Interview with Dominic Raab: The EU’s approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol is “pretty analogue in a digital age”

18 Jun

Brexit has resulted in “a massive empowering of the Foreign Office to go out and have a genuine global foreign policy”. So says Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary since July 2019.

There has not, he suggests, been any comparable change in the attitude of the European Commission, particularly with regard to the Northern Ireland Protocol, where “the approach that Brussels seems to be wedded to is pretty analogue in a digital age”.

Raab questions the idea that the conflicts in Kashmir, and in Israel/Palestine, risk spilling over into British politics.

He denies he is better at chairing meetings than Boris Johnson, admits he is “still not wild” about taking the knee, and contends that the Conservative Party’s new appeal to voters in the North need not be gained at the expense of support in seats such as his own, in the home counties:

“What we’re trying to do is forge that crucial alliance between aspirational working and middle class voters. That’s the elixir of Conservative strategy I think.”

The interview was carried out on Wednesday evening, and ConHome began by asking about the material released that morning by Dominic Cummings, and the period when Johnson was at death’s door and Raab was “covering for the boss”.

ConHome: “Do you agree with today’s report that you are better than the Prime Minister at chairing meetings?”

Raab: “No [laughter].”

ConHome: “Here’s the full quote: ‘Unlike the Prime Minister Raab can chair meetings properly instead of telling rambling stories and jokes. He lets good officials actually question people, so we started to get to the truth.'”

Raab: “What is the question?”

ConHome: “Is this an accurate account?”

Raab: “No, no. I try to do things professionally, and I think the Prime Minister deploys me for that. But actually I think to the extent we’re talking about the period when I was covering for the boss, we were all focussed on doing what he wanted.

“There was a good team effort, in order to get ourselves into good shape for when we hoped he would be back at the helm.”

ConHome: “And what do you think of Cummings himself?”

Raab: “I can’t see any value added from me commenting on the commentary.”

ConHome: “Was there ever actually a moment when the Prime Minister was ill when you thought, ‘I’m going to have to take over’?”

Raab: “When you say ‘take over’, you mean beyond…”

ConHome: “Beyond what you were doing anyway.”

Raab: “I was conscious that he was not well, but also I think I had the pretty firm conviction he’d pull through. But I didn’t know.

“The truth is I thought he was in good hands with the doctors, which he was, exceptional care, and what I knew he’d want, when he came to, and was able to engage, was to know we hadn’t been sitting there, fretting so much over him, but that we’d been getting on doing what needed to be done for the country.

“That was the rationale. And the truth is the Cabinet were brilliant, because it’s a team effort, very disciplined, very professional, and I suppose that sense of worry and concern for someone who’s a colleague, not just our boss, kicked in.”

ConHome: “You never felt a moment of absolute terror, thinking ‘I’m going to have to be a kind of interim figure who…'”

Raab: “Well not really. There was never any news that gave me credible cause for concern. The truth is, people ask me this a lot, I didn’t have a lot of time for my mind to wander. It was pretty hectic.

“The Foreign Office was very busy at the time, and then there was obviously trying to make sure that we steered things through.

“I think I’m right in saying it was around the point at which we were edging towards the five tests of how we would come through lockdown.

“So there was a huge amount of substantive work, the Prime Minister had given us our steer, so there was a load to get on with, and I was just focussed on that really.”

ConHome: “Only a few weeks ago, a convoy went down the Finchley Road with someone shouting ‘F*** the Jews, rape their daughters’.

“Do you think the effect of foreign affairs, and of Israel/Palestine, is intensifying in a malign way here in the UK?”

Raab: “That was a deeply worrying incident and we jumped on it very quick, both in terms of condemning it, but also making sure the Met were aware, and satisfying ourselves that they were on the case, to give the Jewish community the reassurance they needed.

“But this cross-fertilisation of the international realm into domestic policy actually is much more prevalent than that. You can see it on a whole range of issues.

“Because we’ve got such a wonderful international mix in the UK. I am very, very sensitive to the impact on the British Chinese community of what we’re doing.

“When you think about that community, one of the most entrepreneurial, I sat on the Education Select Committee for two years, the British Chinese standards, the parenting, the engagement, from every class level, was exceptional. The contribution they make to cultural life, in lots of different ways.

“You can think of it from both sides in relations to Kashmir.

“If global Britain is going to mean what it says, which we do, of course we’re going to have to be sensitive to and take into account the feelings of those who have immigrated or settled here, or second, third, fourth generation communities.

“The same is true the other way as well. One of the big things that happened, which didn’t get a huge amount of attention, is the Prime Minister’s meeting – it had to be virtual in the end – with Prime Minister Modi, where we set out a road map for ten years, the 2030 road map, including the road map to an FTA.

“Some great stuff on migration and mobility, and young people, young professionals from here and from India being able to come and take advantage of everything the UK and India has to offer.

“Some stuff on cyber and other things, climate change.

“India deemed the UK a Comprehensive Strategic Partner. We’re only the fourth country India’s done that with. Now Prime Minister Modi himself has talked about the living bridge between the UK and India.

“He’s quite a lyrical leader, but actually it’s quite a good way of looking at it.

“And we have quite a few countries, because of our Commonwealth links, because of the travelling nature of Brits, where that’s true.

“But the truth is, if your foreign policy is a combination of pursuing a principled approach, but also delivering the national interest for the people of your country, you ought to be able to navigate that.”

ConHome: “Do you feel, in relation to Israel/Palestine and Kashmir, that the skies are darkening?”

Raab: “Well I don’t think you can combine them together.

“But let me take Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve been out there twice. I was out there recently. I met Yair Lapid as well as Prime Minister, as then was, Netanyahu, and a range of other leading figures.

“There is still going to be a measure of instability. I think the coalition may be fragile, it may be ground-breaking, we don’t know.

“But I think there seems to be a consensus that they need to firm up the ceasefire, and we need to try to avoid a vacuum taking hold, and there’s all sorts of ways we can do that.

“On the Palestinian side, there is an urgent need to shore up and support the moderate Palestinian leadership, and isolate and marginalise Hamas.

“I’m not expecting final status peace talks round the corner by Christmas. On the other hand, if you allow a vacuum to take hold then Hamas will take advantage.

“It’s in the moral and strategic interests of both sides to avoid that.”

ConHome: “In relation to antisemitism here, the effect of Israel/Palestine here, you don’t feel it’s getting worse?”

Raab: “Well I talked to the Chief Rabbi recently, I talked to the Board of Deputies, obviously I’ve got some history of my own.

“I think off the back of Corbyn, and with some of the radicalised elements of the Left articulating themselves, I think there has been a heightened sense of nervousness.

“But I also feel that we can provide the reassurance and that there is enough community cohesion here, not just among the Jewish community, but among British society as a whole, to stand up very vigorously and robustly against that.

“You look back in the Seventies, and you had radicalised groups seeking to take advantage of what was going on in the Middle East, and making their point here at home.

“I think we need to watch it very carefully, but I don’t think there’s a ground shift or a gear change in that happening.”

ConHome: “On India, Labour have put out a leaflet in the Batley and Spen byelection that is almost entirely about foreign affairs. There’s a section about Israel/Palestine, there’s a section about Kashmir where it says, ‘The Conservatives’ links to the BJP must not stand in the way of justice for Kashmir.’

“Are you worried at all that the Kashmir issue is dividing up on party political lines?

“Labour look at the Conservative Party and they say, ‘There are three ministers of Indian heritage in the Cabinet – the Conservatives are taking up a pro-Indian position,’ and you end up with that kind of division, which would be a very bad thing.”

Raab: “Well I don’t think the Labour Party could credibly do that, a) because of the British Indian communities in their constituencies, so from a pure or political interest, or b) given their historic approach to Kashmir, which is that it is for the two sides to resolve this long-standing dispute.

“I’ve never ducked raising the issue of Kashmir and human rights with the Indian government. I did it when I was in Delhi.

“The Labour Party would look incredibly hypocritical, and they would get a backlash from the other community, if they were to try to create this as a wedge issue.”

ConHome: “The Conservatives are now widely perceived as having shifted North both electorally and emotionally. Now you sit for a Surrey seat, Walton and Esher, a commuter seat, a traditionally Tory seat.

“Is there now a danger of your constituents believing the Conservatives are no longer quite so behind them?”

Raab: “The strategy, in political terms, is always to forge an alliance between the aspirational working and middle classes of this country.

“And that’s not new. Look at how successful Thatcher was, albeit in a different time and place, and a different context.

“What we’re doing as global Britain, as a force for good in the world, far from alienating Conservative voters, small-l liberal Conservative voters, I think goes down very well.

“The fact that we put Magnitsky sanctions on everyone from those persecuting the Rohingya to those persecuting the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

“The fact that Brexit is no longer a live issue for most of our constituents, they’re not being asked to vote on it.

“What we’re trying to do is forge that crucial alliance between aspirational working and middle class voters. That’s the elixir of Conservative strategy I think.

“There’s a ceiling on the Lib Dem vote if they only rely on the negative. Can anyone remember a single positive Lib Dem policy, now Brexit’s done?

“They’re campaigning in Chesham and Amersham on HS2, but they voted for it.”

ConHome: “Was Biden right in saying the G7 is in ‘a contest with autocracies’?”

