The mass testing ‘blitz’. Cummings’ Operation Moonshot strategy returns.

17 Feb

Before his dramatic departure from Downing Street, Dominic Cummings had taken the lead on one of the Government’s most ambitious strategies to manage the Coronavirus pandemic; the “Operation Moonshot” mass-swabbing project.

This was the Government’s “game-changer” in the Coronavirus wars – particularly at a time when there was uncertainty over whether a vaccine would be discovered, and growing concerns about the ability of NHS Test and Trace as “Plan B” in pandemic strategy.

Mass testing is designed to tell people if they have Coronavirus within 30 minutes (as lateral flow tests – used for this purpose – do not need lab processing), so that they can isolate speedily. Over the last few months, the Government has piloted mass testing in Liverpool and, more recently, parts of the country where the “South African” and “Kent” variants have been detected.

Along the way, the system has received huge criticism for being “extortionate” and even destined to “fail miserably”. “How the UK spent £800m on controversial Covid tests for Dominic Cummings scheme“, reads one article, which raises concerns around his work behind the scenes, where he had also been developing an Advanced Research Projects Agency (more about that here). Others criticise the efficacy of mass testing, which one study found to have missed 50 per cent of cases.

The point of mass testing is in the name, though – it monitors transmission of the virus at a large scale. To be more specific, it picks up lots of asymptomatic cases. It’s not perfect but quickly means infected people can go into isolation.

The Government and its advisors clearly see huge merit in this approach, and are planning a “mass testing blitz” to ease the current lockdown restrictions. As part of a campaign that’s provisionally titled “Are you ready? Get testing. Go”, NHS Test and Trace plans to send out more than 400,000 rapid lateral flow tests to workplaces and homes per day.

It’s reported that this will be tailored to the staged reopening of the economy, with schools starting again on March 8; universities and further education in late April; and hospitality, leisure and sports in early May (depending on whether Coronavirus rates are low enough).

There is also discussion around whether large and small businesses can be given lateral flow tests between April and May, as well as proposals for music festivals, sports events and arena gigs. Indeed, at Monday’s Downing Street press briefing, Boris Johnson said that mass testing could be used as a possibility for getting theatres and nightclubs open again.

Mass testing will face some public resistance, particularly after the progress that’s been made on vaccine passports. There are concerns about how these could impact on civil liberties, and questions about why we need even more health monitoring by the state.

People may also be wondering why, if there’s a vaccine, the Government is still investing so much time and money in mass testing.

But clearly the Government needs a multi-faceted approach to the pandemic – bearing in mind how unpredictable elements of it have been, with the rise of new variants that could, on a depressing note, eventually bypass the vaccine.

Mass testing is also designed to work alongside contact tracing which has been found to have a limited effect on the R rate.

Although all of these processes have had enormous scrutiny, and – yes – incredibly expensive, the problem is not necessarily the tools themselves – but that the Government has had to create highly complex infrastructure in the middle of a pandemic (the messiest, most resource-intensive way to do things). Thus stories around mass testing and contact tracing are mostly about hiccups in each system, rather than their future potential.

Mass testing’s best days may be yet to come. It’s uncertain. But with Cummings reportedly spending his notice period working on this programme, it’s clear his influence in Downing Street lives on.

Best and worst Government moment: the Brexit trade deal and Cummings’ road trip to Barnard Castle, respectively

30 Dec

With a resounding 50.34 per cent of the vote, the Brexit Trade Deal wins our panelists’ choice for “best Government moment” in our end of year survey. After a long year of negotiations, and what looked like the UK edging towards No Deal at many points, David Frost and his team, as well as Boris Johnson, have delivered on arguably the hardest one of the Conservatives’ election pledges.

The second most popular Government moment was “Obtaining 350 million doses of the vaccine”. It’s easy to forget now, but the Government’s decision to order this amount was a massive gamble at the time, as there hasn’t been a successful vaccine for SARS and MERS, which come from the same Coronavirus family, and even 50 per cent efficacy was thought of a difficult target. With the news of Oxford’s jab, along with Pfizer’s, it’s another end of year success story.

When asked to rate the “worst Government moment”, Dominic Cummings’ road trip to Barnard Castle comes in top with 39.33 per cent of the vote. Clearly his explanation for the journey in Downing Street’s rose garden did not wow our panelists, nor were they impressed about the Government moving the country into Tiers Three and Four over Christmas, thereby cancelling many people’s plans. Perhaps with trade deal and vaccine news, however, these will soon be distant memories of an annus horribilis.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Starmer touches on a sore point about Cummings

16 Dec

Michael Fabricant (Con, Lichfield) began PMQs with a low blow by referring to Sir Keir Starmer as a “smarmy lawyer”. Boris Johnson remarked that this is “the season of goodwill to all men”, requested “perhaps just a little less carping” from the Leader of the Opposition, answered almost none of Sir Keir’s questions, and instead tried to fob him off with questions of his own.

Sir Keir must one day soon retort: “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose.” Those words were used by Lord Randolph Churchill, a Tory adventurer who for a brief period enchanted the working class by being amazingly rude about Gladstone.

Johnson likes to be badly behaved too, and appeared with hair that was messy even by his own high standards. Sir Keir invited him to justify the £40,000 pay rise conferred, as the world has just learned, on Dominic Cummings.

The name “Cummings” did not pass Johnson’s lips. He instead claimed that Sir Keir “totally trivialises the efforts of the British people” to get the virus under control.

At this point, Sir Keir should have asked again, in four or five words, about Cummings. Prime ministerial evasion would have become more obvious when offered in response to a short question.

Sir Keir instead deigned to take a swipe at Fabricant – “this isn’t smarmy lawyers” – before quoting some stuff said by doctors, followed by some advice to speakers put out by the Wellingborough Conservative Party:

“Say the first thing that comes into your head. It’ll probably be nonsense, you may get a bad headline, but if you make enough dubious claims fast enough you can get away with it.”

