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.

Maurisa Coleman: We should not allow the Left to claim ownership of Black History Month

20 Oct

Maurisa S. Coleman is a British–Trinidadian entrepreneur, currently working as a Parliamentary researcher. She is also an ambassador for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Today, a debate will take place on Black History Month in the Commons.  Black History Month is dedicated to recognising the contributions by people of African and Caribbean origins to this country. This Parliamentary debate is essential for the recognition of these contributions, and as a reminder that Black History is not limited to slavery.

Despite Labour’s attempts to own the debate, it’s great to see a Conservative MP, Theresa Villiers, co-sponsoring it with MPs from other parties. Theresa called for the inclusion of Black History in the British History curriculum last month.

As an ambassador for the Notting Hill Carnival, this is a topic for which I am a passionate advocate.  I have no doubt the issue of slavery will be raised today. I hope that it can be discussed openly and honestly, without hate and malice.

It is a most difficult thing to do – discuss the sins of our fathers without blaming their descendants. I fear that time and time again, slavery is used, not to cast light and wisdom on the darker experiences of humanity, but to portray black people as perennial victims, and to foster a culture of resentment.

This is incredibly unproductive. With reference to recent events, there is no need to pull down the great British men and women who made this country. None of us are without sin. The focus should be on the achievements that paved the way for our nation as it is today.

I look forward to the day that emancipation from slavery isn’t masqueraded as the highest achievement of Blacks and especially those who originate from the Caribbean. The contribution of both black people and other immigrants into this country is so much broader than that, encompassing soldiering, arts, music and politics.

I hope this debate achieves the following.

First, please can Conservative MPs stop allowing the Left to hijack a debate that is important to all of us? Black history is not an appeasement to ethnic communities, but a critical component of modern British history and experience.

Second, let’s make the argument that lots of histories can live harmoniously on the pages of our books, whether through scholarship about ‘traditional’ history as described through political events, or other histories: military history, Holocaust history, social histories or the history of new Britons who have come here from different parts of the world.

There is no reason why black history cannot be as intrinsically patriotic, rigorous and questioning as other historical disciplines.

Third, let’s embrace ownership of the Windrush saga. Windrush is the starting point for a free group of black people invited to this country. I have seen the Conservative Party take ownership of the serious mistakes against this generation and make movements to rectify past errors. Let’s keep highlighting what we are doing to make it right.

Three actions that Ministers must take if we’re to live without fear. Or else they and we will be lost.

15 Oct

If ConservativeHome is writing about the Coronavirus, we know where to look for Government information.  A mass of guidance and information is available.

But if, on the other hand, we want to find out the number of operations postponed since the original lockdown was announced on March 24; or that of cancer deaths; or that of those brought about by heart disease; or the harm wrought by rising mental health problems, or domestic abuse, or lost schooling, the Government has not compiled the relevant information and statistics for publication in a way that makes these easily available to find and read.

We are better off if we wish to report the number of job losses.  But these are not issued together by the Government with, say, the rise in child and poverty since late March.  There is no one-stop-shop source of official information about the damage to the economy since then – to livelihoods as well as to lives.  As well, as we say, about those other harms to lives.

Now it is true that not all cancer deaths since March 24, say, can fairly be blamed on the long shutdown.  But it isn’t beyond the wit of man to work out the number of deaths since then compared to those of a comparable six month period in a usual year.

It is also the case that some of any figures published would be contestable.  But that’s also true of official Coronavirus estimates.  For example, the task of working out the number of deaths in England has been has been complicated by two major changes in the way they have been calculated (in April and August).

There is an urgent point to this dry analysis.  Today, Boris Johnson is trapped in a pincer movement between Labour, which is arguing for a short national lockdown, and his own party, which inclines to fewer restrictions faster.  He will try to find a compromise – by tightening the conditions in the most repressive of the Government’s new three tiers, and extending these.  That would enable him to toughen up while avoiding an England-wide shutdown.

So the Prime Minister is set gradually to be dragged by Keir Starmer towards that circuit-breaker lockdown in all but name.  And once in it, there will be no quick way out, since the test and trace system isn’t working well enough to quell the rise in cases that would follow the end of the shutdown.  So that wouldn’t happen at all, or at least only do in a curtailed form.  We would be in semi-lockdown semi-permanently – which seems to be SAGE’s real aim.

