Andrew Lewer: It’s time to turn the taxpayer funding of left-wing student union campaigning

20 Jan

Andrew Lewer is MP for Northampton South.  He is founder and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Independent Education,

Together with twenty other Conservative Members of Parliament I have written to the Prime Minister urging him to tackle the problem of student union political activism. While successive Conservative Governments have tackled the problems posed by trade union radicalism, student union leftist activism has been left relatively untouched.

Student unions are now at the forefront of the so-called culture wars, pursuing a narrow ‘social justice’ political agenda focused on tackling alleged ‘structural oppression’ in society.

Moreover, they seek to limit free speech on campus, variously by blocking the sale of certain publications, barring speakers or seeking to approve their speeches in advance, blocking the formation of free speech societies, preventing certain groups from participating in freshers’ fairs, and imposing excessive red tape to make it difficult to invite speakers of whom they disapprove.

Reform of student unions is central to implementing the Conservative Manifesto commitment to strengthen free speech in universities. Why this matters so much was underlined in a superb speech from David Davis on the crucial nature of free speech in universities in a Ten Minute Rule Bill earlier this week, citing Voltaire and the Bill of Rights.

Students themselves are alienated from student unions. Research shows that only around ten per cent of students vote in student union elections, with less than three per cent of students electing delegates to the National Union of Students (NUS), demonstrating the unrepresentative nature of that left-wing activist body. Judging by its social media activity, NUS’s main current focus is ‘decolonising the curriculum’.

Of course, in some cases a higher turnout is achieved. For example a truly magnificent four per cent of students participated in last November’s election of NUS delegates at Cambridge University. It is abundantly clear that the vast majority of students have no interest in either the NUS or activist/political student unions, and resent being bullied and hectored by leftist student politicos.

It is inappropriate for taxpayers to have to foot half the £165 million bill for student unions, and for students themselves to be forced to pay the other half, given this kind of activity.

We should adopt a similar approach to that applied to trade union reform. Students should have to actively opt-in to become members of student unions and the NUS, and just like the strike ballot threshold, consideration should be given to a membership and election turnout threshold, which student unions should be required to reach before they can play any part in university governance.

There is a strong case for student unions being limited to supporting social and sports activities, as well as academic representation. Meanwhile, if any students wish to fund political activism or join the NUS they should of course be free to do so, but at their own expense and paying any subscriptions from their own pockets.

Students need to be freed from student unions and allowed to get on and enjoy their time at university without suffering constant political harassment. We very much hope that action will be taken by the Government as soon as Covid permits its attention to return to the domestic reform agenda.

The 33 Conservative MPs who rebelled over the Genocide Amendment

19 Jan
  • Ahmad Khan, Imran
  • Amess, David
  • Blackman, Bob
  • Blunt, Crispin
  • Bridgen, Andrew

 

  • Crouch, Tracey
  • Davis, David
  • Djanogly, Jonathan
  • Duncan Smith, Iain
  • Ellwood, Tobias

 

  • Francois, Mark
  • Ghani, Nusrat
  • Gillan, Cheryl
  • Gray, James
  • Green, Damian

 

  • Hart, Sally-Anne (pictured)
  • Hoare, Simon
  • Hollobone, Philip
  • Jenkin, Bernard
  • Latham, Pauline

 

  • Lewer, Andrew
  • Lewis, Julian
  • Loughton, Tim
  • Mackinlay, Craig
  • Nokes, Caroline

 

  • Richards, Nicola
  • Rossindell, Andrew
  • Seely, Bob
  • Tugendhat, Tom
  • Wakeford, Christian

 

  • Walker, Charles
  • Warburton, David
  • Wragg, William

Today’s genocide amendment had no relation whatsoever to recent votes on Covid – or other major rebellions that this site has been chronicling.

But there is considerable overlap between the rebels on those lists and on this one.  And even newcomers to our records such as Sally-Ann Hart and Nicola Richards have voted against the Government previously (though rarely).

Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the amendment, lists of those defying the whips now have a certain predictability.

Andrew Rosindell: How close we came to waking up in the backstop

8 Jan

Andrew Rosindell is the MP for Romford.

How close we came to waking up on January 1 trapped in the backstop. That misery would have been quickly overtaken by the new national lockdown announced on Monday night. But this would in no way have diminished in the longer-term the ramifications of being trapped in a customs union with no way out.

To the true Brexiteers, the sensible outcome to the Brexit process was always a Canada-style free trade agreement which took back control of our laws, money, borders and waters, while still allowing both the UK and the EU to trade together as equal partners on mutually-beneficial terms.

Unfortunately the EU spent the next few years in a desperate and arrogant attempt to punish our nation for the Brexit vote. It tried to trap our nation in a customs union, demanded tens of billions in exit fees, demanded a continuing role for its courts in UK affairs and made blood-curdling threats of economic punishment.

In a way it showed self-awareness. Because it is only with threats and traps – much in the fashion of the Chinese Communist regime (with whom the EU is now engaging in a nauseating romance) – does EU membership become preferable to the freedom of being a sovereign, independent nation.

All told, the EU generally appeared aghast at the affirmations by the British people of their democratic right to decide their future. To me this demonstrated that the only way out was a completely clean break: to walk away, for good if necessary.

It is why I and my Spartan colleagues voted on three separate occasions against Theresa May’s Brexit deal. If we hadn’t held out against the pleas of our colleagues, from both the Remain and Brexit wings of the party, then we would have woken up on New Year’s Day trapped in the backstop. What should have been a moment of restored sovereignty would simply be a new future paralysed by the EU’s protectionist trading bloc.

The Prime Minister voted for that deal, at the third attempt. I believe he feared for Brexit if the deal wasn’t passed. Fortunately for him, the Spartans gave Brexit a chance. And once Boris was at the reigns he was always ready to walk away. He realised no deal really is better than a bad deal.

With this strategy he was able to bring before the House of Commons an agreement which facilitates free trade with zero quotas and tariffs, without the UK being part of the Single Market or Customs Union and with no control over us by the European Court of Justice.

It will give us the freedom to chart our own course. It will mean the establishment of freeports and new enterprise zones to turbocharge the regions. It means we can change our VAT policy, for example on home insulation products as my friend and colleague John Redwood has noted.

It means we can revitalise nationally important industries with targeted support, such as shipbuilding. It means we can sign free trade deals with our closest friends and allies in the Commonwealth, and improve economic ties with some of the fastest growing economies.

Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for International Trade, has already negotiated trade deals with 61 countries, including one deal, the UK-Japan FTA which goes beyond the existing EU-Japan agreement, particularly on data and digital matters. The backstop would have precluded much of this.

The new agreement with the EU is not perfect. There are flaws in the deal. The transition period for fisheries is too long, the Northern Ireland protocol threatens to divide our country and I am nervous of the separate deal on Gibraltar, given Spain’s record.

Finally, I was disappointed that our British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies did not seem to be fully included. I also share David Davis’s comments on this website, where he highlights how far ahead of the EU we are in many areas of regulation, particularly animal welfare, but also on energy and labour law. Any arbitration panel which rules on deviations from the “level playing field” must recognise that there is no “level playing field” at present. It is the EU undercutting the UK in many ways.

There are problems, then. However, I and my colleagues have come to the conclusion that this is still a good agreement: it restores our sovereignty, avoids temporary disruption of ‘no deal’ and avoids the acrimony which would define UK-EU relations going forward if no agreement had been reached.

There is nothing in the agreement which compromises our sovereignty in the manner of the backstop. Yet where there are flaws, there are fights still to be had. I have demonstrated that I am ready for these battles, as have my fellow Spartans.

For now, let’s celebrate the restoration of sovereignty to these islands and move onto the next challenge: getting the country vaccinated, lifting these Covid-19 restrictions, and revving up the UK economy for a new, better, more prosperous and, I hope, a more united decade.