“Is he the inspiration for the newsletter,” Sir Keir inquired to laughter, “or is he the author?”

This was felicitous. Johnson himself smiled, attempt to talk over Sir Keir, and on rising to his feet retorted: “He can’t attack the Government if he can’t come up with a view of his own.”

Which is nonsense. Anyone in the country can blame the Government without being obliged to come up with an alternative view. That is what the Prime Minister, in particular, is for: to take the blame, and do so even in the season of goodwill.

Rob Sutton: Government needs advisers. But advisers need competition – not their present monopoly. As this pandemic has proved.

13 Dec

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.

The combined effect of emergency measures which allow legislation to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, and a viral pandemic which requires the rapid interpretation of ever-changing and highly technical data, has exposed a troubling weakness at the heart of government: that our expert advisers, however talented and hard-working they might be as individuals, have left much to be desired.

This is not entirely due to the advisers themselves, but the internal structures and incentives which Number 10 relies upon to provide advice. Those organisations which Johnson’s administration turns to for expert opinion (SAGE, Public Health England, the Department of Health, and the Government Office for Science), hold effective monopolies within their own niches.

Despite the breadth of talent these groups pull from, and the impression of depth of available opinion, there is relatively little overlap of their briefs, and they are ultimately machines of consensus: built to produce a unified position, rather than competing proposals.

From a political communications perspective, this is ideal. Presenting a position drawn from the interpretation of ambiguous (and unstable) data as being scientific consensus gives some degree of protection from criticism.

Yet this is hardly a good approach to building policy. These problems, though longstanding, were dramatically exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the corresponding increase in the government’s reliance on expert advice. The natural monopoly of ideas held by these bodies of experts has led to a predictably narrow scope for policy debate.

This is a concern which has riled many in Parliament, who feel increasingly marginalised in favour of unelected experts who face no public scrutiny or internal competition. Steve Baker, ever the prolific organiser and influencer, has been among those leading calls for reform of expert advice in government, arguing that this should be addressed as a matter of priority in a letter to the Prime Minister.

A government which retreats from parliamentary scrutiny and has been defined by a vision of centralised control hardly encourages open discussion. Yet the importance of balancing contrasting advice has become, more than ever before, a critical requirement for effective policymaking. At the root of the problem is the question of what expert advisers should be doing. Is it their job to dispassionately report the available evidence? Or to interpret it in a broader societal and political context?

This uncertainty has been, in part, a problem of the Government’s own making. The unwavering fixation on the “following the science” assumes “the science” to be an immutable corpus of knowledge.

This is an untrue and unhelpful representation. The scientific method demands a narrow and well-defined hypothesis, from which it follows that any interpretation should have a narrow and well-defined applicability. To test that hypothesis, metrics will be proposed to observe and quantify the phenomenon under investigation.

These metrics, being a representation, not the phenomenon itself, moves us a degree away from reality (for instance, positive results does not mean number of infections; it is a proxy). Data analysis and statistical methods move us a further degree away, as does one’s ultimate interpretation of what, if anything, that analysis tells us.

The power of the scientific method is therefore also its weakness – that we get results with narrow applicability, have to apply human biases to interpret them and then apply those findings to real world situations, with all their intractable messiness.

Add predictive methods such as modelling, which are extremely sensitive to both initial parameters and the specific model used, and the problems are compounded. To assume that there is a single fountain of scientific knowledge from which the answers to all our policy queries must unambiguously flow is a political fiction. And it is designed, rather cynically, to place those answers beyond reproach from the scientific laity.

We therefore have two issues which combine to limit the effectiveness of expert advice in government: an exclusive inner circle of advisers who hold an effective monopoly on policy proposals (even to the exclusion of parliament itself), relying on research data which inevitably has a narrow scope of applicability and is subject to differing interpretations. Science can tell us much about the world as it is; it is a powerful means of answering “what,” but on questions of “should” it is silent.

Under normal conditions, Parliamentary scrutiny would serve as a means of tempering the most extreme of Government policy suggestions. But under the emergency legislation enacted in March, we no longer enjoy this luxury. This has exposed the fragility of the Government’s market on expert policy suggestions.

Without internally competitive processes to broaden the conversation and provide alternative options, there is a worrisome absence of incentives to encourage policymakers to stray from the consensus. With an effective monopoly on advice, there is little reason for ideas to be good, or even workable, as long as they are presented with an air of agreement.

This is the reason why interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary competition for policy proposals is so vital. Interdisciplinary competition would allow us to balance the public health implications of Covid-19 against broader considerations of, for instance, the economy and mental health. intradisciplinary competition would allow conflicting interpretations of data to be debated in a rigorous manner.

Yet capturing this kind of competition, which comes so naturally to the private sector, is notoriously difficult to embed within the public. There are ways this might be built into the current organisational structure. “Red teams,” groups whose primary purpose is to play devil’s advocate, and thereby exposing weaknesses and unforeseen complications would be a step in the right direction.

Baker and, ironically, Dominic Cummings (who has frequently been a source of frustration amongst those lamenting the Government’s overreliance on a small number of expert voices) are among those who have argued for their implementation.

There are few who would, I suspect, attempt to make the case that the expert advice this Government has so heavily relied upon during the Coronavirus pandemic has been an overwhelming success. But the current parliamentary term is young, and if reforms in the procurement of expert advice were implemented with determination, we should quickly see them paying off.

Shapps has spotted a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give Britain world-class railways

28 Nov

What a wonderful time to be in charge of Britain’s railways. The pandemic both demands and enables a programme of improvements which would otherwise have taken many years to achieve.

Since March, about £10 billion of public money has been spent to keep the trains running. At first sight, that looks like an unmitigated disaster. It is certainly unsustainable.

But it also means the strike weapon has lost its edge. To threaten to bring empty trains to a halt is no threat at all.

