John O’Connell: To ensure efficient government spending, we need a new Parliamentary Budget Committee

24 Nov

John O’Connell is the Chief Executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Although the Comprehensive Spending Review will only set out plans for one year, rather than three, it’s still an important moment for the Government. It was of course elected on a Conservative manifesto pledging to spend more money, so no one should be surprised by a big overall boost on Wednesday. All eyes will be on exactly what the Chancellor spends more money on, and where the benefits will accrue.

While there will be a deluge of important data, it will be quite difficult for taxpayers to gauge whether the relationship between spending and outcomes is as efficient as it could be. In one sense, that seems like an unfair barb – after all, spending data is pretty transparent these days. But one thing is missing: government spending plans are not robustly scrutinised for economy and efficiency. That’s why the TaxPayers’ Alliance supports the creation of a new Parliamentary Budget Committee. Parliament could and should play a greater role in focusing government attention on efficient spending.

The detailed reports of the OBR allow taxpayers to assess the big picture. The Treasury Select Committee also does admirable work scrutinising public sector spending in terms of fiscal aggregates. So for example, it may flag up the dire long-term spending implications of continued low productivity growth in the NHS, but it does not scrutinise the causes, or compare performance with alternative healthcare models. It has neither the mandate nor the expertise to conduct such scrutiny. Departmental select committees are preoccupied. The fantastic Public Accounts Committee only looks at spending after it happens, not before.

Far better than stretching the remits and resources of these bodies, we should instead accept the central recommendations of the Leigh-Pugh report and implement a dedicated committee focused on scrutinising the economy, effectiveness and efficiency aspects of future spending plans. Australia and New Zealand already have similar models to examine and take lessons from.

There is always a difficulty in measuring the value of public service outputs provided free at the point of use. But much work has already been done both within Whitehall and outside (for example the Office for National Statistics’ work on public sector productivity). And the committee’s key purpose would be less about coming up with a definitive single measure of overall efficiency, than focussing departmental attention on improving efficiency as part of the routine planning and budgeting process – with a long-term view, in place whoever is in government.

Getting maximum value for every pound of taxpayers’ money is always important, in and of itself. But the imperative is perhaps even greater now. Even before Covid, the pressure on public spending was intensifying. An ageing population meant that spending forecasts were already gloomy. The 2017 Fiscal Sustainability Report from the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that spending on healthcare would be £88 billion higher, in real terms, by 2066. The same report found that annual spending on the state pension would be 6.9 per cent of GDP by 2070.

Add to that the Conservatives’ manifesto pledges, such as 50,000 more nurses, maintenance of the pension triple lock and 250,000 extra childcare places, which will not come cheap. Then, pile on the enormous sums of money spent in response to the pandemic – the latest OBR estimate is that spending decisions will amount to almost £180 billion. It’s not hard to conclude that we face a serious fiscal crunch.

There is also a dangerous narrative developing, at least in Westminster and media circles. The culture of Covid seems to dictate that enormous sums of money are actually just “rounding errors”.

Well, as for these rounding errors, it was recently reported that the Government may reduce foreign aid spending such that it is 0.5 per cent of national income, down from 0.7 per cent. In pounds and pence, that is a saving of £4 billion. It was called a rounding error by some – but £4 billion is close to the equivalent of a 1p increase or decrease in the basic rate of tax; it is more than a quarter of the police budget; it’s 10 per cent of the tax hikes that the Resolution Foundation seems to have convinced the Government we must have

In other words, it’s a lot of money. What’s more, the logic suggests that we approve every single pet project or scheme that gets enough retweets – what does it matter, they’re all rounding errors.

We know Rishi Sunak is going to spend more money, Covid or no Covid. But for the long-term health of the public finances, our system must ensure that we work to get value for every single pound before it is spent. A Parliamentary Budget Committee can help root out waste before it happens.

The Prime Minister’s full text. ‘Scientific breakthroughs will ultimately make these restrictions obsolete’.

23 Nov

Mr Speaker, thank you very much and with your permission, I will make a statement on the Government’s Covid Winter Plan.

For the first time since this wretched virus took hold, we can see a route out of the pandemic.

The breakthroughs in treatment, in testing and vaccines mean that the scientific cavalry is now in sight and we know in our hearts that next year we will succeed.

By the Spring, these advances should reduce the need for the restrictions we have endured in 2020 and make the whole concept of a Covid lockdown redundant.

