David Gauke: How the Conservatives are morphing from a party of power to a party of protest

5 Dec

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

Harold Wilson sought to make the Labour Party the natural party of Government, but failed. Years later, Tony Blair sought to fulfil the same ambition and – with the three successive general election victories – came closer to success.

Yet just over eight years after he stood down, the Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. As Blair pointed out about himself, he had been ‘the person in power taking difficult decisions’ whose face was ‘on the placard’ whereas ‘Jeremy is the guy with the placard, he’s the guy holding it. One’s the politics of power and the other’s the politics of protest.’

Labour has never quite escaped the politics of protest. In part, this is a product of its history. The Labour Party was formed to represent the interests of trade unions and their members. It exists to represent one section of society, not to govern all of society.

There is also a question of temperament. As a party of the Left, it has tended to attract dreamers and idealists who value ideological purity and the clean conscience available to those who do not have to take responsibility. It has always been a party for the placard-holders.

The Conservative Party, in contrast, exists for the purpose of being in power. One way or another, it has been in office for 67 of the last 100 years and, as such, can claim to be the natural party of government. It is a party capable of obtaining and retaining power but also a party changed by the experience of power.

Its reputation as the party of government has helped it reassure small ‘c’ conservative voters; the greater Ministerial experience attained by Conservative politicians has given the party greater credibility in contrast to its opponents; a track record in Government also demonstrates a willingness to make tough decisions – such as the economic reforms of the 1980s or 2010s – which helps win the public’s respect, if not its affection.

There are disadvantages, too. The Conservative Party has been seen as not just the party of government ,but the party of the establishment. When social mores change, it can look outdated and the defenders of privilege, as it did in the 1940s, ‘60s and ‘90s. And given that to govern is to choose, some of its choices will displease. Policy decisions involve trade-offs, sometimes very difficult ones. In government, one cannot escape that.

There are certain attributes necessary for a party to acquire and retain a reputation as natural party of government. Of course, it has to obtain power. But it must also demonstrate and value administrative competence; it must be able to live in the world as it is, not as it would like it to be; it must be willing to take tough decisions on the basis of a realistic understanding of the consequences; it must recognise that what brings immediate popularity does not always translate into long term electoral success; it must apply its principles in a manner that appreciates the practical implications in changing circumstances. Fundamentally, it should be a party that feels much more comfortable – in Tony Blair’s phrase – with the politics of power, not the politics of protest.

How comfortable is the Conservative Party now with the politics of power? It is tempting to answer this question by focusing on Boris Johnson. He was elected as leader of the party not on the basis of his record as a successful administrator (most Conservative MPs, including many who voted for him, would have said that his Ministerial record was the least distinguished of all the contenders), but as the candidate who could marginalise Nigel Farage and reunite the Leave coalition.

This proved to be a correct assessment, at least for the moment. But Johnson’s approach to Brexit has long been to ignore the hard questions – the trade-offs between sovereignty and market access or the Northern Ireland border – with a ‘have your cake and eat it’ optimism and mutually contradictory promises.

At the time of writing, he is in the uncomfortable position of having to make a choice on a deal that will mean, either way, at least some of his promises are broken. If, after months of hesitation, he goes for a deal – and I hope he does – he will face the fury of sovereignty purists who have never come to terms with the reality that free trade deals necessarily involve some constraints on what a country can do.

The Prime Minister also faces a challenge to his authority on Covid-19. The crisis has been testing for him, and he has looked ill-suited to the challenge. But his relative caution on restrictions reflects the realities in front of him. It suggests that he has looked at the evidence and concluded that if you go too far in loosening restrictions, the virus very quickly spreads. This would not only cause many deaths but also damage the economy because of voluntary changes in behaviour. It is hard to imagine any of his predecessors reaching a different conclusion in the circumstances. In this sense, Johnson is acting like a conventional Prime Minister.

