Johnson believes faith in the nation can unite lifelong Tories and traditional Labour supporters

6 Oct

Before Boris Johnson delivered his conference speech, Rachel Sylvester suggested, in her column in The Times, that he

“is fortunate to be speaking on a video link rather than in person because he might have received a less rapturous reception than normal.”

It is true that the Prime Minister is, as often happens to holders of that office, less popular than he used to be. But the idea that he was lucky not to be performing in front of a live audience is preposterous.

His difficulties spring not only from the often inadequate response by the authorities to Covid-19, but from the impossibility, during the pandemic, of engaging with live audiences.

Johnson is one of the few speakers in any party who has taken the enormous trouble needed to master the art of the conference speech. For year after year on these occasions, he would for an hour or two steal his party leader’s thunder, by showing he knew better than David Cameron or Theresa May how to make Conservatives feel good about being Conservative.

This year, one cannot judge how his oratory went down in the hall. He spoke, however, in much the same manner as he would have employed if he had been in front of a live audience:

“I have read a lot of nonsense recently, about how my own bout of Covid has somehow robbed me of my mojo. And of course this is self-evident drivel, the kind of seditious propaganda that you would expect from people who don’t want this government to succeed, who wanted to stop us delivering Brexit and all our other manifesto pledges – and I can tell you that no power on earth was and is going to do that – and I could refute these critics of my athletic abilities in any way they want: arm-wrestle, leg-wrestle, Cumberland wrestle, sprint-off, you name it.”

This is designed not only to convince those ready to be convinced, but also to infuriate those ready to be infuriated.

“Drivel” and “seditious propaganda” are deliberately insulting ways to describe all those high-minded columns by Sylvester and other distinguished pundits who devote their intellects to the task of demonstrating that Johnson is a scoundrel.

That he has the effrontery to accuse them of “sedition”, as if he were a monarch, just confirms his unfitness for office, a truth which will shortly become so obvious and embarrassing that Conservative MPs will bundle him out of power.

One day this forecast will turn out to be true, but meanwhile this kind of commentary runs the risk of underestimating the Prime Minister’s chances of success. As Tom McTague observes in The Atlantic, again and again Johnson has been written off, and again and again he has survived and in due course prospered.

Nor does the failure to understand Johnson end there. Members of the commentariat ask what his ideology is, and point out, after making their investigations, that he does not have one.

This is true, but what they fail to see is that this is in many ways a strength. He has not strapped himself, or had himself strapped by others, into an ideological straitjacket.

He is a Tory pragmatist, interested in what works in practice, not what looks good on paper.

Pragmatism is an unexciting virtue, but Johnson has a gift for making dull stuff sound more attractive than it would from some other speaker:

“It was offshore wind that puffed the sails of Drake and Raleigh and Nelson, and propelled this country to commercial greatness.”

One has only to imagine, with a shudder, how dreary the green energy proposals would have sounded in the mouth of any other party leader.

Johnson confirmed with this speech that he stands in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli. Here is Robin Harris, in The Conservatives: A History, explaining at the end of his two chapters on Disraeli what mattered most to that statesman:

“As Salisbury said in the Lords in tribute to his old chief – a man he increasingly grew to respect, though never to like: ‘Zeal for the greatness of England was the passion of his life.’ When the mythology is stripped away – the overwritten novels, the overwrought expressions, the mysterious allusions, all later wrapped up in the hugely successful and highly eccentric trappings of the Primrose League – that simple core remains. ‘The greatness of England’ (by which Disraeli meant Britain, but never thought it necessary to explain) is his decisive contribution to the idea which the Conservative Party has of itself, and which, down through the decades, it has wanted others to have of it.”

And here is Johnson at the end of his speech:

“That is the Britain we can build – in its way, and with all due respect to everywhere else, the greatest place on earth; indeed that is the country and the society we are in the process of building.

“And I know that it seems tough now, when we are tackling the indignities and cruelty and absurdity of the disease, but I believe it is a measure of the greatness of this country that we are simply not going to let it hold us back or slow us down, and we are certainly not going to let it get us down, not for a moment, because even in the darkest moments we can see the bright future ahead, and we can see how to build it, and we are going to build it together.”

Here, ignored by superior commentators, is the faith in the nation which Johnson believes can unite lifelong Conservatives with the traditional Labour supporters who voted Conservative for the first time last December.

Swire’s diaries help show how Johnson entered Downing Street, and has so far managed to remain there

3 Oct

Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power by Sasha Swire

“When the wives get nasty, you know the men have a problem.” So says Sasha Swire after Sarah Vine, wife of Michael Gove, and Samantha Cameron, wife of David, “fur flying, have a set-to” at the 50th birthday party of Andrew Feldman, on 29th February 2016.

For “Dave feels he is being stabbed in the back by Gove”, who has come out for Leave. According to Swire’s friend, Kate Fall, who works at Number Ten, Dave “is taking it very personally”.

What is a trailing spouse to do? The Duke of Edinburgh and Denis Thatcher are among the men who had to work out an answer. In both cases they used humour carried well past the point of self-parody to ease the boredom and insignificance of the role.

But the trailing spouse is still more often a woman, and Swire knows what it is like. Her husband, Hugo Swire, was Conservative MP for East Devon from 2001 to 2019, an early supporter of Cameron and a Minister of State from 2010-16.

Sasha worked for Hugo as his researcher. Towards the end of the diary entry quoted in the first line of this review, she describes what she and H, as she calls him, have been doing down at their house in Devon:

“Meanwhile, down at Chaffcombe we are having difficult conversations about why we are backing remain when our instincts are to leave. I have to somehow justify it to myself as well as convincing H. I spend the whole weekend drafting an article for Hugo for the local press on why he is supporting in, and we finally decide to do it from a foreign affairs perspective.”

This is of some interest, for it reminds one that not everyone who supported Remain really believed in that cause. In Hugo’s case he only does so out of loyalty to Cameron.

It is true that some Remainers argued their case with fanatical zeal. But as Harry Williams remarks in one of his sermons, “All fanaticism is a strategy to prevent doubt from becoming conscious.”

Swire’s diary is not particularly well written. She often lapses into the bland editorialising to which one fears she resorted when drafting articles to appear under her husband’s name.

She is not a new Alan Clark. She is not even a new Chris Mullin, of whom I found myself writing, when reviewing a volume of his diaries:

“Mullin is a gentleman. He avoids inflicting gratuitous pain in his diary. He observes with a keen and even mocking eye the deficiencies of Blair and Gordon Brown, but is never ungenerous about their gifts. He does not betray confidences. The social connotations of the word ‘gentleman’ are foreign to Mullin, who is a plain-living socialist. The Tories who cause him most pain are those who behave in an ungentlemanly way, while the vulgarity of New Labour causes him distress.”

Sasha does not avoid inflicting gratuitous pain, does betray confidences and is often vulgar, though she clearly thinks it is rather grand, and even gentlemanly (a characteristic she attributes to her husband), to behave in this way.

And she has often not actually been at the events she describes. As far as one can tell (but rather irritatingly one can’t at first reading be sure) she was not at the Feldman birthday party. If she had been, she would surely have told us more about it.

On many occasions, she relates what Hugo told her when he got home from some event. There is a second-hand flavour to these reports.

Her diary reminds one of the disappointment which can be seen on the faces of so many MPs. Hugo had hoped to make the Cabinet.

As for Sasha, she is cross that her father, Sir John Nott, Defence Secretary during the Falklands War, has never been made a peer, and she finds that she herself is either ignored, or else reproached for not having a career of her own: “It’s always a weak point for me.”

