In memory of my formidable, kind and imposing former constituency neighbour, Cheryl Gillan

5 Apr

When I was elected as MP for Wycombe in 2001, Cheryl Gillan was one of five constituency neighbours: the others being David Lidington, Dominic Grieve, John Bercow, and two future party leaders: Boris Johnson (across the county border in Oxfordshire) and Theresa May (ditto, Berkshire).

Cheryl had been in business in marketing, and was first elected to the Commons in 1992 – at a time when Conservative women MPs were fewer.

By 2001, she was senior, experienced and, with Lidington, the longest-serving of my four Bucks colleagues.  Cheryl was also able (having served as a junior Minister in the John Major Government at Education) and was a consistent presence on the Opposition front bench during my ten years in the Commons.

My sharpest memories of her are Bucks memories: that’s to say, of her around the table at joint meetings of the County Council Cabinet and those local MPs.

Kindly one-on-one, she was formidable across the table – woe betide the unfortunate person who happened to cross her – and in my view the most imposing character of the five of us, at a time when that smaller number of Tory women MPs had to work even harder for their place in the sun.

She was also what Conservative MPs call “a good colleague”: that’s to say, any disagreement she had with you would be argued out privately, and in public she would “have your back”.

A key to Cheryl was her husband, John “Jack” Leeming, a former senior civil servant, to whom she was devoted, and the attachment was mutual.  It was a warm, close family circle that kept her going during “expenses”, and his death two years ago will have been a terrible blow to her.

At one point, she was ready to stand down in 2019; changed her mind; stood again and won.  Part of the explanation for the back-and-forth may be found in the leadership contest of earlier that year.

Graham Brady’s leadership aspirations effectively excluded him from acting as returning officer for the election.  So Cheryl, by then a Vice-Chairman of the 1922, acted as returing officer with the other Vice-Chairman – Charles Walker or “my beautiful assistant”, as she referred to him while announcing the result [see picture right].

Cheryl may have stood for Parliament again believing it possible that Brady would not contest the chairmanship of the ’22 post-election, leaving the way open for her to do so.

It is not at all surprising that, back in 2010 after her long front bench stretch in Opposition, she survived the cull of Conservative Shadow Cabinet members when the Coalition was formed – moving from shadowing the Welsh Secretary to serving in the post herself.

Other Tory MPs might have been intimidated by Labour’s stranglehood on the politics of the country – her main claim to the office was that she had been born in Cardiff – but Cheryl was a vigorous presence in post, and didn’t want to leave it when dismissed by David Cameron in 2012.

In retrospect, it may have been for the best, since the tensions between serving as a loyal Minister, which she was, and opposing HS2, which she did, were rising.

She was a vociferous, well-informed and constant opponent of the project, and of its consequences for her Chesham and Amersham constituents.  Cheryl leaves a majority of 16,223, and the coming by-election will be a test for Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats, who will want to mount a challenge, and to the Tories, who will be expected to dismiss it.

The 33 Conservative MPs who rebelled over the Genocide Amendment

19 Jan
  • Ahmad Khan, Imran
  • Amess, David
  • Blackman, Bob
  • Blunt, Crispin
  • Bridgen, Andrew

 

  • Crouch, Tracey
  • Davis, David
  • Djanogly, Jonathan
  • Duncan Smith, Iain
  • Ellwood, Tobias

 

  • Francois, Mark
  • Ghani, Nusrat
  • Gillan, Cheryl
  • Gray, James
  • Green, Damian

 

  • Hart, Sally-Anne (pictured)
  • Hoare, Simon
  • Hollobone, Philip
  • Jenkin, Bernard
  • Latham, Pauline

 

  • Lewer, Andrew
  • Lewis, Julian
  • Loughton, Tim
  • Mackinlay, Craig
  • Nokes, Caroline

 

  • Richards, Nicola
  • Rossindell, Andrew
  • Seely, Bob
  • Tugendhat, Tom
  • Wakeford, Christian

 

  • Walker, Charles
  • Warburton, David
  • Wragg, William

Today’s genocide amendment had no relation whatsoever to recent votes on Covid – or other major rebellions that this site has been chronicling.

But there is considerable overlap between the rebels on those lists and on this one.  And even newcomers to our records such as Sally-Ann Hart and Nicola Richards have voted against the Government previously (though rarely).

Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the amendment, lists of those defying the whips now have a certain predictability.

