Mak is co-Chair of the new Conservative Party Policy Board

24 Nov

ConservativeHome wrote recently about the appointment of Neil O’Brien as a new Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party, and Chair of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board – a promotion with wider implications.

We weren’t alone in doing so. The news about our columnist got a lot of publicity, including an interview with him in the Times.

But what has not been evident so far is that there was already a Vice-Chairman of the Party responsible for policy.  Step forward, Alan Mak.

That most missed his own earlier appointment isn’t surprising, since these Vice-Chairmen have a way of rapidly coming and going.

At any rate, Mak is still there – and this site is told that he will co-chair the Board with O’Brien.  The third MP who will sit on it is John Penrose, who chairs the Conservative Policy Forum.

Another member will arguably carry more weight than any of them: Munira Mirza, the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit.

Her presence on it, and that of Joel Winton, her deputy, is a sign that the Board should be taken seriously.  Iain Carter, who heads up the Conservative Research Department, will also be a member.

And there are to be Parliamentary Party representatives – which raises the question of who these are to be.  ConHome is told that the intention is that they be selected. (By whom, exactly?)

We suspect that Graham Brady and the 1922 Committee Executive will have something to say about that.  The ’22 had its own elected policy committees during the run-up to the last election.

Unlike O’Brien, Mak has neither run a think-tank nor served as a SpAd – let alone as a senior one in George Osborne’s Treasury.

Nonetheless, he is no policy slouch: see his pieces on the Fourth Industrial Revolution for this site.  And he was agitating about about ending child hunger almost 18 months ago – well before the Marcus Rashford push.

The twin-hatting arrangement seems awkard to us, and we doubt it will last long.  “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere, / Nor can one England brook a double reign, / Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.”

One or other of these gentlemen will presumably be wafted heavenwards in a blaze of glory during the New Year reshuffle that must surely come…

…Unless Boris Johnson has second or third or seventy-seventh thoughts, and puts the whole thing off until after the spring’s local elections.

Ben Monro-Davies: “I think when women cry, often they are angry.” On this day, 30 years ago, Margaret Thatcher resigned

22 Nov

Ben Monro-Davies is an Executive Producer at Sky News and has previously work at the BBC and Channel 4 News. He is the host of the podcast Big Ben History, which discusses the past at Westminster.

All remember it vividly. They arrived not entirely sure what was about to happen, awaiting her in the ante room. Her Principal Private Secretary, Andrew Turnbull, briefly panicked: he’d forgotten to tell ministers the right time, such was the silence as he and the soon to resign Prime Minister approached. But as they turned the corner – he and she saw them all there – in his words, “pressed back, looking at their shoes.”

The meeting was earlier than usual – bought forward not because of the end of an eleven year premiership – but for the memorial service for Libby Douglas Home, the wife of Alec. Many went straight to St Paul’s Cathedral afterwards – William Waldegrave remembers the surreal juxtaposition of them singing All Things Bright and Beautiful with the choir just an hour afterwards.

Some had anticipated what was about to happen. The Cabinet secretary, Robin Butler, realised the night before that it was all over. He was keen to “stage manage” proceedings. “I didn’t want there to be a hiatus with nobody knowing what to do.” On November 21st, he drafted a tribute on behalf of the Cabinet – and asked James Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, to read it. He chose Mackay as someone who was clearly not going to succeed her.

Lord Mackay – today still active in the Lords in his nineties – reflects that he, the son of railway signal man, had “strangely enough become number two in the cabinet, and I was sitting next to the Prime Minister.”

He remembers Thatcher reading her statement and breaking down. Cecil Parkinson spoke up, saying: “the Lord Chancellor will read it for you.” Two members of her staff, Barry Potter and Dominic Morris recall Parkinson adding “you don’t have to do this”. Mackay says he responded firmly: “no : the Lord Chancellor will not read it for you, The Prime Minister will read it herself.” Others recall her stumbling to the end – and then saying “I had better do that again”, and reliving the grief once more.

When I first became interested in this most dramatic of meetings, I’d assumed that was that. With a twenty-first century sensibility towards job termination, it already required imagination to grasp a scenario in which you’d have to read out your resignation to the men who’d called time on your career the day before.

But the meeting was not over. It was still a Cabinet gathering with an agenda. So with some ministers such as the Home Secretary, David Waddington, in tears, the meeting moved on – albeit with some constitutional as well as emotional awkwardness.

Her Party Chairman, Kenneth Baker, remembers a break for coffee, and a revived Iron Lady then telling the cabinet “on no account must Heseltine be elected” – an instruction he calls “inappropriate”. That was exactly what some of those in the meeting did want. Butler felt obliged to “soften” the Cabinet minutes to record a general exhortation to carry on the work of her government.

Tom King, then Defence Secretary, was moved by the scene. He’d found her very supportive during his time in Northern Ireland office, and remembers her kindly taking him aside after his mother died. By contrast, he doubts his previous boss, Ted Heath, ever knew his name. He also considered himself as the possible next Prime Minister. “The truth was at that moment four or five of us could have come through as her successor. That’s the reality. “

But he was also next on the Cabinet agenda – outlining the biggest military deployment since World War II to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. This was effectively a war cabinet meeting, and the British machinery of government was navigating the defenestration of its leader and a massive military engagement at the same time.

The less historic was attended to as well. No-one understandably remembers, but in her memoirs Thatcher describes an item on “an unsuccessful Fisheries Council ruined by incompetent Italian chairmanship”. It’s confirmed in the minutes. The State was remorselessly executing the tasks in hand,

There were only two women in the room: Thatcher, and Caroline Slocock, then a private secretary in Downing St. She was not politically sympathetic to Thatcherism, and to her disappointment had been denied the position on a permanent basis. She later discovered that Thatcher had been behind this.

