Our survey. A majority believes that Cummings was an asset to the Party – but doesn’t regret his departure

4 May

Let’s get one point out of the way at once: we didn’t seek to discover how many panel members believe Dominic Cummings wasn’t an asset to the Government…but nonetheless regret that he’s no longer in place. That didn’t seem to be a worthwhile exercise.

So now to the responses we have – which are very interesting indeed, at least to us.

Add together the totals of those who thought that Dominic Cummings was an asset to the Government, and you have 73 per cent of the total – seven in ten Party members.

Boris Johnson won 66 per cent of the Party membership vote in the 2019 leadership contest, so this high score for Cummings represents an endorsement of what he brought to the table – including, in all likelihood, from some activists who voted for Jeremy Hunt.

Barnard Castle notwithstanding, activists clearly respect not only what he brought to the 2016 EU referendum, the first Johnson Government, the 2019 general election strategy, and his contribution to the second Johnson administration.

Over a quarter of that whole, 28 per cent, may be fully signed-up members of the Cummings fan club – believing not only that he was an asset to the Government but that it’s regrettable that he’s no longer in place.

(If they’re not such members, they presumably believe that it would have been better to have him inside the tent than out – given his post-departure campaign against Johnson.)

Though if just over a quarter of respondents could be fully signed-up members of the Cummings fan club, another quarter clearly can’t stand the mention of him – believing that he wasn’t an asset and that his departure, consequently, isn’t regrettable.

Overall, roughly seven in ten of the panel (72 per cent) think Cummings was an asset, and seven in ten (70 per cent) of the panel don’t regret his departure.

How can those two views be reconciled?

As ever, your guess is as good as ours, but our take is that the majority believe that the leader must, in the last resort, be supported – and that if Johnson thought the town wasn’t big enough for both him and Cummings, then he must be backed.

Stratton’s departure as Press Secretary. Vote Leave is blamed – and hits back.

21 Apr

When the Prime Minister last appointed a Press Secretary, ConservativeHome was told that Lee Cain’s candidate, Ellie Price, performed better in trial live media conference tests; but that Carrie Symonds’ candidate, Allegra Stratton, got on better during pre-post Boris Johnson interviews.

At any rate, Stratton will not now be exposed to those American-style press conferences as Press Secretary – a very high wire to walk given the unprecedented nature of the events.  Instead, the deal is that she will still speak live for the Government…but only on COP26: with more restriction on the scope of questions, there will be less chance of her being ambushed.

When a plan goes awry in Downing Street, the response now tends to be: blame Vote Leave.  And both Cain, the former Director of Communications, and Dominic Cummings were duly shouldering responsibility this morning for dreaming up an arrangement that would have exposed Stratton to cruelly probing, sadistically-crafted questions.

The one put to Boris Johnson during yesterday’s press conference about his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri was being cited this morning as an example.

Characteristic, narcissistic, media-obssessed, self-regarding Westminster Village trivia, reply friends of Vote Leave.  “It was not about the lobby,” one of them told this site.  “It was about getting a message out to voters beyond the M25, and Johnson knows that he made the wrong appointment.”

At any rate, we are now back to the structure that was in place before Stratton’s appointment.  Jack Doyle steps up to become Director of Communications, replacing James Slack, who has taken on a senior role at the Sun.  Max Blain becomes the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman, and Rosie Bate-Williams is the new Press Secretary.

Much will be made of the £2.6 million spent on a new media suite for those U.S-type briefings.  But this White House theme is a bit of red herring.  Number Ten has grasped from the Coronavirus pandemic that press conferences offer them that direct access to voter’s living rooms – Vote Leave-style, without journalistic filter.

All that will now change is that Downing Street will use the suite for special events of its own timing and choosing – rather than expose itself regularly to sarky questions from the lobby.

Mind you, that wouldn’t have worried Vote Leave at all: Trump-style verbal punch-ups with self-regarding liberal broadcasters would have been grist to their mill.  Stratton wouldn’t have been up for that, and neither now is Johnson himself, if he ever was.

Finally: don’t read too much into this change. There will be speculation about moves to the left and moves to the right and all that.  Forget about all that.  Even the point that Stratton was Symonds’ preferred candidate is a snap summary of a more complex position.