Nor can the rail unions divide and rule, as they did when services were divided between different train operating companies, a system which had already collapsed before the pandemic.

This is a moment of central control, when the Government is paying the bills and can insist that the interests of passengers and taxpayers take precedence over the desire of the unions to prevent change.

Ministers recognise this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sweep away the accumulated absurdities, ranging from outdated working practices to the ludicrously convoluted fare structure, which are holding the railways back, and to press ahead with such innovations as the introduction of driverless trains, first seen on the Victoria Line in 1968 and the Docklands Light Railway in 1987.

In March this year, ConHome can reveal, a committee on rail reform was set up within the Department for Transport and began meeting weekly.

It is chaired by Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and attended by the Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, but nobody supposed the DfT could provide the specialised knowledge of how to run a railway.

So the expertise is provided by members of the committee including Sir Peter Hendy, Keith Williams, Andrew Haines and some of the Non-Executive Directors of the DfT, notably Tony Poulter.

Hendy, appointed by Ken Livingstone to run Transport for London, was kept on by the winner of the 2008 mayoral election, Boris Johnson, received a knighthood after the London Olympics of 2012 in recognition of the excellent transport arrangements during the games, and since 2015 has chaired Network Rail.

Williams, a former Chief Executive of British Airways, has since September 2018 chaired the Williams Rail Review, set up to make recommendations for reforming the entire structure of the industry, with the interests of passengers and taxpayers put first. Its work has not been published, but is being drawn on now.

Haines is Chief Executive of Network Rail, a former Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority, and before that was Managing Director of South-West Trains.

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this week that Shapps has asked Haines to produce a 30-year strategy for the railway called the “The Whole Industry Strategic Plan”.

And earlier this month, The Sunday Telegraph revealed that Haines has been asked by Ruth Hannant and Polly Payne, joint DfT directors general for rail, to report on the future of the East Coast Main Line, and to do so “from the perspective of a neutral single guiding mind”, rather than in his capacity as Chief Executive of Network Rail.

Hannant and Payne have for many years operated a job-share, and before arriving at the DfT in December 2017 were joint Directors of Higher Education Reform at the Department for Education.

One does not have to be Dominic Cummings to reckon this is perhaps not the best way to run a railway. Many in the industry think so too.

But the paucity of deep expertise within the DfT, and its propensity to meddle counter-productively with such matters as the timetable, demonstrate the need for another body, or “neutral single guiding mind”, to be in overall charge.

We require what the press likes to call a Fat Controller, though one cannot help reflecting that the original Fat Controller’s safety record was poor.

The safety record of Britain’s railways has in recent years been good. Some of the credit for that belongs to Mark Carne, Chief Executive of Network Rail from 2014-18, whose previous career at Shell was coloured by the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988.

Nothing, evidently, must be done to put safety at risk. But just as it is no longer necessary to check the oil in a car by opening the bonnet and inspecting the dipstick, for there is a light on the dashboard which will tell you if more oil is needed, so it is no longer necessary for each train to be checked every 24 hours by a driver who walks all round it at ground level, on a path wide enough to keep out of the way of other trains, and well lit enough to be used at night.

The unions insist on this ritual, which has become a ridiculous waste of the highly paid driver’s time, and of taxpayers’ money. Like modern cars, modern trains tell you when something goes wrong.

In the era of nationalisation (1948-93) the railways appeared to be in inexorable decline, and the most famous figure associated with them was Dr Beeching, who proposed to close a third of the network, which is pretty much what happened.

Since privatisation, passenger numbers have doubled, the network has undergone many improvements, there is a lot of new rolling stock and some of the lines closed by Beeching are being reopened.

Lord Adonis has argued with his usual brio the case for doing this, while Larry Elliott has pointed out that without Beeching, which left so many towns cut off, Brexit might never have happened.

One of the great attractions of creating improved railway services is that this cause appeals far beyond the ranks of Conservatives.

Good railways, railways of which everyone can feel proud, are a quintessentially One Nation policy, levelling up in action, and the 2019 Conservative manifesto rightly promised that

“we will restore many of the Beeching lines, reconnecting smaller towns such as Fleetwood and Willenhall that have suffered permanent disadvantage since they were removed from the rail network in the 1960s.”

There is now every prospect that passenger services between Ashington and Newcastle, lost in the 1960s, will soon be restored. The line runs through Blyth, long a Labour stronghold but captured by the Conservatives last December.

Ashington itself is in the constituency of Wansbeck, held last December by Ian Lavery for Labour with a majority of 814, compared to a majority of 10,435 in 2017. Perhaps the new line will help tip Lavery into oblivion.

Beeching was a blunder of Harold Macmillan’s later and less happy years as Prime Minister. It ought now to be undone, along with the destruction of the Euston Arch.

This cannot, however, become an excuse for wasting taxpayers’ money on “fantastically overpaid and inefficient” train drivers, as one source close to the reform committee describes them.

Nor does anyone know how quickly or fully the demand for rail travel will revive. The likelihood is that some commuters will decide they would rather work from home.

And there are many demands on the Treasury’s funds. Rishi Sunak will heed the calls of the NHS, social care and other good causes before he listens to the railways, especially if he thinks the latter are squandering taxpayers’ cash.

So a realistic deal has got to be made with the rail unions. The powers that be are disposed to allow existing drivers, who are mostly quite old, to retain their perks, but not to show the same indulgence to new recruits.

Cardwell is loyal to May and Brokenshire, but does not tell us much about Johnson’s people

28 Nov

The Secret Life of Special Advisers by Peter Cardwell

When Peter Cardwell applied to Fiona Hill, Theresa May’s right-hand woman and in the summer of 2016 suddenly one of the most powerful people in Downing Street, to see if he could become a Special Adviser, he claims he possessed “perhaps the most crucial quality – shamelessness”.

