Ryan Bourne: Housing. Gove is poised to dump radical supply side reform. And subsidise younger peoples’ mortgages instead.

22 Sep

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Michael Gove’s appointment to what was the Housing, Communities and Local Government Department last week received an uncertain reaction among Wesminster’s free-marketeers. The optimistic case is that the former Education Secretary’s record of ministerial effectiveness, if channelled into the much-needed cause of land-use planning reform, could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Sadly, I find the pessimistic case more convincing: that his appointment further reflects the Government’s backtracking on the issue.

Renaming the Ministry the “Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities” already seems to reveal a shift in emphasis away from housebuilding. Gove has reportedly gone out of his way to play down the role of a constrained housing supply in driving recent house price inflation. It has been claimed that he will abandon the government’s “do or die” approach to watered-down planning reforms too – instead meeting backbenchers concerned about “over-development.”

Westminster’s mood changed with the Chesham & Amersham by-election, which crystallised the political risks of a planning reform overhaul. In the wake of that shock, spooked Conservatives began scrambling for fashionable theories to explain away the economic dysfunction caused by our archaic planning laws and so the need for reform. Now even Gove, it seems, echoes the talking points of the Tony Blair Institute’s Ian Mulheirn. The prospects for meaningful liberalisation are increasingly grim.

We all know the anti-planning reform lines by now: that the housing supply has kept pace with household growth since the 1990s, implying a housebuilding drive today would produce socially wasteful “surplus” stock; that planning can’t be the problem because permissions granted regularly exceed net additions to the housing stock; that new supply would take time to dent prices significantly, so wouldn’t do much for home ownership in the near-term.

These are alluring for Conservatives worried about the politics of land use liberalisation, because the conclusion is that mortgage affordability, not planning reform, is key for the Tory goal of a nation of homeowners. If planning genuinely doesn’t constrain how much and where housing occurs, then it’s difficult to see what anyone really fears by liberalisation.

But when has consistency mattered in politics? The convenient conclusion instead is that planning reform can be shelved, replaced with the tried-and-tested method of demand-side subsidies to first-time buyers from the Treasury. What could go wrong?

These planning-sceptic arguments are mostly non-sequiturs, of course. A functioning market doesn’t allocate by “need,” but by matching what people want and are willing to pay for with what suppliers are able and willing to provide. In that sense, the number of households is not synonymous with demand. As Paul Cheshire, a housing expert, has explained, as we get richer we tend to want more housing and more living space, often including gardens. A planning system using household numbers as a determinant of how much land to allocate for housing therefore systematically supplies too little and in the wrong places.

A well-functioning market, in fact, would see supply responsive to demand, not just in terms of the number of dwellings, but their type and location too. If half-a-million people really want to live in apartments in a commuter-friendly South Eastern town, then it would be densified, just as Kensington and Knightsbridge reached six or eight storeys in the Victorian era. That there’s new bungalows in Carlisle is hardly relevant.

Indeed, one would hope “market friendly” Conservatives would understand price signals. Today they scream that people want more land for residential use in London, the South East, Cambridge, and Oxford. Yet our planning system is tone deaf. Not only does it generally restrict land availability or prevent potential densification, but it does so more stringently where people actually want to live. Cheshire, again, has shown house completions have been much lower in Oxford and Cambridge over the last 40 years than in Barnsley and Doncaster, despite much larger population growth in the richer university towns.

The landbanking bemoaned by many is a consequence of the uncertainty of our very discretionary regime. As Ant Breach of the Centre for Cities told me, developers are plagued with the risks associated with not knowing whether developments will actually be approved given the blocking potential at local level. With the supply of land slow and unreliable, it makes sense for them to keep a buffer – a point made way back in 1988 in the IEA’s No Room.

The date of that publication indicates that Britain’s land use and planning policies have had badly damaging consequences for decades, leading to structurally high rents and house prices, irrespective of what drives more recent trends. So yes, house prices are now highly responsive to falls in interest rates, with housing demanded as an asset in itself.

But history shows if interest rates fall and the housing supply is elastic, we get a building boom, like in the 1930s with ‘cheap money.’  If housing supply is restrictive, we get the price boom. We today reap what our planning system sows.

The case for fundamental reform of land use and planning in a liberalising direction therefore remains overwhelming. Peer-reviewed academic literature has repeatedly confirmed that tight supply restrictions on housing reduce affordability, constrain the growth of productive regions, create macroeconomic instability, and a host of other economic problems.

It’s not as if the Government’s controversial reforms took aim at all of this, either. They were mainly about replacing the discretionary approach with a more explicit rules-based system to remove uncertainty, with developments automatically green-lighted if they met locally-determined, democratically approved requirements under the designation of the land (a form of zoning).

Were those proposals perfect? Of course not. Plenty of U.S. cities have zoning, but still suffer from a horribly inadequate supply of housing, as the rules are too restrictive. This meant whether the reforms produced new housing in reality was largely dependent on the “market socialism” of affordability signals creating centrally-determined housing targets in the style of the old Yugoslovia. This algorithm driven-process naturally raised question marks over how the very real bargaining needed about the impacts of development on local communities would occur.

