Paul Howell: CCHQ North will only work if party members feel real ownership of it

22 Oct

Paul Howell is MP for Sedgefield.

In December last year, “things can only get better” boomed out at CCHQ on election night as Sedgefield, the former Commons seat of Tony Blair, fell and the Conservative Party clinched its first sizable majority since the years of Margaret Thatcher.

As the MP for this totemic seat, I believe I know more than most how we demolished the “Red Wall”, and how we can cement its blue replacement. We are now the party of the North, and we must stay the party of the North. What we do next will be critical in that objective.

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact – on the North and on the whole country. We are rightly spending a considerable amount of our time and resources on the fight against the virus, on saving the economy and on the search for a vaccine.

With strong leadership and by working together, we will beat this virus. Then our efforts will turn to the recovery, and how we create a fair and balanced country that works for everyone, wherever they live. The levelling up agenda was a major factor in our election win last year: the vision for addressing the longstanding, structural inequalities that exist between North and South and creating a more balanced, prosperous UK.

Levelling up is a long-term ambition, a demonstration to the party’s commitment to the North. But it is also part of the immediate recovery from the pandemic.

Alongside around 30 of my Northern Conservative MP colleagues, I have joined the Northern Research Group (NRG) – a powerful collection of MPs across the North who will ensure that we deliver a Northern Powerhouse and achieve levelling up.

Together, we can be greater than the sum of our parts, and make the compelling, evidence-based case for investment in the North. Whether the matter to hand is delivering high speed rail, making sure the most disadvantaged children don’t fall behind in their schooling, or creating jobs for the next generation in sustainable industries such as hydrogen and advanced manufacturing, the NRG is integral to the future of the communities we serve,

We are already seeing the impact on the ground. Our members have been working closely with local business leaders to ensure they get what they need from government, and that their businesses and communities are protected. And we will make sure government have a clear and fair plan for how we exit the Covid restrictions, and that businesses get the support they need.

The NRG is a further sign of our commitment to the North. When it was first suggested that CCHQ should open a new headquarters in a part of it, some commentators derided the idea. “It will never happen.” “The story has just been briefed as a distraction.” “Don’t fall for it.” Funnily enough, I haven’t seen the string of apologies from these commentators when this was confirmed at our virtual Conservative Party conference.

What particularly pleased me when the plans for a CCHQ North were first mooted was that it was clear that it wasn’t simply envisaged as a basic call centre and print shop – essential though these functions are. Instead, there was talk of it being located close to the Norths’s brightest and best graduates and data scientists. As important is  devolving real responsibility and control to party members in the North to enable them to properly defend and represent the constituencies that make up the new ‘Blue Wall’ and beyond.

As Conservatives, we know that power is best exercised at the lowest practical level – hence the importance of ‘Taking Back Control’, matching our commitment to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with plans being drawn up to create more mayors across the North.

This applies to political parties, too. CCHQ North will only work if party members feel real ownership of their headquarters, and the responsibility for making it a success. We need a dedicated campaign team to direct local professional campaign managers in every target seat. We need Treasurers to build a fighting fund to support the revival of Conservative Associations in the seats we won in December. We need a mechanism for Northern MPs to be able to feed in their ideas and local knowledge, and to direct campaigning activity to ensure we are effective election winning machine. And we need a Northern Party Board.

Ben Elliot and Amanda Milling should be hugely congratulated for proving the sceptics wrong, and I look forward to hearing more about their plans for CCHQ Nort hnext week. But if we are going to build an organisation that is sustainable and potent, it’s essential for Northern Members of Parliament and councillors to be put in charge of what comes next.

To defend Sedgefield at the next general election, and to grow our representation in local government in the North of England, it is essential for the Conservative Party to have a strong Northern presence. And we should all play our part to ensure that CCHQ North is a real fighting force, and a worthy campaign HQ for the world’s most successful political party.

Matt Smith: An unenforcable travel ban. No NHS transmission data. Thirty thousand lost jobs. But where is the media scrutiny of Labour in Wales?

21 Oct

Matt Smith was the Parliamentary candidate for Cardiff West in the 2017 General Election and has stood for the Welsh Assembly.

Sir Thomas Hopkinson, co-founder of Cardiff University’s Centre for Journalism Studies, said the media is the “The most watchful sentry of the state”, for a “‘yes’ press is fatal to good government”.

With Covid-19 generating 115 pieces of Welsh legislation in six months and laws drafted within “a couple of hours”, Wales needs its fourth estate more than ever.

There are years in which nothing happened and days in which years happen. The “disappointing” decision by Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, to impose a ‘hard Covid border’ preventing travel into Wales from ‘high Covid areas’ of England, Scotland’s central belt and Northern Ireland’ is in effect one of the latter.