Raab: “I think there’s definitely a sense that democracies are in retreat, if you just look at the numbers. And that the battle for the hearts and minds of the centre ground of the international community is there to be won but needs to be fought with a great vigour and energy.

“It’s great having the US return to the Paris Agreement on climate change. We cannot as a cluster of like-minded countries leave that vacuum in those multilateral institutions, because China and Russia or whoever else will fill it.”

ConHome: “Our ambassadors in say Paris or Berlin, who do they report to? Is it you, as Foreign Secretary? Or is it Lord Frost?”

Raab: “David [Frost] deals with the stuff that takes place under the EU formal mechanisms. He’s responsible for the EU business in relation to the Free Trade Agreement and the Withdrawal Agreement.

“I’m responsible for the stuff in relation to the foreign affairs co-operation that we have, and I lead on the bilateral relationships, but obviously the two dovetail quite closely together.

“I don’t feel desperately proprietorial about it for two reasons. One, David’s a brilliant colleague.

“Secondly we are engaged it a process now where we look at our foreign policy in a much more integrated way.

“The truth is the Foreign Office is now much more central. We have a Prime Minister who really believes in the Foreign Office.

“With the merger [with the Department for International Development] I think we can all see that.”

ConHome: “So Brexit has actually worked out to the advantage of the Foreign Office? Because our foreign policy isn’t delegated in any way to Brussels any more. It’s our foreign policy.”

Raab: “I think there’s a massive empowering of the Foreign Office to go out and have a genuine global foreign policy. I’ve been out to the Nordics, I’m very keen on building up the N5 relationship, and the same with the Baltic Three, the Visegrad Four.

“Obviously with the Indo-Pacific stuff that we’re doing, I’m going out to Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore next week, there is just a real chance for us to be more energetic, more activist.”

ConHome: “Do you still think that taking the knee is ‘a symbol of subjugation and subordination’?”

Raab: “I think we all ought to be united in the fight against racism, and we also, if tolerance is to mean anything, should be able to find our own way to express it.

“I’m personally not wild about taking the knee, but if the England team want to do it, it shouldn’t just be respected, it should be supported.”

ConHome: “And should not be booed?”

Raab: “I’m one of those people who don’t believe in booing your own team. Certainly not the England team as they’re embarking on the European championships.”

ConHome: “On the Northern Ireland Protocol, is there any intrinsic greater difficulty in dealing with a Democrat administration, because of the pressure that comes on an American President from an Irish diaspora who are not necessarily familiar with all the intricacies and nuances of policy in Northern Ireland?”

Raab: “So first of all there’s always a slightly different constellation of opportunities and risks depending on who’s in the White House.

“Also, the make-up of Congress. And that’s true regardless of who’s in the White House. I was going and talking to the likes of Richie Neal and the Irish caucus when I was Foreign Secretary before and after the recent US election.

“The Irish lobby on the Hill, which is not just Democrats, it also includes Republicans, feels like it’s got a stake, and does have a stake, in the Good Friday Agreement, I think we respect that, I remember the work that George Mitchell and other Americans did.

“But there’s certainly a job for us to do to make sure first of all that a full, comprehensive picture of what’s going on on the ground is understood, and the impact the Northern Ireland Protocol has for communities on all sides in Northern Ireland.

“And frankly just the bare facts of what’s been going on in terms of the application of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“If you look at the perimeter of the EU, and you think about the challenges they’ve got from the Central and Eastern European border, right down to the Mediterranean border, and you think of the sliver of the border in Northern Ireland, it is rather striking that one in five of controls and checks for the whole of the EU to police the single market takes place in Northern Ireland.

“I think talking in reasonable terms about the lack of proportionality in that is important. And having a sensible conversation with our US partners is really important. We can’t shrink from that.”

ConHome: “Do you feel you made any progress on that issue at the G7, given what happened before it with the demarche?”

Raab: “I think we’ve made steady progress right the way through, I didn’t read too much into the leaking of what happened, I think we make steady progress when we explain our position in sober terms.”

ConHome: “On the Protocol, you can’t rule out having to implement Article 16. If we do, we would need presumably to protect ourselves from the effects of Article 16 in domestic law and pass a Bill to that effect, would we not?”

Raab: “Look I’m not going to speculate on the decision or the things that would need to accompany the decision. The over-riding message we get across is we want a pragmatic, flexible approach from the EU, and if we don’t get it we’ll do whatever it takes to protect the economic and the constitutional integrity of the Union.

“Ideally, the ball is in the EU’s court, David Frost has sent a range of proposals over.

“What we just cannot have is a situation where Northern Ireland is receiving three times the volume of checks that you see in Rotterdam, double the number of checks that you see in France, to police the EU single market. That cannot be right.”

ConHome: “Did Martin Selmayr say that “losing Northern Ireland was the price the UK would pay for Brexit?”

Raab: “So as I said at the time, when I was asked about this, when I was Brexit Secretary I would get, not from political hacks or spin doctors, I would get constantly fed back to me that there was a political dimension to this.

“And so from officials I had fed back to me that Selmayr had made this point.

“All the officials fed back that for the EU this is existential, and therefore they’re going to want to deter leaving the EU.

“My relationship with Michel Barnier was perfectly cordial and constructive, I respect the guy, but I remember him losing his temper with me when I said we ought to be trying to forge something that is win-win.

“And I think there is a mindset in the Commission, and probably in some other parts of the EU, but I still think it was a fairly narrow mindset, but it was a controlling one, that there was no win-win to be found.

“I look at the thing, my father was Czech, I feel a very strong sense of European identity, we’re not leaving Europe, we’re leaving the EU, let’s try and forge win-win.

“As people might say after the divorce, you can understand why one side of it or the other don’t feel that way. But I still think that’s what we should be aiming for. And that’s our foreign policy. That’s what the Prime Minister believes.”

ConHome: “Do you believe this ethos of punishment is still there in relation to the Protocol?”

Raab: “I don’t want to impute bad intentions, but put it this way, what I do deal with are the facts, and the facts do not justify the fact that one in five controls or checks for the whole of the EU’s external border are now taking place in Northern Ireland.

“That just cannot be right. And that’s not born of protecting the equities of the single market, so there must be some more to it.

“I go and look at borders all around the world. Frankly the approach that Brussels seems to be wedded to is pretty analogue in a digital age.”

Profile: Stonewall, a once brilliantly successful campaign group which now seems to be committing suicide

10 Jun

While agonising over how to begin this profile, I was rung by a friend who, on hearing of the subject on which I was working, declared:

“I hope you will say we are sick of being dictated to!”

That is not how I had thought of starting, for I am more timid and tactful than my friend. But it is actually quite a good jumping off point.

Stonewall finds itself in crisis because it has changed from an organisation which sought, with brilliant success, to persuade and to carry people with it, into one which insists on imposing a far from popular line.

The voluntary principle has been replaced by compulsion.

Nancy Kelley, since last summer Stonewall’s Chief Executive, recently compared gender-critical views to anti-semitism. In other words, anyone who maintains, as gender-critical feminists do, that “biological differences between the sexes make the continued provision of female-only spaces necessary”, is a disgraceful person.

Trans activists have set out to intimidate and silence the feminists, who in turn are appalled when trans women assert the right to enter female-only spaces, including women’s refuges, dormitories, prisons and sports facilities.

When Keir Starmer was running for the Labour leadership, he signed up to the list of ten pledges presented to the candidates by LGBT+ Labour, promising he would “campaign with you for the changes rightly prioritised here”:

“I will campaign to reform the Gender Recognition Act to introduce a self-declaration process… I believe that trans women are women, that trans men are men.”

A large number of feminists who think of themselves as Labour supporters find themselves without a leader who can articulate their concerns.

Not that Sir Keir is alone among politicians in preferring not to get involved in the debate.

Several influential Conservatives indicated this week to ConHome that they simply did not wish to play any part in the discussion.

Number Ten is watching developments carefully, but does not wish to have a public row. Boris Johnson’s approach to cultural issues of this kind, for example to the attacks on Winston Churchill’s statue, is not to intervene until people are pleading with him to do so.

Last September, the Government dropped plans to allow self-identification by trans people.

But a leading Conservative parliamentarian this week told me, on condition that their anonymity would be strictly preserved, that the trans debate is “extremely scary”.

In their view, Stonewall has completely dumped the LGB part of its mission, is now only interested in campaigning for trans, has become “an extremely unfriendly place for women”, and is viciously intolerant of dissent.

This presents, they argue, a danger for the Conservatives too: “The Conservative Party is terrified of another Section 28” – the law passed in 1988, towards the end of Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership, forbidding the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities.

If the Tories were to become outspoken opponents of trans activists, they could once more come to be regarded as the nasty party.

So for several years, leading Conservative and Labour figures took great care to avoid the subject, as James Kirkup explained to ConHome in October 2018:

When James Kirkup became interested in transgender politics, people warned him that writing about it was too dangerous. He notes that the fear the subject inspires in many MPs of being attacked as “transphobic” has created a vacuum into which transgender campaigning groups have been able to move, and to push for the right of trans people to “self-identify” their gender, without the arguments for and against the reform being tested in rigorous debate.

