Lord Ashcroft: Exclusive – My next book will be on Carrie Johnson

29 Jul

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

As I prepare to publish my biography of Sir Keir Starmer on August 19, I am pleased to announce that my next project will be a book about Carrie Johnson.

Carrie has interested me for some time. Many people know her as Boris Johnson’s wife, but her influence developed long before she moved into 10 Downing Street via her work over the last decade within the Conservative Party and also through the posts she has held working for government ministers. Aside from politics, she has campaigned in the fields of the environment and animal rights, both of which are areas of great interest to me.

As with all of my political biographies, this project will be independent, objective, open-minded, fair, factual and even-handed. The research I’ve done already has proved fascinating.

As well as my forthcoming book on Starmer, titled Red Knight, I have published biographies of David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Rishi Sunak in recent years. I anticipate Carrie Johnson being every bit as intriguing and rewarding a subject. I expect this book to be published early in 2022.

Toby Lloyd: Two years since Johnson promised to level up Britain, has the detail proven better than the spin?

27 Jul

Toby Lloyd is a former special adviser to Theresa May and Chair of the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Left Behind Commission on prosperity and community placemaking.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over two years since Boris Johnson stood on the steps of Downing Street for the first time and promised to “level up” the country. I missed the speech, as I was slipping out of the back door of No 10 at the time, having been stripped of my pass, phone and laptop, along with the rest of Theresa May’s advisers, as part of the brutally clinical hand-over ritual that each outgoing PM must go through.

To us policy hacks, regrouping in the sweltering heat of a nearby bar, “levelling-up” seemed like one of those sound bites that would be quickly dropped, to join May’s “burning injustices” and David Cameron’s Big Society in the pile of unifying concepts that never quite worked.

After all, few people know what it means, and many of those that do actively dislike the idea, as Rachel Wolf pointed out on this site – and even ministers have been accused of a “complete lack of understanding” of the agenda. In the wake of the Chesham and Amersham by-election, the logic goes, it’s time to drop all this nonsense and pivot back to the base.

But instead of dropping it, the Government has doubled down on levelling-up. There’s a £4.8 billion government fund bearing it’s name. The appointment of Neil O’Brien to lead the development of the forthcoming levelling-up white paper shows real commitment to the agenda – not just lip service to an electoral strategy. And Johnson chose to speak for a full hour on the subject recently. Clearly, levelling-up is here to stay.

Which makes it even odder that it’s still not clear what it actually means, and no agreed indicators to measure success or failure by. Last week Johnson seemed to imply that disparities in life expectancy were the best indicator of regional inequality, and even that he had single handedly raised the life expectancy of all Londoners in his term as Mayor.

Life expectancy is an excellent proxy for all sorts of things, and a very robust data point – so if the Government is making that it’s central metric of levelling-up it could silence the carping of the wonks.

And it’s obviously a good policy aim to level up life expectancy across the country. Given the new shift in electoral geography it may be smart politics too. But it’s not necessarily great comms to tell your new voters that they’re going to die sooner than your traditional base – especially if you don’t have a really good plan for how you’re going to change this.

In this regard, Johnson’s latest attempt to flesh out the vision was rather thinner. Much of his emphasis was on crime, big transport infrastructure, better broadband connections, and education. All of which are excellent subjects for public investment – but it’s hard to see how they will turn around the sense of neglect accumulated over decades in some of our most left behind places. HS2 is certainly not about to increase life expectancy in seaside towns that have seen better days.

Part of the problem is that whenever Johnson – or anyone else – tries to explain levelling-up, they have to grapple with big economic structural forces at the same time as hyper local factors; hard infrastructure as well as a more intangible senses of pride and community.

While big national kit is expensive, and often controversial, it’s at least something clear you can announce and eventually, hopefully, cut a ribbon in front of. Dealing with local issues from the Prime Ministerial pulpit can seem incongruous at best, patronising at worst. Although all politicians love a positive message of national pride for all, with or without implied criticism of all other nations for being just not quite as good as us, the resentments between different parts of the country are much harder for a PM to speak to.

The result can be vague, even incoherent, and easy to ridicule: you’re not going to reverse 50 years of deindustrialisation with a few quid for removing chewing gum from pavements. But despite all these vulnerabilities, it is the right approach, because the problems of left behind places, and of geographic inequality more broadly, really are both big and small, hard and soft, at the same time.

The dog mess and graffiti that spoil the local park really matters – as does the damage to town centres wrought by 1960s urban motorways and the decline of seaside tourism. Levelling-up, and left behind places, work as concepts precisely because they speak to both dimensions at once.

If you want proof that being left behindness cannot be boiled down purely to economic data, look no further than the Brexit referendum. The Index of Multiple Deprivation, an excellent source of data on poverty, tells you almost nothing about the likelihood of a place voting Leave or Remain.

