Sunak opts to suck it and see

25 Nov

We must be thankful that no-one is forecasting that Government borrowing will rise to record levels this year.  Or Rishi Sunak wouldn’t have been in a position to announce that Government spending will rise at its fastest rate for 15 years.

Apologies for the sarcasm – which isn’t aimed at the Chancellor’s measures, but is meant instead to provide an introduction to the thinking behind them.

One response to a ballooning deficit is to cut the rate of growth of spending.  That’s what the Coalition did after 2010, when the deficit hit seven per cent of GDP.

The Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting a peak of 19 per this year.  But Sunak’s response is to raise the rate of spending.  Why?

Because in 2010 George Osborne judged the deficit to be structural (he was right), and his successor judges this one to be exceptional (he’s right, too).

It is almost entirely a product of the pandemic and what has followed.  It is in this context that the OBR forecasts the economy to shrink by 11 per cent this year and unemployment to hit 2.6 million next year.

In these circumstances, the Chancellor has found it impossible to produce the four year spending review he hoped for, and has been forced to issue one for a single year instead.

Furthermore, his statement was only one side of the tax and spending coin. Today, we got the spending.  In the Spring, we will get the Budget – and the tax.

Given all this, it will be very odd if Sunak turns up then with large-scale tax rises to raise revenue quickly.  The foundation of his measures today appears to be: suck it and see.

Broadly speaking, the spending package suggests that the Chancellor is going for growth.  That’s the logic of the infrastructure spending, the coming review of regulation, the new northern bank and the enlarged Restart programme.

The Levelling-Up Fund is a classic Treasury exercise in the English centralist tradition, with its central feature of bids from the provinces to Westminster for money.  So it is in a country with relatively few local taxes.

On that point, Sunak announced “extra flexibility for Council Tax and Adult Social Care precept”.  Local authorities will like that, council taxpayers not so much.

It’s worth stressing that the OBR’s forecasts, like all such animals, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  Our columnist Ryan Bourne debunked its record on this site earlier this week.

If you walk down the sunny side of the street, you will smack your lips at the thought of a Roaring Twenties effect, as employment recovers, consumers spend, the hospitality sector booms and people pile into holidays abroad.

And it may be that post-Covid changes even out for the better, with a shift in activity and spending from city centres to the suburbs and countryside, together with music, art, theatre and all the rest of it.

That might not be such a bad things for towns and their centres, at which the new Levelling Up Fund is partly aimed.  Our columnist James Frayne believes they are a core concern for provincial voters, and government listens to him.

If on the other hand you stick to the shady side, you will point to the economic equivalent of Long Covid: fearsome economic and social bills for damaged mental health, postponed operations, lost educational opportunities.

All that is a big minus for levelling-up – because it’s the disabled, poor and disadvantaged who have been hit hardest by restrictions and lockdowns, especially if they work in the private sector.

The background in recent years is not encouraging.  Since the financial crash exploded, we haven’t grown at more than 2.6 per cent a year.  That suggests recovery may be sticky.

Sunak’s persuasive manner, grip of detail and spare eloquence have served him well during this crisis.  Others holding his post would not have survived roughly ten major finance annoucements in less than a year.

It’s not as though he hasn’t sometimes had to recast his plans – as in October, when he pumped more money into his Job Support Scheme.

And if the economics of his strategy are straightforward enough, its politics was sometimes a bit odd.  If the Government’s overall plan in the short-term is expansionary, why raise the minimum wage but curb public sector pay?

If spending on nearly everything else is rising, why crack down on the 0.7 per cent aid spend?  Doing so because you think aid is wasted or the target is wasteful is one thing.

But that wasn’t the basis of Sunak’s decision – since, after all, he said that the Government intends to return to 0.7 per cent “when the fiscal situation allows”.

The Chancellor also left a big unresolved question hanging in the air.  What will the Government do about the Universal Credit uplift?  Will it be extended or not?

The sense of a statement with contradictory messages was picked up Rob Covile of the Centre for Policy Studies.  (The Treasury would do well when the Budget approaches to look at its supply side ideas.)

“Feels slightly like Treasury couldn’t decide whether the message was ‘tighten belts’ or ‘we’re still spending’,” he tweeted. “So we’re getting two or three minutes of each in turn.”

That first element in the Chancellor’s statement, plus the OBR’s horrid short-term forecasts, comes at a bad time for the Government.