The forty-two Conservative MPs who voted against the Government on the 10pm curfew

13 Oct
  • Ahmad Khan, Imran
  • Amess, David
  • Baker, Steve
  • Baldwin, Harriett
  • Blackman, Bob

 

  • Blunt, Crispin
  • Bone, Peter
  • Brady, Graham
  • Chope, Christopher
  • Clifton-Brown, Sir Geoffrey

 

  • Daly, James
  • Davies, Philip
  • Davis, David
  • Davison, Dehenna
  • Doyle-Price, Jackie

 

  • Drax, Richard
  • Fysh, Marcus
  • Ghani, Nusrat
  • Green, Chris (pictured)
  • Hunt, Tom

 

  • Latham, Mrs Pauline
  • Loder, Chris
  • Loughton, Tim
  • Mangnall, Anthony
  • McCartney, Karl

 

  • McVey, Esther
  • Merriman, Huw
  • Morris, Anne Marie
  • Redwood, rh John
  • Rosindell, Andrew

 

  • Sambrook, Gary
  • Seely, Bob
  • Smith, Henry
  • Swayne, rh Sir Desmond
  • Syms, Sir Robert

 

  • Thomas, Derek
  • Tracey, Craig
  • Vickers, Matt
  • Wakeford, Christian
  • Walker, Sir Charles

 

  • Watling, Giles
  • Wragg, William

Plus two tellers – Philip Hollobone and Craig Mackinlay.

– – –

  • Seven Tory MPs voted against the Government on renewing the Coronavirus Act.
  • Twelve voted against the Government over the rule of six.
  • Now we have 42 this evening – enough to imperil the Government’s majority in the event of all opposition parties that attend Westminster voting against it too.
  • Fifty-six signed the Brady amendment, but it was never voted on, and wasn’t a measure related directly to Government policy on the virus.
  • We wrote last week that Conservative backbench protests would gain “volume and velocity”, and so it is proving.
  • There’s a strong though not total overlap between these lockdown sceptics and Eurosceptics.
  • We count eight members from the 2019 intake – and a big tranche from pre-2010 intakes.
  • Chris Green resigned as a PPS to vote against the measure.
  • He’s a Bolton MP and there’s clearly unhappiness there about these latest restrictions.

David Gauke: Johnson’s Covid policy – and why it’s opening up a rift between him and his traditional Tory supporters

26 Sep

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at last year’s general election.

For an amendment of no legal force that may not even be called, Graham Brady’s proposal that there should approve in advance any Covid-19 restrictions is of real significance.

On the face of it, it is an amendment that is more about process than substance – the extent to which Parliament, rather than just the executive, has a say on future restrictions. But in reality, it also exposes the divide between the position of the Government – and the Prime Minister in particular – and many of his Parliamentary colleagues on how far we should go in attempting to stop the spread of the virus. For the first time in many years, Boris Johnson’s position puts him at odds with the instincts of many on the right of the Conservative Party. What is more, his position appears to put him at odds with his own instincts.

The Coronavirus crisis has been immensely difficult for the Prime Minister. In part, that has been due to his own ill-health that took him out of action at the peak of the virus, and from which he has made a slow and painful recovery (although, from what I hear, he is now physically in good shape).

t has also been a crisis that has exposed his longstanding inability to grasp detail. A Prime Minister was needed to get Whitehall focused on the virus in February, identify and prioritise testing and tracing and spot that the Department for Education was heading for a fall with its approach to exam results. On all these issues, he appears to have been absent.

However, I suspect that the most challenging aspect of recent months for Johnson is that he has felt compelled to do things that alien to his normal approach to life. By restricting the freedoms of his fellow citizens, he is not acting like the great admirer of Mayor of Amity Island, the foe of the doomsters and gloomsters, the critic of pettifogging bureaucrats, the ‘freedom-loving, twinkly-eyed, Rabelaisian character’ for whom Toby Young – and many others – voted.

