Johnson represented the licentious, disrespectful, unofficial, eighteenth-century tradition in British politics. It has not suffered a final defeat.

8 Jul

Few politicians are easier to misunderstand than Boris Johnson. People seize hold of one aspect of him, and persuade themselves they have grasped the whole.

So he is often portrayed as a rule-breaker. This is why he had to go: he had no respect for the rules, and expected to be allowed to get away with breaking them whenever he liked.

The most quoted words from my book about his early life are not by him or me, but by Martin Hammond, his housemaster at Eton, in a school report written on 10 April 1982, when his pupil was 17:

“Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for next half): I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

His critics say Johnson has not changed in the succeeding 40 years. Those responsible for upholding “the network of obligation” have found him a repeat offender.

Conservative MPs have wearied of such disgraceful behaviour, and have accordingly defenestrated him.

This account is true. The only difficulty, if one wishes to understand Johnson (which admittedly not everyone does), is that it is not the whole truth.

Johnson’s next school report, written by Hammond on 25th July 1982, began with a number of further criticisms:

“Efficiency and organisation have been constant problems (there was trouble this half with his running of the Political Society, and an unprecedented rebuke from the Provost).”

There followed an astonishing change of tack:

“It was perhaps a bit of a risk to make Boris Captain of the School: but he clearly has the personality and the respect necessary for the job, and it’s my hope that the imposition of a public responsibility will energise all else.”

Johnson at the second attempt has got to the top, and has done so pretty much on his own terms.

If one wishes, one can simply deplore this, and declare that he should never have been allowed to get away with it, any more than he should have been allowed in 2019, at the second attempt, to become Conservative Party leader, and to do so pretty much on his own terms.

It is possible to treat his career as a morality tale, in which bad consequences flow from tolerating bad behaviour, but eventually justice is done. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily,” as Miss Prism puts it in The Importance of Being Earnest.

But her next words are: “That is what Fiction means.” Real life is more complicated. Johnson had, and has, good qualities as well as bad. Hammond recalled:

“He was passionately loyal to his House, his school. In an odd way, he likes an ordered world, not a random world. Boris was not a rebel at all. He was a fully signed up member of the tribe. He was jolly nearly the custodian of the ark. Everything that went into being at College Boris embraced whole-heartedly – Latin prayers, bellowed hymns.”

This aspect of Johnson tends to be overlooked by those who see him as a purely subversive figure. He loves the institutions to which he has belonged.

These include Eton, Balliol, The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator. He doesn’t want to overthrow them: he wants them to thrive.

So too the study of Latin and Greek: he loves ancient as well as modern languages. Johnson is in fact in many ways a reassuringly traditional figure, who appeals to other traditionalists.

Why then his disrespect for the rules? Because that too is part of our tradition.

Rules are made to be broken. Live and let live. Laugh to scorn the prigs, martinets and jacks in office who presume to tell us, in minute detail, how we should lead our lives.

Johnson has always been sceptical about rules. He tests them to see whether they are necessary, and often finds they are not.

On almost any question, he can be found changing his mind, trying out different opinions, some of which contradict each other.

But we live in an age when all sorts of questions of behaviour are regulated by codes.

The individual is not trusted to make up his or her mind, in the light of prevailing circumstances. Nothing is left to personal judgement. It is not supposed we might manage to work things out for ourselves.

We are instead at every turn invigilated. The Ministerial Code saps ministerial independence, and becomes a means for Downing Street to enforce its will across all departments.

Much of the media enters with enthusiasm into the discovery of occasions when offenders have been treated with undue indulgence.

What fun it is to be a moralist, shaking one’s head over some politician’s failure to uphold the letter of every petty rule.

This, palpably, was not Johnson’s style of politics. He went too far in the other direction, became too free and easy, and now he has been punished.

Judgement on him was pronounced by his fellow Conservatives, which is as it should be. They decided they had had enough, and out he went.

Our constitution worked as it should. A political judgement was arrived at by politicians. Johnson lost his majority in the House of Commons, a point brought home by the attacks on Wednesday on him from his own benches, and by the resignation of over 50 members of the Government.

What will become of Johnson? It is too early to say. But his overthrow does not mean the licentious, disrespectful, unofficial, 18th-century tradition in British politics has suffered a final defeat.

It is still there, beneath the surface, awaiting either the revival of Johnson, or the emergence of some new champion.

The post Johnson represented the licentious, disrespectful, unofficial, eighteenth-century tradition in British politics. It has not suffered a final defeat. appeared first on Conservative Home.

Stewart Jackson: Why is a Tory Government risking criminalising professionals – and the health of young people too?

21 Feb

Stewart Jackson is a former Conservative MP and Special Adviser, and is the Founder and Director of UK Political Insight.

Given the precarious position that the Prime Minister finds himself in, one has to rank the Government’s commitment to legislate for the so-called Conversion Therapy Bill “in spring 2022” as particularly brave, foolhardy or tin-eared.

The need to engineer a rapprochement with the Conservative Parliamentary Party is inconsistent with such a divisive and unnecessary measure.

It appears to be driven by a desire to placate the shrill zealotry of Stonewall – now discredited by its absolutist stance on trans rights, and estranged from many former LGBT supporters with whom, along with other critics, it seems unwilling to engage.

Indeed, the Bill seems to be a solution looking for a problem. In a meeting with religious leaders, the Government Equalities Office, which is sponsoring the Bill, failed even to identify what the legal definition of “conversion therapy” actually is, according to one of those present.

Those advocating the changes are desperate to avoid scrutiny and rush through the legislation. Nonetheless, the Government extended the consultation on the Bill until earlier this month after threats of judicial review.  It takes a unique talent to unite the fractious Tory tribes against these proposals.

Those concerned by aspects of the Bill reportedly include Damian Green, Chairman of the Conservative One Nation Group; other former Ministers, such as Jackie Doyle-Price; such middle ground stalwarts as Pauline Latham and Sir Robert Syms; and social conservatives such as Miriam Cates, Sally-Ann Hart, and Tim Loughton. Not to mention peers, faith groups, charities, the Economist and, most recently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The ECHR has rightly highlighted  the need for proper pre-legislative scrutiny, and has warned against the unintended consequences of rushed legislation.  Supporters of the measure have also failed to take into account evolving research from the United States on paediatric and youth gender dysphoria, and that fact that the Government’s own Cass Review on gender identity services for children and young people will not be published until this summer.