In other words, like many loud people, she wants to conceal her own insecurities. Her inadequate command of tone springs from a fundamental indecision about how to behave:

“Political wives are deeply involved but have no official status. Do we play submissive? Do we play supportive? Do we get lippy?”

Sasha veers between these different approaches, but is temperamentally inclined to be lippy. She observes with a caustic eye the deficiencies of the men around her. In August 2011, when they stay for three days in Cornwall with the Camerons at Polzeath,

“D talks a lot about sex, as does H – they are typical of a certain type of Englishman who no longer knows how to flirt because they have become terrified of causing offence. What they do instead is become lewd and chauvinistic with each other, which is the safe zone, instead of with us. In fact if a woman actually came on to them I think their eyes would pop out of their heads.”

For all its glaring deficiencies, or in some cases because of them, this is an entertaining and informative book, and will be a valuable source for historians who want to see how opinion changed within the Conservative Party.

How did Boris Johnson become leader? Sasha is quite illuminating about this. In 2012, she is a loyal Cameroon, who writes:

“There seems to be something of a campaign going on at the moment to push Boris back into Parliament… worryingly, it seems to have captured the public imagination… Unfortunately the Olympics have given him a platform to parade his populist touch… The idea of His Blondness with a finger on the nuclear button scares the shit out of me; it also scares the shit out of me that people don’t see him as the calculating machine he really is. This is a man who has no obvious political identity or any proven ability to grasp difficult questions and decisions.”

In March 2016, as the EU Referendum campaign gets under way, Hugo reports back from a dinner in Mayfair that Cameron “is very fired up about Boris and determined to finish him off”.

In October 2017, she says Johnson’s star is sinking: “the past few weeks have highlighted how he is clearly not a leader-in-waiting”.

In November 2018, Hugo is recruited to the Dominic Raab leadership campaign.

In March 2019, she observes that the Johnson leadership campaign is “always shambolic”, an assumption which will prove unsound. She also quotes Rory Stewart going “completely insane” and telling some MPs, “It’s going to be Boris against me, and I’m going to take Boris down.”

In July 2019, by which time Johnson is on course for victory, she says “the odds that he will be the shortest-serving PM are pretty high”.

In August 2019, she goes to a “small and select” dinner at Number Ten and sits on the PM’s right:

“Boris is about the best placement you can get. Cheeky. Flippant. Enthusiastic. Bombastic. Ebullient. Energetic. We have a good laugh…

“I look at his rotund build, thick, creased neck, pale, sweaty face, and characteristic dishevelled appearance; he looks back, as if he is working out if I’m shaggable or past my sell-by date…

“I don’t know what will happen to him, because events make politicians, but I have changed my view of him. Yes, he is an alley cat, but he has a greatness of soul, a generosity of spirit, a desire to believe the best in people, a lack of pettiness and envy which is pretty uncommon in politics, and best of all a wonderful comic vision of the human condition.”

The PM has seduced her, though she also thinks he “is desperately lonely and unhappy on the inside”. These diaries show how Johnson got where is today, and has so far managed to stay there. He knows how to mend fences.

Interview: “Petrolhead” Milling denies that Elliott is really in charge at CCHQ, and says that she’s visited all 48 Red Wall seats

30 Sep

Amanda Milling’s “greatest love” is Formula 1 and she is making sure the Conservative machine is ready for next year’s election races: “I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.”

As Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party she announces “the biggest conference ever”, starting on Saturday, and has been “on the road constantly for the last three months”, visiting all 48 of the Red or, as they are now sometimes called, Blue Wall seats won off other parties at the general election.

Milling denies in this interview that Ben Elliot, her Co-Chairman, runs the show at CCHQ, just as Andrew Feldman did for David Cameron.

She does not deny that since the general election victory in December, CCHQ has got rid of some campaign managers: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers round the country.”

Her role, she explains, is not to represent the party on the airwaves, but to maintain close contact with activists: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base.”

The interview was conducted on Monday afternoon in her office at CCHQ, which is adorned by pictures of Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson.

ConHome: “What do you think the virtual party conference will be like, and what do you hope to achieve from it?”

Milling: “Well I’m thoroughly looking forward to the virtual conference which starts on Saturday. It’s going to be the biggest conference ever, given the number of registrations.

“Obviously I’m disappointed we’re not in Birmingham, but we are where we are. You do find yourself attracting people who would normally not come to conference, by virtue of being able to dial in from your home.”

ConHome: “It is very expensive, in time as well as money, to go to conference.”

Milling: “Yes, in terms of normal conference, if you think about actually going along to Birmingham or Manchester, the hotel, it can be quite a big commitment.

“But I’m delighted we’ve got this virtual conference this year to be able to pour more people in, and hopefully it’ll give them appetite to join us at future conferences both in the spring and in the autumn.”

ConHome: “Will they be able to answer back, or to applaud?”

Milling: “It’s going to be very interactive. A virtual conference does give us the opportunity to have that chat function. People can pose their questions.

“I think that’s quite an important part of this. Because otherwise I think there’s a bit of a danger that it’s permanently just ‘transmit’ – it’s much better to have that interaction – the ability to ask colleagues questions.

“And I’m very pleased that ConHome are having the fringe events too.”

ConHome: “We are, in massive number. Just so you can help us plan, how many set-piece speeches will there be?”

Milling: “We’ve got set-piece speeches from the Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Chancellor and Prime Minister, but other Cabinet ministers will be having their slots as well.”

ConHome: “Let me ask you about your function, and do this by looking back for a moment. We’ve had a number of dual chairs, we’ve had Saatchi and Fox, then we got to Feldman and Shapps, and Feldman chaired the Board, and Feldman really was David Cameron’s man, he was in effect the real Party Chairman.

“I’m going to put this to you absolutely straight. There’s a view that Ben Elliot chairs the Board, Ben Elliot is a long-time supporter of Boris, as you are, and Ben’s the real Party Chairman.

“And that with no local elections this year it’s been very hard to see what you’re up to, or some people would say, brutally, why you’re there.”

Milling: “It’s very much a Co-Chairman role, and very much teamwork, with both of us working together. Inevitably we take on different roles and responsibilities.

“Your point about campaigning. Whilst we did have the pause, the postponement of elections earlier in the year, we still have to work towards those elections next May.

“During the summer since we had the easing of lockdown one of the things that’s been really important is setting out guidance for our activists in terms of how they can campaign in a Covid-secure way ahead of those elections next year.”

ConHome: “Tell us about your year. What have you been doing with no local elections? How did you fill in and prepare for next year’s?”

Milling: “Let’s be honest, when I was appointed Co-Chairman back in February I was there ready to get out campaigning and get out also to those seats which are the Blue Wall seats.

“They are Blue Wall seats not Red Wall seats now. Lockdown made that somewhat more difficult. But during lockdown I did a lot of work engaging with the membership via our various new virtual platforms, Zoom and Teams.

“in fact the day was filled morning to evening engaging with our activists. Actually you can get to see more activists in many ways using technology because you’re cutting out the travel time.

“But then after the lockdown was eased I started on what my original mission had been which is to get out and visit these Blue Wall seats.

“And at the weekend I did my last visit which meant I’d visited every single seat that we gained in December. I’ve been on the road constantly for the last three months.”

ConHome: “You actually visited physically?”

Milling: “Physically every single one.”

ConHome: “Could you remind me how many that is?”

Milling: “It is 48.”

ConHome: “And how many times in the year have you been put up on the Today programme or Newsnight?”

Milling: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base, our members, and talk about my vision for the party.”

ConHome: “Will the local elections definitely go ahead next year?”

