James Frayne: Covid-10. Seven action points for Ministers – as pressure rises on the Government

29 Sep

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

The Government always knew that keeping public opinion onside during the early days of a second spike would be hard.

These are times when public finances are under pressure, lockdown fatigue is setting in (particularly amongst the young), but when dangers to public health are still high. Ministers face criticism from all corners, whatever decisions it takes. Some of the popular media’s websites channel criticism towards the Government from entirely different directions on the same day. So what should Ministers do to keep public opinion onside?

I never write about clients’ work, unless expressly agreed and declared. My thoughts here are entirely derived from my own recent reading of the public mood. In any case, not only has it been a relative age since I ran groups for Government, but my agency has decided not to pursue opportunities for future work with the Cabinet Office. As those that understand qualitative research know, the work, while interesting, is ultimately extremely low-margin, all-consuming and a distraction from commercial work.

1. Forget the polls.

First things first – the Government needs to junk almost all the polling. Public opinion is in a state of total unreality and has been for many months. All the polls show the public back strict lockdown measures – just as they always have.

But voters are on morphine supplied by Ministers in the form of vast furlough payments and emergency support to businesses, tenants and the rest. As such, the public has no sense at all of the real state of the economy – and therefore no sense whatever of the trade-offs the Government is making between public health and public finances.

People will always favour tighter restrictions when they think there’s little direct risk to them. As it stands, few think their taxes will rise, their personal debt will increase or that their jobs are at risk. For most people, risk lies with others.

Ministers have created a vicious cycle of opinion: they’re artificially pumping up support for tight restrictions, then reading the polls telling them the public want tight restrictions, then further extending support. If the Government is going to help the country ultimately get back to normal, it’s going to have to break this cycle. Stop reading the polls for a bit.

2. Start being honest about risk and public choice.

While the nature of the conversation will necessarily be brutal and uncomfortable, the Government must start talking about the balanced risks of ongoing restrictions. It has to: the chances of the cavalry arriving with millions of vaccine shots before the money runs out look slim. It seems likely, at some point, that we’ll have to find a way to live with risk.

If Ministers don’t prepare the ground now, they’ll find the public in a state of hostile shock when all of a sudden the Government removes financial support. As part of this process, they’ve also got to start encouraging the public to start managing their own risk.

So far, only Rishi Sunak has been prepared to deliver, in flashes, this message. He should be unleashed to start telling the public some fundamental truths about the need to protect the economy, and in turn our public services and living standards. The public aren’t daft and they’ll come to accept this. But it’s a message that is going to take time to filter through; it needs to be delivered now.

3. Don’t misunderstand the character of the English.

There’s only one value the English hold dearer than fairness, and that’s family. While they want ludicrous violations of lockdown rules punished in the name of fairness, they’ll also do whatever it takes to protect their families and they believe utterly in the sanctity of the private home.

The Government has been dicing with political death in recent times. They’ve appeared to encourage snitching on other families, which will come back to haunt them in calmer times; they’ve left themselves open to putting, say, attending demos ahead of visiting relatives; and they will have made lifetime enemies of middle class parents of students in recent weeks.

Ministers should remember who the English are: law-abiding; fair-minded; (nuclear) family-focused; and ultimately liberal. Pushing them into civil disobedience to protect their families will end catastrophically badly. (And, whatever you do, don’t mess with the English Christmas).

4. Promote politicians, downgrade scientists.

PR Advice 101 is always the same: wheel out the independent experts that the public trust, and play down the role of politicians. And so we’ve seen nothing but Government scientists for months.

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, it has implied that the scientists are ultimately in control of the situation and that there are simple, empirical decisions which can and must be made. This isn’t true, and has given the public a false sense of security.

Secondly, most of the scientists are poor communicators. The media love the idea of the boring, trusted scientist that the public all love. But this isn’t reality. The scientists aren’t professional communicators and putting them in positions of public influence in this way is a mistake. The Government needs to show some balls and downgrade the scientists’ role as communicators, and take responsibility for what are essentially political decisions.

5. Use Rishi Sunak more, use businesspeople more.

Strategically speaking, communicating on the economy is now the most important comms challenge – because of the need to prepare people for balanced risk. People know as much as they ever will about the health risks and the need to socially distance, wash hands etc.

So there’s little gain now in having the scientists keep talking about the health risks. They won’t help keep the public onside if a million people join the dole queues. Instead, the Government needs to promote business voices who can both explain the rationale for Government action, and who can explain risk and reward in ways others can’t.