Conservative MPs, however, are not giving him the benefit of the doubt. In some cases, there are legitimate constituency concerns but in other cases, the laudable desire to protect individual liberty has resulted in a willingness to engage in wishful thinking.

Some have fallen for a succession of optimistic but wrong predictions – ‘the virus is burning itself’, ‘the new cases are just false positives’, ‘higher cases won’t necessarily mean higher deaths’, ‘lockdowns do not work’ – that get discredited before moving on to the next argument.

This is partly ideological. It is also partly about the changing nature of being an MP. Members of Parliament are increasingly seen as local champions first and foremost. They are more inclined to organise themselves into ‘Research Groups’ that act as parties within parties, content to define themselves by contrasting themselves against the Government rather than as being part of the Government.

It is less about being part of a team that seeks to govern the country but more about representing particular viewpoint or constituency. It is less about solving problem; more about taking a stand. It is a change in attitude that makes it harder to accept compromise, to recognise trade-offs, to temper principle with practicality. We have seen this for years in the context of our relationship with Europe; we have seen it increasingly in recent months in the context of Covid restrictions. I suspect we may more of this when it comes to tackling the public finances.

The Conservative Party has become less disciplined and more comfortable with the politics of protest. In some respects, Boris Johnson is a natural leader for such a party – a columnist and controversialist; an insurgent rather than an administrator – but it would be wrong to ascribe the change in the party to him. He is a symptom not the cause, reflecting changing attitudes amongst MPs, party members and many of its supporters. It may still have an appetite to be in office, but the Conservative Party no longer has the temperament of a natural party of government.

Robert Halfon: The political parties are stuck in the Dark Ages

2 Dec

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

If I were a chief executive or chair of a major political party in Britain, I would have this book, Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century by Tim Bale, Monica Poletti and Paul Webb, pride of place on my desk – and I would also send a copy to every local constituency party association chair in the country.

This book tells you more about the demographics of party members, and the reasons why they join – and quit – than anything you will hear from the usual commentators. Each chapter not only goes through the qualitative information, but has reams of data and surveys to evidence the claims.

Footsoldiers confounds a few stereotypes, too. For example, the average age of a member of the Conservative Party is 57 (not in the late 60s as is often reported). Moreover, the Labour Party’s average membership age is 54 – just a few years away from that of the Tories – and yet, it is only the Conservatives that are always described as having an aged member base. Interestingly, we learn that 77 percent of Labour Party members are middle class – a fact that may surprise those who imagine the party as a mass, working class, political movement.

What Bale, Poletti and Webb also show, in a really thoughtful way, is why people join political parties. Motivations to join comprises purposive incentives, material incentives and solidarity incentives. As I understand it, a person may choose to join a political party for ideological reasons, for a sense of belonging and/or a belief that, either they will benefit from their membership, or from their chosen political party running the country.

The authors also go a long way to reason the recent revival of membership which had, until recently, gone through a significant decline. As Footsoldiers explains, this trend can be put down to members thinking that they would have greater democratic say over decision-making and over the leadership, by selecting a new leader, for instance.

I’ve always thought that the surviving political parties are stuck in the Dark Ages. They operate like enormous, 1970s’ main-frame computers, whilst most people have moved to the individuality of mobile phones and apps.

Although central to joining will be ideological reasons, too often parties let their members down by not providing value for money, in terms of their membership, and by a lack of opportunity to make real decisions, such as the selection of parliamentary candidates, in debates at party conferences or in voting for the party’s executive boards. Only two-fifths of members feel that their membership has lived up to their expectations and one-third would like more say over the democratic processes.

If parties are to be brought into the twenty-first century and retain their membership (and there is an important chapter on why members quit), not only should their supporters be involved at every level of decision-making, in every reach of the party, but so, too, should they receive beneficial services to ensure that their investment is worthwhile.

Political parties could be, in essence, like a modern trade union. So, if, for example, a person were to join the Conservative Party, first, they would have meaningful votes at Party Conference; second, they would have a say in the selection of senior representatives on the party board; but, third, like a trade union, they would receive significant returns and benefits.