When that moment comes, it will have been made possible by the sacrifices of millions of people across the United Kingdom.

I am acutely conscious that no other peacetime Prime Minister has asked so much of the British people and just as our country has risen to every previous trial, so it has responded this time, and I am deeply grateful.

But the hard truth, Mr Speaker, is that we are not there yet.

First we must get through Winter without the virus spreading out of control and squandering our hard-won gains, at exactly the time when the burden on the NHS is always greatest.

Our Winter Plan is designed to carry us safely to Spring.

In recent weeks, families and businesses in England have, once again, steadfastly observed nationwide restrictions and they have managed to slow the growth of new cases and ease the worst pressures on our NHS.

I can therefore confirm that national restrictions in England will end on 2nd December, and they will not be renewed.

From next Wednesday people will be able to leave their home for any purpose, and meet others in outdoor public spaces, subject to the Rule of Six.

Collective worship, weddings and outdoor sports can resume, and shops, personal care, gyms and the wider leisure sector can reopen.

But without sensible precautions, we would risk the virus escalating into a Winter or New Year surge.

The incidence of the disease is, alas, still widespread in many areas, so we are not going to replace national measures with a free for all, the status quo ante Covid.

We are going to go back instead to a regional tiered approach, applying the toughest measures where Covid is most prevalent.

And while the previous local tiers did cut the R number, they were not quite enough to reduce it below 1, so the scientific advice, I am afraid, is that as we come out is that our tiers need to be made tougher.

In particular, in tier 1 people should work from home wherever possible.

In tier 2, alcohol may only be served in hospitality settings as part of a substantial meal.

In tier 3, indoor entertainment, hotels and other accommodation will have to close, along with all forms of hospitality, except for delivery and takeaways.

And I am very sorry obviously for the unavoidable hardship that this will cause to business owners who have already endured so much disruption this year.

Mr Speaker, unlike the previous arrangements, tiers will now be a uniform set of rules.

That’s to say we won’t have negotiations on additional measures with each region, it’s a uniform set of rules.

We have learnt from experience that there are some things we can do differently.

So from the 10pm closing time for hospitality we’re going to change that to so that it is last orders at 10 with closing at 11.

In tiers 1 and 2, spectator sports and business events will be free to resume inside and outside – with capacity limits and social distancing – providing more consistency with indoor performances in theatres and concert halls.

We will also strengthen the enforcement ability of Local Authorities, including specially trained officers and new powers to close down premises that pose a risk to public health.

Later this week we will announce which areas will fall into which tier, I hope on Thursday, based on analysis of cases in all age groups, especially the over 60s, also looking at the rate by which cases are rising or falling, the percentage of those tested in a local population who have Covid, and the current and projected pressures on the NHS.

I am sorry to say we expect that more regions will fall – at least temporarily – into higher levels than before, but by using these tougher tiers and by using rapid turnaround tests on an ever greater scale to drive R below 1 and keep it there, it should be possible for areas to move down the tiering scale to lower levels of restrictions.

By maintaining the pressure on the virus, we can also enable people to see more of their family and friends over Christmas.

Mr Speaker, I can’t say that Christmas will be normal this year, but in a period of adversity, time spent with loved ones is even more precious for people of all faiths and none.

We all want some kind of Christmas, we need it, we certainly feel we deserve it.

But what we don’t want is to throw caution to the winds and allow the virus to flare up again, forcing us all back into lockdown in January.

So to allow families to come together, while minimising the risk, we are working with the Devolved Administrations on a special, time-limited Christmas dispensation, embracing the whole of the United Kingdom, and reflecting the ties of kinship across our islands.

But this virus is obviously not going to grant us a Christmas truce, it doesn’t know it’s Christmas, Mr Speaker, and families will need to make a careful judgement about the risk of visiting elderly relatives.

We will be publishing guidance for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable on how to manage the risks in each tier, as well as over Christmas.

As we work to suppress the virus with these local tiers, two scientific breakthroughs will ultimately make these restrictions obsolete.

As soon as a vaccine is approved, we will dispense it as quickly as possible.

But given that this cannot be done immediately, we will simultaneously use rapid turnaround testing, the lateral flow testing that gives results within 30 minutes, to identify those without symptoms so they can isolate and avoid transmission.

We are beginning to deploy these tests in our NHS and in care homes in England, so people will once again be able to hug and hold hands with loved ones, instead of waving at them through a window.