All that’s happened is that Johnson appointed a softer-edged spokesperson to help deliver a Vote Leave idea, which was never going to work.  So under the cover of the distintegration of the Football Superleague, the idea’s own collapse has been quietly slipped out.

Iain Dale: The Government’s race review had some positive findings. So why are ministers avoiding the media rounds?

2 Apr

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

The report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has certainly caused a lot of comment over the last 48 hours. Much of it has been ill-informed twaddle.

The number of people who castigated and slammed it within minutes of its release can’t possibly have read all of its 258 pages. They just jerked their knees in the time-honoured fashion.

Basically, the criticism was based on the fact that Boris Johnson had commissioned it, ergo it must be biased, useless or bad, or all three.

What its critics couldn’t stand is that it actually had some positive things to say about race relations in this country. And you know what? Those positive conclusions were based on fact.

Take educational achievement, for example. The report compared GCSE achievement for the different ethnic groups and found that all of them surpassed the achievements of white kids, with the one exception of children of black Caribbean backgrounds. Black Africans achieved higher exam grades, as did kids from Indian or Bangladeshi heritage.

The pay gap between white and ethnic minority employees has shrunk to just 2.3 per cent, and for the under 30s there is no gap at all. Now can someone please tell me why these two facts shouldn’t have been pointed out?

Race relations have come along way in the last twenty years in Britain. Can other countries say the same? America? France? I don’t think so. But it doesn’t suit the victim mentality of the Left to admit this. It suits their agenda to portray a Britain at war with itself over race.

The Left tried to keep the working classes in their place, almost as a client state of the Left. Margaret Thatcher exposed that and we’re now at a point where 47 per cent of working-class Brits vote Tory, and only 35 per cent vote Labour. The challenge for the Right is to break through among British Asians and in the Black vote. The opportunity is there, but the Left will fight it tooth and nail.

On the other side of the coin – you know I liked to be balanced – there is still a long way to go before many black or brown Britons feel they will get a fair crack of the whip, and the report rightly makes this clear. Equality in educational achievement may be a positive sign, but it’s still the case that black Caribbean kids are much more likely to be excluded from the classroom.

And in the workplace there is still a long way to go. Too many people feel they have to anglicise their names to get a fair crack of the whip.

You can’t ignore the evidence that you’re more likely to get a job interview if you’re called Michael Bookham, than if your name is Ndaboningi Nwoykoye or Mohammed Abdullah. All the surveys into this phenomenon show us that there is a conscious or subconscious bias present in many of our recruitment practices.

Look at the way we are policed. The same phenomenon is there in the policing and justice systems. Just examine the statistics and it becomes self-evident. To deny it is to deny that racism exists, whether it is institutional or not.

Britain as a country is not institutionally racist. Like in every other country, we have racists among us, and no doubt always will have. But the report was right to say that the UK is not institutionally rigged against ethnic minorities.

Indeed, the Commission members – all 12 of whom are from ethnic minorities, and people of stature in their own fields – were courageous to point that out, given they must have known that the Left would come for them.

I was disappointed that Lord Simon Woolley, the long-time campaigner for more black participation in the democratic system, called the report, or the authors of the report, “disingenuous”. Disagree with a report’s conclusions all you like, but it’s almost tantamount to accusing the commission’s members of being dishonest or having been bought off.

Over the last few years there have been no fewer than nine commissions or reports into different aspects of racial equality in this country. Most of them have sat on shelves gathering dust.

David Lammy complains that the 35 recommendations contained in his report into the criminal justice system have not been implemented. The Government say most of them have or are in the process of being implemented. And never the twain shall meet.

There are 24 conclusions and recommendations contained in this latest report. Admittedly most of them are fairly innocuous and minor, and to that extent I think it hasn’t been particularly brave.

But then again, Downing Street hasn’t been very brave either. It should have had ministers out on the airwaves on Wednesday, most especially Kemi Badenoch, the Equalities Minister.

If they think they’ve got a good story to tell, for God’s sake tell it. We put in a bid for her for my evening show on Wednesday. We got a straight “no” from Number 10 (as usual) on the basis that no one was doing media on it. Why the hell not?

If you commission a report you surely ought to be able to put up a minister to comment on its conclusions, especially as they were so benign. I say again, if the Government won’t talk about or explain its position, who the hell do they is going to do it for them?

The comms approach at Number 10 could be dubbed an Ostrich strategy. Stick your head in the sand and just make it all go away.

