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.

Daniel Kawczynski: Libya needs a political solution taken from its recent history

8 Jul

Daniel Kawczynski is MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham.

Libya has not recently featured prominently on the government’s agenda – a perfectly understandable fact, given the priority the government has given to handling the more immediate issues of Brexit and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

But two recent high level ministerial visits to Libya by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Minister for Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly, offer hope for increased British engagement with an area of the world where Britain can, and should, have an impact.

As the only non-French speaking country in the Maghreb, Libya is indeed a place where our post-Brexit Britain is uniquely poised to play a significant role in shaping the country’s future. Yet more importantly, it is in our interest to lend a helping hand to Libyans in shaping their future.

The opportunities range from helping Britain meet its energy consumption needs through oil imports, 10%-15% of which already come from North Africa; to stemming the flow of refugees to the shores of our European neighbours; to keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean, preventing it from placing anti-air and anti-ship missiles on Libya’s Northern coast in a move that would hamper NATO’s ability to defend Europe; to shutting down a human trafficking route that has been the source of untold suffering for thousands, including hundreds of Libyans, every year.

Beyond interests, Britain further has a moral responsibility to do something in Libya, having played such a key role in creating the dangerous vacuum that is swallowing Libya today.

As many will remember, the UK and its French allies played an integral role in spearheading the 2011 humanitarian intervention, undoubtedly stemming the tremendous humanitarian cost of what has been North Africa’s most protracted conflict of the millennium.

To our significant consternation, the same leadership was missing in 2015, when in an open letter to Prime Minster David Cameron I stated that, “We simply cannot stand by and let this humanitarian tragedy escalate day by day without any retaliation against ISIS and the other Islamist terrorist groups”. The decision was made not to not heed this call— despite the 2015 YouGov polling, which indicated that 59% would have supported British involvement in airstrikes on ISIS targets in Libya, more than double the 25% who would have opposed action.

Worse still, after conducting the airstrikes, Britain absconded from following through: 13 times more of our budget was allocated to conducting airstrikes than with the subsequent development of Libya. Despite this squandered opportunity and moral travesty, however, all is not yet lost.

The UK is still able to help Libya secure a democratic future. The government must be certain, however, that any role that it attempts to play in the war-torn country indeed has the potential to improve, rather than exacerbate the situation on the ground.

It is no secret that I have been a long-time supporter of the restoration of Libya’s 1951 constitution and British-style constitutional monarchy along with it. I remain convinced that the 1951 constitution, and the monarchy, can and should play a role in building Libya the future it deserves.

Libya has a presidential election scheduled for December 24, one which, according to Minister Cleverly, could provide Libyans with “a real opportunity to write the next chapter in the history of their country”. Yet Libya is racked by factionalism, like many other countries emerging from civil war.

Despite claims to the contrary, which were addressed in my 2015 New Statesman piece, tribalism is but one of many other fissures between Libya’s cities, regions, ideologies, and ethnic groups. These fissures are all the more evident today, and those divides have the potential to tear Libya apart not just physically, but as an idea.

To mend those divides, Libya needs a legitimate, durable, and widely-accepted constitution, all long before it needs an election. Because the task of drafting a constitution is so fraught, the international community has decided to kick the proverbial can down the road, and is instead rushing to have an election.

The absence of any foundational document means the election has little political or intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of Libyans; this is one reason— among others— that many Libya experts doubt that an election will go ahead at all. Voter turnout will doubtlessly be unprecedentedly low, and will fail to capture Libya’s ethnically, politically and geographically diverse range of interest groups.

Without a historic national vision, such as that of the 1951 constitution guiding us, foreign actors will continue to pursue their own interests at the expense of Libyans, plunging the country further into chaos on the heels of the discord which will surely emerge as we get closer to December.

Yet even if the election is a success, the constitutional questions at the heart of the Libyan conflict will be no closer to a resolution. Instead of starting from scratch then, what Libya needs is a starting point grounded in history and legitimacy. The 1951 constitution offers just that.

Working with a construct based on Libya’s own history, which in the recent past has proved its ability to generate national consensus, it has significantly greater potential to facilitate the emergence of much needed national institutions than any new concoction.

Among the many good ideas contained in the 1951 constitution are a non-politicised police force and army, capable of upholding the integrity of political decisions and representing the will of the people.