Milling: “Yes, there is a lot of work going on in the Cabinet Office to make sure that those local elections go ahead.”

ConHome: “This is a bumper crop of local elections. What have we got? We’ve got London…”

Milling: “We’ve got the county council elections, PCC elections, mayoral elections from 2020 and also 2021, we’ve got elections in Wales and elections in Scotland. So you’re right, this is an absolutely bumper year.”

ConHome: “And everywhere you’ve got a third of the council being elected.”

Milling: “And you’ve got some by-elections. This is why this conference is a really great opportunity to galvanise the troops, enthuse the troops in terms of campaigning.

“I think back to about June time, I would go round the House of Commons, I would literally have colleagues going ‘When can we go out campaigning?’ I was actually hearing that from the grassroots as well.

“And it’s been great to see people getting back on the campaign trail, having rested their legs over lockdown.”

ConHome: “Do you think these elections will be seen as a referendum on the Government?”

Milling: “These elections are our opportunity to really demonstrate Conservatives delivering at a local level. These are local elections, but on a very large scale, given that they are two years’ worth.”

ConHome: “How has it come about that the opposition to the way the fight against Covid was conducted is actually now being led by the Chairman of the 1922 Committee?”

Milling: “Throughout this, we as a Government had to respond to an unprecedented situation with measures to protect jobs, businesses and also lives.”

ConHome: “But how come you seem to have lost the confidence, up to a point, if I read his piece in The Telegraph on Saturday rightly, of the Chairman of the ’22?”

Milling: “So what this debate is about at the moment is the time spent in Parliament discussing it. Today [Monday], as an example, we are having a debate on Coronavirus and the various measures, and a staggering 80 people are in that debate. And there will be further debates and votes going forward.”

ConHome: “But some of them are hopping up and down because today they say we’ve had another set of regulations sprung on us without any notice, saying you can’t dance in a pub and you can’t sing in a pub.”

Milling: “What the Government’s having to do is respond to what is a very fast-moving situation, but at the same time giving colleagues the opportunity to debate that, as is being demonstrated this evening.”

ConHome: “Do you feel there’s been a movement among the colleagues towards a more Swedish-type solution?”

Milling: “Colleagues are as I say debating this today and the Government are responding to the science and the research to ultimately save lives, and that’s the most important thing.”

ConHome: “If this Brady amendment is debated on Wednesday, by then we would expect the Government to have made some move to accommodate it?”

Milling: “We will be having the vote on the Rule of Six next week.”

ConHome: “Though not amendable.”

Milling: “The days of me being in the Whips Office in terms of what’s amendable are over, you seem to forget.”

ConHome: “What do you do in your spare time? Though by the sound of it you don’t have all that much of it just at the moment.”

Milling: “Well my greatest love, and I do try to carve out the time for this, is watching Formula 1.”

ConHome: “Gosh!”

Milling: “So I am a petrolhead.”

ConHome: “From what age were you a petrolhead?”

Milling: “From childhood. I was brought up around cars.”

ConHome: “Who are the greatest racing drivers in your lifetime? Lewis Hamilton’s a bit dull, isn’t he? I mean obviously very good at it.”

Milling: “He’s very, very good at it. He had a bit of a tough day in the office yesterday. Eddie Irvine I always thought was quite an interesting character, because he really took the challenge to Schumacher at the time if I recall rightly.

“So I love Formula 1. So you can imagine my Sunday evenings are most definitely carved out for watching the highlights.

“It’s nice downtime. It would be nicer to actually go to one, but obviously at the moment that’s more difficult. Going to Silverstone is a great, great experience.”

ConHome: “You were brought up around cars?”

Milling: “My father had some vintage cars. There’s a photo if I recall correctly of me at about two in a kind of jump suit with a spanner in hand, although I’m not sure I’d be very good at servicing cars.

“Although on the matter of servicing cars, in terms of this particular role at the moment, I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.

“You haven’t maybe been able to do these things over the last few years, because we’ve just been so focussed on elections.”

ConHome: “So you’re tuning the engine.”

Milling: “We’re tuning the engine. Curiously, lockdown enabled us to do that to a greater extent.”

ConHome: “What sort of things?”

Milling: “One of the things is the candidates’ process, so an end-to-end review of that, from identifying talent to assessing talent and then supporting and nurturing talent.

“We did the Welsh review. We’ve recently appointed a team member to be the campaign manager for Northern Ireland.”

ConHome: “In the past there’s been a lot of criticism of losing highly knowledgeable campaign managers after a general election, and then the machine not in fact being in proper working order, for example in 2017.”

Milling: “So what we’ve been doing over the last few months, particularly ahead of next year’s elections, is making sure that our team are in the right places.

“But also over time our main focus is on getting the organisation fit for not just next year but 2024.”

ConHome: “The organisation was very scanty in many of the 48 seats which were won in December. What are you doing to build up some troops, some boots on the ground, for next time?”

Milling: “There’s a big piece of work we’ve been undertaking looking at these Blue Wall seats. Lee Rowley, who’s the Deputy Chairman, has been sitting down with all these colleagues to really get under the skin of what have they got, what have they not got, what their priorities are, what we need to do to build a membership and activists in these different areas.

“We’re going to be having a working group to make that more action-focussed.”

ConHome: “You just said you’ll be getting the campaign managers to the right places. Is that fewer people to the right places?”

Milling: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers around the country. But I think the main point for me as well is making sure that those campaign managers that we’ve got are focussed in the right places, particularly ahead of next year, which you know is a challenge, given the number of elections that we’ve got.”

ConHome: “When you went round the Red Wall or Blue Wall seats, how many of them don’t have a Conservative councillor?”

Milling: “It’s a big of a mixed bag. I think the key here is about building on having a Conservative MP. From being out on the ground, when I’ve met with businesses and residents, they’re really chuffed to have a Conservative MP who’s really there acting on their behalf, a voice in Parliament for them.”

ConHome: “How many of them actually have activists, never mind local councillors? How many of them have had to put together a team outside the traditional association structure?”

Milling: “My seat back in 2015 was a marginal seat and you have to build it up over time to have that broader activist base.”

ConHome: “Previous Chairmen have actually declared the membership figures. I don’t think you’ve got any plans to do that, have you?”

Milling: “No. I’m not going to be declaring the membership figures.”

ConHome: “Why not?”

Milling: “There’s a number of things on this. Number one which is actually membership’s just part of the Conservative family in many ways. It’s also about activists as well.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is actually people putting their cross by the Conservatives at an election.

“But what I would say is that membership is up from this time last year.”

ConHome: “Is there any other organisation – the National Trust or whatever – name me another that doesn’t declare their membership.”

Milling: “Look, I’m not going to declare the membership numbers. But as I say, it is up from last year.”

Profile: Graham Brady, who played a quiet part in deposing May, and now keeps a watchful eye on Johnson

24 Sep

An adviser to Boris Johnson warned him earlier this year not to be alone with Graham Brady. Here already was a sign of prime ministerial weakness, or evasiveness, in the face of a determined upholder, not just of the rights of Conservative backbenchers, but of parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive.

Nobody would describe Sir Graham Brady as evasive. He is sincere, vigilant and as Chairman of the 1922 Committee, considers it his duty to convey, in the manner of a polite but implacable shop steward, the views of his members to the Prime Minister.

Like a considerable number of those members, he is furious that ministers have “got into the habit of ruling by decree” during the pandemic. In May, Brady called on ministers to look at “removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”, though he recognised that many voters approved of these restrictions:

“The public have been willing to assist. If anything, in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home.”