In a nutshell, there is concern that rushed and poorly drafted legislation will threaten the basic tenets of fairness, freedom of speech, religious belief and tolerance, and the professionalism and autonomy of a number of caring sectors – such medicine, nursing, therapy, pastoral care and youth work and education.  Not to mention parents and guardians, all of whom risk being criminalised by poor legislation and activists with a narrow and extreme agenda.

For there is a real possibility that certain types of private consensual and routine conversations regarding sexual orientation and gender identity will become subject to criminal sanction.  And that it will not be possible for those charged with helping children and young people in particular to have open and explorative discussions about sexual identity and gender issues.

Thus, in the case of gender dysphoria, legitimate alternatives to radical and life changing pharmaceutical and surgical interventions could effectively become illegal. Do we want primary legislation that prevents clinicians from offering their patients the best treatment for their unique medical issues? As Baroness Jenkin has said: “when a child is suffering, it is crucial that they are allowed time, space and supportive therapy to discover why they feel the way they do.”

Such a bar would impact on young people with mental health problems and suicide ideation. Some of the alternatives would be irreversible. Government pledges of a “common sense” approach will count for very little if the legislation enacted is interpreted in a draconian manner.

These deeply flawed proposals arose from the well-meaning intentions of the May Government, and are now driven by a small claque of social liberals in 10 Downing Street – irrespective of the fact that there is already, and rightly, widespread opposition to physical and mental coercion based on both sexual orientation and gender identity, and tough legislation in place to combat it. In this respect, the UK has always been a pathfinder internationally. Who wouldn’t want to protect vulnerable people from bullying and coercion?

There is also real possibility that the Bill will fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights in regards to Article 8 (Respect for Private and Family Life) and Article 9 (Freedom of Thought, Belief and Religion).  And that the Government may find itself liable for punitive damages in future litigation arising from the practices sanctioned by the Bill.

Like other May Government landmines – think Stop and Search, Windrush and the Northern Ireland Protocol – ideas touted as common sense and the right thing to do can obscure intractable issues and bring about unintended consequences.

All in all, there is no compelling case for this new legislation, or even persuasive evidence that it is actually required.  And the Government’s failure to outline a proper case for it hasn’t helped to dispel fears of a fait accomplis, with MPs being railroaded to an arbitrary deadline.

The Prime Minister has enough on his plate already. He needs the courage to reject this proposal, and face down a tiny minority, most of whom would never vote for him and his party, not least for the health of his battered administration.

Charlotte Gill’s Podcast Review 10) Chatterton with Bindel, Freeman and Harrington, and Hope with O’Brien

9 Feb

Every fortnight, ConservativeHome will compile a handful of podcast recommendations – content that has been published in the weeks preceding – for its readers. Although these will mainly focus on podcasts for conservative listeners, we will try to include other options – should they be particularly interesting. Sometimes this feature will contain other types of media.

Title: UnHerd Live
Host: Sally Chatterton
Episode: Where does feminism go next?

Duration: 1:08:49 hours 
Published: February 3

What’s it about?

In this fascinating event, Sally Chatterton, Editor of UnHerd, chairs a discussion between Julie Bindel, Hadley Freeman and Mary Harrington on the future of feminism. Each have unique takes on where the movement is going wrong, and right (but mostly wrong), with the discussions spanning a huge number of areas, from gender identity, to sex work, to surrogacy and motherhood.

Some teaser quotes:
  • Bindel: “Feminism is vibrant, and it is moving forward, because women have had enough. We’ve always had enough, but we’ve particularly had enough now.”
  • Harrington on growing anti-natalism: “Somehow it’s as though a collective decision has been taken by at least some of the generation or so younger than me, that ‘let’s just draw a line under this; we’re not going to do this any more’; a sort of collective human death wish”.
  • Freeman: “There’s so much ageism that I see now among younger women, which I find quite shocking and also incredibly Freudian. The disdain that I see expressed about, for example, Mumsnet, I think largely cause it’s got the word ‘mum’ in it. And this disgust that I see from young women when women talk about things like breastfeeding and childbirth.”
Verdict:

A brave discussion, full of thought-provoking commentary.

Title: Chopper’s Politics
Host: Christopher Hope
Episode: Just what is ‘levelling up’?

Duration: 41:59 minutes
Published: February 5

What’s it about?

In this interview, Christopher Hope sits down with Neil O’Brien, Minister in the Levelling Up department and co-author of the Government’s white paper on Levelling Up, to talk about – guess what? – all things levelling up. The MP for Harborough, Oadby & Wigston takes listeners through the process of putting together one of this government’s most important visions. Towards the end of the podcast, Hope speaks to Sebastian Payne of the FT about what the white paper means for Johnsonism, and Lisa Nandy, Shadow Secretary for Levelling Up, offers her thoughts on the topic.

Some teaser quotes (from O’Brien):
  • “It’s quite often written up as a kind of North-South thing, and it is true that lots of the North is poorer and in need of levelling up, but it’s absolutely the case that we recognise that within even affluent regions like the South East, there are places that are poor”.
  • On whether there could be a bid for the Olympics again, and where it would take place: “It wouldn’t be London… It would probably have to be spread across a number of places.”
  • “We can have two economic models. We can have the Blair model, which is just pile everything into London, let’s all move to the greater South East, and Lord knows how we’ll cope. Or we can try and have more balanced growth across the country, get some of these great cities and towns that have such potential, but have shrunk, going again.”
Verdict:

Essential listening for anyone who wants to understand Levelling Up in depth.

Title: The New Culture Forum
Host: Peter Whittle
Episode: How England Could Have Europe’s Worst Free Speech Protection. + Lockdown Sceptics’ Vindication.

Duration: 54:35 minutes
Published: February 6

What’s it about?