Police Federation Wales has called the ban “unenforceable”.  Simon Hart deplores the suggestion West Walians are “on the lookout for people who shouldn’t be in those areas” for stirring ‘division and confusion’.  The ban triggered a round of competitive restrictions with Nicola Sturgeon eying up a Wales-style cross border travel ban for Scotland.

Drakeford told the Welsh Government’s press conference last Friday that his cabinet was still discussing the best way forward. Later that afternoon, Bubble Wales published a leaked letter from the Confederation for Public Transport’s Welsh lead revealing ‘behind closed doors meetings’with officials about a “circuit breaker” beginning at 18:00hrs on Friday 23 October through to 00:01hrs on Monday 9 November.

Leaking continued into Saturday, with The Prydain Review reporting discussions with Welsh business leaders over closing clothing retail.  Paul Davies, the Conservative leader, criticised confusion “handling of this announcement is causing… especially to the most lonely in our society and businesses who are struggling to recover”.

Monday saw the most dramatic divergence between the UK nations, with the announcement of a two-week ‘firebreak’ lockdown from this coming Friday until 9th November, known as a ‘circuit breaker’ everywhere else. Drakeford’s “short, sharp, shock” to civil society will see pubs, restaurants, hotels and non-essential shops closing. Years Seven and Eight can return to school after the half term break. Gatherings outside of households are banned.

Avoiding this malady was why exiting lockdown was slower in Wales. Many wonder why the Welsh Government hasn’t gone for hyper-local ward by ward lockdowns. If the Welsh ministers can “firebreak” for 17 days, what is to stop them extending this? They have already declined to rule out a New Year “firebreak”.

The WHO Europe, the UK Government’s SAGE and Dr Roland Salmon, a former head of Public Health Wales, have cast doubt on the merits of this approach. Public Health Wales admits it doesn’t hold or received data on transmission rates – which begs the question: how is the pandemic response measured? And with claims of critical care being at capacity and ICU units reaching breaking point unraveling, many question the proportionality and rationale of the firebreak.

In a classic Cardiff Bay gaffe, Vaughan Gething, the Health Minister, let on that firms may be eligible for UK Government support during lockdown. Welsh Government finances are better at locking down than helping businesses stay open. The Welsh firebreak seems like a lockdown made in Westminster.

Drakeford will now blame Downing Street for an economic crisis he has exacerbated. Wielding the visible hand of the state comes easily to the lockdown left, which believes that the gentleman in Cathays Park knows better. The First Minister also wants to consolidate the institutions of Welsh Government though “assertive devolution” – posturing to be different to Downing Street for the sake of it.

‘Devolve and forget’ renders devolved affairs into a province of the Welsh media. Yet BBC Wales is in the process of cutting 60 roles, while uncertainty hangs over dozens of posts at Media Wales, the publisher of the Western MailWales on Sunday and South Wales Echo heritage titles and WalesOnline.

‘Team Wales’ groupthink makes it harder to question to many Welsh establishment sacred cows. Yet this is no time for shrinking violets. At one point, nearly all media in Wales reported Bubble Wales’ leaky government special except BBC Wales. Welsh Conservative demands for a Senedd recall were overlooked. BBC Wales’ Politics Wales starmshow focused on Starmer and Gething, with only five minutes for Paul Davies.

Andrew RT Davies, the Shadow Health Minister, has called out the “down-right breathtaking arrogance” of Welsh ministers bypassing the Senedd. Welsh Labour MSs seem more interested in tweeting congratulations to Jacinda Ardern than scrutinising the liberticidal decisions of their own administration.

Daran Hill , a veteran Cardiff Bay Watcher, observed that Siambr-dodging ministers prefer government by briefing as it boosts the profiles and reach of hitherto unrecognisable politicians. Welsh ministers get soft-soaped while UK Government ministers face the full rigors of the national media.

They lack the openness or transparency to provide infection statistics on a ward-by-ward basis that are available in England. Only local authority figures are thought to be ‘sensibly used’, treating the public like children when information is important to sustain confidence  in rules.

Weak scrutiny lowers the bar. An anomaly in Welsh coronavirus law allows people from countries with high infection rates to visit low coronavirus parts of Wales (including via the Welsh Government-owned Cardiff Airport) while UK visitors are banned. Welsh students studying in England will be unable to return home and potentially miss Christmas.

Yet residents living near porous borders are not the playthings of politicians. Nor are livelihoods. The New Statesman has suggested ‘restrictions will only work if they are self-policed’. If the exhausted majority can’t afford to follow rules, compliance and civil obedience will become another casualty of the lockdown.

The hard man of devolution should savour the plaudits of the Cardiff condescendi and the nationalist comentariate. Drakeford now owns a legacy including 30,000 jobs lost in the first lockdown and the losses of those who will fall short before November.