While the constitution would no doubt require an update to account for the social, cultural, and demographic changes that have taken place in the last 50 years, Libya would benefit from an idea that in the past worked and provided the country with a significant degree of political freedom until it was overturned by Colonel Gadhaffi’s undemocratic military coup in 1969.

The key lesson is that it is imperative to understand the intricate role that historical experience plays in building sustainable political futures. The tendency of the West, as tragically showcased in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been to resort to a “one size fits all” approach to democracy.

It is high time we learnt from these lessons of the more recent past, and that we in the West cease trying to export our domestic political animals to foreign climes. After all, democracy at its most basic level is, “government of, by and for the people”.

While the UK should embrace whatever democratic solution is chosen and embraced by the Libyan people, we should consider putting on the table the 1951 constitution, a constitutional document formulated by the UN with that same tailored-fit approach in mind.

If the UK seeks genuinely to contribute to a solution that has a chance of addressing the myriad of needs faced by Libyan society today— chief among those being unity— the 1951 option has a historic track record, and stands a solid chance of creating a real source of authority and trust in the future.

Those of us who have been following events in Libya for the past decade know that its current unity government is transient; it is not the first to try its hand at assuaging the country’s domestic tensions. Sadly, it is unlikely to be the last in the medium-term. There is however, no real reason to assume that this time things will end differently. This alone, if nothing else, is a reason to consider a fresh, yet historic take that the 1951 constitution would offer.

I have many times before made the argument for looking to the past as a way to shape the future. I will make it again here: There may be no more solid and sensible basis for a transition to peace available than the 1951 Constitution. While it is for Libyans to decide on the nature and text of the constitution that binds them, the UK can play a truly creative and constructive role by advocating for putting this solution on the table.

If, however, the UK is to play a serious and comprehensive role in shaping the future of Libya, it must look back before it looks forward. Lessons of the past are indeed integral for shaping our vision for the future.

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.

Profile of an ex-Prime Minister: Theresa May becomes the voice of Conservative conscience

24 Jun

“I think she has enhanced her reputation since leaving Downing Street, where she never looked comfortable.”

So said Andrew Mitchell, former International Development Secretary, of Theresa May, former Prime Minister.

Mitchell observed that as the only former PM in either the Commons or the Lords, she is “an important parliamentarian”:

“The first point is that she’s stayed in the House. Her interventions are incredibly telling. She speaks with enormous authority, she speaks up for her constituents, and she basically tries to keep the Government straight.”

Another former minister, an old friend of May, remarked on her “morality”, and added “there is a difference”.

He meant there is a difference between her and the present Prime Minister. Her contributions in the Commons, presented in easily accessible form by Hansard, display several qualities not always evinced by Boris Johnson.

She offers almost nothing in the way of entertainment, but concentrates on the matter in hand, to which she applies her prosaic but furiously logical mind, her mastery of detail and an icy Anglican conscientiousness.

These qualities did not suffice to make her a successful Prime Minister, but help fit her to hold the present incumbent to account.

When in her view he is behaving badly, she is on hand to tell him so. And because she is generally the first backbencher on the Conservative side to be called, he can quite often enjoy the pleasure of listening to her, and had to send her a note of apology after a recent occasion when he fled the Chamber just as she rose to speak.

The causes which command her attention include the Government’s handling of the pandemic; the proposed relaxation of planning laws; the abandonment of the 0.7 per cent manifesto commitment on international aid (no doubt one reason for Mitchell’s approval); sentences for causing death by dangerous driving (she wants life); modern slavery; mental health; domestic abuse; and various other tough, complicated, unfashionable matters on which she got a grip as Home Secretary.

As MP since 1997 for Maidenhead, she has always, as one long-term observer says, “been allergic to more houses in Maidenhead”, and can be relied on to demand: “Why can’t they put them somewhere else?”

Her majority at the general election of 2019 was 18,846, but in 2001 fell as low as 3,284. Nobody had to tell her the Lib Dems posed a danger in Chesham and Amersham.

May as PM found it impossible to assemble a sufficient coalition of parliamentary or popular support, but loss of office has liberated her to become the voice of a certain kind of Tory conscience.

She expresses a dutiful, deeply felt, traditional conservatism, and strives to expose the various ways in which, to some Conservatives, the present government is scandalously disreputable and unprofessional.

Here she is last September on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill:

“I cannot emphasise enough how concerned I am that a Conservative Government are willing to go back on their word, to break an international agreement signed in good faith and to break international law.”