I had thought that when Dominic Cummings departed the stage, things would change. But they haven’t. Hey ho. Not my problem.

Profile: Danny Kruger, defender of Christian conservatism and traditional ideas of virtue

31 Mar

Who now dares to talk about the virtues? Danny Kruger, MP since December 2019 for Devizes, is one of the few parliamentarians who ventures to do so.

In his latest declaration, jointly launched with Miriam Cates, who in 2019 took Penistone and Stocksbridge from Labour, Kruger begins by denouncing the facile assumption that we are all born good:

“What is the job of society? There is a modern delusion that we are born pure, and then corrupted by an unfair world. But surely the plain truth is that we are born greedy, narcissistic and violent. That’s why laissez-faire doesn’t work any more than big government. Left entirely to ourselves, individuals will exploit, slack off, rent-seek, and cheat.”

So we need to be educated:

“The job of society is to teach us to temper these impulses and to train us in a different set of habits. What habits are these? The old times called them the virtues: the practices that human beings are uniquely good at, like courage, temperance, fortitude, creativity, compassion and shrewdness. The virtues make us happy and great, and make life better for everyone else.”

Kruger calls for “a New Social Covenant”, under which “the family, the community and the nation” become our “schools of virtue”, and goes on to enunciate 12 propositions, including:

“The state should safeguard the customs of the country.”

“We need a new ‘economics of place’ instead of the failed doctrine of economic mobility.”

“Marriage is a public institution and essential to society.”

He proceeds to defend these propositions in a reasonable and erudite tone, for he has been working on this for a long time. Kruger was the author of David Cameron’s “Hug a Hoodie” speech, delivered in July 2006 to the Centre for Social Justice.

Cameron had become Leader of the Opposition in December 2005, and needed to show that after three general election defeats, the Conservatives were at last undertaking the fundamental changes that were required.

In April 2006 Cameron signalled the modernisation of environment policy by going to Norway to hug a husky, and three months later he proclaimed, at the Centre for Social Justice, founded by Iain Duncan Smith, his commitment to understanding rather than condemning young people who wore hoodies, an item of clothing which had recently been banned, with Tony Blair’s approval, by the Bluewater Shopping Centre.

Not everyone was impressed by this exercise in compassionate conservatism. According to Kruger, reminiscing in The Spectator in June 2008:

“The day of Boris’s election [as Mayor of London on 1st May 2008] was also the day I stopped work as David Cameron’s speechwriter to go full-time at the charity my wife and I founded two years ago to work with prisoners and ex-offenders. My main claim to distinction in my old job was drafting the speech in which David said something capable of the construction (though not the words, not the words themselves) that the public should all get out there and hug hoodies.

“This speech has gone down in Tory lore as a terrible blunder, but I am still rather proud of it. The nub of it was, that while we should certainly punish people who cross the line into criminality, on this side of the line we need ‘to show a lot more love’.

“Love is a neglected crime-fighting device. But the need for it is powerfully proved in Felicity de Zulueta’s important book From Pain to Violence: The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness. She argues that violence and hatred are not motive forces of their own: they are the terrible expression of wrecked relationships, of thwarted love.

“Men and women seem to have a yearning for agency, for the ability to affect things. As de Zulueta puts it, the sense of helplessness is ‘a state tantamount to annihilation’; we will do anything to avoid it. Hence self-harm, and what youth workers call ‘self-sabotage’ — the apparently wilful screwing-up of opportunities, the no-show, the walking-away at the moment before achievement. People who feel incapable, feel the need to prove it: failure, at least, is something they can author.”

One sees that for Kruger, all this really matters. Cameron spoke about it as if he too cared deeply about it. But somehow the Big Society, as this strand in his programme became known (Steve Hilton is credited with inventing the name), never quite achieved lift-off.

There are, after all, serious difficulties in proclaiming a manifesto derived from Christian teaching. Fewer and fewer voters regard themselves as Christians.

Nor does any politician with half an ear for public sensitivities wish to adopt a holier-than-thou tone of voice. Piety would be insufferable. The present Prime Minister makes every effort, in his daily proclamations about the pandemic, to avoid sounding preachy.