A lacuna of scrutiny makes for bad policy. With power-gaming devocrats in control of the administrative state, governing by leak and pushing dodgy dossiers, Wales needs its ‘watchful sentries’ more than ever.

Matt Smith: An unenforcable travel ban. No NHS transmission data. Thirty thousand lost jobs. But where is the media scrutiny of Labour in Wales?

21 Oct

Matt Smith was the Parliamentary candidate for Cardiff West in the 2017 General Election and has stood for the Welsh Assembly.

Sir Thomas Hopkinson, co-founder of Cardiff University’s Centre for Journalism Studies, said the media is the “The most watchful sentry of the state”, for a “‘yes’ press is fatal to good government”.

With Covid-19 generating 115 pieces of Welsh legislation in six months and laws drafted within “a couple of hours”, Wales needs its fourth estate more than ever.

There are years in which nothing happened and days in which years happen. The “disappointing” decision by Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, to impose a ‘hard Covid border’ preventing travel into Wales from ‘high Covid areas’ of England, Scotland’s central belt and Northern Ireland’ is in effect one of the latter.

Police Federation Wales has called the ban “unenforceable”.  Simon Hart deplores the suggestion West Walians are “on the lookout for people who shouldn’t be in those areas” for stirring ‘division and confusion’.  The ban triggered a round of competitive restrictions with Nicola Sturgeon eying up a Wales-style cross border travel ban for Scotland.

Drakeford told the Welsh Government’s press conference last Friday that his cabinet was still discussing the best way forward. Later that afternoon, Bubble Wales published a leaked letter from the Confederation for Public Transport’s Welsh lead revealing ‘behind closed doors meetings’with officials about a “circuit breaker” beginning at 18:00hrs on Friday 23 October through to 00:01hrs on Monday 9 November.

Leaking continued into Saturday, with The Prydain Review reporting discussions with Welsh business leaders over closing clothing retail.  Paul Davies, the Conservative leader, criticised confusion “handling of this announcement is causing… especially to the most lonely in our society and businesses who are struggling to recover”.

Monday saw the most dramatic divergence between the UK nations, with the announcement of a two-week ‘firebreak’ lockdown from this coming Friday until 9th November, known as a ‘circuit breaker’ everywhere else. Drakeford’s “short, sharp, shock” to civil society will see pubs, restaurants, hotels and non-essential shops closing. Years Seven and Eight can return to school after the half term break. Gatherings outside of households are banned.

Avoiding this malady was why exiting lockdown was slower in Wales. Many wonder why the Welsh Government hasn’t gone for hyper-local ward by ward lockdowns. If the Welsh ministers can “firebreak” for 17 days, what is to stop them extending this? They have already declined to rule out a New Year “firebreak”.

The WHO Europe, the UK Government’s SAGE and Dr Roland Salmon, a former head of Public Health Wales, have cast doubt on the merits of this approach. Public Health Wales admits it doesn’t hold or received data on transmission rates – which begs the question: how is the pandemic response measured? And with claims of critical care being at capacity and ICU units reaching breaking point unraveling, many question the proportionality and rationale of the firebreak.

In a classic Cardiff Bay gaffe, Vaughan Gething, the Health Minister, let on that firms may be eligible for UK Government support during lockdown. Welsh Government finances are better at locking down than helping businesses stay open. The Welsh firebreak seems like a lockdown made in Westminster.

Drakeford will now blame Downing Street for an economic crisis he has exacerbated. Wielding the visible hand of the state comes easily to the lockdown left, which believes that the gentleman in Cathays Park knows better. The First Minister also wants to consolidate the institutions of Welsh Government though “assertive devolution” – posturing to be different to Downing Street for the sake of it.

‘Devolve and forget’ renders devolved affairs into a province of the Welsh media. Yet BBC Wales is in the process of cutting 60 roles, while uncertainty hangs over dozens of posts at Media Wales, the publisher of the Western MailWales on Sunday and South Wales Echo heritage titles and WalesOnline.

‘Team Wales’ groupthink makes it harder to question to many Welsh establishment sacred cows. Yet this is no time for shrinking violets. At one point, nearly all media in Wales reported Bubble Wales’ leaky government special except BBC Wales. Welsh Conservative demands for a Senedd recall were overlooked. BBC Wales’ Politics Wales starmshow focused on Starmer and Gething, with only five minutes for Paul Davies.

Andrew RT Davies, the Shadow Health Minister, has called out the “down-right breathtaking arrogance” of Welsh ministers bypassing the Senedd. Welsh Labour MSs seem more interested in tweeting congratulations to Jacinda Ardern than scrutinising the liberticidal decisions of their own administration.