Last weekend, Brady went further, and told The Sunday Telegraph:

“In March, Parliament gave the Government sweeping emergency powers at a time when Parliament was about to go into recess and there was realistic concern that NHS care capacity might be overwhelmed by Covid-19.

“We now know that the NHS coped well with the challenge of the virus and Parliament has been sitting largely since April. There is now no justification for ministers ruling by emergency powers without reference to normal democratic processes.

“It is essential that going forward all of these massively important decisions for family life, and affecting people’s jobs and businesses, should be exercised with proper supervision and control.”

In other words, Parliament must have the final say on any new measures the Government introduces to fight the pandemic. That is the amendment to the Coronavirus Act 2020 demanded by Sir Graham, which as Paul Goodman noted here on Monday, could command widespread assent on the Conservative benches:

“The danger for Downing Street, if it comes to a debate and a vote, is that it faces a coalition of high-minded constitutionalists, supporters of a Swedish option, low-minded opportunists who dislike Johnson, feel under-promoted, are grievance-haunted (or all three), plus backbenchers who are simply unhappy and bewildered.”

Every Tory leader has to be mindful of what his or her own troops will wear. The Conservative Party is a coalition of such disparate or even contradictory elements that many people, unaware of the lesson (“never again”) learned from the disastrous split over the Corn Laws in 1846, cannot comprehend why it remains together.

Brady possesses a resolute independence of mind. “He really couldn’t stand David Cameron,” one of his colleagues remarks. Nor, one may surmise, is he particularly keen on Johnson.

For in Brady, we find a Conservative of a different stamp. He was born in Salford in 1967 and educated at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, an establishment to which he remains fiercely loyal, after which he read law at Durham, where he was immensely active in student politics and married Victoria Lowther, with whom he has two children.

In his twenties, he earned his living by working for public affairs companies, and also for a couple of years for the Centre for Policy Studies, before gaining selection for his home seat of Altrincham and Sale West, which in the Labour landslide of 1997 he retained by the slender margin of 1505 votes.

At the age of 29, he was the youngest Conservative MP, and in his maiden speech he declared his passionate loyalty to grammar schools:

“In the borough of Trafford, successive Conservative administrations have worked, not only to preserve our excellent grammar schools, but to raise standards in the high schools as well. What we have achieved is an example of selective education that works and it should be taken as a model for improving education across the country.

“I believe passionately in the role of the grammar schools as the greatest of social levellers and I fear that before long I will be called upon to defend my old school, Altrincham boys grammar school, from those who would see the remaining 160 grammar schools destroyed. As a believer in grammar schools, I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools.”

He served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Ancram, a junior Whip, Education spokesman and in 2003 as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the new Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard.

The following year he became Shadow Europe Minister, a post he retained under Howard’s successor, David Cameron. But in 2007, when a tremendous row erupted within the party over grammar schools, Brady resigned because “in conscience” he had to be free to speak his mind, and to argue his unfashionable case:

“Grammar schools in selective areas are exactly the motor that does drive social mobility more effectively than comprehensive areas.”

A generally sympathetic colleague says of Brady that when grammar schools are mentioned “his eye lights up with insanity”, an expression coined by Disraeli, who reported that this was what happened to General Peel on hearing the words “household suffrage”.

Cameron says in his memoirs, For The Record:

“I felt that the call to ‘bring back grammars’ was an anti-modernisation proxy, and I wasn’t going to stand for it.”

There was a class element in this row. Etonians couldn’t generally see the point of grammar schools. Conservatives from less gilded backgrounds often knew from personal experience that such schools could transform lives.

In 2010, Brady stood for the chairmanship of the ’22, just after Cameron’s brazen attempt to neuter that committee as the voice of backbenchers had been seen off, with his proposal to allow members of the Government to vote in its elections being withdrawn.

Brady’s resignation three years earlier had proved his independence, and he had indicated, after the 2010 election, that he and other Tory MPs would have preferred a minority Conservative Government – “That, I think, is generally the feeling of colleagues” – to the coalition formed by Cameron with the Liberal Democrats.

In a piece for ConHome he explained why he was standing:

“Coalition government has been hailed as a part of a ‘new politics’. I believe that enhancing the role of Parliament and the status of MPs as the elected champions of our constituents is just as important. For too many years the Executive has eroded the power of Parliament and back benchers have increasingly been marginalised, I want to play a part in reversing that process.”

Brady defeated the other candidate, Richard Ottaway, who was thought to be favoured by Cameron, by 126 votes to 85.

If one wants to see how deeply Brady feels about things, one has only to read the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture which he delivered under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2014. He began by quoting with approval Margaret Thatcher when she gave the same lecture in 1996:

“In politics, integrity really lies in the conviction that it’s only on the basis of truth that power should be won – or indeed can be worth winning. It lies in the unswerving belief that you have to be right.”

Brady went on to say:

“Political parties have become over-reliant on focus groups and opinion research to identify the key target voters in the key ‘swing’ seats. The message is too often crafted to appeal – not to be right, and the biggest focus group of all – the British electorate – grows ever more disenchanted.”

Conservative backbenchers have not grown disenchanted with Brady. Sir Charles Walker, who became Vice-Chairman of the ’22 in 2010, the same year as Brady became Chairman, told ConHome:

“He’s a man who believes in Parliament and a man who believes in doing things properly. Graham is straight as a die. He’s straight in his dealings with people. So it’s no surprise he’s moving this Amendment. The Chairman of the ’22 should be spiky. That’s his role – to be a critical friend. The ’22 is rightly regarded as being a powerful organisation and leaders are best advised to be wary of it. But it’s also capable of providing great support in time of difficulty.”

The most difficult period in Brady’s chairmanship came during the last two years of Theresa May’s prime ministership. He was knighted in the 2018 New Year honours, the investiture taking place in March 2018, so at this point in the story he becomes once more Sir Graham.

The ’22 was fractious and divided, and Sir Graham was the recipient of the letters from Tory MPs which, if and when the 15 per cent threshold was reached  – 48 MPs out of 317 – would mean she faced a motion of no confidence.

Nobody knew how many letters he had received, for he did not breathe a word, but nobody doubted he was showing complete integrity in his counting of them.

In December 2018 the 15 per cent threshold was crossed, but the Prime Minister survived the subsequent ballot by 200 votes to 117. This supposedly meant she could not be challenged by this method for another year.

But on 24th May 2019, after the Conservatives had performed disastrously in European elections which would not have taken place in the UK had she managed to get Brexit done, out she went.

Brady’s role in this was one of the utmost delicacy. He reckoned the game was up, but had to say so with discretion, for not all his colleagues agreed with him.

Once she realised she had to go, he wished to take soundings to see whether he could launch his own leadership bid. Since the ’22 would be running the leadership election, he stepped down.

He soon found he had no support, so he did not run. Nor, to the astonishment of more worldly figures, did he endorse any other candidate: not even his fellow Leaver, Boris Johnson, when it became evident that Johnson was going to win.

Others who rushed to join the winning side were rewarded with Cabinet posts. A minister told ConHome: “I know Graham believed he was going to be offered a job, and thought it should be a Cabinet position.

“But he had never come out for Boris, and Boris’s whole operation is based on people who are loyal to him.

“Graham was disappointed he didn’t get anything, went back to being Chairman of the ’22, and since then he’s been quite grumpy.”

This reading of events comes from a Johnson loyalist, and others will feel it was to Sir Graham’s credit that he did not sell out his long-established independence.

Sir Graham, who is still only 53 years old, is in person an affable figure, ready to be amused by things, unperturbed by journalists, and not inclined to idealise Tory MPs, of whom he remarked at the 2018 party conference, when the question of letters demanding a vote of confidence was starting to become of interest:

“The distance between what some of my colleagues say they might have done and what they actually have done can be considerable.”