He is wrong about that. Hill took him on, and over the next three and a half years he worked as a SpAd for four different Cabinet ministers, before being summoned to Downing Street in February of this year to be “formally sacked” by the Director of Communications, Lee Cain, who told him: “The Prime Minister no long has confidence in your ability to do your job.”

Cardwell reflects that Boris Johnson is probably “only vaguely aware of my existence”. He is amused that Robbie Gibb, Director of Communications during May’s last two years in office, had not many months before denounced a SpAd who had caused grave annoyance in Number Ten:

“Someone who didn’t play the game. Someone who didn’t stick to the grid. Someone who didn’t keep us informed. Someone who will never set foot in this building again: Lee Cain.”

Since this book was written, Cain has once more left the building, and whether he will ever again set foot there cannot be known.

The reason why Cardwell cannot be called shameless is that he remains loyal to the losing side. He is from Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom where loyalty is a highly esteemed virtue.

Only on page 188 does he confirm that he is a Unionist, who has usually supported the Ulster Unionist Party, now eclipsed (though he does not mention this) by the Democratic Unionists.

Here is Cardwell after Theresa May has wished him “Happy birthday” during the 2017 general election campaign:

“It was a fun moment with a lovely woman, a true public servant and someone who I believe was an excellent Prime Minister despite very trying circumstances.”

The sentiment is admirably unfashionable, but the tone is almost that of John Major. Cardwell has a gaucheness which prevents him from being a good writer. He is, however, a good friend, and forms a particular bond with James Brokenshire, the Cabinet minister for whom he works at the Northern Ireland Office and later at Housing.

Before become a SpAd, Cardwell had spent ten years in broadcast journalism, where at one point Hill offered him Brokenshire as a guest on Newsnight:

“I have a terrible, terrible confession to make… I rejected the offer because I had never heard of him.”

There is nothing terrible about this admission. Cardwell was right to reject Brokenshire as a guest, because Brokenshire is an astoundingly dull performer.

But once he is Brokenshire’s media SpAd, Cardwell becomes “very prickly” about attacks on his boss:

“The press can be merciless, with one particularly poisonous description of James when he was Northern Ireland Secretary suggesting he had ‘the personality of a motorway service station car park’. Ouch.

“The Daily Mail’s sketchwriter Quentin Letts was especially horrible about James. I will not repeat some of the nasty things he wrote in the Mail, but he tweeted in early 2017, ‘Secretary of State James Brokenshire in Northern Ireland today: not so much a statesman as an ink monitor’.”

By early 2019, “for Mayites such as James and me it was bleak”. In the summer of that year, Brokenshire arrives at a decision about the way ahead:

“James, after a lot of thinking and having consulted his three SpAds, had backed Boris for Conservative leader early in the campaign and wrote an excellent op-ed for the Mail on Sunday, although they published only extracts of it, which annoyed  me greatly. To me, it needed to feel like a ‘moment’ when such a May loyalist backed Boris Johnson, and James’s drafted words, which he had sent me to review, were characteristically sincere.”

On become Prime Minister, Johnson sacked Brokenshire, but told him people did sometimes come back into government. In the reshuffle of February 2020, Brokenshire duly came back as Security Minister at the Home Office, so outside the Cabinet.

There is a faint echo in all this of Ferdinand Mount’s defence, in Cold Cream, of Selwyn Lloyd:

“He was used to being patronised. He didn’t care. He was proud of the things he was patronised for being.

“His loyalty was what he was most praised for, but this too was a form of condescension from those who found loyalty a quality of limited value in their own lives. He was loyal to Anthony Eden and never expressed any resentment that he had been led into a course of deceit by that vain, hysterical, serious-minded prima donna (can you be a serious-minded prima donna? Yes, I think you can and Eden certainly was). A few months before Eden married his second wife, the cool and witty Clarissa Churchill, Selwyn had been a guest at a house party given by John Wyndham at Petworth, which included Clarissa. He had been horrified by the way everyone present had said how ghastly Eden was, while Selwyn stuck up loyally for his boss. When the engagement was announced, the others desperately tried to cover their tracks, but Selwyn had no malicious words to swallow,”

In the Tory leadership contest of 1963, Lloyd campaigned energetically and effectively for the surprise winner, Alec Douglas-Home, for he felt, in Mount’s words, that “Home was the only one of them whose judgement was not fatally poisoned by ambition”.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that in some future leadership contest, Brokenshire the patronised and disregarded man of government will play a similar role.

If one were contemplating a career as a special adviser, and did not already know what to expect, it would be worth glancing at this book.

There is plenty here about frenetic dealings with the media: nothing much about policy, which at the Northern Ireland Office was in the hands of the vastly more experienced Jonathan Caine.

To say that this account reveals the “secret life” of special advisers is overdoing it. No great secrets are revealed. Most of what happens is trivial, without being particularly amusing.

One gains a sense of the transitoriness of the role of adviser, for as Cardwell says,

“SpAds are political mayflies, lasting on average less than two years in government… Apparently, at the time of my defenestration in February 2020 there were just ten of us, out of some 105 SpAds, who had more than two years’ experience. This was partly due to the fact that in the summer of 2019, when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, so many SpAds had left, taking with them much experience and expertise.”

This is an inexperienced government, which cast aside the knowledge of how Westminster and Whitehall work which had been accumulated by its predecessors.

On arriving in Downing Street, David Cameron was surrounded by a group of professionals who had acquired, like him, a mastery of technique in the Conservative Research Department – a point which escapes Cardwell in his brief and not very illuminating history of SpAds.

Johnson had no such group around him, pursued a daringly unconventional course and in December 2019 won a famous election victory. Cardwell hails Dominic Cummings as “a strategic genius”, but does not have much to say about how all this happened.

For Cardwell belongs to the May interlude, a period about which nothing brilliant has yet been published.

Nick King: Johnson’s Reset. The Government needs business if it’s to build back better.