Daran Hill , a veteran Cardiff Bay Watcher, observed that Siambr-dodging ministers prefer government by briefing as it boosts the profiles and reach of hitherto unrecognisable politicians. Welsh ministers get soft-soaped while UK Government ministers face the full rigors of the national media.

They lack the openness or transparency to provide infection statistics on a ward-by-ward basis that are available in England. Only local authority figures are thought to be ‘sensibly used’, treating the public like children when information is important to sustain confidence  in rules.

Weak scrutiny lowers the bar. An anomaly in Welsh coronavirus law allows people from countries with high infection rates to visit low coronavirus parts of Wales (including via the Welsh Government-owned Cardiff Airport) while UK visitors are banned. Welsh students studying in England will be unable to return home and potentially miss Christmas.

Yet residents living near porous borders are not the playthings of politicians. Nor are livelihoods. The New Statesman has suggested ‘restrictions will only work if they are self-policed’. If the exhausted majority can’t afford to follow rules, compliance and civil obedience will become another casualty of the lockdown.

The hard man of devolution should savour the plaudits of the Cardiff condescendi and the nationalist comentariate. Drakeford now owns a legacy including 30,000 jobs lost in the first lockdown and the losses of those who will fall short before November.

A lacuna of scrutiny makes for bad policy. With power-gaming devocrats in control of the administrative state, governing by leak and pushing dodgy dossiers, Wales needs its ‘watchful sentries’ more than ever.

Matt Smith: An unenforcable travel ban. No NHS transmission data. Thirty thousand lost jobs. But where is the media scrutiny of Labour in Wales?

21 Oct

Matt Smith was the Parliamentary candidate for Cardiff West in the 2017 General Election and has stood for the Welsh Assembly.

Sir Thomas Hopkinson, co-founder of Cardiff University’s Centre for Journalism Studies, said the media is the “The most watchful sentry of the state”, for a “‘yes’ press is fatal to good government”.

With Covid-19 generating 115 pieces of Welsh legislation in six months and laws drafted within “a couple of hours”, Wales needs its fourth estate more than ever.

There are years in which nothing happened and days in which years happen. The “disappointing” decision by Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, to impose a ‘hard Covid border’ preventing travel into Wales from ‘high Covid areas’ of England, Scotland’s central belt and Northern Ireland’ is in effect one of the latter.

Police Federation Wales has called the ban “unenforceable”.  Simon Hart deplores the suggestion West Walians are “on the lookout for people who shouldn’t be in those areas” for stirring ‘division and confusion’.  The ban triggered a round of competitive restrictions with Nicola Sturgeon eying up a Wales-style cross border travel ban for Scotland.

Drakeford told the Welsh Government’s press conference last Friday that his cabinet was still discussing the best way forward. Later that afternoon, Bubble Wales published a leaked letter from the Confederation for Public Transport’s Welsh lead revealing ‘behind closed doors meetings’with officials about a “circuit breaker” beginning at 18:00hrs on Friday 23 October through to 00:01hrs on Monday 9 November.

Leaking continued into Saturday, with The Prydain Review reporting discussions with Welsh business leaders over closing clothing retail.  Paul Davies, the Conservative leader, criticised confusion “handling of this announcement is causing… especially to the most lonely in our society and businesses who are struggling to recover”.

Monday saw the most dramatic divergence between the UK nations, with the announcement of a two-week ‘firebreak’ lockdown from this coming Friday until 9th November, known as a ‘circuit breaker’ everywhere else. Drakeford’s “short, sharp, shock” to civil society will see pubs, restaurants, hotels and non-essential shops closing. Years Seven and Eight can return to school after the half term break. Gatherings outside of households are banned.

Avoiding this malady was why exiting lockdown was slower in Wales. Many wonder why the Welsh Government hasn’t gone for hyper-local ward by ward lockdowns. If the Welsh ministers can “firebreak” for 17 days, what is to stop them extending this? They have already declined to rule out a New Year “firebreak”.

The WHO Europe, the UK Government’s SAGE and Dr Roland Salmon, a former head of Public Health Wales, have cast doubt on the merits of this approach. Public Health Wales admits it doesn’t hold or received data on transmission rates – which begs the question: how is the pandemic response measured? And with claims of critical care being at capacity and ICU units reaching breaking point unraveling, many question the proportionality and rationale of the firebreak.

In a classic Cardiff Bay gaffe, Vaughan Gething, the Health Minister, let on that firms may be eligible for UK Government support during lockdown. Welsh Government finances are better at locking down than helping businesses stay open. The Welsh firebreak seems like a lockdown made in Westminster.

Drakeford will now blame Downing Street for an economic crisis he has exacerbated. Wielding the visible hand of the state comes easily to the lockdown left, which believes that the gentleman in Cathays Park knows better. The First Minister also wants to consolidate the institutions of Welsh Government though “assertive devolution” – posturing to be different to Downing Street for the sake of it.

