to bring jobs to those areas. There was a deep and profound economic and social change that went on, which was adverse to those local people.”

One of the paradoxes of Payne’s account is that he talks to so many politicians, he does not always allow the voices of local people to be heard.

We instead get the generally rather bland language of professional politicians, discussing what to do about the Red Wall seats, what to do about Brexit, and still cut off from the people who in 2016 seized the chance to make their voice heard, administering a most tremendous shock to the metropolitan liberals who had ignored them for so long.

The weakness of Theresa May after the 2017 general election turned out to be a trap for the Remainers. Peter Mandelson tells Payne how Blair assembled a group of like-minded Labour figures and told them they had “a real opportunity” to get Leaver voters to think again.

After they had spent some time trying to persuade Leave voters that leaving was not such a great idea, Mandelson told Blair “We’re not gaining traction here”, but Blair would not accept this.

The People’s Vote campaigners were not thinking straight. As Mandelson says, the question of “what would be on the ballot paper of a second referendum…was insoluble”.

Labour, which in 2017 was still promising to implement the referendum result, ended up in a ridiculous position at the 2019 election, seen by Leave voters as an attempt to wriggle out of getting Brexit done, and Johnson won a thumping victory.

Johnson enters this book at the end, campaigning in May 2021 in the Hartlepool by-election, another famous Tory victory:

“With Jill Mortimer, the Tory candidate, he paced up the seafront in his trademark blue suit – sans coat, despite the weather. He was mobbed. Soon, the traffic piled up as every car stopped to point and shout, ‘Boris!’ He was the Pied Piper in the middle of a hurricane. He asked each voter he stopped to talk to if the party could count on their support. Bar some who were uncertain, every one answered in the affirmative. No one said they were backing Labour. The response was unlike any I have seen to any politician on the campaign trail, in any election: dozens of Hartlepudlians wanted selfies and elbow bumps with the Prime Minister. You cannot imagine David Cameron or Theresa May eliciting such a response.”

Payne later interviews Johnson:

“Recalling the scenes on the beach front, I asked why he felt he was so personally popular with working-class voters, despite his Eton and Oxford background? Was it that he was seen as an unconventional political insurgent? After running his hand through his mop of hair several times, Johnson said, ‘Look, it beats me.’ He appeared to be on the cusp of revealing more, before restraining himself. ‘It’s not about me, this is about this country.'”

Yes, it is about what kind of country we are, what kind of nation. And to cast light on that question, I hope another author, a latter-day Priestley, will make an English journey and spend more time talking to random members of the public, unimportant people.

David Skelton: Why a lack of dogma is Johnson’s strength, not a weakness

16 Sep

David Skelton is the author of The New Snobbery.

In October 1958, Harold Macmillan gave his second conference speech as Prime Minister and party leader. Here was a man at the peak of his political powers, who would a year later lead his Party to a thumping election win.

Rather unusually for a man of his verve and swagger, Supermac spent part of his speech talking about the nature of his political philosophy.

He differentiated Toryism from liberalism and Socialism with a characteristically fine turn of phrase. Macmillan argued that his opponents were living:

“…either in the past or in a world of make-believe. The pure doctrine of laissez-faire and absolute free trade; the nationalisation of all the means of production, distribution and exchange – these were the cries of my boyhood. What a musty period flavour they have now. How utterly out of touch all this is with the problems and opportunities of today.”

I was reminded of the great man’s speech during the debate that followed the government’s necessary steps to support the NHS and social care last week. One Telegraph columnist even complained that it represented the “total victory of Socialism in Britain” and a “trashing” of “intellectual traditions.” The truth, of course, is much the opposite.

Conservatism – always adapting to meet the challenges of the day

The unifying thread that runs through the entire Tory tradition is a belief that the Party has a patriotic duty to tackle the big issues facing the country today, rather than become trapped by a tight partisan dogma. The Conservatives are the most successful political party of the democratic age because of their ability to adjust to changing circumstances and changing times, just as their opponents become trapped in ideological straightjackets.

When one of the major challenges was the degrading social conditions faced in factories, Disraeli’s Government pushed a radical agenda of social reform. When the state had grown too large, unions too powerful, and business too weak, Margaret Thatcher’s Government set out to restore the balance.

Conservatives have always believed that rigid dogma is the folly of our opponents and that we should do what is necessary to maintain balance and tackle the major issues we face today. We should not pretend that the solutions to the problems of the 1970s are somehow replicable as we face the very different problems of today.

Conservatism isn’t libertarianism

Conservatism has never been a libertarian concept. There’s a good reason why Hayek, the icon of the libertarians, wrote an essay entitled ‘Why I Am Not A Conservative’. In it, he argues that conservatism and liberalism have often been opposites, as conservatism is based on a “fear of change” and liberalism is based on “a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.”

Conservatism can never just be a simplistic championing of the unfettered free market. For Tories other things, such as family, community, nation, and belonging, matter just as much as the market. As Robert Tombs set out in his masterpiece, The English and Their History, the reality of conservatism “is more complex, and more intriguing” than modern liberals would argue. According to Tombs:

“Tory beliefs – state intervention to defend the vulnerable.. Spending on welfare, rejection of deflationary economics – chime more with modern sentiments than those of the progressive Whigs.”

As Conservatives, we understand that the state often has a role to play in solving the difficult problems we face, as long as this is done in a balanced way that doesn’t diminish the role or importance of civil society, the market or families. Rab Butler was emphatic when he argued that, “Conservatives have always been ready to use the power of the state. That has been our tradition since Bolingbroke.”

Lord Hugh Cecil, in his important work on Conservatism, even suggested that modern “Conservatism inherits the traditions of Toryism which are favourable to the activity and authority of the state.”

Tackling today’s challenges

The major challenges that we face as a country today are not going to be solved by a simplistic, dogmatic mantra of “small state, low tax.” Social care, for one, is a policy dilemma that successive governments have dragged their feet over, so last week’s announcement that the government will be prioritising a lasting social care solution has to be welcomed.

Similarly, ‘levelling up’ – reviving the “post-industrial” towns that gave us an 80-seat majority – is not going to happen with a dogmatic attachment to a small state. Ambitious infrastructure projects and an industrial policy committed to reviving manufacturing represent the pragmatic solutions to the problems of the day.

Boris Johnson has always instinctively understood the importance of a balanced conservatism. When he was Mayor of London, he was, for a time, one of the only leading Tories who advocated a Living Wage and used his office to extend and support the concept. The Prime Minister has always seen the value of flagship and important infrastructure projects and this is reflected in the ambition that lies behind the Levelling Up agenda.

To return to Macmillan’s pithy summary of the political divide, Conservatives should neither be living “in the past or in a world of make believe.” Conservatives have always done what is right to tackle the challenges of the day, which sometimes involves utilising the power of the state.

Despite the cries of dogmatists on both left and right, simplistic sloganeering is no substitute for making the hard choices that come with governing.