What we are hearing today though are not critiques of the mechanisms that might produce more housing, but outright denials that the planning system is even a bottleneck to it. Faced with political resistance, the Conservative party seems to be abandoning not just the policy but its understanding of the problem.

And this backsliding has a self-reinforcing dynamic. The more that reform gets watered down, Breach tells me, the more even reforming Conservatives will regard the lesser economic reward of what’s left to defend as unworthy of the inevitable political grief. And so the Government will reach for the comfort blanket, once again, of fiddling with mortgages.

Bim Afolami: After the reshuffle, back to the future – NHS queues, rising energy bills, and higher prices

20 Sep

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

As the Prime Minister said at Cabinet on Friday morning, it is “half time” in this Parliament. We have two more years to deliver on our election pledges before shaping up for the next election. Covid has basically taken up the vast majority of this Parliament so far, not only preventing us from focusing on our wider domestic agenda (though, very importantly, we have delivered Brexit), but also creating new problems, such as lan extra £350 billion in public debt and huge NHS waiting lists.

By two years from now, levelling -p needs to be noticed on the ground, people need more money in their pockets, and public services need to be consistently improving. Is this going to be straightforward to deliver? In a word, no.

The Government reshuffle was a significant start on moving forwards. Much has rightly been made of the importance of Michael Gove’s new beefed-up MHCLG – now LUHC: the department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – with responsibility for housing, local government, devolution and the Union.

Education has severe challenges, from the difficulties of our exam system to the need to rebalance public spending from our universities towards the further education sector. Both Michael Gove (LUHC Secretary) and Nadhim Zahawi (Education Secretary) are extremely capable, with very good new junior ministers in their departments – in particular Neil O’Brien in LUHC and Alex Burghart in Education. But the stakes are high. If these departments fail over the next two years, the Government will fail too. We don’t have long to start delivering.

However, the most important domestic department for the next two years is the Department of Health. The public has gradually grown to trust us with the NHS, ignoring the propaganda from the Labour Party and the doctors’ and nurses’ unions. The most significant aspect of the Health and Social Care Levy which passed the Commons last week was the implicit realisation that the political risk of potential NHS failure is even worse than the risk of being seen as a Conservative Party who broke a manifesto commitment not to raise taxes. (Even though a pandemic was not in the manifesto!)

The NHS’s problems are of acute public and political importance. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of people waiting for NHS treatment in England has grown by a fifth. Some 5.3 million people were waiting for treatment in May 2021, up from 4.4 million in February 2020. There has been a particularly sharp increase in the number of people waiting for longer than a year.

Yet the number of people on the waiting list is expected to rise much further. Sajid Javid has warned that it is ‘going to get a lot worse before it gets better’, and could grow to 13 million.

The challenge here is monumental, and the department is also pushing through the Health and Care bill, which it seeks to remove barriers to integrating services to improve health outcomes and reduce health inequalities.

On top of all of this, we are not fully out of the woods on Covid yet, and doctors warn of a difficult winter with significant flu and RSV cases. This is a Department that may hold the fate of the Government in its hands.

The economy is facing its own headwinds too. Yes, we are bouncing back after Covid – according to the International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook report, the UK economy will expand seven per cent this year, a sharp increase from the 5.3 per cent predicted in the Fund’s previous report in April. This is fastest in the G7.

However, the ghost of inflation past stalks us. I wrote about this here (in June, and worries about rising prices and costs of living are growing. One key aspect of inflation is energy prices, especially in the winter. Household energy bills are to rise after prices on the UK’s wholesale electricity market soared to a record high last month. The average market price reached £107.50/MWh – up 14 per cent on July, and well above the previous record of £96/MWh recorded in the run-up to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Last month, the industry regulator Ofgem announced it would lift the maximum price cap on energy deals by more than 12 per cent, after a sharp rise in the market price for gas and electricity. This increase is driven by a rise of over 50 per cent in energy costs over the last six months, with gas prices hitting a record high as the world emerges from lockdown. Coupled with rapidly rising costs for many foodstuffs, cars, and consumer goods (largely due to a combination of global macroeconomic factors), it is likely that most voters will feel a real pinch this autumn.

The Just About Managings (remember them!) will have a much tougher time. This will be especially the case if the Bank of England seeks to spike the rise in inflation in the coming months with a rise in interest rates (though at the moment I think this is unlikely). Shortages of certain foods and other key goods, largely due to damaged supply chains after Covid and not enough HGV drivers, are growing in the short term. This not only likely to put up prices, but also become a very visible and real problem for ordinary people who just go about their daily lives without thinking much about politics: i.e. most voters. This will come at political cost, particularly if the press builds up public anxiety about Christmas shopping which leads to a degree of stockpiling.

The difficulties with rising prices and energy bills will coincide with the much awaited Net Zero strategy (expected in mid-October) followed by COP26 in November. The net zero strategy will have to answer the knottiest questions on the environmental agenda such as: how are we going to replace boilers in millions of homes or better insulate buildings? How are we going to manage the shift away from petrol and diesel cars?

Whilst I am confident that there are huge economic opportunities over the medium term, in the short term there will be certain costs. Though these costs are a necessary part of implementing this critically important task of getting to net zero, being seen to impose greater costs at a time of rising prices will be politically challenging.