By contrast, the Community Needs Index, formulated by Local Trust to identify which places really are left behind, has a strong correlation with voting leave. Poverty matters, hugely, but it doesn’t describe everything. We need a more subtle, more human, understanding of why some parts of the country feel neglected. Elected politicians often have a better nose for this sort of thing than policy wonks like me.

The politicians also have an answer to the technocrats’ critique that levelling-up lacks a precise metric. Goodhart’s law states that once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. This is because individual and organisational behaviour adjusts to hit the target, but frequently misses the point. This iron law of policy surely applies to concepts as messily human as levelling up: there can be no simple measure of levelling-up – but we’ll know it if we see it.

More serious is the risk that such a broad agenda creates the perfect conditions for waffly speeches with impressive but context-free numbers, and reports celebrating nice things happening in diverse places.

These are invariably a means of avoiding difficult decisions and trade-offs. Isn’t it lovely that this community group has got a grant to bring that abandoned Victorian workhouse building back into use as hub for local business and community activity! No need to ask why it had been left empty for decades, raise the spectre of tricky tax changes, or to worry about the future viability of those lovely new micro-enterprises.

The solution to these tensions is to return to the beginning. The entire levelling-up agenda is about place: places that feel left behind, people who live in places that have been poorly served by state and market alike for too long. Here the Government’s strategy is better than Johnson’s speech. There is real money on offer for improving town centres, for local transport, for communities to take ownership of the assets they need to shape change. To make this investment work, it has to be combined with a coherent attitude to localism, as Paul Goodman argued.

I would add that Whitehall also has to start trusting local people and, yes, local government a bit more and get over its addiction to competitive bidding for time limited pots. These waste huge amounts of energy as councils and community groups complete endless bids promising subtly different outcomes for the same projects – and inevitably mean that those best at playing this game win at the expense of the others.

This is no way to overcome division and level up. Better to follow the call for “localism on steroids” from Bill Grimsey, the former CEO of multiple high street business, and empower local communities to redesign their town centres to meet the needs of the 21st Century.

This is the territory that the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Behind Commission is exploring – and in the next few months will be proposing real reforms and investments to turn the good intent into reality. The real test of the levelling-up agenda will not be how it scores on socioeconomic metrics, but whether it can start a process of empowerment, improvement and investment that makes left behind places look and feel better. for the communities that live in them.

Jonathan Rogers: A psychiatrist’s view. Lockdowns reversed Cameron’s progress on mental health.

27 Jul

Dr Jonathan Rogers is a psychiatrist and researcher at UCL.

A decade ago, the Coalition Government, as part of its broad-ranging health reforms, pledged “parity of esteem” for mental and physical health, promising that future policy would give equal weight to services.

This was welcome and was underpinned by David Cameron’s ideology of bolstering the country’s wellbeing, not just its pocket. It is also an idea that is still present in healthcare policy with mental health waiting time targets the latest attempt to enshrine parity of esteem.

However, despite the rosy language, the past 16 months have witnessed a staggering deterioration in the nation’s mental health. Although thankfully suicides have not increased, ONS figures suggest that the proportion of adults with symptoms of depression during the first wave of the pandemic rose to almost one in five, twice its pre-pandemic level.

It might have taken years of patient investment to shave 10 per cent off these figures, but they have doubled in the pandemic in one great swipe. Meanwhile, hospital admissions for young people with eating disorders have risen by 50 per cent.

There would likely be an outcry for other areas of health and, indeed, there has been for patient groups such as those suffering from cancer. However, mental health seems to be a disposable asset at crunch points.

This is partly a reflection on the Government’s narrow definition of health during the pandemic: essentially – being alive. The daily death toll has emphasised that what really matters in Whitehall is saving as many lives as possible without very much regard to the quality of those lives.

Early in the outbreak, several psychiatrists examined the potential mental health impact of lockdown policies, concluding from historical examples that lockdown is associated with various poor outcomes, such as post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression and insomnia, some of which can persist beyond the duration of the epidemic.

They recommended that any such policy should be brief and extensions should generally be avoided, due to the risk of compounding mental ill-health through uncertainty.

As a researcher, I have spent a considerable amount of time examining the neurological and psychiatric consequences of being infected with SARS-CoV-2, which are not trivial.

However, I have increasingly become convinced that at the population level the mental health consequences of lockdown substantially outweigh those of actually being infected.

New research looking at the first lockdown in the UK has found that mental health took a massive hit during the first few months of the pandemic and only started to improve as lockdown eased. Moreover, even local lockdowns were associated with poorer mental health in the specific regions where they took place.

This chimes with research from Europe showing that mental health problems eased in tandem with liberalising lockdowns. With this in mind, the broader perspective of Sajid Javid on healthcare beyond Covid-19 is encouraging.