Ultimately, since we’re all going to need to get back out there and manage risk at some point, we need businesspeople to explain in necessarily lurid terms the dangers of not doing so. We need to hear even more from Rishi Sunak and ideally a panel of businesspeople to amplify his warnings.

6. Drop the technical language.

This is such an obvious point, I’m reluctant to make it. However, one of the problems that has arisen from the public role of the scientists is the casual use of pointlessly technical language that ordinary people can’t possibly understand.

The use of the “R rate” in public communications is merely the most obvious example. Of course, when used enough, they take on the meaning they’re supposed to have. But as part of the shift to promote political voices, there’s got to be an onus on using the simplest language.

7. Internationalise the response.

One of the weird things about the global pandemic is that each country seems to be grappling with its  own specific outbreak; it’s as if we all have our own national pandemics. It will be far easier to keep the public onside if politicians are seen to be actively talking and learning from one another.

And, no, this isn’t a Brexit thing; this seems true around the world. The public will be more open to change if they can see we are cooperating with the other countries and learning lessons from them.

Over the summer, all we heard was the possibility of tit-for-tat quarantine restrictions imposed on different countries’ tourists, as if this was all a zero sum game; this wasn’t given the attention it warranted: it was a real low point in the crisis. The Government would do well to work publicly with other governments at this point.

Neil O’Brien: Johnson should instruct a team of Ministers to wage war on woke

21 Sep

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Every day brings fresh examples of the woke revolution rolling through western institutions.

The last couple of weeks saw Edinburgh University ‘cancelling’ the great Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume, taking his name off one of its buildings. The BBC broadcasting a comedian joking about killing white people. The Parliamentary authorities considering making MPs undertake “unconscious bias training”. The Natural History Museum reviewing displays relating to Charles Darwin, because the voyage of the Beagle could be seen as “colonialism”. The SNP administration in Edinburgh trying to push through a “Hate Crime” law – despite being warned by everyone from the Police Federation to comedians and novelists that it threatens free speech.

In the US, where the woke agenda is further advanced, it was announced that films must now hit diversity quotas to be eligible to win an Oscar.  The English department at the University of Chicago announced it will admit only those graduate students who plan to work in Black Studies.

I’ve written before about what’s wrong with the woke agenda, but others have put it better than me, and in response to the woke revolution, there’s now a diverse group of thinkers pushing back.

Ed West and Douglas Murray have chronicled the excesses of wokery in books that are funny as well as perceptive.  Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have explained the origins of the woke agenda in the “critical theory” sweeping universities over recent decades.  Tom Holland, though not a political writer, explains how much the woke agenda owes (without realising it) to Christianity.

For me, one of the most compelling critiques is by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, two liberal professors in the US.

They are worried the woke agenda isn’t just undermining basic liberal ideas like free speech and debate, but encouraging younger people to think in ways that are damaging.

They diagnose three bad ways of thinking which have become engrained in US universities: a belief that young people are emotionally fragile and have to be protected from ideas they might find upsetting; a belief that you should always trust your emotions, prioritising emotion over reason; and forms of us-versus-them thinking which divide the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, with no in-betweens.

As Haidt and Lukianoff write, making universities into ‘safe spaces’ with no intellectual diversity is setting people up to fail: students don’t get used to disagreeing reasonably; or understanding that people who don’t agree with you may not be evil. As someone pointed out: you don’t help someone get strong by taking the weights out of the gym for them.

Their book contains hair-raising accounts of the kind of protests and madness this agenda has led to in US universities, increasingly a world of ‘trigger warnings’, ‘no-platforming’ and everyone walking on eggshells for fear of committing ‘microagressions.’

While this may seem remote to us living in Britain and not working in universities, the truth is that ideas from the US relentlessly percolate into the UK.

Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter protests in London, or British teenagers referring to the British police as “Feds”, ideas always blow over from across the Atlantic, so what happens in the US today will likely happen here tomorrow.

I find the woke agenda alarming because it promises a future very different from the one I grew up hoping for. When I was a teenager the future was going to be that we would be increasingly colour-blind.  That people would be treated as individuals, not members of races.  That everyone was capable of fitting into our shared modern, western culture.

Instead, wokeism tells us we should increasingly see each other as members of different races.  That ethnic minorities can’t assimilate into a modern, western culture because that they are (in some ill-defined way) incompatible with that culture.  That young people from ethnic minorities should be on their guard at all times, because they live in a culture which seeps racism from every pore.

Worst of all, it tells us that we must stay in our lane.  That we can’t enjoy another culture, because that’s “cultural appropriation.” That values like working hard or objectivity or the nuclear family are characteristics of white people, not others.