In this interview, Kirkup says “nobody has really pointed out” that Professor Stephen Whittle – specialist adviser to the Women and Equalities Committee, chaired by Maria Miller, when it drew up its agenda-setting report on Transgender Equality – is “also the founder of a group called Press for Change, which was the first trans rights campaigning group in the UK.”

This avoidance of the subject is now breaking down. Victoria Hewson and Rebecca Lowe yesterday reported for ConHome, under their joint byline, Radical, some of the horrific information about Stonewall which has started to emerge as a result of Freedom of Information requests.

And Gary Powell recently declared on this site that, as a gay man, the LGBT+ lobby with its “extreme gender ideology” does not speak for him, and warned that we must “stop neo-Marxist identity politics being force-fed to children in British schools”.

Two of the original 14 founders of Stonewall, set up in 1989 in response to Section 28, have recently dissociated themselves from the organisation.

Stephen Fanshawe described in The Daily Mail how he had received a message from someone he “had always considered an ally in the fight for equality”:

“By expressing your views, you have put yourself outside Stonewall,” the terse message read when it landed in my inbox two years ago. Its Orwellian tone might make you wonder what “views” I could possibly have exhibited that would have set me at such odds with the organisation I proudly helped to form three decades earlier, to campaign for the rights of gay men and lesbians in a society that cruelly discriminated against them.

They must, surely, have been hateful and inflammatory? Not a bit of it. I had simply expressed the opinion that proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act for which Stonewall was campaigning — meaning people could legally “self-identify’” as whatever sex they chose, regardless of their biology — had serious implications for the rights of women.

And Matthew Parris explained in The Times why he thinks Stonewall has lost its way:

What is the charity I helped to found doing, getting entangled in attempts to deny free speech at a university? This column should avoid getting into the trans debate itself. My single, tight focus is on this question: why Stonewall?

There’s something perversely 20th-century about linking gays to trans. Gay men do not want to be women. We like being men. I doubt that being a lesbian is about not wanting to be a woman. Our issues have nothing to do with identification or changing our bodies: we know what we are and nobody disputes it. Most gay men would strongly resist the suggestion we’re boys who want to be girls. I can’t think of anything I’d like less. The whole history of the gay liberation movement is inseparable from what people do rather than what they are. Central to trans concerns is being, not doing. The one thing that links gays and lesbians with trans people is empathy with anyone excluded, oppressed, marginalised or rejected. Indeed this was what influenced some gay groups into supporting the 1984-5 miners’ strike, and Stonewall was perhaps drawn into the trans arguments because a group was fighting for what it considers to be its rights.

Stonewall, founded by a group of activists who met at the house of the actor Ian McKellen in Limehouse, in the East End of London, achieved in its first 20 years or so a series of legislative triumphs. It was named after the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969, which erupted when members of the gay community in New York fought back against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, and which led to the Pride marches which continue to this day.

In its original typewritten manifesto of 24th May 1989, Stonewall announced:

A Parliamentary Group has been set up to consider new, proposed or potential legislation on issues that may particularly effect lesbians and gay men; and to work with MPs and legislators to ensure equality.

Its central argument, that lesbians and gay men should enjoy equal treatment with heterosexuals, was so strong, and so in accordance with the way the world was moving, that a series of big reforms followed.

These included the lifting of the ban on lesbians and gay men serving in the armed forces, the equalisation of the age of consent, legal adoption by lesbian and gay couples, the repeal of Section 28 and the introduction of civil partnerships.

In 2001, Stonewall launched its Diversity Champions programme, which had rapid success in recruiting major employers, including banks, retailers and government departments, who wished to ensure that, in the words of Stonewall itself, “all LGBTQ+ staff are free to be themselves in the workplace”.

And in 2011, David Cameron confirmed, as Prime Minister, that Stonewall had been working with the grain of history by declaring his support at the Conservative Party Conference for same-sex marriage, which was passed into law in 2013.

As far as legal equality was concerned, Stonewall had by this point achieved pretty much everything it set out to do. It cast around for a new mission, and in 2014 it decided it had found it in trans.

One can hardly blame trans activists for accepting this huge accession of campaigning strength, and one can see why the people running Stonewall persuaded themselves that instead of winding down their organisation, and putting themselves out of work, here was another injustice which they should be able in the space of a decade or two to put right.

As Parris puts it,

Perhaps the truth is that, after success in our great 20th-century drive for equality, Stonewall was left with bricks and mortar, an admirable staff, a CEO and a fund-raising team and, unconsciously, craved another big, newsworthy cause. Well, sometimes a big army with only small battles to fight does best simply to scale back. I know many gay men have become embarrassed by Stonewall and see (as I do) the paradox that some of its activities are actually damaging the standing of the gay community. We don’t want to be associated with sallies in the trans wars. We want to feel proud, not hurt, not victims. Trans people cannot yet feel that: they need a support group. But that’s for them. Gays (to use the lingo) should not be colonising their issues.

It took a while for politicians to realise that the trans war was not necessarily going to end happily. Theresa May was generally favourable, during her prime ministership, towards the demands of the trans lobby.

Complaints that trans women were demanding the right to use facilities which ought to be reserved for biological women could at first be dismissed as transphobic, a charge all the more convincing because it is sometimes undoubtedly true.

So too complaints that children were being put under unfair pressure to discover that they were unhappy with the gender assigned to them at birth, and to have treatment.

Calm, open discussion of these issues was impossible, and most people felt they had better things to do than court confrontation with trans activists.

But there has now been an unmistakeable change in the political weather. Liz Truss, the Equalities Minister, is pushing for all government departments to withdraw from Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, which includes 250 public bodies among its 850 members.

The Sunday Telegraph reports that the Ministry of Justice will lead an “exodus” from the programme. A  source in the department told the paper:

“It’s a shame, as this was once an organisation that did incredibly important work, but it has totally lost its way and the ministers just don’t think it’s justifiable to give Stonewall taxpayers’ money.

“The department will be just as welcoming to LGBT people as before, but we really shouldn’t be paying thousands of pounds for controversial advice about pronouns and gender-neutral spaces.”

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission and the employment dispute service Acas have both withdrawn from Diversity Champions “for cost reasons”, a way of circumventing argument about the actual merits of what Stonewall offers.

But Lady Falkner, the new chair of the EHRC, has gone further, declaring in The Times in her first interview since taking up her post:

“Someone can believe that people who self identify as a different sex are not the different sex that they self identify. A lot of people would find this an entirely reasonable belief.”

When the editor of ConHome commissioned this profile, he asked: “Is the Government trying to kill Stonewall?” It seems to me it would be more accurate to say Stonewall is committing suicide.

Johnson’s marriage shows he is more normal, prudent and pragmatic than his critics can begin to imagine

31 May

Many congratulations to Carrie Symonds and Boris Johnson on their marriage. All but the most curmudgeonly of the Prime Minister’s critics will wish them happiness, as one would any couple who have just got married.

That is one of the good things about a wedding. It links bride and groom, whether famous or obscure, not only with each other, but with millions of other people who have gone through the same rituals and made the same vows.

There is something normal about getting married. It is not a state reserved for perfect couples.

One caught a hint of this when Westminster Cathedral issued a statement which included the words, “The bride and groom are both parishioners.” The Church is there for everyone.

We do not enter here into the dispute about the correct interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church’s rules on remarriage.

Our point is a broader one. Johnson and Symonds have done what many people nowadays do. They lived openly and unashamedly together, and had a child, before they got married.

No previous Prime Minister had behaved quite like that, but by contemporary standards, what they did is conventional.

Johnson’s critics find themselves in a predicament comparable to that of hunters who complain that their quarry will not keep still.

They would like the Prime Minister to oblige them by adopting some fixed position, in which they could riddle him with bullets. He instead moves about, sometimes with extraordinary fleetness of foot.

Saturday’s wedding came as so great a surprise to the media that news of it only broke about six hours after it had taken place. When one considers how much attention the fourth estate devotes to Johnson, and how predictable it was that he and Symonds would get married, it is fairly astonishing that he managed to spring such a surprise.

How to interpret his behaviour? Should one call him a moderniser, for living out of wedlock with Symonds, or old-fashioned, for getting married in church?

Is he at heart a Conservative, a Liberal or a Social Democrat?

And is he or is he not a Roman Catholic? Here too it is hard to be sure.

His critics protest with great bitterness that he keeps breaking the rules.

They yearn to place him in an ideological box, and smash him to pieces for having the wrong opinions.

Johnson prefers to work out what is the best thing to do, and to do it. In other words, he is a Tory pragmatist.

Which is not a very romantic conclusion to arrive at in a piece which began with his marriage. But here is another surprise about Johnson which ought not to be a surprise.

If one looks at what he does, as opposed to what the press thinks he is doing, he is often unscrupulous enough to choose the most prudent option, while pretending to be utterly reckless.

Norcott tells us why Radio Four is no longer funny

29 May

Where Did I Go Right? How The Left Lost Me by Geoff Norcott

When did comedy on BBC Radio Four become no laughing matter? And why has Labour lost the working class?

If Geoff Norcott were writing this review, he would now drop in a deadpan joke, just to reassure the reader, or readers, that he is not about to go all portentous on us.

He sounds nervous about not being funny enough often enough. For a comedian, this is a good fear to have, though at a personal level it must also get wearing.