For tomorrow, the toughened tiering details are announced. Lots of Conservative MPs won’t like them.  The detail of which tiers apply in which areas will be published, too.  Many Tory MPs will like those even less.

Graham Brady, Steve Baker, Mark Harper, and the Covid Recovery Group will say that the economic damage of restrictions is so severe that the Commons should not vote for more – at least, without an impact assessment.

They may not be alone.  “These measures may be a short-term strategy, but they cannot be a long-term one,” Jeremy Wright declared in the Commons during the recent debate on the lockdown regulations.

He and Edward Timpson (another ex-Minister) plus other MPs backed the Government but, sounded a cautionary note.

Will the prospect of vaccines be sufficient to rally the doubters round?  Or will they take a leaf from the book of Theresa May, who savaged the regulations during the same debate?

We shall see – but Ministers are not helping themselves by dodging requests for that impact assessment, urged by this site and others, and the subject of a dogged campaign by Mel Stride, Chair of the Treasury Select Committee.

All in all, Sunak is shaping up to go for growth.  Good for him.  Nonetheless, he must watch and wait to see how and when the economy rebounds.  Brady and company are less patient.

Dean Godson: It’s easier for the right to a left on economics than for the left to move right on culture. That’s a plus for Johnson.

21 Nov

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.

Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.

Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.

Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).

But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.

The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.

A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.

This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.

There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.

Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).

This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.

Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.

Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.

That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.

The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.

The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.

The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.

Mark Lehain: The Government can’t afford to surrender in the war on woke

20 Nov

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

While the media and Westminster insiders have been excited about all the Cummings and goings at Number 10, one has to wonder what the rest of the country makes of it.

My hunch is that people care more about rising unemployment and falling incomes than who is up and down in Downing Street. That said, even if personnel changes had not occurred, we are about to enter a post-Covid and Brexit transition phase, and so it is fair to consider what the Government should do from here.

Among a whole range of other urgent issues, the country will have to confront the decimation of the private economy and public finances wrought by the pandemic and measures taken to combat it. Things will be challenging, to say the least.

So it’s quite understandable that some are arguing that as part of Boris’s Johnson’s Reset, the Government should stop its (so far modest) attempts to address the left-wing political and cultural biases that have spread unchallenged through so much of life.

They argue that it is a distraction from the business of economic recovery and government delivery, and that it is divisive at a time when the Government needs to bring people together. I think they are wrong for two very important reasons.

First of all, as a wise person once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And until recently, Conservative-led governments did little to address the spread of divisive values and ideas from academic faculties and leftist movements into the civil service, executive suites, and elsewhere.

Wary of appearing unkind or stuffy, a blind eye was turned as universities discouraged freedom of thought and imposed niche ideologies on staff and students. Ministers stayed quiet as children were taught by their schools that “white privilege” is a fact, or told by groups such as Mermaids and Stonewall that their sex is whatever they feel it is.  And they did little to challenge the sneering and condescension by the arts, media, and others towards those who didn’t share their outlook on life.

The facts of life are (small-c) conservative but, time and again, opportunities to point this out were avoided. Conservatives didn’t start the fire – that was the radical left – but neither did they try to extinguish the flames as they burned through society and scorched the common ground.

Only recently have ministers started to challenge the metropolitan grip on quangos, pushed back against Critical Race Theory, reminded schools that they should be politically impartial, and told museums they shouldn’t bend to the whims of activists. All this shouldn’t be remotely controversial for anyone in the centre ground of politics. They’re modest moves to allow some diversity of thought in sectors otherwise captured by groupthink – not Tory takeovers.

So this Government can focus solely on economic and environmental policies, and pretend that values and culture don’t matter. But if it does, woke ideas will continue to hollow out institutions, turn people against one another, and ultimately undo any other good work it does.

The other reason as to why I’d encourage Downing Street ‘21 to persevere with challenging the cultural hegemony is that it makes good political sense: it is where the vast majority of the public are.

It’s not that people are opposed to improving the lives of trans people or examining ways to reduce disparities in health or education outcomes by different communities – far from it. They lead rich and diverse lives, have friends from all backgrounds, and families of all shapes and sizes. They care deeply about others, and want to do their best for their community and country.

They just don’t want to be told that they have to do this in a certain way, or hold specific views, or “educate themselves” to see the world as determined by academics who’ve never had to turn a profit or balance a household budget.

Research at the Campaign for Common Sense has found this again and again – on everything from political correctness, to comedy, to protests, historical statues, and the BBC. In contrast to the impressions given by the media, arts and political sectors, across all ages, socio-economic groups, and regions, people hold common sense, down-to-earth views on values and culture.

