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.

Johnson’s Brexit journalism and Brexit politics are of a piece: in both he thrives by infuriating the Establishment

16 Dec

If one wishes to understand Boris Johnson’s performance in the Brexit negotiations, it is worth studying his performance as a journalist.

Nobody, so far as I know, has yet done this. HIs critics have trawled his articles in search of proof that he is a racist and a liar, but were already determined to condemn him, so were in no condition to learn anything they did not already believe.

Johnson has been writing about the European Union since 1989, when Max Hastings, in a stroke of genius, sent him as The Daily Telegraph‘s correspondent to Brussels.

Soon Johnson’s office was adorned with herograms from Hastings, in recognition of the wonderfully readable and widely noticed copy supplied by his protégé.

While other correspondents still treated the EU with a degree of respect, Johnson set out to ridicule the Brussels bureaucracy, and to dramatise the mortal threat which the Commission’s expansionist zeal posed to the British way of life, symbolised by changes in the rules governing crisps and sausages.

His readers enjoyed these reports enormously, but some of his rival correspondents did not. They accused him of making things up.

He reported (as I noted in my biography of him, Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister) that the Berlaymont building was going to be blown up, in order to get rid of the asbestos with which it was infected. The editor of The European saw this story and wished to arrange for one of its readers to push the plunger on the detonator, but this proved impossible, for there was to be no detonation.

The Berlaymont is standing to this day, its asbestos-ridden cladding replaced by what looks like an entirely new building, in which Ursula von der Leyen last week entertained Johnson to dinner.

Stories like this continue to annoy The New York Times, and other journals which attach the highest importance to checking the facts.

They are not mollified, if anything are made still angrier, by the observation that Johnson approached Brussels in the manner of a dramatist, not a literalist, the urge to entertain taking precedence over mere facts.

When a brilliant caricaturist tells the truth by exaggerating somebody’s features, nobody objects, but the same latitude is not extended to reporters, even though the presentation of their work – the decision about which story to put on the front page, with a dramatic headline – can seldom be said to be free from hyperbole.

The row about Johnson’s cavalier attitude to facts obscured several other aspects of his work. One was that he was onto something: the Commission really was trying to expand its powers at the expense of the member states.

A second feature was his respect for the ruthlessness with which Jacques Delors, the President of the Commission, and his henchman, Pascal Lamy, were driving forward the process of European integration, which they believed to be in the French national interest, for it was a way of controlling Germany:

“With his virtually shaven head and parade-ground manner, Lamy runs the upper echelons of the Commission like a Saharan camp of the French Foreign Legion.”

British officials, with “their shy grins and corrugated-soled shoes”, were, Johnson lamented, “no match for the intellectual brutality of Lamy and his stooges”.

Another aspect of his coverage was harder to spot, for it was something he did not do. When objecting to the Commission’s plans, he did not generally protest that these were contrary to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.

Johnson is no disciple of Enoch Powell. In his voluminous journalism he pretty much ignores him.

In an interview which I conducted with Johnson for the Christmas 2012 issue of Weltwoche, published in Zurich, he admitted that he has always been seen by hard-line eurosceptics as “incorrigibly wet” on the issue of British membership of the EU.

He is not a dogmatist: something seen also in his attitude to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some of the greatest Telegraph journalists – one thinks of T.E.Utley, who died in 1988 – articulated an eloquent and principled Unionism.

No attempt was made by Johnson to follow in Utley’s footsteps, and last autumn he did a deal with Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, which Unionists regarded with deep disquiet.

It would, however, be wrong to regard Johnson’s European journalism as inconsistent. His Telegraph colleague Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who has known him since 1991 and served as the paper’s correspondent in Brussels from 1999-2004, was occasionally commissioned by Johnson, by now editor of The Spectator, to contribute pieces, and has recalled:

“At no time during those years did I ever detect any deviation from his core view that the EU was amassing unhealthy powers…

“He shared my view entirely that the EU was creating an upper layer of executive government beyond accountability, with a Caesaropapist structure at odds with British democratic self-rule.”

During the long Greek agony over the euro, Johnson’s sympathies were overwhelmingly with the Greeks. Here he is, writing in The Telegraph in May 2012, defying the conventional wisdom that the answer to the eurozone’s problems is to go for fiscal union:

” it is frankly unbelievable that we should now be urging our neighbours to go for fiscal union. It is like seeing a driver heading full-tilt for a brick wall, and then telling them to hit the accelerator rather than the brake.

