Three actions that Ministers must take if we’re to live without fear. Or else they and we will be lost.

15 Oct

If ConservativeHome is writing about the Coronavirus, we know where to look for Government information.  A mass of guidance and information is available.

But if, on the other hand, we want to find out the number of operations postponed since the original lockdown was announced on March 24; or that of cancer deaths; or that of those brought about by heart disease; or the harm wrought by rising mental health problems, or domestic abuse, or lost schooling, the Government has not compiled the relevant information and statistics for publication in a way that makes these easily available to find and read.

We are better off if we wish to report the number of job losses.  But these are not issued together by the Government with, say, the rise in child and poverty since late March.  There is no one-stop-shop source of official information about the damage to the economy since then – to livelihoods as well as to lives.  As well, as we say, about those other harms to lives.

Now it is true that not all cancer deaths since March 24, say, can fairly be blamed on the long shutdown.  But it isn’t beyond the wit of man to work out the number of deaths since then compared to those of a comparable six month period in a usual year.

It is also the case that some of any figures published would be contestable.  But that’s also true of official Coronavirus estimates.  For example, the task of working out the number of deaths in England has been has been complicated by two major changes in the way they have been calculated (in April and August).

There is an urgent point to this dry analysis.  Today, Boris Johnson is trapped in a pincer movement between Labour, which is arguing for a short national lockdown, and his own party, which inclines to fewer restrictions faster.  He will try to find a compromise – by tightening the conditions in the most repressive of the Government’s new three tiers, and extending these.  That would enable him to toughen up while avoiding an England-wide shutdown.

So the Prime Minister is set gradually to be dragged by Keir Starmer towards that circuit-breaker lockdown in all but name.  And once in it, there will be no quick way out, since the test and trace system isn’t working well enough to quell the rise in cases that would follow the end of the shutdown.  So that wouldn’t happen at all, or at least only do in a curtailed form.  We would be in semi-lockdown semi-permanently – which seems to be SAGE’s real aim.

All in all, we are all being manoeuvered into an annual cycle of near-total winter lockdowns and partially-eased summer ones, until or unless a vaccine is widely available, herd immunity is achieved or the virus abates.

This would risk bankrupting the country.  National debt hit a record £2 trillion in September.  It has reached 100.5 per cent of GDP, the highest level in 60 years.  We cannot be sure that Britain would be able to borrow for the duration at the present rock-bottom rates to grow its way out of trouble.  Even if it could, there is no guarantee that enough growth would come to stave off medium-term spending cuts and tax rises.

These would intensify the damage that this crisis is inflicting on lives as well as livelihoods – the rising toll in cancer deaths and educational harm and mental health problems which we refer to above, and so much more, including more poverty and deprivation.

Which takes us back to those figures.  There is fierce dispute about whether voters are really as supportive of harsher lockdowns as the polls suggest.  But Johnson can scarcely be blamed for not wanting to sail against the prevailing political weather.

In order to steer his way out of it, he will have to change it: changing the weather, after all, is what the best politicians do. In short, the Government must try to widen and deepen the national conversation about the Coronavirus.  That will take a bit of time.

It entails drawing voters’ attention to the wider social and economic damage that living semi-permanently in lockdown would do. Some of the information that would help to do this is already out there.  As Raghib Ali has pointed out on this site, the Department of Health’s own health cost-benefit analysis shows that to date “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”.

But Government sources tell ConservativeHome that the Department of Health has been resistant to getting all the healthcare-related facts and figures together in one place.  That’s perhaps not surprising given its focus on the virus.  It’s more surprising that the Treasury hasn’t done a parallel exercise on the economy.

Ultimately, it’s up to Downing Street to make the case, backed up by more information and strategic messaging, against more national lockdowns, with the damage to lives and livelihoods that this would bring.  But the key player in forcing it to change is Rishi Sunak.

If we are truly to live with the virus and “live without fear”, as the Chancellor put it in the Commons recently, we must prepare to shift, in the absence of a track and trace plan that works, to a less restrictive and more voluntarist policy – one based on the balance of risk between the harm that Covid-19 does and the harm that shutdowns do.

And an indispensable part of any push for change is shifting public opinion to support it.  This site has been calling since the spring for the Government to publish its estimate of non-Coronavirus healthcare costs to date; of the costs of lockdown to the economy to date, and of the total cost and total saving of the lockdown (which can be calculated by assigning a value, as government does elsewhere, to each human life in Britain).

Sunak, together with Ministers in other economic departments, such as Alok Sharma at BEIS, needs to push for three actions:

  •  A regular Treasury report that calculates the economic cost of the lockdown.  That’s within his own gift, as it were, and the work could start today.
  • A rolling Department of Health assessment of the human cost of the shutdown.  That will be harder to get.  The Chancellor will need the Prime Minister’s support to extract it.
  • The creation of an economic counterweight to SAGE that considers livelihoods as well as lives, thus ensuring broader advice to the Prime Minister.