On another occasion, interviewed by ConHome, he lamented the “ennui, apathy and cynicism” shown by colleagues who declined to use the machinery set up to enable them to feed in policy proposals for consideration in the 2015 manifesto.

He is loyal, as we have seen, to an idea of truth which stands above party politics. Sir Graham is now a severe impediment to any attempt by Downing Street to go on running things without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

And if and when Johnson suffers a severe loss of confidence on his own side of the House, Sir Graham will once more find himself being asked from day to day, indeed from hour to hour, how many letters he has received.

What could give the Government a sense of purpose – and chances to achieve? Making Gove Deputy Prime Minister.

18 Sep

Boris Johnson has a majority of 80, the Conservatives are still above 40 per cent in the polls, there is no leadership challenge pending, and there are still over four years to go until the next election.

But the Tory press this week is behaving as though none of that applies.  It hasn’t given up on the possibility of the Prime Minister winning in 2024.  However, it seems close to abandoning hope of him achieving anything substantial before then.

The joint catalyst of this development has been the Government’s adventures with international law, to which many voters are indifferent.  And its handling of the Coronavirus, to which they are not.  The common theme is that the country is all at sea, and that the captain has no sense of direction – or grip.

It may be that the media, some Tory MPs and Party donors are getting everything out of proportion.  The hysterical anti-Johnson hyperbole from the Remainer residue certainly muddies the waters.  To give an example almost at random, one prominent pro-Remain journalist once implied that Johnson’s Covid illness was faked.

None the less, ConservativeHome thinks that the critics have a point – and then some – for two solid reasons.  The first is all to do with the unique circumstances of last December’s election.  Johnson was elected to Get Brexit Done and spend a lot of money: at least, that’s what the hostage-free Tory manifesto suggested.

He has delivered Brexit as most voters see it (even if there is no trade deal), and his spending plans have been absorbed by the Coronavirus crisis, along with nearly everything else.  “Levelling up” is on hold.  So is the economy.  The manifesto had no programme for public service reform in any event.

If it had, the virus would make its delivery all but impossible. Covid means all hands to the pump, unless the Prime Minister is prepared to let the disease which put him in intensive care let rip.  That isn’t going to happen.  Global Britain may not either, at least if one means by it a coherent approach to China, Russia and radical Islamism.

The second reason is all bound up with Johnson himself.  We endorsed him last summer as “not the Prime Minister we deserve, but the Prime Minister we need right now”.  By which we meant that his character, gifts and personality are best shaped for campaigning rather than government.

Just before he made up his mind to declare for Brexit, he told friends that he was “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”.  That captures the essence of how he works when trying to deliver many ends, as one must in office, rather than single one, as is the case in elections.

A shopping trolley can’t move on its own.  It needs someone to direct it.  That person is thought by those demented Remainers to be Dominic Cummings.  Certainly, parts of the Government’s programme are Cummings-driven: upending the civil service, challenging judicial power, overhauling procurement, “investing in science”.

But Cummings’ hands are only some of those on the trolley.  His old Parliamentary supporters, Simon Case, colleagues from his London mayoralty days, Carrie Symonds: all these and others push and pull at Johnson, who has no enduring ideology of his own to steer by, and can be as indecisive in private as he is bombastic in public.

We don’t mean to suggest that the Prime Minister has no beliefs.  He does, and his experience in City Hall has shaped them.  He wants to build more houses (good for him), invest in infrastructure, spend money on policing – and he has liberal instincts on immigration, as Government policy confirms.

But these are not so much convictions as impulses.  This is not the man to throw himself into the culture wars, as his response to the Black Lives Matter eruption confirms.  Rather, he is Lord Stanley, pitching in to the Bosworths of the conflict only when they’ve already been decided.  So it was with Churchill’s statue and the Proms.

The big point is that his response to Covid-19 is in deep trouble.  Success would see test and track taking the strain this winter.  Instead, regional lockdowns have already kicked in, and it’s only September.  The Government wants life at work to be as close to the old normal as possible, but life at home to be a new normal – under compulsion.

Hence marshalls, curfews and the rule of six.  Last spring, voters swung behind the Prime Minister as they’ve sometimes swung behind others when wars break out.  Now, there is war-weariness.  The winter is shaping up ominously and the Parliamentary Party is skittish.

At this stage in editorials, the usual course is to reiterate advice.  Appoint better Cabinet Ministers – not just people who voted for you.  Find an Andrew Mackay-type figure to take the backbench temperature.  Get a single, strong Party Chairman.

We add: forget trying to carry out, in current cirumstances, a spending review that looks more than a year ahead.  Concentrate on sorting testing, keeping schools open – and saving the Union; concede that turning the civil service upside-down will have to wait; prepare for a pro-EU Biden presidency.  But there is a fundamental problem.

Johnson just isn’t the man to exercise self-discipline outside an election campaign.  This is integral to what makes him so interesting: As Sasha Swire puts it, he has a “greatness of soul…and best of all a wonderful comic vision of the human condition. He is not like any politician I have ever encountered before, and I have met many.”

He will carry on boostering about moonshots, world-beating systems and (James Forsyth writes this morning) hydrogen.  It’s a form of manic defence.  A David Cameron would think tactically; a Margaret Thatcher strategically.  But the Prime Minister doesn’t think so much as intuit.  And will carry on doing so because that’s how he is.

Perhaps memory can reach where advice can’t.  Johnson has worked at his best when he lurches noisily forwards and someone follows quietly behind, carrying a dustpan and brush: Simon Milton in London (then Eddie Lister), Stuart Reid at the Spectator.  To put it more neutrally, he performs and someone else administers.

The safe, secure choice to do this now would be Oliver Dowden.  The one that would cause a sensation, explode a mass of leadership speculation and conspiracy theory, and drag up horrible memories of commitment and betrayal would be the psycho-dramatic appointment of Michael Gove.

The media’s field day could last for the rest of this Parliament.  But in the meantime, Gove would get on with what he does better than any Minister other than perhaps Rishi Sunak: strategic thinking – and messaging – government with a purpose, and zeal for reform.

The planned New Year reshuffle would be the right time for the change, though we admit that it almost certainly won’t happen.  All the same, the Government’s shaping up to be in its own bleak midwinter by then.  Sure, the next election is there to be won.  And never underestimate Johnson’s strange bond with a big slice of the British people.

But getting the state’s creaking machinery up to responding to Covid, let alone achieving much before 2024, depends on him doing what all of us find it hardest to do: changing what he does; almost who he is.

Iain Dale: Cameron changed the Conservatives, and in many ways he changed the country for good

18 Sep

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

On Monday, I announced on my Twitter feed that I would be interviewing David Cameron later in the week. The paperback of his memoirs, For the Record, was published yesterday, so the interview was timed to coincide with that.

Never for a moment did I think an announcement that I would be interviewing a former Prime Minister would be met with such abuse. “What’s the point?” “He was a failure, why would you interview a failure?” And there was plenty that was much worse.

It illustrates the debasing of public discourse when people can be quite so insulting about someone who served his country as Prime Minister for six years. And he got it with both barrels from both sides.

To the more extreme Remainers, he is a traitor to his country for allowing the referendum to take place, and to hard Brexiteers he’s, well, just a traitor. “Why would you interview someone who walked away, the day after the referendum?” they brayed in unison.

Well, I’ll tell you why. Cameron changed the Conservative Party. In many ways he changed the country for good. Yes, he had political and policy failings, but all Prime Ministers do.