By the end of the year, this will allow every care home resident to have two visitors, who can be tested twice a week.

Care workers looking after people in their own homes will be offered weekly tests from today.

And from next month, weekly tests will also be available to staff in prisons, food manufacturing, and those delivering and administering Covid vaccines.

We are also using testing as the House knows to help schools and universities stay open, and testing will enable students to know they can go home safely for Christmas and indeed back from home to university.

But there is another way of using these rapid tests, and that is to follow the example of Liverpool, where in the last two and a half weeks over 200,000 people have taken part in community testing, contributing to a very substantial fall in infections.

So together with NHS Test and Trace and our fantastic Armed Forces, we will now launch a major community testing programme, offering all local authorities in tier 3 areas in England a six week surge of testing.

The system is untried and there are of course many unknowns, but if it works, we should be able to offer those who test negative the prospect of fewer restrictions, for example, meeting up in certain places with others who have also tested negative.

And those towns and regions which engage in community testing will have a much greater chance of easing the rules, the tiering, that they currently endure.

Mr Speaker, we will also use daily testing to ease another restriction that has impinged on many lives.

We will seek to end automatic isolation for close contacts of those found positive.

Beginning in Liverpool later this week, contacts who are tested every day for a week will only need to isolate if they themselves test positive.

If successful, this approach will be extended across the health system next month, and to the whole of England from January.

And, of course, we are working with the Devolved Administrations to ensure that Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland also benefit as they should and will from these advances in rapid testing.

But clearly the most hopeful advance of all is how vaccines are now edging ever closer to liberating us from the virus, demonstrating emphatically that this is not a pandemic without end.

We can take heart from today’s news, which has the makings of a wonderful British scientific achievement.

The vaccine developed with astonishing speed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca is now one of three capable of delivering a period of immunity.

We don’t yet know when any will be ready and licensed, but we have ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, and over 350 million in total, more than enough for everyone in the UK, the Crown Dependencies and the Overseas Territories.

And the NHS is preparing a nationwide immunisation programme, ready next month, the like of which we have never witnessed.

Mr Speaker, 2020 has been in many ways a tragic year when so many have lost loved ones and faced financial ruin.

This will be still a hard Winter, Christmas cannot be normal, and there is a long road to Spring.

But we have turned a corner: and the escape route is in sight.

We must hold out against the virus until testing and vaccines come to our rescue and reduce the need for restrictions.

Everyone can help speed up the arrival of that moment by continuing to follow the rules, getting tested and self-isolating when instructed, remembering hands, face and space, and pulling together for one final push to the Spring, when we have every reason to hope and believe that the achievements of our scientists will finally lift the shadow of the virus.

Mr Speaker, I commend this Statement to the House.

Garvan Walshe: Gloomy Sturgeon projects competence. The Government doesn’t – and the Union may be the price it pays.

19 Nov

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

The Prime Minister’s reset has had immediate effects on Scotland. Out with “devolution is a disaster”, in with a “Union task force” (£). And in the Financial Times to boot, no longer boycotted by the No 10 media operation, but graced by a Prime Ministerial op-ed.

Details about the task force, which is to include English, Welsh and Scottish Tory MPs, are scarce. As the party with no Northern Irish MPs, it would be wise to add a Northern Irish peer, and David Trimble is an obvious candidate. Its mission to make the emotional and cultural case for the Union is welcome. Merely pointing to the fiscal benefits of Scottish membership of the Union is too easily spun as “we pay for you, so shut up” (a problem that scuppered Arthur Balfour’s unsuccessful “killing home rule with kindness” in relation to Ireland at the turn of the century).

The Scottish experience in the Union in the 100 years before the independence push has been a good deal better than the Irish (it’s only a decade since the last Scottish Prime Minister), but that hasn’t stopped the SNP dominating Scottish politics as Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond dominated the Irish scene.

Unlike Redmond and Parnell, the SNP doesn’t hold the balance of power at Westminster, but it has, because of the devolution, a platform to show how it would govern an independent Scotland.

Though it might irk unionists, who can point at failures in education, a self-inflicted wound over trans self-ID, the grubby mess involving Alex Salmond’s trial, and cruelty of anti-Covid measures applied to Scottish students, it’s a platform the SNP has made good use of.

It took maximum advantage of two events — Brexit and the Covid pandemic — to switch the balance of risk away from independence and convince Scots that leaving the Union had become the safer option. Brexit moved public opinion to give independence a slight edge. Covid has turned that slender lead into a solid advantage of around ten points.