However, the Prime Minister’s refusal to rule out a further lockdown, even after 90 per cent of the adult population has received at least one vaccine dose, is concerning for society and particularly for my patients, as those with pre-existing mental health problems are among those who have suffered the most from this pandemic.

Health means more than just being alive and parity of esteem means giving consideration to mental health even during a pandemic.

Chris Whiteside: Scrapping the pensions triple lock would be wrong, but not reforming it would be a missed opportunity

12 Jul

Cllr Chris Whiteside MBE is an economist and member of the Cumbria Pensions Committee; he is also Deputy Chair (political) of the North West region of the Conservative Party.

The principles behind the pensions “triple lock” are as relevant today as when it was introduced, but perceived balance of economic justice between generations has reversed in the intervening years. The policy needs updating.

In a few months, because of the Covid rebound, the triple lock as it currently stands would require the Chancellor to make a huge payment many people will see as unfair and unaffordable.

To scrap the triple lock would be economically and morally wrong, but not reforming it would be a missed opportunity. There will never be a better chance to make changes which are needed. If it’s not reformed this year, sooner or later a future government will have to scrap it altogether because it will become unaffordable.

To explain the need for reform, let’s start with why David Cameron made the promise in the first place, and why it made sense then.

Today many people are concerned that the younger generation have lost out, but in 2010 the generation perceived to have lost out badly in preceding decades was pensioners. Both views are massive generalisations – some pensioners suffer hardship today, some young people did in 2010 – but there were real economic facts justifying both perceptions.

The government whose term was mercifully ending when the “triple lock” promise was made had undermined pensioners from start to finish, treating their savings and investments like a piggy bank it could raid at will.

Gordon Brown’s first budget included a £5 billion a year raid on pension funds which did enormous long-term damage to the stability of pensions. Consequently, as Frank Field, pointed out, Labour inherited the best-funded pensions in Europe and finished among the worst. That wasnt the only damage Brown inflicted on pensioners.

Brown implemented a hundred tax rises: many of these, particularly massive rises in council tax, impacted disproportionately on pensioners.

Labour added insult to injury with the lowest annual pension rise in history, just 75 pence for a single pensioner.

By 2010 the relative incomes of many pensioners had dramatically failed to keep pace with those of people in work. To stop this Cameron promised basic state pensions would increase each year by whichever was highest of:

  1. 2.5 per cent (never again a derisory increase like 75p)
  2. Rate of inflation (protecting the purchasing power of pensions)
  3. Average increase in wages (never again would pensioners fall further and further behind those in work.)

Each element of that promise looks reasonable: but the whole package was only fair because the pensioners had fallen behind wages and the aim was to help them catch up.

Over a full economic cycle this set up a ratchet guaranteed to improve the relative position of pensioners. If wages and salaries fall behind inflation or drop during a recession, real incomes of the working population will drop but pensioners are protected by the 2.5 per cent minimum increase or the inflation element of the triple lock. When the economy grows again, wages cannot catch up to the previous relative position no matter how fast they increase because of the single-year earnings lock.

However, it isnt sustainable to permanently guarantee any section of society a relative income which can never get worse but can and ultimately will keep improving. Eventually either political consensus will emerge that the correction has gone far enough, or the policy will become unaffordable. The triple lock may have reached that point.

During 2020 the Covid-19 recession shut down huge chunks of the economy, put millions on furlough, and those in work generally received little or no pay rise, sometimes a pay cut. Average incomes crashed for those of working age.

The state pension did not: the triple lock protected pensioners, exactly as it was meant to.

This year wages recovering from Covid will generate an extreme example of the triple lock ratchet.

Those of working age who were clobbered last year and now experience some recovery won’t see it as a pay rise, but getting back what they lost last year. The triple lock algorithm won’t treat it that way.

Year-on-year figures for average earnings are likely to show a rise of about eight per cent. Under current rules pensioners will also get an eight per cent rise to match the bounce-back from last year’s drop in income which they didn’t suffer. Some of the £3 billion cost of that rise will come from taxes paid by workers who did suffer that drop in income.

Rather than scrapping the triple lock altogether, or the earnings component, we should ask whether there is a fairer way pensions could keep pace with wages.

There is.

Instead of basing the earnings component of the pensions lock on the year-on-year change in wages, we should base it on an index of cumulative change in wages. This will still guarantee pensions cannot fall behind earnings, without the ratchet.

Set a base year – the year before the pandemic hit would be a possible choice – for an index of earnings, and a pension index. The earnings component of the triple lock should then require the cumulative change in pensions to be at least as high as the cumulative change in earnings. Pensions cannot be a lower proportion of average earnings than they were in that base year.