Why has this happened? His own experience of the virus may be a factor, but one can only conclude that he has been convinced that there is a real risk that, without further action, the virus will spread more widely – including to the vulnerable, and that this will result in very large numbers of deaths. Given the widely-held view that we locked down too late in March, this would not just be a health disaster but a political one as well.

His libertarian critics argue that these measures are panicked and unnecessary. There is anger over the projections of a weekly doubling of cases (a much worse trajectory than France and Spain have followed). Some point to Sweden or Brazil – countries that have been hit hard, but now have falling or stable levels of infection – to argue that herd immunity comes quicker than we previously thought, perhaps because of T cell immunity.

Maybe these critics are right; I certainly hope that they are. There are reputable scientists who are making the case, and we all want to believe those that are telling us that it is all going to be alright. But there are also reputable scientists who are making the opposite case, who are arguing that we should be tightening up further and faster (a view, incidentally, that has a lot of public support).

This is where the job of Prime Minister is a difficult and lonely one. I think we all know where Johnson would stand on this issue if he were still a Daily Telegraph columnist. We can also take a good guess as to his approach if someone else was Prime Minister, and he was an ambitious backbencher with a desire to free the ball from the back of the scrum.

But he is not a columnist nor a backbencher but the person who has t person who has to make the decision. And unlike some decisions that a Prime Minister might make, if he gets it wrong the consequences will be both enormous and very quickly apparent to all.

So when faced with advice that the virus was now spreading strongly and that, without intervention, deaths would soon rise substantially, Johnson acted in much the same way as any recent Prime Minister would have done. Maybe his libertarian instincts softened some of the new restrictions, but essentially he has made a decision to be risk averse; to be conventional.

This is not the first time during the pandemic that he has reached that conclusion. But it has also been obvious that this sits uneasily with him. He does not like restricting people’s liberties (not a bad quality, by and large) and he likes to tell people good news. He has promised we would have this licked by July and then by Christmas. He has urged us back to our offices when it was predictable (indeed, predicted  that he would soon have to reverse that advice. Even on Tuesday, he seemed to consider it a matter of national pride that we, as a great freedom-loving people, have not been following the rules. The old Johnsom instinct is hard to suppress.

The consequence of this internal conflict is inconsistency and muddled messages. His natural supporters – those who value freedom and independence from the State and are most sceptical about the advice of experts – are in revolt. This has manifested itself in signatures for the Brady amendment. There are signatories from across the Conservative Party spectrum, but they notably include big Brexiteer beasts such as David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker and Bernard Jenkin. These could be dangerous opponents.

Of course, Covid is not the only issue where the Prime Minister is going to have to make a big choice in the next few weeks. Does he make the necessary concessions in order to conclude a Free Trade Agreement with the EU before the end of the transition period? Yesterday, James Forsyth suggested that a deal was close and that the UK might take a more flexible approach to the negotiations, choosing to fight some battles in the future (‘you have to make it through the short term to get to the long term’ says James, using language that will sound very familiar to anyone who served in Cabinet with Michael Gove in 2018-19).

The piece suggests that the Prime Minister is ‘totally focused on Covid’. But he will soon have to make a choice. On the one hand, he will be receiving advice from officials that the adverse consequences of No Deal are very significant, especially for a fragile economy. On the other hand, his instincts presumably tell him that this is all over-stated gloomsterism.

The Prime Minister knows that the instinct to take a risk, to chance it, to tell the experts to go to hell, is very strong both within himself and amongst many of his Parliamentary colleagues. He is already defying those instincts on one issue. If he is to take the necessary steps to get a Brexit deal (and I hope he does), he is going to have to defy those instincts on a second issue, too. Given that he is already in danger of losing his hold over his traditional allies, it is not obvious that he will.

Benedict Rogers: It’s time for Raab to bring Magnitsky sanctions to bear on those oppressing Hong Kong

25 Aug

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

It is not often that one sees Iain Duncan Smith, John McDonnell, Natalie Bennett, Andrew Adonis, Alistair Carmichael and the Scottish Nationalists on the same page.