There are laughs on almost every page of Norcott’s memoir. “I laughed out loud – Andrew Gimson, ConservativeHome” will not shift a single extra copy, could indeed reduce sales by suggesting that no decent, left-wing member of society would want to be seen dead reading this book.

All the same, I laughed out loud. And since I never quite believe recommendations of this kind – for it is more than possible that the reviewer is given to over-statement, or is trading favours with the author, or else has absolutely no sense of humour – here is a passage by Norcott himself.

His father, a one-armed trade unionist, has become seriously ill, and the family have gathered at the hospital, braced for bad news:

The consultant breezed in. You might think “breezed'” is already a verb loading the bases for bias but there’s no other way of describing it. She was in her early forties, seemed to be sporting a recent suntan and bore no hallmarks of someone about to deliver the kind of sombre news she was there to impart. As she checked the notes she seemed to remember the context and did a tilted head sad-face which reminded me of Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous when she feigned melancholy with her daughter Saffie. 

She started with a decent level of gravitas, “So I’m afraid to say it is late-stage pancreatic cancer.”

We all stopped, breathed in and looked at one another.

Then, after a brief pause, the consultant added, “It’s the same cancer Patrick Swayze died of.”

I stared straight at her. It was such a bizarre thing to say. I didn’t know what she was getting at, whether she’d said that to shed light on the condition or if she was suggesting we, as a family, should be proud that our dad was going out with a relatively high-profile cancer twin. Meanwhile, Dad was staring so hard at the woman I was convinced he was about to turn the air blue.

“Who the fuck is Patrick Swayze?” he eventually asked, never especially up on pop culture.

“He’s the one from Big Trouble in Little China,” my sister explained.

“No,” I interrupted, “that’s Kurt Russell, he just looks like Patrick Swayze.”

If you enjoyed that passage, you will enjoy Norcott’s book. If not, not.

But this book is not just enjoyable. It also explains, without portentousness, why comedy on Radio 4 has stopped being funny, and why Labour lost the workers.

For Norcott is a comedian who alone among his trade, decided to come out as a Conservative. In this memoir he describes his journey, as Tony Blair would call it, from a dodgy South London council estate to voting Tory.

Looking back, he detects twinges of small-c conservatism even his his childhood. At the age of 11, he goes off to school, leaving his mother in her dressing gown, “smoking and gasbagging” with the other mums, who are sitting on the stairs adjacent to her front door:

“When I got back at 3.30 p.m. she was still sitting there, still in her dressing gown. I was livid.”

He remarks that this experience “has left me with a lifelong distrust of dressing gowns”.

He was certainly not ready to come out as a Conservative, but he does already have a “pathological fear of poverty”. His parents have got divorced, which makes their finances more precarious, but he admires the work ethic of his stepfather.

This, palpably, is the way to escape poverty, as long the state doesn’t take most of your money in taxes and hand it out to the idlers on the estate who sit around all day in their dressing gowns, getting more money from inactivity than they would from an honest day’s toil.

But I have slipped into preaching mode, which Norcott never does. His conservatism is more a matter of intimations than of moral certainties.

Those belong to the Left. His parents took every chance to reinforce the prevailing narrative that the Tories “don’t give a toss about normal people”.

Something about this doesn’t quite fit. Norcott, born in 1976, goes to Rutlish School in Merton Park, and while he is there, a former pupil becomes Prime Minister.

At the 1992 General Election, the Conservatives run a successful ad campaign addressing the charge that they don’t care about normal people:

“What did the Tories do with a working-class boy from Brixton? They made him prime minister.”

Norcott is not exactly a Major fan:

“Like most people in Britain at that time, my view was that I didn’t mind him. He inspired an almost ideological level of ambivalence.”

Yet when Major comes to speak at his old school, it turns out there is more to him than that:

“The staff at Rutlish, like at most teaching faculties, were overwhelmingly left wing. Coming off the back of the Thatcher years, they were quite open in their contempt for the Tories. And yet, on the night Major came, it’s fair to say he surprised everybody by charming their leftie pants right off them. ‘What an honest man,’ they eulogised. It was also noticeable that he had a particular effect on the ladies. Before his affair with Edwina Currie became public knowledge, the last thing you’d have had Major down as would’ve been a ‘playa’, but the female staff were disturbed by how charismatic they found him… As my mate Michael put it, having met him, ‘The bloke’s a fucking unit. He’s got shoulders like a cupboard.'”

Norcott observes that the Labour candidate, Neil Kinnock, “seems a bit of a pillock”, for example by saying “We’re all right!” in “a preposterous American accent” at “a needlessly glitzy and self-congratulatory rally in Sheffield”.

It is also harder, Norcott remarks, to become Prime Minister if you are “bald, ginger or Welsh”, and “Kinnock was all three”:

“I’m not saying those aversions are morally justifiable but part of the Conservative mindset is understanding the public as it is, not as you wish it to be.”

In the mock general election held at his school in 1992, the year Major astonished the pundits by winning, Norcott ran as a Liberal Democrat.

Not long after this, his mother loses the use of her legs, he has to spend a lot of time looking after her, and his predicted grades at A level slump.

Goldsmiths College, whose recent alumni include Damien Hurst, Blur and Tracey Emin, offers him a place to read English if he gets two Bs and a C.

He astonishes everyone, including himself, by getting three As, but goes to Goldsmiths anyhow, where he finds the corridors “full of toytown revolutionaries trying to save Cuba, whales and rainforests”, while “a lot of the people I knew back in Mitcham were still busy trying to save themselves and their families”.

For the first time, he realises that he is “properly working class”. When people look down on him he feels chippy, but when they are supportive he feels patronised.

He has one or two strange jobs in advertising, veers into becoming an English teacher, almost by accident starts a parallel career on the comedy circuit, and gets married to the love of his life, who suggests, when he has gone full-time as a comic and is casting around for new material, that he could make some jokes about becoming a Conservative.

Which he does. The joke is that he is the only Conservative comedian. The entire trade is monolithically left-wing, which is one reason (though he doesn’t bother, or is too tactful, to point this out) why Radio Four has ceased to be in the slightest bit funny (though I admit it may have started to be funny again: I reach with desperate agility for the off button whenever a supposedly comic programme is about to be aired).

We are being told what to think. Instead of being invited to laugh at the world as it is, we are instructed to hold the right opinions about the world as it ought to be.

The objection to the progressive package deal is not that the opinions are wrong, but that they are compulsory.

Puritans can’t bear the theatre, its frivolity, immorality and unpredictability. They yearn to shut it down, and somehow they have managed to shut it down on Radio Four, crushed beneath a leaden layer of self-censorship.

The subversiveness of comedy – which usually includes the absurdity of the comic, the willingness of him or her to look ridiculous and make jokes at his or her own expense – has been supplanted by a uniform and monumentally dull moral certainty.

Self-righteousness is not funny, but why waste one’s time getting into a row about it, when the only effect is to make one’s opponents more self-righteous.

As the 2015 General Election approaches,

“In the circles I moved in, it seemed it had been universally decided that no one agreed with austerity and unconvincing head of sixth form Ed Miliband would surely become leader of the world’s fifth largest economy.”

Instead of which, the Conservatives under David Cameron win an overall majority of 17. “WHO DID THIS?” Norcott’s right-on colleagues scream.

“11.3 million people,” he wants to reply, but is “hesitant about throwing sarcasm into an already febrile environment”.

The media devote a lot of attention to the “Shy Tory” phenomenon, but in Norcott’s view they overcomplicate the matter, for

“all that really happened was people had seen the increasingly vengeful moral certainty of the Left in full view since 2010 and had wisely decided to keep schtum.”

Norcott is not particularly keen on Boris Johnson, and says almost nothing about him in this book: “He’s not my kind of politician.”

But one cannot help reflecting, as one reads this account of the awakening of a South London Conservative, that one reason for Johnson’s success is his unrivalled ability to mock the solemn rule of virtue which the self-righteous hypocrites of North London are determined to impose on us.

Ben Obese-Jecty: As an ethnic minority party member, my experiences have been positive. But Singh’s report shows room for growth.

27 May

Ben Obese-Jecty is a former British Army Infantry Officer and stood as the candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 General Election.

The publication of Dr Swaran Singh’s independent investigation into alleged discrimination within the Conservative Party has made for interesting and at times tough reading for Conservative members.

Allegations of discrimination, particularly racial and specifically Islamophobic, have dogged the party in recent years, and while this report offers a welcome degree of closure to the issue, it also offers a robust and granular view of where there is significant scope to address current failings.

My own experience as a party member spans across multiple associations, as an association executive officer and even as a prospective parliamentary candidate, but across these varied groups I am yet to experience, or indeed encounter, any racism. Even within the febrile atmosphere of social media, particularly Twitter, I am yet to experience any intra-party bigotry.

The findings of Singh’s investigation are thorough and sometimes scathing, pulling no punches in revealing the number of incidents of alleged discrimination and their respective outcomes. It is notable that the investigation details how the party takes an even-handed approach to the handling of all complaints, whether they are anti-Muslim in nature or otherwise. But amid the findings and recommendations it is also important to recognise that the report found no evidence of institutional racism, which is hugely welcome.