Nevertheless, she remembers the meeting as “pure torture. I was only the other woman in the room. To my shock I started to cry. I hadn’t even brought in a handkerchief. It was the extraordinary loss of power. “

But as a woman, there was another perspective. “It was also the anger. I think when women cry, often they are angry. I think she was probably very angry with these men. The scene has haunted me ever since.” By the end of that day, she recalls there being no tissue paper in the women’s bathroom.

Slocock was right. Thatcher was angry and made little secret of it afterwards. Peter Lilley thinks he was the only cabinet minister present at the launch of her memoirs which eviscerated her former colleagues as “men in lifeboats”.

As to how it had come to this, there are the common observations that longevity breeds detachment. Having so often been proved right at the ballot box, it became harder for her to accept she might be wrong, most notably on the poll tax. Lilley feared she might ask him to rescue it, and warned his wife he would have to return to the backbenches because he believed the policy wrongheaded.

But more bespoke episodes are identified. All bring up a cabinet meeting just a few days before, where she humiliated Geoffrey Howe needlessly over an issue of the parliamentary timetable. Malcom Rifkind says “he was the Deputy Prime Minister and she tore him into as if he were an errant schoolboy. That was a disgrace.”

Howe resigned shortly afterwards, triggering the events that led to a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine. Charles Moore in his authorised biography of Thatcher concludes that Howe was going to resign anyway. But in two Cabinet meetings in November 1990 ministers spent much of it, in Kenneth Baker’s words, “staring at the blotters on their desks.”

And one name forgotten name comes up again and again. Peter Morrison was her Parliamentary Private Secretary who was tasked with her leadership campaign. Michael Howard says: “He was frankly hopeless. I remember ringing Peter up, and asking is there anything I can do to help? ‘No, no, no he said, it’s all under control old boy, there’s nothing you can do.’ It was a disaster.” Morrison was an alcoholic who died five years later, and the current Independent Child Sex Abuse inquiry has heard claims that he was also a sex offender.

Thatcher was forced into a fatal second ballot by a handful of votes – hearing the news In Paris at a conference with world leaders to mark the end of the Cold War. She’d played a crucial role in defeating the Soviet Union, but neglected to appoint the right general to deal with her own troops. Barry Potter blames a weakness for “posh men.” Andrew Turnbull adds she liked them also to be “tall.” Morrison fitted both categories.

And for all the drama of the final cabinet meeting , it’s worth noting the absence of three central actors. Michael Heseltine was of course challenging from the backbenches. Geoffrey Howe was there with him, for the first time since 1979. And the Chancellor of Exchequer was also missing. John Major was at home recuperating from having his wisdom teeth removed. The next cabinet meeting he attended was as Prime Minister.

Nick King: Johnson’s Reset. The Government needs business if it’s to build back better.

22 Nov

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies

Much has been written in the last week, on this site and beyond, about what a Government ‘reset’ might look like, following Dom Cummings and Lee Cain’s departure from Number 10. Broadly. those perspectives have focused on what might be termed ‘the three Ps’ of positioning, people and policy.

In terms of positioning it has been argued that Number 10 needs to take a less confrontational approach – whether that is towards the media, public institutions or, indeed, Conservative backbenchers.

On people, the part played by the indomitable Carrie Symonds and the increasing importance of Allegra Stratton has been acknowledged, but the search continues for the right Chief of Staff to promote and protect Boris Johnson’s own interests.

The issue of policy is perhaps the least clear cut, with competing views espoused as to whether or not the Government can be the party of Workington as well as the party of Notting Hill. My own view is it can and it must.

But there is a final P which needs to be thrown into the mix – not as a fourth horseman, but as a corollary of the three Ps – and that is the private sector.

The fact is that British business is at a low ebb right now, in terms of performance, confidence and its relationship with Government. Covid-19 is the most obvious explanatory factor for those first two issues – forcing millions of businesses up and down the country to close will take the wind out of their sails however generous the set of support packages provided. But introducing those measures only serves to make the job of working constructively with British business all the more important for government. On this task, it has been found wanting.

Across industries, sectors and different parts of the country, there has been consternation and confusion as different restrictions have been introduced, without any (published) economic analysis of the potential impacts or of the evidence base upon which these decisions have been made.

As we approach December 3rd, businesses remain in the dark about whether or not they might be able to reopen, despite the long lead times needed for various parts of the hospitality sector in particular (a sector whose import will perhaps never be as keenly felt as it will be in December 2020).

That businesses don’t feel like the Government supports them is hardly new news, however. Successive polls commissioned by my think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, has shown that a clear majority of small businesses don’t think that the Government is on their side. Indeed, the Government’s own survey data shows that only a quarter of businesses think government understands business well enough to regulate it. But in the context of a national economic shutdown, this is simply not good enough.

This is not to say there aren’t people around Government who understand business, or who are keen to support it. Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma, their political teams and Departments are obviously on businesses’ side, as is Ed Lister and Alex Hickman’s business relations team in Number 10. But the disregard of other influential figures towards business has meant that much of the private sector has failed to get a proper hearing throughout 2020.

The anticipated ‘reset’ is an opportunity for the Johnson administration to put that right. Which duly brings us back to our three Ps.

On positioning, the Government needs to be unapologetically pro-business, free enterprise and open markets. The Conservative Party must defend the role of enterprise and the private sector and be resolutely on the side of the millions of small business owners up and down the country. This is important ground both ideologically and politically – and ground which the Conservative Party is in danger of ceding if it isn’t more full-voiced in its support for business.

In terms of people, Andrew Griffith and Neil O’Brien’s recent appointments are welcome, and will help emphasise the role of business, but change is needed in Number 10 itself. A Chief of Staff with extensive private sector experience would be welcome but, failing that, an understanding and sympathetic attitude towards enterprise should be regarded as a sine qua non. Just as important is for Number 10 to have a strong and expert voice for business sitting within its policy unit. That there has not been a business policy function sitting within the policy unit since David Cameron was Prime Minister is extraordinary – the existing business relations team needs to be strengthened and given a proper policy role.