The next year brings rising prices, higher energy bills, and NHS difficulties. This will not be an easy atmosphere for the Government, and the Party, to operate in.

Tim Montgomerie: Don’t write off GB News. The channel’s naysayers should put their champagne back in the fridge.

15 Sep

Tim Montgomerie is the founder of ConservativeHome and is a contributor to Reaction.

‘Your beard needs a trim’ (it often does). ‘Are you wearing the same shirt as last week on Sky?’ (yeah, but I do wash it!). ‘Your glasses are a bit small for your head’ (fair comment, but they’re cheap from Poundland).

Normally, I get just one or two texts or WhatsApp messages after a media appearance and – as often as not – they are about my appearance rather than my, er, brilliant commentary. It helps keep me humble.

Last Wednesday, however, I ‘talked pints’ with Nigel Farage on his new prime time show for GB News. I had a lager whilst we discussed God and politics; the centrality of national defence to conservatism; disagreed about the foreign aid budget; worried about Boris Johnson’s increasing opportunism; and wondered whether or not I’m likely to be on the Prime Minister’s Christmas card list. Spoiler alert… I think it unlikely!

But even more interesting than our 15 minute chat (not typical of our soundbite TV age) was the scale of reaction. Over the next day or so, I received about 50 messages. Not only was this way in excess of my normal experience, but the messages were largely about what we actually discussed.

Notably, nearly every person who contacted me was a conservative. They were fellow pundits, a handful of MPs, a few think tank folk, readers of this wonderful site and assorted friends from home in Salisbury.

And this, I’m sure, is the importance and potential of GB News. Its audience may not yet be huge, and it definitely still needs to overcome some considerable teething problems, but there are clear signs that it is already building a considerable following within ‘our big and small ‘C’ conservative family’.

While it needs to become weightier and avoid being Farage-dominated TV (as good as he is at it), it is succeeding in its mission of addressing topics that other broadcasters ignore or marginalise.

So, yes, it is disappointing that Andrew Neil resigned as its Chairman on Monday, and that his 8pm show has been cancelled. But the channel’s many naysayers should put their expensive champagne back in their fridges.

Some shows are really beginning to work, new stars are in the making and the station’s YouTube videos are beginning to go gangbusters. More importantly, GB News’ CEO. Angelos Frangopoulos, is ready to overhaul individual programmes and schedules until he is as successful with this latest venture as he was with Sky News Australia. Like any good businessman, he doesn’t try to cover up failures, he corrects them.

Moreover, the channel’s funders aren’t quitters. I know a few of them well. They will succeed, and the Tory leadership should take note. Many of the Conservative Party’s core activists and voters are consuming GB News in reasonable numbers already. The Party will shape and heed this new kid on the media block, or it’ll become the home for opposition and disgruntlement.

– – –

Talking of Farage and right-of-centre opposition to the government, I interviewed Richard Tice yesterday.

Tice is the leader of the Reform Party – the successor to the Brexit Party. In place of Europe as a defining issue, he is offering a menu of low taxes, NHS reform, lockdown-scepticism, market-orientated environmental policies and – to a much lesser extent than Farage – a tough approach to immigration.

On the face of it, Tice’s Reform is more of a Thatcherite party than a populist one. More orientated to the young than to the old. It’s far from clear to me that it yet has the recipe or personnel to help keep the Conservative Party honest and, well, a bit more Conservative! But Tice intends to field a candidate in every seat at the next general election and if Johnson keeps playing fast and loose with Conservative principles, he could yet make a difference in many marginal seats.

James Frayne: Johnson’s headroom to raise taxes, in the wake of the new levy, has been dramatically reduced

14 Sep

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

A few weeks ago, opinion polls showed three to one support for a national insurance rise to pay for social care. It’s hard to say for sure where the numbers on this question are now, but the evidence is they’ve moved considerably against the Government (although not irretrievably).

Some suggest that the mess in the media flipped the polls against the Conservatives and put Labour ahead; I think there’s much more to it than this but it clearly didn’t help.

So what went wrong? What were the alternatives that the Government should have considered? And what are the medium-term implications for the Conservatives?

Admittedly, I haven’t tested my sense in detail yet, but it is that three reasons help explain the the shift against the national insurance announcement.

First, and most importantly, it became clear that revenue raised by this higher tax won’t be ringfenced for social care. After a day or two of briefing that higher taxes would pay for care, the Government clarified that revenue raised would also pay for the hole in the NHS finances created by Covid.

Ordinarily, adding the letters “NHS” to a political message adds several points to a political message (ask Vote Leave). Here, it simply made people think (rightly) that pretty much all revenue raised would go into the great bottomless pit of NHS finances. It’s not that people don’t love the NHS; nor that they want to change the way the NHS is funded. It’s just that they quickly realised the Government wasn’t making a social care announcement but a debt repayment announcement.

Second, people got out their calculators quicker than I can ever recall – with the extra they’d pay pushed around widely by the likes of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Politicians have long liked using national insurance as a tax-raising device; not only does it have perfect branding for health and social care announcements, but even people on PAYE – who see the national insurance line on their payslip each week – inexplicably find it less offensive than income tax. This time, a combination of media and social media scrutiny showed people what they’d be paying, and its transparency felt like a council tax rise.