In this podcast, Peter Whittle interviews Toby Young, founder of The Daily Sceptic and the Free Speech Union, the latter of which has just celebrated its second anniversary, to discuss a vast range of topics – from whether the UK was right to lockdown, to Boris Johnson’s leadership, to the extent to which free speech is under attack in England and Scotland. As the title indicates, Young is not optimistic about our current trajectory.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “[T]here was so little intellectual curiosity about the origins of the virus. And anyone speculating that it might have been leaked from the virology institute in Wuhan was, for a long time, smeared as a conspiracy theorist trafficking in misinformation, and that kind of smear was enough to shut down debate about it for more than a year”.
  • “The fact that [Johnson] himself broke the rules makes it much harder for him to insist everyone else obey them again. You can’t imagine a political leader across the West for whom it would be politically more difficult to impose another lockdown”.
  • “We keep winning battles at the Free Speech Union; 75 per cent of the cases we take on, we win. But we’re losing the war.”
Verdict:

A lively exchange covering the most important subjects of the day.

David Gauke: Truss rises – and Sunak runs towards early tax cuts in order to head her off

6 Dec

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

Tax cuts are back in fashion. Having announced tax increases in his March Budget, and having agreed to the Prime Minister announcing further tax increases to fund higher health and social care expenditure in September, the Chancellor is taking every opportunity to let everyone know that he is in favour of lower taxes and plans to cut taxes before the next general election. All of this before any of the announced tax increases takes effect. What is going on?

Before examining what this tells us about what will happen next with fiscal policy, it is worth recalling how we got here.

At the time of the March Budget this year, it was evident that a fiscal tightening of some description was going to be necessary. Nothing needed to be done straight away, but it is politically easier to announce deficit-reducing measures earlier in a Parliament rather than later.

As for whether the tightening should be tax increases or spending cuts, tax increases were always the likely outcome. Years of spending restraint, pledges of high spending at the last general election and a change in the nature of Conservative support all suggested that the political reality was that taxes would go up. And so they did, with a freeze in thresholds for personal taxes and a substantial increase in corporation tax rates.

In September, the Prime Minister wanted to announce that he had solved the social care issue, the Health Secretary wanted more money for the NHS to cope with post-Covid pressures and the Chancellor – as a good fiscal conservative – wanted to ensure that any additional spending is paid for by higher taxes rather than letting borrowing take the strain.

A deal was done. The Prime Minister got his announcement, the Health Secretary got his money and the Chancellor not only got the tax increase necessary to pay for it, but he also got the Prime Minister to announce the increase in National Insurance Contributions.

We then come to the October Budget. The Chancellor had a bit more money to play with because the economy had grown faster in 2021 than had been expected ,and the damage done to the long term health of the economy by Covid had been downgraded. He had a choice between increasing spending, borrowing less and cutting taxes.

Cutting taxes was always the least likely option, because it would have been very strange to announce tax increases one month and then tax cuts the next. The real choice was between either spending the windfall or reducing borrowing, perhaps with an eye on tax cuts later in the Parliament. When it came down to it, more of the windfall went on spending than many expected.

With little tucked away for a rainy day, the possibility of future tax cuts became heavily dependent on the OBR once again downgrading their COVID scarring estimate (they remain relatively pessimistic on that compared to other forecasters).

There are, however, also significant downside risks for the economy. We do not yet know what will happen with the Omicron variant and there may be other variants in future. Triggering Article 16 in January (still possible although less likely than it was) would likely provoke a trade war and damage business confidence.

But even if there is an improved forecast from the OBR in 2022, it will be a forecast made in a period of uncertainty. The prudent course would not be to use any upside sum to either cut taxes or increase spending.

This suggests that the plan earlier this autumn was that 2022 should be a fiscally boring year. There might be some revenue neutral tax reforms but, in terms of the balance between tax and spend, the big decisions were made in 2021. The plan was to implement the announced tax increases, hold the line on additional spending bids and hope for some good news that will permit some tax cuts in 2023.

Politics has, however, intervened.

The response to the increases in NICs announced in September was relatively muted, but the October Budget landed remarkably badly with the Daily Telegraph and Spectator and a fair few Conservative MPs. Belatedly, there is a recognition that this was not a small state government. Shortly afterwards, in a separate development, Boris Johnson blundered over the Owen Paterson case and the Peppa Pig speech, and his personal ratings tumbled.

All of this has left the Prime Minister with a bigger party management issue than a public opinion issue. The Conservatives remain, at worst, level-pegging with Labour, and the Old Bexley & Sidcup by-election result was reassuringly dull. The public has not reacted strongly against the tax rises, but it looks as if the wider Conservative movement has.

To gauge the mood amongst Conservative activists, it is always instructive to look at the ConservativeHome ratings. The Prime Minister is struggling, and the Paterson affair has contributed to that (as the unfortunate Mark Spencer’s rating demonstrates), but the fall in the Chancellor’s rating suggestions a reaction against the tax increases. He is no longer the heir-apparent.

Meanwhile, Liz Truss – associated with lower taxes – continues to ride high and is on (tank) manoeuvres. It was also striking how Lord Frost – previously seen as something of a political creature of the Prime Minister’s – has asserted his independence by declaring his enthusiasm for lower taxes. He sits in second place in the league table.

Let us fast-forward to some point next year when the Budget is about to be delivered. Imagine the circumstances where Conservative MPs and activists are feeling a bit despondent because “this isn’t a proper Conservative government”; voters are feeling the pinch as living standards fall and theTelegraph (Boris Johnson’s “real boss” according to Dominic Cummings) is campaigning for tax cuts; and the Foreign Secretary lets it be known that she thinks lower taxes would unleash this country’s entrepreneurial spirits. How do we think the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will react?

I am going to hazard a guess, and suggest that they will both want tax cuts. Fiscal conservatives will point out that having decided to spend a lot of money (not to mention pursuing a growth-damaging European policy), the country might not be able to afford tax cuts, that there is the small matter of complying with the fiscal rules and that demographic pressures in the 2030s suggest that the long-term trajectory is higher taxes.

I think one could always have been confident that this is the sort of defeatist doom-mongering up with which the Prime Minister would not put. These are certainly not persuasive arguments if they imperil his position in Number 10.