And the Big Society, with its support for voluntary work in support of civil society, seemed to lack ideological content. Surely a socialist could believe as devoutly in it as a Conservative? Kruger himself suggested as much in an essay which appeared on ConservativeHome in October 2014, lamenting the dropping by Cameron of the idea:

“The Big Society elevated the national conversation to something approaching a moral discourse: what sort of society do we want? What are our own responsibilities, what are others’? What is the condition of my community, and what can we do about it?

“If these weren’t two ridiculous words for a Conservative leader to adopt I would have advised David Cameron to call himself a ‘new socialist’. Old socialism was about using the power of the state to advance the interests and wellbeing of the working class. New socialism is about using the power of society to protect minorities, defend and promote local communities, and create opportunities.”

Essay question for aspiring Conservative candidates: “Is Boris Johnson a new socialist? Discuss.”

Kruger is not a socialist. He is a politician with the moral courage to think for himself.

This he inherits from his father, Rayne Kruger, who rather than do the conventional thing, liked to back his own judgment, as the admirable and admiring obituary of him in The Times made clear.

The elder Kruger, who was born in South Africa and moved while still a young man to London, married first an actress 16 years older than himself – in Pygmalion she had played Eliza to his Professor Higgins – and secondly a young South African woman who had arrived in London intending to make her way as a Cordon Bleu cook.

She was called Prue Leith, and their son, Danny, was born in October 1975, three days after they married. She has since achieved fame and fortune as a restaurateur, with her husband running the business side of things; and is now yet better known as a presenter of The Great British Bake Off.

A friend says of Danny:

“He’s more like his mother than he thinks he is. She just gets stuff done by energy and determination. He’s turning out like that.”

He was educated at Eton, read history at Edinburgh, at Oxford wrote a doctorate about Edmund Burke, and was more inclined to lie in the bath thinking great thoughts than to do the washing up.

He was liberated from this perhaps rather stuffy, old-fashioned mode of life by falling in love with his future wife, Emma, a teacher. She was an evangelical Christian and prayed that he would be converted, which he was. For a time they lived on a council estate. They have three children.

Kruger became the guy who would do the washing up, and in 2005 (after early stints as director of studies at the Centre for Policy Studies, Conservative policy adviser, and chief leader writer on The Daily Telegraph) he and Emma set up Only Connect, a prison charity which they ran for ten years, and which concentrates on helping offenders not to reoffend.

Also in 2005, Kruger was obliged to stand down as the Conservative candidate in Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat) after The Guardian reported that he had declared: “We plan to introduce a period of creative destruction in the public services.”

He is a good friend of Dominic Cummings, and backed Vote Leave.

In the summer of 2019, Cummings brought Kruger to Downing Street as Johnson’s Political Secretary, charged with maintaining relations with Tory backbenchers during the exceptionally turbulent months when the new Prime Minister was striving to get Brexit through.

When I met Kruger in the Palace of Westminster on one night of high drama, he seemed in his imperturbable way to be enjoying himself.

In November 2019, Kruger won selection for the safe Conservative seat of Devizes, after CCHQ had intervened to cut the short list from six to only three candidates.

At the end of his maiden speech, delivered on 29 January 2020, he returned to the Christian roots of our politics:

“I finish on a more abstract issue, but it is one that we will find ourselves debating in many different forms in this Parliament. It is the issue of identity, of who we are both as individuals and in relation to each other. We traditionally had a sense of this: we are children of God, fallen but redeemed. Capable of great wrong but capable of great virtue. Even for those who did not believe in God, there was a sense that our country is rooted in Christianity and that our liberties derive from the Christian idea of absolute human dignity.

“Today those ideas are losing their purchase, so we are trying to find a new set of values to guide us, a new language of rights and wrongs, and a new idea of identity based not on our universal inner value or on our membership of a common culture but on our particular differences.

“I state this as neutrally as I can, because I know that good people are trying hard to make a better world and that Christianity and the western past are badly stained by violence and injustice, but I am not sure that we should so casually throw away the inheritance of our culture.”

On the morning of Saturday 23rd May, just after the story had broken of the visit during the first lockdown to County Durham by Cummings and his wife Mary Wakefield, Kruger leapt to their defence on Twitter:

“Dom and Mary’s journey was necessary and therefore within rules. What’s also necessary is not attacking a man and his family for decisions taken at a time of great stress and worry, the fear of death and concern for a child. This isn’t a story for the normal political shitkickery.”