“Europe now has the lowest growth of any region in the world. We have already wasted years in trying to control this sickness in the euro, and we are saving the cancer and killing the patient. We have blighted countless lives and lost countless jobs by kidding ourselves that the answer to the crisis might be ‘more Europe’. And all for what? To salvage the prestige of the European Project, and to spare the egos of those who were wrong and muddle-headed enough to campaign for the euro.

“Surely it is now time to accept that the short-term pain of a managed euro rupture – a wholesale realignment, possibly a north/south bisection – would be better than continuing to immiserate so many people around the continent.”

The emperor has no clothes: this refrain echoes through Johnson’s journalism, and distresses Europe’s imperial class.

Johnson yearns to attract and amuse the largest possible audience, and does so partly by demonstrating his determination to do things his own way.

Michael Binyon of The Times has recalled how in Brussels Johnson would invariably arrive late for the daily press conference at noon, a fixed point around which the journalists’ day revolved.

Johnson would shamble in at about 12.10 looking as if he had just been pulled through a haystack, and a French journalist once asked Binyon: “Qui est ce monstre?”

If you want to make an impact in Brussels, you have to put on a performance. Johnson realised this, and by 1994, when he left, everyone knew who he was.

The short clip of him meeting von der Leyen last Wednesday evening was somehow tremendously watchable. Johnson as he took his mask off for the benefit of the cameras, then followed his host’s bidding and immediately put it back on again, communicated a subversive geniality, a sense of the ridiculous.

The message was that he had not gone native; that he was still the man who made his name as a journalist by refusing to take the Brussels Establishment as seriously as it took itself.

Whatever the outcome of the present negotiations, Johnson will be determined to preserve his reputation as a man who does not bow to the Establishment, and does not hasten to conform to its timetable or its manners.

By keeping everyone in suspense, uncertain of the outcome, he has maintained the theatrical nature of the proceedings, with himself as the lead actor.

Solemn people have often found his journalism irresponsible, and now they find his politics irresponsible. But that is part of the point. Whether writing, speaking or negotiating, Johnson puts on a performance which the spectators enjoy all the more because it horrifies the guardians of convention.

Amy Selman: How to be a campaigner and a governor – lessons from Johnson’s time as London’s mayor

16 Nov

Amy Selman was policy adviser to Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London from 2010-2016.

Much was written about the personalities of the key players within Downing Street this week – and the consequent drama and intrigue captures the interest of the Westminster classes.

Less headline-grabbing are the methods of working which may also need a refresh in order to reassure Conservative MPs that the Prime Minister’s team is working for one of their ultimate goals – re-election in their constituencies.

It is too glib to say that campaigners can’t deliver in government. MPs know this because of the impressive record of many of their local council leaders, who tend to stay in office for longer, and run successful re-election campaigns.

In London as Mayor, Boris Johnson snapped up key local leaders, from Stephen Greenhalgh, Mike Freer and Theresa O’Neill (then leaders of Hammersmith & Fulham, Barnet and Bexley councils respectively), to replicate at the city level what they had done for their boroughs.

This team, managed first by Simon Milton as Chief of Staff, and then by Edward Lister, helped the Mayor run a united team of both civil servants and politicians. Some observations:

Gearing everything towards delivery – publish a traffic light system

The first is that the machinery of government can and wants to work for you, and the best way to consolidate that is through your manifesto.

Leaders are elected on a platform, and the civil service’s duty is to help execute it. A focus on delivering policies that voters chose is key to getting the machinery working. At City Hall, this was done by a diligent senior team who produced a monthly traffic light scoresheet for each 2012 manifesto commitment, and brought those in charge of implementing it to an Investment and Performance Board, with minutes that were almost wholly public.

This meant some difficult conversations both with heads of such agencies as Transport for London, and with the Deputy Mayors appointed to oversee them, but the process both integrated the teams and served as red flags when commitments were under threat.

The traffic light system was not always the favourite part of people’s work – more exciting, glamorous comms opportunities would capture daily headlines  – but the Chief of Staff and Permanent Secretary ensured that this core business had to be met first.