Which brings us onto the final P of policy, which is the most important of ‘the three Ps’. Positioning and people are all well and good, but fine words doth butter no parsnips, as they say – so Johnson needs to ensure his Government is putting business front and centre as he looks to build back better.

Post-pandemic, securing growth is the only game in town. Without that there is no hope of new jobs, greater opportunities or improved living standards – whether in Workington or Notting Hill. And none of this can be achieved without unleashing the awesome and dynamic power of the private sector.

An important starting point would be to curtail the steadily increasing regulatory burden on business. Each measure, taken on its own merits, seems important and its impact trivial to business. But the corrosive, drip-drip effect takes its toll and as growth flatlines and productivity stagnates, politicians stand with their hands on their hips, double teapoting, wondering why.

Take the recent HFSS (foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt) consultation for example – likely to cost British industry hundreds of millions of pounds. No doubt full of noble intent, but hardly what the economic doctor might order as we look to recover post-pandemic.

More worrying still are the suggestions that we will increase both the rates and the scope of business and enterprise taxes in 2022. This is no way to stimulate and incentivise the businesses who are our only way out of the economic morass in which we find ourselves. Rather than clipping its wings, the Government should provide the wind to help business soar.

Speaking of wind power, the vital role of the private sector was clear in the Prime Minister’s 10 point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. But the truth is that few of his priorities can be achieved without the business community. Levelling up? It requires business investment and private sector jobs in the North and the Midlands. Net zero? Industry needs to transition and innovate our way towards it. Protect the Union? Champion our British businesses and demonstrate our reliance on the free flow of goods and access to important markets both north and south of the border. Global Britain? Remain open to inward investors and get more companies exporting.

Pfizer, BioNTech and other companies have all too ably demonstrated just why we need the private sector recently – it’s the key to solving so many of our problems. Which is why Boris Johnson needs to put it front and centre through his reset exercise.

A reformed Number Ten must get on the front foot with business relations and business policy. It needs to articulate a clear vision of our post-Brexit future, rooted in entrepreneurship, investing in success, focused on innovation, with a skilled workforce, trading with the world and built off the back of our brilliant SMEs. That’s a reset worth waiting for.

Neil O’Brien: The plans we must make now to ensure that our ship doesn’t hit the rocks

16 Nov

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

I’ve been thinking about endurance. HMS Endurance specifically. It was a little ship the Royal Navy used to send down to the South Atlantic.

A friend used to serve on it, and I’m haunted by his description of life out on a tiny ship in some of the world’s roughest seas: the vast winds that endlessly circle Antarctica, with no land anywhere to slow them; the huge waves down in Drake Passage, with the green water coming over the bow and even hitting the bridge; and of wondering whether the ship would be broken by the sheer power of the ocean.

A bit after he was on it, the ship nearly sank following an accident. It filled up with freezing water, and with all power lost, amid a gathering storm, it started drifting towards the rocks. The crew spent 24 hours fighting for their lives: bailing out the ship by hand, and eventually escaped from a gathering hurricane in the nick of time. While the story of how they survived is an inspiring one – the account of the mistakes that were made that led to the accident in the first place is an informative one.

As so often with disasters, the warnings were all there: the wrong sort of ship; no proper maintenance; too many key staff absent; major problems with the culture…

As with so many disasters, in retrospect the warning signs were all there.

One of the great arts in politics is to see the problems and the big choices coming, so that you can solve them before the ship starts sinking. 2021 is shaping up to be a year where we make some very big choices that will define the coming years.

And I what I really want is readers’ views on what the big choices are. But let me start with my own mental list for later next year.

Let’s assume for a moment that we have come out of the other side of Coronavirus and Brexit. It’s 2021, the vaccine is rolling out, the virus is dying out, the economy is recovering. Still a long way to go, I know. But what will happen then? I think there are four really big choices:

First, the big fiscal choice. At present the focus is rightly on helping support the economy until we get into sustained recovery. But it seems likely there will be some kind of structural deficit afterwards, because the economy will be behind where we hoped it would be. We won’t know how big or small the deficit will be for quite a while. It may be small enough that we can take some time. Or so big that we can’t. So we may face some big choices on (a) how fast to try to close any gap, and (b) what mix of tax and spending decisions to use to fix it.

The second choice is our plan for growth. Western countries have had a rough decade, and some economists worry about “secular stagnation”. How do we get the economy moving faster? How can the tax system better support investment and innovation? How can we change the composition of government spending on research to better support business growth? How attract more inward investment in higher skill, higher tech, higher wage industries?

Third, we face big choices about the future of the UK. The Scottish Parliament elections on 6 May may herald a dramatic new phase in the debate. The bookies (though they’ve been wrong before) give the SNP a 95 per cent chance of being the largest party and a 66 per cent chance of an outright majority, either of which they would use to rev up their demands for another referendum. The breakup of Britain would lead to a decade or more of catastrophic paralysis. Years of arguments over currencies, pensions, debts, mortgages and state assets. Officials working to unpick hundreds of years worth of stitching. All parts of the UK would suffer economically, and it would make the Brexit rows of 2016-2019 look like a walk in the park. Yet even with the virus raging, the SNP are preparing to go into overdrive to force a second referendum. An equally strong campaign will be needed to fight back. How do we fight it?

The fourth big choice is about the levelling up agenda: and how far and how fast we can go. The lead times on getting things done can be daunting. For example: in 2014/15 we decided to phase out rubbish “pacer” trains in the north. But last won’t leave service in the north until next month. We need policies which will genuinely help poorer places catch up, but also need to show significant progress by 2024.

Then there’s all the other things.

Decisions to take about the future of devolution and local government in England, with a White Paper out in the spring.