Bringing the former Conservative Party leader and Brexiteer together with the former Labour Shadow Chancellor, the former Green Party leader, the former Labour minister and leading Remainer, the Liberal Democrats foreign affairs spokesperson, and two SNP MPs is an achievement – and as far as I can see it is Carrie Lam’s, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, only achievement.

Last week these politicians, together with David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, Helena Kennedy, a leading human rights barrister and Labour peer, and 12 other Parliamentarians, wrote to the Foreign Secretary in support of calls for the imposition of targeted Magnitsky sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese government officials responsible for grave human rights violations and a flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Their letter follows a personal appeal to Dominic Raab by Nathan Law, the highest-profile pro-democracy activist to escape Hong Kong since the imposition of the new draconian national security law on 1 July.

In 2016, Law was elected Hong Kong’s youngest ever legislator, at the age of 23, but was disqualified the following year for quoting Mahatma Gandhi when he took his oath of office. He was then sentenced to eight months in jail for his role in leading the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests. In his letter, Law writes:

As a party to the legally binding Sino British Joint Declaration, the United Kingdom holds a unique position in advocating for Hong Kong. I earnestly hope that the UK government would take the important step to sanction Ms Carrie Lam and other officials involved, so to send a clear signal –– not just to Beijing, but also to other countries in the free world that we ought to stand firm against an oppressive regime which disrespects both their citizens’ rights and the international norms.  Please safeguard our shared belief in freedom and human rights as well as the pursuit of democracy in Hong Kong. Please stand with Hong Kong.”

Since the imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong by Beijing, Britain has responded robustly, by announcing a generous package to allow Hong Kongers who hold British National Overseas (BNO) passports to come to the UK on a “pathway to citizenship”, and by suspending our extradition agreement with Hong Kong. These are very welcome steps, but there is much more than needs to be done.

Although the new law has only been in place for less than two months, we are already seeing its dramatic impact on Hong Kong. The arrest of several prominent activists, particularly the entrepreneur and media proprieter Jimmy Lai, the police raid on his pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, and the arrest of Law’s colleague Agnes Chow and ITN reporter Wilson Li; the issuing of arrest warrants for six Hong Kong activists outside Hong Kong, including Law; and the banning of slogans, the withdrawal of pro-democracy books from libraries and the censorship of school textbooks; all indicate the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy under “one country, two systems” and the destruction of the city’s fundamental rights and freedoms.

It is right for the British Government to respond to events proportionately, and with a staggered approach. There is no point in firing all our ammunition in one go, and then having nothing left to deploy. But the events in Hong Kong in recent weeks require a response that goes beyond rhetoric. That’s why it is time for targeted sanctions.

The United States has already imposed its Magnitsky sanctions on Lam and other officials, but it is vital that the international community act in as united and co-ordinated a way as possible. Hong Kong must not become – or even be perceived to be – a pawn in a US-China fight, but rather as the front line in the fight for freedom and the international rules-based order.

For that reason, the rest of the free world has a duty to act, and as the co-signatory of the Joint Declaration guaranteeing Hong Kong’s continued autonomy, it is right that Britain should lead the way.

Our Magnitsky sanctions legislation is now in place, and so far 49 individuals from Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Burma are on the list. Raab is one of the architects of this legislation – dating back to his days on the backbenches when he championed the idea – and he is said to regard it as a legacy issue. So he has every interest in ensuring that this sanctions regime is meaningful.

To do that, those responsible for dismantling freedoms in Hong Kong, once one of Asia’s most open cities, and the violation of an international treaty – as well as those perpetrating some of the 21st Century’s most egregious atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs – must be held to account. If Lam cannot be sanctioned for presiding over a year of shocking police brutality and repression, who can?

So the 19 Parliamentarians who signed this letter are right to declare: “We stand with Nathan in this appeal.” I do too, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary will act soon.