Kate Dommett and Sam Power: We must act now to protect our elections from foreign interference

25 Sep

Dr Kate Dommett (University of Sheffield), and Dr Sam Power (University of Sussex) are the authors of Democracy in the Dark: Digital Campaigning in the 2019 General Election and Beyond.

Only now are we beginning to get the real picture of what campaign spending looked like in the 2019 election. Our new analysis shows that the £19.5 million the Conservatives raised in this period is greater than the sum total of reported donations to all political parties in 2017 during the same pre-poll period (that stood at nearly £18.7 million).

Where did it go? The official spending returns aren’t yet out. But we can catch glimpses through social media giants’ ad archives.

Digital campaigning is a big business. We estimate that spending on social media platforms increased by over 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2017. Of this, the three main UK-wide parties spent around £6 million on Facebook and just under £3 million on Google.

While Facebook was used by all three national parties to a relatively equal extent, the Conservatives invested dramatically more in Google (which includes YouTube). The advertising archives suggest the party spent £1,765,500, dwarfing the combined spend of £873,300 made by Labour and the Liberal Democrat accounts on this platform.

Yet despite these large numbers, online spend by parties made up only a fraction of the total political ad spend overall. Why? Because we are seeing the rise of the ‘outrider’. These so-called ‘non-party campaigns’ often spring up in and around elections – with the public in the dark about how they are funded, and by who. In 2010 there were 18 of these bodies registered with the Electoral Commission; by 2015 that number had nearly doubled to 30, and last year the figure had doubled again to 64.

While digital campaigning has huge, positive potential to reach out to voters, there is much we don’t know about who is behind online content. This has led to urgent calls for change.

Many of you will be familiar with the practice of putting ‘imprints’ on printed campaign materials. Bizarrely, 15 years after the launch of Facebook in the UK, there’s still no such rule for online material meaning the provenance of these ‘outriders’ is often not widely known.

In this transparency vacuum, social media giants’ have set up their own online ad archives, allowing us a glimpse of the scale of campaigning. But anyone who has used them will know they are insufficient, error-riddled, and often too vague to be useful. Often, we just don’t know who’s targeting us online.

Analysis presented in the report coded data from Facebook to identify 88 UK organisations as non-party campaign groups active during the 2019 election. These groups placed 13,197 adverts at a calculated cost of £2,711,452. Facebook knows who they targeted and why, but they provide only limited information about this in the archive. This makes it impossible to know what exactly is happening, and suggests a need for more transparency.

Whilst the government has rightly pledged to implement online imprints, this remains out for consultation. Whatever the result, it only scratches the surface. We have revisited the many inquiries that have been explored the issue of digital campaigning to highlight a number of simple and proportionate recommendations to protect a free and transparent debate, around which there is broad and cross-party consensus.

The need for online imprints – and soon – is clear. However, currently donations under £500 are not classed as such, meaning foreign actors could split up donations into smaller amounts to shift our political debate. Companies funding political interventions only have to generate a nominal amount of income in the UK. A simple change in law could clarify that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Given concerns about Russian interference, this kind of enshrined principle is vital.

Many of the recommendations in this report echo existing calls to modernise electoral law to help rebuild trust in our democratic system. It’s why the report has been backed by Cheryl Gillan. As she notes, we need honest conversations about the need for “more transparency in the money spent on campaigning in the electoral process, particularly in the light of the rapidly developing digital world”. Despite the huge growth of online ads, what was spent on digital campaigning is far from clear.

“We must continue to examine how we can ensure we have free and fair elections and what changes are necessary to our laws as technology continues to advance,” Dame Cheryl writes.

We cannot leave our electoral integrity in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley giants. Unfortunately, recent years have seen parties and campaigners become even more cautious about disclosing information about their campaign activities online.

Maintaining transparency needs an independent regulator, which is why we are concerned by threats to abolish the Electoral Commission if it cannot be ‘radically overhauled’. The ICO has major clout to investigate alleged wrongdoing when it comes to our data. We must give the same – if not more – gravity to our free elections.

With elections due to take place across the UK in May 2021, we cannot let the urgent task of ensuring our electoral integrity be kicked into the long grass once more, or set-backwards through the rash dismantling of our watchdog.

At present, it is exceedingly difficult if not impossible to uphold the fundamental principles of our democracy: of openness, transparency, and public trust. Digital campaigning has the potential to be hugely positive – provided we don’t let secrecy rule the day.