There’s a second year of tough decisions to take on school exams. The Welsh government has already cancelled next year’s exams. Assuming we can still hold them in England, there are unavoidable choices on how to mark them. Given the disruption to schooling, mock results will likely be worse, but not evenly so across different types of schools – for example, the crisis has affected state and private schools very differently. So how do universities assess potential? And should we measure pupils against each other with the same distribution of grades as earlier years? Or maintain comparison with previous years, which would likely see grades drop across the board?

There’s a long-expected decision to take on universities. Do we keep the current system? Or build up technical education, and try to reduce the number of students on low value university courses which lead to low earnings while consuming lots of taxpayer subsidy?

At the start of November next year, the UK will host the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. There are big choices to make about how and how fast to pursue decarbonisation at home, and lots of questions about what the UK should be pushing for at the conference.

MPs voted for net zero, but massive questions about how to do it remain open. Are we aiming for heat for people’s homes to come from electricity in future, or by pumping hydrogen through the current gas grid? If more and more vehicles will be electric, what mix of (and how much) electricity production are we aiming for?

Then there’s big questions in foreign and security policy. The Integrated Review is due out, which (sensibly) combines the questions of our future defence and security spending with questions of economic security – given a world where we face ruthless technology competition, not least from China.

But there are other big security questions: France is suffering a wave of brutal Islamist terror attacks – is there more we need to do to pre-empt such atrocities here? The Prime Minister and President-Elect Joe Biden have both floated new ways to get the world’s democracies working together, including those like India and Japan that are outside NATO. Can something new be brought together?

These are just my starters for ten – so readers, it’s over to you. What are the biggest choices? What are the problems that we have to get ahead of to keep this ship afloat?

James Frayne: Perhaps the Conservatives should simply revert to being southern and posh

10 Nov

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

In my twenties, I took a serious interest in US politics and campaigns, naively coming to think of the UK and US as culturally similar. It’s an easy mistake: a shared history; mutual respect for each other’s institutions; similar attitudes to the free market, individual rights and the rule of law; overlapping tastes in popular culture.

But it’s a mistake nonetheless. When I lived and worked in Washington DC and New York City for a couple of years – theoretically culturally familiar places – I came to realise how utterly foreign the US is. While I love the US and believe they’re our closest ally, I’m culturally European. I’m now firmly of the view those people seeking to apply political and electoral lessons from the US to the UK are usually wasting their time.

As Nick Timothy pointed out yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, the idea that Boris Johnson’s conservatism is damaged by Donald Trump’s defeat is ludicrous – the two are cut from different cloth, despite persistent but silly commentary linking “Brexit and Trump”.

So I stress: those looking to learn lessons from the US are mostly wasting their time. But one important consideration does arise for British Conservatives.

This is the electoral danger of letting down the new working class voters who have flocked to Trump’s GOP and the Conservative Party respectively.

In the US, these voters are often called Reagan Democrats or sometimes Springsteen Democrats; in the UK, we tend to call them the “traditional working class”; either way, they’re the working class of industrial and post industrial areas. While their similarities stretch only so far, given the differing nature of British and American labour markets and industrial history, the theme of working class disappointment is relevant.

We shouldn’t over-simplify: there were many reasons why Trump won in 2016; aggressive cultural conservatism was only one of them. But Trump partly carried so-called “rust-belt” states by promising to bring back long-lost manufacturing jobs and heavy industry. In short, he pledged to bring back dignity to hard-up places. The fact that this hasn’t happened – despite a surge in the national economy – dented his re-election chances.

A reality check: it doesn’t appear that Joe Biden truly surged amongst working class voters, nor did Trump collapse. But they do appear to have shifted markedly away from him. Given his narrow lead amongst the working class – and indeed his narrow lead in rust-belt states, full stop – this shift was enough to cause serious electoral problems.

British Conservatives face a similar problem. No, they didn’t make the same sorts of promises to the traditional working class in 2019; they didn’t promise the equivalent of, say, bringing back coal and steel to the North of England.

But while “getting Brexit done” was the most important part of their campaign last December, “levelling up” has become the party’s central public narrative (Covid aside) ever since; it runs through almost all of their policy communications. Their promises to the working class are far less outlandish than Trump’s, but they’re arguably more defined by their promises because they’ve talked of little else.

Trump’s winning coalition was large, but it was shallow, because of its reliance on new voters with no history of voting Republican. The same is true here. The Conservatives’ 80 seat majority looks massive, but it’s also precarious because again it’s built on new voters with few loyalties.

While working class people will cut the Conservatives slack because of Covid, they’ll soon be asking what progress the Government has made for them. They will certainly not accept the opposite of “levelling up” – the further decline of their towns and cities (which is already happening).

Just like those long-term Democrats who asked whether shifting their votes to their historical economic and moral opponents was worth it after all, so those traditional working class Labour voters from the Midlands, North and the Coast will pose the same sort of question. They’ll ask whether the Conservatives were all talk. And as I’ve written before, Keir Starmer is a very different proposition for the working class than Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s reported today that Rishi Sunak has promised Northern MPs more resources and more attention in the post-Covid period, largely, apparently, in the form of new infrastructure spending. This is welcome. (Though what about other areas – not least the Midlands and the coast?)

But time isn’t on their side, and the task is huge. Unless they can offer meaningful social and economic progress in such places as Walsall, Wolverhampton, Derby, Rotherham and Oldham, they will be out. Yes, they’ll be able to blame Covid-19 – but so what?

In fact, such little progress is being made, with time rapidly running out, it will soon be time to consider whether the Conservatives should junk their presumed working class strategy and focus once again on the affluent South. And it’s possible that the party should indeed take the easy route, follow its heart, and go back to being Southern and posh; yes, I’m serious.

Where should the Conservatives focus? Infrastructure matters. Ultimately, however, improving the economy outside the prosperous South East will require radically improving education and skills at all levels – seeking to build new businesses and industries from this new base of skilled workers. But you’re talking of two or three Parliaments to see the fruits of any such decisions made now. The Conservatives don’t have that luxury.