All in all, we are all being manoeuvered into an annual cycle of near-total winter lockdowns and partially-eased summer ones, until or unless a vaccine is widely available, herd immunity is achieved or the virus abates.

This would risk bankrupting the country.  National debt hit a record £2 trillion in September.  It has reached 100.5 per cent of GDP, the highest level in 60 years.  We cannot be sure that Britain would be able to borrow for the duration at the present rock-bottom rates to grow its way out of trouble.  Even if it could, there is no guarantee that enough growth would come to stave off medium-term spending cuts and tax rises.

These would intensify the damage that this crisis is inflicting on lives as well as livelihoods – the rising toll in cancer deaths and educational harm and mental health problems which we refer to above, and so much more, including more poverty and deprivation.

Which takes us back to those figures.  There is fierce dispute about whether voters are really as supportive of harsher lockdowns as the polls suggest.  But Johnson can scarcely be blamed for not wanting to sail against the prevailing political weather.

In order to steer his way out of it, he will have to change it: changing the weather, after all, is what the best politicians do. In short, the Government must try to widen and deepen the national conversation about the Coronavirus.  That will take a bit of time.

It entails drawing voters’ attention to the wider social and economic damage that living semi-permanently in lockdown would do. Some of the information that would help to do this is already out there.  As Raghib Ali has pointed out on this site, the Department of Health’s own health cost-benefit analysis shows that to date “in the long-term, the health impacts of the two month lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater than those of the direct Covid-19 deaths”.

But Government sources tell ConservativeHome that the Department of Health has been resistant to getting all the healthcare-related facts and figures together in one place.  That’s perhaps not surprising given its focus on the virus.  It’s more surprising that the Treasury hasn’t done a parallel exercise on the economy.

Ultimately, it’s up to Downing Street to make the case, backed up by more information and strategic messaging, against more national lockdowns, with the damage to lives and livelihoods that this would bring.  But the key player in forcing it to change is Rishi Sunak.

If we are truly to live with the virus and “live without fear”, as the Chancellor put it in the Commons recently, we must prepare to shift, in the absence of a track and trace plan that works, to a less restrictive and more voluntarist policy – one based on the balance of risk between the harm that Covid-19 does and the harm that shutdowns do.

And an indispensable part of any push for change is shifting public opinion to support it.  This site has been calling since the spring for the Government to publish its estimate of non-Coronavirus healthcare costs to date; of the costs of lockdown to the economy to date, and of the total cost and total saving of the lockdown (which can be calculated by assigning a value, as government does elsewhere, to each human life in Britain).

Sunak, together with Ministers in other economic departments, such as Alok Sharma at BEIS, needs to push for three actions:

  •  A regular Treasury report that calculates the economic cost of the lockdown.  That’s within his own gift, as it were, and the work could start today.
  • A rolling Department of Health assessment of the human cost of the shutdown.  That will be harder to get.  The Chancellor will need the Prime Minister’s support to extract it.
  • The creation of an economic counterweight to SAGE that considers livelihoods as well as lives, thus ensuring broader advice to the Prime Minister.

Finally, Ministers can’t act as the sole pathfinders for policy.  Intrinsic to Margaret Thatcher’s success during the 1980s was the work of think-tanks and Conservative MPs in preparing the way for change.

There are a mass of Tory backbench groups and wider pressure organisations.  The One Nation Caucus comes to mind for us at once, because Damian Green, its Chair, wrote a perceptive piece for this site yesterday about the choices that the Government now faces.  Perhaps it or the No Turning Back Group – to pick a Parliamentary group a bit different in outlook – could produce a report.

Some of the think tanks are already working in this field.  The Resolution Foundation has done an intergenerational audit.  (See also David Willetts’ recent ConHome piece.)  Policy Exchange has probed the Government’s NHS tracing app.  (Benjamin Barnard wrote about its findings for us here.)  The Institute of Economic Affairs has examined the NHS’ shortcomings; the Centre for Policy Studies has led the way in probing economic costs.

But more work will be needed if public opinion is to move.  In the meantime, Sunak must continue to lead the way.