I saw this as a parliamentary candidate in the north east last winter. I was repeatedly told on the doorstep that politicians patronised voters who didn’t share their views on things. People also said that under Johnson they felt they were finally being listened to. In so many ways, Brexit was a proxy for the desire for their views and communities to be respected, not treated as something to be made better by others.

Whoever has the ear of the Prime Minister when things settle needs to bear this in mind as they plan the next stage of things. Labour and the Lib Dems are still obsessed with niche causes, and Nigel Farage and Laurence Fox are waiting in the wings to peel away voters if the government drifts that way again too.

Come the next election, Brexit will have been long done. However, the voters who delivered such a stonking majority in 2019 can be held together, but only if Johnson and his team show respect for them and their values.

So the war on woke must continue – both to bring people together as a country and an electoral coalition. It might mean a few awkward conversations for people at posh dinner parties, but it’s the right thing to do. The next few years are certainly going to be interesting times.

Mark Lehain: The Government can’t afford to surrender in the war on woke

20 Nov

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

While the media and Westminster insiders have been excited about all the Cummings and goings at Number 10, one has to wonder what the rest of the country makes of it.

My hunch is that people care more about rising unemployment and falling incomes than who is up and down in Downing Street. That said, even if personnel changes had not occurred, we are about to enter a post-Covid and Brexit transition phase, and so it is fair to consider what the Government should do from here.

Among a whole range of other urgent issues, the country will have to confront the decimation of the private economy and public finances wrought by the pandemic and measures taken to combat it. Things will be challenging, to say the least.

So it’s quite understandable that some are arguing that as part of Boris’s Johnson’s Reset, the Government should stop its (so far modest) attempts to address the left-wing political and cultural biases that have spread unchallenged through so much of life.

They argue that it is a distraction from the business of economic recovery and government delivery, and that it is divisive at a time when the Government needs to bring people together. I think they are wrong for two very important reasons.

First of all, as a wise person once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And until recently, Conservative-led governments did little to address the spread of divisive values and ideas from academic faculties and leftist movements into the civil service, executive suites, and elsewhere.

Wary of appearing unkind or stuffy, a blind eye was turned as universities discouraged freedom of thought and imposed niche ideologies on staff and students. Ministers stayed quiet as children were taught by their schools that “white privilege” is a fact, or told by groups such as Mermaids and Stonewall that their sex is whatever they feel it is.  And they did little to challenge the sneering and condescension by the arts, media, and others towards those who didn’t share their outlook on life.

The facts of life are (small-c) conservative but, time and again, opportunities to point this out were avoided. Conservatives didn’t start the fire – that was the radical left – but neither did they try to extinguish the flames as they burned through society and scorched the common ground.

Only recently have ministers started to challenge the metropolitan grip on quangos, pushed back against Critical Race Theory, reminded schools that they should be politically impartial, and told museums they shouldn’t bend to the whims of activists. All this shouldn’t be remotely controversial for anyone in the centre ground of politics. They’re modest moves to allow some diversity of thought in sectors otherwise captured by groupthink – not Tory takeovers.

So this Government can focus solely on economic and environmental policies, and pretend that values and culture don’t matter. But if it does, woke ideas will continue to hollow out institutions, turn people against one another, and ultimately undo any other good work it does.

The other reason as to why I’d encourage Downing Street ‘21 to persevere with challenging the cultural hegemony is that it makes good political sense: it is where the vast majority of the public are.

It’s not that people are opposed to improving the lives of trans people or examining ways to reduce disparities in health or education outcomes by different communities – far from it. They lead rich and diverse lives, have friends from all backgrounds, and families of all shapes and sizes. They care deeply about others, and want to do their best for their community and country.

They just don’t want to be told that they have to do this in a certain way, or hold specific views, or “educate themselves” to see the world as determined by academics who’ve never had to turn a profit or balance a household budget.

Research at the Campaign for Common Sense has found this again and again – on everything from political correctness, to comedy, to protests, historical statues, and the BBC. In contrast to the impressions given by the media, arts and political sectors, across all ages, socio-economic groups, and regions, people hold common sense, down-to-earth views on values and culture.

I saw this as a parliamentary candidate in the north east last winter. I was repeatedly told on the doorstep that politicians patronised voters who didn’t share their views on things. People also said that under Johnson they felt they were finally being listened to. In so many ways, Brexit was a proxy for the desire for their views and communities to be respected, not treated as something to be made better by others.