Rapid progress will depend on being able to show town centres – and specifically high streets – have improved. This doesn’t just mean defending commerce; it means making town centres safer and more attractive and, crucially, fostering local pride. The Party should be throwing itself into this task. A useful immediate start to focus minds: use all those screens in the Cabinet Office to display figures from a Towns Dashboard.

Iain Dale: Trump is displaying all the signs of believing his own lies. And he is undermining democracy itself.

6 Nov

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

As I write this column on Thursday lunchtime, we still do not know for sure who will be inaugurated in Washington on Wednesday 20 January next year.  As Sky’s Mark Austin said earlier this week, the Americans will never be able to take the micky out of us for cricket – a game that can go on for days without a result.

It looks more than likely that Joe Biden will be the next President, which didn’t seem to be the case when I finished presenting LBC’s marathon seven-hour overnight election show.

At that point, it seemed clear that Donald Trump would be staying in the White House. He was ahead in most of the crucial swing states. But when I woke up after three hours’ sleep on Wednesday morning, the situation was beginning to change.

By the end of Wednesday, Biden had pulled ahead in both the popular national vote. Michigan became the American equivalent of Nuneaton or Basildon.

When he saw which way the wind was blowing, Donald Trump did what he does best: disrupt. He went on TV to say that there was widespread vote fraud in the states that he now appeared to be losing, and that all vote counting there should stop. However, the counts should continue in all the states where he was ahead. Brazen.

Rudi Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer – a man who has lost all of his previously respected reputation – made public pronouncements in which he speculated on whether the Democratic National Committee was behind multiple voting, and even went so far as to ponder whether Joe Biden himself may have voted 5,000 times. He demeaned himself – and not for the first time.

All candidates are entitled to challenge a count if they genuinely fear there has been foul play. In this country that rarely, if ever, happens. It has to be said that in the US it has happened rather too often.  But if you accuse your rivals of interfering in the electoral process, you need to have some evidence for your accusation.

This is dangerous talk from Trump, since it completely undermines any trust in the democratic process. It is now easy to imagine a situation in which Biden scores a higher number of electoral college votes than Trump did in 2016 – and yet the President still doesn’t accept the result. There will also be protests, and maybe even violent riots, which seek to keep Trump in the White House.

Being a disrupter is not necessarily a 100 per cent bad thing. But being a president who cannot accept a basic tenet of democracy – i.e. the acceptance of electoral loss – is not a good look. The trouble is that Trump displays all the signs of being someone who comes to believe his own lies.

The fact, however, that he has won five million more votes than he did in 2016 does tell us something important. We cannot write him off as an aberration. Trump caught a political wave in 2016 – one of dissatisfaction with politics in general and Washington in particular. If it hadn’t been him it would have been someone else.

The Tea Party’s rise in the 1990s and early 2000s was the first sign that something was changing, but the Washington elites chose to ignore it. It’s a bit like the Labour Party telling the electorate here that they keep getting it wrong, and what they really want is something that the elites in Islington tell them they should want. The electorate resile against this, and do the very opposite.

On Wednesday morning, I was watching the BBC’s election coverage and heard one of its journalist saying that to appeal to working class voters amounts to “economic populism”. It’s that kind of elitist arrogance that turns people off the so-called mainstream media – and plays into the hands of Trump.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rishi Sunak seemed to catch Labour off balance yesterday, when he announced that the furlough scheme is to be extended until the end of March. This will provide a lot of reassurance to a lot of people who previously must have feared they would lose their jobs entirely.

It is a legitimate criticism that this announcement came very late in the day, and too late for many thousands of people who had already been laid off – but better late than never.

There is still not enough support of the self-employed, and those who operate limited companies. After eight months, this is simply not good enough. To say “it’s all too difficult” just does not wash. These are, as Margaret Thatcher, might have said “our people” – and they deserve better treatment than they have so far had from a Conservative government.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Tuesday I achieved a lifetime ambition – to interview Sir Cliff Richard.

I have a very short list of people I would like to interview before it’s too late, and he was top of it. I spent an hour with him via Zoom, and it was all I hoped it would be.

I told him I wanted it to be a conversation rather than an interview, and that’s how it turned out. I didn’t want it to be an hour where he would just come out with well-worn anecdotes and lines, and I didn’t want to just ask the usual questions he gets asked in interviews.

The fact that I had an hour meant that it really could be a proper conversation. He talked openly about his religious faith, the sex abuse allegations that he had to endure, what he really thinks of the BBC and why he’s fallen out of love with Britain. And of course we talked about his music career.

Even if you’re not his biggest fan, I think you’ll enjoy the interview, which you can hear on my Iain Dale All Talk podcast.

Daniel Hannan: We need the Government’s estimate of the cost of the lockdown to lives and livelihoods

28 Oct

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

It often happens in politics that you have to choose between disagreeable alternatives. If you do X, bad things will happen, and if you do Y, bad things will happen. Whichever option you pick, the media will then point to those bad things as evidence that you should have taken the other path. Commentators make little allowance for the concept of the lesser evil.

When an epidemic hits a country, all its options are unappealing. The only real choice its leaders have is where the blow should fall hardest. How much poverty and suffering should the general population suffer to prolong each threatened life?

For a long time, it was not acceptable in polite company to acknowledge that such a trade-off existed. Anyone who tried to point out that we made precisely this calculation every time we assessed a new treatment – that there was even a generic measure for the value of medical intervention, the Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY) – was treated as some sort of granny-murderer.

And so, perhaps inevitably, governments around the world declared that they would protect their populations from the coronavirus “at any cost”, not stopping to consider what was implied by those three words. Even back in March, a handful of dissidents argued that, setting aside the cost to liberty and livelihood, a severe lockdown would also cost lives as other medical conditions went untreated.