The Chancellor might have been more torn. He is a fiscal conservative, and knows that Chancellors are often judged on how responsibly they act. But he is also naturally sympathetic to lower taxes and conscious of his own place (current and future) in the party, with a Prime Minister willing to be ruthless to get his own way. On the basis of the briefings currently coming out of Number 11, the Chancellor looks like he will be a tax cutter.

Tax cuts as early as 2022 might not be affordable, coherent or wise but there is definitely a scenario in which they happen regardless. If Number 10 and 11 are united in panic, political expediency will trump fiscal responsibility at the next Budget.

Charlotte Gill’s Podcasts Review 1) Nick Robinson with Rachel Reeves, Steven Edginton with Jordan Peterson

29 Sep

Every fortnight from now on, ConservativeHome will compile a handful of podcast recommendations – content that has been published in the weeks preceding – for its readers. Although these will mainly focus on podcasts for conservative listeners, we will try to include other options – should they be particularly interesting. Sometimes this feature will contain other types of media.

Title: Political Thinking with Nick Robinson
Host: As above
Episode: The Rachel Reeves One

Link: Click here
Duration: 36:15 minutes
Published: September 24

What’s it about?

With the Labour Conference wrapping up, readers may be somewhat reluctant to hear any more from party members (nor the words “cervix” and “scum” any time soon…). However, this interview between Reeves and Robinson offers an upbeat and insightful look into the former’s politics; perhaps the most interesting revelation is how skilled Reeves is at chess (the former under-14s champion for the UK).

During the course, Robinson delves into Reeves’ childhood, her experience working for the British Embassy in Washington D.C., as well as exploring how she got into politics. The interview shows a softer side of the party.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “I didn’t play the Queen’s Gambit… I was more the Sicilian defence.”
  • “Christian socialist values are my values. I was always brought up that you should give something back, but also that you should work as hard as you can.”
  • “I didn’t agree with Thatcher’s politics and values, but I think in some ways she inspired women to believe that they could do it (lead).”
  • “Well Labour just keep losing; we’ve lost four elections in a row now… Why have we lost four elections in a row? Because people didn’t trust us.”

Title: Off Script – The Telegraph
Host: Steven Edginton
Episode: Jordan Peterson: The collapse of our values is a greater threat than climate change

Duration: 56:23 minutes
Published: September 24

What’s it about?

“Why are you a phenomenon?” begins Steven Edginton in this revealing exchange with Jordan Peterson, which has clocked up over 390,000 views (at the time of writing). It’s a question that leaves Peterson uncharacteristically lost for words. But Canada’s famous psychologist soon has lots to say on everything from his infamous interviews with Cathy Newman and Helen Lewis (“there’s a particular viciousness about British journalists”) to whether he could become a cult figure.

Some teaser quotes:
  • On the Newman interview: “It was so preposterous; the interview was so absurd; it was so palpably ridiculous that it couldn’t be believed; it was surreal. And then since then my whole life has just been one surreal event after another.”
  • On how easily Western societies adapted to lockdowns: “We certainly imitated totalitarian China almost instantly… It’s possible that we’re primed to imitate the first actor in a crisis, like a herd.”
  • “I don’t like the mandated vaccines; I think that’s a dreadful error. I think it’s a terrible mistake, and I think it’s an indication of failure of policy.”

Title: UnHerd with Freddie Sayers
Host: Freddie Sayers
Episode: Sweden won the argument on Covid

Duration: 21:15 minutes
Published: September 23

What’s it about?

“Judge me in a year”, were the words of Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s Chief Epidemiologist and now one of the world’s most controversial figures, when UnHerd interviewed him in 2020. The channel was one of the first to take a huge interest in his “herd immunity” strategy, which attracted mass criticism across the globe.

When grilled on whether the policy has been a success or a failure, Tegnell replies that the “question is very, very difficult to untangle”; it sets the tone for the interview, in which – for one of the most decisive epidemiologists – he remains fairly indecisive on the way forward in Covid. Far from being someone who wants to provoke debate, Tegnell emerges as a moderate and solemn figure.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “Even with a fantastic vaccine the way we’re having, we can control [Covid], but we cannot eradicate it. And I think that’s the difference we need to understand and deal with.”
  • “I really do believe that we’re going to have a much easier winter than last winter. Because really, 95, 96 per cent of the people that really got badly hurt last winter, they are now vaccinated, and they have a good protection.”
  • “It’s been reasonably peaceful in Sweden. We haven’t had a huge divide like in the United States and other places.”

David Gauke: Johnson’s health and social care plan. A betrayal of Conservative principles? No – because, at one level, there aren’t any.

13 Sep

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire in the 2019 general election.

The Government’s plan for increases in National Insurance (NI) contributions to fund higher health spending and increased health spending has provoked a furious response from some on the right.

It “sounded the death knell to Conservatism” and drove “a coach and horses not only through the Tory Party manifesto, but Toryism itself”  according to Camilla Tominey in the Daily Telegraph.  In the same paper, Allister Heath fumed “shame on Boris Johnson, and shame on the Conservative Party…they have disgraced themselves, lied to their voters, repudiated their principles and treated millions of their supporters with utter contempt” and that “an entire intellectual tradition now lies trashed”.

In the Times, Iain Martin declared that “at this rate, the Conservative Party might as well rename itself the Labour Party”  and in the Spectator, Fraser Nelson questioned whether the “Boris Johnson” definition of conservatism as “a protection racket, where the tools of the state are used to extract money from minimum-wage workers and pass it on to the better-off?”

Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings has argued that “if you think you’re ‘conservative’, and you give those speeches about ‘enterprise’ and ‘responsibility’, why would you support making many more dependent on state money and bureaucracy?”

It’s all jolly strong stuff. And there are elements of the criticisms with which I have sympathy. I share the scepticism about prioritising a tax-funded social care cap, in that those who will gain most are those who have the most (thanks to rising house prices) and that is the wrong priority for public money.

There is a need for risk-pooling, but I think Peter Lilley’s proposal on this site is worth close examination (I suggested something similar when in Government). I also dislike NI as the choice of tax because of the narrowness of its base – and the distortions that this causes – and the dishonesty of employers NICs (no, Prime Minister, it is not a tax on business: it is a tax on jobs and employees’ wages).

