Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.

A tale of two cities. The Conservative Government has had smooth relations with Liverpool – less so with Manchester.

1 Dec

When the first lockdown began, on March 23rd, I don’t recall a single local authority expressing opposition. Even some of the more extreme measures – such as keeping the great majority of pupils away from school – went unchallenged. Local elections were cancelled with scarcely a shrug. Naturally, financial compensation was a subject keenly discussed. But on the substance, there was overwhelming support for restrictions. The only dispute was how they could go further. For instance, in my own borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, the parks were closed for a while – until it was accepted that this was counterproductive.

The mood is very different now. Council leaders are routinely challenging the “tier” their area has been put in, regarding it as unduly onerous.

Yet within these parameters, there are some stark variations. Even before the current lockdown was announced I found that most Conservative council leaders felt restrictions had gone too far. As they become more exasperated they are increasingly speaking out in public. My understanding is that Conservative MPs contemplating rebellion are usually emboldened by council leaders in their constituencies.

But often it has been Labour councils which have faced demands from the Government for the tightest controls. Conservatives are more likely to live in towns and villages where the population is more spread out. Labour voters tend to inhabit the bustling cities. It is scarcely surprising that the virus is a greater risk to communities in the latter group. There is an appreciation that making an announcement is easy but that implementation is a bit more tricky. So the active support of local authorities is important. Here the response of the Labour leaders in the big cities has varied.

Consider the cases of Manchester and Liverpool. Andy Burnham is the directly elected Mayor of Greater Manchester – he is a “Metro Mayor” whose empire, or “combined authority”, covers not just Manchester City Council but ten local authorities. His behaviour has been frankly duplicitous and exasperating for Ministers. Did he feel restrictions were too tight or too loose? He managed to say both at the same time. There would be staged showdowns for the media but a lack of serious leadership during this period of crisis.

Then we have Joe Anderson, the directly elected Mayor of Liverpool, who has put partisan politics aside. His conclusion is that the Government is justified in applying unprecedented restrictions. He might be wrong, of course. As with all of us, personal experience will have an impact – his brother Bill died of coronavirus in October. What can’t be disputed is his good faith in working with the Government. Not only in acquiescing to restrictions but also in applying the mass testing pilot to his City – which is now to be applied elsewhere.

Reflecting on the political context, this is rather remarkable. Where in England are the Conservative most hated? Surely, one would have to say Liverpool – that city synonymous with socialist militancy. Margaret Thatcher backed Michael Heseltine’s regeneration efforts for the City, after the Toxteth riots. But the Scousers never appeared to be overcome with gratitude. Then, in 2004, there was more trouble when a young Conservative MP called Boris Johnson was sent to the City to apologise. A leader in The Spectator had claimed Liverpudlians were “hooked on grief”. Johnson was the Editor – although he hadn’t actually written the piece.

Anyway, here we are. Of today’s vote by MPs regarding the new rules, Anderson’s vitriol is reserved for those Tory MPs contemplating voting against the Government. He says:

“When I hear this fella arguing we should let covid rip, this little pipsqueak, I say to him, you come up here and work as a porter in the Royal Liverpool Hospital and you see the people that are dying and then tell us we should just allow this to continue and not have a tier structure. You have a shift carrying the bodies up to the mortuary.

“Come up here and talk to the doctors, and nurses like the one who had to ring me at quarter to ten on a Friday night to tell me my brother had died. You do a shift with them, Steve Baker.”

“You have to put the lives of people first. It’s the number one priority. Then, of course, the economy is important. But, first of all, what are you if you don’t prioritise lives?”

That is hugely unfair to Baker and the other “lockdown sceptics.” The premise that the tighter the controls we have, the more lives we save, is disputed. It is not a question of being indifferent to death. Still, at least the Government know where they are with Anderson – while Sir Keir Starmer makes calculations about which division lobby to enter, eventually resolving to abstain.

Government sources I have spoken to, at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government, do not wish to overstate Liverpool’s exceptionalism. “Some of the local government leaders in Manchester have privately been good to work with,” I’m assured. Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council, has a personally “amicable” relationship with the Government. It is Burnham’s “grandstanding” that has been the difficulty.

As Daniel Hannan has said:

“Perhaps we have hit what marathon-runners call ‘the wall’: that moment, around 20 miles into the course, when the stored energy in our muscles runs out, forcing us to a walk. The end is in sight, but our accumulated exhaustion weighs us down.”

General opposition to restrictions is still a minority opinion – though a growing minority. More of a challenge for the Government are the objections regarding consistency. Why are we in Tier Three when we have fewer cases than a neighbouring area which is in Tier Two? Why have we gone up to Tier Two when our number of cases have gone down from when we were in Tier One? Why is x allowed when y is not? A Deltapoll survey for the Mail on Sunday found that 37 per cent felt their local tier “too high”, 56 per cent thought it “about right” and only eight per cent “too low”.  Another response to that survey indicated that while 43 per cent of us are in Tier Three, only 25 per cent of us feel that we should be in Tier Three.