But few wanted to listen. A bullying, moralising tone dominated the public debate. However gently critics tried to point out that the issue was not “lives versus the economy” but “lives versus lives”, they were portrayed as eugenicists.

The only real surprise was that a handful of places – Sweden, Brazil, Tanzania, some US states – defied the pressure. Almost everywhere else, governments did precisely what the early nineteenth-century economist Frédéric Bastiat would have predicted, prioritising “the seen” (the Covid fatality count) over “the unseen” (the other deaths, as well as the joblessness, the lost educational opportunities and so on).

But the unseen doesn’t remain unseen forever. The impact of the closures, initially muffled by a generous furlough scheme and a general sense of solidarity, is now being felt. Public opinion, hitherto solidly pro-lockdown is (you can feel it) about to shift. In such circumstances, refusing to quantify the costs is bad politics as well as bad policy.

In any case, “you all supported this at the time” never works as an excuse. Opinion polls showed support for ERM membership right up until our departure. They showed initial support for the invasion of Iraq. A fat lot of good that did John Major or Tony Blair after the event.

After an early over-reaction, the Government is now trying to be proportionate. Although Delingpole-level lockdown sceptics will never acknowledge it, most prohibitions were lifted on 4 July. Even in the most restricted parts of England, shops, schools and (with restrictions) pubs remain open. Contrast this to Wales – a snapshot of what the rest of the UK would look like if Labour were in office.

In the circumstances, ministers would be well-advised to take up the idea – pushed by ConservativeHome – of publishing estimates of the cost of the lockdown. Not just the direct costs. We need some sense of the impact on education, mental health and so on. “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers,” said the brilliant Ulster mathematician Lord Kelvin, “you know something about it”.

Necessarily, some of the calculations will be difficult, some speculative. We can put a figure easily enough on the furlough scheme. We can measure the decline in GDP. We can quantify the direct cost to the Exchequer (over £200 billion – a figure that makes the famous £350 million a week on the side of that bus look trivial).

But what about the impact of, say, lost education? What about the chance that other diseases might become more widespread because of fewer childhood vaccinations? What is the difference in impact between Tier 2 and Tier 3 restrictions?

These questions are hard to answer, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a go. One reads that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, wants the Government to assess them and to publish its findings. Let’s hope he gets his way.

Back in March, there was little time for such assessments: decisions were necessarily rushed, and schemes were put in place for what many imagined was a crisis that would be over by the summer. Nor, frankly, did anyone want to discuss the trade-offs. Simply to run the numbers would have been to invite the accusation that heartless Tories somehow cared more about an abstract thing called “the economy” than about people’s well-being.

That is no longer true. Now, it is Labour’s enthusiasm for lockdown – a position abandoned even by the WHO – that looks ideological. Publishing the figures will underline that the government is striving to be balanced. Never mind how it looks, though: better statistics will lead to better decisions. The only thing more callous than putting a value on human life is refusing to do so.

How to ensure that disadvantaged children are fed when schools are closed

26 Oct

When Theresa May was Prime Minister, Conservative MPs stopped voting, for a time, against Opposition Day motions.  This had two upsides.  First, they were no longer assailed in their constituencies for trooping through the lobbies against motions that could be read to be innocuous.  Second – and even more to the point – one can’t lose a vote if one doesn’t vote at all.

The downside of not opposing those motions was that, once they passed and the Government then ignored them, Ministers were open to the charge of holding the will of Parliament in contempt.  In any event, Labour then unearthed a device that the Government couldn’t bypass – the Humble Address.

We mention this to-and-fro from the last Parliament in the wake of a vote in this one.  Tory MPs are raging about being whipped to vote against last week’s Opposition Day motion on free school meals – especially those newly-elected last year.  They feel that the Whips’ instruction has made them targets in their seats.

Angela Rayner’s disgusting cry of “scum” may be part of the reason: over 100 Conservative MPs say that they and their staff have been the targets of abuse and threats.  Some Labour MPs have form in this way: remember John McDonnell’s notorious remark about lynching Esther McVey.

We believe that Tory MPs can’t simply run away from Opposition motions.  But we also feel that those unhappy backbenchers have a point.  For the simple truth is that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the departmental ministers concerned could scarcely be handling this issue worse were they trying.

One can grasp the scale of the problem by pondering the arguments that Conservative MPs have been deploying against making free school meals available during the Christmas holidays.  The problem is not that there are none.  It is that there are too many.

On the one hand, it was said last week that the taxpayer can’t afford it.  It’s true that we are losing a sense of what the Treasury can afford as the Coronavirus bills pile up.  But if the Government can afford Eat Out to Help Out, why can’t it afford Feed Kids to Help Out?

On the other, it was also said that the Government is spending millions on feeding poorer children.  True again.  But the money is divided up between a mass of programmes – support to local authorities, the Universal Credit uplift, the holiday activities and food programme, Fareshare, Magic Breakfast, and more. That’s a mouthful to communicate.

Conservative MPs point out that the last Labour Government didn’t make free school meals available during the holiday period.  Correct: but Gordon Brown’s failed administration is beginning to become a bit of a distant memory. They say that parents should be responsible for feeding their children, not the state.

Quite so – up to a point.  But if the principle were extended to its logical conclusion, there would be no free school meals at all.  What about sudden unemployment after furlough, to strike a timely note?  Or disability?  And what about state policy that frustrates families – complex childcare schemes, high energy bills, food taxes?

When a Tory MPs can claim that vouchers for meals are being spent on crack dens and brothels, without being able to produce hard evidence, one can hear the bottom of the barrel being noisily scraped.  If vouchers are such a bad idea, why did the Government make them available over the summer holidays in the first place?

There is a hint of the Thatcher era about what is happening now.  Some will say that she won three elections, and the moral of those victories is: ignore the protesters.  But there is a new dimension – even if you don’t believe that the loss of reputation for compassion came back to haunt the Party once it lost its reputation for competence.