In fairness to the Government, raising taxes is difficult, NI is less unpopular than income tax (largely because much of the public misunderstand it) and, being cynical, it is not surprising that Ministers exploit that misunderstanding.

Having said all that, is it a fair criticism to state that Johnson’s Health and Social Care plan undermines everything for which the Conservative Party stands? For a number of reasons (some of which reflect better on the Party than others), I think not.

First, the Conservative Party has an honourable record of fiscal responsibility. When the public finances are in trouble, Conservative governments have been willing to raise taxes in order to put the public finances on a sound footing – not least Margaret Thatcher’s, when Geoffrey Howe raised taxes in 1979 and 1981. The advocates of Reaganomics always find this disappointing, but responsible Conservatives do not believe that lower taxes will pay for themselves (as they did not for Reagan).

In reality, even putting aside any new commitments on social care spending, the prospects for the public finances are not great. Not only do we face some immediate challenges (Covid catch up, net zero and levelling up), but demography and rising health expectations will mean a tax-funded healthcare system will require higher taxes.

Some on the Right will argue for further cuts in spending or an alternative health model, but the political feasibility of such an approach is highly dubious. If we are going to spend more (and we are), taxes will need to rise to pay for it.

Second, the idea that a Conservative government prioritising homeowners is a complete break from the past does not bear scrutiny. Look at the arguments that Thatcher made in resisting the removal of mortgage interest tax relief (although the Treasury rightly prevailed in the end), or the general dislike of inheritance tax from the wider Conservative world. The reaction to Theresa May’s social care policy in 2017 suggests that the instinct to ‘defend our people’ (and their inheritances) amongst Conservatives is a formidable one.

Third, complaints about the Conservative Party not being the party of business are (how can I put this?) a little rich from some quarters. Imposing higher taxes, whether on employment or profits, is not great for business – but making it substantially harder to trade with our largest trading partner is a bigger problem.

It is all very well complaining about the anti-business instincts of this Conservative government, but hard to do if you have been a cheerleader for anti-business policies or, for that matter, Boris “f*** business” Johnson. If your expectation is that the Conservative Party would automatically be on the pro-business side of the argument, you have not been paying much attention in recent years.

The reason why the Conservative Party moved in the direction of an anti-business Brexit is that was where the votes were. And this brings me to the fourth and most important observation about the Conservative Party.

It has one purpose: to be in power. At one level, it is not possible for it to repudiate its principles because it does not have any. This can give it a tremendous advantage in a democracy because the public, as a whole, does not have political principles either – opinions and political alignments shift over time.

The Conservatives have been protectionists and free traders, the party of Empire and the party that facilitated the retreat from Empire, Keynesians and monetarists, the party of price controls and wages policies and the party of market economics, the party of Europe and the party of Brexit. It never stays on the wrong side of public opinion for long.

What is happening to our politics at the moment is that party support is realigning along cultural lines and, as a consequence, much more along generational lines. This has worked to the advantage of the Conservatives, so it is no surprise that it pursues policies that prioritises health spending over lower taxes for people of working age.

Polling suggests that the new, Red Wall voters who switched to the Conservatives at the last election are notably more left-wing on economic issues than traditional Conservative voters who are, in turn, to the left of Conservative MPs. The decision was made to pursue those voters and, if the Conservative Party wants to keep them, it cannot risk the NHS collapsing under financial pressure – which means higher spending and, ultimately, higher taxes.

Johnson’s critics are right to think that this will not be the end of it. Last week’s package was supposed to be an answer to how we fund social care. The reality is that it was a package to boost spending on the NHS. As Damian Green has argued on ConHome, it is hard to see how resources will be taken out of the NHS and switched to social care in three years’ time – and that, at that point, some expensive social care commitments will come into effect.

here will another funding gap and, on the basis of last week’s revealed preference, a further increase in the Health and Social Care Levy. Those who see the purpose of the Conservative Party as delivering low taxes are right to be glum.

Neil O’Brien: I can laugh off China sanctioning me, but we can’t shrug off the threat it poses

5 Apr

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

Typical, isn’t it?  You’re trying to get the kids off to school and nursery, running late as you hunt around for your son’s snuggly giraffe. You have a busy day planned, meeting the local paper and a café owner threatened with eviction.

The next thing you know, a communist superpower declares war on you personally.

I’m one of nine people sanctioned by China. It’s tempting to laugh it off. After all, seizing my assets in China will leave the Communists no richer. And after they kidnapped two prominent Canadians, I wasn’t planning to go there anyway.

The next morning, the Chinese embassy still sent me their regular propaganda email to MPs, which began: “Dear friends…”  It seems joined-up government is impossible – even under dictatorship.

But it’s no laughing matter. The goal isn’t really to intimidate me or the other MPs, but business people, academics, and others. To create uncertainty, fear and self-censorship – memorably described as the “Anaconda in the chandelier” strategy.

More and more businesses are having to grapple with it: Beijing’s currently threatening to destroy Nike and H&M in China for raising concerns about slave labour.

It’s now coming up on a year since we launched the China Research Group.  Over the last 12 months, things have changed in lots of ways.

First, there’s growing global awareness of China’s human rights abuses: particularly against the Uighur people, but also in Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and across China as a whole. Human Rights Watch says it’s the worst period for human rights since Tiananmen.

The brutal crackdown in Hong Kong and Beijing’s decision to tear up the Sino-British declaration and end “one country, two systems” showed how much Beijing will sacrifice to keep absolute control. All leading pro-democracy activists there are now in exile, in jail or on trial.

At least the world has started to notice and act.  Indeed, we were targeted by Beijing in response to coordinated sanctions on human rights abusers in Xinjiang, recently put in place by 30 democratic countries.

MPs around Europe and MEPs from all the European Parliament’s main political groups were sanctioned along with us, with various US politicians already sanctioned last year.

So we’re all in it together, and it was great to get strong support from the Prime Minister – and through him the US President – and also from friends around Europe.

The sanctions aren’t like-for-like of course. MPs like me are being sanctioned simply for writing articles like this. By contrast, the democracies are sanctioning Xinjiang officials for presiding over a regime forcing sterilisation of Uighur women on an industrial scale; using rape as a weapon to break dissenters in its vast network of detention camps; rolling out an AI-powered surveillance state that to identify and control minority groups; and physically erasing the Uighur culture and religion from the face of the earth.