Starmer knows that a circuit breaker wouldn’t stop the virus – but doesn’t care

14 Oct

If the Government’s test and trace scheme worked seamlessly, a Covid-19 circuit-breaker would make a lot of sense.  A national lockdown would be imposed for a fortnight or so.  After which the hospitality sector could be re-opened; the rule of six dropped, and curbs on weddings, funerals, sporting and cultural events abandoned.

Voluntary action would take the strain of reducing the disease: hand-washing, masks, social distancing. All this could happen because testing, tracking and incarceration would operate to the required standard, with the 80 per cent target for those contacted being hit.

There would still be shutdowns, but they would take place on a much smaller scale – usually on a neighbourhood or even a street basis, because the state’s tracing capacity would be precise enough to enable such targeted action to take place.

But as ConservativeHome pointed out yesterday, the test and trace scheme is nowhere near having that kind of capacity.  If a small website can work this out, then so can the Government’s scientific advisers.  They know that for it to be effective, the circuit-breaker would have to be switched on for the duration, or at least lifted very slowly.

In other words, Keir Starmer has essentially come out for a full national lockdown of uncertain length.  Experience abroad suggests that this would not only bury the economy alive but fail to kill the virus, because the latter would still be lurking when the shutdown was lifted.  This would be the ultimate double whammy.

So a national circuit-breaker is a really bad idea.  In a policy sense, that’s all that needs to be said.  In a political one, it looks shaky, too.  This is both because the elecorate is a lot smarter than some people think, and will see through the Labour’s leader’s game, and because of opposition to the idea within his own party.

Four senior Labour local council leaders – from Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle – have declared themselves against more “economic lockdowns”.  Some local Labour MPs are bound to follow suit.  The Conservative Party is not alone in being divided on how to handle the virus.

Furthermore, striking out in his own direction, rather than swimming in the Government’s slip-stream, exposes Starmer to the risk of getting out of his depth.  The Conservatives will counter-attack, making some of the points that we do above, and adding a few more of their own.

Tory MPs are already busy on Twitter excoriating the Labour leader for backing a circuit-breaker, but not backing an element of one yesterday in the Commons – the ten o’clock rule; for giving his MPs a free vote while also instructing his party to abstain.

So given these downsides, why back a circuit-breaker?  Because Starmer takes a point that this site also made yesterday: that the Government is losing what control of the virus it has left.  He clearly believes that it is worth exposing himself to fire in order to move in for the kill, with polling support for shutdowns as cover.

For either Boris Johnson bows to the pressure for a circuit-breaker, in which case the Labour leader will claim the credit; or he won’t, and Starmer can pull the Prime Minister one way while Conservative rebels push him another – towards fewer lockdowns, not more, and a different strategy.

Forty-two of them voted against the Government yesterday evening on the ten o’clock rule – the biggest backbench revolt to date on a matter directly related to control of the virus.  There will be more where that came from as autumn turns into winter.

The Labour leader is settling down for a war of attrition in Parliament and elsewhere.  It is his boldest throw of the dice since he became Opposition leader, which makes him a more interesting figure – if also a grossly irresponsible one.

Ryan Bourne: Johnson’s green jobs. Subsidy-reliant, expensive, price-raising. And a job loser elsewhere.

14 Oct

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

It is said that, during the 1960s, Milton Friedman was visiting China, where guides took him to a canal-building site. Shocked at the prevalence of men bearing shovels, Friedman asked why the project wasn’t utilising modern technologies, such as mechanical diggers.

“You don’t understand, Professor Friedman,” his host explained, “this is a job creation programme.” To which Friedman retorted, “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If you really want to create jobs, then by all means give your workers spoons, not shovels.”

That tale is beloved by economists because it contains an important truth: gross job creation is a poor metric to judge success when considering government-led infrastructure. We could “create jobs” through getting people to fill in holes.

What matters is the net value added of the output created, as determined in markets – i.e: by consumers and open trade. Using more workers less efficiently to produce a canal reduces the output’s net value, because labour is a cost of production.

This lesson sprang to mind last week during Boris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference. As part of his ode to offshore wind, Johnson talked of the UK’s natural abundance of the stuff (the “Saudi Arabia” of wind) and his excitement at the technology (floating wind islands). But he also extolled the idea of a UK “green industrial revolution” that “in the next ten years will create hundreds of thousands if not millions of jobs.”