No doubt as the vaccines and the Vitamin D pills are distributed, the emergency will ease. As we crank up to elections in May, the normal tribal loyalties and hostilities will reassert themselves. Yet in the time being, we have the irony, that while the Government has managed to dismay so many of their supporters, the Mayor of Liverpool could hardly be more vociferous in backing their cause.

Daniel Hannan: Sweden settled in for the long haul, and now doesn’t need to worry about a second surge

5 Aug

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

You know who isn’t worried about a second wave? Sweden. Covid cases may be rising worldwide but, in that stolid, sensible monarchy, they are down nearly 90 per cent from peak. “I think to a great extent it’s been a success,” says Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist. “We are now seeing rapidly falling cases, we have continuously had healthcare that has been working, there have been free beds at any given time, never any crowding in the hospitals, we have been able to keep schools open which we think is extremely important, and society fairly open.”

Uncomplicatedly good news, you might think. Yet the overseas media coverage of Sweden is brutal. Its fatality rate is endlessly compared to the lower rates in Norway and Finland (never the higher rates in Italy or Britain). Many commentators sound affronted, as though Sweden were deliberately mocking the harsher prohibitions imposed in most of the world.

The nature of their criticism is telling. To condemn Sweden for its relatively high number of deaths per capita suggests a worrying inability, even after five months, to grasp what “flattening the curve” means. In the absence of a cure or vaccine, an epidemic will end up reaching roughly the same number of people. That number may differ from country to country for all sorts of possible reasons: age profile, weather, family living patterns, openness to international travel, incidence of obesity, past exposure to different coronaviruses, differing levels of genetic immunity.

But it won’t be much affected by lockdown measures. To put it at its simplest, flattening the curve doesn’t alter the area underneath the curve. No country can immobilise its population indefinitely; so all we are doing, in the absence of a medical breakthrough, is buying time.

The UK lockdown was intended to string things out while we built our capacity. “It’s vital to slow the spread of the disease,” said the PM in his televised address of March 23. “Because that is the way we reduce the number of people needing hospital treatment at any one time, so we can protect the NHS’s ability to cope – and save more lives.”

Sweden judged that it could manage to keep its hospitals functioning with only relatively minor restrictions – and it was right. With hindsight, it seems likely that the UK could have got away with a similar approach. Not only did our Nightingale hospitals stand largely empty throughout; so did many of our existing hospital beds. The expected tidal wave, mercifully, did not come – probably because the rate of infection, worldwide, turned out to be lower than was first feared.

No one should blame public health officials for erring on the side of caution. Still, it ought to have been clear by late May that we could start easing restrictions. We knew, by then, that the infection rate had peaked on our around March 18 – that is, five days before the lockdown was imposed.

But, alarmingly, liberty turns out to be more easily taken than restored. The easing of the lockdown was achieved in the face of public opposition: British voters were global outliers in their backing for longer and stronger closures. The media, never having internalised what flattening the curve meant, failed to distinguish between preventable deaths and deaths per se.

In March, according to the official minute, “Sage was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress the spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak.” As far as I can tell, it has never rescinded that view. The question is not whether there will be some post-lockdown uptick in infection rates – releasing an entire population from house arrest is bound to lead to an increase in all sorts of medical problems, from common colds to car crashes. The question, rather, is still the one we faced in March, namely can we be certain that our healthcare capacity will not be overwhelmed.

Given what we can see in Sweden – and, indeed, in developing nations which lack the capacity to isolate their teeming populations – it seems pretty clear that we can.

Yet the original rationale for the closures has somehow got lost. Commentators now demand the “defeat” of the disease, and hold up league tables of fatality rates as if that were the only gauge by which to measure the performance of different countries. Covid, like everything else, has been dragged into our culture wars, so that one side revels in excessive caution, ticking people off for the tiniest lockdown infractions, while the other argues that lockdowns don’t work at all.

The case against the lockdown is not that it was useless, but that it was disproportionate and had served its purpose long before it was eased. Confining an entire population is bound to have some impact on slowing a disease – any disease. The question is how high a price we should be prepared to pay.

Sweden seems to have got it right. It banned large meetings and urged people to stay home where possible. But, beyond one or two targeted closures, it broadly trusted people to use their nous. Because it judged coolly at the outset that there would be no immediate vaccine, it never got into the ridiculous position of being unable to restore normality in the absence of one. It settled in for the long haul, understanding that the disease would be around for a while, and that acquired immunity would be part of the eventual solution.

The figures for Q2 growth are published later today. Yes, Sweden will have suffered. The distancing measures taken by most Swedes, and the global downturn, will have taken their toll. Still, my guess – judging from retail figures, credit card activity, employment rates and other extant data – is that Sweden will comfortably have outperformed most European countries, as well as avoiding the costs of furlough schemes and massive borrowing.