Our sanctions are to protest against human rights abuses. Theirs to silence such protests.

What Beijing’s doing is at least as bad as Apartheid South Africa.  But by comparison, the international response has been more muted so far. Partly because China makes it hard for reporters to get access. But also because China is more powerful than South Africa was.

International pressure on South Africa grew over decades and became a huge cultural movement. It loomed large in the pop music of my 80s childhood: “Free Nelson Mandela”, “Something Inside So Strong”, “Silver and Gold”, “Gimme hope Jo’anna” were all hits.

These days Hollywood studios make sure that their films have the thumbs up from Beijing: they think it’s too big a market to risk losing.

I’ve written about China’s growing global censorship. Nonetheless, the truth is seeping out, and the global criticism getting louder.

That points to a second positive change over the year: new opportunities for democracies to coordinate in the Biden era.

Coodination is essential: China’s economic and political strategy relies on divide and rule.  Each free country fears losing out if it alone stands up to Beijing.

The communist regime singles out countries who challenge it like Australia, Sweden and Canada. Like all bullies, they are really trying to teach others to keep their heads down.

But while Trump had scratchy relations with other leaders, Biden’s election makes cooperation much easier.

It’s not just that we need to get the band back together again, and make the G7 work (though that’s important), but bringing together a wider group of democracies including India, South Korea, Australia and South Africa. The Prime Minister is right to push the “D11” concept.

The third big change is changing western attitudes on economic policy regarding China.

The single best thing about the recent Integrated Review was the clear-eyed understanding of the competition for technological advantage now underway between nations.

In the sunny utopianism of the 1990s, the world was going to be flat, borderless, and competition was between companies not countries. Technology was cool, but not a national issue: the UK could just specialise in professional services. Awesome new global supply chains meant you didn’t need to worry about where your supplies were coming from, whether it was vaccines; ventilators, PPE, silicon chips or telecoms equipment.

Beijing has a very different vision, and its rise means we must change our thinking  It promotes “Civil-military fusion”, and its imports have slowed dramatically as its import substitution policies develop.

Xi Jinping says he is “building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.” He explains that China must “enhance our superiority across the entire production chain… and we must tighten international production chains’ dependence on China.”

The US has woken up to this, and in Washington as well as Beijing there’s a shared understanding that the two superpowers are fighting to dominate the technologies of the future. Joe Biden talks about “winning the future”.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have long seen tech competition as a shared national endeavour, and have policies to match.  No wonder: meeting politicians from these countries through the China Research Group, I’ve come to understand the level of constant threat they have to live under.

We too must adapt to this more national world.

First, we need to build a powerful innovation system. During the 1960s and 1970s the US and UK invested similar amounts in R&D.  But Reagan grew federal support while we let it wither, and we have been operating on different levels since.  I’ve banged on before about how to make government funding do more for our economy.

Second, we need to protect ourselves from the Beijing’s hoovering up of technology.  More help for business to resist cyberattack from the National Cyber Force.  Somewhere to get advice on not losing your intellectual property if you do business in China.

And as well as the very welcome National Security and Investment Bill we need to make sure that the new Investment Security Unit has the same resourcing and input from the security services that CFIUS enjoys in the US – and we need to be prepared to use the new powers.

Likewise, Jo Johnson’s recent report highlights the risks to our universities from poorly-thought-through partnerships with China. Investigations by Civitas and the Daily Telegraph revealed that UK universities are actually helping Beijing with new weapons technologies. We must get a firm grip of all such partnerships and where universities’ money is coming from.

Over the last year we’ve learned a lot.  The UK and governments across the west have started to act.  But we’re still just starting to figure out how to respond to a more aggressive China.

David Gauke: Is Britain really set to become a low tax, less regulated, free trading, buccaneering country?

13 Mar

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

Conversations about tax policy can take unexpected turns. It was during one such conversation in the late 2000s – I was the shadow tax minister at the time and developing our plans for corporation tax – that a senior tax lawyer at a city firm recommended a series of books on naval battles.

Peter Padfield’s Maritime Trilogy is, in truth, somewhat broader than that. Padfield alternates accounts of the most important maritime confrontations since the Spanish Armada with a broader account of the social, economic and constitutional development of the great powers.

His central argument is that there is a distinction to be drawn between maritime nations – with linked strengths of sea-fighting, trade, financial innovation and constitutional constraints – and land-based empires. The later relied on closed domestic markets, rigid hierarchies and centralisation, the former distinguished by liberty, flexibility and enterprise.

It is an analysis that many British Conservatives would share and, the argument goes, makes the UK well suited to the era of globalisation. We are historically and culturally accustomed to trade and with that comes a recognition that trading partners have other options. Our prosperity is dependent upon those partners wishing to continue to trade with us. Political stability; the rule of law; paying our debts; limited government; competitive and predictable taxes – all qualities that are necessary to succeed as a maritime nation and in the era of globalisation.

It was in this spirit that the Prime Minister’s first big speech following our departure from the EU was at the Old Naval College in Greenwich where – in extolling the virtues of free trade – he talked of recapturing “the spirit of those seafaring ancestors immortalised above us whose exploits brought not just riches but something even more important than that – and that was a global perspective”.

So how are we doing? Are we on course to be the open, outward-looking nation of which the Prime Minister spoke? Are we becoming a more flexible, enterprising, maritime nation?

My last column assumed that corporation tax rates would increase and argued that this would be a mistake. When I heard Government ministers defend the rise by saying that our corporation tax rates remained the lowest in the G7, I was reminded of my conversation with the tax lawyer.

The lawyer’s argument (which I found persuasive) was that we became economically successful from the 1690s onwards because our model was more like that of a small country dependent upon foreigners choosing to trade with and invest in us, taking inspiration from the Dutch rather than the French. Our modern tax system should seek to emulate this, he argued, encouraging international businesses to locate activities and investment in the UK. Our rates may be lower than other G7 economies but, if we see ourselves as nimble and competitive, our ambitions should be greater than that. A better corporate tax regime than France is not a proud boast.