Third, the announcement was too detached from the policy conversation on social care. People care deeply about it, as the Conservatives discovered to their cost during the 2017 election; social care is regularly raised as an issue in focus groups without prompting.

But it’s a complex area, and the Government would have done well to have reheated the policy conversation on social care for several weeks before springing this announcement on the public. Ordinarily, for a policy announcement of this magnitude, you’d expect (some) cross-party support, endorsements by experts from the sector, a formal announcement with the Health Secretary flanked by care workers and all the rest. This time, there was nothing.

Two alternatives would have been better.

The Government could have announced that the country was going to have to cope with a few years of financial pain via higher taxes to pay off Covid debts – and not to have beamed in on social care at all.

I don’t understand why they didn’t do this. Polls have consistently showed the public supported the massive crisis payments to the NHS and furloughed workers. They’re well aware this led to massive debt and they’re also aware debt must be paid off – at least in part with higher taxes.

They would have completely accepted a straightforward explanation that taxes were going to rise – for everyone – to deal with this. Sunset clauses would have made this all go down better, but there’s something in the English psychology that revels in harsh, shared sacrifice. It was a huge, missed opportunity; it’s possible that the Government would even have secured a bounce from it (assuming they said they were going to tackle waste at the same time).

The alternative option would have simply been to have announced a smaller national insurance rise and explained it was going to be strictly ringfenced for social care. This would have given them the option to raise taxes again later. Wrapping social care, the NHS and Covid debt repayment looked shifty and ill-thought-through.

What are the implications for the Conservatives? It’s been said all this undermines the Party’s reputation as a low-tax party. I don’t think this is quite right; most of the public have rightly not viewed the Conservatives as a low-tax party for many, many years, but rather as a lower tax party than Labour.

There are worse things to be: in 2019, this contrast certainly made lower middle voters even more wary of Jeremy Corbyn. But it means that the sort of messages the Conservatives pump out at the annual party conference – around low tax, free enterprise, a small state etc – have zero traction with the public. (It’s weird to think that until a few years ago the party’s logo was a torch of freedom; the rainbow associated with the NHS would be more appropriate.)

If Corbyn were still Labour leader, it’s possible that the Conservatives would have retained this lower-tax advantage regardless of national insurance. Under Starmer, I think it’s reasonable to assume this advantage will no longer be there.

In turn, all there will be to choose between the Conservatives and Labour on the economy will be competence and stability – in the Conservatives’ case, because they’re in Government, this will be defined entirely by delivery. In other words, if the economy appears stable and grows, they’ll be fine; if not, they’ll be in a mess.

It also means that the party’s freedom on other issues is dramatically reduced. There’s no way now the Government can introduce any new tax rises; at that point, their polling numbers really would go off a cliff; everything now needs to be revenue neutral, with taxes raised balanced out by taxes cut. Most obviously, this somewhat complicates their Net Zero strategy; you would have expected fiscal policy increasingly to have rebalanced towards green taxes.

David Gauke: Johnson’s health and social care plan. A betrayal of Conservative principles? No – because, at one level, there aren’t any.

13 Sep

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire in the 2019 general election.

The Government’s plan for increases in National Insurance (NI) contributions to fund higher health spending and increased health spending has provoked a furious response from some on the right.

It “sounded the death knell to Conservatism” and drove “a coach and horses not only through the Tory Party manifesto, but Toryism itself”  according to Camilla Tominey in the Daily Telegraph.  In the same paper, Allister Heath fumed “shame on Boris Johnson, and shame on the Conservative Party…they have disgraced themselves, lied to their voters, repudiated their principles and treated millions of their supporters with utter contempt” and that “an entire intellectual tradition now lies trashed”.

In the Times, Iain Martin declared that “at this rate, the Conservative Party might as well rename itself the Labour Party”  and in the Spectator, Fraser Nelson questioned whether the “Boris Johnson” definition of conservatism as “a protection racket, where the tools of the state are used to extract money from minimum-wage workers and pass it on to the better-off?”

Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings has argued that “if you think you’re ‘conservative’, and you give those speeches about ‘enterprise’ and ‘responsibility’, why would you support making many more dependent on state money and bureaucracy?”

It’s all jolly strong stuff. And there are elements of the criticisms with which I have sympathy. I share the scepticism about prioritising a tax-funded social care cap, in that those who will gain most are those who have the most (thanks to rising house prices) and that is the wrong priority for public money.

There is a need for risk-pooling, but I think Peter Lilley’s proposal on this site is worth close examination (I suggested something similar when in Government). I also dislike NI as the choice of tax because of the narrowness of its base – and the distortions that this causes – and the dishonesty of employers NICs (no, Prime Minister, it is not a tax on business: it is a tax on jobs and employees’ wages).

In fairness to the Government, raising taxes is difficult, NI is less unpopular than income tax (largely because much of the public misunderstand it) and, being cynical, it is not surprising that Ministers exploit that misunderstanding.

Having said all that, is it a fair criticism to state that Johnson’s Health and Social Care plan undermines everything for which the Conservative Party stands? For a number of reasons (some of which reflect better on the Party than others), I think not.