Whoever has the ear of the Prime Minister when things settle needs to bear this in mind as they plan the next stage of things. Labour and the Lib Dems are still obsessed with niche causes, and Nigel Farage and Laurence Fox are waiting in the wings to peel away voters if the government drifts that way again too.

Come the next election, Brexit will have been long done. However, the voters who delivered such a stonking majority in 2019 can be held together, but only if Johnson and his team show respect for them and their values.

So the war on woke must continue – both to bring people together as a country and an electoral coalition. It might mean a few awkward conversations for people at posh dinner parties, but it’s the right thing to do. The next few years are certainly going to be interesting times.

Dolly Theis: Why Government policy on obesity affects us all

27 Oct

Dolly Theis is completing her PhD at Cambridge University’s MRC Epidemiology Unit.  She contested Vauxhall in the 2017 general election.

This article is the first of a mini-series of three about obesity policy that I have written for Conservative Home this week.

Today, I want to set the scene for you and explain why obesity policy affects us all.

Tomorrow I hope you’ll join me in an exploration of the Conservative Party’s own history, beginning with Sir Robert Peel, to find out what previous Conservative Party “greats” have done to help solve nutrition problems, and to see what we might learn.

Finally, I will set out why I think we have failed to tackle our broken food culture and system, and what I think Government should do going forward.

I am hugely looking forward to reading your comments, from the brutal to the thought-provoking. So without further ado, here is why I think obesity policy affects us all.

I have a strong image of my dream world. In this world, it would be easy for everyone to live a healthy life, regardless of where we live, our budget, our circumstances and, ideally, without having to think too much about it.

It would be easy to eat well, and to be fit and active. Indeed, it wouldn’t just be easy; it would be enjoyable too. In my dream world, we also wouldn’t judge people based on their weight, and we would all have a positive relationship with food.

Tragically, we currently live in a world where it is not easy for everyone to live a healthy life. For some, finding a meal is hard enough – so whether it is healthy or not is irrelevant.

We are all surrounded by constant reminders and/or opportunities to eat, mostly tilted in favour of unhealthier options – at the same time as being told that we need to lose weight, or feel we should aspire towards a certain body ideal.

We are then shamed, or may feel like failures, for not achieving this perfect body.  Or else we are celebrated for doing so, even if we reached it in an unhealthy way.

The more I listen to and read debates about food, health and body image, the more they confirm that my dream world, in which it is easy for everyone to be healthy, would help solve the situation.

So how could we get there? Before answering the question, let us explore the current situation further.

In England, 67 per cent of men, 60 per cent of women and more than a quarter of children aged two to 15 live with obesity, or are overweight.

Obesity and overweight are associated with many long-term physical, psychological and social concerns. A recent YouGov poll found that 46 per cent of British adults were “not very happy” or “not happy at all” with their body image, compared to just seven per cent who were “very happy”.

Pressure to achieve the perfect body has led to almost two thirds of British adults being on a diet “most of the time”, with between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK estimated to suffer from an eating disorder.

We live in a world where the majority of people are not living a healthy life, and where far too many of us are unhappy with our bodies. I find this unacceptable.

I research obesity policy and, when I talk to people about it, many view obesity as being an inevitability of modern life – an issue of poor choice, bad parenting, a lack of education or less cooking.

But it is not. To understand and tackle the issue properly, we need to stop reinforcing these beliefs, and instead understand obesity as being just one of many consequences of our broken food culture and system.

Obesity is a stigmatising word – encouraging us to judge people based on their weight, and divide us up into those who are “the problem” and those who are not. It makes politicians squirm having to speak about the issue, for fear of offending people or being seen to tell us what we should and should not eat. However, obesity is an outcome of that unbalanced food culture. Indeed, this culture and system affects us all.

Food is everywhere. Not only in more obvious places like supermarkets, restaurants and cafes, but also in clothes shops, stationeries and pharmacies. We also see food in deliciously tempting photos and recognisable brand logos. Food adverts are on billboards and TV screens, online and in magazines, in sports venues and train stations.

So food cues surround us, yet we are mostly unaware of them. We don’t exactly go around counting the numbers of times we see a food advert or pass somewhere we could buy food.

However, where and how food is advertised and sold has a profound impact on our health, and so makes free choice-making very difficult, even if we believe that choice is technically present: there is a reason you can recite an entire list of crisp, chocolate and fast food brands without having to think too much.