‘Devolve and forget’ renders devolved affairs into a province of the Welsh media. Yet BBC Wales is in the process of cutting 60 roles, while uncertainty hangs over dozens of posts at Media Wales, the publisher of the Western MailWales on Sunday and South Wales Echo heritage titles and WalesOnline.

‘Team Wales’ groupthink makes it harder to question to many Welsh establishment sacred cows. Yet this is no time for shrinking violets. At one point, nearly all media in Wales reported Bubble Wales’ leaky government special except BBC Wales. Welsh Conservative demands for a Senedd recall were overlooked. BBC Wales’ Politics Wales starmshow focused on Starmer and Gething, with only five minutes for Paul Davies.

Andrew RT Davies, the Shadow Health Minister, has called out the “down-right breathtaking arrogance” of Welsh ministers bypassing the Senedd. Welsh Labour MSs seem more interested in tweeting congratulations to Jacinda Ardern than scrutinising the liberticidal decisions of their own administration.

Daran Hill , a veteran Cardiff Bay Watcher, observed that Siambr-dodging ministers prefer government by briefing as it boosts the profiles and reach of hitherto unrecognisable politicians. Welsh ministers get soft-soaped while UK Government ministers face the full rigors of the national media.

They lack the openness or transparency to provide infection statistics on a ward-by-ward basis that are available in England. Only local authority figures are thought to be ‘sensibly used’, treating the public like children when information is important to sustain confidence  in rules.

Weak scrutiny lowers the bar. An anomaly in Welsh coronavirus law allows people from countries with high infection rates to visit low coronavirus parts of Wales (including via the Welsh Government-owned Cardiff Airport) while UK visitors are banned. Welsh students studying in England will be unable to return home and potentially miss Christmas.

Yet residents living near porous borders are not the playthings of politicians. Nor are livelihoods. The New Statesman has suggested ‘restrictions will only work if they are self-policed’. If the exhausted majority can’t afford to follow rules, compliance and civil obedience will become another casualty of the lockdown.

The hard man of devolution should savour the plaudits of the Cardiff condescendi and the nationalist comentariate. Drakeford now owns a legacy including 30,000 jobs lost in the first lockdown and the losses of those who will fall short before November.

A lacuna of scrutiny makes for bad policy. With power-gaming devocrats in control of the administrative state, governing by leak and pushing dodgy dossiers, Wales needs its ‘watchful sentries’ more than ever.

‘We need to talk about the Union’: An inside look at the new group of Conservative MPs fighting for Britain

16 Oct

Amongst the many changes wrought by the pandemic, one which people might not have predicted has been the way it has brought the constitutional conflict back up to the boil.

For several years after the Brexit referendum the question of Scottish independence remained relatively quiescent, even as the SNP fought tooth and nail to prevent the UK’s exit from the European Union because of how difficult it made their ultimate ambition.

But the breakdown of the ‘four nations’ consensus on Covid-19 has changed all that. Less than a year out from crucial Holyrood elections, the Scottish Government continues to enjoy the ‘rally round the flag’ effect that Boris Johnson has lost (despite a growing laundry list of woes). Both Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, her Welsh counterpart, are talking seriously about introducing internal movement restrictions inside the UK.

After decades of complacency and a blithe assumption that conceding more powers to Holyrood and Cardiff Bay could buy them off indefinitely, the Government has at least started to wake up to the scale of the challenge. The UK Internal Market Bill was a welcome sign that ministers were prepared to defend the legitimate role of Westminster in national life.

But there will be much more to do over the next few years – and the new Conservative Union Research Group aims to make sure the Party is equipped to do it.

CURG is the brainchild of Robin Millar, the newly-elected MP for Aberconwy in North Wales. A committed unionist – he set out his thinking on the Union in a recent piece for the Daily Express – he was spurred to organise after realising how badly devolution had affected government attitudes towards constituencies such as his. When raising questions about flooding, for example, a response from DEFRA was simply forwarded from the Welsh Government, and at one point the Secretary of State expressed sympathy only for English constituencies affected.

Millar says he isn’t an instinctive centraliser. He’s a fan of subsidiarity and pushed for greater local power whilst a county councillor in Suffolk. But whilst he might be sceptical about Westminster’s capacity to directly run North Wales, he believes that it has not lost its ultimate responsibility towards all British citizens – but, after decades of ‘devolve and forget’, that it sometimes forgets that.

After speaking to other Welsh colleagues, Millar reached out to MPs from other parts of the country including David Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. The goal was to set up a “simple, focused, and open” group to help backbench Tory MPs (although there were ministers who wished to join) work more effectively in Parliament on Union issues.

Membership has reportedly grown “organically” since the launch, and as of today, the URG apparently counts more than 70 of them amongst its membership. Crucially, four fifths of these represent English constituencies.