While those on the Left continue to bivouac on the moral high ground on matters of race, despite the damning EHRC report into Labour anti-Semitism only last year, the abuse I have endured during my time in politics has always come from the supposedly more “inclusive” end of the political spectrum. A narrative that often depicts black Conservatives with the ugly neo-racism of race-treachery, of “Uncle Toms” and “House Negroes” accompanied by social media memes of tap-dancing cartoon characters that play on the most racist tropes of the American Deep South. This is bigotry that largely goes unseen, or washes over those who are happy to ignore it. To hear it casually used on Good Morning Britain without an eyebrow raised by presenters is astonishing.

The Conservative Party has undoubtedly grown and changed over the course of my lifetime. Where once a non-white Conservative MP would be extremely unlikely, the contemporary party is now more diverse and more representative than at any previous point in its history. Indeed, the Conservative Party has now had double the number of ethnic minority Cabinet members that the Labour Party has had. There are currently as many British Indians around the Cabinet table as the Labour Party have had ethnic minority Cabinet members in its entire history.

Much has been written before of the diversity we have seen in the Cabinet and the great offices of state during this government. More yet has been written by those who view this as the wrong type of diversity, of brown-washing Conservative racism. Accusations that are mired in their own soft bigotry. The belief that black and brown Conservatives lack the agency to forge their own path. But the success that the party has had regarding the diversification of its MPs is indicative of an organisation that has already recognised the need to evolve and is doing so with aplomb.

No political party can claim to be completely free of those with prejudices, be they overt or more pernicious, any large organisation can expect to contain those with unsavoury views. But removing those whose bigotry is known before it can be allowed to fester and spread is a key step to assuaging fears and convincing sceptics that it is an issue being taken seriously.

That the party leadership has committed its time to being subjected to this level of scrutiny should provide a degree of reassurance in that regard, and the fact it has agreed to implement all of Singh’s recommendations in full shows the party’s commitment to improving things where there have been failures.

The findings from the Singh investigation propose deep reforms and provide a welcome chance for the party to assess how best to adapt and address the opportunity to make it a political home for all those who wish to be a part of it. As a party we should welcome measures that can help address existing shortcomings, transform the way the party works and broaden its appeal beyond its core voter base.

While the Conservative Party has not traditionally been seen as a natural home for voters from Britain’s ethnic minority populations, there is no reason why an ideology that speaks to personal responsibility, hard work and aspiration cannot continue to win support from those who feel that they are values which represent them. With the party committed to a levelling up agenda across the country, why shouldn’t a place where talented individuals are able to thrive no matter their background be the most attractive proposition?

Labour voters make Kim Leadbeater, sister of Jo Cox, early favourite in the Batley and Spen by-election

20 May

Kim Leadbeater, sister of the murdered MP Jo Cox, will win the Batley and Spen by-election for Labour. That at least is the firm belief of a number of drinkers in The Union Rooms pub in Hick Lane, Batley.

For ConHome this was an unexpected message. We approached Batley by train from Leeds. The station before is Outwood, in the constituency of Outwood and Morley, where during the 2015 general election campaign we detected “a change in the political weather” in favour of the Conservatives, and Ed Balls, the Labour incumbent, was duly defeated by Andrea Jenkyns, by the slender margin of 422 votes. She now has a majority of 11,267.

The station after Batley is Dewsbury, a marginal seat captured for the Conservatives in 2019 by Mark Eastwood.

So there ought to be good chances of a Conservative victory in Batley and Spen, held for Labour in 2019 by Tracy Brabin by 3,525 votes. Only a fortnight ago, in the Hartlepool by-election, a Labour majority of 3,595 was demolished, and became a Conservative majority of 6,940.

At the top of Hick Lane, the visitor to Batley finds a tremendous stone Wesleyan Chapel, now used by Europabeds, whose slogan is “Sleep in Style, Wake in Comfort”.

On the opposite side of the road stands another splendid building, the words “West Riding Union Bank Limited 1877” carved in stone over the gothic porch, now in use as a Wetherspoon pub.

“I vote Labour,” said Mick Carter, a retired painter and decorator, who was having a drink in the garden at the back. “I can’t vote Conservative. They tell too many lies.

“I think they should do a comedy act, those two. Pinocchio and Coco the Clown. I wonder why they won’t answer a straight question.”

He meant Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock.

Carter was pleased recently to have received a letter, posted in Wakefield, from Sir Keir Starmer: “They must know I’m a Labour supporter.

“The only reason I was going to go off Labour was when Corbyn was in. I couldn’t stand that Corbyn. But when Starmer came in, he could stand up to Boris, couldn’t he.

“Boris could run rings round Corbyn. But Starmer, he can actually keep on top of him.

“Really by rights what he [Johnson] should have done is have a lockdown much earlier, I’d say February instead of March.

“Now he’s making more mistakes. He should have kept the border shut, it’s too late now, if this variant [from India] is out, it’s his fault.

“Before he came to Batley [the Prime Minister visited a vaccination centre there on 1st February] he says we can’t go anywhere. But he comes 400 miles with his entourage to Batley.

“But the day before he said you’ve got to stay at home. But they never tell lies. Bloody hell.

“And I’ll tell you another thing I couldn’t stand about the Conservatives. You know they’re that bad, they didn’t even treat the cancer patients.

“They treated them like garbage. ‘We’re too busy,’ they said.

“I’ll tell you someone who doesn’t like that Boris, he doesn’t even treat them right, the Scottish people.

“You know what he is. He’s a dictator. You do as I say. I’m in charge of the country. That’s what he tells them in Scotland. You know why? She’s a woman.

“Him in Manchester sticks up to him. And he’s Labour. You know that Andy Burnham, I think he’ll take over from Starmer. He seems OK that Burnham. He seems to know what he’s talking about.”

Does Carter expect Labour to hold Batley and Spen?

“I think they will. I think, is it Kim, she’ll take over. I think she will. I hope so.

They murdered that other woman, that Jo, in Birstall. You can’t do stuff like that.”

Carter is 63, and works part-time as a gardener, having been forced to give up painting and decorating after falling down a flight of stairs.

“Do you know what he [Johnson] offered the NHS? One per cent.”

A second man: “It’s an insult.”

Carter: “Then he redecorates his flat. How much does it cost? £500,000. She wants gold doorknobs. That’s what it says in the paper the other day.

“I would have done the job for about four grand.”

The second man said: “It used to be a good place, Batley. Everything’s gone now. It used to be buzzing. We’ve had them all here, the top stars, at Batley Variety Club. Shirley Bassey, the Drifters, Tom Jones.

“They couldn’t get Elvis. They offered him £50,000 a night. Louis Armstrong, Neil Sedaka, Showaddywaddy, Gene Pitney.”

At a second table, a woman aged 25, who works as a retail assistant and was drinking a Sex on the Beach cocktail (vodka, peach schnapps, cranberry juice, orange juice), wanted to talk about Tracy Brabin, who has just stood down as MP for Batley and Spen after being elected Mayor of West Yorkshire:

“I can’t stand her. She cares more about how she looks than actually dealing with the issues we’ve got in the community.

“I do normally vote for Labour but since Tracy Brabin took over I haven’t bothered to vote any more.”

Would she vote for Kim Leadbeater?

“Most likely yeah. If she’s got the same views as her sister. She [Jo Cox] actually took an active role within her community.”

What does she think of Boris Johnson?

“He’s a buffoon. I can’t stand him. His priorities have been elsewhere. He cares more about how he looks [laughter].

“This whole pandemic, he could have done more, sooner, like New Zealand.

“My father passed away last year when it peaked, in April. My Dad, he barely went out. He went out to the hospital, we thought he had cancer, unfortunately he contracted coronavirus.

“He did have additional health problems. If only he [Johnson] had done it sooner like New Zealand. He’s a joke, he’s an embarrassment.

“This new type of the virus in India, why didn’t they close the borders?

“My Dad were only 60 when he passed away. Not being able to see him, to be around him, we didn’t even see him in the chapel of rest, apparently his body was contaminated, he was put in a plastic bag, which we didn’t need to know.

“It happened on day eight of the hospital admission. He left behind three children, five grandchildren, his wife.”

She reverted to Johnson: “In five to ten years we’ll be a military-led country. He’s a dictator. He is literally a clone of Donald Trump. He and Donald Trump are the same person.”

A man sitting next to her, pouring himself drinks from a jug of Godfather (whiskey, amaretto, Pepsi), said: “Everyone thinks that.”

The woman did a rather good imitation of Johnson: “I, I, I, I, I’ll be going down to get a drink myself.”

She went on: “I don’t like him but he makes me laugh.”

There was much laughter during these conversations. Nobody seemed to mind an ignorant southerner coming into a pub in West Yorkshire and asking people about their politics. A sort of friendly defiance of the Prime Minister prevailed.

At a third table, a man said: “Well I certainly wouldn’t vote Labour. I don’t think that Labour’s doing a good job.

“I used to vote Labour. I vote Conservative now, and I always will do now, I think. I think Boris has done a marvellous job, the way he’s handled the pandemic, the furlough.

“I work at Tesco. We’ve been very busy at Tesco. Never stopped.”

Another man, a retired dryliner and decorator aged 60, said of politicians generally: “They’re all the same. I’ve never voted in my life. I never will.”

But he said of Johnson: “I think he’s all right. I like him actually. His charisma, his hair style. For crying out loud, put some hair lacquer on.