And here she is in the debate on 10th June on the aviation, travel and tourism industries, when Robert Courts, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Transport, was on the receiving end of this reproof:

“This is a disappointing debate, because one year and one week ago this very issue was raised in this House… One year on, we are no further forward. Indeed, we have a devastated industry, jobs lost and global Britain shut for business.

More than not being any further forward, we have gone backwards. We now have more than 50 per cent of the adult population vaccinated—it is a wonderful programme—yet we are more restricted on travel than we were last year. In 2020, I went to Switzerland in August and South Korea in September. There was no vaccine but travel was possible. This year, there is a vaccine but travel is not possible. I really do not understand the Government’s stance.

Of course, it is permissible for a person to travel to countries on the amber list, provided that it is practicable for them to quarantine when they come back, but Government Ministers tell people that they must not travel and cannot go on holiday to places on the amber list. The messaging is mixed and the system is chaotic. Portugal was put on the green list, people went to the football, then Portugal was put on the amber list, leaving holidaymakers scrabbling for flights and devastated families having to cancel their plans… 

Business travel is practically impossible: global Britain has shut its doors to business and investors. In a normal pre-pandemic year, passengers travelling through Heathrow spent £16 billion throughout the country, including at places such as Legoland Windsor, which is partly in my constituency. That has been lost…

If the Government’s position is that we cannot open up travel until there are no new variants elsewhere in the world, we will never be able to travel abroad ever again…The Government may say all they have, as the Minister has, about the importance of the aviation industry, but they need to decide whether they want an airline industry and aviation sector in the UK or not, because at the rate they are going, they will not have one.”

“What’s her game?” people ask, but her style of debating is effective because there is no sign of any game being played. She is in deadly earnest.

“Most of the time I think she’s right and therefore effective,” the old friend and former minister quoted above said. “She shifts the dial.

“But one warning: don’t do too much of it.”

The obvious danger, he added, was that she would “turn into Ted Heath”.

It would be impossible for May to reach the stratospheric level of grumpiness maintained for a quarter of a century by Heath after he was overthrown by Margaret Thatcher, but one guesses she finds little to admire in her successor.

Heath – in the words of Douglas Hurd, who worked for him – struck, when attacking Harold Wilson’s style of government in the introduction to the 1970 Conservative manifesto,

“a note of genuine puritan protest, which is familiar in British history, sometimes in one party, sometimes in the other… It is the outraged assertion of a strict view of what public life is about, after a period in which its rules have been perverted and its atmosphere corrupted.”

Sir Keir Starmer hesitates to sound unrelentingly high-minded. May has no such qualms. At the time of the 1970 general election she was 13, and had already started working for the local Conservatives as a volunteer.

Another of May’s old friends says of her and Johnson: “She must despise him, and she must look at him and think how can he be there and I was dumped so humiliatingly.

“But honestly, I have no idea what goes on in her brain – nobody does.”

Yet in this week’s Spectator, James Forsyth offers a hint of what is going on there:

“I’m told that when May was canvassing at the Chesham and Amersham by-election, she took a certain pleasure in telling the campaign team about voters who said they weren’t voting Conservative because of Johnson.”

Lord Lexden, official historian to the Conservative Party, places the change in May’s demeanour in perspective:

“One might almost feel that it was worth the agony of the premiership to get this serene and rather impressive elder stateswoman. She is a powerful rebuke to Blair, Brown and Cameron who scuttled off indecorously after leaving Number 10. She is demonstrating again that ex-premiers can find a useful role in the Commons, which Heath’s unseemly behaviour had rather suggested might be impossible in modern politics.

“She remains at the political service of the nation, as no ex-premier since Douglas-Home has realistically been. Arthur Balfour left No 10 in 1905 after a disastrous three-year premiership with the party divided and in deep disarray. Rehabilitation followed quite quickly, and he held major offices in later governments, finally retiring at the age of eighty.  Here is an example for Mrs May to keep in mind.”

Profile: Stonewall, a once brilliantly successful campaign group which now seems to be committing suicide

10 Jun

While agonising over how to begin this profile, I was rung by a friend who, on hearing of the subject on which I was working, declared:

“I hope you will say we are sick of being dictated to!”

That is not how I had thought of starting, for I am more timid and tactful than my friend. But it is actually quite a good jumping off point.

Stonewall finds itself in crisis because it has changed from an organisation which sought, with brilliant success, to persuade and to carry people with it, into one which insists on imposing a far from popular line.