Whilst the name obviously invites comparisons with the European Research Group, Millar is clear that the URG is not a “disgruntled caucus”. The Government’s stated goal is to defend the Union, and the URG intends to help.

The Committee: Selaine Saxby, Fay Jones, Robin Millar, Andrew Bowie, and James Davies.

One way of doing this is simply making sure that MPs know more about the Union. Many MPs don’t come into politics to talk about the constitution, and Millar ended up setting himself a lot of reading up over lockdown to make sure he was across the issues. That’s perhaps one reason why the URG is geared towards mobilising people with shared convictions, rather than advocating for a specific and detailed set of solutions.

In Parliament, the group will hopefully help pro-UK MPs to make better-informed and more coordinated interventions on relevant issues by preparing briefing notes and other support. The UK Internal Market Bill is an obvious example, but the URG leadership are keen to highlight that there is a Union dimension to a huge range of issues. Ministers aiming to raise the Government’s profile in devolved policy areas won’t disagree.

Over the longer term, Millar hopes the group will be able to hone the intellectual arguments unionists need to take on the separatists. This involves tackling misleading comparisons between the British and European unions, challenging misleading attacks on the ‘English Government’, defending Westminster’s role in overseeing legitimately UK-wide initiatives such as the Shared Prosperity Fund, and combating the idea that support for the Union is nostalgic or reactionary.

It also means pressing the SNP on the inconsistencies in their vision, including the increasingly salient question of whether territories such as Orkney and Shetland should have the right to go their own way in the event of an independence vote: “Where does separation stop?”

They might also try to persuade ministers to broaden and deepen their arguments against granting Sturgeon a re-run referendum after next year’s Holyrood election. Simply repeating the “once in a generation” mantra won’t be enough, but better arguments are available.

It is too soon to say what sort of ideas might come out of this process. But even if it just gets minds concentrated on the problem and people talking about the Union, the URG would be doing the Party and the country a service. For too long, nationalism has enjoyed the advantage of having permanently-established parties and caucuses focused exclusively on attacking the United Kingdom. It is past time that unionism counter-organised.

Henry Hill: Tories hit out at bid to ‘balkanise’ the UK with new travel restrictions

15 Oct

Drakeford and Sturgeon look to turn Covid-19 into hard borders

Conservative MPs and MSs have hit out at Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, after he proposed to bar entry to Wales for people from Covid-19 ‘hot spots’ in other parts of the United Kingdom.

According to the Daily Mail, the Labour politician has been accused of obsessing over ‘banning the English’. Earlier in the pandemic, his administration was criticised after inspiring this Anglophobic headline on the Western Mail.

His threats, a cue which has naturally been immediately taken up by Nicola Sturgeon, risk introducing ‘hard borders’ between not just the mainland and Northern Ireland (as a result of the Government’s capitulation on the Protocol) but on the mainland too.

It is not clear that such a move is within the Welsh Government’s competence. Policing, for example, is not devolved, so Drakeford could not instruct officers to set up border checkpoints or anything like that. But suggestions that they could instead rely on people reporting ‘non-locals’ gives an indicator of just how nasty such a rule could be to enforce.

Of course, some internal movement restrictions are not per se an illegitimate response to a pandemic. But it would be very naive for unionists not to place these proposals in their broader context, namely that they are each being proposed by nationalist politicians (one small-n, one big-N) with no interest in the cohesion of the United Kingdom and every motive to shore up their own popularity at the expense of ‘Westminster’.

As Matt Kilcoyne points out, the Government has not proposed any reciprocal travel bans for Welsh or Scots citizens who wish to visit England, nor do some politicians appear to have thought through the impact that hardening Britain’s internal borders will have on people used to living across them.

Indeed, regulating cross-border movement is something which even in a federal system – which the UK rightly is not – feels like it ought to be reserved to the national government. Ministers have already demonstrated, via the Internal Market Bill, that they are not afraid to tread on devolved toes when the integrity of the Union is at stake. They should defend the British free-movement territory (a phrase it feels absurd to need) with equal vigour.

Salmond quagmire deepens for Sturgeon as independence holds up

A couple of weeks ago, this column covered the remarkable – and for unionists, deeply frustrating – spectacle of the Scottish Government’s ongoing defiance of political gravity.

Despite being in office for 13 years – as long as New Labour – the SNP are currently set to win a second overall majority in an electoral system which was designed to prevent such an outcome. The First Minister continues to enjoy strong public esteem, and independence – which for years languished behind its main party in popular support – is now posting record poll results.