22 Nov

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies

Much has been written in the last week, on this site and beyond, about what a Government ‘reset’ might look like, following Dom Cummings and Lee Cain’s departure from Number 10. Broadly. those perspectives have focused on what might be termed ‘the three Ps’ of positioning, people and policy.

In terms of positioning it has been argued that Number 10 needs to take a less confrontational approach – whether that is towards the media, public institutions or, indeed, Conservative backbenchers.

On people, the part played by the indomitable Carrie Symonds and the increasing importance of Allegra Stratton has been acknowledged, but the search continues for the right Chief of Staff to promote and protect Boris Johnson’s own interests.

The issue of policy is perhaps the least clear cut, with competing views espoused as to whether or not the Government can be the party of Workington as well as the party of Notting Hill. My own view is it can and it must.

But there is a final P which needs to be thrown into the mix – not as a fourth horseman, but as a corollary of the three Ps – and that is the private sector.

The fact is that British business is at a low ebb right now, in terms of performance, confidence and its relationship with Government. Covid-19 is the most obvious explanatory factor for those first two issues – forcing millions of businesses up and down the country to close will take the wind out of their sails however generous the set of support packages provided. But introducing those measures only serves to make the job of working constructively with British business all the more important for government. On this task, it has been found wanting.

Across industries, sectors and different parts of the country, there has been consternation and confusion as different restrictions have been introduced, without any (published) economic analysis of the potential impacts or of the evidence base upon which these decisions have been made.

As we approach December 3rd, businesses remain in the dark about whether or not they might be able to reopen, despite the long lead times needed for various parts of the hospitality sector in particular (a sector whose import will perhaps never be as keenly felt as it will be in December 2020).

That businesses don’t feel like the Government supports them is hardly new news, however. Successive polls commissioned by my think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, has shown that a clear majority of small businesses don’t think that the Government is on their side. Indeed, the Government’s own survey data shows that only a quarter of businesses think government understands business well enough to regulate it. But in the context of a national economic shutdown, this is simply not good enough.

This is not to say there aren’t people around Government who understand business, or who are keen to support it. Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma, their political teams and Departments are obviously on businesses’ side, as is Ed Lister and Alex Hickman’s business relations team in Number 10. But the disregard of other influential figures towards business has meant that much of the private sector has failed to get a proper hearing throughout 2020.

The anticipated ‘reset’ is an opportunity for the Johnson administration to put that right. Which duly brings us back to our three Ps.

On positioning, the Government needs to be unapologetically pro-business, free enterprise and open markets. The Conservative Party must defend the role of enterprise and the private sector and be resolutely on the side of the millions of small business owners up and down the country. This is important ground both ideologically and politically – and ground which the Conservative Party is in danger of ceding if it isn’t more full-voiced in its support for business.

In terms of people, Andrew Griffith and Neil O’Brien’s recent appointments are welcome, and will help emphasise the role of business, but change is needed in Number 10 itself. A Chief of Staff with extensive private sector experience would be welcome but, failing that, an understanding and sympathetic attitude towards enterprise should be regarded as a sine qua non. Just as important is for Number 10 to have a strong and expert voice for business sitting within its policy unit. That there has not been a business policy function sitting within the policy unit since David Cameron was Prime Minister is extraordinary – the existing business relations team needs to be strengthened and given a proper policy role.

Which brings us onto the final P of policy, which is the most important of ‘the three Ps’. Positioning and people are all well and good, but fine words doth butter no parsnips, as they say – so Johnson needs to ensure his Government is putting business front and centre as he looks to build back better.

Post-pandemic, securing growth is the only game in town. Without that there is no hope of new jobs, greater opportunities or improved living standards – whether in Workington or Notting Hill. And none of this can be achieved without unleashing the awesome and dynamic power of the private sector.

An important starting point would be to curtail the steadily increasing regulatory burden on business. Each measure, taken on its own merits, seems important and its impact trivial to business. But the corrosive, drip-drip effect takes its toll and as growth flatlines and productivity stagnates, politicians stand with their hands on their hips, double teapoting, wondering why.

Take the recent HFSS (foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt) consultation for example – likely to cost British industry hundreds of millions of pounds. No doubt full of noble intent, but hardly what the economic doctor might order as we look to recover post-pandemic.

More worrying still are the suggestions that we will increase both the rates and the scope of business and enterprise taxes in 2022. This is no way to stimulate and incentivise the businesses who are our only way out of the economic morass in which we find ourselves. Rather than clipping its wings, the Government should provide the wind to help business soar.

Speaking of wind power, the vital role of the private sector was clear in the Prime Minister’s 10 point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. But the truth is that few of his priorities can be achieved without the business community. Levelling up? It requires business investment and private sector jobs in the North and the Midlands. Net zero? Industry needs to transition and innovate our way towards it. Protect the Union? Champion our British businesses and demonstrate our reliance on the free flow of goods and access to important markets both north and south of the border. Global Britain? Remain open to inward investors and get more companies exporting.

Pfizer, BioNTech and other companies have all too ably demonstrated just why we need the private sector recently – it’s the key to solving so many of our problems. Which is why Boris Johnson needs to put it front and centre through his reset exercise.

A reformed Number Ten must get on the front foot with business relations and business policy. It needs to articulate a clear vision of our post-Brexit future, rooted in entrepreneurship, investing in success, focused on innovation, with a skilled workforce, trading with the world and built off the back of our brilliant SMEs. That’s a reset worth waiting for.

David Gauke: Next week’s spending review – and why our holiday from spending restraint is coming to an end

21 Nov

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

For reasons that some readers will understand, the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street was not a source of great sorrow for me. It appears that I am not alone. Nonetheless, Cummings’ resignation/dismissal makes the Prime Minister’s job much harder in at least one respect.