First, the Conservative Party has an honourable record of fiscal responsibility. When the public finances are in trouble, Conservative governments have been willing to raise taxes in order to put the public finances on a sound footing – not least Margaret Thatcher’s, when Geoffrey Howe raised taxes in 1979 and 1981. The advocates of Reaganomics always find this disappointing, but responsible Conservatives do not believe that lower taxes will pay for themselves (as they did not for Reagan).

In reality, even putting aside any new commitments on social care spending, the prospects for the public finances are not great. Not only do we face some immediate challenges (Covid catch up, net zero and levelling up), but demography and rising health expectations will mean a tax-funded healthcare system will require higher taxes.

Some on the Right will argue for further cuts in spending or an alternative health model, but the political feasibility of such an approach is highly dubious. If we are going to spend more (and we are), taxes will need to rise to pay for it.

Second, the idea that a Conservative government prioritising homeowners is a complete break from the past does not bear scrutiny. Look at the arguments that Thatcher made in resisting the removal of mortgage interest tax relief (although the Treasury rightly prevailed in the end), or the general dislike of inheritance tax from the wider Conservative world. The reaction to Theresa May’s social care policy in 2017 suggests that the instinct to ‘defend our people’ (and their inheritances) amongst Conservatives is a formidable one.

Third, complaints about the Conservative Party not being the party of business are (how can I put this?) a little rich from some quarters. Imposing higher taxes, whether on employment or profits, is not great for business – but making it substantially harder to trade with our largest trading partner is a bigger problem.

It is all very well complaining about the anti-business instincts of this Conservative government, but hard to do if you have been a cheerleader for anti-business policies or, for that matter, Boris “f*** business” Johnson. If your expectation is that the Conservative Party would automatically be on the pro-business side of the argument, you have not been paying much attention in recent years.

The reason why the Conservative Party moved in the direction of an anti-business Brexit is that was where the votes were. And this brings me to the fourth and most important observation about the Conservative Party.

It has one purpose: to be in power. At one level, it is not possible for it to repudiate its principles because it does not have any. This can give it a tremendous advantage in a democracy because the public, as a whole, does not have political principles either – opinions and political alignments shift over time.

The Conservatives have been protectionists and free traders, the party of Empire and the party that facilitated the retreat from Empire, Keynesians and monetarists, the party of price controls and wages policies and the party of market economics, the party of Europe and the party of Brexit. It never stays on the wrong side of public opinion for long.

What is happening to our politics at the moment is that party support is realigning along cultural lines and, as a consequence, much more along generational lines. This has worked to the advantage of the Conservatives, so it is no surprise that it pursues policies that prioritises health spending over lower taxes for people of working age.

Polling suggests that the new, Red Wall voters who switched to the Conservatives at the last election are notably more left-wing on economic issues than traditional Conservative voters who are, in turn, to the left of Conservative MPs. The decision was made to pursue those voters and, if the Conservative Party wants to keep them, it cannot risk the NHS collapsing under financial pressure – which means higher spending and, ultimately, higher taxes.

Johnson’s critics are right to think that this will not be the end of it. Last week’s package was supposed to be an answer to how we fund social care. The reality is that it was a package to boost spending on the NHS. As Damian Green has argued on ConHome, it is hard to see how resources will be taken out of the NHS and switched to social care in three years’ time – and that, at that point, some expensive social care commitments will come into effect.

here will another funding gap and, on the basis of last week’s revealed preference, a further increase in the Health and Social Care Levy. Those who see the purpose of the Conservative Party as delivering low taxes are right to be glum.

Ben Roback: Is freedom from vaccines worth dying for?

28 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

President Ronald Reagan’s words have been immortalised over time by conservatives who consider the government an irritating source of interference. Too often governments get in the way when they should be structural facilitators of growth and development. Cut red tape and let businesses/people thrive, don’t flood them with a tsunami of requirements, regulations, and checks.

But what about when any given central government is the only viable solution to a truly existential problem? In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, there appears to be no alternative to a centrally driven vaccine rollout programme.

Trump started it, Biden is finishing it.

The response to the pandemic and the vaccine rollout has been conducted entirely under a Conservative government here in the UK. It gives less cover to those whose mistrust in the government might be centred on an opposition party being in power.

On that basis, in the United States, the Republican position on the vaccine remains curious. After all, the vaccine programme owes its creation and early development to the Trump administration. The former president does not get enough credit for Operation Warp Speed, the public–private partnership initiated by the United States government to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The US Government sprung rapidly into life and showed how it can be a friend, not the kind of foe described by Reagan.

Donald Trump rightly boasts about the achievement. In a recent speech, he said: “Our operation warp speed was absolutely breath-taking…the Trump administration deserves full credit, which we do.”

Given Mr Trump remains at the political and philosophical heart of the Republican Party, why do so many Republican politicians and the party base itself remain so hostile to the vaccine?

Consider the evidence. Arkansas’s Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson was booed on stage after he said that the Covid-19 vaccine doesn’t affect fertility. Fox News has begun to roll out a new out a new public service announcement to encourage viewers to get a vaccine. “America, we’re in this together,” one presenter said. “If you can, get the vaccine,” another added. Meanwhile, its star presenter, Tucker Carlson, continues his perennial campaign against Covid restrictions and inferred hesitation towards the vaccine programme. Analysing why the American vaccination programme is stalling, The Economist wrote that ‘populist conservatives are to blame’.