The voluntary principle has been replaced by compulsion.

Nancy Kelley, since last summer Stonewall’s Chief Executive, recently compared gender-critical views to anti-semitism. In other words, anyone who maintains, as gender-critical feminists do, that “biological differences between the sexes make the continued provision of female-only spaces necessary”, is a disgraceful person.

Trans activists have set out to intimidate and silence the feminists, who in turn are appalled when trans women assert the right to enter female-only spaces, including women’s refuges, dormitories, prisons and sports facilities.

When Keir Starmer was running for the Labour leadership, he signed up to the list of ten pledges presented to the candidates by LGBT+ Labour, promising he would “campaign with you for the changes rightly prioritised here”:

“I will campaign to reform the Gender Recognition Act to introduce a self-declaration process… I believe that trans women are women, that trans men are men.”

A large number of feminists who think of themselves as Labour supporters find themselves without a leader who can articulate their concerns.

Not that Sir Keir is alone among politicians in preferring not to get involved in the debate.

Several influential Conservatives indicated this week to ConHome that they simply did not wish to play any part in the discussion.

Number Ten is watching developments carefully, but does not wish to have a public row. Boris Johnson’s approach to cultural issues of this kind, for example to the attacks on Winston Churchill’s statue, is not to intervene until people are pleading with him to do so.

Last September, the Government dropped plans to allow self-identification by trans people.

But a leading Conservative parliamentarian this week told me, on condition that their anonymity would be strictly preserved, that the trans debate is “extremely scary”.

In their view, Stonewall has completely dumped the LGB part of its mission, is now only interested in campaigning for trans, has become “an extremely unfriendly place for women”, and is viciously intolerant of dissent.

This presents, they argue, a danger for the Conservatives too: “The Conservative Party is terrified of another Section 28” – the law passed in 1988, towards the end of Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership, forbidding the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities.

If the Tories were to become outspoken opponents of trans activists, they could once more come to be regarded as the nasty party.

So for several years, leading Conservative and Labour figures took great care to avoid the subject, as James Kirkup explained to ConHome in October 2018:

When James Kirkup became interested in transgender politics, people warned him that writing about it was too dangerous. He notes that the fear the subject inspires in many MPs of being attacked as “transphobic” has created a vacuum into which transgender campaigning groups have been able to move, and to push for the right of trans people to “self-identify” their gender, without the arguments for and against the reform being tested in rigorous debate.

In this interview, Kirkup says “nobody has really pointed out” that Professor Stephen Whittle – specialist adviser to the Women and Equalities Committee, chaired by Maria Miller, when it drew up its agenda-setting report on Transgender Equality – is “also the founder of a group called Press for Change, which was the first trans rights campaigning group in the UK.”

This avoidance of the subject is now breaking down. Victoria Hewson and Rebecca Lowe yesterday reported for ConHome, under their joint byline, Radical, some of the horrific information about Stonewall which has started to emerge as a result of Freedom of Information requests.

And Gary Powell recently declared on this site that, as a gay man, the LGBT+ lobby with its “extreme gender ideology” does not speak for him, and warned that we must “stop neo-Marxist identity politics being force-fed to children in British schools”.

Two of the original 14 founders of Stonewall, set up in 1989 in response to Section 28, have recently dissociated themselves from the organisation.

Stephen Fanshawe described in The Daily Mail how he had received a message from someone he “had always considered an ally in the fight for equality”:

“By expressing your views, you have put yourself outside Stonewall,” the terse message read when it landed in my inbox two years ago. Its Orwellian tone might make you wonder what “views” I could possibly have exhibited that would have set me at such odds with the organisation I proudly helped to form three decades earlier, to campaign for the rights of gay men and lesbians in a society that cruelly discriminated against them.

They must, surely, have been hateful and inflammatory? Not a bit of it. I had simply expressed the opinion that proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act for which Stonewall was campaigning — meaning people could legally “self-identify’” as whatever sex they chose, regardless of their biology — had serious implications for the rights of women.

And Matthew Parris explained in The Times why he thinks Stonewall has lost its way:

What is the charity I helped to found doing, getting entangled in attempts to deny free speech at a university? This column should avoid getting into the trans debate itself. My single, tight focus is on this question: why Stonewall?