Adapt delivery for campaigning materials – so providing a record

The Board papers allowed the political team to extrapolate for London’s Conservative MPs achievements they could use in campaigning materials, such as those that CCHQ provided borough versions of newsletters.

Conservative MPs need regular red meat – material they can use to campaign on a record. Progress on manifesto commitments are the way to provide that, regardless of daily stories that blow hot and cold. Donors, too, want to see a scorecard that can reassuree them that core policies are being worked on.

Brand your successes.

Johnson’s team also instigated the appropriate branding for schemes – such as, at the insistence of Richard Blakeway, one of the Deputy Mayors, that all new part-funded Homes for London were attributed to the Mayor’s office as well as the private housebuilder.

There is a current debate about this practice in relation to UK Government schemes in Scotland.  It should be settled immediately: if taxpayer money is being spent in any part of the UK, the brand of Her Majesty’s Government must be displayed.

Adapt set pieces with bitesize briefings for MPs to use

Set pieces such as the Budget are another amalgamation of campaigning and governing. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne was a master of this fusion, and would pass on long shopping lists from London to civil servant teams, which would then whittle it down to list concrete commitments.

One example is the Long-Term Economic Plan for London of 2015, which adapted the work of the independent London Finance Commission – triangulating between Whitehall, local enterprise partnerships and other regional demands that the then Government was facing to ensure a fair share of investment.

Bitesize briefings based on the LTEP ensured that the huge sums pledged by the Treasury could be translated into local schemes and MP campaigning wins – such as nine new housing zones and two new tube stations. Mayors and regional MP leaders have a huge role to play in similar processes, and should feel that they are working with others as one team all along.

Create a network of insiders at all Party ranks

As Mayor, one of Johnson’s most frequent requests was: ‘what’s happening?’

These were not idle queries” rather, he created a network of allies to help respond to whatever target audiences were talking about: advisers and senior civil servants on forensic London issues; Tory MPs on constituent postbag audits (along with the gossip from dining clubs and the terrace), local council activists on doorstep concerns.

Remember who put you there – so get out and about.

Machiavelli wrote that “he who becomes a prince through the favour of the people should always keep on good terms with them”.  Jonathan Powell’s twentieth century addition was “and if his popularity goes down, his party becomes restless”.

For a mayor known only by his first name, the key to keeping on good terms was to get out and about. In a non-Covid-19 world, I’m sure that we would have seen a Prime Minister Johnson out and about in high streets across the country.

The rotating local London People’s Question Times, as with David Cameron’s Cameron Directs, created a discipline of looking at how wider policies were improving specific areas.

Instead of talking about body-worn cameras or free school places in the abstract, we would have to produce the figures for a borough and explain the exact nature of their benefits.

This helped local campaigners, along with such activities as the boost of a star-power walk, opening of one of London’s 100 new Pocket Parks or regeneration flagships such as Battersea Power station. There was never any tension at the dual nature of these events, with political visits coupled to official events -and Ministers are itching to get back to this even in a virtual world.

Respect the Grid, but don’t expect it to deliver key messages to target audiences

City Hall straddles – without fully controlling – policy areas, agencies and delivery bodies. Whitehall of course has this writ far larger. So the temptation to try and centralise announcements is natural: but in London, it rarely worked seamlessly, and with the audiences the Mayor wanted.

The grid is really a tool for journalists and Westminster, not for voters. It is important, especially if a key audience is the Tory backbenches, who need a Minister for The Today Programme, Newsnight and social media. To get to the voters, a string of random announcements on a topic such as transport should be consolidated into key messages repeated – which meansresisting the need to feed the news cycle beast.

Use the authentic voice – no-one writes to connect like Johnson

The style and reach of Johnson’s Monday Daily Telegraph column did more to focus on priorities than set speeches in warehouses or hard-hatted engineering visits.

Not that it was always disciplined: we would often reassure Numbers 10 and 11 on a Sunday that he would publicly support a new NHS or tax initiative…only for Monday morning’s paper to be a musing on ski holidays or working habits

But the Mayor’s authentic voice though cut through to core voters. And it became clear that when other Ministers wrote diary columns – in the Spectator for the Tory faithful, or in Grazia for new audiences – these would get far more discussion than press release columns.