We are already pushing the limits on when a free trade agreement with the EU can be agreed in order for it to be in place by the end of the year. Boris Johnson continues to appear to be undecided as to whether he is willing to make the necessary concessions in order to get a deal (thus upsetting hardline Brexiteers) or leave without a deal (wreaking further damage to the economy and the integrity of the United Kingdom).

Both options have been apparent for some time, and they are sub-optimal for the Prime Minister and the country. Now he really has to choose.

If he compromises, some people will say that, without Cummings, the Prime Minister lacks a spine. Cummings may well be one of the people making this point.

If he does not get a deal, the Prime Minister’s strategy must be to convince the Leave half of the country that the ensuing mess is the fault of the European Union (it will be a hopeless task to avoid the blame with the other half of the country). To do that, he will need a communications strategy that is ruthless, aggressive and lacking in self-doubt, entirely untroubled by the overwhelming evidence pointing to a different interpretation of the situation. These are exactly the circumstances in which Cummings has a track record of success.

This is a bad time for the Prime Minister to fall out with his most influential adviser.

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Anyone entering politics will be aware that there may come a moment when there is a conflict between what one perceives as the national interest and the furtherance of one’s career.

We can currently see this playing out in the United States, as Donald Trump continues to refuse to accept the election result. With a few honourable exceptions, most senior Republicans have gone along with this nonsense. Presumably, none of them believe the election was rigged in favour of Joe Biden, but they dare not say so because of the fear of offending the Republic base.

Although not as egregious, there are similarities in the UK. Fear of offending the Conservative grassroots has inhibited too many senior Tories in setting out the realities of our departure from the European Union for far too long.

At this particular time, the talk of Westminster and Whitehall is that the overwhelming majority of the Cabinet favour a compromise with the EU because they are conscious of the consequences of failing to get a deal. But the ambitious amongst them know that to be seen to be associated with compromise on Brexit is a career damaging move.

As a consequence, they keep their heads down, content to let others challenge the prejudices of their party’s more extreme supporters. If things ultimately go as badly as they might, history will not judge kindly.

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The Prime Minister’s announcement of an ambitious green agenda will, we are told, help create thousands of green jobs. The increase in defence spending will, we are told, help create 10,000 new jobs. Such announcements are always treated as being good news – a further justification for a policy.

There are good arguments to be made for reducing carbon emissions and improving our defence capabilities but, while the fact that pursuing these policies requires the employment of more people may be good news for the individuals concerned, for the Government and society as a whole, this is a cost not a benefit. Employing people is expensive. And if they are employed to do one thing, they are no longer available to be employed to do something else which society or the economy might value.

I do not always agree with everything Nigel Lawson says, but he has a point when he states that “a programme to erect statues of Boris in every town and village in the land would also ‘create jobs’ but that doesn’t make it a sensible thing to do”.

To give an equally absurd example, it is not a cause of celebration that, from January, the country is going to require an additional 50,000 customs agents because of increased bureaucracy involved in trading with the EU. I repeat, this is a cost not a benefit.

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Wednesday will see the Spending Review, albeit one that is less comprehensive than first intended. I suspect much of the focus will be on the Office for Budget Responsibility’s assessment of the public finances, which is likely to be ghastly.

Borrowing this year will certainly be a peacetime record and might not be far behind a wartime record, either. To some extent, that does not matter as much as it might do – we can get our debt away easily and cheaply enough in a world where markets are much more forgiving of high levels of Government debt than they were even a few years ago.

But the worry will be that, even a few years down the line when the virus is behind us, we will still be borrowing very large sums of money. Exceptional borrowing in an exceptional year is one thing, but one cannot expect to get away with that forever.

Something will have to be done – but when? One of the many challenges for the Chancellor is that the political and economic cycles are misaligned.

Politically, he would want to get tax rises or spending cuts (and it will be mainly the former) in place early in a Parliament so that the pain is well out the way by the time we get to 2024.

Economically, the consensus view is that early tax increases might choke off a recovery so better wait a while. On that basis, even with the recent good news on vaccines, 2022 would be the earliest point for tax increases (and plenty would argue for later).

The politics of tax increases also appears to be immensely difficult. The Prime Minister seems dug in on the tax lock (preventing increases in the rates of income tax, national insurance contributions and VAT, which between them raise two thirds of Government revenue) whilst the back benchers also appear squeamish about any kind of fiscal consolidation.

As a country, we have given ourselves a bit of a holiday from thinking about the public finances. This coming week might indicate that this holiday will soon be coming to an end.

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Should we relax Covid-19 restrictions to save Christmas? It would be lovely to have a normal Christmas, but I am not sure proponents of seasonal break in restrictions have thought this through.

There is every reason to believe that Christmas would be a super spreader event, resulting in the deaths of thousands just weeks before we will have vaccinated the vulnerable.

For too many families, making the wrong decision about Christmas 2020 could mean that all future Christmases will be tinged with sadness, loss and guilt. Just be patient; we are nearly there.

Mark Lehain: The Government can’t afford to surrender in the war on woke

20 Nov

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

While the media and Westminster insiders have been excited about all the Cummings and goings at Number 10, one has to wonder what the rest of the country makes of it.

My hunch is that people care more about rising unemployment and falling incomes than who is up and down in Downing Street. That said, even if personnel changes had not occurred, we are about to enter a post-Covid and Brexit transition phase, and so it is fair to consider what the Government should do from here.

Among a whole range of other urgent issues, the country will have to confront the decimation of the private economy and public finances wrought by the pandemic and measures taken to combat it. Things will be challenging, to say the least.

So it’s quite understandable that some are arguing that as part of Boris’s Johnson’s Reset, the Government should stop its (so far modest) attempts to address the left-wing political and cultural biases that have spread unchallenged through so much of life.

They argue that it is a distraction from the business of economic recovery and government delivery, and that it is divisive at a time when the Government needs to bring people together. I think they are wrong for two very important reasons.

First of all, as a wise person once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And until recently, Conservative-led governments did little to address the spread of divisive values and ideas from academic faculties and leftist movements into the civil service, executive suites, and elsewhere.