The reformed triple lock would guarantee the state pension increases each year by the which highest of

  1. 2.5 per cent
  2. Rate of inflation
  3. Increase necessary to ensure the cumulative state pension index is at least as high as the cumulative earnings index.

If average earnings are up by 25 per cent since the base year, the pension must be at least 25 per cent up on that year. This respects the spirit of the “triple lock” promise,

Here’s how a modified triple look based on an earnings index compares against the current version:

Whatever the Government does about the triple lock will upset someone. I am convinced that putting the earnings lock onto an index rather than year-on-year basis is the fairest, most sustainable option they could go for.

Does the Climate Change Committee have too much power?

7 Jul

Last month, it was reported that “Ministers ‘should urge public to eat less meat’’. Such is the view of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – which has advised people to consume less dairy and meat in order to help the UK meet its environmental targets.

For many Brits, the very existence of the CCC will come as a surprise – never mind that it is now offering guidance on what to eat. But the public is likely to become much more aware of it, and its recommendations, because of the Government’s desire to meet its Net Zero targets (set by the CCC), and the publicity about their costs

The CCC has also had some high profile critics, such as Nigel Lawson. In a letter to Parliament in 2019, he claimed that the CCC’s recommendations were not accurate and reliable and, furthermore, that “it is essential that Parliament has time to scrutinise new laws that are likely to result in astronomical costs.” Did he have a point?

First of all, it’s worth explaining the CCC – and its history. The body was established under the Climate Change Act 2008, which legally binds the Government to reducing UK carbon dioxide emission “by at least 80 per cent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels”.

It stipulates that the Government must create a committee in order to achieve this – hence the CCC. The CCC website says it’s an “independent, statutory body” that aims to “report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change.”

As of 2017, Lord Deben has been Chair of the CCC. He was previously the Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal and now holds a series of roles, such as Chairman for Sancroft International (a sustainability consultancy) and Valpak (a leading provider of environmental compliance).

Other Committee members include a behavioural scientist, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate and an environmental economist. One member has recently had to step down because of a potential conflict of interest (more here).

While the CCC has kept quite a low profile, it has provoked mixed reactions – with some sharing Lawson’s cynicism about its role. Ben Pile is the author of the Climate Resistance blog and sceptical about the costs of Net Zero.

He tells me that in the era the CCC was created, “there was a tendency towards technocracies (such as Tony Blair’s decision to grant the Bank of England independence) and to push important decisions to those.” He calls this “the post-democratic model of politics”.

Pile adds that parliament, unsure of how to reach its own environmental targets, “essentially gave all of its power in this domain to the CCC”. The problem with this, however, is that “when there are debates about climate change and targets, no one votes against anything.” He adds that “they might as well not have a debate”, even when discussing trillions of pounds, and pushing an agenda that the “public just aren’t interested in.”

Andrew Montford is Deputy Director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, an all-party and non-party think tank, “which, while open-minded on the contested science of global warming, is deeply concerned about the costs and other implications of many of the policies currently being advocated.”

I ask Montford if the CCC has become too powerful, but he says it’s more about influence. “Their word is in the UK taken as gospel, and if they say we need to move faster, then the Government tends to just say, well we need to do something,” he says. “They are in a position where they can bully governments into moving faster than perhaps governments would like.”

He agrees that there is “very little democratic oversight of what they do” and “they have pushed very hard on renewables… and there are other views”. Furthermore, Montford says “The committee’s got to be much more balanced… The whole thing is built around the idea that the general public’s interests revolve around the climate in 2050, and actually people have more immediate concerns, and those angles aren’t really addressed.”

Sam Hall, Director of the Conservative Environment Network, on the other hand, is more positive about the CCC. For starters, he says that David Cameron was an initial supporter of the Climate Change Act, which led to its inception, and that “as Conservatives, we should feel some ownership over this framework”.

He adds that “the fact that it’s expert, independent-advised” should mean “that targets can be less politicised” and that the Government doesn’t have to follow the CCC. “The Committee on Climate Change is there to provide that expert independent advice to inform policy-making, but ultimately it doesn’t make those decisions, so it wouldn’t have a veto on any changes to our climate targets.”

It strikes me that the closest thing to the CCC it is the Electoral Commission, but Hall points out that the EC has stronger powers (“to fine and take people to court”). The Office for Budget Responsibility might be a closer comparison. Montford thinks it is more like SAGE. (“politicians find it very hard to stand up to scientists… because then you’re anti-scientist, aren’t you.”)

Has the CCC become too powerful in politics? Although not exactly akin to the EC, you could conclude that, like it, it is part of the quangocracy legacy of the 2000s.

Its website certainly seems impressive and objective, as do its reports. However the biggest issue going forward may be one of public awareness. Frankly, I’m not sure many people are alert to the inner operations of the CCC, nor how big the bill for its recommendations are going to be.