After a difficult period that no post-war Prime Minister has had to grapple with, a refocus on what the Conservative Party promised voters in 2019, and how each constituency will feel the benefits, would help the Government to regroup. Time to return both governing and the campaign to Tory ground.

James Frayne: Perhaps the Conservatives should simply revert to being southern and posh

10 Nov

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In my twenties, I took a serious interest in US politics and campaigns, naively coming to think of the UK and US as culturally similar. It’s an easy mistake: a shared history; mutual respect for each other’s institutions; similar attitudes to the free market, individual rights and the rule of law; overlapping tastes in popular culture.

But it’s a mistake nonetheless. When I lived and worked in Washington DC and New York City for a couple of years – theoretically culturally familiar places – I came to realise how utterly foreign the US is. While I love the US and believe they’re our closest ally, I’m culturally European. I’m now firmly of the view those people seeking to apply political and electoral lessons from the US to the UK are usually wasting their time.

As Nick Timothy pointed out yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, the idea that Boris Johnson’s conservatism is damaged by Donald Trump’s defeat is ludicrous – the two are cut from different cloth, despite persistent but silly commentary linking “Brexit and Trump”.

So I stress: those looking to learn lessons from the US are mostly wasting their time. But one important consideration does arise for British Conservatives.

This is the electoral danger of letting down the new working class voters who have flocked to Trump’s GOP and the Conservative Party respectively.

In the US, these voters are often called Reagan Democrats or sometimes Springsteen Democrats; in the UK, we tend to call them the “traditional working class”; either way, they’re the working class of industrial and post industrial areas. While their similarities stretch only so far, given the differing nature of British and American labour markets and industrial history, the theme of working class disappointment is relevant.

We shouldn’t over-simplify: there were many reasons why Trump won in 2016; aggressive cultural conservatism was only one of them. But Trump partly carried so-called “rust-belt” states by promising to bring back long-lost manufacturing jobs and heavy industry. In short, he pledged to bring back dignity to hard-up places. The fact that this hasn’t happened – despite a surge in the national economy – dented his re-election chances.

A reality check: it doesn’t appear that Joe Biden truly surged amongst working class voters, nor did Trump collapse. But they do appear to have shifted markedly away from him. Given his narrow lead amongst the working class – and indeed his narrow lead in rust-belt states, full stop – this shift was enough to cause serious electoral problems.

British Conservatives face a similar problem. No, they didn’t make the same sorts of promises to the traditional working class in 2019; they didn’t promise the equivalent of, say, bringing back coal and steel to the North of England.

But while “getting Brexit done” was the most important part of their campaign last December, “levelling up” has become the party’s central public narrative (Covid aside) ever since; it runs through almost all of their policy communications. Their promises to the working class are far less outlandish than Trump’s, but they’re arguably more defined by their promises because they’ve talked of little else.

Trump’s winning coalition was large, but it was shallow, because of its reliance on new voters with no history of voting Republican. The same is true here. The Conservatives’ 80 seat majority looks massive, but it’s also precarious because again it’s built on new voters with few loyalties.

While working class people will cut the Conservatives slack because of Covid, they’ll soon be asking what progress the Government has made for them. They will certainly not accept the opposite of “levelling up” – the further decline of their towns and cities (which is already happening).

Just like those long-term Democrats who asked whether shifting their votes to their historical economic and moral opponents was worth it after all, so those traditional working class Labour voters from the Midlands, North and the Coast will pose the same sort of question. They’ll ask whether the Conservatives were all talk. And as I’ve written before, Keir Starmer is a very different proposition for the working class than Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s reported today that Rishi Sunak has promised Northern MPs more resources and more attention in the post-Covid period, largely, apparently, in the form of new infrastructure spending. This is welcome. (Though what about other areas – not least the Midlands and the coast?)

But time isn’t on their side, and the task is huge. Unless they can offer meaningful social and economic progress in such places as Walsall, Wolverhampton, Derby, Rotherham and Oldham, they will be out. Yes, they’ll be able to blame Covid-19 – but so what?

In fact, such little progress is being made, with time rapidly running out, it will soon be time to consider whether the Conservatives should junk their presumed working class strategy and focus once again on the affluent South. And it’s possible that the party should indeed take the easy route, follow its heart, and go back to being Southern and posh; yes, I’m serious.