How about freeports? The name could not be more evocative of our trading and maritime traditions. But the evidence suggests that they will achieve little other than displacing activity from one part of the country to another. And if we were really ambitious about a deregulated, low tax, low customs solution to our economic woes, why give these advantages to some places, why not everyone?

The emphasis on freeports reveals an approach to the levelling up agenda that I worry is more about creating grateful localities in exchange for pots of spending rather than a clear sighted vision for improving productivity. The suspicion must be that the preference for ad hoc ministerial decisions over a more defined industrial strategy will lead to a less economically rigorous approach. The suspicion will linger that party political considerations will be to the fore.

There is one surprising, if qualified, bright spot. We are becoming more open to talent. It was already the case that the requirements to get a work visa were much less restrictive than previously, and the Chancellor’s announcement on the skills visas is worthwhile. The qualification, of course, is that it is still much more bureaucratic for EU citizens to work here than it was – which brings me to Brexit.

Our history as a maritime nation is one often identified by supporters of Brexit – like the Prime Minister in his Greenwich speech. Even the word ‘Brexiteer’ evokes the naval escapades of buccaneers (although the Oxford English Dictionary also defines ‘buccaneer’ as ‘a person who acts in a recklessly adventurous and often unscrupulous way’). Liz Truss tops the ConHome Ministerial popularity charts largely on the basis of her energetic advocacy of Global Britain and for free trade as a benefit of Brexit.

The reality is that Brexit involves the erection of trade barriers with our largest market, as January’s appalling trade numbers suggest (although, to be fair, a clearer picture will only emerge over time). Given the Prime Minister was willing to agree to the Northern Ireland Protocol, it even involves trade barriers within the UK.

While good progress has been made by the Department of International Trade in completing free trade agreements with third countries, these have primarily rolled over existing agreements that we had as members of the EU. There was a flurry of excitement last week when the US dropped punitive tariffs on UK products that were in place because of a longstanding dispute with the EU over Airbus and Boeing. Brexit supporters rushed to declare it a triumph due to our new status, the Trade Secretary wrote a self-congratulatory piece in The Daily Telegraph. A day later, the US announced that it was dropping the punitive tariffs against the EU, too. The search for a trade benefit from Brexit continues.

What about regulatory flexibility? It is nearly five years since we voted to leave the EU, but there are still no bold plans to regulate in a different way. Plans to review workers’ rights have been dropped on the basis that this would be politically unpopular.

If the hard Brexit delivered by the Government has made trade with the EU much harder, the combative manner of our dealing with the EU has not only reduced trust but even undermined a key attribute for a trading nation – the rule of law. Having threatened to breach international law for three months over the autumn, Lord Frost has now decided to extend the grace period before internal checks come into place – unilaterally changing the terms of our agreement with the EU. A second breach of an international treaty only recently agreed begins to look like a habit. It does nothing for our reputation for trustworthiness.

The attributes of an outward-looking, open, trading nation are ones to which we should aspire. But in terms of our openness to trade, competitiveness on tax and adherence to the rule of law we are going backwards. In terms of the State telling businesses what they should do and where they should do it, we are becoming more centralised and more arbitrary.

For years, many in the UK have characterised the EU as centralised, interventionist, uncompetitive and protectionist. It would be a sad irony if our departure from it makes us more like the type of inward-looking, land-based power that we once used to disparage.

Jason Reed: Dowden’s latest task? Regulating the internet. Here’s what Australia can teach us about that challenge.

10 Mar

Jason Reed is the UK liaison at Young Voices, a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center and a communications advisor for the British Conservation Alliance.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden finds himself burdened with an almighty task: regulating the internet. His new ‘Digital Markets Unit’, set to form part of the existing Competitions and Markets Authority, will be the quango in charge of regulating the social media giants. Dowden, like the rest of us, is now trying to discern what can be learned by rummaging through the rubble left behind by the regulatory punch-up between Facebook and the Australian government over a new law forcing online platforms to pay news companies in order to host links to their content.

Google acquiesced immediately, agreeing to government-mandated negotiations with news producers. But Facebook looked ready to put up a fight, following through on its threat to axe all news content from its Australian services. It wasn’t long, though, before Mark Zuckerberg backed down, unblocked the Facebook pages of Australian newspapers and, through gritted teeth, agreed to set up a direct debit to Rupert Murdoch.

The drama down under has been met with a mixed response around the world, but it is broadly consistent with the trend of governments shifting towards more and more harmful and intrusive interference in the technology sector, directly undermining consumers’ interests and lining Murdoch’s pockets. The EU, for one, is keen to get stuck in, disregarding the status quo and unveiling its ambitious plan to keep tabs on the tech giants.

In the US, the situation is rather different. Some conspiracy theorists – the type who continue to believe that Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States – like to allege that the infamous Section 230, the item of US legislation which effectively regulates social media there, was crafted in cahoots with big tech lobbyists as a favour to bigwigs at Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on. In reality, Section 230 was passed as part of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, long before any of those companies existed.

Wildly overhyped by many as a grand DC-Silicon Valley conspiracy to shut down the right’s online presence, Section 230 is actually very short and very simple. It is, in fact, just 26 words long: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Not only is this a good starting point from which to go about regulating the internet – it is the only workable starting point. If the opposite were true – if platforms were treated as publishers and held liable for the content posted by their users – competition would suffer immensely. Incumbent giants like Facebook would have no problem employing a small army of content moderators to insulate themselves, solidifying their position at the top of the food chain. Meanwhile, smaller companies – the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow – would be unable to keep up, resulting in a grinding halt to innovation and competition.

Another unintended consequence – a clear theme when it comes to undue government meddling in complex matters – would be that vibrant online spaces would quickly become unusable as companies scramble to moderate platforms to within an inch of their lives in order to inoculate themselves against legal peril.

Even with the protections currently in place, it is plain how awful platforms are at moderating content. There are thousands of examples of well-intentioned moderation gone wrong. In January, the Entrepreneurs Network’s Sam Dumitriu found himself plonked in Twitter jail for a tweet containing the words “vaccine” and “microchip” in an attempt to call out a NIMBY’s faulty logic. Abandoning the fundamental Section 230 provision would only make this problem much, much worse by forcing platforms to moderate much more aggressively than they already do.