Party membership could offer discounts on the cost of living. For example, members could be looked after with personal insurance schemes should they need them. Why not automatically give every new Conservative Party member a “fuel card” upon enrolment, to give them a helping hand with petrol prices? Or, how about granting every new young Conservative a free bus or train pass, entitling them to discounted travel for one year?

This is very different to offering someone a “Nandos”-type loyalty card which anyone can get for a variety of retail and food outlets. We need to take substantive action to ensure that people really feel they are making an ideological difference, that their opinions matter and help shape policy, whilst offering services that make a material difference to their lives.

Footsoldiers also touches on the issue as to why members leave. Often, the party’s administration is so poor that a significant amount of memberships (one in seven of leavers) simply lapse, as members forget to renew. An important point is made that this is entirely solvable, were political parties to spend as much money on the recruitment and retention of members, as they currently do on investment into the “air war” and research.

Herein lies the problem; in recent times, members are all too often seen as the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself. If political parties are to survive and flourish, this outlook has to change; and a first step on that path would be to understand what is really going on with party membership, and to read this book.

Neil O’Brien: Tomorrow’s Covid vote. We must stick to the plan – and stick together.

30 Nov

Neil O’Brien is co-Chair of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

I can’t believe they’ve gone. One, a local businessman. Not much older than me. Full of plans, things to do, a business to build. The other, a party supporter. Retired, but larger than life, and full of fun. Coronavirus got them both before their time. There were tens of thousands like them this year.

Tomorrow night, we face a choice about how we handle the final months of this pandemic. We still have a lot of winter and spring to get through until mass vaccination, the time when the NHS comes under most strain. And we must avoid a third set of national restrictions.

If we start from rules strong enough to keep driving down transmission of the virus, we can relax later. In contrast, going in the other direction will test the patience of voters.

Nor do we want to grind along with infection rates stable but not falling. We want infections coming down decisively, so we can loosen up. With the vaccine so close, people dying unnecessarily in the final months of the pandemic would be tragic.

And though polls show strong support for the measures we’ve taken, it would be much better to head towards the finishing line with good news about infections and restrictions falling.

Every MP wants to make sure restrictions in their area are as limited as possible. As infections fall, we’ll have regular reviews. But overall, we have to stick together, and stick to the plan. With Labour and the SNP not voting against, the new Government’s new regulations will pass. But we should remember the electorate brutally punishes divided parties.

Of course, there are a lot of legitimate debates about policy. Some ask whether restrictions do more harm than good. It’s a reasonable question, but I think sometimes the arguments are put back to front.

For example, during the second wave here in Leicestershire, the numbers hospitalised shot up, rising above the level we saw in the spring peak.

But after the national restrictions came in, the infection rate turned round, and started falling. Hospitalisation rates turned round too. That meant that while non-urgent procedures were postponed, the measures we took came just in time to allow life-and-death services like cancer treatment to keep running throughout.

If we’d waited or done nothing, those services would have been forced to shut. Restrictions saved not just coronavirus deaths, but other patients too.

It’s wrong to assume current restrictions are having the same effects as the emergency measures in spring. And some claims are wrong: it’s said suicides have shot up, but the best data suggests that’s not true.

People ask what the economic cost is of restrictive measures. The difficulty here is knowing what the counterfactual should be. For example, if we’d let the virus rip in spring, pretty much all MPs acknowledge that the NHS would have been overwhelmed.

With TV news showing people dying in hospital car parks across the land, how many people would still have been heading down to the pub? Or out to work? Any estimate is guesswork.

We can see that countries like Sweden which went for looser policies had a bigger hit to their economy than their neighbours, as well as much worse health outcomes. So it isn’t obvious that there has been a trade off between the economy and controlling the virus.