Where should the Conservatives focus? Infrastructure matters. Ultimately, however, improving the economy outside the prosperous South East will require radically improving education and skills at all levels – seeking to build new businesses and industries from this new base of skilled workers. But you’re talking of two or three Parliaments to see the fruits of any such decisions made now. The Conservatives don’t have that luxury.

Rapid progress will depend on being able to show town centres – and specifically high streets – have improved. This doesn’t just mean defending commerce; it means making town centres safer and more attractive and, crucially, fostering local pride. The Party should be throwing itself into this task. A useful immediate start to focus minds: use all those screens in the Cabinet Office to display figures from a Towns Dashboard.

Neil O’Brien: The virus and the lockdown. Let’s keep calm and carry on – for there’s reason to believe that a vaccine is coming soon.

2 Nov

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Sarah Thomas is a lunatic. And amazing. About a year ago, she became the first person to swim the Channel four times in a row without stopping. It took 54 hours.

Between booking her slot, and getting in the water, she survived cancer. Setting off, she was immediately stung in the face by a jellyfish. On her fourth crossing, strong tides pushed her off course, turning 83 miles of swimming into 134, forcing her to sprint-swim to break free from the current.

She’s inspiring. And swimming the channel isn’t a bad metaphor for our fight against coronavirus. Metaphorically, we’re somewhere in the middle, when you can’t see Britain, but can’t quite see France either.

The national restrictions announced by the Prime Minister on Saturday underlined that we will still be slogging through this for a while yet. Polls suggest the public strongly back his decision: given the alarming data, it is definitely the right one.

Yet everyone’s tired of the restrictions and not seeing loved ones and friends, and the good things we look forward to once this is over remain a way off.

As we go through this marathon ordeal, what can we learn from Sarah Thomas?

First, most top athletes are taught to visualise success.

Regarding Coronavirus, the finishing line is becoming more visible, with progress on vaccines looking good. The New York Times runs a Vaccine Checker which lets you follow progress.

Eleven different vaccines are in final-stage “Phase 3” clinical trials, with half a dozen or so now seeing limited use outside trials.

There were always reasons to be optimistic about a vaccine: when the whole world wants something really badly, it’s likely to get produced. Producing a vaccine for coronavirus isn’t like inventing the atom bomb or putting a man on the moon, which required oodles of new technologies. A Covid-19 vaccine is a sideways-step from existing technologies. Several categories of vaccines look like they will be ready to roll in the coming months:

  • The Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine is basically a weakened version of a common cold type virus, modified to carry a protein which Covid-19 also shows, so that your body can learn to seek and destroy it without exposure to the real thing. Trials found it produces a good immune response including among older people, and doesn’t have side effects. The UK, US and EU have signed for hundreds of millions of doses.
  • Other vaccines based on a similar approach in final stage tests include China’s CanSino vaccine, Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and Johnson & Johnson in the US.
  • Another promising approach is based on the use of messenger RNA: a blueprint for making proteins. The Pfizer / Biontech vaccine works like this and may well be the first to go into non-trial use in the US. There was some speculation last week that we could start using it here in the UK before Christmas, which seems a bit soon, but it isn’t far off. Another similar vaccine from the Gamaleya Research Institute is also final stage trials.
  • Finally, there’s a bunch of traditional vaccines based on inactivated versions of Covid-19 (like the Hepatitis B vaccine, which has been around since the 1960s). China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac both offer vaccines like this – the Sinovac one is already being used outside clinical trials and you can buy it in some cities for $60. The Indian Council of Medical Research is also in final stage trials of an equivalent.

So the shore’s not so far away.

The other lesson from Sarah Thomas is about listening to the right people. She says she nearly quit halfway, but her team egged her on.

Contrast that with the British commentariat, large parts of which are dishing out terrible advice. If they’d been in Sarah Thomas’s support boat they’d have been telling her to give up, harping on about how cold it was. They’ve been hopeless throughout.

First, they dismissed the problem. Richard Littlejohn wrote in the Daily Mail on March 2nd/

“My default position on all these health scares is weary scepticism. We’ve been here before. Sars, Mers, Ebola, Bird Flu, Swine Flu… All passed in Britain, at least without the catastrophic death toll the so-called ‘experts’ confidently predicted”.