“I have actually voted once, and that was Conservative, about 30 years ago. I did actually vote for Thatcher a few times.

“I know Thatcher caused a lot of shite, but she argued, ‘You get stuck into your work and that’s what you get paid for.’

“The unions were all going on strike for no toilet paper [a dispute at a local firm at the time].”

A third man: “Margaret Thatcher was bang on.”

The retired dryliner: “You worked for your money.”

The third man: “At the last election I voted for Paul Halloran. He’s helped a lot of people in the community, has Paul. There was a woman in a wheelchair, he helped her get access to her house, the council said it couldn’t be done.”

At the 2019 general election, Halloran stood for the Heavy Woollen District Independents, a local successor to UKIP, and as Paul Goodman last week noted on ConHome, came a strong third, with 6,432 votes.

Phil Taylor, 69, who did “lots of jobs mainly in the building trade”, said at once, when asked for his view: “Oh I’m going to vote for Jo Cox’s sister. Kim is it?

“I’ve seen her many times on telly. I think she’ll stand up for the area. Once she starts she’ll never shut up. She’s the fastest talker. She never comes up for air.

“If she’s got summat to get a point over she won’t half drill it home.

“Jo Cox came in here once, she were having her breakfast, she were a nice lass.

“It were the first time I seen her. She was sat in that room, having her breakfast. Tragic what happened to her. Coming up to her anniversary next month, 16th of June I think it were. Terrible.”

He is correct about the date.

“Mrs Peacock, she were the last Conservative, I remember her. I thought she was all right, to be honest. She spoke good. Elizabeth Peacock [who in 1983 won a narrow victory in the newly created seat of Batley and Spen, holding it by slender majorities until 1997] – they showed her on telly the other night.”

In the EU Referendum, Batley and Spen voted 60 per cent Leave. Taylor was one of those Leavers, and said Batley had deteriorated after Britain joined the Common Market:

“It used to be a lovely town this, at one time. Like everywhere in the country, shops and that started closing down. Batley had a massive Conservative Club, it were being demolished, they’re turning it all into flats.

“But I think it’s starting to pick up now. There’s more properties opening when you walk up town. There’s mainly Asian places and eatery places – Turkish and Indian and Chinese.”

At the centre of Batley, just along Commercial Street from the pub, lies the Market Place, which contains a number of handsome stone buildings, including the Zion Chapel of 1869, still in use as Batley Central Methodist Church; the Town Hall, formerly the Mechanics’ Institute and currently in use as a vaccination centre; the Carnegie Library, which opened in 1907; and the Police Station, which to the anger and regret of local residents closed in 2018.

We took a late lunch at SIBU, an Asian Soul Food restaurant which has just opened at the Market Place end of Commercial Street, almost next to Jo Cox House, a charitable venture set up in her memory.

Ismail Achhala, 21, who is studying International Relations at the University of Leeds, with other members of his family set up the restaurant.

He lives in Dewsbury, is a member of Dewsbury Conservative Association, has campaigned there for Mark Eastwood, and has “converted” his younger sister, who is studying dentistry, to the Conservative cause.

He explained that he had joined the party because of David Cameron: “Just the character he had, the policies.

“I could see a Prime Minister and I was proud of him. All I could see with the Labour Party was infighting.”

Achhala’s grandfather came to West Yorkshire from Gujarat in 1967, worked most of his life in a factory, and after ten years could afford to bring his grandmother over.

She is still alive, aged 94, and has 40 grandchildren, of whom the oldest is 43 and the youngest two. At elections she always tells her family to support Labour: “Vote the red box.”

“Thatcher was a villain in her eye,” Achhala said.

What did he think of Thatcher?

“She was much needed,” he replied.

He added that while Tony Blair was in power, there had been a “drainage of services” from the local area:

“Nobody wanted to come and live in Batley. Now there’s high demand. It’s very recent.”

But there is a crime problem: “It doesn’t feel as safe as it used to. They’ve put all the police in one place in Dewsbury – I don’t think that it’s a good idea.

“At night you’ve had stones thrown at the windows. Why should we have to put the shutters up? It spoils the look of the place.

“Before you’d see police patrols at night. Now you feel there’s no support.”

He mentioned the row at Batley Grammar School, where there were demonstrations after the showing of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in a lesson. A teacher has been suspended and gone into hiding pending the outcome of an inquiry.

This bitter clash between free speech and respect for religious belief has had extensive coverage in the national press, but no one in the pub mentioned it.

“I don’t approve of threats of violence,” Akhhala said. “It’s a very tiny traditional community in Batley. You report it to the authorities and you leave it to them.

“I think that working with faith leaders there is a way of sorting these things out.”

It occurred to me that while in Batley, I had met a number of people from Labour backgrounds who now support the Conservatives, but no one who has made the opposite journey. Achhala remarked:

“The direction Boris is taking the party in is very different – he’s opening it up to more voters – the working class who are trusting in him.”

So does he think the Conservatives will win the by-election?

“It’s too tight,” he replied. “I think Labour have got the edge. We need someone to work for the party in Batley. You don’t feel like there’s anything going on.

“There’s a huge Asian working-class community in Batley. There’s also a massive middle-class Asian community that have moved up, but even they’re still Labour.”

With great pride, and infectious optimism, Akhhala showed ConHome the kitchen at SIBU, which has chefs from the Philippines, Malaysia, Nepal, India and Britain. This is globalisation the Batley way.

The Yorkshire Post reports  that Labour will choose its candidate for Batley and Spen on Sunday. Councillor Ryan Stephenson, who represents Harewood ward in Leeds, was yesterday evening selected as the Conservative candidate.

Both parties have enough potential supporters to win this seat, if only they can persuade their people to turn out.

In the West Midlands, Street is buffeted by a storm. But he sounds like a man who has the wind in his sails.

5 May

“I hear it’s sunny in Lichfield,” Michael Fabricant joked, as a storm of unbridled ferocity broke over a group of campaigners for Andy Street, Tory candidate for West Midlands Mayor.

About a  dozen people were gathered in the car park between the One Man and His Dog pub and the Co-Op supermarket in Turnberry Road, Bloxwich.

They included Eddie Hughes, who captured Walsall North (which includes Bloxwich) for the Conservatives in 2017; Fabricant, who has represented Lichfield since 1992; and Jahid Choudhury, who is within striking distance of winning a council seat in Aston, where he will be standing again next year.

“Boris Johnson should go to Aston,” Choudhury said, “and say thank you to the loyal supporters.”

He related how he and other Bangladeshis in Aston, an inner-city area, decided in 2017 to back Street, even though the conventional wisdom was that this was a Labour stronghold.

“The Bangladeshi community worked for six months night and day and then we won,” Choudhury said: four years ago, Street was elected Mayor by the slender margin of 3,776 votes.

Will Street win again this time? The latest poll, for The Times Red Box, puts him 17 points ahead of Liam Byrne, the Labour candidate.

Street flatly rejects this poll: “We dismissed that. I don’t believe it.”

He pointed out that at the general election in 2019, the Conservatives gained 725,000 votes in the West Midlands and Labour 723,000, a result which suggests that the mayoral contest ought, as it was in 2017, to be on a knife edge.

“It will all come down to turnout,” Street adds. “Some of the polls could engender complacency.”

He issued an appeal to ConHome readers: “We still need all the help we can get.”

But morale among Street’s campaigners is good. They began, as is the modern way, by taking photographs of each other, to be distributed on social media.

Jay Singh-Sobal, the Tory candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner, conducted a short interview with Street, and Hughes gave a short speech.

It then began to rain, hail and blow with astonishing force. The get-out-the-vote letters which the team was about to distribute were about to be reduced to a pulp.

Street ordered a tactical retreat to the cars until the storm blew over, as it soon did. The candidate then led the way into various new roads and closes which all seemed to be named after golf courses: Troon, Sunningdale, Birkdale.

The gardens here were immaculate. He raced from door to door, posting the letters.

When he missed a turning and ConHome apologised for distracting him by putting a lot of questions, he replied: “No, no, I should be able to do two things at once.”

He related how Theresa May, to whom he gives the credit for initiating measures which have led to a 75 per cent fall in rough sleepers, had been there canvassing the other day.

So had Damian Green, Damian Hinds, Greg Clark and Sajid Javid.

Aware that he had just named some leading members of the last Government, Street proceeded to add some members of the present Government who had come to canvass for him: Robert Jenrick, Grant Shapps, Therese Coffey, Robert Buckland, and Johnson himself.

Fabricant provided light relief by staggering up, as if having a heart attack, while saying, “The last thing we need is a by-election.”

Street sounds more confident, more at ease with the world of politics, than he did when interviewed in February 2017 by ConHome, soon after stepping down as Managing Director of John Lewis and entering the mayoral race.

On that occasion he said of his campaign:

“If we can win here it is a knife thrust in the Labour Party’s heart.”

A second Street victory might prove even more painful to Labour, for it would suggest a more enduring change in allegiance by voters.

On the drive back to Walsall Station, we passed through Birchills, where a vast brownfield site is being prepared for development by first having the ground cleaned.

Street pointed out that the site had lain derelict for decades. By spending public money for it to be cleaned up, he had prompted ten times as much private investment in new housing.

He obtained £450 million from the Treasury to regenerate such sites in Birmingham, and thereby avoid building on the Green Belt.