Unhealthier foods are in the spotlight – despite the official UK national dietary recommendation for foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) being that these not needed in our diet, so should be eaten less often and in smaller amounts.

However, it is not easy to consume unhealthy foods in moderation when we are being purposefully drawn to them by targeted messages and easy availability. For example, Cancer Research UK analysed food adverts on major TV channels and found that around half were for HFSS products, increasing to almost 60 per cent between 6pm and 9pm. Fewer than five per cent of all adverts shown were for fruit or vegetables.

Despite reports showing people can have a cheap healthy diet (which, while true for some, is often based on unrealistic assumptions about people’s lives), research shows that in practice, healthier diets are more expensive.

This is partly because food policies favour the production, marketing and sale of inexpensive, high volume products such as highly processed foods.

When money and time are tight, people turn to these cheap, convenient and often unhealthier foods, which might be the only option for parents who quite literally cannot afford to have their children reject what’s put in front of them.

This imbalance has resulted in what many perceive as a vilification of unhealthy food – with the Government going after junk food. However, were our food culture balanced in favour of healthy foods, then I imagine that unhealthy products would not be vilified at all, since people would more easily enjoy them in moderation, which would reduce the damaging health effects we experience today, and we could all enjoy and celebrate them for what they are: treats, rather than day to day foods.

So how do we rebalance things in practice?

The Conservative Government under John Major during the 1990s first recognised obesity as a problem that it should seek to reduce.

In 1992, it published its Health of the Nation public health strategy, which included the first ever government obesity reduction targets: reduce the proportion of obese men to six per cent and obese women to eight per cent by 2005.

Clearly, these were not met. Indeed, 14 government obesity strategies containing almost 700 policies have been published since 1991 – yet obesity rates continue to rise.

This is due in part to four main problems:

  • Government has proposed hundreds of obesity policies during the last three decades, but many of these have never been properly implemented or evaluated
  • It struggles to reconcile its desire not to be interventionist with its responsibility to protect people’s health.
  • There has been a focus on telling individuals to change their behaviour without helping to create a context in which that is easy; and
  • Government lumps many different policies into the “obesity agenda” – despite there being an important distinction between them.

To solve points one, two and three, government should prioritise transparent policy implementation and evaluation. Most of the obesity policies proposed under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson are still waiting to be implemented.

I believe that it is wholly unacceptable that policies are proposed, but not implemented and/or evaluated. Could you imagine the same happening in business – with Jeff Bezos saying “hey guys! I have this great idea for a delivery company”, but then never introducing it?

For those of you reading this article and thinking that government shouldn’t be intervening at all, there is an irony – namely, that it probably would’t need to be considering such interventions now if it had properly implemented and evaluated even a handful of policies proposed previously.

So how do we better hold government to account on this?

To solve my final point – that government lumps many different policies into the “obesity agenda”, despite there being an important distinction between them – there should be a distinction between “obesity policies” (i.e: targeted interventions aimed at helping people living with obesity, such as bariatric surger), and population health policies, i.e: policies that make it easier for the population to live a healthy life such as reducing the bombardment of unhealthy food advertising).

By referring to all policies as “obesity policies”, people not living with obesity may see these as “not my problem” – or may feel government is unfairly intervening in their lives, and is being anti-business if a policy affects them (for example, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, also known as the sugar tax). Of course businesses – should make a profit.  But not at the expense of our health.

Introducing both obesity and population health policies would make it easier for everyone to live a healthy life. People living with obesity would receive effective and equitable treatment and support. They would then return to a context which facilitates and promotes a healthy life, thus making it easier to maintain their improved health.

Otherwise we risk Professor Sir Michael Marmot repeating his famous line: “What good does it do to treat people and send them back to the conditions that made them sick”?

The policies to deal with the problem are all in the 14 government strategies already published – from reducing the bombardment of unhealthy products while also increasing the provision, convenience and appeal of healthy products. Part One of Henry Dimbleby’s 2020 National Food Strategy is also one of the most comprehensive, “oven ready” policy packages ready for implementation.

We must stop searching for a magical solution, and instead begin implementing and evaluating policies that will help create a world in which it is easy for us all, regardless of circumstance, budget or where we live, to enjoy a healthy life without having to think too much about it.

Mark Lehain: “The Government stands unequivocally against critical race theory.” The significance of Badenoch’s speech this week.