The effect of Brexit will not be possible to address in the short term. There’s simply a difference of belief between the Government, which was elected to get Brexit done, after all, and Scottish public opinion, which is strongly against it, but safety and predictability are things the Government should, in principle, be able to get a handle on.

Number 10 has come in for heavy criticism for its management of the pandemic, which, however true it may be in an absolute sense, feels distinctly unfair when compared to Scotland.

England’s record has not been particularly good, but then neither has that of France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, the United States, or most pointedly Scotland. All have had high death rates, found their test and trace systems overwhelmed, and struggled to gain acceptance for public health restrictions. These serious problems are common to almost all Western countries. An independent Scotland is just as likely to suffer from them.

What the SNP has been able to do has been to communicate stability (something that comes more naturally to Sturgeon than the bombastic Salmond). Unlike the Government in London, which has veered between seriousness and hope, Sturgeon has been consistently sober and gloomy. She has avoided overpromising on test and trace, and did not convert useful rapid antigen testing into a grossly over-the-top operation moonshot. This has allowed her to be perceived as far more competent despite having the same Western Standard Average performance in managing the disease.

There is, however, a useful lesson to be drawn from this. Projecting competence does not require achieving excellence. The public will react positively to a government that provides a realistic assessment of the difficulties faced. They understand that governing a country isn’t like pitching for investment in a start up, and would prefer a tolerably realistic assessment of the difficulties ahead then to endure an emotional rollercoaster of hopes raised only to be dashed.

This is not to rule out inspiration as a part of political rhetoric, but it is best for mobilising support for very long-term struggles, like the fight against climate change.

Scots go to the polls next May, and whether the SNP can get an overall majority at Holyrood will be a key test of their movement. Douglas Ross has an uphill battle to stop them, but reset towards realism from the Government could just convince wavering Scots that it’s safe to stay in.

The proposed foreign aid cut. Many Tories are against it. But Sunak has limited options as he tries to salvage the economy.

18 Nov

Given the Coronavirus crisis is estimated to have cost the UK £210 billion and counting, the Government is under enormous pressure to explain how it will pay its debt back. One of the ways Rishi Sunak is reportedly planning to do this is by cutting foreign aid, which he is expected to announce in a spending review next week.

Currently, the UK spends 0.7 per cent of gross national income on foreign aid, a target that is recommended by the United Nations and was written into law when David Cameron was in office. But the Chancellor apparently wants to bring this down to 0.5 per cent. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said of the idea: “we are looking at how the aid budget is spent, ensuring it serves the UK’s priorities and represents value for money. It is legitimate to consider where savings can be made when the public finances are under huge strain.” 

Several prominent Conservatives have opposed the move. Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee, said: “The damage would be we are retreating from the global stage at the very time when we should be doing exactly the opposite.” Jeremy Hunt and Bob Neill are also against it, as is Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, apparently, who previously dismissed reports it would be cut as “tittle tattle”. Cameron’s disapproval has been made known in several newspapers.

One concern is that a reduction would harm international relations. Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, said: “It would be an extraordinary decision at the very point at which Britain is about to take over the chairmanship of the G7, with a new administration in the White House which will strongly champion the international system”, and Anthony Mangnall, the Tory MP for Totnes, echoed these concerns.

Others point out the moral case for keeping foreign aid as it is, given that the pandemic is when the world’s poorest people need help the most. Even before the cut was suggested, the Government was due to spend less than its anticipated £15.8 billion this year, due to a contraction in the economy. When Conservatives have spent tremendous sums on the flawed contact tracing app, PPE, and other Covid projects, some might call foreign aid a drop in the ocean.

And yet, others will say the cut is necessary at a time of intense national need. Given the Conservatives won last year’s election with a manifesto based on “levelling up” the UK, by way of domestic investment and infrastructure, the Government no doubt believes voters want this to be reflected when the Chancellor plans the economic recovery.

If there is a cut to 0.5 per cent, it’s also worth remembering that the UK will still be one of the biggest global contributors to foreign aid. In 2019 and 2018, it was one of only five countries to hit the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid target (level with Denmark, but below Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden), and there’s an argument that other countries need to increase their spending. New Zealand, Canada, Japan and the USA have not reached 0.5 per cent, never mind 0.7 per cent. 

Furthermore, it is understood that Boris Johnson wants this to be a time-limited measure, with a return to 0.7 per cent. In the interim, the UK can make a sizeable difference is by helping to facilitate the global supply of vaccines.