I’m not the first to say it (indeed there’s comedy sketches about it) but in the same way that the extreme left and extreme right are kind of similar, the woke agenda and the racist one have some powerful similarities.

If we think the woke agenda is damaging, divisive and illiberal, what can we do about it?

There’s now a number of campaign groups dealing with different aspects of it. The Free Speech Union does what it says on the tin. The Campaign for Common Sense brings a thoughtful take to the big questions raised by the woke agenda. The Equiano Project and “All In Britain” promote grown-up, non-hysterical discussion about race and diversity.

But what should we do as a Party and a Government?

While the Prime Minister is quite right to speak out on absurdities like the Last Night of the Proms saga, he simply can’t be everywhere, since he has a virus to fight, an economy to save and a Brexit deal to land. So the Government needs to empower a minister, or group of ministers, to lead and deal with this.

Different solutions are possible in different fields. For example, in the civil service, government has more control.  The Government could end programmes like “unconscious bias training” which don’t work and waste money, but have official backing and are compulsory for all staff in many departments.  The other day, it was revealed that the Ministry Of Defence has more diversity and equality officers than the Royal Navy has warships. Do we need so many people in such roles in the public sector?

In other fields like broadcasting, universities and cultural institutions, government has less direct control. Ministers like Oliver Dowden and Gavin Williamson have rightly rapped institutions over the knuckles when they have done things that are unacceptable.

But as well as intervening, government also needs to communicate why this agenda is wrong and divisive, and what it opposes.

Margaret Thatcher could not intervene personally in every departmental squabble.  But she didn’t’ have to. Civil servants didn’t have to wonder what her view on an issue would be. You knew. Because she took time to make arguments of principle, again and again.

That’s what’s needed now. One common theme in many woke rows is that people in positions of leadership simply don’t understand where the boundaries are.

For example, permanent secretaries of various government departments tweeted their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The Civil Service Race Forum attacks government, claiming “many anti BAME policies originated in Whitehall.” Several department’s intranets have promoted highly contentious material about “white privilege” and Britain’s “systemic racism.”

Officials need to understand that they are not posting neutral stuff that everyone agrees on, but one side of a political argument.

When the British Library promoted materials to staff suggesting they should back a campaign by Diane Abbott, how could its leadership not spot that they were violating the rules on political neutrality?

The truth is we all live in bubbles, and if you run a large arts organisation in London most of the people you know probably have a certain world view. Such people need to be reminded that the taxpayers who pay their wages don’t all agree, and they have an obligation to be neutral.

To get them to understand where the boundaries are, government needs to set them out clearly and wholeheartedly.  The Prime Minister has even bigger battles to fight. But he should empower a minister to lay down the law, and wage war on woke.

What could give the Government a sense of purpose – and chances to achieve? Making Gove Deputy Prime Minister.

18 Sep

Boris Johnson has a majority of 80, the Conservatives are still above 40 per cent in the polls, there is no leadership challenge pending, and there are still over four years to go until the next election.

But the Tory press this week is behaving as though none of that applies.  It hasn’t given up on the possibility of the Prime Minister winning in 2024.  However, it seems close to abandoning hope of him achieving anything substantial before then.

The joint catalyst of this development has been the Government’s adventures with international law, to which many voters are indifferent.  And its handling of the Coronavirus, to which they are not.  The common theme is that the country is all at sea, and that the captain has no sense of direction – or grip.

It may be that the media, some Tory MPs and Party donors are getting everything out of proportion.  The hysterical anti-Johnson hyperbole from the Remainer residue certainly muddies the waters.  To give an example almost at random, one prominent pro-Remain journalist once implied that Johnson’s Covid illness was faked.

None the less, ConservativeHome thinks that the critics have a point – and then some – for two solid reasons.  The first is all to do with the unique circumstances of last December’s election.  Johnson was elected to Get Brexit Done and spend a lot of money: at least, that’s what the hostage-free Tory manifesto suggested.

He has delivered Brexit as most voters see it (even if there is no trade deal), and his spending plans have been absorbed by the Coronavirus crisis, along with nearly everything else.  “Levelling up” is on hold.  So is the economy.  The manifesto had no programme for public service reform in any event.

If it had, the virus would make its delivery all but impossible. Covid means all hands to the pump, unless the Prime Minister is prepared to let the disease which put him in intensive care let rip.  That isn’t going to happen.  Global Britain may not either, at least if one means by it a coherent approach to China, Russia and radical Islamism.

The second reason is all bound up with Johnson himself.  We endorsed him last summer as “not the Prime Minister we deserve, but the Prime Minister we need right now”.  By which we meant that his character, gifts and personality are best shaped for campaigning rather than government.