Wary of appearing unkind or stuffy, a blind eye was turned as universities discouraged freedom of thought and imposed niche ideologies on staff and students. Ministers stayed quiet as children were taught by their schools that “white privilege” is a fact, or told by groups such as Mermaids and Stonewall that their sex is whatever they feel it is.  And they did little to challenge the sneering and condescension by the arts, media, and others towards those who didn’t share their outlook on life.

The facts of life are (small-c) conservative but, time and again, opportunities to point this out were avoided. Conservatives didn’t start the fire – that was the radical left – but neither did they try to extinguish the flames as they burned through society and scorched the common ground.

Only recently have ministers started to challenge the metropolitan grip on quangos, pushed back against Critical Race Theory, reminded schools that they should be politically impartial, and told museums they shouldn’t bend to the whims of activists. All this shouldn’t be remotely controversial for anyone in the centre ground of politics. They’re modest moves to allow some diversity of thought in sectors otherwise captured by groupthink – not Tory takeovers.

So this Government can focus solely on economic and environmental policies, and pretend that values and culture don’t matter. But if it does, woke ideas will continue to hollow out institutions, turn people against one another, and ultimately undo any other good work it does.

The other reason as to why I’d encourage Downing Street ‘21 to persevere with challenging the cultural hegemony is that it makes good political sense: it is where the vast majority of the public are.

It’s not that people are opposed to improving the lives of trans people or examining ways to reduce disparities in health or education outcomes by different communities – far from it. They lead rich and diverse lives, have friends from all backgrounds, and families of all shapes and sizes. They care deeply about others, and want to do their best for their community and country.

They just don’t want to be told that they have to do this in a certain way, or hold specific views, or “educate themselves” to see the world as determined by academics who’ve never had to turn a profit or balance a household budget.

Research at the Campaign for Common Sense has found this again and again – on everything from political correctness, to comedy, to protests, historical statues, and the BBC. In contrast to the impressions given by the media, arts and political sectors, across all ages, socio-economic groups, and regions, people hold common sense, down-to-earth views on values and culture.

I saw this as a parliamentary candidate in the north east last winter. I was repeatedly told on the doorstep that politicians patronised voters who didn’t share their views on things. People also said that under Johnson they felt they were finally being listened to. In so many ways, Brexit was a proxy for the desire for their views and communities to be respected, not treated as something to be made better by others.

Whoever has the ear of the Prime Minister when things settle needs to bear this in mind as they plan the next stage of things. Labour and the Lib Dems are still obsessed with niche causes, and Nigel Farage and Laurence Fox are waiting in the wings to peel away voters if the government drifts that way again too.

Come the next election, Brexit will have been long done. However, the voters who delivered such a stonking majority in 2019 can be held together, but only if Johnson and his team show respect for them and their values.

So the war on woke must continue – both to bring people together as a country and an electoral coalition. It might mean a few awkward conversations for people at posh dinner parties, but it’s the right thing to do. The next few years are certainly going to be interesting times.

Profile: Carrie Symonds, experienced Tory adviser turned Prime Ministerial consort – loyal to her friends, detested by her enemies

17 Nov

Mary Wilson, Audrey Callaghan, Denis Thatcher, Norma Major, Cherie Blair, Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron, Philip May and Carrie Symonds are the nine people who over the last half century have borne the often heavy burden of being the Prime Minister’s consort.

The world does not yet know what to make of Symonds: which of two competing narratives, one highly favourable, the other almost unbelievably dismissive, to accept.

A minister for whom she worked as a special adviser told ConHome: “She was fantastic – utterly loyal, very sound and great fun.”

He pointed out that long before she met Johnson, she was a dedicated Conservative activist: “Carrie is a Tory through and through – not some arriviste.”

Many Conservatives, including many Conservative MPs, believe Symonds showed excellent political judgment by urging Johnson to sack two of the most senior members of his Downing Street staff, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, at the end of last week.

For although Cummings had masterminded the Vote Leave campaign, and Cain had worked for it, neither of them had any respect for Conservative MPs, and both of them tended to erupt in fury when their orders were questioned.

Last Friday, out the turbulent advisers went, but not quietly. They and their friends briefed most bitterly not against Johnson, or against the many others who wanted them gone, but against Symonds, who in many ways presented a softer target, for she could be accused of getting ideas above her station, harassing the Prime Minister and impeding the proper running of the Government.

“Close pals” of Cummings and Cain told David Wooding of The Sun on Sunday:

“Carrie wants to be a new Princess Di character. She’s already got her own spin doctor and own team of people and seems to think she is the most important person in No 10.

“It’s all about the court of Carrie. She’s not helping Boris at all. Everything she does is about her and not him.”

According to Simon Walters, writing in yesterday’s Daily Mail:

“Insiders said the acrimony between Miss Symonds and Mr Cummings and Mr Cain was obvious as far back as March.

“It was then that she allegedly tried to stop the Prime Minister hosting a Covid crisis meeting to deal instead with a newspaper report claiming she wanted to get rid of their beloved Jack Russell cross Dilyn.

“Mr Cummings ‘forced’ Mr Johnson to overrule his fiancée, it was claimed. He told No 10 officials to block any phone calls from Miss Symonds to the Prime Minister about the dog…

“Miss Symonds was said to be livid at a report in The Times which claimed that she no longer liked the animal.

“She went on Twitter to denounce it, saying: ‘Total load of c***. There has never been a happier, healthier and more loved dog than Dilyn.'”

A second source yesterday told ConHome that Symonds would ring Johnson over and over again until he did what she wanted, and insisted that Cummings and Cain had defended the Prime Minister against an unreasonable demand: “It’s pretty bad to be calling the editor of The Times on behalf of your girlfriend’s dog.”