Either way, this is just the beginning of Sunak having to make some incredibly unpopular decisions about how to salvage the economy. Having become one of the most popular politicians in a staggeringly short period of time, he is now going to deliver policies that illicit completely the opposite response to Eat Out to Help Out. There is no painless way out of this. The next few months are going to be testing for the Chancellor to say the least.

The proposed foreign aid cut. Many Tories are against it. But Sunak has limited options as he tries to salvage the economy.

18 Nov

Given the Coronavirus crisis is estimated to have cost the UK £210 billion and counting, the Government is under enormous pressure to explain how it will pay its debt back. One of the ways Rishi Sunak is reportedly planning to do this is by cutting foreign aid, which he is expected to announce in a spending review next week.

Currently, the UK spends 0.7 per cent of gross national income on foreign aid, a target that is recommended by the United Nations and was written into law when David Cameron was in office. But the Chancellor apparently wants to bring this down to 0.5 per cent. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said of the idea: “we are looking at how the aid budget is spent, ensuring it serves the UK’s priorities and represents value for money. It is legitimate to consider where savings can be made when the public finances are under huge strain.” 

Several prominent Conservatives have opposed the move. Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee, said: “The damage would be we are retreating from the global stage at the very time when we should be doing exactly the opposite.” Jeremy Hunt and Bob Neill are also against it, as is Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, apparently, who previously dismissed reports it would be cut as “tittle tattle”. Cameron’s disapproval has been made known in several newspapers.

One concern is that a reduction would harm international relations. Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, said: “It would be an extraordinary decision at the very point at which Britain is about to take over the chairmanship of the G7, with a new administration in the White House which will strongly champion the international system”, and Anthony Mangnall, the Tory MP for Totnes, echoed these concerns.

Others point out the moral case for keeping foreign aid as it is, given that the pandemic is when the world’s poorest people need help the most. Even before the cut was suggested, the Government was due to spend less than its anticipated £15.8 billion this year, due to a contraction in the economy. When Conservatives have spent tremendous sums on the flawed contact tracing app, PPE, and other Covid projects, some might call foreign aid a drop in the ocean.

And yet, others will say the cut is necessary at a time of intense national need. Given the Conservatives won last year’s election with a manifesto based on “levelling up” the UK, by way of domestic investment and infrastructure, the Government no doubt believes voters want this to be reflected when the Chancellor plans the economic recovery.

If there is a cut to 0.5 per cent, it’s also worth remembering that the UK will still be one of the biggest global contributors to foreign aid. In 2019 and 2018, it was one of only five countries to hit the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid target (level with Denmark, but below Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden), and there’s an argument that other countries need to increase their spending. New Zealand, Canada, Japan and the USA have not reached 0.5 per cent, never mind 0.7 per cent. 

Furthermore, it is understood that Boris Johnson wants this to be a time-limited measure, with a return to 0.7 per cent. In the interim, the UK can make a sizeable difference is by helping to facilitate the global supply of vaccines.

Either way, this is just the beginning of Sunak having to make some incredibly unpopular decisions about how to salvage the economy. Having become one of the most popular politicians in a staggeringly short period of time, he is now going to deliver policies that illicit completely the opposite response to Eat Out to Help Out. There is no painless way out of this. The next few months are going to be testing for the Chancellor to say the least.

The Government is up against the clock to justify its next set of restrictions – as the Covid Recovery Group grows

17 Nov

Will they or won’t they? Is the question being asked of MPs in regards to whether they will extend the current lockdown restrictions in England. Although these measures are due to expire on December 2, at yesterday’s press conference, Matt Hancock told the nation that it was “too early to know” if they had worked.

The Government’s post-lockdown plan is to return to the tiered system of lockdown. But even that could shift. At the same press conference as Hancock, Susan Hopkins of Public Health England, threw a spanner in the works when she said there had been “little effect from Tier 1”, and that the Government might have to “think about strengthening” tiers “to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone.”

Despite some encouraging statistics about the nation’s battle with Covid – intensive care admissions have fallen, and hospitals are running at “normal capacity”, according to Carl Heneghan, a professor director of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University – there are signs the Government will play it safe when it comes to imposing more restrictions.