Sweden has had ten times the death rate of their Scandinavian neighbours, with a dramatic second wave and 397 Covid deaths in the past nine days. “Sweden’s strategy has proven to be a dramatic failure,” says Lena Einhorn, a Swedish virologist. The country’s Prime Minister recently made a rare televised address, and has been forced to introduced a “rule of eight” on gatherings plus locally tiered restrictions.

And Sweden is far less densely populated than the UK, with more people living alone than any other country, two massive advantages. So what has proved merely disastrous in Sweden, was arguably never even really an option for us. So what’s the counterfactual?

Some arguments are over. Media pundits pushed the idea that we had hit “herd immunity”, and that rising cases were just “false positives”.  They’re still peddling these ideas, but we can now see how badly they got it wrong.

In June Toby Young wrote: “there will be no second spike – not now, and not in the autumn”. He claimed 91 per cent of cases were “false positives”: claims repeated by some MPs. In reality, according to the Office for National Statistics, true number is microscopic.

Alistair Haimes, a Covid-sceptic, wrote in August that “it’s over”; and in September that there was “no second wave.”

Leading Covid-sceptic Michael Yeadon wrote that thanks to “prior imminuty”: “the pandemic is effectively over.”

Sunetra Gupta, a lead author of the “Great Barrington Declaration”, promised in May that “the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country” … “due to the build-up of immunity”.

In August, Karol Sikora, another Great Barrington leader, said “The gloom and doomsters are predicting another wave of it. Where’s that going to come from? I just don’t believe it.”

With over 2,800 now dying a week with the virus, we can see these rosy theories were catastrophically wrong. Other myths pushed by the media include the idea that flu has “disappeared”, or that Coronavirus is just displacing it. That’s simply not true.

Others say the victims are “dying with” the virus, not “dying of” the virus. But the Office for National Statistics looked at the data, based on doctors’ assessments, and found: “of 50,335 deaths between 1 March and 30 June… 46,736 had Covid-19 assigned as the underlying cause of death.” That’s 93 per cent.

The argument I most dislike is that the victims of the virus were all old or would have died anyway. It’s true older people are more at risk. True that many people who died had other conditions. But a study by academics at the University of Glasgow suggested people typically had over a decade to live based on their age and prior conditions.

A decade is worth a lot. For my parents, the last decade involved the wedding of one son; the birth of two grandchildren; two others becoming young men; adventures exploring Europe and hiking with my sister; learning French and how to drive a canal boat; amazing summer flowers in their little garden; charity work, friends – and being here for everyone who loves them; like my daughter (four).

An angry man emailed the other day to say I was obsessed with “saving granny”. Well, I want to live in a culture where we value older people, not belittle their worth or regard them as an inconvenience. A culture that would kick the old and ill into touch on grounds of efficiency would be a profoundly ill culture.

We’re close to the end of this thing now. Let’s not fall near the finish line. No-one wanted to have to bring in these tiered restrictions. But they are more tailored than countries like France, where all restaurants everywhere are shut till next year, and all bars are shut with no date to reopen.

Yes, we must keep supporting those for whom this year has meant hardship. But there’s been more than seventy thousand excess deaths linked to the coronavirus here since mid-March. If you read out all those people’s names one after another, it would take you more than four months.

We have to see the bigger picture. We have to finish the job, and beat this killer virus.

Anand Menon and Matt Bevington: Will Johnson really be able to level up?

30 Nov

Professor Anand Menon is Director of UK in a Changing Europe, and Matt Bevington is Public Policy Analyst, UK in a Changing Europe.

The best laid plans of mice and men. Less than a year after his decisive election victory, already thrown off course by the pandemic, the Prime Minister has had to hit the reset button. His Chief Adviser is out of the door, and Red Wall Conservative MPs are worried that the government’s flagship domestic agenda – levelling up – might be on the way out too.

When he announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson declared”: “if we are to unite our country and unite our society, then we must fight now, for those who feel left behind.” Subsequently, levelling up has become a central rhetorical theme of his Government. But can it deliver concrete results by the time of the next election? And if not, will there be a political price to pay for unmet expectations?