It seems to me that such big decisions need – at the very least – more public votes, and attempts to keep the country’s environmental transformation committee-led, however sophisticated the committee is, will come back to bite.

Brady v Goodwill. The 1922 Chairman election isn’t just about the contenders. At its heart will be Tory MPs’ view of Johnson.

21 May

Graham Brady was always likely to win the election, near the start of this Parliament, for the chairmanship of the 1922 Committee’s Executive.

This was because the intake most eligible to vote was that year’s: the brand new intake of 107 Conservative MPs.  Flung into a new life, eligible vote as backbenchers, and busy with new duties, most will not have given the contest much thought.

Offered a choice between a candidate who had previously chaired the committee and one who had not, many will reflexively have plumped for the former.  It will be different this time round.

In a few weeks, Brady is set to face Robert Goodwill in a ballot for the chairmanship.  The distinctions between them are arguably ones of degree: both are men, both experienced Parliamentarians, and both northerners.

Michael Gove, in the mischievous spirit that sometimes possesses him, once floated a Wars of the Roses leadership contest between Damian Hinds (Lancashire) and Gavin Williamson (Yorkshire).

You want such an election?  Here is one. Goodwill sits for Scarborough and Brady for Altincham & Sale: both are natives of their counties.  Hath not thy rose a canker, Brady?  Hath not thy rose a thorn, Goodwill?

Above all, neither are exactly founder members of the Boris Johnson fan club.  Brady has not been appointed a Minister by Johnson.  Goodwill was actually sacked as one.

For all that, this contest will be an important one for the Conservative Party, given the Prime Minister’s habit of veering from disaster to triumph, or sometimes the other way round, and Tory backbenchers’ one of lurching between complacency and panic.

And despite the distance between both men and Johnson, each would be likely to handle him, and the post itself, differently.  Brady is a break from convention.  Goodwill would be a return to it (at least, if what his friends say is right).

The former’s recent predecessors were Michael Spicer, Archie Hamilton, Marcus Fox and Cranley Onslow.  All were essentially loyalists (though Fox’s patience with the party leadership was tested by the Maastricht row).

The point about Brady is that behind his smooth front are steely views, strongly held – for example, on grammar schools, over which he resigned as Shadow Minister for Europe when David Cameron’s Conservatives were in opposition.

Once they were in government, he rebelled not only over EU policy, but against a badger cull, HS2, tobacco packaging, and various pieces of constitution and parliament-related business.

The change from Cameron to May brought no change: indeed, Brady was instrumental in the stately manoeuvering that forced her out of office.

Nor did that from May to Johnson.  If anything, he has become rebel-in-chief, for the simple reason that there’s only been one political game in town during the past year or so: Covid.  And Brady has been a public critic of lockdowns.

Goodwill has a different flavour.  It would not be quite right to say that he has smooth views behind a steely front.  But he is a former Chief Whip (of the party’s former group of MEPs), and iron tends to enter the soul of those who do that job, in any form.

He was also a Jeremy Hunt voter – which may help to explain why he was purged, given the Prime Minister’s long memory for political slights.

Add that to his support for Remain during the EU referendum campaign (Brady was a Leaver), and it is tempting to pigeon-hole him on the centre-left of the party, facing an opponent on its centre-right or, more straightforwardly, its right.

But pause there for a moment.  In 2005, Goodwill plumped not for David Cameron, or even Ken Clarke, in that year’s party leadership contest.  He supported the most right-wing of the candidates, Liam Fox.

And Brady has some unexpected views.  When it comes to the constitution, most Conservatives are, well, conservative.  But he wants “radical reform – by removing the Executive from Parliament, freeing Parliament from patronage and control of government”.

Some of Brady’s supporters are painting Goodwill as a Johnson stooge, claiming that Downing Street is waist-deep in plots to find a less critical 1922 Committee Chairman.  “Two MPs have already refused the poisoned chalice that Robert has picked up,” one told this site.

Goodwill’s backers counter the charge, pointing out not only that the Prime Minister sacked their man, and that as Transport Minister he dismissed Johnson’s “Boris Island” plan with a flea in its ear, or rather his.

And add that Stanley Johnson was evicted from his Camden home, while Goodwill was in post, in order that HS2 could go through it.  Though there is no suggestion that he might seek to remove the Prime Minister from Downing Street.

“Robert believes that the 1922 executive should be loyal in public but speak the truth in private,” says one of the challenger’s friends.  That sets the election up nicely.

For all the lefty-righty, Leavy-Remainy stuff is ultimately a distraction, or will be treated as such by most Tory backbenchers, at any rate.  At the heart of this election will be their view of Johnson.

Do they think he should be kept under public restraint, like one of those handcuffed suspects one sees hauled off in photos featuring Priti Patel?