Mr Trump is not consistent on the matter. On the one hand, he boasts in speeches about shattering records for vaccine manufacture, approval, and deployment. On the other, he kept his own first vaccination silent for weeks initially. That has created a framework for elected Republicans at all political levels, flanked by conservative commentators through their social and mass media platforms, to continue to decry the vaccines as part of a liberal ploy to control their brains and bodies. That would be strange given the vaccines were approved and rolled out initially by a Republican president, would it not?

The pursuit of freedom is an admirable goal and one that we should encourage, not suffocate. But is freedom an absolute outcome or an aspiration with occasional practical limitations? In the case of the vaccine rollout in the United States, it is clear that health guidance designed to protect Americans from a deeply infectious and all too often deadly virus, has been caught up in enflamed cultural tensions deep-rooted in an inherent mistrust of “the Government” – whether at the local, state or federal level.

One step forward, two steps back

The United States made an impressive start in getting federally approved jabs into arms. For the Biden administration, the weather ahead looks troubling. Fully vaccinated Americans have had the taste of freedom in their mouths since May, when the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) announced that masks needn’t be worn following vaccination. This week, in the face of rising Delta variant case numbers, the CDC reversed its guidance and recommended that Americans wear masks indoors again, particularly in crowded indoor settings. For many, it will feel like a prisoner being released from jail, and then being asked to return through no fault of their own.

The new mask mandate comes at a particularly troubling time for southern states like Louisiana, Alabama and Missouri. These three are suffering from a killer combination – literally – of sudden spikes in Covid-19 cases and weak vaccine uptake. The causal evidence? More than 95% of the patients hospitalised nationwide are unvaccinated, according to state public health officials and the CDC.

The Trump administration deserves credit for initiating the vaccine programme. The Biden administration deserves praise for ramping up its rollout. For the health and prosperity of all Americans, the country has little choice but to come together and recognise that vaccination is the only way out of this Covid-19 nightmare which we have all endured for far too long. Freedom can be pursued at all costs, but in the case of the campaign against the vaccines, is it worth dying for?

Will Starmer give vaccine passports a free pass?

20 Jul

“What is the question to which vaccine passports are the answer?” we asked in April.  After all, one can be double vaccinated and still carry the virus.  So providing evidence of the first as one enters a nightclub is no guarantee of not spreading the second.

The only convincing answer is: to raise vaccination rates.  But as ConHome put it then, “such a system would arguably be forced medication – which remains illegal for physical conditions, and might therefore run up against our international obligations, not least under the European Convention of Human Rights”.

Which is why we thought Ministers would be more likely to plump for requiring clubs to demand evidence that entrants are Covid-free – perhaps including lateral flow tests at the door.  Though such a scheme would have brought with it a mass of logistical and organisational problems.

So the Government has gone instead for a policy that won’t stop the spread of the virus altogether, is ethically dicey, and which will leaves it open to potential legal challenge.  Their motive is shown by the timing: Ministers aren’t requiring these passports be used immediately.

The reason?  Partly because the scheme isn’t oven-ready, as Boris Johnson would put it, but partly because although 87 per cent of the population has had a single dose of the vaccuum, only 67 per cent has had two doses.

The nightmare for the Government features young people (who make up a big slice of the unvaccinated) being turned away from nightclubs not because they’ve refused to have even a single dose of the vaccine…but because they’ve indeed had one, but haven’t had the chance to have two.

It would be grotesquely unjust for Ministers, on the one hand, to demand two doses as a condition of entry but, on the other, not ensure that both doses have actually been offered.  Hence the delay until the end of September until passports are demanded – by which time more vaccinations will have been rolled out and more young people persuaded to take them.  Or so the Government hopes.

Perhaps the special NHS app will be cheat-proof and work flawlessly (though confidence in the system as a whole won’t have been boosted by reports of people who use the present one being “pinged through walls”).

Maybe clubbers will simply sign up to be vaccinated and go with the flow.  Perhaps claims of a “racist system”, with more black people than white excluded from events, will fall on deaf ears – and those of an “anti-youth system” will do so too.

It could be that ECHR Article Eight privacy rights, GDPR and the Data Protection Act don’t come into play.  And after all, the public as a whole supports restrictions.  Ministers would then be able to roll out the passports for other venues without mass opposition: in theatres, sporting venues, cinemas, pubs – any venue covered by the three Cs: “closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings”.

But even if voters go one way, MPs may go the other.  There will be a Commons vote on the plan in one form or another, and Conservative MPs are very restive about restrictions already.

On the same recent day that 24 Tory backbenchers voted against the 0.7 per cent aid reduction, amidst a mass of publicity, 31 opposed a set of Coronavirus rules.  Forty-nine voted against regulations more broadly last month.

That’s enough to defeat the Government if the opposition piles in too.  And Johnson is not in a great place with his backbenchers: add to those Conservative MPs who tend to rebel over Covid those who believe that Downing Street has no grip, and you soon reach a number larger than 49, especially since the two groups overlap.

The weekend’s chaos over whether or not the Prime Minister and Chancellor would self-isolate has been well and truly clocked by backbenchers.  Vaccine passports will add fuel to the fire, since they first seemed to be on, then were off (“we are not looking at a vaccine passport for our domestic economy, Nadhim Zahawi said in February)…and are now on again.