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

20 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

Robert Sutton: Top Tories on Twitter. Case Study 5) Steve Baker

3 Jul

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Number 14 on the Top Tories on Twitter list: Steve Baker

A prominent Eurosceptic in a seat which narrowly voted to remain, Baker’s majority has fallen during recent elections. From a high of 28.9 per cent in 2015, it dropped to 7.7 per cent in 2019. But the verve with which he has pursued his cause has not eased, and he completed his second tenure as chairman of the European Research Group in February.

Baker previously held a junior ministerial position in the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) but resigned shortly after David Davis stepped down as Secretary of State.

During the Conservative leadership contest he briefly considered running and received some positive press, but ultimately threw his weight behind Boris Johnson. When offered the opportunity to return to DExEU as part of the Johnson government, he turned it down.

The backbenches suit him well, and he has used his prominent position to drive support for Johnson’s deal. An influential voice and well respected, Baker is highly principled, putting his beliefs ahead of short-term career opportunism. But his singular mission has failed to win over many of his constituents. He also needs to find a way to stay relevant as we move to the lengthy process of renegotiating our place in the world.

He balances his tweets between popular sentiment and nuanced discussions. He’ll certainly have plenty to discuss in the coming years, but it is uncertain whether he and other prominent Eurosceptic backbenchers will continue to wield the same clout. But given our unprecedented opportunity to reshape our role on the global stage, there will be plenty of time to craft a positive, unifying message.

Rob Sutton: Introducing the top 50 Conservative MPs on Twitter

29 Jun

Conservative MP Twitter power rankings: the top 50

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Amongst the social media giants, Twitter is the primary battleground for political discourse. It’s also one of the key avenues by which MPs convey their message, and has near-universal uptake by members in the current House of Commons.

The effectiveness with which Twitter is utilised varies considerably between MPs, but it is difficult to compare like-for-like. How does one take into account the differences between, for instance, a freshman MP and a veteran Cabinet member? Length of service in Parliament and ministerial rank give a considerable advantage when building a following.

In this article, I have compiled a power ranking of MPs in the current Parliament, with the top 50 shown in the chart above. The MP’s follower count was adjusted by factoring in their previous experience, to better reflect the strength of their following and their success at engagement on the platform.

Being Twitter-savvy is about more than just a high follower count: any Secretary of State can achieve this just by virtue of the media exposure their office brings. Building a Twitter following based on thoughtful commentary and authentic engagement requires skill ,and can be achieved by members across all Parliamentary intakes and ranks of Government.

Though the top 10 is still dominated by MPs holding senior ministerial offices, the composition of the list beyond it is far more variable. A number of prominent backbenchers are in the top 20, and four members from the 2019 intake make the top 50, beating longer-serving and higher-ranked colleagues.

I hope that this list serves as recognition of the skill and contribution by Conservative members to public debate and engagement, beyond ministerial duties which so often dominate any mention in the media.

Building a model of Twitter power rankings

Success is judged by number of followers, with higher follower counts indicating greater influence on Twitter. The follower count was adjusted using three key parameters:

  • The number of years since an MP was first elected to Parliament.
  • The number of years the MP’s Twitter account has been active.
  • Their highest rank within Government achieved since 2010.

Higher values for each of these would be expected to contribute to a higher follower count. I built a model using the open-source Scikit-Learn package, and fitted it to data from the current Parliament.

The model was then used to predict how many followers a given MP might expect to have based on these three factors. The steps taken to produce a final “Twitter power score” were thus as follows:

  • Using these three factors, multiple linear regression was used to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers an MP might have.
  • Their true follower count was divided by the expected follower count to produce a single number which represented the MP’s performance at building a following.
  • Finally, a logarithm was taken of this ratio to make the number more manageable and to produce a final Twitter power score.

The final step of taking a logarithm means it is easier to compare between MPs without those who have very high follower counts (such as Boris Johnson) making the data difficult to compare, but it does not affect the order of the ranking.