There’s something perversely 20th-century about linking gays to trans. Gay men do not want to be women. We like being men. I doubt that being a lesbian is about not wanting to be a woman. Our issues have nothing to do with identification or changing our bodies: we know what we are and nobody disputes it. Most gay men would strongly resist the suggestion we’re boys who want to be girls. I can’t think of anything I’d like less. The whole history of the gay liberation movement is inseparable from what people do rather than what they are. Central to trans concerns is being, not doing. The one thing that links gays and lesbians with trans people is empathy with anyone excluded, oppressed, marginalised or rejected. Indeed this was what influenced some gay groups into supporting the 1984-5 miners’ strike, and Stonewall was perhaps drawn into the trans arguments because a group was fighting for what it considers to be its rights.

Stonewall, founded by a group of activists who met at the house of the actor Ian McKellen in Limehouse, in the East End of London, achieved in its first 20 years or so a series of legislative triumphs. It was named after the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969, which erupted when members of the gay community in New York fought back against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, and which led to the Pride marches which continue to this day.

In its original typewritten manifesto of 24th May 1989, Stonewall announced:

A Parliamentary Group has been set up to consider new, proposed or potential legislation on issues that may particularly effect lesbians and gay men; and to work with MPs and legislators to ensure equality.

Its central argument, that lesbians and gay men should enjoy equal treatment with heterosexuals, was so strong, and so in accordance with the way the world was moving, that a series of big reforms followed.

These included the lifting of the ban on lesbians and gay men serving in the armed forces, the equalisation of the age of consent, legal adoption by lesbian and gay couples, the repeal of Section 28 and the introduction of civil partnerships.

In 2001, Stonewall launched its Diversity Champions programme, which had rapid success in recruiting major employers, including banks, retailers and government departments, who wished to ensure that, in the words of Stonewall itself, “all LGBTQ+ staff are free to be themselves in the workplace”.

And in 2011, David Cameron confirmed, as Prime Minister, that Stonewall had been working with the grain of history by declaring his support at the Conservative Party Conference for same-sex marriage, which was passed into law in 2013.

As far as legal equality was concerned, Stonewall had by this point achieved pretty much everything it set out to do. It cast around for a new mission, and in 2014 it decided it had found it in trans.

One can hardly blame trans activists for accepting this huge accession of campaigning strength, and one can see why the people running Stonewall persuaded themselves that instead of winding down their organisation, and putting themselves out of work, here was another injustice which they should be able in the space of a decade or two to put right.

As Parris puts it,

Perhaps the truth is that, after success in our great 20th-century drive for equality, Stonewall was left with bricks and mortar, an admirable staff, a CEO and a fund-raising team and, unconsciously, craved another big, newsworthy cause. Well, sometimes a big army with only small battles to fight does best simply to scale back. I know many gay men have become embarrassed by Stonewall and see (as I do) the paradox that some of its activities are actually damaging the standing of the gay community. We don’t want to be associated with sallies in the trans wars. We want to feel proud, not hurt, not victims. Trans people cannot yet feel that: they need a support group. But that’s for them. Gays (to use the lingo) should not be colonising their issues.

It took a while for politicians to realise that the trans war was not necessarily going to end happily. Theresa May was generally favourable, during her prime ministership, towards the demands of the trans lobby.

Complaints that trans women were demanding the right to use facilities which ought to be reserved for biological women could at first be dismissed as transphobic, a charge all the more convincing because it is sometimes undoubtedly true.

So too complaints that children were being put under unfair pressure to discover that they were unhappy with the gender assigned to them at birth, and to have treatment.

Calm, open discussion of these issues was impossible, and most people felt they had better things to do than court confrontation with trans activists.

But there has now been an unmistakeable change in the political weather. Liz Truss, the Equalities Minister, is pushing for all government departments to withdraw from Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, which includes 250 public bodies among its 850 members.

The Sunday Telegraph reports that the Ministry of Justice will lead an “exodus” from the programme. A  source in the department told the paper:

“It’s a shame, as this was once an organisation that did incredibly important work, but it has totally lost its way and the ministers just don’t think it’s justifiable to give Stonewall taxpayers’ money.

“The department will be just as welcoming to LGBT people as before, but we really shouldn’t be paying thousands of pounds for controversial advice about pronouns and gender-neutral spaces.”

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission and the employment dispute service Acas have both withdrawn from Diversity Champions “for cost reasons”, a way of circumventing argument about the actual merits of what Stonewall offers.

But Lady Falkner, the new chair of the EHRC, has gone further, declaring in The Times in her first interview since taking up her post:

“Someone can believe that people who self identify as a different sex are not the different sex that they self identify. A lot of people would find this an entirely reasonable belief.”