There was the fact that Rishi Sunak recently expanded the furlough scheme so that it will last until March. More recently, a newspaper printed emails from George Pascoe-Watson, Chairman of Portland Communications, who had been advising Dido Harding and James Bethell on strategy and communications, revealing he had been “been privately advised that tier 2 restrictions will be imposed on London until at least the spring of next year.” 

In short, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to make the following prediction (contingent on hospitalisations being at a manageable level): the Government will phase out the lockdown (thereby keeping its promise and avoiding the difficulties of an extension being approved) but then move parts of the country into Tier 2, 3 or 4 (as has just been imposed on 11 local authorities in Scotland) – with the measures in place until spring. Therefore, many will be left feeling that they are in de facto lockdown. 

One reason the Government might feel emboldened to keep restrictions going is the news of two vaccines, as well as the knowledge that mass testing is being rapidly developed. It’s far easier to ask people to “sit tight” if they know an exit strategy is on its way.

But one group that is going to present a big headache for the Government is the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group (CRG), whose members will vote on the next set of restrictions. The CRG has been steadily growing in numbers, now standing at around 70 members, according to reports. Depending on how much bigger this figure gets, and what restrictions the Government next wants to impose, it may have to increasingly call on Labour to get the voting numbers.

And it’s not only the idea of a national lockdown that the CRG is opposed to. Its members are also sceptical of softer restrictions; or, at least, they want them to be justified. Mark Harper, CRG chairman, has called some of the previous Covid-19 measures “arbitrary”, and the group is unlikely to ease off the pressure because of a vaccine. Steve Baker, its deputy chairman, has said that “we must find a more sustainable way of leading our lives until a vaccine is rolled out”. As far as the CRG is concerned, days, weeks and months are too long in terms of waiting for Pfizer to come to the rescue.

The group’s main demand is that the Government is more transparent with information on the cost of lockdown. It wants a full-cost benefit analysis of restrictions on a regional basis, and for the Government to publish the models that inform policies – so that members of the public can make up their own mind. In short, the CRG is trying to place the burden of proof onto the Government to explain why it’s imposing any restrictions – as opposed to MPs having to argue for them to come off.

As Harper tells me: “When the Government brings forward its proposals for what follows the lockdown, it’s incumbent on it to show that for every restriction it wants to put in place, the good done by the restriction outweighs the harm, both from a health perspective and an economic perspective.”

Given that December 2 is approaching the Christmas period, the pressure will be all the greater for the Government to explain the rationale for each set of restrictions, as even more closures for shops could signal their end. MPs will also be after more information for how the Government’s mass testing programmes are coming along – one of the main ways it can reopen the economy until the vaccine arrives.

Interestingly, the Government could be about to run into difficulties not so disimilar from the ones Angela Merkel has experienced in Germany. Merkel had wanted to tighten Germany’s restrictions, but failed to win the support of the country’s state leaders. Thus she has had to postpone decision making in this regard. In essence, just as the public support for lockdown might be tiring, so is MPs’.

Either way, the next couple of weeks will be interesting to say the least.

Elsewhere:

David Skelton: The Government must not forget that it was working class voters who delivered the 2019 majority

17 Nov

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

Last December, people who wouldn’t even have considered voting for us ten, or even five, years ago put their cross in the Tory box for the first time ever. Constituencies that had been Labour since their formation voted Conservative with remarkable swings. These voters had long been forgotten by the newly gentrified left and, in the aftermath of the referendum, had often become the butt of sneering and snobbery.

Working class voters, who had seen their economic and political priorities ignored by politicians of all parties for decades, saw that their concerns were being at long last listened to. They entrusted us with their votes, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes warily, in the hope not only that their Brexit vote would be implemented at last, but also that, as a government, we would prioritise improving their lives and their communities. We should take that trust that was placed in us very seriously indeed.

A working-class Tory agenda is economically and politically the right direction to take

We should reflect on this trust that was placed in us and the basic political maths as we ponder the excellent question posed by Rachel Wolf on these pages on Saturday. In a nutshell, this question was whether we use the present “reset” to focus on the working class voters who delivered the 2019 majority or shift priorities towards the more affluent in a revival of a politics aimed at middle class metropolitans. For political, economic and moral reasons, the only correct path is to retain our focus on the working class voters who backed us in such numbers last year.

Politically, this new electoral coalition delivered the biggest Conservative majority in over thirty years. Only an electoral coalition centred on winning working class constituencies enabled us to do this and only this coalition would enable us to win another big majority in four years time. So-called “DE” voters backed Labour over the Tories for the first time and we had a 15 per cent lead over Labour amongst “C2” voters.