With the Covid Recovery Group arguing that requiring vaccine passports means creeping ID cards, Keir Starmer will be able to weigh the risk of getting on the wrong side of public opinion against the opportunity to defeat the Government.

Perhaps Johnson’s real plan is first to up vaccination rates among young people and then withdrawn the passport scheme. If not, the Labour leader will come under pressure from the party’s MPs to abandon his lawyerly caution and go in for the kill.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 5) Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

18 Jul

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

5. Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

What it is

The Bill will “strengthen the legal duties on higher education providers in England to protect freedom of speech on campuses up and down the country, for students, academics and visiting speakers”.

It falls into three parts, of which the most significant are the first two. The first part places new free speech duties on colleges and student unions.  The second applies these to the Office of Students, within which will be established a Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom.

Responsible department

The Department for Education is in charge of this piece of amending legislation, which makes changes to four previous Acts of Parliament.  It gained its Second Reading last week.

Gavin Williamson kicked off the debate and Michelle Donelan wound up.  As Universities Minister, the latter can be expected to lead for the Government during the Bill’s committee stage.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New.

Expected when?

Currently under consideration.

Arguments for

Essentially, that freedom of speech in higher education for both academics and students is under threat, the evidence for which consists of various surveys (see here, for example), and individual incidents – such as Amber Rudd being disinvited when due to speak at Oxford University, and the treatment of academics at Edinburgh University and Cambridge University.

These flare-ups can be seen as incidents in a culture war, much of which is contested in a less dramatic way.  The Right tends to hold that free speech on campus and elsewhere is threatened by radical norms on language and conduct – enforced by “cancellation”, social media and groupthink.  The debate has spilled over into the Left over trans; see this site’s regular Radical column for more.

Arguments against

The most vocal opposition to the Bill comes from the Left, but there is some from the Right too.  The sum of the case from the Left is, first, that there’s no convincing evidence that free speech at colleges is under threat and that, second, the Bill will protect Holocaust deniers, racists and anti-vaxers.  There is also concern that it may weaken free protest.

The Right has a mixed series of reservations.  One is that the Bill goes too far, because it empowers the state to set more conditions for independent institutions.  Another is that it doesn’t go far enough, because both academics and students need further, broader protections which existing legislation, such as the Equality Act, stand in the way of.

Politics

The coalition of voters that returned Boris Johnson’s Conservatives with an 80 seat majority will like the flavour of this Bill and, given the toxicity of the debate within the Left on trans, there will be some support within parts of it for the claim that freedom of speech in colleges is under threat, even if those parts are opposed to the Bill, either in principle or in detail.

Labour watched its back at Second Reading – tabling a reasoned amendment which referred to “the need to ensure legal protections for freedom of speech and academic freedom”.  This may reflect a nervousness that the Left’s broad position is self-contradictory: after all, one can’t both support curbs on free speech while also claiming that there’s no threat to it.

Controversy rating: 7/10

That the politics of the Bill favour the Government (the measure is certainly eye-catching) doesn’t guarantee that it will deliver.  The broad threat to free speech, for students and academics of different political and religious persuasions, cannot be seen off by Parliamentary legislation.  Which is important for supporters of the Bill to bear in mind.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 4) The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

11 Jul

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

1. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

What it is

As well as police, crime, sentencing and the courts, this Bill covers aspects of prisons: the rehabilitation of offenders and secure 16 to 19 academies. Plus “the removal, storage and disposal of vehicles”.

There are twelve parts to this groaning beast of a Bill, and the best-known section of these is the third – which covers “public order and authorised encampments”, and would give the police greater powers in relation to restricting public meetings and protests.  The “Kill the Bill” protests have been a response to it.

Responsible department

The Ministry of Justice – and the Bill has already worked it way through the Commons, gaining Third Reading recently.  There have been claims that the protests have delayed the Bill’s progress.

The sponsoring department isn’t the Home Office, and thus the combative Priti Patel, but the Ministry of Justice, and the more emollient Robert Buckland.  However, Victoria Atkins and Chris Philp, Home Office Ministers both, took the Bill through Commons committee.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New.

Expected when?

Sooner rather than later in the Commons with Lords amendments.

Arguments for

There is an individual case for each of the twelve parts of the Bill, but Ministers clearly intend it to send the broad message that the Government is tough on crime.  Right at the start of its briefing on the measures, the Home Office (not the Ministry of Justice) declares that the Bill will “back our police” and “introduce tougher sentencing”.

If you itch to crack down on unauthorised encampments and non-violent but disruptive protests, or want to see longer prison sentences and more searches of people convicted of knife offences, this is the Bill for you.  Its third main purpose is “to improve the efficiency of the court and tribunal system by modernising existing court processes”.

Arguments against

One of the main charges against the Bill is that it deliberately wraps up the contentious with the uncontentious – or, to view it from another angle, elements that most MPs support with others that some don’t.  This case was put on this site earlier this year by Steve Baker and Dominic Grieve, and found echoes even in a largely supportive article by Richard Gibbs.

So if, for example, you view the public order provisions in Part Three of the Bill as draconian, but back the plans to reduce custodial remand for children set out in parts eight and nine, you have a dilemma at Second Reading and, still more, at Third Reading – by which time opportunities to amend it in the House concerned have been exhausted.