22 Oct

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

On Tuesday, towards the end of an otherwise run-of-the-mill debate on Black History Month in the Commons, Kemi Badenoch said the following:

“I want to be absolutely clear that the Government stand unequivocally against critical race theory… We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt. Let me be clear that any school that teaches those elements of critical race theory as fact, or that promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”

And boom: there it is – the clearest statement yet that the Government is serious about taking on some of the hard-left ideas that have taken hold of large chunks of the public and private sectors in recent times.  You can see the whole of Badenoch’s speech above.

Her words build on guidance released by the Department for Education last month, which contained a reminder for schools of their legal obligation to “offer a balanced presentation of opposing views” when covering political issues.

The requirement for schools to be impartial on such matters is longstanding including private schools and academies – but you wouldn’t think this was the case judging by the reaction of some people. Even John McDonell popped up to claim it was more evidence that a “drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace”, bless him.

Reminding people of a law that growing numbers are ignoring is important, but not in itself enough.

My campaign group, The Campaign for Common Sense has been tracking the issue of biased schools for a while now, and we’ve four simple, low-effort, suggestions as to how schools can be helped to get back on track.

First of all, the Department for Education should work with the Headteacher unions to develop further guidance and exemplification on the kinds of issues that are tripping schools up. (Sadly, there’s no point talking to the big teacher unions as they’re completely in thrall to Critical Race Theory and other leftist ideology.)

Next, Gavin Williamson should write to the Headteacher and Chair of Governors (or Trustees) of every school in England. He would remind them of their obligations to impartiality, and share the results of the union collaboration to assist with compliance.

Third, schools are already obliged to publish curriculum details on their website, and we propose that they add to this a statement from the Headteacher confirming one thing: that they have checked the curriculum programme and resources and are satisfied that pupils will received a politically impartial education. (They should be doing this already, so this is literally two-minutes work for them.)

Finally, Ofsted should spot-check for impartiality as part of their inspection process; this could be whilst evaluating the “Quality of Education” or “Personal Development” areas. If non-compliance meant a school’s all-important “Overall Effectiveness” judgement couldn’t be “Good” or better, you can be sure political balance would be restored very quickly indeed.

These steps would go a long way to improving things for pupils, but it raises questions about the wider public sector.

The previous Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education was particularly keen on Critical Race theory and other “woke” ideas, but even though he has been moved on the department still runs “Project Race”, and has civil servants who act as “Race Champions”. Much time and money is also given over to other politically correct initiatives including gender identity, unconscious bias, and so on. And of course, this is happening across all departments, not just education.

Stopping civil servants from allocating precious resources to these kinds of things is vital if politically contested ideas are going to be removed and the Civil Service depoliticised.

It probably shouldn’t stop there, though – after all, lots of public services are provided by quangos, third sector organisations, and charities. Obviously, how these organisations spend their own or other people’s money is absolutely their own business. But future public sector grants and contracts should insert a clause that the money that comes from them cannot be spent on politically contested ideas and practices.

All of the above would make a big difference to the focus and quality of lots of our public services. However, these changes would pale into insignificance if the government got the right people into key roles.

Consider how Liz Truss has taken the heat out of the issue of transgender rights and self-ID. Or the way the Commission of Race and Ethnic Disparities is moving the issue of racism away from emotions and onto evidence & practical improvements.

And look at the impact of a quiet letter to museums about historical displays places previously under pressure to remove objects are now standing firm.

The bad ideas we’re challenging are like the Emperor’s New Clothes – point out how wrong they are, and they quickly fall apart.

Marvel at the impact Badenoch made with a few words in parliament. Now imagine a government filled with similarly clear-sighted souls. We could quickly get back to common sense issues and improving everyday lives. Here’s hoping that Badenoch’s speech in parliament marked the start of a concerted push, and not a chance blast in the dark.

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.

– – – – – – – – – –

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.

– – – – – – – – – –

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.

– – – – – – – – – –

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”.

– – – – – – – – – –

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.

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.

– – – – – – – – – –

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.

– – – – – – – – – –

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.

– – – – – – – – – –

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”.

– – – – – – – – – –

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.

Iain Dale: Covid-19. There is no good reason why the arts sector should get a billion pound bailout while coach operators do not

2 Oct

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

Like most of you (I hope) I was absolutely appalled by the US Presidential debate on Wednesday. I stayed up to watch it, last I have done for virtually every debate of this kind since I saw Ronald Reagan whip Jimmy Carter’s sorry ass in 1980.