He may well go down in history as the man who allowed Brexit to happen. We don’t know yet whether that will turn out well or not. He may go down in history as the Prime Minister who started the process by which Scotland parted company from the rest of the UK – although if it happens, there will have been many other factors at play.

I interviewed Cameron because he presided over this country at a time of unique economic and political turmoil. All Prime Ministers are fascinating to one degree or another, and if anyone thinks I’d turn down the opportunity of interviewing him, Gordon Brown, John Major – or Lord Palmerston – well, they live in a delusional world of their own making. If you missed the interview it’s on the Iain Dale Book Club podcast right now.

– – – – – – – – – –

This lunchtime, I’m in Appledore in North Devon speaking at their book festival. Also on the programme are Labour’s Rachel Reeves and Jeremy Vine.

Most literary festivals this autumn have been cancelled, but Appledore have taken a brave decision to go ahead – and reformat it as a ‘Drive-in’ event.

So I’ll be on stage. Being interviewed about my book by a local journalist, and the audience will be in their cars, watching a big screen and listening to my words of wisdom via their car radios. What could possibly go wrong…?

– – – – – – – – – –

The Government is planning to double the maximum prison sentence for people who launch physical attacks on emergency workers.

Great news, you’d think. But it’s only from one to two years. Given we have the most right-wing Home Secretary in our lifetimes, you’d have thought she might have been willing to go to five or even ten years – but it seems not.

I just do not understand the mentality of anyone who would deliberately attack a paramedic or a firefighter or an ambulance driver. Of course, some will no doubt have mental health issues, but most will not.

I’m not sure that when the red mists descends you worry about a one or two year prison sentence, but it might cross your mind that discretion may be the better part of valour, were the sentence ten years.

– – – – – – – – – –

Sasha Swire’s diaries look as if they are going to be unputdownable when they are published next Thursday. If you’ve missed the serialisation in The Times, she is the wife of the former Conservative MP, Hugo Swire. And she has written a potboiler of a book, which, if rumour is to be believed, threatens to despatch them into the realms of social pariahdom.

The diaries are so indiscreet that it’s difficult to see how some of the couple’s long-term friendships can survive some of the revelations. I’ve published and edited a fair few political diaries in my time, and it’s always a balancing act between keeping juicy bits in to attract readers and editing the more salacious bits to avoid upsetting too many people.

I published Michael Spicer’s diaries some years ago and, as the publishing process wore on, he proceeded to take every single juicy anecdote out, including the identity of a Liberal Democrat MP who nearly defected to the Conservatives. He wouldn’t even say he was a LibDem. It was John Burnett, by the way. Nope, me neither.

Conservatives can’t be neutral about culture

7 Sep

MPs are to be made to take unconscious bias training.  A former Prime Minister of Australia is targeted because he is a social conservative.  The British Library links changes to the way it will work to George Floyd’s murder in America.   Extinction Rebellion clip the wings of a free press.  Senior civil servants declare publicly for Black Lives Matter.

Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have a majority of 80.  But the Left’s long march through the institutions seems, if anything, to speed up.

And the Government either won’t do anything about it or doesn’t want to – or both.  What’s the point of a Tory Government, a stonking majority and Brexit itself if nothing changes?

That’s the case for the prosection from some on the Right.  Should Johnson and his Government be found guilty?

The first thing a fair-minded jury would do is mull the charge sheet above.  It would see at once that the incidents and developments above vary in important ways.  For example, the Executive does not control the Legislature.  So whether to conduct bias training or otherwise is a matter for MPs, not Ministers.

The second course it would take is to try to work out what government should and shouldn’t do.  To take another example, Ministerial control of police operations would be alien to the British model of policing by consent, and to a free society.

Third, it would ask those at the top of the Government what they have to say for themselves.  The answers ConservativeHome gets when it puts that question, off the record, is a mix of the following.

Downing Street has “limited bandwidth” – i.e: fewer people than it needs.  Changing the culture of government is like turning round a supertanker, but it can be done.  Look at the change of tone from the BBC’s new Director-General.  And there are victories as well as defeats: the corporation backed down over Last Night of the Proms and the Government didn’t over Abbott’s appointment.

But that’s not all that some of our sources will say when they’re being candid.  They say that the Prime Minister moves slowly not just for reasons of political calculation, but because he’s internally conflicted.  His upbringing, attitudes and reflexes are liberal as well as conservative.  So he moves cautiously – being slower out of traps to champion the singing of Rule Britannia, as it happens, than did Keir Starmer.

You, ladies and gentlemen of the conservative jury, will reach your own verdict – or, if you’re sensible, conclude that putting the Government on a trial after it has had less than a year in office is premature.  Nonetheless, here’s our provisional take.

Johnson is denounced by much of the Remain-flavoured Left as a British Trumpian Bannonite – a misreading which helps to explain why he keeps on winning.  He is right not to declare a culture war from Downing Street.  The British people aren’t in our view enthusiasts for wars of any kind.

But if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see that one of the reasons he doesn’t need to declare such a war is that is already being fought.  The noisiest and nastiest parts of it tend to be where race, sex and religion are contested.

Those in the front line aren’t necessarily conservatives, let alone Conservatives.  They include J.K.Rowling as well as Katherine Birbalsingh (who’s being interviewed live by Mark Wallace this week ; Germaine Greer as well as Nigel Biggar.

That they and others are in the hottest parts of the action may explain why, to large parts of the conservative movement, the real heroes of our time are private citizens rather than public ones.  Consider the case of Jordan Peterson.

Some will say that the Conservative Party, and the centre-right more broadly, is divided about this cultural struggle, citing such telltale signs as Matt Hancock deliberately declaring “Black Lives Matter” at a Government Coronavirus press conference, or Grant Shapps declaring that he’d check Abbott’s record before going for a drink with him.

We think this is an over-complication.  Sure, conservatives won’t always agree about culture any more than they will about economics.  That’s why, inter alia, the flavour of David Cameron’s Downing Street was different from that of Johnson’s.  Near the top, there were fewer northern accents, more women, and fewer “weirdos and misfits”.

But we suspect that if Tory MPs were surveyed, the following attitudes would be found.  Support for equality of opportunity, or as close as one can get to it, rather than equality of outcome.  Much less backing for abortion on demand than on the Labour benches.  Much more for the free market being a friend of the environment, not an enemy.  Caution on reforming the Gender Recognition Act.   Agreement that real diversity must include a diversity of viewpoints.  Disagreement that poor working-class white people have a race privilege.  Poll them and prove us wrong.

In other words, Conservative MPs are more likely to share the patriotic instincts of most voters than Labour ones.  If you doubt it, ask yourself why Starmer is so anxious to present as Labour a patriotic party; why he was quicker than Johnson in coming out for Rule Britannia, and whywe read – his team want to present him as a very British hero who led in prosecuting an Islamist bomb plot. That’s solid ground for the Prime Minister to have beneath him

So while these are early days, we say that just because a Tory Government can’t – and shouldn’t – do everything, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t do something.  For example, there is a Minister for the Civil Service.  He is no less senior a figure than the Prime Minister himself.

So it’s up to Johnson to ensure that senior civil servants don’t promote, in practice if not in theory, causes that are outside any reasonable reading of its code – such as Black Lives Matter which, on any impartial reading, is tainted by anti-white dogma.  (Which doesn’t for a moment preclude following-up on Theresa May’s observation that “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”.)

Cultural change isn’t driven by governments, and thank goodness for that.  Over time, those that have transformed human lives most are the products of human invention (railways; the pill; vaccines) or conviction (the Abrahamic religions; the Enlightenment; secular humanism – or, talking of black lives mattering, America’s civil war.