Just before he made up his mind to declare for Brexit, he told friends that he was “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”.  That captures the essence of how he works when trying to deliver many ends, as one must in office, rather than single one, as is the case in elections.

A shopping trolley can’t move on its own.  It needs someone to direct it.  That person is thought by those demented Remainers to be Dominic Cummings.  Certainly, parts of the Government’s programme are Cummings-driven: upending the civil service, challenging judicial power, overhauling procurement, “investing in science”.

But Cummings’ hands are only some of those on the trolley.  His old Parliamentary supporters, Simon Case, colleagues from his London mayoralty days, Carrie Symonds: all these and others push and pull at Johnson, who has no enduring ideology of his own to steer by, and can be as indecisive in private as he is bombastic in public.

We don’t mean to suggest that the Prime Minister has no beliefs.  He does, and his experience in City Hall has shaped them.  He wants to build more houses (good for him), invest in infrastructure, spend money on policing – and he has liberal instincts on immigration, as Government policy confirms.

But these are not so much convictions as impulses.  This is not the man to throw himself into the culture wars, as his response to the Black Lives Matter eruption confirms.  Rather, he is Lord Stanley, pitching in to the Bosworths of the conflict only when they’ve already been decided.  So it was with Churchill’s statue and the Proms.

The big point is that his response to Covid-19 is in deep trouble.  Success would see test and track taking the strain this winter.  Instead, regional lockdowns have already kicked in, and it’s only September.  The Government wants life at work to be as close to the old normal as possible, but life at home to be a new normal – under compulsion.

Hence marshalls, curfews and the rule of six.  Last spring, voters swung behind the Prime Minister as they’ve sometimes swung behind others when wars break out.  Now, there is war-weariness.  The winter is shaping up ominously and the Parliamentary Party is skittish.

At this stage in editorials, the usual course is to reiterate advice.  Appoint better Cabinet Ministers – not just people who voted for you.  Find an Andrew Mackay-type figure to take the backbench temperature.  Get a single, strong Party Chairman.

We add: forget trying to carry out, in current cirumstances, a spending review that looks more than a year ahead.  Concentrate on sorting testing, keeping schools open – and saving the Union; concede that turning the civil service upside-down will have to wait; prepare for a pro-EU Biden presidency.  But there is a fundamental problem.

Johnson just isn’t the man to exercise self-discipline outside an election campaign.  This is integral to what makes him so interesting: As Sasha Swire puts it, he has a “greatness of soul…and best of all a wonderful comic vision of the human condition. He is not like any politician I have ever encountered before, and I have met many.”

He will carry on boostering about moonshots, world-beating systems and (James Forsyth writes this morning) hydrogen.  It’s a form of manic defence.  A David Cameron would think tactically; a Margaret Thatcher strategically.  But the Prime Minister doesn’t think so much as intuit.  And will carry on doing so because that’s how he is.

Perhaps memory can reach where advice can’t.  Johnson has worked at his best when he lurches noisily forwards and someone follows quietly behind, carrying a dustpan and brush: Simon Milton in London (then Eddie Lister), Stuart Reid at the Spectator.  To put it more neutrally, he performs and someone else administers.

The safe, secure choice to do this now would be Oliver Dowden.  The one that would cause a sensation, explode a mass of leadership speculation and conspiracy theory, and drag up horrible memories of commitment and betrayal would be the psycho-dramatic appointment of Michael Gove.

The media’s field day could last for the rest of this Parliament.  But in the meantime, Gove would get on with what he does better than any Minister other than perhaps Rishi Sunak: strategic thinking – and messaging – government with a purpose, and zeal for reform.

The planned New Year reshuffle would be the right time for the change, though we admit that it almost certainly won’t happen.  All the same, the Government’s shaping up to be in its own bleak midwinter by then.  Sure, the next election is there to be won.  And never underestimate Johnson’s strange bond with a big slice of the British people.

But getting the state’s creaking machinery up to responding to Covid, let alone achieving much before 2024, depends on him doing what all of us find it hardest to do: changing what he does; almost who he is.

James Frayne: Big tax rises would make Tory campaigning impossible – in Red Wall seats as well as traditionally blue ones

1 Sep

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

In my last column, I suggested that the best hope for the Conservatives in building an effective campaign infrastructure in newly-won Northern and Midlands seats was by developing a new business-led coalition in these places.