This allowed us to make some remarkable gains, from my home town of Consett to Andy Burnham’s old seat in Leigh – both symbolic of a “Labourism” that isn’t coming back. Electoral coalitions can’t be turned on and off like a light switch and we must continue the present focus. Maintaining this focus on these working class voters is the only realistic route towards a lasting Conservative majority and an enduring realignment.

We remain the custodians of the trust that was placed in us and we must repay it by delivering the substantial, positive and lasting change that we promised. This kind of change – boosting long-forgotten parts of our imbalanced economy – would also make our economy more productive and the country as a whole more prosperous. When parts of the country are held back from fulfilling their economic potential, that is a problem that impacts everybody. We must redouble our efforts to level up and genuinely create One Nation.

A One-Nation agenda of improved town centres, rising real wages, better jobs and improved infrastructure

In Little Platoons, published last year, I set out how an ambitious agenda of reform could transform long-forgotten towns, through infrastructure spending, transformation of town centres and a policy of reindustrialisation. We have made great strides so far but we now need to go even further and even faster, particularly as both the health and economic impact of Covid-19 risks impacting working class communities in the North more than prosperous communities in the South.

As James Frayne suggested last week, one of the key priorities should be making sure that town centres start to look and feel better over the next few years. Rather than being pockmarked with empty shops, bookies and discount shops, high streets must become symbols of community pride. Town centres should become community hubs – places for people to shop, businesses to set up (rather than in distant out of town business parks) and for families and young people to meet up and come together. Revived town centres should leave as lasting an impression of local and civic pride as the likes of Birmingham City Hall and the majestic Grey Street in Newcastle.

Just as people should see a difference in their town centres by the end of Boris’s first full term in office, they should also see a difference to their pay packets and their local economy. Despite the Covid associated economic hit, there must be a focus on creating economic revival in “Red Wall” areas.

As I made clear here a few weeks ago, our impending freedom from EU regulation will give us greater scope to use industrial strategy to help revive post industrial towns and promote a policy of reindustrialisation, including being leaders in green industry.

This should include aiming to shift the type of jobs that predominate in these towns from low-paid, insecure work to making them a central part of a high-skills, high-productivity, high-wage, tech-driven economy. We should enable local leaders to do whatever it takes, including through the tax system, to encourage industrial investment in their areas.

Part of the case I made in Little Platoons is that a direct government lever for revival is by relocating great swathes of the Civil Service to the North and the Midlands. An impressive report by the Northern Policy Foundation, published this week, shows that such an agenda would put “rocket boosters” under levelling-up and allow local areas to benefit from the agglomeration effect of relocating key arms of government.

We should also be stepping up investment in infrastructure programmes, to ensure that towns as well as cities have world class road, rail and digital infrastructure. We should consider how light rail can make a difference to people in “Red Wall” towns and also mustn’t forget about the importance of high quality, reliable and inexpensive bus services to local people. When even the deficit hawks at the IMF are arguing that now is the time to invest in infrastructure, we should be prepared to show audacity and imagination with big infrastructure projects for the North.

A relentless focus on making change happen

We must have a relentless focus on making this change happen. Levelling up should go through everything we do. Every day, ministers should ask themselves how their decisions are improving the lives of working people and to advance the levelling up agenda. And we should manage and track the levelling up agenda against these key metrics of improved town centres, rising wages, better jobs and improved infrastructure.

This is a One Nation government and levelling up is a definitively One Nation policy. As Damian Green argued as part of this series on Monday, building one nation is a conservative, not a libertarian, project. That means we should be prepared to use the power of the state to tackle regional economic inequalities (the GDP per head in the City of London is 19 times that in County Durham) and restore hope and economic vibrancy to long forgotten places.

We must make it our defining mission to repay the trust that working class voters placed in us and ensure that their lives are better and their towns are better places in which to live. If we do so, the realignment will be a lasting one. Now, more than ever, we must double down on levelling up.

Philippa Stroud: The Legatum Prosperity Index. The UK is in a strong position, but there are the first signs of deterioration.

16 Nov

Baroness Philippa Stroud is CEO of the Legatum Institute.

The UK is facing two major challenges. The ongoing pandemic, and national efforts to contain it, are impacting not just our health but also our jobs, our children’s education, and our relationships with each other and with the state. At the same time, we are approaching the end of the Brexit transition period and will soon be re-defining our place in the world and re-establishing our relationships with other countries outside of the European Union.