In the days that followed, Kruger stuck to his guns, telling other newly elected MPs:

“No 10 won’t budge, so calling for DC to go is basically declaring no confidence in PM.”

To make this stand amid such a storm of protest showed fortitude. One of the advantages of believing in a moral tradition is that it may render one less liable to be swept hither and thither by one moral panic after another. Here is Kruger speaking a few days ago in a debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill:

“Our culture historically taught men that they had a duty to honour and protect women. It is a difficult thing to say, because it may appear that I want to turn back the clock to a time when men chivalrously protected the weaker sex, but of course, as I have said, that is not how it always was in the old days, and even if it had been, we do not accept the idea that women need protection by men; they just need men to behave themselves. So let me say emphatically that I do not want to turn back the clock; however, we do need to face the fact that our modern culture has not delivered all the progress it was supposed to. I wonder whether that is because our modern culture has a problem with telling people how to behave—it has a problem with society having a moral framework at all.”

Many voters, not all of them Conservative, will agree with that. Kruger’s arguments are sometimes described as communitarian, but that pallid label does not convey the force of the challenge he poses to an intellectual establishment which supposes it can dispense with traditional ideas of virtue.

Interview with Douglas Ross: Sturgeon is not in the clear, and is part of a “conspiracy against getting out the truth”

24 Mar

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin.” So says Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, at the start of this interview.

He goes on to condemn “the conspiracy against getting out the truth” which runs through the Sturgeon-Salmond feud, with the SNP Government promoting “a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability”.

Ross discusses how the Scottish Nationalists can be beaten in the forthcoming Holyrood elections, the need for the Union to be defended “as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border”, and the case for devolution from Holyrood to local councils.

He says he is looking forward to campaigning with Boris Johnson in the Holyrood elections, but points out that contrary to the Nationalists’ propaganda, he, not Johnson, is the Conservative leader in Scotland.

ConHome: “James Hamilton has cleared the First Minister of breaking the ministerial code, but the Salmond Inquiry Committee says its work was severely hindered by the Scottish Government’s reluctance to produce key documents. What’s your reaction to these verdicts?”

Ross: “James Hamilton has expressed frustration that redacted information risked an ‘incomplete and at times misleading version of what happened’.

“And the Salmond Inquiry Committee confirms that Nicola Sturgeon’s government hindered their work by withholding key documents and only willingly giving documents ‘that would advance a particular position’.

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin. The findings of this parliamentary committee are damning of her and her government and expose a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability.  And at the heart of this, women who came forward with serious allegations have been completely let down by the whole process.

“The thought that no one should take any responsibility for the many failings in this process is unbelievable.”

ConHome: “The Salmond-Sturgeon quarrel is surely unintelligible to many people who don’t follow politics. Their sense will be of a row about the former’s private life and who knew what when. Why is it important?”

Ross: “Well first of all it is really difficult for people to follow. It’s been ongoing now for several years, since the allegations first arose.

“Then there was the launch of the Scottish Government’s harassment procedure, and then the response from Alex Salmond, who challenged that.

“And since then we’ve had accusation and counter-accusation from Team Salmond and Team Sturgeon.

“And I’m not supporting one over the other. I’m just trying to get to the truth in all this.

“And it’s very difficult to get through to the truth when an inquiry that Nicola Sturgeon agreed would be set up, a cross-party inquiry, chaired by an SNP MSP, where the Scottish Government agreed the remit, the membership, and all aspects of how the committee could go about their business.

“It has been baulked on I think now more than 50 occasions by the Scottish Government, in terms of getting crucial information out there.

“And I think where we’ve got to now is a committee report that’s published, that believes Nicola Sturgeon did mislead Parliament. I believe on numerous occasions she’s misled the Scottish Parliament and Scottish people.

“At the heart of this, two women have been let down by a procedure that did not allow their complaints to be fully investigated and heard.

“The people of Scotland have been let down by a First Minister who’s not been truthful.

“And the people of Scotland have also been let down by a First Minister who has continued with action against the advice of her own lawyers that has cost in excess of half a million pounds.

“So these are all reasons why Scottish Conservatives believe Nicola Sturgeon’s position is untenable.”

ConHome: “Just leaving aside the money, the denial of information to MSPs, the Scottish Government going after publications like The Spectator that put up the reports, do you believe Salmond’s claim that there’s a conspiracy against him in which Sturgeon is implicated?”