Many of these towns and small cities have no activist networks of any description, and new voters come from families that openly despised the Tories a generation ago. Practically the only truly culturally Conservative people here – in the North East, the far North West and South Yorkshire – are businesspeople. Businesspeople are relatively large in number and are trusted by their local communities; they would be a perfect launchpad for a new Conservative Party.

It’s early days, of course, and details are yet to emerge, but news of a major assault on British businesses via higher taxes would make such a campaign totally impossible to run. It would be a massive set back to Conservative plans to become a regional party.

If reports are to be believed, amongst other things, the Treasury is considering significantly raising Corporation Tax, as well as Capital Gains Tax (CGT) and taxes on pension payments.

“Corporation Tax” is badly named; it’s a tax on pretty much any significant business, not on “corporations” – but, while larger businesses have both the resources and the endless budget lines to be able to minimise profit and keep corporation tax bills down, SMEs just have to lump it.

And increases in CGT and pension payments will put fear into small businesses, because they ultimately allow business owners to take a lower income now in the hope and expectation of being able to enjoy pay-offs in the future – with their currently lower income supporting their ability to employ others.

All of this would be a bad idea politically at the best of times. But doing it now, just when businesses have been struggling very badly, would be unbelievably risky. It’s not just high street retailers that have bit badly hit; vast numbers of firms have been hit either directly by the logistical difficulties of running a business while social distancing is required, or by a collapse in the confidence of their customers, or both.

New, higher taxes would make it harder for businesses to earn a living, and they would also make redundancies more likely and the scrapping of recruitment plans much more likely. Many businesses will be looking to develop a decent financial cushion over the next year or two – with at least six months’ operating costs in the bank – having been scarred by how close they came during lockdown to oblivion.

They would not be able to generate such a cushion with higher taxes on their profits. (Some businesses are also complaining that this comes on top of Brexit – something else that they would sooner not manage).

Aren’t these businesspeople effectively locked-in to the Conservative Party? Where would businesses go to vote? It’s true to say there are many, many businesspeople across the Midlands and North that would be very unlikely to vote Labour – on the basis the Conservatives would pretty much always be better for them.

But we’re not talking about simply securing their votes for future elections; we’re talking about trying to energise businesses so that they became local recruiters, fundraisers and campaigners for the Party in places where there are no activists. They simply won’t do this if the Conservatives turn them over. Again, if the businesspeople of Rotherham, Doncaster, Barrow, Workington, Bishop Auckland and so on aren’t going to create a new Conservative campaign network, who on earth is going to do it?

While major tax rises on business would make the growth of new regional Conservative Party much more difficult, I strongly doubt it would retain any medium-term popularity with the public either. Public opinion polls always lag behind business polls – and these are showing extreme concern about the state of the economy.

The public would catch up when reality bit and growth slowed and redundancies rose; at that point, the public would see that raising taxes on employers doesn’t help anyone. So where should the Treasury look? There are already suggestions they are being strongly encouraged to look at spending cuts first; only when they have exhausted what’s reasonable morally, economically and politically should they turn towards tax rises.

TONIGHT: ConservativeHome Live – in conversation with Matthew Elliott

12 Aug

There’s still time to register for your free ticket to take part in our next ConservativeHome Live interview, which takes place at 7pm tonight.

I’ll be speaking to Matthew Elliott – co-founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, chief executive of Vote Leave, and one of the UK’s most successful political strategists – about the emerging faultlines and flashpoints in British politics, the strategic challenges facing the Government and, of course, the state of play on Brexit. Given this morning’s dire economic data, and the Chancellor’s warning about further disruption to come, it will be particularly interesting to ask a leading fiscal hawk about the next steps in terms of tax, spending and the deficit.

As ever, audience members will also be able to put their own questions to Matthew, too.

Thanks to the generous support of our sponsor, Thorncliffe, this event will be free to view – click here to sign up for your ticket.

TONIGHT: ConservativeHome Live – in conversation with Matthew Elliott

12 Aug

There’s still time to register for your free ticket to take part in our next ConservativeHome Live interview, which takes place at 7pm tonight.

I’ll be speaking to Matthew Elliott – co-founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, chief executive of Vote Leave, and one of the UK’s most successful political strategists – about the emerging faultlines and flashpoints in British politics, the strategic challenges facing the Government and, of course, the state of play on Brexit. Given this morning’s dire economic data, and the Chancellor’s warning about further disruption to come, it will be particularly interesting to ask a leading fiscal hawk about the next steps in terms of tax, spending and the deficit.

As ever, audience members will also be able to put their own questions to Matthew, too.

Thanks to the generous support of our sponsor, Thorncliffe, this event will be free to view – click here to sign up for your ticket.