Yet as I set out, time really is starting to catch up with the Nationalists. The party’s legendary, phalanx-like discipline is breaking down as different factions start taking lumps out of each other. The Scottish Government is neither governing well nor brimming over with new ideas. And Sturgeon is embroiled in a bitter battle with Alex Salmond which could, even according to sympathetic commentators such as Kenny Farquharson, lead to her resignation.

It’s as if we can suddenly see the SNP’s version of the picture of Dorian Grey, but cannot get them to meet its gaze and so break the spell granting the Scottish Government its unnatural political life.

This week, the Herald reports that MSPs investigating the Salmond fiasco raised the question of whether or not the First Minister misled the Scottish Parliament about a key meeting where she was first informed about the allegations against him, and the Nationalists ended up in a war of words with the Scouts after they defied the charity’s instructions not to use a uniformed scout leader in a party political broadcast.

It may be that the only thing that will hold the SNP together over the medium term is the discipline imposed by a second independence referendum – which is all the better reason for Boris Johnson to be true to his word and not grant one. But if he does intend to stay the course (and privately some MPs are sceptical about this) he and Michael Gove need to develop their argument beyond the rote repetition of ‘once in a generation’. They should start here.

Henry Hill: Tories hit out at bid to ‘balkanise’ the UK with new travel restrictions

15 Oct

Drakeford and Sturgeon look to turn Covid-19 into hard borders

Conservative MPs and MSs have hit out at Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, after he proposed to bar entry to Wales for people from Covid-19 ‘hot spots’ in other parts of the United Kingdom.

According to the Daily Mail, the Labour politician has been accused of obsessing over ‘banning the English’. Earlier in the pandemic, his administration was criticised after inspiring this Anglophobic headline on the Western Mail.

His threats, a cue which has naturally been immediately taken up by Nicola Sturgeon, risk introducing ‘hard borders’ between not just the mainland and Northern Ireland (as a result of the Government’s capitulation on the Protocol) but on the mainland too.

It is not clear that such a move is within the Welsh Government’s competence. Policing, for example, is not devolved, so Drakeford could not instruct officers to set up border checkpoints or anything like that. But suggestions that they could instead rely on people reporting ‘non-locals’ gives an indicator of just how nasty such a rule could be to enforce.

Of course, some internal movement restrictions are not per se an illegitimate response to a pandemic. But it would be very naive for unionists not to place these proposals in their broader context, namely that they are each being proposed by nationalist politicians (one small-n, one big-N) with no interest in the cohesion of the United Kingdom and every motive to shore up their own popularity at the expense of ‘Westminster’.

As Matt Kilcoyne points out, the Government has not proposed any reciprocal travel bans for Welsh or Scots citizens who wish to visit England, nor do some politicians appear to have thought through the impact that hardening Britain’s internal borders will have on people used to living across them.

Indeed, regulating cross-border movement is something which even in a federal system – which the UK rightly is not – feels like it ought to be reserved to the national government. Ministers have already demonstrated, via the Internal Market Bill, that they are not afraid to tread on devolved toes when the integrity of the Union is at stake. They should defend the British free-movement territory (a phrase it feels absurd to need) with equal vigour.

Salmond quagmire deepens for Sturgeon as independence holds up

A couple of weeks ago, this column covered the remarkable – and for unionists, deeply frustrating – spectacle of the Scottish Government’s ongoing defiance of political gravity.

Despite being in office for 13 years – as long as New Labour – the SNP are currently set to win a second overall majority in an electoral system which was designed to prevent such an outcome. The First Minister continues to enjoy strong public esteem, and independence – which for years languished behind its main party in popular support – is now posting record poll results.

Yet as I set out, time really is starting to catch up with the Nationalists. The party’s legendary, phalanx-like discipline is breaking down as different factions start taking lumps out of each other. The Scottish Government is neither governing well nor brimming over with new ideas. And Sturgeon is embroiled in a bitter battle with Alex Salmond which could, even according to sympathetic commentators such as Kenny Farquharson, lead to her resignation.

It’s as if we can suddenly see the SNP’s version of the picture of Dorian Grey, but cannot get them to meet its gaze and so break the spell granting the Scottish Government its unnatural political life.

This week, the Herald reports that MSPs investigating the Salmond fiasco raised the question of whether or not the First Minister misled the Scottish Parliament about a key meeting where she was first informed about the allegations against him, and the Nationalists ended up in a war of words with the Scouts after they defied the charity’s instructions not to use a uniformed scout leader in a party political broadcast.

It may be that the only thing that will hold the SNP together over the medium term is the discipline imposed by a second independence referendum – which is all the better reason for Boris Johnson to be true to his word and not grant one. But if he does intend to stay the course (and privately some MPs are sceptical about this) he and Michael Gove need to develop their argument beyond the rote repetition of ‘once in a generation’. They should start here.

Matthew Oakley: Levelling up. We need to measure it in order to deliver it – and know that it’s worked

12 Oct

Matthew Oakley is the Director of WPI Economics and a former Treasury economist.