Wrong.

Then they declared the problem over. In the Daily Telegraph, Allison Pearson wrote in May that that, by June: “a scientist friend assures me the coronavirus will have petered out.” Sunetra Gupta, one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, (and who the media fawns over), predicted in May that “the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country”, which she said was “due to the build-up of immunity”.

Wrong.

The commentariat want to shout down wiser voices. In September, Sir Patrick Vallance faced a torrent of abuse for saying that there might be 200 deaths a day from Covid-19 by mid November. “Project fear,” thundered one Telegraph columnist. Piers Morgan blasted the Government’s “scaremongering.”

Wrong.

In fact we hit that grim milestone sooner, in late October, and hit 326 by the last day of October. We need to start listening to the right coaches – not hopeless people who get it wrong time and again, but face zero accountability.

Finally, top athletes learn from the best. In terms of Coronavirus, the best performers are Japan, Korea and New Zealand. France has had 19,800 cases per million people. The UK 14,800. Japan has had just 795, and Korea just 512 and New Zealand 325.

New Zealand is rural, but Japan and Korea are heavily urban. How did they do it?

Partly it’s about near-universal mask use. As the Lancet notes: “In Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, the habit of mask wearing by people with respiratory conditions was already widespread before the pandemic”. Part of it is that all these countries also have tough virus border controls.

There are other factors. Japan locked down Tokyo at a very early stage. South Korea’s super-duper test and trace system uses records of credit card transactions, mobile phone and global positioning system data, to fill in gaps in what coronavirus patients can remember in interviews.

The most important lesson from Asia is that success breeds success. A low rate of cases makes it easier for test and trace staff to isolate and shut down chains of infection, and contain local outbreaks. Too many cases and such approaches are overwhelmed.

To use an analogy, it took us a long time to work out how to conquer inflation. The key discovery was that the only way to have stable inflation is to have very low inflation.

The same’s true of coronavirus. Either you are beating coronavirus, or it is beating you. It doesn’t want to go in a straight line or rise gently, but to streak exponentially upward. Korea, Japan and New Zealand have got it pinned to the floor, so can get on with their lives. Instead of surrendering, as let-it-rippers in the commentariat advocate, they’ve decided to win.

Unlike Sarah Thomas we don’t have to swim for 54 hours. But we’re all enduring hardships. To get to the other side of this we need to keep thinking straight. It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that there’s some easy way out. There isn’t.

When she was far out to sea, her team called to her: “Just keep swimming.” At first, I thought that sounded really dumb. But when you are out in the middle of the Channel, it’s not such bad advice.

Pressure rises on Ministers to publish assessments of the impact of lockdowns, restrictions – and Covid itself

20 Oct

Last week, ConservativeHome called for the Government to broaden and deepen the national conversation about Covid-19 – or at least try to as best it can.

It is essential to see the disease in the round by understanding the consequences of lockdowns, restrictions and the virus itself on both lives and livelihoods.

For livelihoods, read what’s usually called the economy, a dry term, but is actually a human story of lost jobs, lower living standards, higher poverty, damaged schooling and vulnerable sectors, including hospitality and retail.

For lives, read healthcare outcomes other than Covid-related ones.  In other words, cancelled operations and fewer treatments, as well as (for example) worse heart disease, cancer, mental health and domestic abuse outcomes.

This is why we urged the Goverment to publish –

  • A regular Treasury report that calculates the economic cost of the lockdown.
  • A rolling Department of Health assessment of the human cost of the shutdown.
  • The creation of an economic counterweight to SAGE.

We also suggested that some think-tanks have the capacity to issue comprehensive reports.

This site originally urged this course during the spring, and is far from alone in having done so.  On which point, congratulations to the Daily Mail, which today publishes a four-page investigation into health outcomes. It finds –

  • 25,000 more people died at home during pandemic, since they didn’t go to hospital as it continued.
  • There is set to be a 20 per cent rise in cancer patient deaths because of treatment backlogs.
  • Organ transplant operations fell by two thirds while waiting list deaths doubled. More than 50,000 operations for children were cancelled.

It’s worth pointing out that some of these outcomes will have been a consequence of Covid-19 itself rather than restrictions – for example, people not going to A & E departments in order to reduce the risk of catching the virus.