Finally, Ministers can’t act as the sole pathfinders for policy.  Intrinsic to Margaret Thatcher’s success during the 1980s was the work of think-tanks and Conservative MPs in preparing the way for change.

There are a mass of Tory backbench groups and wider pressure organisations.  The One Nation Caucus comes to mind for us at once, because Damian Green, its Chair, wrote a perceptive piece for this site yesterday about the choices that the Government now faces.  Perhaps it or the No Turning Back Group – to pick a Parliamentary group a bit different in outlook – could produce a report.

Some of the think tanks are already working in this field.  The Resolution Foundation has done an intergenerational audit.  (See also David Willetts’ recent ConHome piece.)  Policy Exchange has probed the Government’s NHS tracing app.  (Benjamin Barnard wrote about its findings for us here.)  The Institute of Economic Affairs has examined the NHS’ shortcomings; the Centre for Policy Studies has led the way in probing economic costs.

But more work will be needed if public opinion is to move.  In the meantime, Sunak must continue to lead the way.

“Huge concerns”…”I cannot support this policy”…levelling over green fields with concrete”. Tory backbenchers on the Goverment’s housing plans.

9 Oct

“This is not levelling up. It is concreting out,” Bob Seely wrote yesterday morning on this site about the Government’s White Paper on planning reform, and his Commons debate on the subject later in the day.

His article criticised the algorithm that sets out how many houses are needed in which places – which was originally brought to public notice by our columnist Neil O’Brien.

Would Seely’s colleagues agree with him?  Here are some snap extracts from speeches by Conservative backbenchers who spoke yesterday.

  • Theresa May: “We need to reform the planning system….But we will not do that by removing local democracy, cutting the number of affordable homes that are built and building over rural areas. Yet that is exactly what these reforms will lead to.”
  • Philip Hollobone: “The Government are being sent a clear message by Back Benchers today that they have got this wrong and they need to think again.”
  • Jason McCartney: “I have huge concerns about the supposed new housing formula or algorithm. I think we have all had enough of algorithms this year.”
  • Neil O’Brien: “Ministers should fundamentally rethink this formula so that it actually hits the target. Yes, we should build more houses, but we should do it in the right places.”
  • Chris Grayling: “I regret to say that, even as a loyal supporter of the Government, I cannot support this policy in its current form.”
  • Jeremy Hunt: “In short, I am concerned that these proposals do not recognise serious risks…The Government must think again.”
  • Damian Green: “This will not be levelling-up; it will be levelling over green fields with concrete.”
  • Damian Hinds: “I encourage [the Minister] and the Government to think again about some of these important matters.”
  • Caroline Nokes: “The Housing Minister and I were first elected in 2010 on a manifesto that committed to no more top-down housing targets, and this algorithm looks suspiciously like a top-down target.”
  • Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: “The real flaw in the White Paper is that all it does is concentrate building in the south-east and central south of England”.
  • Clare Coutino: “I seriously worry about centrally designed housing numbers which do not take into account a local area’s capacity to deliver.”
  • Luke Evans: “I am also concerned that the formula does not take into account infrastructure, as has been mentioned, or future plans for generations.”
  • Karen Bradley: “How can it be the case that the Government are now considering any form of central target, because that is exactly what the algorithm looks like?”
  • Laurence Robertson: “As things stand, I think that the housing numbers will take precedence. That is wrong and it goes against what we stand for as a party.”
  • Crispin Blunt: “The presentation that the Government have made is potentially catastrophic for delivering the wider objectives of Government policy.”
  • Harriet Baldwin: “Let us move away from the Gordon Brown approach and the top-down imposition of Stalinist housing targets.”
  • Gareth Bacon: “I urge the Government to heed the words of hon. Members in this debate and to revisit the proposals.”
  • Kieran Mullen: “Why are we going down a route that is likely to cause upset and tear up some local decision making when we could tackle the issue through that existing route?”
  • Laura Trott: The White Paper…says that the green belt will be protected, and that is right, but we see no evidence that this is being taken into account in the algorithm.”

That’s 19 backbenchers critical of important aspects of the proposals.

Furthermore, Scott Mann referred diplomatically to “some challenges within the White Paper”; Gareth Johnson said “it is essential that we bring local authorities with us in proposing these targets”; William Wragg wants to ” abandon the notion that planning is something that is done to communities”, and Richard Fuller, while saying that the Government “is on to something”, also said the targets for his local area are unmanageable.

Only James Grundy spoke from the Tory benches without any criticism of the plans.

No wonder that Andy Slaughter, from the Labour benches, gleefully pointed out that “there are 55 Conservative Back Benchers hoping to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker”.

Chris Pincher, the Housing Minister, pointed out that the proposals are out for consultation, and reiterated (as in his recent ConservativeHome article) that “over the past two months my Department has actively engaged with the sector and is listening to feedback. Many right hon. and hon. Members will know that I too have been listening and discussing carefully”.

In short, he was distancing himself and the Government from the algorithm numbers.  But we think it worth grabbing some highlights from yesterday’s speeches because, on this showing, opposition on the Tory benches is not confined to the algorithm.  Ministers will find a central feature of their plans, top-down housing targets for local authorities, very difficult to get through the Commons, at least as presently constituted.