Aside from Getting Brexit Done, the promise to strengthen and level up every part of the country was perhaps the most salient part of the Prime Minister’s 2019 general election manifesto.

The nine months since then have changed many things, but the need to level up is still just as strong. Yet despite this need, we are no still no clearer on what levelling up actually means, how we will know if the Government has been successful and how people, families and communities across the UK might actually benefit.

Today’s report from the Covid Recovery Commission, tackles this question; showing why levelling up is needed, how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on this, and how the Government must frame this issue as they seek to tackle it.

The first thing to consider is why some sort of levelling up is needed. Many reports, over many years, have focussed on headline estimates of output and productivity across the UK’s four nations and England’s regions. This comes as little surprise given that some measures of productivity put output per head in the North East at less than half of that in London.

Of course, output, productivity and the jobs and opportunities which they are related to, are of prime importance in understanding the relative success of different areas. However, focusing on such broad economic concepts, misses two important points.

First, that levelling up should be about more than just broad economic concepts and second that inequalities and the need to level up are just as apparent within regions, cities and towns as they are between them.

This is the main finding from the Covid Recovery Commission’s first report, published today. It shows that, up and down the country, there are individuals, families and communities that are struggling. Most striking here are findings from the Social Metrics Commission that poverty rates in London are ten percentage points higher than in some parts of the North of England.

More broadly, whilst the North of England is host to many of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK, more than half of people living in the ten per cent most deprived neighbourhoods are found in other parts of the county (36 per cent in the rest of England, 15 per cent in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland).

The links between the economic success of regions and local authorities and deprivation is also not clear cut, with some of the highest levels of deprivation being found in some of the wealthiest areas of the country (18 per cent of people in the most deprived neighbourhoods – 1.15 million people – in the UK are living in local authorities with the highest economic output).

Broader research shows that inequalities, or the need to level up, are not just about finances and economics. In fact, across the UK there are huge disparities in outcomes including life satisfaction, happiness and mental and physical ill health. Most concerningly, it is those struggling financially who are often the hardest hit.

For example, people from lower socioeconomic groups are more likely to have long-termhealth conditions, and the King’s Fund highlights that those living in the most deprived areas spend around a third of their lives living in poor health; twice the level of those in the least deprived areas.

Concerningly, these inequalities have been seen for decades and under Governments of all colours. And they are also about to get a lot worse.

In this respect, the Covid Recovery Commission’s report also shows emerging findings of where the health, social and economic fall out from the Covidpandemic have hit hardest.

Amongst other findings it highlights that mortality rates from Covid-19 are highest in the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. Even after controlling for a range of other factors, in the 20 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods there has been an average of 21 more Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 population compared to the least deprived neighbourhoods. Unemployment benefit claims have also risen most in those areas that were already suffering from high rates of claims.

Those neighbourhoods in the highest 10 per cent of unemployment benefit claims prior to Covid-19 have seen a 5.4 percentage point increase in claims, compared to a 2.3 percentage point increase for those in the 10 per cent with the lowest claim rate prior to Covid-19.

So what can be done? At the start, recognise that the Government has set off in the right direction; levelling up and promoting opportunity for people right across the country is exactly what needs to happen. Putting this front and centre of a strategy to drive the economy and strengthen society post-Covid is a clear priority.

But for this to be a success the Government now needs to do three things.

First, it needs to recognise that levelling up can only truly be a success if it delivers better outcomes for left behind people, families and communities in central London as much as it improves productivity and the economic success of towns and cities in the North of England.

This leads to the second point: that it must define what it wants to achieve in levelling up and set out a range of metrics with which that can be judged. Without this, it will be impossible to track progress or to design and implement effective policies.

Our work has shown that these metrics should be as local as possible (ideally evaluating impacts and progress at a neighbourhood level) and consider measures beyond economic fortunes to focus on underlying issues like mental and physical health and family and community resilience.

In turn, this leads to the third point, that central Government is too far removed from much of what will drive progress in these areas. As such, politicians and policymakers in councils, mayoral combined authorities and the UK’s devolved nations have a key role to play in driving forward this agenda. The Government must provide these areas with the remit to focus and report on levelling up and the policy and financial tools they need to tackle inequalities. A future Devolution White Paper is a prime opportunity to start to take that forward.

To many in Government, setting out a clear way of measuring success against a key manifesto commitment and devolving more power and funding away from Whitehall might sound like a risky agenda. But it is also a significant opportunity. It would show that the Government is committed to making the UK work for everyone and, if successful, could provide the electorate clear evidence of impact that Government has had on the lives of people and communities across the UK. 

In a UK faced with continued health and economic struggles, that evidence might be just what the Government needs in the next election.