Levelling up is a compelling phrase, but its meaning is at best fuzzy. In his first speech as Prime Minister, Johnson referred to levelling up wages, productivity, investment and opportunity. He also pledged to answer “the plea of the forgotten people and the left behind towns”. But can all this really be addressed in a single Parliament, let alone one knocked off course by Covid-19?

number of studies make the point that the UK is among the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons that levelling up is a job that will take years or even decades.

Moreover, any plans to reroute substantial amounts of Government money have been thrown up in the air by the Coronavirus. The Spending Review was delayed, and the sheer scale of public debt will act as a break on any government largesse. Meanwhile, new infrastructure projects, which would take years to complete anyway, have yet to be announced.

Then there is a new problem created by Covid: unemployment. This too will affect regional inequalities. According to the IFSLondoners are the most likely to be able to do their jobs from home and therefore face least disruption. The Government doesn’t just need to address unemployment, but try to mitigate its uneven geographical impacts.

And let’s not forget the challenge that, pre-Covid, was the most vexing to the British economy: productivity. Differences in productivity across the UK are at the heart of geographical disparities. It is a complex and difficult question for which there needs to be a Government-wide strategy. Any lasting effort to level up the country has to major on it.

Finally, there is the ongoing impact of austerity. Many of the places identified in the government’s Towns Fund were those worst affected by austerity. Places like Oldham and Rochdale – already some of the most deprived local authorities in the country – saw government spending cuts of 30-40 per cent between 2010 and 2017.

So the task is herculean from the start. And we haven’t yet mentioned the elephant in the room: Brexit. With or without a deal, the economic impact of leaving the European Union will be substantial, and forecasts suggest it will be greatest in precisely those parts of the country most in need of ‘levelling up’.

Thiemo Fetzer, for instance, has found that the costs of Brexit are likely to be more concentrated in local authority areas that have relatively low educational attainment – in other words, that it will exacerbate existing inequalities.

Despite all this, levelling-up as a political project may not necessarily be doomed to failure. For one thing, we should not underestimate the importance of political attention. A Government that appears committed to addressing regional inequality sends a powerful message.

As Deborah Mattinson has found from her work in the Red Wall seats, many voters felt they had been both left behind and taken for granted under successive Labour governments. It may be that the simple fact of having a government that talks about prioritising their concerns makes a difference.

That said, the Government has hardly made a positive start. Its handling of the pandemic has led to accusations that it is one rule for the South and another for the North. Large parts of the north of England were asked to lockdown when Covid raged in the south in the spring, but not vice versa in the autumn.

Perhaps more damaging was the tussle with Andy Burnham. The Government refused an additional £5 million for businesses in his patch, and then made the scheme instantly more generous when London moved into Level Two. And when the whole country locked down, the cherries aligned and the Treasury one-armed bandit spewed out cash.

Be this as it may, there are signs that this might change. The Blue Collar Conservatives and Northern Research Group have given a new public face to the levelling up agenda. And the Conservatives have announced plans to open a second, northern headquarters, in Leeds. The aim, as with their continuing talk of the Northern Powerhouse, is to send a clear signal that the they are there to stay.

Moreover our research with low-income voters in some of these areas revealed that many are not expecting miracles. They simply want better local services. The issues they identify are often pretty basic: reliable bin collections, well-maintained green spaces, and litter-free town centres.

Reversing some of the hollowing out of local government due to austerity would go a long way to addressing these issues, and might well be much more effective (and far less expensive) than large infrastructure projects.

In order to genuinely address the problems besetting those areas in desperate need of a new economic settlement, the government urgently needs to put more flesh on the bones of its levelling up agenda. And for levelling up to be really effective, successive governments must commit to achieving it. But to win the political battle, it may be enough – just – for Johnson to show that he has listened and started to act.

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.