But first he had to submit himself to “examination by Spreadsheet Phil”, Philip Hammond, who had the relevant spreadsheet to hand, and wanted to know what “this bit on page five, line one, actually means.”

Street talks with enormous enthusiasm about regenerating the West Midlands by convening all the interested parties and getting them to work together.

He says that this time, he no longer needs to explain what the Mayor can do: he can point instead to what the Mayor is doing. He sounds like a man with the wind in his sails, and he insisted the election is about what is happening in his region, with nobody mentioning the accusations the press has made against Johnson.

But the West Midlands do still contain a large number of people who scarcely register in opinion polls, except perhaps as “don’t knows”.

On emerging at lunchtime yesterday from Walsall Station, and feeling hungry, I ordered a hamburger from a stall, and while it was being fried, asked the stallholder how he would be voting on Thursday.

“I don’t agree with it, mate,” he replied. “Whoever gets in screws you over.”

But what, as a matter of interest, does he think of Andy Street?

“Never heard of him,” the man replied.

In every part of the country, a large number of people are what one might call principled non-voters. They believe that whoever they might vote for would let them down, so they refuse to support anyone.

Street, however, is at least much better known than he was four years ago, and can run on his track record. He has become a far more formidable candidate than he was when he stood and won in 2017.

How disgusting Cameron’s critics are. He is a decent man – as were Baldwin and Blair.

7 Apr

David Cameron is a loss to public life. This is not just now the received view, but Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s Official Historian, yesterday explained to ConHome why it is the correct one:

“Former prime ministers ought not to be entirely separated from the world of Westminster, which, apart from the benefits of proximity to power, would constantly remind them of the dangers of lucrative enticements which the press and candid friends will always be glad to see exposed in Commons or Lords.

“No ex-PM has wanted to go the Lords for nearly 30 years, the attraction much diminished by the creation of peerages on a massive and unprecedented scale, a process of degradation much assisted by Cameron himself following Blair’s lead. This is a loss to both Parliament and former Prime Ministers.”

Theresa May remains in the Commons, where she continues, when she wishes, to give the House the benefit of her experience.

Blair and Cameron resigned their Commons seats just after ceasing to be PM, while Gordon Brown and John Major each remained in the Commons until the general election after the one at which they had been defeated. All four have declined to go to the Lords.

Margaret Thatcher stayed in the House until the general election after her overthrow, and then accepted a peerage.

Edward Heath remained for over a quarter of a century in the Commons after losing the two elections in 1974 and the Tory leadership contest in February 1975.

Harold Wilson reverted to being Leader of the Opposition after his defeat as PM in 1970, entered Downing Street again in 1974, stepped down as Prime Minister in 1976, but stayed in the House until 1983, when he went to the Lords.

His successor as Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who was defeated at the general election of 1979, remained in the House until 1987, when he too went to the Lords.

The most graceful example in modern times is afforded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who after leaving the Lords at the start of his brief prime ministership in 1963-64, remained in the Commons and served in 1970-74 as Foreign Secretary, his second term in that office, before going once more to the Lords.

Cameron had originally intended to remain in the Commons as a backbencher, but in September 2016, two months after stepping down as Prime Minister, announced he would also step down as an MP, saying in explanation:

“As a former Prime Minister it is very difficult to sit as a backbencher and not be an enormous distraction and diversion from what the Government is doing.”

To traditionalists, it seemed a great pity that Cameron had so quickly followed Blair’s example, cutting and running from Parliament as soon he was no longer the most important person, as if the only point of being an MP is to hold high office.

But just as Blair’s position was rendered excruciatingly uncomfortable by the opprobrium he continued to attract for having led Britain into the Iraq War of 2003, so Cameron’s position was rendered excruciatingly uncomfortable by the opprobrium he continued to attract from Remainers for calling and losing the EU referendum of June 2016.

All Cameron’s earlier achievements were forgotten. Modernising the Conservative Party, leading it back into power in 2010 in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, restoring the economy and governing the country well enough to win a narrow overall majority in 2015, now counted for nothing.

People find it hard to remember more than one thing about any Prime Minister, and all they now remembered about Cameron was that he had accidentally led Britain out of the EU.

He gracefully recognised at breakfast-time on the morning after the referendum that he must step down. There followed a period of silence from him, and this too seemed graceful.

In 2019 he brought out his memoirs, in which he confessed:

“The latent Leaver gene in the Tory Party was more dominant than I had foreseen.”

But his book was not candid enough to arouse any great interest. He had been only 49 when he stepped down, younger than any Prime Minister at the end of their term in office since Lord Rosebery, Prime Minister from 1894-95.

Rosebery was only 47, and for a long time his admirers hoped he would come back. He was a great orator, who could master huge crowds and who still displayed, at unpredictable intervals, star quality, and shafts of insight which showed an admirable independence of mind.

In 1904, when everyone else was cheering the entente cordiale with France, Rosebery greeted a rising Liberal star, David Lloyd George, with the words: “You are all wrong. It means war with Germany in the end.”

Cameron has less brilliance but a steadier temperament than Rosebery, and seemed to have mastered the awkward art of retiring before the age of 50.

In an interview by Emma Barnett with his wife, Samantha Cameron, in January 2021, we learned:

“Dave has shopped and cooked virtually every meal in the last few months.”

Now the Lex Greensill affair threatens to supplant the EU referendum as the one thing for which Cameron is remembered. The audacity which carried him to the Tory leadership, and into Downing Street, also led him to back an Australian banker who promised to make him rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but has instead gone bust, leaving thousands of jobs in the British steel industry in peril.

Greensill had been granted an unusual degree of access to Downing Street, and even a No 10 business card, while Cameron was Prime Minister, and Cameron has since lobbied Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on Greensill’s behalf, though without managing to extract any funds.

On Sunday, the first signs of a fight-back by Cameron could be detected, in a piece by Dan Hodges for The Mail on Sunday:

“David Cameron has let himself down. And he knows it. ‘He was adviser for a company that went bust in a very public way. And he’s told me he recognises that’s embarrassing,’ says a sympathetic Cabinet Minister who spoke to the former Prime Minister last week.

‘”But he does think all the other stuff is way over the top. This idea he was getting No 10 business cards printed out for all these dodgy people. His attitude is that he had a lot of responsibilities as PM and dealing with the Downing Street stationery wasn’t one of them.'”

It is just possible that by refusing to respond in person to the Greensill story, Cameron will so starve it of oxygen that it dies out.

But the story serves also as a reminder of how hellish it can be to be an ex-Prime Minister. As long as one is in office, one can at least indicate to potential critics that if they start to chuck mud, they can abandon all hope of promotion.

That sanction falls away as soon as one falls from power. From then onwards, anyone who wants to take a crack can do so with impunity.

Consider the case of Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister in 1923-4, 1924-29 and 1935-37, the dominant figure of the inter-war years, who in 1936 with masterly skill united the British and Imperial Establishment behind the policy of replacing the feckless Edward VIII with the dutiful George VI.

The following year, Baldwin at a moment of his own choosing stepped down, became a Knight of the Garter, and was elevated to the Lords as Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, an earldom being the usual reward for a PM.

Three years later, he became one of the guilty men who had left Britain unprepared for the fight for national survival against Nazi Germany. George Orwell wrote of him:

“As for Baldwin, one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air.”

Baldwin was by now so unpopular that he did not care to appear in public, and despite being old and infirm was denied a seat while travelling on a train. Lord Beaverbrook, in an act of spite, had the gates removed from Baldwin’s house, a gift from Worcester Conservative Association when their leader retired, under the pretence that the metal was needed to make Spitfires.

At Baldwin’s final appearance in public, for the unveiling in 1947 of a statue of George V, a feeble cheer was raised in his honour, and he asked whether he was being booed.

What a fearful warning to Cameron. We write about these things as if they were fair, but that is seldom the case.

We find instead an overwhelming desire to blame someone. The most liberal-minded people are particularly liable to yield to this urge to flog some poor wretch, and to feel better about themselves as they inflict the punishment.

It is especially satisfying to flog someone who formerly adopted a high moral tone. Baldwin liked to strike that note, as did Blair and Cameron.

They were very good at it, but their critics saw the discrepancy between the high-sounding rhetoric and the slightly less elevated behaviour, and pounced.

How disgusting those critics are. Cameron is a decent man, and so were Blair and Baldwin. All three did about as well as anyone could do in the circumstances, and all three, so far as one can see, are doomed.

From Walpole to Johnson, the rude, original vigour of the Prime Minister and the Commons have survived

3 Apr

The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister by Anthony Seldon

Spoiler alert. Ten pages from the end of his 337-page study, Anthony Seldon concludes that “the undoubted challenges” of being Prime Minister “have not made the job impossible”.

He also concedes that making lists of the best Prime Ministers, though “entertaining”, is also “largely meaningless”, because there are no “agreed criteria on what constitutes ‘success’ for a Prime Minister”.

But Seldon knows which PMs he puts in his top class, worthy of the accolade of being “Agenda Changers”, by which he means they “changed the course of the country, and with it, the way the job of Prime Minister operated”:

“Robert Walpole, William Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel, Viscount Palmerston, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Clement Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher.”

No Winston Churchill, which is rather refreshing, for that endlessly fascinating figure can sometimes obscure everyone who came before him.