Any market-led or government-incentivised shift towards wind will see new jobs in the industry “created.” But this shouldn’t be the goal. To echo Friedman, “we thought you were trying to produce electricity, subject to mitigating climate change. If you wanted to create jobs, why not have people make the wind turbines by hand?” We should judge the desirability of a pro-wind energy policy framework, in other words, by its contribution to this social value added, not numbers employed in the sector.

“Gross job creation in wind and other renewable generation is clearly a cost in economic terms,” Professor Gordon Hughes of Edinburgh explained to me last week. “The higher the number [of jobs], the larger the subsidies required and the larger the damage to the rest of the economy.”

He views this outcome as an unacknowledged problem of wind power generally, which does require labour for operations and maintenance, particularly as turbines age. If we are purely looking at how to produce power most efficiently, then these jobs are a hindrance – an economic failure, not success. According to Hughes, talking of creating “millions of jobs” is a “shortcut to national impoverishment”.

Of course, the desire for climate change mitigation means policymakers reject the premise that we just want our energy sector to simply prize efficiency. Due to the “social costs” of carbon, they aren’t just concerned about traditional measured value added, but are explicitly willing to take an economic hit in targeting a broader conception of economic welfare that takes into account these CO2 externalities.

And that’s fine, in principle. Yet even then, “green jobs” shouldn’t be the aim. An economist would say we should try (albeit imperfectly) to price this social cost, and then let markets find the most efficient way of delivering power accounting for it. What that does not require is industrial strategies, picking winners, and seeing the green energy sector as some sort of jobs machine.

Indeed, simple logic would suggest that making energy less efficiently than socially necessary reduces net jobs across the whole economy because of its impact on energy prices. “Energy is a labour-extensive industry. It does not employ a lot of people” Richard Tol, the renowned climate economist, explains. “If the energy sector would start to employ many more people, retail energy prices would rise rapidly.”

Given every other activity uses power as an input, it surely doesn’t need to be said that “more expensive energy means less growth and so less job creation” elsewhere. Given the sizes of the “energy” and “non-energy” sectors too, “a large relative increase in employment in energy is easily offset by a small relative decrease in employment in the rest of the economy.” An explicit aim to “create jobs” in the wind industry, in other words, would be vastly outweighed by job losses elsewhere.

Note: none of my analysis here is passing judgment on the desirability of decarbonisation. Tol believes that given the energy framework of UK policy, wind power will probably be cheaper than coal or gas through the 2030s. What I am simply saying is that aiming for more employment in wind, rather than merely trying to deliver power cheaply subject to any climate goals, is a deeply economically destructive way of thinking.

So why is the Prime Minister talking of millions of green jobs? Well, unfortunately, many politicians have moved beyond simply wanting to set frameworks for energy or even climate goals, and their green credentials have become wrapped with their becoming re-inured to the idea of national industrial strategies.

Not content with allowing consumers and producers to find the best ways to allocate resources, the Conservative Government increasingly wants to decide which sectors the national economy specialises in, thinking the state will this time do a good job of picking winners. And Boris Johnson’s “Saudi Arabia of wind” suggests that he wants to try to use policy to actively push the UK towards exporting wind power.

Would that work? No, says Tol. “Electricity is much more expensive to transport than oil…Wind power in the UK is cheaper than, say, wind power in Italy – but wind power generated in the UK and transmitted to Italy cannot compete with wind power generated in Italy.” Exporting the end product is a non-starter.

What about manufacturing the parts? “Despite what he [Johnson] says, no one is going to manufacture wind turbines in the UK without massive subsidies – that game is long past,” Hughes concludes. So having the Government tilt the deck further to try to create a wind manufacturing export industry would not only drag resources away from other activities with higher net value added, but make us a hostage to technological fortunes.

As Hughes has previously written: there’s no guarantee technological progress is more likely to come in renewables than fossil fuels or nuclear (see, for example, fracking).

To return to the Friedman analogy: we might accept some more shovel than machine use for canal building, if there were greater environmental costs of using machines, though recognising this makes us poorer. It’s another thing to say that rather than building a canal as efficiently as possible subject to this, the national government should intervene to support canal building or our selling shovels around the world. Yet with his promise of a green revolution, that is precisely what the Prime Minister implies.