But though the role of government should be limited, it is real, and modern Britain will always be more than just a market with a flag on top.  Governments propose laws, present manifestos, fund public services, make arguments – just as Johnson’s pre-election one did for delivering Brexit. And, talking of Extinction Rebellion, set the framework for policing policy.

We’d like to see the Prime Minister speak more swiftly when what Neil O’Brien calls the New Puritans – i.e: the legions of the woke – try to silence their opponents.  And ensure that the Government keeps them out of what government does.  Were Cummings and co to reduce its size and scope, that task would become just a bit easier.

Finkelstein shows that moderate, decent, pragmatic, intelligent conservatism is alive and well

5 Sep

Everything in Moderation by Daniel Finkelstein

One of the many merits of Daniel Finkelstein’s collection of his columns from The Times is that it sent me back, for purposes of comparison, to the two other collections by writers for that paper which I happen to possess.

Taking Sides, the first selection of Bernard Levin’s journalism to be published, includes his account of his mother’s troubles with the North Thames Gas Board, written in 1973. Rather to my surprise, it still made me laugh out loud.

Best Seat in the House: The Wit and Parliamentary Chronicles of Frank Johnson, edited by his widow, Virginia Fraser, includes the piece read at his memorial service by David Cameron, which was written in 1981 for Now! Magazine and begins:

“Unsuccessfully, as will now emerge, I had resolved from the outset that there were two subjects which had received sufficient airing on this page and would not be mentioned further: Wagner and Mr Roy Hattersley.

“Concerning the one: nobody in his right mind would deny his capacity for the sublime, his surges of lyricism, his sheer weight and scale, but there is also his torrential prolixity, his essentially outdated nineteenth-century attitude towards his art, his foggy symbolism and an epic tedium which modern audiences should surely not be expected to endure. These are some of the drawbacks of Mr Hattersley.”

Again I laughed out loud. Johnson was an even finer comic writer than Levin. They were among the wittiest figures of their time, gave enormous pleasure to their readers, and are now passing into the obscurity which awaits even the most celebrated journalists.

Finkelstein is not so brilliant a stylist as his two illustrious predecessors, but it is right to place him in this tradition, for since the age of eight, when he started to read The Times for its football coverage, he has been a devoted reader of that paper, and treats it with the high seriousness, one might say the reverence, which is required if one is going to do one’s best work for it.

He is now 58, has contributed to The Times since 2001, and brings to it several qualities which neither Levin nor Johnson possessed. One is a knowledge of politics as conducted on the inside: Finkelstein has worked closely for David Owen, John Major, William Hague, George Osborne and David Cameron.

His columns are informed by his experience of what works, and more importantly, what does not work. On 4th October 2006 he began a piece with the words:

“I am worried about David Cameron. I fear he will have too much policy. I am concerned that there will be too much substance and not enough style.”

Finkelstein proceeds to an exposition of political parties as “identity brands”:

“Voters make choices in order to make statements about themselves, to establish their own identity, as much as they do because of anything the parties offer them.”

I am allergic to the discussion of parties as “brands”, but Finkelstein does it so well that I always read him on the subject. Apart from anything else, he has invariably read some book, on, say, game theory or social psychology, which I know I shall never read myself, and has extracted valuable insights from it, which he proceeds to share with his readers.

The principal task of the social scientist is to establish, by the most laborious research, the truth of propositions which were already known, by anyone with a modicum of common sense, to be true.

Finkelstein gives us the best of this social science, without himself degenerating into a deluded policy wonk. As he goes on to say in his piece about brands:

“Policymaking…is a bit of a con. Manifestos pretend to be an entire programme for government when in reality even the most detailed of them only cover a few items. Voters don’t make judgments based on these programmes and they shouldn’t either.

“What matters is not such bogus ‘substance’, it is the governing style of the prospective rulers. Are they strong or weak? Interferers or liberals? Atlanticists or Europhiles? Moderates or extremists? Localisers or centralisers? Tax cutters or big spenders?”

And he applies this insight to the then Labour Government:

“Labour has spent much of the past five years undoing stupid things it committed itself to in opposition and then did in its first five years. The problem with politicians, you see, is not that they don’t do what they say they will, but the opposite – they try to do what they said they would do, even after realising it wasn’t a good plan.”

I’m sure Boris Johnson – who barely appears in these pages – would agree with every word of that. So would Lord Salisbury, who said “the commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies”.

Like all good columnists, Finkelstein acknowledges his duty to entertain the reader. For New Year’s Eve 2014 he reflects on how much time he spends writing individual replies to emails, and devises a number of standard replies to the most common emails:

“Thank you for your email. I would be happy to help you with your PhD on ‘Idiots who have given the Conservative Party electorally disastrous advice’. Please thank your supervisor for thinking of me. Since you need only four hours of my time, we must fit in a meeting. It might be difficult in the next twelve months, as it is election year, but I will make every effort to organise it. It would certainly be easier for me if I didn’t need to visit you in Sheffield.”

If Finkelstein had wanted to be a comic writer, he might have been in the Stephen Leacock class. But the charm of his columns lies in their mixture of deeply felt politics with a sense of his own absurdity.

Max Beerbohm said Trollope reminds us that sanity need not be philistine. Something similar might be said of Finkelstein. He reminds us that a devotion to compromise, moderation, loving one’s parents and getting on with one’s neighbours need not be philistine: are among the pillars of our civilisation.

He defends the suburbs, including Brent Cross Shopping Centre, and made me feel a bit snobbish for disliking that place so much.

And although he makes almost no references to English literature, not even to that eminently political playwright, William Shakespeare, Finkelstein knows more about our political history, and our 55 Prime Ministers, than just about any other columnist now writing.

When he suggests that “the British voter never gets it wrong”, and the right party has won every election for the last 80 years, he is not indulging in windy idealism, but has at his fingertips the arguments needed to support his case:

“You see, for all that the Conservatives fell apart in the 1992 Parliament, I still think it was clear that a Kinnock government would have been worse. No one needs to tell me how bad things got by 1997, because I was there (I always insist on the retention of that comma). But I still assert with confidence that the voters did the right thing putting the Conservatives back in power.

“Neil Kinnock was entirely unsuited to being prime minister. His endless whirling speeches showed that. As John Major pricelessly commented, as Kinnock didn’t know what he was saying, he never knew when he had finished saying it.”

A collection of newspaper articles is like a box of chocolates: one fears that if one scoffs the whole lot at a sitting, one will end up feeling sick.

But with Finkelstein, I kept on saying to myself “I’ll have just one more”, and didn’t end up feeling sick at all. I felt that moderate, decent, pragmatic, intelligent conservatism is alive and well.

Dinah Glover: Why I’m standing for Vice President of the National Convention – and why it matters.

17 Aug

Dinah Glover is Chairman of London East Area Conservatives and of Bethnal Green and Bow Conservative Association.

Listening to a dedicated and well tuned-in Party activist the other day, I was struck by something he said. Despite his activity, he had barely heard of the National Convention and its officers, let alone what they did. It is highly probable that many of you reading this now would be in the same position. That, to me, signals a problem.

So what is happening? The National Convention is made up of all the association chairmen and other area, regional and CWO officers across the country. Every year they get to elect a chairman, president and three vice presidents. These people sit on the Party board and can have a significant impact on the Party. But still barely half of the electorate participates in the election. This is local association chairmen remember, not disinterested voters. So why is this?

In my view this is down to a fundamental disconnect between the officers and the voluntary Party. Tom Spiller (former president) provided a very powerful insight recently when he said that it did not really know what it is for. We need to be clear about what the National Convention represents and that is why I am standing.