It is that while Labour MPs and the hard left are one thing, local businesses, charities and football clubs are quite another.  All these, and more, are queuing up to offer help to disadvantaged children.  Do you warm to the idea of the Big Society?  Well, here it is in action – with the Conservative Party on the wrong side of it.

Reports today suggest that Downing Street knows that it has dug itself into a hole, and must now start to dig itself out.  That would be best attempted by finding a plan that’s better than Labour’s (or Marcus Rashford’s) communicating it, implementing it – and then campaigning for it.

Fortunately, there is one to hand.  If you think about it, schools are not the right venue for delivering help to poorer children during the holidays – for the obvious reason that, by definition, they are then closed.  And the exceptional circumstances of the spring lockdown are now, we all hope, behind us.

Nor do vouchers guarantee “healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink”, to quote from Government guidelines – which, in the case of food, is better delivered hot.  These are best provided in a formal setting.  Which is precisely the aim of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme which we mentioned earlier.

This is a £9 million programme in its second year of pilots.  This summer, it supported up to 50,000 disadvantaged children across 17 local authority areas at a cost of some £9 million – providing at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August 2020.

The speech of last week’s debate came from Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Clevelys (Blackpool itself, by the way, has eight of the ten most deprived areas in England).  “My view is that we need a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support stream to deal with the trials that have occurred,” he said.

Maynard is not alone in understanding the issues: see Alan Mak’s work, for example, on Magic Breakfast. But he was right to suggest that the pilots have been too slow.  As he said, the issue “is the ultimate example in politics of where something must be done. That is very different from saying that anything should be done”.

Exactly so, and two different groups of people ought to read his speech with special care.  The first are Ministers, the Downing Street apparatus, the Treasury – and a handful of backbenchers.  There is no more matter more primal than food – and getting fed, especially if one is going hungry.

This debacle is a fearful warning to Boris Johnson, Downing Street, the Government and CCHQ: in all things, let alone any matter so emotive, one needs a policy, a message – and the capacity to campaign on it.  In each of these areas, they have been found wanting.

They will have to raise their game on continuing the Universal Credit uplift, and responding to the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s report on food strategy.  Why didn’t they, in this case?  Perhaps because, amidst all the focus on the Just About Managings, they are missing a point: social justice matters in the former Red Wall, too.

The second group of people concerned are the Rashford campaigners.  Some Tories complain about the footballer.  We aren’t joining them.  After all, if it wasn’t for him, we might well not be writing this morning about the issues he has highlighted.

But he should surely see that vouchers, dispersed to parents in a mass of homes, are not a substitute for nutritious meals, delivered to children who are gathered together in a formal setting – just as in term-time.  If Ministers offer such a programme on a bigger scale, he should jump at the chance to embrace it.

Iain Dale: The way the BBC and Sky News behave, you’d think we are the only country in the world with a second wave

23 Oct

It’s been another difficult week for the Prime Minister, who has come under attack from Labour both for the failure to come to an agreement with Andy Burnham, or to cave in to demands for kids to get free school meals in the next few school holidays.

Sometimes in politics it is right to say so far – but no further. Bottom lines are important in conducting negotiations.

However, in the case of the money offered to Greater Manchester it is a little difficult to understand how the two sides could fall out over a trifling £5 million.

On free school meals, it would cost £157 million to provide them during the autumn half term, Christmas, February half term and Easter holidays to those children already due to receive them.

Given the U-turn that Marcus Rashford forced in the summer, I do wonder whether this has been worth the political and reputational fallout. “Tories rip food from starving children’s mouths” is the narrative that’s already developing, and however ridiculous that is, sometimes it’s just not worth the political fight.

The Government is right to point out that circumstances are different now and schools are open. But it cuts little ice. The Labour Party is promoting the narrative that the Tories are happy to pay £7,000 a day to failing test and trace consultants, and £12 billion to fund the failing test and trace system, yet quibble over a few million to feed hungry children. You can just see the election videos now…

Mark my words, there will now be a further ratcheting of demands, and what I mean by that is that there will now be a campaign to permanently provide free school meals in school holidays, Covid or no Covid. To do that would cost £350 million a year.

A small price to pay to protect our children’s health, the campaigners will say. But it would be yet another way of the state taking over parental responsibilities. Where does the role of the parent end and that of the state begin? This is an argument which is going to gain a lot of traction in the next few years.

Since the state will inevitably take on a much bigger role in promoting an economic revival that it would normally do, it is yet further proof that all politics is cyclical. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the big state v small state argument was one of the big political debates of the day. Fifty years later, I suspect it will dominate the 2020s.

– – – – – – – – – –

The way the BBC and Sky News behave, you’d think Britain was the only country in the world experiencing a second wave.

It’s happening virtually everywhere to one degree or another. Belgium and France seem to be experiencing the worst of it, with Spain and the Netherlands also having massive problems.

Even in Germany, local restrictions are being introduced all over the country. France’s track and trace system has more or less totally collapsed.

Does our insular looking media ever tell you any of this? You get a bit of coverage in The Times, and that’s about it.

It is absolutely the case that catastrophic errors have been made in this country over the last eight months, and I do not seek to hide from that.

All I am saying is that many other countries have faced similar issues and made the same mistakes. It’s not to defend the wrong decisions that have been made, but we rarely get any nuance or context.

The British people know that those in charge are having to make very difficult decisions day after day, and they have sympathy with that. All they ask if for a bit of honesty when things go wrong, and that politicians hold their hands up.

That’s where the Government’s comms strategy has been failing. People appreciate honesty, not obfuscation. Boris should take more of a lead from how Macron has handled failure and learn from it.

– – – – – – – – – –

I’ve made more progress in reading Tom Bower’s new biography of Boris Johnson. Having expected a complete hatchet job, I’m finding that it’s nothing of the sort.