When the editor of ConHome commissioned this profile, he asked: “Is the Government trying to kill Stonewall?” It seems to me it would be more accurate to say Stonewall is committing suicide.

Daniel Hannan: A Levelling Up Fund will not, on its own, turn Sunderland into Singapore. Localism will takes us closer, though.

9 Jun

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

How exactly does levelling up work? The aspiration is unimpeachable and the slogan pithy. But how does a government go about realising it? Imagine that you’re the official in charge of enriching one of our poorer regions. You sit at your desk, you open your laptop. Now what?

Part of the answer has to do with infrastructure. That’s the easy bit, the bit that the PM, with his boyish enthusiasm for bridges, railways and airports, most enjoys. But a £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund is not, on its own, going to turn Dudley into Dubai or Sunderland into Singapore.

A certain reshuffling of government departments might help at the margins. When, for example, the Department of International Trade moves 500 jobs to Darlington, it slightly boosts the economy of County Durham. But it does so at the expense of other regions, since those jobs are maintained at public expense.

So what can ministers do? How might they stimulate the generation of new wealth rather than simply pushing piles of cash around? The obvious answer is one that, for some reason, is rarely heard these days: more localism.

Let’s stick, for a moment, with Teesside. Labour, in retrospect, made a bad mistake when it held the Hartlepool by-election on the same date as the regional mayoral contest. Ben Houchen, the incumbent Conservative Tees Valley mayor, romped home with an astonishing 72.8 per cent of the vote. Why? Because he is seen as an effective local champion who stopped the airport from closing, is redeveloping the former steel works at Redcar and is turning the region into a freeport.

It is an iron law of politics that, the bigger the unit of government, the less efficient it becomes. Town halls are by no means perfect, but they are far less likely than Whitehall departments to preside over monumental cock-ups involving consultants and computers. So why not extend the model? Why not push more powers out to local people?

In 2008, Douglas Carswell and I co-wrote a book called The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain. It set out a comprehensive agenda for the diffusion, democratisation and decentralisation of power.

Some of its ideas were successfully implemented by the Coalition government which took office two years later. A recall mechanism allowed local voters to challenge an unpopular MP. Proposals could be forced onto the Commons agenda by petition (people tend to forget that this is how Brexit first made its way into Parliament). Whips lost some of their patronage powers, and parliamentary committees were elected. MPs’ expenses were reformed.

Other ideas turned out to be less successful. Locally elected sheriffs were watered down until they became Police and Crime Commissioners. I have always disliked that name: it is boring, technocratic and inaccurate (read literally, it suggests that PCCs are responsible for crimes). But, in a depressingly ahistorical spasm, Whitehall decided that sheriff sounded “too American”. Nor were the PCCs given anything like the powers we had proposed. In any event, the reform never caught the public’s imagination. People carry on grumbling about woke coppers without it seeming to occur to anyone that PCCs are there precisely to ensure that the police’s priorities don’t drift too far from everyone else’s.

Our biggest idea, granting English counties and cities the sorts of power that are exercised by Holyrood, wasn’t tried. It never is. Central governments are not usually in the business of devolving power. In almost every democracy, the long-term tendency is the other way – driven, in part, by media cultures which make it almost impossible for a minister to say “this is nothing to do with me – talk to the local council”.

Go back, for a moment, to the idea of freeports or special economic zones. The original example, Shenzhen, was a huge success. It didn’t simply suck activity in from neighbouring provinces. It generated new wealth, because it had real power.

Imagine that our freeports could, say, scrap all taxes on savings and inheritance, or require balanced budgets, or introduce Singapore-style healthcare systems. Then we would get the growth that comes from innovation. New schemes would be piloted and trialled. What worked would spread. Jurisdictional competition would give us something we have never known before in this country – downward pressure on tax rates.

Sadly, though, whatever interest politicians show in localism when they are in opposition tends to evaporate once they assume office. Indeed, it is surprising – and creditable – that David Cameron went as far as he did.

Still, there are real dangers in letting things lie. The epidemic and the lockdowns have placed powers in the hands of the central administration that would have been unthinkable two years’ ago. Closed committees decide whether we can leave the country, enjoy our property or meet our friends. State budgets have grown commensurately. And governments are never in a hurry to return the powers that they had assumed on a supposedly emergency basis.