But oddly enough, in the piece for The Times which Seldon wrote about his book, the top eight become the top nine, for Churchill is included.

One must register here an immediate protest at the exclusion of Pitt the Elder. For although his titanic parliamentary speeches are lost to history – there was no Hansard in that confident century – the electrifying effect of this pioneering globalist’s performances is amply recorded, and it is a mere quibble to say that in 1759, the Year of Victories, he was not actually Prime Minister, but merely the driving force of the Government and of British arms.

In Seldon’s book, Churchill is relegated to the second division, described as “Major Contributors”, as if they had donated substantial sums to the school appeal, after which we get “Positive Stabilisers”, “Noble Failures”, “Ignoble Failures”, and “Left on the Starting Line”, this last category consisting of PMs who served for too short a time to make much of a difference.

All this has the merit of being highly thought-provoking. Seldon is a Gladstonian technocrat. He admires moral seriousness, and getting things done. Life is real and life is earnest, and so is politics.

Walpole, who took office 300 years ago today, is some ways lucky to make the cut. Seldon begins with an imaginary dialogue between Walpole, generally regarded as the first Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson, who is the 55th holder of the office.

Throughout these three centuries, control of the House of Commons has been a cardinal requirement for any Prime Minister, and loss of control, which Walpole suffered at the start of 1742, meant you were out.

Although Seldon reserves his greatest admiration for Prime Ministers who changed the way the office works, he does not seek to hide the fact that in some ways it has remained unchanged.

He does not, however, have much sympathy with any Prime Minister who might be suspected of frivolity. He has little time for Benjamin Disraeli, and a great deal for Robert Peel.

The enduring impact of the great split of 1846, when Disraeli destroyed Peel and almost destroyed the Conservative Party, is underplayed by Seldon:

“For Conservatives, memories of Peel’s splitting the party caused successive leaders regular anxiety.”

Regular nightmares would be more accurate. Robert Blake, in The Unknown Prime Minister, his life of Andrew Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, puts the matter in its true perspective, when explaining why in 1913 Bonar Law felt obliged, as the still quite new Conservative leader, to abandon his personal support for Imperial Preference, an issue as bitterly divisive as Brexit became a century later:

“Did Bonar Law act rightly in thus reversing his own declared policy for the sake of Party unity? To answer this is to to answer a problem in political ethics which has never yet been satisfactorily solved. But in acting as he did there is no doubt that Bonar Law was following the established tradition of previous Conservative leaders. Ever since the day when Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws had broken the Party and driven it into the wilderness for 20 years, successive Conservative leaders had felt it was their duty, at all costs and at almost any sacrifice, to avoid repeating Peel’s action. Disraeli, Salisbury, Balfour, had all regarded party unity as of paramount importance – and Bonar Law both on this occasion, and at several other critical moments in his life, took the same view.”

Such party considerations are almost entirely ignored by Seldon, who instead focuses on what happens inside Number Ten. Bonar Law, who brought down Lloyd George but then served as Prime Minister for only 212 days before being forced by mortal illness to step down, is put among the Prime Ministers who had too little time to do anything significant while in office.

Lord Salisbury, who spent a total of almost 14 years as Prime Minister, is placed by Seldon in the third division. One looks in vain for any recognition of Salisbury’s ability often to defeat Gladstone, by ensuring that after the widening of the franchise in 1884, an organised appeal was made to the “Villa Toryism” found in the suburbs which were springing up round every prosperous town.

In Seldon’s view, Salisbury “was responsible for few fresh initiatives over his 14 years”, so doesn’t belong at the top table. Novelty is what counts, so Tory leaders who disguise innovation as keeping things the same receive no credit.

Lord Rosebery, who in 1894 succeeded Gladstone but remained in office for only a year and a bit, comes off worse. “We need not linger on Lord Rosebery,” Seldon tells us, later adding that this Prime Minster “lacked gravitas, failed to build on Gladstone’s legacy, to give a clear direction, and led the Liberals into a defeat”.

It is certainly true that despite being a man of wealth, intellect, charm and spell-binding eloquence, and winning the Derby twice while he was Prime Minister, Rosebery was a failure. But reading Seldon’s study reminds us that failure can be good for liberty, and good for Parliament.

The voters, who are almost entirely absent from this account, need someone to blame when things have gone wrong, and in many ways it is more satisfying to blame a brilliant Prime Minister than a second-rate one.

The Commons matters because it can end any Prime Minister’s career. Here is one of the great checks on tyranny, for MPs in whichever party or coalition of parties has a parliamentary majority are quick to realise when their leader has become such a liability with the wider public that they themselves will be in danger of losing their seats at the next election.

The Commons withdraws its confidence from a Prime Minister who has failed, and a new Prime Minister, who perhaps sees more clearly what the nation requires, is given the chance to show what he or she can do.

Churchill taking over from the previously impregnable Neville Chamberlain in 1940 is the most dramatic example of this brutal process. We have a wonderfully responsive system, which is one reason why it has absorbed three centuries of shocks: plenty of wars, riots, crashes, slumps and strikes, but no revolution.

The Commons is still there, and when it senses that the right moment has come it will – unless pre-empted by some some other means of getting rid of the Prime Minister such as an election defeat – unmake Johnson as it unmade Thatcher.

Seldon makes proposals for lightening the load borne by the Prime Minister, by delegating much of the routine business of government to a Deputy Prime Minister, and many external responsibilities to the Foreign Secretary, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer demoted to become only the fourth most senior member of the Cabinet.

Such reforms may be desirable, and might even lead to greater efficiency, but efficiency is not enough. And Seldon recognises that well-intentioned reforms often prove transitory.

John Major tried to show he was a different kind of leader by consulting the Cabinet more respectfully than his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, was accustomed to do. As Seldon comments, “It didn’t last. It never does.”

Seldon has interviewed a number of insiders, including Gus O’Donnell, a former Cabinet Secretary, who tells him:

“The role of full Cabinet has been over-emphasised. It’s just become too big to be the decision-making body.”

The same point was made, more amusingly, by C. Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s.

There are a number of astonishing errors in Seldon’s book: Lloyd George is said to have sat for 55 years for a “South Wales seat”, while a well-known remark by Horace Walpole about the fourth Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle (“A Secretary of State without intelligence, a Duke without money, a man of infinite intrigue, without secrecy or policy, and a Minister despised and hated by his master, by all parties and Ministers, without being turned out by any”) is attributed to H.T. Dickinson.

But there are also some wonderful things. Here is the Duke of Portland, Prime Minister in 1783 and again in 1807-9, and classified by Seldon as an Ignoble Failure:

“the idea of courting popularity by any means I have always reprobated…the possession or enjoyment of it has always something in it very suspicious, and I know hardly any act or measure vulgarly or commonly called popular which has not originated in a bad cause, and been productive of pernicious effects.”

Many Remainers would agree most devoutly with Portland. Could it be (as I suggested the other day) that we still live in an 18th-century country?

One of the best things about this book is that it makes one think anew about our political tradition, and give thanks that certain features of it, including the office of Prime Minister, still possess, despite all attempts by glorified management consultants at modernisation, some traces of their rude original vigour.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Davies wonders whether the Prime Minister is a Conservative

24 Mar

Philip Davies (Con, Shipley) raised a question which troubles many Tory backbenchers:

“To paraphrase the late, great, much-missed Eric Forth, Mr Speaker, I believe in individual freedoms and individual responsibility, I believe that individuals make better decisions for themselves, their families and their communities than the state makes for them, I loathe the nanny state, and I believe in cutting taxes. Prime Minister, am I still a Conservative?”

In other words, Prime Minister, are you still a Conservative?

This is dangerous territory for Johnson. One day, when he is down on his luck, those Tory backbenchers will hold his fate in their hands, and not a few of them will say it all went wrong because he abandoned the true Tory faith as proclaimed by Forth and Davies.

Johnson took refuge in brevity: “Yes, Mr Speaker,” he declared with emphasis, provoking an appreciative laugh from the House, and left it at that.

Sir Keir Starmer had earlier attempted, like Davies, to indicate that the Prime Minister is not a true Conservative.

He reminded us that Johnson had promised not to cut the size of the armed forces, yet was now doing exactly that.

The Prime Minister retorted that the Army would still be 100,000 strong “if you include the reserves”, and made a crack at Jeremy Corbyn.

“Mr Speaker, he’s fighting the last war,” Sir Keir retorted, and pointed out that the regular army is to be cut from 82,000 to 72,500 by 2025, with cuts in planes, tanks and ships too.

Might Sir Keir be fighting the last war? None of us will know for certain until the next war comes and we discover whether we have the means to fight it.

The Prime Minister said it was “frankly satirical” to be lectured by Labour about the size of the Army, and mocked his opponent’s “new spirit of jingo”.

Sir Keir retorted that the Prime Minister lacked the “courage” to admit what was happening, or to put the cuts to a vote in the House.

So is the main charge against the PM that he is untrustworthy, that he is cowardly, or simply that he is not a Conservative?

The Leader of the Opposition has not yet decided where to place the Schwerpunkt, as Clausewitz would have termed it, of his attack on Johnson.

After all, the trouble with pointing out that the Prime Minister is not a Conservative is that this might increase his already quite noticeable popularity with Labour voters.