There are clear challenges for the UK to overcome, but also opportunities to grasp. The choices we make now will create the foundations and form the character of the nation we will be in the future; we need to decide carefully.

The good news is that the 2020 Legatum Prosperity Index shows the UK is in a strong position to emerge more prosperous from this time. Prior to the pandemic, the UK was the 13th most prosperous country in the world. On average, the British public enjoyed among the best living conditions globally, with access to quality healthcare and world-leading higher education institutions, and our economy was one of the most dynamic and enterprising in the world.

However, the last few years have seen the first signs of the deterioration of our prosperity, showing we must not take it for granted. This is not an irreversible trend, but it is a warning signal.

We must beware the trap of falling into a mindset of an overdeveloped society, vulnerable to entitlement and complacency. If we lose sight of our values and heritage, if we sacrifice innovation, purpose, and meaning out of a desire to avoid change and risk, we will create a window through which the hard-won prosperity of our forebears will evaporate.

The Prosperity Index reminds us of the multi-dimensional nature of true prosperity. Implicit in the Index is the danger of prioritising only one aspect above others, and at a time of crisis shows us what we need to protect.

Prosperous nations build healthy institutions, strong economies, and strong social wellbeing simultaneously. They do not trade freedom or the economy off against health or education.

The pandemic is testing the UK’s institutional, economic, and social resilience. One of the most deeply felt effects has been the change in how we interact with others – family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, and strangers. Over the last 10 years, the strength of personal and family relationships in the UK has deteriorated, and the strength of wider social networks has increased less than in other nations.

In addition, public confidence in national government is among the lowest levels seen across the world. This is not a reflection on any individual administration – levels of public confidence have fluctuated significantly over the last 15 years – but is perhaps a result of the testing times we have been through over the last few years, including the Brexit referendum and a number of general elections and leadership changes.

While our governance systems are still relatively strong, the UK has also experienced a decline in government effectiveness – of the 20 countries currently ranked highest for this, the UK has deteriorated most since 2017. This is deeply worrying, as good governance and decisive and effective leadership will be crucial to guide the UK through the pandemic and create a more prosperous society in the future.

As we go through this moment of change, we need to take a holistic approach to protecting prosperity. We need to protect the public from the harms of Covid, but also from the harms of restrictions. We need to suppress the virus without suppressing our freedoms or the potential for economic growth.

The UK’s current Covid response may be saving lives from the virus itself but it is putting them at risk in a variety of other ways. The cost of lockdown is high, in terms of deaths from cancer, heart disease and other illnesses, mental health challenges, loneliness, reduced economic growth, financial struggles, and educational decline, and it is being paid by the most vulnerable in society.

China was the first country to be impacted by Covid, and its response framed the context for the UK and much of the rest of the world. Its approach was one that moved to restrict the freedoms of its people and lock down its economic engine. Such actions are consistent with China’s ranking of 90th in the Index for governance and 159th for personal freedom but they are not the actions that build prosperity, they are ones that weaken it.

As a democratic nation built on the principles of good governance and personal freedom, the UK needs to be finding ways through this crisis that speak to the power and strength of who we are and the values of our democracy.

This is a time for mature citizenry, a moment for the UK Government to trust its people, and for people to respond by taking responsibility for their actions. Decisions should be made in a transparent way, sharing the evidence and explaining the rationale.

The public needs to be let into the decision-making process as much as possible, through reliable, accurate and timely information. We should be trusted to understand the conflicting demands placed on leaders and to reflect sensibly on the likely consequences of different approaches, not just presented with a few selected indicators.

This moment, as we battle with Covid and the transition period comes to an end, is an opportunity to re-establish a clear, bold vision for the country’s future and its character. For developed nations like the UK there are no well-worn paths for the journey ahead – we need to create them. But the Prosperity Index shows us what we need to protect and develop in order to build well for the future.

We must work together to continue building an inclusive society, with a strong social contract that protects the fundamental liberties and security of every individual. We must innovate together to continue developing an open economy, that harnesses ideas and talent to create sustainable pathways out of poverty. And we must all play our part to continue creating an enabling environment, so the contributions of each person can increase the quality of life and standard of living for everyone.

Although the world has changed, how prosperity is generated and perpetuated in a nation has not. The UK has overcome significant challenges in the past, and by working together and focusing on the core principles that build prosperity, we can be confident that we can do it again.