Compiling the data

Having decided which factors to correct the model for, I collected the required information. All three factors were easy to find reliable sources for. The Twitter page for each MP displays the date the account was created, and the Parliamentary website provides the date of their first election to Parliament and previous government posts.

Members who are newly returned to the backbenches following governmental duties (such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt) are scored at their highest government rank since 2010 to recognise this. I was able to find the Twitter accounts and required information for 319 Conservative MPs who were included in this ranking.

To build a model based on this data required incorporating the highest government rank numerically. To do this, I assigned scores according to their rank. These grades recognised their relative seniority and media exposure associated with the office, with higher scores assigned to more senior positions:

  • Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State, Speakers, Leaders of the House and Chief Whips are scored 3.
  • Ministers of State, Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chief Whips are scored 1.
    Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Whips are scored 0.5.
  • Backbenchers score 0.

When assigning these values, I considered the typical sizes of follower counts of MPs in each category. When comparing Secretaries of States to Ministers of State, the median follower count is around twice the size, but the mean follower count is around eight times the size, as a handful of very large follower count skews the results upwards.

Deciding on weightings requires a (somewhat arbitrary) decision as to which measures to use when comparing between groups, and the scores I decided on were ultimately chosen as a compromise across these different measures, which produced stable results when used in the model.

It is also worth explaining why Prime Ministers are grouped with Secretaries of State, despite the far higher media exposure and seniority of their post. When deciding on the respective weighting for different levels of government post, a sufficiently large pool of MPs was needed to produce a meaningful comparison. The only data points for comparison of Prime Ministers are Boris Johnson and Theresa May, so it is difficult to give them their own weighting without it being either unreliable or arbitrary.

While grouping them with Secretaries of State and other senior positions might be perceived as giving them an unfair advantage in the weighting, I felt it justified given these challenges in determining the “fair” weight to assign them. With this done, I had three parameters for each MP on which to build a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers.

Calculating the number of expected Twitter followers

I built a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers using the Scikit-Learn, a popular machine learning package in the Python programming language. The model used multiple linear regression to fit the input parameters to the known follower count.

The input data was prepared by removing extreme high outliers in the data which skewed the fit toward high numbers and away from the vast majority of MPs before fitting. Once fitted, an “expected value” of Twitter followers could be calculated for each MP, based on the year of their first election to parliament, the number of years on Twitter and their highest government rank since 2010.

Including more parameters increases the ability of the model to describe the difference between MPs’ follower counts (the variability). By increasing the number of input variables included in the model, more of the variability is captured:

  • One variable captures between 20.3 per cent and 36.1 per cent of the variability.
  • Two variables capture between 39.1 per cent and 43.1 per cent of the variability.
  • All three variables capture 48.7 per cent of the variability.

These three variables are therefore responsible for almost half of the variation between MPs in their follower counts. The remainder of the variability is likely due to a range of factors which the model does not include, of which the MP’s Twitter-savviness is of particular interest to us. I discuss these factors further below.

Limitations in the model

There are multiple other parameters which could be included in future iterations which I did not include in this model. In particular:

  • Membership or Chairmanship of Select Committees.
  • Previous election to a council, assembly, devolved legislature or the European Parliament.
  • Membership of the Privy Council.
  • Government positions prior to 2010.
  • Prominent positions within the Conservative Party, such as the 1922 Committee or European Research Group.
  • Twitter-savviness and effectiveness of their comms team.

Another limitation was not accounting for the perceived relative importance of various governmental departments: a Great Office of State or Prime Minister is scored the same as any other Secretary of State. The difficulties involved in ranking governmental departments were beyond this first model. The length of service in a given government post was also not considered.

Finally, the choice of model to fit the data may not be the optimal choice. Multiple linear regression assumes, per the name, that the distribution is linear. But the large outliers might be better described by a power law or Pareto distribution, or the non-linearities of a neural network.

During next week, ConservativeHome will produce profiles of six individual MPs who have performed notably well in the power rankings, and who reflect the contributions brought by members beyond their ministerial duties, if they have any.