Yes, there’s a lot about Johnson’s weaknesses, but Bower has done a fine job in writing a book which provides real insight into the Prime Minister’s life and character.

His final two chapters on the Coronavirus crisis are incredibly powerful, and go totally against the conventional wisdom that the politicians have been a shambles, and the scientists and civil service have been on the side of the angels.

He doesn’t just assert that there have been major failings on the part of the latter – he provides the evidence. This book is well worth £20 of anyone’s money.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow at 5.25pm I’m appearing on Pointless Celebrities with Jacqui Smith as my partner in crime.

Honestly, the woman is taking over the BBC Saturday night schedule, what with her Strictly Come Dancing antics and everything.

Our Pointless episode was recorded back in January. and I was beginning to despair that it would ever be shown. We were up against Michael Fabricant and Martin Bell, Ayesha Hazarika and John Pienaar, and Camilla Tominey and Rachel Johnson.

I’ve never done a game show before, and if I’m honest, I’m not sure I wholly enjoyed the experience. I don’t mind doing things out of my comfort zone, but these sorts of shows present a huge opportunity to make a complete fool of yourself.

I didn’t – at least I don’t think I did – but there’s a tremendous pressure to say something hilariously funny or incisive. I’m not wholly sure I stepped up to the plate. Hopefully everyone will be too distracted by my red suit…

– – – – – – – – – –

“Did the hon. Lady just call me scum?”

Yes, apparently she did. That was the question Chris Clarkson, a Conservative MP, asked Angela Rayner.

The deputy speaker, Dame Eleanor Laing was furious with her and told her off in no uncertain terms – although bizarrely she didn’t make her apologise.

Sky News, however, clipped the episode up without even including Dame Eleanor’s comments and made out that it was a matter of dispute as to whether Rayner had actually said it.  It’s exactly the sort of editing which encourages distrust of the so-called Mainstream Media.

Anyway, I suspect that quote is going to hang in the air for a long time. Several people suggested I should commission a mug with it on for my online shop. So I have. And it’s proved surprisingly popular among male purchasers… Should you wish to join them, buy it here.

Paul Howell: CCHQ North will only work if party members feel real ownership of it

22 Oct

Paul Howell is MP for Sedgefield.

In December last year, “things can only get better” boomed out at CCHQ on election night as Sedgefield, the former Commons seat of Tony Blair, fell and the Conservative Party clinched its first sizable majority since the years of Margaret Thatcher.

As the MP for this totemic seat, I believe I know more than most how we demolished the “Red Wall”, and how we can cement its blue replacement. We are now the party of the North, and we must stay the party of the North. What we do next will be critical in that objective.

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact – on the North and on the whole country. We are rightly spending a considerable amount of our time and resources on the fight against the virus, on saving the economy and on the search for a vaccine.

With strong leadership and by working together, we will beat this virus. Then our efforts will turn to the recovery, and how we create a fair and balanced country that works for everyone, wherever they live. The levelling up agenda was a major factor in our election win last year: the vision for addressing the longstanding, structural inequalities that exist between North and South and creating a more balanced, prosperous UK.

Levelling up is a long-term ambition, a demonstration to the party’s commitment to the North. But it is also part of the immediate recovery from the pandemic.

Alongside around 30 of my Northern Conservative MP colleagues, I have joined the Northern Research Group (NRG) – a powerful collection of MPs across the North who will ensure that we deliver a Northern Powerhouse and achieve levelling up.

Together, we can be greater than the sum of our parts, and make the compelling, evidence-based case for investment in the North. Whether the matter to hand is delivering high speed rail, making sure the most disadvantaged children don’t fall behind in their schooling, or creating jobs for the next generation in sustainable industries such as hydrogen and advanced manufacturing, the NRG is integral to the future of the communities we serve,

We are already seeing the impact on the ground. Our members have been working closely with local business leaders to ensure they get what they need from government, and that their businesses and communities are protected. And we will make sure government have a clear and fair plan for how we exit the Covid restrictions, and that businesses get the support they need.

The NRG is a further sign of our commitment to the North. When it was first suggested that CCHQ should open a new headquarters in a part of it, some commentators derided the idea. “It will never happen.” “The story has just been briefed as a distraction.” “Don’t fall for it.” Funnily enough, I haven’t seen the string of apologies from these commentators when this was confirmed at our virtual Conservative Party conference.

What particularly pleased me when the plans for a CCHQ North were first mooted was that it was clear that it wasn’t simply envisaged as a basic call centre and print shop – essential though these functions are. Instead, there was talk of it being located close to the Norths’s brightest and best graduates and data scientists. As important is  devolving real responsibility and control to party members in the North to enable them to properly defend and represent the constituencies that make up the new ‘Blue Wall’ and beyond.

As Conservatives, we know that power is best exercised at the lowest practical level – hence the importance of ‘Taking Back Control’, matching our commitment to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with plans being drawn up to create more mayors across the North.

This applies to political parties, too. CCHQ North will only work if party members feel real ownership of their headquarters, and the responsibility for making it a success. We need a dedicated campaign team to direct local professional campaign managers in every target seat. We need Treasurers to build a fighting fund to support the revival of Conservative Associations in the seats we won in December. We need a mechanism for Northern MPs to be able to feed in their ideas and local knowledge, and to direct campaigning activity to ensure we are effective election winning machine. And we need a Northern Party Board.

Ben Elliot and Amanda Milling should be hugely congratulated for proving the sceptics wrong, and I look forward to hearing more about their plans for CCHQ Nort hnext week. But if we are going to build an organisation that is sustainable and potent, it’s essential for Northern Members of Parliament and councillors to be put in charge of what comes next.

To defend Sedgefield at the next general election, and to grow our representation in local government in the North of England, it is essential for the Conservative Party to have a strong Northern presence. And we should all play our part to ensure that CCHQ North is a real fighting force, and a worthy campaign HQ for the world’s most successful political party.