The three testing days for Johnson coming up in the Commons. (Or two and a half at least.)

28 Sep
  • Today, there is a general debate on Covid-19.  That will give the Government’s backbench critics who want a Sweden-style approach a chance to make their case.  It will be well worth watching to see how many put it; how strongly; and how many Tory backbenchers make the counter-case for lockdowns, which polling suggests have strong public support.
  • Tomorrow comes the remaining stages of the UK Internal Market Bill – and so also the revolt against it headed by Theresa May.  The Government’s concession of an eventual Commons vote on any safeguarding measures that might be argued to break international law, in the event of No Deal on trade, has won round such discontented MPs as Geoffrey Cox, Damian Green and Bob Neil.  We will see tomorrow evening how many others vote against the Government or more likely abstain on Third Reading.
  • Wednesday sees the second reading of the Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) (No.2) Bill.  The main bone of contention is likely to be the permission it would grant for two-storey extensions to homes and tower blocks to go ahead without planning permission.  That’s unlikely to provoke a mass backbench revolt.  But the debate will be worth watching to see how many backbenchers pile in to criticise the coming planning reforms that will bring about more housebuilding in shire Tory seats.
  • Finally, there is the renewal of the Coronavirus Act’s temporary provisions – and the Brady amendment seeking more Parliamentary control.  It’s not clear as we write whether or not the Speaker will select it for debate.  The Government appears to be holding back any concessions, in case it isn’t chosen after all.

Iain Dale: How many Cabinet members would your fantasy Cabinet. I count five. And it gets worse.

20 Aug

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

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to defend what’s happened over the last week or ten days with exam results.

Clustershambles doesn’t really cover it. And the trouble is that it has affected a huge number of people, not just the students and teachers concerned, but their parents and grandparents too.

Add them up, and we’re talking several million people, I imagine. Like the Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip, it’s had cut-through.

The latest YouGov poll, out on Wednesday should a four point dip in the Tory ratings to 40 per cent. While that is still a two point lead, it’s not difficult to imagine that next week Labour could be ahead for the first time in, well, many years.

Optimists might point out that we are three and a half years away from a general election and that time is a great healer. Maybe, but once a Government gets a reputation for crass incompetence it is very difficult to shake off.

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It was reported by The Independent (yes, it still exists online) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation on Monday, but that it was rejected by the Prime Minister. Only they know the truth of this, but it certainly hasn’t been denied by the beleaguered Education Secretary.

If he did indeed do the honourable thing, all credit to him. But surely if you resign, you, er, resign. It’s all very well for the Prime Minister to have said (if he in fact did), well, you got us into this, you get us out, but in the end once a politician loses the confidence of his or her client groups, it’s very difficult to get things back on an even keel.

Your Cabinet colleagues look at you as a dead man walking. Your enemies can’t wait until your inevitable denouement, and your “friends” melt away at the first whiff of grapeshot. If you’re going to survive, you don’t have long to plan how to do it. In Williamson’s case, he has until Christmas, given that I am led to understand that the reshuffle is now planned for January.

– – – – – – – – – –

The trouble with this Cabinet is that it has a distinctly second-rate feel about it. How many of them would make it into a Thatcher or Major cabinet. Very few, I would venture to suggest.

I interviewed Alastair Campbell on Wednesday (it will be on the Iain Dale All Talk podcast next Wednesday), and he reckoned that most of the current crew wouldn’t have even made it to Minister of State in Mrs T’s day.

Do it yourself. Go through the whole cabinet, and think how many of them would make your own fantasy cabinet. I just did so and came up with a total of five. Lamentable.

But it gets worse. Look down the list of Ministers of State – the ministers who would normally be next in line for the cabinet. I count five that are cabinet material. This is a dire state of affairs.

But it gets even worse. Normally you have a range of former ministers who you could think about bringing back to add a bit of weight and gravitas. Trouble is, most of them left Parliament at the last election. Looking at the greybeards on the Tory benches with cabinet experience you have Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, John Redwood, Maria Miller, Greg Clark, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Cheryl Gillan, Chris Grayling, Damian Green, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Esther McVey, Andrew Mitchell, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers.

Now, how many of those could realistically be restored to cabinet status to bring something extra in terms of political weight, gravitas or character? I’ll leave that to your impeccable judgement.

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So far this year, I haven’t taken any holiday at all. However, next week I’m on holiday in Norfolk – apart from the fact that I’ll be writing this column, doing several podcasts and appearing on Any Questions.

I realised last week that I’ve lost the art of doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’ve got my laptop open and I will be flicking through Twitter or something.

Next week, I’m going to try to do some reading, and I mean reading for pleasure – not reading something because I have to for my job. Talking of which I have just done an hour-long interview for my Iain Dale Book Club podcast with Danny Finkelstein. He’s just published a book of his collected columns. What a truly fascinating man he is. The podcast will be released on Friday 4 September.