I suppose that I knew what was about to happen but, even so, to see it actually unfurl in front of my eyes was a real shock.

Trump was at his bombastic worst, flailing around in all directions and socking it to Joe Biden from start to finish. He ignored all the rules of the debate and reduced the moderator, Chris Wallace from Fox News, to a jabbering wreck.

All Biden had to do in response was be vaguely coherent and look statesmanlike. He failed on both counts. He was like a rabbit in the headlights, barely able to get a sentence out without stuttering. He repeatedly said ‘here’s the deal’ without actually explaining what the deal was. He lost his cool too often, and insulted Trump in the same childish way that Trump insulted him.

They both made our own political leaders look like giants in comparison. Even Boris Johnson at his blustering worst couldn’t have been as bad as either of these two embarrassments to their nation. And to think that there are two more of these debates to come. Watching them will be like rubbernecking a train crash – one for the whole of America.

– – – – – – – – – –

The understandable tension that exists between protecting the nation’s health and reopening the economy has been stark this week.

Whatever decisions the Government takes are bound to be wrong for either side of the extremes of this debate. Taking the ‘right decision at the right time’ is proving to be impossible.

Everyone hailed the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme: it certainly did wonders for the restaurant industry, and probably saved some businesses from going under.

But there’s also little doubt that it gave people a false sense that everything was about to return to normal. Not so. Coronavirus will be with us for many, many months to come. Normality – whatever that is – will not return until a mass vaccinisation programme is launched, and that won’t be until well into 2021.

Until then, everyone will have to adapt the best they can. For some sectors, it will be easier than others. The wedding industry, together with events and exhibitions, get a lot of publicity for the understandable woes they’re going through, but there are plenty of other sectors which don’t get any publicity at all, but are suffering just as badly.

I’ve taken up the cause of coach operators, who are going through some incredibly tough times, especially the smaller, often family-owned businesses. These are perfectly good and viable companies yet, through no fault of their own they are now living on a financial precipice.

These are the companies I hope that the Government will find an innovative way of helping. Banks cannot be relied on to come to their rescue and, while I fully accept that taxpayer subsidies cannot go on for ever, there is no reason that the arts and culture sectors should get a £1.5 billion bailout, when others are getting the sweet sum of diddly squat.

– – – – – – – – – –

After a couple of weeks of stories speculating about the Prime Minister’s health, motivation, finances and mojo, it’s been good to see him re-enter the fray this week, and actually looking and acingt the part.

Bluster will always be part of Johnson’s armoury, but he has to learn when it’s appropriate to deploy it and when not. In Prime Minister’s Questions this week, he decided to reduce it to Defcon 4, which was the right thing to do.

His statement to the Commons and press conference were at least part way to rediscovering the Boris of old. Now that the stories have started about the timing of his eventual departure from the job, it will be difficult to stop them.

The crucial factor here is whether he actually enjoys the job, and whether it is what he thought it would be. In any normal era, winning an 80 seat majority would mean you had a cast-iron right to fight the next election. (Of course, in 1987 Margaret Thatcher won a 100 seat majority and was out on her ear only three and a half years later.)

Contrary to what some people are writing, Conservative MPs may be a bit whingey and whiny at the moment, but they know that there would be no appetite to turf out a Prime Minister who won an election only nine and a half months ago.

No, if Johnson decides to depart early, it will his decision and his decision alone. The historical precedents suggest that his is unlikely to occur. With the exception of Harold Wilson, no Prime Minister in the last century has left office voluntarily. And before you cite Macmillan and Eden at me, both were forced to resign because of ill health. Blair was forced out by Brown, long before he really wanted to go, too.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow I am speaking (in person, rather than via Zoom) at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. The audience will be socially distanced and I’m not even sure I’m allowed to do a conventional book signing afterwards. Strange times.

Rachel Wolf: Net Zero risks upending our lives and livelihoods. Here’s why carbon pricing gives it a better chance of working well.

2 Oct

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

Worrying about the state of the environment in the middle of a pandemic might feel like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Will the public question the Government’s sense of priorities if ministers start talking about how to protect the environment in the midst of a health crisis and a long potential downturn?

Actually, no. This week marked the first substantial policy intervention of the Prime Minister in months – a long awaited change to the education system that will make it easier for adults to retrain, and support more technical education. The rationale was clear: now, more than ever, we need to make sure people are trained for their next job.