Politics for me has always been about democracy from the grassroots up. It is so important we empower our members so they are enthused to help us build a better future for our local communities. It was, after all, the idea behind David Cameron’s Big Society.

I am standing on a platform calling for empowerment, transparency, accountability and democracy. Not for its own sake, but because this allows greater engagement by all and will deliver a political offering that is even more attractive to the public. Look at what was delivered last December when we were in tune with people. The breakthrough in the Red Wall seats was because we were in touch with what voters wanted. We connected.

The Party needs to provide more engagement for its members. When it does it succeeds. We saw this in action last year when we had an unusual opportunity for the members to choose the next Prime Minister of the UK. The Party managed a fantastic nationwide leadership contest with packed out hustings held around the country. That was a credit to Andrew Sharpe and CCHQ. It was thanks to the two excellent candidates that we had an intelligent and respectful debate that really engaged the members and opened up genuine discussion. This demonstrates what can be achieved when the members are involved. I wonder why we can’t do similar for the National Convention? With this in mind I will host a zoom Q&A for those interested.

I want to serve on the board of the National Convention because I believe in this Party; it runs through my very veins. We have so many talented activists and I am not sure we always use them to their best advantage. I believe every process should be measured in terms of whether it is empowering, accountable, democratic and transparent for members and associations.

Certain processes do need to change and be improved. We should have consultation periods from the ground up through associations to seek their ideas. Ultimately the board has to decide – we can’t function by committee, but we need to be open to ideas.

There are several CCHQ committees that need to be opened up to have a two-way conversation. I would like to see members of these committees reporting to the regions. Why not have the regions voting for their own representatives on these committees, which would mean there is a ready made communication channel?

I do not want to fix what is not broken and I know the team under Sharpe’s leadership have been making improvements where they can but much more needs to be done. If we fail to make this change then that disconnect will impact on our ability to deliver for our new and old voters. That is why I want to play my part to ensure that does not happen. So if you have a vote, please use it and please vote for me.

Julian Brazier: How tackling the causes of rising demand would help the Government solve the housing crisis

14 Aug

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Robin Hodgson’s excellent recent pamphlet, explores the critical link between our growing population, and issues like housing shortages and infrastructure overstretch. He has – rightly – won support from some heavy hitting MPs, including John Hayes, in his call for a standing commission – a Demographic Authority – to examine and advise on population issues, along the lines of the Office of Budget Responsibility’s oversight of fiscal matters.

Good as the proposals are, I want to suggest a different intermediate approach for the short term, closer to the Government’s current programme. At a time when it is handling both the Covid crisis and an unusually heavy programme of change, not least from Brexit, there is a danger that a proposal to set up an entirely new body may be simply brushed aside as a bridge too far.

First let’s take a deep dive into the issues. The Government’s commitment to more building is surely right, whatever one’s view of the detail of the proposed planning reforms; this site has carried many articles on how unaffordable housing is in large parts of the UK. It is terrible for young people wishing to set up home, and the collapse in home ownership has played a critical role in the fall in Conservative support among the under 40s. We have to make housing – both to rent and, even more important, to buy – affordable again.

Yet, at the same time a parallel, and almost entirely separate, debate has taken place on immigration, despite the fact that immigration is the major factor in population growth, itself the main cause of increased demand for housing; last year, the Office for National Statistics predicted that the population would rise by another three million over the next decade to around 70 million.

It predicts that four fifths of this will be from migrants arriving and having children, only one fifth from natural change – ie more births than deaths as people live longer. (There is an additional factor driving demand, independent of population size, but smaller in effect: household size is on a long-term decline, as families break up and more people live alone, meaning more homes required per thousand people).

In other words, in the course of two Parliaments, on current projections, we have to build homes for three million extra people – more than the population of Greater Manchester – before a single extra property is available to tackle housing shortages.

It is against this background that our new immigration policy needs to be reviewed as a matter of urgency. It contains a welcome end to free movement with the EU, in line with our manifesto promise. We also have pledges from Boris Johnson and Priti Patel to take action on the disgraceful cross-channel trafficking of illegal migrants.

Nevertheless, important and welcome though these measures are, neither addresses what are now the two largest categories of migration: those coming to work (now overwhelmingly from outside the EU) and – counter-intuitively – students who settle and their dependants.

Take workers first. The new points-based approach for all migrants applying to work is welcome but the key is the level of movement it allows. It is right that some categories (such as doctors) should have no cap but surely, at a time when unemployment is rising fast as a result of Covid, wrong that the Government proposes to lower the minimum income level, paving the way for more workers from outside the EU.

Leaving the current Covid crisis aside, a wider point applies. Immigration policy, especially in the field of employment, is set after taking advice from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

That body has a remit which is focused almost exclusively on a narrow subset of economic factors, the needs of the labour market. The papers the MAC has published look in a balanced but narrow fashion at the requirements of sections of the economy and regions of the UK, as well as the impact on existing workers. Housing and infrastructure issues – such as transport congestion, water shortages, flooding etc – are barely mentioned.

This is underlined by work MAC commissioned from Oxford Economics, which analyses the net benefit/cost of categories of migrants entirely in “current” terms, ie tax payments made, benefits drawn etc, ignoring the capital (and social) costs of funding new infrastructure to meet a rising population. What is urgently needed is for the Government to extend MAC’s brief to cover housing pressures and infrastructure requirements as well as the job market.

The second major problem with the system relates to students. All governments have recognised the importance of encouraging “the brightest and the best” young people from around the world to come and study in our universities. But here has also been a sustained campaign, orchestrated by the higher education lobby, to take these students out of our immigration statistics.

This would, incidentally, mean abandoning the internationally agreed measure of migration. Much more important, two studies by ONS illustrate why it would be a serious policy mistake. In 2016, one study showed that the influx of students was running at well over double the number of students leaving the UK, (those who had finished their stay and British students travelling to study abroad), a net inflow of 135,000.

The second ONS study in 2018 showed that students and their dependents amounted to almost 30 per cent of all people granted settlement in the UK the previous year. Any serious attempt to get control of migration has to include students.

Under the new (but pre-Covid) rules, any student is automatically granted two years right of abode after finishing his or her course, despite the large surplus of UK graduates; only half of recent UK graduates work in graduate level roles, according to an Education Select committee report – and that was pre-Covid.

This is compounded by the fact that there are no national standards for student entry (domestic or foreign) so any university struggling for funds can accept any student who can get a study visa and can pay the first year’s fees. Worse still, the visa regime is under constant pressure from the universities and others to “relax”. David Cameron closed over 800 dodgy colleges, but we are close to a point where, without proper academic hurdles, would-be economic migrants no longer need them – they can often use a university instead.

So students should be included in our immigration strategy. The policy of allowing a two-year stay needs to be reviewed in the light of Covid and a tight restriction imposed on staying on, unless they have valuable skills not available in the domestic pool. Overdue measures should be introduced to ensure that students do actually return at the end the end of their stay.

In summary, the Government, from the Prime Minister down, is right to identify housing shortages as a critical social ill and boost building. But a policy which seeks to boost supply without doing anything to tackle rising demand, driven by heavy migration, can only succeed if we build on a scale which is probably unachievable.

Even if it did succeed for a while, it would come at the price of overload on public services, heavy congestion, water shortages and even flooding, as flood plains disappear under concrete.

Adopting these simple reforms for applicant workers, advice from the MAC and for students – and improving enforcement – would go a long way to solving the housing crisis and reducing the growing pressure on our infrastructure.