Or do they believe he should be allowed to run wild through Alpine-type meadows, in the spirit of Julie Andrews during the opening of The Sound of Music?

If they lean to the former, they will back Brady; if the latter, they will go for Goodwill.  One experienced hand says that “Brady will win easily: backbenchers hate the idea of a Downing Street stooge being foisted on them.”

But a well plugged-in member of the 2019 intake isn’t so sure, claiming that Brady is a remote figure to his intake, and that many of its members want someone less ready to ruffle the Prime Minister’s feathers.

The election is due before the summer recess.  And there it is – unless a third contender comes along.  Or more.  The Parliamentary Party’s centre of gravity isn’t 2005, when Goodwill was elected, let alone 1997, when Brady was.

Most Conservative MPs have been elected since.  Even 2010, the start of the Cameron era in government, seems a bygone age.  Don’t rule out more twists and turns.

Austen Morgan: Is Buckland letting the judges set the pace on reform?

31 Mar

Dr Austen Morgan is a barrister at 33 Bedford Row chambers and was one of the UUP’s lead negotiators for the Belfast Agreement.

On March 18 2021, something unusual happened in Whitehall. It involved Lord Faulks QC, a former Conservative minister; Robert Buckland QC MP, the Lord Chancellor; and the Ministry of Justice (in the former Home Office building) on Petty France.

That day, the Lord Chancellor published The Independent Review of Administrative Law (195 pages), which had been chaired remotely by Lord Faulks. Simultaneously, the Ministry of Justice responded with Judicial Review Reform (56 pages), sending its own additional proposals – especially ouster clauses (excluding the courts) and remedies – out to consultation (with the public to respond by April 29 2021).

Normally, governments cherry pick recommendations made by committees, and take their time. Here, the Government had to fatten up Lord Faulks’s meagre offerings before expiry. What on earth was going on?

Think back to November 2019 – before Covid-19 and the depletion of the nation’s finances – to the Conservatives’ manifesto. There, Boris Johnson had promised a constitution, democracy and rights commission. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.

Rights went back to David Cameron in 2006, and his idea (on which I advised) of a UK bill of rights. Democracy was a reference to the 2016 Brexit referendum. And constitution was a new idea, trailed first by Geoffrey Cox QC MP as attorney general, the day after Miller Two in the Supreme Court (September 25 2019) – the prorogation of parliament case which the Government lost badly.

On Christmas eve, I began what became my lockdown book, now provisionally entitled Writing the UK Constitution: a contested project. It is basically a workbook for such a commission, an unprecedented promise in our political history. The contest is between traditional common lawyers, who believe the constitution exists (in their minds), and modernisers including myself, who believe the UK needs to get itself a written constitution. I therefore am an advocate of joined-up constitutional reform, though I accept there can be short- , medium- and long-term goals over two parliaments.

At some point (after Cox was replaced in February 2020), the Government quietly abandoned the idea of a constitution, democracy and rights commission. This was revealed by Paul Goodman in ConservativeHome on July 23 2020. Buckland confirmed as much to a select committee on December 8 2020.

On July 31 2020, the Faulks commission had been announced. Reform of judicial review – through which the courts supervise the legality of executive actions – was a totemic Conservative issue. The Lord Chancellor, however, appointed mainly professional lawyers. There is the explanation for no statutory codification of judicial review, into which safeguards could be built.

If Miller Two was judiciary one, executive nil, the Faulks report (pending the further consultation), makes the score now judiciary two, executive nil.

On December 1 2020, this time the Cabinet Office – there being a job share on the constitution by Buckland and Michael Gove – announced the forthcoming repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. A draft bill included the non-justiciability of prerogative powers concerning parliament. The Government agreed to pre-legislative scrutiny, including by the House of Lords, where sits the informal lawyers’ and judges’ party on the cross benches. Could this be judiciary three, executive nil?

On December 7 2020, the Ministry of Justice (again) announced a review of the Human Rights Act 1998, another totemic Conservative issue. The chair was to be Sir Peter Gross, a retired court of appeal judge. The members of the review include academic lawyers. One hopes for an agreed UK bill of rights, but it could end up in coming months as: judiciary four, executive nil.

Speaking last week to a university audience, Buckland made a diplomatic stab at articulating the Government’s strategy: “it falls to me to propose reforms which, as far as possible, avoid drawing judges into the political realm and forcing them to adjudicate on moral and philosophical issues.” But what Lord Chancellor, if the judges – led by Baroness Hale – upset the so-called constitutional balance, as they arguably did in Miller Two?

Whitehall has a track record on constitutional reform in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, which should have been a warning from history for the current government in its early months.

The first Blair government (1997-2001) did enact: human rights; expulsion of hereditary peers; and devolution (which has turned out very different). Constitutional reform – it is rarely observed – was then replaced with public-sector reform led by number 10. The sacking of Lord Irvine of Lairg QC in 2003 led to the misnamed Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which gave us judicial appointments commissions to be stuffed with quangocrats.