We left the EU precisely to take back control. Having repatriated power, it would be unforgivable to leave it in the hands of Whitehall functionaries. Instead, we should give local communities the tools to raise themselves. Otherwise, four or five years from now, we might find our levelling up rhetoric thrown back at us in anger.

Norcott tells us why Radio Four is no longer funny

29 May

Where Did I Go Right? How The Left Lost Me by Geoff Norcott

When did comedy on BBC Radio Four become no laughing matter? And why has Labour lost the working class?

If Geoff Norcott were writing this review, he would now drop in a deadpan joke, just to reassure the reader, or readers, that he is not about to go all portentous on us.

He sounds nervous about not being funny enough often enough. For a comedian, this is a good fear to have, though at a personal level it must also get wearing.

There are laughs on almost every page of Norcott’s memoir. “I laughed out loud – Andrew Gimson, ConservativeHome” will not shift a single extra copy, could indeed reduce sales by suggesting that no decent, left-wing member of society would want to be seen dead reading this book.

All the same, I laughed out loud. And since I never quite believe recommendations of this kind – for it is more than possible that the reviewer is given to over-statement, or is trading favours with the author, or else has absolutely no sense of humour – here is a passage by Norcott himself.

His father, a one-armed trade unionist, has become seriously ill, and the family have gathered at the hospital, braced for bad news:

The consultant breezed in. You might think “breezed'” is already a verb loading the bases for bias but there’s no other way of describing it. She was in her early forties, seemed to be sporting a recent suntan and bore no hallmarks of someone about to deliver the kind of sombre news she was there to impart. As she checked the notes she seemed to remember the context and did a tilted head sad-face which reminded me of Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous when she feigned melancholy with her daughter Saffie. 

She started with a decent level of gravitas, “So I’m afraid to say it is late-stage pancreatic cancer.”

We all stopped, breathed in and looked at one another.

Then, after a brief pause, the consultant added, “It’s the same cancer Patrick Swayze died of.”

I stared straight at her. It was such a bizarre thing to say. I didn’t know what she was getting at, whether she’d said that to shed light on the condition or if she was suggesting we, as a family, should be proud that our dad was going out with a relatively high-profile cancer twin. Meanwhile, Dad was staring so hard at the woman I was convinced he was about to turn the air blue.

“Who the fuck is Patrick Swayze?” he eventually asked, never especially up on pop culture.

“He’s the one from Big Trouble in Little China,” my sister explained.

“No,” I interrupted, “that’s Kurt Russell, he just looks like Patrick Swayze.”

If you enjoyed that passage, you will enjoy Norcott’s book. If not, not.

But this book is not just enjoyable. It also explains, without portentousness, why comedy on Radio 4 has stopped being funny, and why Labour lost the workers.

For Norcott is a comedian who alone among his trade, decided to come out as a Conservative. In this memoir he describes his journey, as Tony Blair would call it, from a dodgy South London council estate to voting Tory.

Looking back, he detects twinges of small-c conservatism even his his childhood. At the age of 11, he goes off to school, leaving his mother in her dressing gown, “smoking and gasbagging” with the other mums, who are sitting on the stairs adjacent to her front door:

“When I got back at 3.30 p.m. she was still sitting there, still in her dressing gown. I was livid.”

He remarks that this experience “has left me with a lifelong distrust of dressing gowns”.

He was certainly not ready to come out as a Conservative, but he does already have a “pathological fear of poverty”. His parents have got divorced, which makes their finances more precarious, but he admires the work ethic of his stepfather.

This, palpably, is the way to escape poverty, as long the state doesn’t take most of your money in taxes and hand it out to the idlers on the estate who sit around all day in their dressing gowns, getting more money from inactivity than they would from an honest day’s toil.

But I have slipped into preaching mode, which Norcott never does. His conservatism is more a matter of intimations than of moral certainties.

Those belong to the Left. His parents took every chance to reinforce the prevailing narrative that the Tories “don’t give a toss about normal people”.

Something about this doesn’t quite fit. Norcott, born in 1976, goes to Rutlish School in Merton Park, and while he is there, a former pupil becomes Prime Minister.

At the 1992 General Election, the Conservatives run a successful ad campaign addressing the charge that they don’t care about normal people:

“What did the Tories do with a working-class boy from Brixton? They made him prime minister.”

Norcott is not exactly a Major fan:

“Like most people in Britain at that time, my view was that I didn’t mind him. He inspired an almost ideological level of ambivalence.”