Discrimination in the Conservative Party – a call for evidence

10 Oct

The independent investigation into discrimination within the Conservative Party, led by Professor Swaran Preet Singh, has reached its second phrase, in which it is calling for new information. He says:

“We are now calling for further evidence that we may not already have seen to ensure that we are aware, as far as realistically possible, of all evidence relating to alleged discrimination within the Party. We need to determine whether all important evidence of discrimination has been considered in the framework of the Party’s existing complaints process.”

Here’s a link to the call for evidence and a submission form.  The deadline for submissions is a week today, Saturday October 17, at 16.00.  For further information, please contact contact@singhinvestigation.co.uk.

Iain Dale: If Milling isn’t up to being Party Chairman, why was she appointed in the first place?

9 Oct

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

I have to admit that I didn’t watch any of the Conservative virtual conference online. Judging by the number of registrations, it can be deemed a success. Twenty thousand people registered, and there were often more than 6,000 people watching.

I’m told fringe meetings proved more popular than the set-piece cabinet minister speeches (wasn’t it ever thus?) with some events, including those hosted by ConHome) attracting online audiences in four figures.

Given that normal fringe meetings might attract a couple of hundred people at most, this ought to give the conference organisers food for thought for the future. CCHQ told me this week that future conferences would almost certainly be hybrid events, and that’s exactly right. The more people who are able to take part, the better.

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Watching highlights of the US Vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, it almost seemed like normal politics had returned.

For the most part, the debate was conducted with mutual respect, good humour and dignity from both candidates. Yes, there were some interruptions, but that happens in debates. We had none of the abuse, insults and acrimony that characterised the debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a week before.

And it wasn’t just the President who was guilty. We don’t know yet whether the next debate, due to take place in Florida next week, will go ahead. If it does, let’s hope that it’s more edifying than the first one.

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On Tuesday, I deputised for Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph.  I thought long and hard about writing what I did – but it had to be said.

I wrote about the role of the Party Chairman, and how its importance has diminished over the years, and how the present incumbent, Amanda Milling, was performing no useful role, except to travel the country and eat a few rubber chickens

It gave me no pleasure, and in many ways it’s not her fault. She’s performing the role dictated by Number Ten. She has no power to change anything, and scant little influence. Her co-chairman, Ben Elliot, is the one in control and we all know it.

The one role she could perform, but hasn’t got the experience to do, is to get out there on the media and be a lightning rod for the Prime Minister. That’s what Cecil Parkinson did. It’s what Norman Tebbit used to do. It’s what Brian Mawhinney did for John Major. And it’s what Brandon Lewis did for Theresa May.

Amanda Milling went on Any Questions last Friday, and proceeded to read out lines from her briefing notes. It was buttock-clenchingly embarrassing. A programme insider reckoned she was the worst guest they had had on in recent memory.

Again, in many ways, I don’t blame her for that. Everyone tells me that Milling was an excellent Deputy Chief Whip, but we all know that whips don’t do media, and don’t speak in the chamber.

So to appoint someone with little media experience as co-Party Chairman was bizarre to say the least. It did her no favours whatsoever. By all accounts, the Number Ten machine is frustrated by her performance. No shit, Sherlock. Well, they shouldn’t blame her for it, they should apportion the blame to the person who made the appointment.

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I was disappointed but not surprised to see Liam Fox fail to reach the final two in the race to become the next director general of the World Trade Organisation.

The EU was always determined to scupper him, which says far about them than it does about him. He is very well qualified to do the job, which will now be a straight fight between candidates from South Korea and Nigeria. Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, has spoken out and said the whole charade has not been “to the greater glory of the European Union”.

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Just as the Conservative Party has had to put its conference online, so have literary festivals – or at least some of them. I’ve done quite a few on Zoom over the last few months, but appeared in person last Saturday at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, as trailed on this site last week.

The event was organised it very well, ensuring that both speakers and audience were safe. Next Friday ,I’m doing the Bristol Festival of Ideas remotely, but the Wells Festival of Literature in person on the same day.

Then on Sunday October 18, I’m in Twickenham being interviewed on stage by LBC’s Steve Allen, and then on  October 24 in Diss, Norfolk.

On that occasion Brandon Lewis will interview me, which I suspect he’s going to relish, given he tells me I always give him such a hard time when he comes on my show. Ticketing details can be found here.