Politics

Part of the purpose of rolling these different elements into a single Bill has undoubtedly been to put the Opposition on the spot.  Labour was thus faced with the forced choice familiar to oppositions, and plumped to oppose Bill both at Second and Third Reading in the Commons.

“Given chance after chance, Labour voted last night against tougher sentences for not just violent offenders, but also burglars, drug dealers, sex offenders, dangerous drivers and vandals,” Robert Buckland tweeted in the aftermath of the Third Reading vote.  There will be plenty more where that came from.

Controversy rating: 9/10

If the Opposition didn’t like it in the Commons, it will like it even less in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Lords.  And protesters will hate it no less intensely than before.  The average voter may have clocked the protests but won’t be aware of the Bill.  If it leads to better policing, less crime, speedier courts and better sentencing, he will be pleasantly surprised.

What to prepare for if you want to become a Conservative MP

10 Jul

2017 was a snap election. 2019 was at least a sort-of snap election. One consequence is that it’s been a while since would-be candidates underwent a full Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB), and CCHQ are currently calling people in to get re-listed.

Charlotte Gill has already examined the party’s decision to incorporate psychometric testing into selections. But what does the rest of the process look like?

CCHQ obviously don’t hand out cheat sheets. But would-be candidates looking to find out what it’s up to may be aware of College Green Group’s ‘Becoming a Conservative MP’ package.

To which end, I did a two-hour workshop to find out what it believes awaits anyone looking to run the PAB gauntlet – both the online and in-person sections.

Before continuing, two things to note. First, the tests below are not the actual PAB. They are exercises that CGG believe will best prepare candidates for the PAB, based on their experiences preparing people (including some now-elected as MPs) for the old one.

Second, CGG very kindly offered to let me actually do the training. But it is geared towards people who actually want to be MPs and have been living their lives with that goal in mind and I, dear reader, have not. So we discussed the programme instead.

In-person assessment

The very first thing the trainer tries to sort out is why an applicant wants to be an MP. You’d think that would be simple enough, but apparently the question throws people, especially if they think it’s simply the next step in the political life-cycle after being a councillor or similar.

Preparing for the in-person test involves finding a good answer to that question. If you’re already a successful business leader or council leader, why are you trading in real power and a huge budget to become a backbench MP? Why do you think you could do more good in the House of Commons than wherever you are now? If not, what skills or experience are you bringing to the green benches that other candidates are not?

Once you’ve worked out why you’re there, the next step is teasing out which parts of your CV and backstory best support your case. A bare list of achievements is probably not enough – lots of able and accomplished people want to be MPs. Instead, the trainer helps applicants embed proof of key skills and attributes in stories that will hook the assessors’ attention, and help them stand out when the latter compare notes at the end of what was probably a long day.

At CGG, they run you though what looks like quite a comprehensive list of questions intended to illustrate qualities such as leadership, resilience and drive, relating to people, and communication skills, as well as probing your Conservative principles. There is also a section intended to highlight stand-out episodes from one’s personal, professional, and political life.

Online assessment

The online part of the process is divided into two parts: a ‘situational judgement test’, and the aforementioned psychometric test.

In the former, the applicant is presented with a variety of scenarios and then a list of possible responses, and asked to rank these from ‘most likely’ to ‘least likely’ to do. These include constituents approaching you with problems, a young activist joining the party and wanting to meet, allegations of impropriety against colleagues, and so on.

For the latter, CCHQ haven’t publicised which test they’re using but after talking to HR professionals, CGG think that the Party is using the Hogan Assessment Series. This consists of:

  • Hogan Personality Inventory – Highlights your positive attitudes
  • Hogan Development Survey – Unearths any negative traits
  • Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory – Tests whether an applicant is a ‘good fit’ with an organisation

These tests work by firing a lot of questions at you in a short space of time, with controls thrown in to highlight if you’re answering at random or dishonestly. Whilst they’re hard to prepare for, one can pay to sit the Hogan tests independently if one wishes to.

Conclusions

There can surely be few who have had the privilege of working on the parliamentary estate not of the view that all parties could do with a more rigorous procedure for selecting their parliamentary candidates, for a variety of reasons, and it is good to see CCHQ taking the time to overhaul the process.

However, as with any instance of professionalisation in politics, there is a danger that it ends up producing homogenisation. Selecting people fit to represent the nation in Parliament is not the same as choosing an individual to fit into a well-defined role in a commercial organisation.

Given that, it would be regrettable if CCHQ placed too much weight on the online part of the process. If psychometric testing can filter out obviously unfit applicants who might have slipped through the net (and that’s a very big if), then that’s all to the good. But it can’t be allowed to reach the point where perfectly suitable but unorthodox applicants run into a wall of ‘computer says no’.

On the question of teamwork, specifically, the trainer noted that the Party seem to have abandoned the ‘group exercise’ from the old PAB. This saw a group of candidates assigned roles as MPs or candidates for constituencies affected by a common problem (such as a new road) and tasked with working together to find a solution. It would certainly be more time-consuming than just sitting a Hogan test, but it would probably do a much better job of weeding out shrinking violets and bullies.