Centralisation of policy in this area fails consistently whether it comes from governments or the private sector because it is necessarily arbitrary and prone to human error. When Facebook tried to block Australian news outlets, it also accidentally barred the UK-based output of Sky News and the Telegraph, both of which have Australian namesakes. State-sanctioned centralisation of policy, though, is all the more dangerous, especially now that governments seem content to tear up the rulebook and run riot over the norms of the industry almost at random, resulting in interventions which are both ineffectual and harmful.

The Australian intervention in the market is so arbitrary that it could easily have been the other way around: forcing News Corp to pay Facebook for the privilege of having its content shared freely by people all over the world. Perhaps the policy would even make more sense that way round. If someone was offering news outlets a promotional package with a reach comparable to Facebook’s usership, the value of that package on the ad market would be enormous.

Making people pay to have their links shared makes no sense at all. Never in the history of the internet has anybody had to pay to share a link. In fact, the way the internet works is precisely the opposite: individuals and companies regularly fork out large sums of money in order to put their links on more people’s screens.

If you’d said to a newspaper editor twenty years ago that they would soon have free access to virtual networks where worldwide promotion of their content would be powered by organic sharing, they would have leapt for joy. A regulator coming along and decreeing that the provider of that free service now owes money to the newspaper editor is patently ludicrous.

That is not to say, however, that there is no role for a regulator to play. But whether or not the Digital Markets Unit will manage to avoid the minefield of over-regulation remains to be seen. As things stand, there is a very real danger that we might slip down that road. Matt Hancock enthusiastically endorsed the Australian government’s approach, and Oliver Dowden has reportedly been chatting with his counterparts down under about this topic.

The humdrum of discourse over this policy area was already growing, but the Australia-Facebook debacle has ignited it. The stars have aligned such that 2021 is the long-awaited point when the world’s governments finally attempt to reckon with the tech behemoths. From the US to Brussels, from Australia to the Baltics, the amount of attention being paid to this issue is booming.

As UK government policy begins to take shape, expect to see fronts forming between different factions within the Conservative Party on this issue. When it comes to material consequences in Britain, it is not yet clear what all this will mean. The Digital Markets Unit could yet be a hero or a villain.

The short sharp shuffle. Sharma takes on COP26 full-time. Kwarteng steps up a rung to become Business Secretary.

8 Jan

The end of transition was a calendar fixture and ought, in the event of a trade agreement, to have offered Boris Johnson the chance to refresh the Government – since a deal would both boost his standing with Conservative MPs and bring calmer political waters.

But then an event took place last winter that was very much not a calendar fixture: the first major pandemic in a century.  It would consequently have looked and been frivolous to have a major reshuffle now, and so lash those waters up again at a moment when the Prime Minister needs all Ministerial hands on deck.

The same logic applies to the next natural break in the political calendar: the February half-term recess.  Hospitalisations will have risen and may not be falling by then.

Then there is Easter in early April.  But Covid considerations apart, local elections are due in May.  Why hold a big reshuffle before then rather than after?

And if they are postponed until June, why not wait until September for a shuffle, before the Conservative Party Conference (for there will be one in some form), rather than send MPs off for the summer recess in the wake of a self-made squall – since reshuffles inevitably bring more pain than gain?

The shape of events since the outbreak of a new strain of Covid has thus suggested putting off the shuffle until early autumn.  Furthermore, no Cabinet Minister will then reasonably be able to complain if sacked or moved, having been in place for the best part of 18 months.  However, there was a snag.

Namely, what to do about COP26, due to take place in Glasgow this November?  To cut a long story short, it will need an agreement to be a political success for the Prime Minister, and is set to be his second major diplomatic setpiece of the year – the first being the UK’s G7 presidency and the consequent summit, usually held during the summer.

That requires a lot of legwork.  And the Minister in charge of the COP26 negotiation, Alok Sharma, wore two hats – his other being that of Business Secretary.

So the Prime Minister has gone for a short sharp solution – announced on a Friday evening, a legendary graveyard news slot, in which Governments make announcements that they wish to gain limited publicity.

No big shuffle.  No return to the Cabinet yet for Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was removed when her DfID job was abolished recently, but reportedly promised a return.  She is back in the department as Energy Minister, which will surely be a disappointment.  And there is no comeback for Sajid Javid, whose name was in the frame for the BEIS job.  Instead, Johnson has opted for a minimalist, orderly solution.

Sharma stays in Cabinet, and goes full-time for the COP26 role.  And Kwasi Kwarteng, already a Minister of State in the Business department, moves one slot up to replace him as Secretary of State.  By our count, the Cabinet was one under its maximum count of 22, so Sharma stays a full member.

Kwarteng is a big, personable, right-wing historian, who once wrote a lively column for the Prime Minister’s alma mater – the Daily Telegraph.  He was a co-author of the Free Enterprise Group’s bracing study Britannia Unchained.

So he is bound to see the trade deal as a further loosening of the bonds.  The Government’s friends will say that he ups the Cabinet’s number of ethnic minority members to five.  Its enemies will reply that it raises the number of Old Etonians to two.

Sharma is not at all a front-of-house Cabinet showman, being inclined to block the bowling and risk nothing outside off stump, but he is a diligent, toiling Minister.  More to the point, he is a loyalist: a Johnson voter in the 2019 leadership election, playing Jeremy Hunt during campaign practice debates.  Kwarteng is another loyalist – though he broke ranks to lay into “misfit and weirdo” Andrew Sabinsky.

The term was Dominic Cummings’, not Kwarteng’s: readers will remember the former Chief Adviser seeking to recruit some to the civil service.  Kwarteng departed from the Government line to accuse Sabinsky of racism. But Cummings has left the building…

We take this mini-shuffle as a sign that a bigger one is now unlikely to come until the autumn.  This is not a strong Cabinet, but the Prime Minister is sticking with it, at least for the moment.

Dependability, a lack of fuss, predictability – and taking the drama out of event.  These are not qualities most people associate with Johnson but, when it comes to Government shuffles, they are becoming trademarks: oh, plus loyalty, of course.  Though the treatment of Trevelyan hangs over these moves like a questionmark.