Yet when Major comes to speak at his old school, it turns out there is more to him than that:

“The staff at Rutlish, like at most teaching faculties, were overwhelmingly left wing. Coming off the back of the Thatcher years, they were quite open in their contempt for the Tories. And yet, on the night Major came, it’s fair to say he surprised everybody by charming their leftie pants right off them. ‘What an honest man,’ they eulogised. It was also noticeable that he had a particular effect on the ladies. Before his affair with Edwina Currie became public knowledge, the last thing you’d have had Major down as would’ve been a ‘playa’, but the female staff were disturbed by how charismatic they found him… As my mate Michael put it, having met him, ‘The bloke’s a fucking unit. He’s got shoulders like a cupboard.'”

Norcott observes that the Labour candidate, Neil Kinnock, “seems a bit of a pillock”, for example by saying “We’re all right!” in “a preposterous American accent” at “a needlessly glitzy and self-congratulatory rally in Sheffield”.

It is also harder, Norcott remarks, to become Prime Minister if you are “bald, ginger or Welsh”, and “Kinnock was all three”:

“I’m not saying those aversions are morally justifiable but part of the Conservative mindset is understanding the public as it is, not as you wish it to be.”

In the mock general election held at his school in 1992, the year Major astonished the pundits by winning, Norcott ran as a Liberal Democrat.

Not long after this, his mother loses the use of her legs, he has to spend a lot of time looking after her, and his predicted grades at A level slump.

Goldsmiths College, whose recent alumni include Damien Hurst, Blur and Tracey Emin, offers him a place to read English if he gets two Bs and a C.

He astonishes everyone, including himself, by getting three As, but goes to Goldsmiths anyhow, where he finds the corridors “full of toytown revolutionaries trying to save Cuba, whales and rainforests”, while “a lot of the people I knew back in Mitcham were still busy trying to save themselves and their families”.

For the first time, he realises that he is “properly working class”. When people look down on him he feels chippy, but when they are supportive he feels patronised.

He has one or two strange jobs in advertising, veers into becoming an English teacher, almost by accident starts a parallel career on the comedy circuit, and gets married to the love of his life, who suggests, when he has gone full-time as a comic and is casting around for new material, that he could make some jokes about becoming a Conservative.

Which he does. The joke is that he is the only Conservative comedian. The entire trade is monolithically left-wing, which is one reason (though he doesn’t bother, or is too tactful, to point this out) why Radio Four has ceased to be in the slightest bit funny (though I admit it may have started to be funny again: I reach with desperate agility for the off button whenever a supposedly comic programme is about to be aired).

We are being told what to think. Instead of being invited to laugh at the world as it is, we are instructed to hold the right opinions about the world as it ought to be.

The objection to the progressive package deal is not that the opinions are wrong, but that they are compulsory.

Puritans can’t bear the theatre, its frivolity, immorality and unpredictability. They yearn to shut it down, and somehow they have managed to shut it down on Radio Four, crushed beneath a leaden layer of self-censorship.

The subversiveness of comedy – which usually includes the absurdity of the comic, the willingness of him or her to look ridiculous and make jokes at his or her own expense – has been supplanted by a uniform and monumentally dull moral certainty.

Self-righteousness is not funny, but why waste one’s time getting into a row about it, when the only effect is to make one’s opponents more self-righteous.

As the 2015 General Election approaches,

“In the circles I moved in, it seemed it had been universally decided that no one agreed with austerity and unconvincing head of sixth form Ed Miliband would surely become leader of the world’s fifth largest economy.”

Instead of which, the Conservatives under David Cameron win an overall majority of 17. “WHO DID THIS?” Norcott’s right-on colleagues scream.

“11.3 million people,” he wants to reply, but is “hesitant about throwing sarcasm into an already febrile environment”.

The media devote a lot of attention to the “Shy Tory” phenomenon, but in Norcott’s view they overcomplicate the matter, for

“all that really happened was people had seen the increasingly vengeful moral certainty of the Left in full view since 2010 and had wisely decided to keep schtum.”

Norcott is not particularly keen on Boris Johnson, and says almost nothing about him in this book: “He’s not my kind of politician.”

But one cannot help reflecting, as one reads this account of the awakening of a South London Conservative, that one reason for Johnson’s success is his unrivalled ability to mock the solemn rule of virtue which the self-righteous hypocrites of North London are determined to impose on us.