The line Matt Hancock took yesterday in the Commons is that suppressing the virus is integral to better health outcomes, because the more NHS resources the virus demands the fewer there will be for other conditions.

But a question that obviously follows is whether or not the Government’s strategy, which is dependent at present on big lockdowns, is the best means of protecting the NHS.

It’s worth noting that a Department of Health analysis has said that “in the long-term, the health impacts of the two month lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater than those of the direct Covid-19 deaths”.

The Mail is not alone in trying to get its readers to look at the Coronavirus in a more full context.  Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph reported that the ‘Protect the NHS’ message led to 90 per cent drop in hospital admissions.

The Times last Friday urged the Government to be “more transparent about the economic and health costs – the same day that we took much the same view.

And a wide range of Conservative MPs are increasingly calling for the kind of action we have outlined.  Theresa May has called for more formal economic advice.  Steve Baker, writing on this site yesterday, urged Ministers to publish “serious analysis of the costs of the options they face”.

Downing Street will be reluctant to take this course, and thus indicate that the Government might change its strategy, while it is doubling down on the present one.

In political terms, that’s what our report yesterday about new LAMP and lateral flow tests signified.  Number Ten believes that these can deliver where track and trace has not (though it is not abandoning the latter).

So it is trying to persuade Tory backbenchers not to abandon the testing strategy, and transfer their support either to lockdowns and a permanent suppression plan, or to loosening and a more voluntarist approach.

We shall see whether this push pays off – and if this planned massive scaling-up of new tests works.  ConservativeHome’s understanding is that the Treasury hasn’t ruled out a big report on economic costs.

However, Government sources pointed out that much of the required data is already available (i.e: unemployment figures), and that it would be hard to disentangle the effects of restrictions from those of the virus more widely.

We also detect a concern about the consequences of publishing bad economic news: on the one hand, the Treasury has an interest in alerting voters to the scale of the economic challenge, but none in alarming them.

This hatchet man in a hurry casts no new light on Johnson, except to show him as a vulnerable child

17 Oct

Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower

In his Acknowledgements, buried on page 527 of his book, Tom Bower remarks, in the manner of an author broaching a humorous topic: “Readers should be aware that Boris Johnson is not a stranger in my home.”

He adds that “Veronica Wadley, my wife, has known him as a journalist since he joined The Daily Telegraph in 1988.”

Readers are not, however, made aware that during Johnson’s second term as Mayor of London, from 2012-16, Wadley worked for him as a well-paid adviser at City Hall, and now that Johnson is Prime Minister, he has made her a Conservative peer.

These interests really ought to be declared, if only in order for Bower to declare that he has not allowed himself to be swayed by so much as a syllable from what he would have written anyhow.

The peerage is recent news, but not so recent that it could not have been mentioned here. A few pages earlier, Bower has referred to “the government’s mismanagement of the A level and GCSE examinations in mid-August”. His wife’s elevation was announced on 31st July.

Bower is billed on the cover of this book as “Britain’s top investigative author”, yet says of Wadley: “She played no part in researching or writing this book.”

For a top investigative author, that seems a strange omission. Only a third-rate investigative author would have failed to ask the woman he lives with for help in explaining Johnson, whom she has known for 32 years.

And she has in fact given some rather unrevealing help with the question of why Johnson ran for mayor: “At a summer party in Carlton Gardens, she cornered Boris and suggested that he run for mayor. Although surprised, he agreed to consider it.”

Wadley was at this point editor of The Evening Standard, which threw its full support behind Johnson in his closely contested battle with the incumbent mayor, Ken Livingstone.

The chief power possessed by any Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she has hundreds of jobs and honours with which to reward his or her followers. Johnson understands this as well as any previous holder of the post.

The chief power possessed by a writer is the power to tell the truth, or at least to try to tell it. But in order for readers to trust a writer, they have to feel he or she is taking them into his or her confidence.

James Boswell possessed that quality in superabundance. He really wanted to tell us what he thought about Samuel Johnson, and about those round Johnson.

Bower doesn’t have that quality. He doesn’t want to take us into his confidence, and gives us no real sense of what the people round his Johnson are like. For most of the time, he doesn’t sound in the slightest bit interested in them himself.