Gordon Brown was – and is – more serious about constitutional reform, but Whitehall balkanized his ambitions in the form of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The Equality Act 2010 – a sectional project of Labour women ministers – was never a proper constitutional project concerning the state.

The coalition of 2010-15 divided over electoral reform and delayed boundary changes, and House of Lords reform (a project which has been staggering since 1918).

I hope, if there is life after recent deaths, that Johnson will return to the commission idea, and work towards the next general election in 2024.

My perspective is not, honestly, particular reforms: presidential (through the monarchy) and prime ministerial powers; a federal UK to save the union; separate legislatures; proportional representation.

My big idea is an expert report for ministers in this parliament, inspired by an Irish document of 1996. The objective would be a written constitution, to be enacted by parliament in the first instance. There are arguments against such an idea, especially the slogan flexibility versus rigidity.

The commission would comprise legal and non-legal constitutionalists. And they would provide reasons for and against particular provisions, and how practical ideas could work one with another. Advisers advise, ministers decide, and the people or peoples – after 2016 – should vote decisively on the rules of the state.

Robert Halfon: Conservatives must never be complacent about Starmer. The public mood can change quickly.

10 Mar

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Is Keir Starmer doing that badly?

I don’t want to rain on the parade of opinion poll Tory leads of anything from four to 13 per cent. Of course, it is far better to be in this position than trailing behind and our standing will be especially important in the run-up to local elections.

However, it is worth noting that Labour is still 24 points above its position after the 2019 General Election. It is also hard enough for any opposition party to get a look in, let alone in a national pandemic.

I remember well the Cameron opposition years, particularly when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair in 2007.

At the time, especially over the summer months, Labour rocketed ahead in public opinion. It looked like Labour’s fourth consecutive election victory was in the offing. Yet, by October of that year, thanks to an astonishing performance by George Osborne on slashing inheritance tax, David Cameron’s Conference speech, Brown’s poorly timed trip to see troops in Iraq and his botched scrapping of an early election, Conservatives level pegged and even leapfrogged Labour in the opinion polls.

I won’t ever forget going to the 2007 Conservative Party Conference as Harlow’s parliamentary candidate (by then, standing for a third time), thinking that it was all over – and I would not be elected to Westminster. A few days later, all had changed, and Brown put off the election until 2010. The rest is history. It was for me.

I was driving around one of Harlow’s many roundabouts when I first heard that Brown had cancelled the election. It was announced on the post-conference Saturday lunchtime news on Radio 4. I literally stopped my car, as I was utterly amazed. I thought to myself, “Well Rob, you might get elected after all”.

I mention these things – not to be, as the Prime Minister might say, a “gloomster” – but only to remind fellow Conservatives that politics changes, literally, overnight.

Yes, the Labour Leader is often “Captain Hindsight” and he doesn’t always see the wood from the trees because of his love for forensics. But, it is not easy for opposition leaders to cut through. To his credit, Starmer is reforming the Labour Party by stealth, slowly weeding out the far-left and trying to rid his party of antisemitism.

Of course, the crucial test will come in policy, and whether the Labour Party will be counter-intuitive on public spending. Of that, there is little sign. It appears that there is no lobby group or vested interest they will not try and court in order to score the political equivalent of a quick clickbait “high” in the media and the internet. At some point, Her Majesty’s Opposition will have to take tough decisions if they want to be respected by the public and be a party of Government.

Nevertheless, Conservatives must never be complacent. The public mood can change pretty quickly. Labour party grassroots and council strength remains high. They have a long time to reform themselves and undo the damage of the Corbyn years.

Explaining public spending decisions

It is not always easy to set out the tough decisions on public spending to constituents, especially when they regard emotive issues seen to address social injustice. But, once we have worked out what our political spending priorities are, this is something all Conservatives are going to have to do.

Due to the pandemic, Government finances and our general economic situation are pretty bleak. The Government is spending more than £400 billion just to keep people and businesses afloat. Our country faces a debt bill of over £2 trillion pounds. Laid out in cash, this is enough money to fill Wembley Stadium. The interest on the debt currently sits at £49 billion pounds a year (money which could otherwise be spent on public services or cutting the cost of living – like taxes – for small business and lower earners).

The hard truth of it is that every decision the Government takes on spending increases, whether it is wages or other spending (e.g. on welfare or public services), means that either we will either have to raise taxes – quite possibly income tax – or borrow more. If we keep borrowing, we will simply have more debt and interest to pay. Borrowing will also mean that we will not have any funds available if there is a further economic shock (as we saw in 2008), or even another pandemic.