Millions of dog lovers will understand why Symonds was so distressed, and if Auberon Waugh, founder of The Dog Lovers’ Party, were still with us, he would surely contend there could be no better reason to ring the editor of The Times.

H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908-16, remarked in his memoirs:

“The office of the Prime Minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it.”

The same could be said of the role of Prime Minister’s consort. Symonds can make it up as she goes along, is indeed obliged to do so.

She is 24 years younger than Johnson, and the first person to live openly at Downing Street with the Prime Minister without being married, though they are engaged.

In early April, when he went into intensive care, Symonds was terrified he was going to die. At the end of that month, she gave birth to their first child, Wilfred. She hopes to have more children.

Her own parents, Josephine Mcaffee (née Lawrence), a lawyer who did some work for The Independent, and Matthew Symonds, a founder of that paper, were not married to each other.

Anne Symonds, mother of Matthew, and his father John Beavan, later Lord Ardwick, were likewise political journalists of note, and unmarried to each other.

So for Carrie Symonds to feel an affinity with a political journalist of bohemian habits is not entirely surprising.

She was born in London in 1988, and educated at Godolphin and Latymer School and at Warwick University, where she took a First in Art History and Theatre Studies.

Symonds has referred in a tweet to one of her formative early experiences, at the International Fund for Animal Welfare: “It was my internship at IFAW, many moons ago, that first got me hooked on all things animal welfare and wanting to do my bit.”

She is a passionate environmentalist and defender of animal rights. In her first speech after moving into Number Ten, delivered at Birdfair 19, she said:

“Trophy hunting is meant to be a prize… Trophy hunting is the opposite of that… It is cruel, it is sick, is is cowardly, and I will never ever understand the motives behind it.”

That is pretty much her only recorded speech. Last Saturday afternoon, when the PM programme on Radio 4 did a profile of her, it found there are “relatively few recordings” of her.

In another tweet, posted on 2nd December 2016, the day after Zac Goldsmith lost the by-election in Richmond Park where he stood as an Independent, having resigned his seat as a Conservative in protest at the go-ahead being given for the third runway at Heathrow, Symonds declared:

“My first job in politics was working for @ZacGoldsmith & not sure I’d have worked for the Tories if it hadn’t been for him. Owe him a lot”

She worked in 2010-11 as Campaign and Marketing Director for Goldsmith, followed by a series of increasingly senior press jobs at CCHQ, and spells as a special adviser to John Whittingdale and Sajid Javid.

One observer recalled that during the general election of 2015, when she was Head of Broadcasting at CCHQ, Lynton Crosby regarded her as “the best thing since sliced bread”.

In 2016 Symonds demonstrated her independence of mind by becoming one of the handful of SpAds to back Vote Leave, at whose headquarters she appears first to have met Johnson.

During the general election of 2017 she ran Goldsmith’s campaign to regain Richmond Park.

CCHQ believed Goldsmith was going to win easily, so turned off VoteSource in Richmond Park and commanded that resources be redeployed in order to hold off the Lib Dem challenge in Kingston & Surbiton.

Symonds, who worked extremely hard and knew Richmond Park was on a knife-edge, had the wit to defy CCHQ, and had copied VoteSource – a precaution which as Mark Wallace reported for ConHome, other associations were to take before the local elections of 2018, in order to guard against another withdrawal of this essential record of canvass returns.

Goldsmith scraped home in Richmond Park by 45 votes, while Ed Davie recaptured Kingston & Surbiton for the Lib Dems by 4,124 votes. Symonds had made the right call, and was made Director of Communications at CCHQ.

Here she soon fell out with one of Crosby’s protégés, Iain Carter, who was at this time Political Director, and is now Director of Research.

“They both wanted to run the show,” one observer said. “Carrie had very strong views about people. She was unspeakably bad news.”

Symonds resigned in August 2018, after being reprimanded for poor performance. She was also accused of briefing against the Government of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and questions had earlier been raised about her expenses claims.

In January 2018, she had learned that John Worboys, the taxi cab rapist, was due for early release. She had herself been drugged by Worboys in 2007, when she was only 19 years old.

The Ministry of Justice said nothing could be done to challenge the Parole Board’s verdict. Symonds was one of the women who had the courage to launch a crowd-funded bid to overturn the decision, which they succeeded in doing.

Soon after she left CCHQ she joined Oceana, a global marine protection charity funded by Bloomberg.

In September 2018 Johnson and Marina Wheeler, to whom he had been married for 25 years and with whom he has four children, announced that they were to divorce, and Johnson’s new relationship with Symonds became known.

Her entry into Downing Street, and exceptional access to the Prime Minister, will have disconcerted those at CCHQ who had formed a low opinion of her.

A Government source yesterday ridiculed Symonds’ critics for moving from describing her as “a bimbo” to calling her “Lady Macbeth”, and added that both of these descriptions are “absurd”.

The source added that she does not see official papers, cannot block appointments, “is not in the slightest bit regal”, but is instead witty, charming and self-effacing, and has good judgement: “The PM has said the reason he’s PM is that she’s there.”

A former colleague at CCHQ is less impressed: “She’s well versed in making people feel good about themselves, but she’s more obsessed with status than with achieving anything.

“When she was having a very torrid time at CCHQ, she talked round lots of Cabinet ministers to support her.”

The media finds it impossible to reach a just assessment of Johnson’s strengths and weaknesses, because it order to appreciate his virtues, it is necessary to approach him in a spirit of sympathy, whereupon one is immediately open to the charge of sycophancy, and of overlooking his faults.

But if, in order to guard against sycophancy, one begins by enumerating his faults, one is liable never to get round to admitting that he has any virtues.

A version of this problem may apply to Symonds. If you are her friend, and she can trust you, she will be all sweetness and light.

If she sees you as an enemy, or suspects you are going to come between her and the Prime Minister, she will brief against you with a ferocity which may seem unhinged, but which is born, perhaps, from an acute awareness of her vulnerability.