Anyone can make mistakes, but Bower’s mistakes have the curious effect of rendering vivid material less vivid, funny stories less funny.

So he has James Landale, then of The Times, saying of Johnson as a correspondent in Brussels: “Boris told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp.”

No mention that Landale was adapting “Matilda”, by Hilaire Belloc, for use at a farewell party.

Sonia Purnell, who wrote a generally unfavourable biography of Johnson, has taken to Twitter to dismiss what Bower says about her as “so inaccurate it’s risible”.

My own regret is that while Bower has paid me the compliment of borrowing extensively from my own life of Johnson, the comic element is almost always lost, and with it an essential part of the explanation for Johnson’s ability to reach the wider public.

One can, of course, say that Johnson is beyond a joke. Over the years, many eminent commentators have come round to that view. Bower quotes Max Hastings in The Daily Mail in October 2012:

“If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to be a serious country.”

So far as one knows, Hastings still lives near Hungerford.

Bower’s book serves as a reminder that more journalists have said Johnson could not, and should not, become Prime Minister than has been written of any other figure in recent times.

These denunciations now read like so many predictions of future success. For one does not bother to contend that someone with no hope of getting to the top will not do so.

Johnson’s critics were trying to suppress the awful realisation that he might actually make it. Matthew Parris has been trying to persuade himself.

Bower casts no light on this curious phenomenon. He made his name writing hatchet jobs about various well-known figures: his last book was an account of Jeremy Corbyn which was so unrelievedly hostile – so disinclined to give credit even where credit might be due – that it rendered Corbyn’s ability to win the support of large numbers of voters incomprehensible.

In this new book, Bower still swings his hatchet, every so often settling scores with various extraneous figures without indicating how in the first place they incurred his displeasure.

He has no understanding of the history, workings and mentality of the Conservative Party, which Johnson saved last year from destruction at the hands of Nigel Farage.

About Johnson himself, Bower is quite often positive, not by appreciating his good qualities, but by sinking the hatchet into others. For example, after relating the unhappy tale of Johnson’s evidence, as Foreign Secretary, about Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, Bower declares:

“The real culprit was the Foreign Office, a failing department.”

Why does he say this? Through his clotted prose, it is impossible to discern his real motives. We are not taken into his confidence. It sounds like pure Johnsonian propaganda.

One wishes Bower would tell us what he is trying to achieve, but the answer may be that even he, a hatchet man in a hurry, does not really know what he is doing, apart from getting the book finished. At the end, he deviates into a appallingly prolonged account of the pandemic which tells us virtually nothing about Johnson.

The one person who speaks truth in this book is Johnson’s mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who says of his father, Stanley Johnson:

“He was always hitting me, and Boris saw it.”

According to Bower, Stanley “feigned ignorance” about the causes of Charlotte’s nervous breakdown in 1974, for which she was treated for eight months at the Maudsley Hospital in south London:

“Charlotte corrects Stanley’s recollection: ‘The doctors at the Maudsley spoke to Stanley about his abuse of me. He had hit me. He hit me many times, over many years.’ On one occasion, Stanley had hit Charlotte especially hard. ‘He beat me up and broke my nose,’ she recalls. After that attack, Charlotte was treated in the St John & St Elizabeth Hospital in north-west London. The children were told that a car door had hit their mother’s face. Boris, however, knew the truth.”

This old, unhappy and not very far-off story is related in the first chapter of the book. Here we see a loving mother’s defence of her son against his enemies. Bower, it may be said, has served her purpose.

An excellent book about Johnson has just been published. Unfortunately it is in German. One hopes it will appear in an English translation, but meanwhile anyone who can read the language of Goethe is urged to get hold of Boris Johnson: Porträt eines Störenfrieds by Jan Ross of Die Zeit.

Ross in his Portrait of a Contentious Man – more literally of a disturber of the peace – recognises that Johnson’s fallibility awakens sympathy and a feeling of togetherness, and that by refraining from idealism, Johnson protects himself against the charge of hypocrisy.

Some of Johnson’s own writings sound better in German. The jokes distract one less from the seriousness, and the debt to classical antiquity is more apparent.

Johnson is serious! A provocative thesis, with which few members of the German political establishment will agree, but argued here with perfect lucidity.