The Government does not take these decisions to be unpopular and it may sometimes get things wrong. But choices are being made under the difficult economic and financial circumstances our country currently finds itself in.

The other issue is that millions of workers have lost their jobs or their incomes. The Government has to make certain that spending decisions do not increase the burden for workers through higher taxes. Whichever way we look, there are no simple answers.

It is easy for the political opposition parties to campaign for more funding and win themselves short-term popularity because they do not share any of the responsibility for the difficult spending decisions that the Government has to make.

Iain Dale: The EU has no interest in Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. It just sees it as a mechanism to exert its power.

5 Mar

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

Most budgets are curate’s eggs. Good in parts. This one was no different.

Politically, it was a triumph for Brand Rishi. It was well delivered. His post-Budget press conference was slick and smooth. He comes across as a transparently nice and competent individual. That’s because he is.

But was it a budget with a narrative? Was it a “reset” budget? Was it a transformational budget? No, it was not.

It is possible to argue that it couldn’t be anything else than be a budget for the short term, given we have no idea where we will be this time next year, but even if you accept that argument, it disappointed on a number of levels.

The super-deduction measure was innovative and will have a massive event on investment over the next two years. And then it ends. It’s too short term, and should have surely been tapered.

Did corporation tax really need to be increased in one go by six per cent in two years’ time? Wouldn’t a gradual approach have been better, even if you accept it needed to rise. Which I do not.

It’s a tax rise which will inevitably make this country less likely to attract the levels of foreign inward investment in the long term. You can’t argue one day that lowering business taxes is a good thing and makes us more competitive, and then argue that by putting up corporation tax by a quarter still means that we are just as competitive.

Leaving the EU certainly gave some companies pause for thought about locating here, or increasing their presence here. We are lucky that most decided to go ahead anyway, but we do not need to give any company an excuse not to do so.

We may still have the fifth lowest rate of corporation tax among G20 countries, and yes, as Sunak argues, our rate will still be lower than in American, Canada, France, Germany and Italy.

But I’m afraid that argument cuts little ice in a world where the last thing the British government needs to do is do anything to put off businesses considering building a presence here.

Having said all that, two snap opinion polls show that the public approve the Budget with only 11 or 12 per cent disapproving. So from a political point of view, it was job done for the Chancellor. But I still wonder whether a bit more long term, “reset” thinking was needed and that both Sunak and the Government might come to regret that it was largely absent.

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If the pandemic hadn’t happened, surely this Budget would have been all about the post Brexit economy. Brexit wasn’t mentioned directly once in the Chancellor’s speech, although towards the end we heard a few oblique references.

What we needed was a pathway to the future, not just over the next couple of years, but over the next couple of decades. We needed a vision.

Businesspeople needed to be reassured about the future of our trading patterns, not just with the rest of the world, but with the EU. Too many businesses seem to be finding that the so-called “free trade agreement” with the EU is nothing of the sort. The inevitable bureaucratic teething problems in trading with EU countries are still there, two months on.

OK, there are no queues at Dover, but the attitude of (particularly, but not exclusively) of French customs officials leaves something to be desired. I hear time and time again reports that countries deal perfectly happily and efficiently with the US, China or even Russia, yet find it that deliveries to European customers are being returned to them by couriers with no explanation and on multiple occasions. They feel powerless to do anything about it.

And don’t get me started on the Northern Ireland protocol, whose only effect so far as I can see has been to effectively annexe Northern Ireland to the EU. Just as Martin Selmayr threatened.

The EU has no interest in Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. It just sees it as a mechanism to exert its power. It is a constitutional outrage that British companies are not free to trade without restriction to all parts of the sovereign United Kingdom. The checks that are now being demanded by the EU are so disproportionate as to be totally unreasonable. The British government bent over backwards to make a compromise to meet EU concerns that the Single Market could be compromised, but its goodwill has been exploited at every turn.

At some point this has to stop, and the unilateral extension of the grace period is the inevitable consequence of EU inflexibility. It is not, as the Irish government unhelpfully says, a breach of international law. What it is, is a sign that Britain’s patience with the EU on this issue is about to expire.

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I’ve been watching a new documentary on how Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election called The Accidental President.

It’s made by the British film maker James Fletcher, who is now based in New York. Fletcher will be familiar to many for his work filming David Cameron for the WebCameron project back in the day.

It’s a fascinating account of Trump’s rise to the presidency. There was no narration, no voiceover, just 90 minutes of original campaign footage together with lots of testimony from political commentators, eye witnesses and vox pops.

The most powerful moment was when commentators were asked to name Trump’s campaign slogan. They all trotted out “Make America Great Again”. They were then asked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan. None of them could recall it, bar one, who recalled it was “Stronger Together”. He then followed it up with “whatever that means”.

If proof were needed that political slogans can be all powerful, then we now have it.