The same argument can be made for the environment. The hard lockdown and the gentle recovery reminded people of two things: that everyday life is better for everyone when roads are quieter and the air is cleaner; and that economic growth is always precarious. That means we need to focus on industries and technologies of the future that will help maintain jobs and living standards.

In short, precisely because of their Covid-19 experience, the public have seen the importance of a practical, commercially-minded environmentalism.  That is fortunate, because there are some major choices to be made, and we are unprepared for them.

The target of Net Zero emissions by 2050 was passed into legislation with little public notice – most people still haven’t heard the term. There was also remarkably little Westminster debate: all the leadership candidates in 2019 signed up to the policy, so scrutiny was absent. Then, of course, the pandemic halted the entire domestic policy agenda. For this reason, we are still waiting to understand exactly what ending a 200-year dependence on fossil fuels really entails.

In my view, carbon pricing must form a large part of the answer.

As someone on the centre-right, I have always simultaneously applauded the aims and had great fears about the execution of Net Zero.

First, I worry it might upend too much. Our economy and lives are built off copious amounts of affordable energy. It is the main reason we were able to escape the destitution of the past. A life unimaginable to even the elite in the eighteentj century is now accessible to nearly all.

Therefore, any successful programme to reduce emissions must understand that people will not go backwards. Policies must work within the grain of people’s lives – not rewire them. We cannot be against trade; or consumption; or travel.  We just need ways to achieve all three without catastrophic environmental effects.

Second, I worry the plans rely on an implausible level of omniscience and competence from governments. We cannot engineer economies. We do not know exactly what innovations to support. We are likely to end up with endless unforeseen consequences and costs. We can encourage and support technology and invention; but prescribing what it should look like in 50 years time? That’s implausible.

It is for both of these reasons that I have spent much of the last six months working for an independent commission on how carbon pricing might practically, and technically, work.

To put it simply, possibly too simply, a carbon price requires those who produce, distribute, or use fossil fuels – or who produce greenhouse gas emissions in other ways – to make a payment for every tonne of greenhouse gases that enters our atmosphere.

In principle, the arguments for a carbon price are fairly obvious. It works with the grain of the market. It doesn’t make grand regulatory predictions about what will work, what we should do, or how exactly people ought to change their behaviour. It just prices in the ‘bad’ – in this case, emissions.

In practice, too, it has been effective. Electricity is the only area we have had a consistent approach to carbon pricing in the UK, and that is why electricity is the area where we have driven down emissions the most.  But electricity represents only a minority of our carbon emissions, and we now need a clear approach to the rest of the economy.

Carbon pricing also provides two things that we now – badly – need.

First, revenue. In some countries, carbon pricing is completely revenue neutral, and the money is distributed back to households. This deals with the challenges of the environment without leaving people worse off. But in others, it is used to support general government objectives – like funding the health service (or reducing the deficit).

If the Government needs to raise money, doing it in a way that will win public support and support environmental aims, without burdening businesses excessively, is a sensible way to do it. The other way to use revenue is to support transitions to cleaner energy alternatives and new green jobs – incentivising people away from carbon emissions, while supporting innovation.

Second, it provides certainty. A lot of the money for net zero should come from private investment. A fixed, clear price gives them the confidence to spend.

We already have some carbon pricing in the UK tax system. Unfortunately, it lacks transparency, is far too complicated and is piled sequentially on top of electricity bills. It has the bizarre consequence of actively encouraging people to move from electricity to gas – the opposite of what we want if we care about carbon emissions. Neither consumers nor suppliers have a clear idea of who is paying what and why.

Carbon pricing is not a silver bullet. I have oversimplified the changes necessary to reach Net Zero, and in our commission report we outlined a list of complementary policies required for different sectors to reach it. They recognise that the cost of reaching Net Zero is likely to be different for electricity, heating, industry and agriculture, and that the technologies are less mature for some sectors than others. Nor can it be too high: the economy is fragile, and business must be able to recover and grow. But the basic human principles remain – if there is a price, people will change their behaviour, and human ingenuity will always outstrip governments’.

We have been submerged in environmental rhetoric for years. Now the UK, alongside other countries with similar commitments, is having to make some real choices. Often, understandable fear of a public backlash has held them back – our research suggests there’s a credible way of gaining public consent and achieving our environmental aims: by having a clear price, credible alternatives for people to switch to, and cushioning so that no one is too badly affected. That is both deliverable and desirable, and it should form the core of the UK’s net zero roadmap.