It may turn out, when all is said and done, that the international variable was not the eventual death toll so much as the price exacted from the survivors.

Daniel Hannan: ​Against all logic, we are more nervous about Covid-19 now than we were in March

22 Jul

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The news that Oxford University might have a Coronavirus vaccine ready as early as Christmas is wonderful. British readers may be forgiven a dash of patriotic pride at the thought that this country, the country of Edward Jenner, the country that discovered vaccination (or at least, as Matt Ridley shows in his book on innovation, the country that developed and popularised the idea, innovation generally being incremental and collaborative) is once again leading the world. I suspect the chances of a mutually beneficial UK-EU deal have just improved.

The sad truth is that only a vaccine (or a cure) now offers the prospect of a return to normality. Lifting the lockdown has led, in the event, to a disappointingly small uptick in activity. Our city centres remain deserted, our workforce furloughed. I had allowed myself to hope that we were chafing against these restrictions, that we stood like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. But most of us have responded to the reopening by putting our tails between our legs and whimpering.

It is worth dwelling, for a moment, on why this should be. There was far more social and economic activity on the eve of the lockdown than there is now. Yet, logically, nothing has happened during the intervening four months to make us more nervous than we were then. In late March, as we watched the horrific scenes from Lombardy, we were bracing for an epidemic that might overwhelm our healthcare system. In the event, it wasn’t just our Nightingale hospitals that stood empty; so did many ward beds.

We now know that healthy young people are extremely unlikely to experience severe symptoms, and that transmission through casual contact is rare. We have recently learned that our death rates are not as bad as they had seemed: incredibly, Public Health England was counting everyone who had died having had the coronavirus as a Covid fatality – even if they made a full recovery and then died of something else.

In the week which ended on July 10 (the last for which we have figures) total deaths were in fact six per cent below the average of the previous five years. Sweden, which imposed only light restrictions and trusted to people’s common sense, has not seen the apocalypse that was widely predicted in March. Yet we are bizarrely more reluctant to get back to work than we were at the start.

The explanation does not seem to be primarily medical. People normalise even unprecedented situations with astonishing rapidity. If their new routine is relatively painless – staying at home on something close to full pay, for example – they may be in little hurry to change it.

Staying at home is, like anything else, habit-forming. Clinical psychologists explain agoraphobia and related strains of anxiety partly as a negative feedback loop. Something frightening happens to you outside, so every time you go out afterwards you feel nervous, which means that you remember the sensation of being outside as intrinsically unpleasant, making you even more nervous the next time, and so on.

While it would be silly to suggest that millions of people are suffering from clinical anxiety, it may be that a mild form of the negative-feedback syndrome is tipping people against going back to commuting. Four months of being bombarded with the message “stay home, save lives” could hardly fail to have an impact.

The prospect of a vaccine makes it even less likely that we will try to work around the disease, Sweden-style. Employers who might have reopened their offices over the coming weeks are now more likely to hold out in the hope of a definitive solution.

That will prolong and deepen our recession. Life has not returned to London as it has to, say, Lisbon or Copenhagen. Our eventual recovery will come too late for those firms that have been forced into insolvency. For many, the “job retention scheme” (as the furlough is formally called) is a cruel name for what is, in fact, a form of deferred redundancy.

If, in a best-case scenario, a vaccine is found this year, our problems will still be just starting. Months of closures will be followed by years of joblessness and decades of debt. And if the vaccine turns out not to be effective, this week’s false hope could simply put off a modified return to work.

I don’t like playing Cassandra. As long-standing readers will know, I am generally an exuberant optimist in the Steven Pinker/Matt Ridley/Johan Norberg mould. But we need to understand that the decisions we have taken over the past 16 weeks will have consequences for many years.

I’m not sure everyone has yet made the connection. I hope I’m wrong, but I can imagine Piers Morgan and other commentators who demanded the longest and strictest lockdown pivoting to complain about high unemployment. Sadly, we are about to find out.

FREE ConservativeHome Live event with Daniel Hannan on the future of freedom

8 Jul

Following our successful inaugural ConservativeHome Live event last month, I am delighted to announce that the second event in the series will feature Daniel Hannan – author, campaigner and ConservativeHome columnist.

Daniel and I will be discussing The Future of Freedom in front of a live Zoom audience at 7pm on Wednesday 15th July.

After months of lockdown restrictions, unprecedented extensions of the state into the market, and amid a rising tide of puritanical ‘woke’ censorship, what does the future hold for individual liberty, freedom of expression, and private enterprise? How can Conservatives reassert the values and principles of a free society?.

Thanks to the generosity of our sponsor, Thorncliffe, this online event will be completely free to view. Audience members will have the chance to put your questions to Daniel as part of what promises to be another lively and fascinating evening of discussion and debate.

Click here to register for your free tickets.