Ross: “No I don’t. I believe there’s a conspiracy against getting out the truth. Everything seems to revolve around secrecy. The Scottish Government have been forced, after votes in Parliament which they ignored, with other measures we forced them to release some of the legal advice they’d received, but my conspiracy is more focussed on why can’t we just get the truth, rather than Salmond saying he was stitched up, or Sturgeon saying don’t believe him.”

ConHome: “Like many others, we’re concerned that the SNP may win a majority in this year’s Holyrood elections. How likely do you think this is to happen?”

Ross: “Well I’ve said since August, since I became Scottish Conservative leader, I didn’t think an SNP majority was inevitable, and I didn’t think another independence referendum was inevitable.

“I don’t underestimate the challenge we face in Scotland. The SNP have significant support among those who will vote for the party they think has the best chance to deliver them independence.

“We know back in 2014 45 per cent of Scotland wanted to separate from the rest of the UK. Therefore they see the SNP, for all their other failures, as being the party that could best deliver that.

“So it’s always going to be a challenge against them. But we have seen in recent weeks a shift away from the SNP.

“This image of them being no better than any other political party, having been in government for too long, and being shrouded in secrecy and sleaze, is having an impact.

“And I think at a time, particularly during a global pandemic, when we still need the trust of the public to follow the advice the Government are issuing, it not only is so damaging for Scottish politics as a whole, it could have an impact on our recovery out of this pandemic, if people don’t feel they can trust the First Minister.”

ConHome: “We’re not only worried the SNP may win a majority. We’re also worried about what will happen if they don’t. Down here in London, in Westminster, the UK Government will go ‘Phew, that’s all right then! They haven’t won a majority – we can stop worrying about the Union and think about something else.’

“Are we right to be worried?”

Ross: “I think it’s a genuine concern. I think there’s been a real shift in the emphasis from the UK Government. We’ve seen it in recent weeks and months – more focus on the Union, and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.

“I again have been beating this drum since I became leader. I gave the controversial speech at my first Scottish fringe event at the party conference, saying you know, we really had to wake up to the challenges.

“And when I say we, I mean the Conservative MPs, supporters and people across the rest of the United Kingdom who in some form or other didn’t think that Scotland leaving the UK would have a big impact on them.

“Of course it would. It would affect the whole of the United Kingdom. That fabric of our Union weaves through us all whether we’re Scots, English, Welsh or Northern Irish.

“But I do think the case for remaining a strong part of the United Kingdom has to be made as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border, and I’m seeing promising signs with that, in terms of the Government wanting to invest directly into Scotland through local councils.

“The SNP throw up their arms and say this is disrespecting devolution. But devolution is having two Parliaments, and both Parliaments and both Governments should work together to improve the lives of people in Scotland.

“It’s typical of the SNP, who claim to speak for the whole of Scotland, which they absolutely don’t, to decry any attempt of the UK Government to show where they invest in Scotland, and I just want to see more of that, and certainly from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and everyone in the Cabinet I get the reassurance that they’re up for this fight.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that the Conservatives, the Conservative and Unionist Party, can’t save the Union on its own. It’s going to have to work with other Unionist parties, in particular with Labour.

“Is that right, and how easy is it to work with Labour given their difference on what the political solution should be?”

Ross: “Well I think it’s absolutely right. We saw in the 2014 referendum that the parties put down their political differences and worked together to achieve success, with 55 per cent of the population voting to remain in the United Kingdom.

“However, since then we’ve seen a Labour Party in Scotland that’s been decimated, that’s a shadow of its former self. And sadly I think their response has been to out-Nat the Scottish Nationalists.

“And that is never going to win them back the support they need. So I’ve made the offer and I made the offer to Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader at the time, that I would work with him if we could kick the SNP out of power.

“And he turned that offer down. When his replacements were standing as the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party I said to Monica Lennon and Anas Sarwar, would they work with me to get rid of this tired and failing SNP Government, and they both turned that down within 30 seconds.

“So I’ll continue to hold out that olive branch. I think it is a way forward, I think it is what people want in Scottish politics, for the parties to work together, get away from this division of the past and focus on our recovery in Scotland.

“I’ll continue to make that offer and I hope at some point the Labour Party wake up to their responsibilities and accept it.”

ConHome: “In your speech on 3rd October to the virtual Conservative Party conference you said that

“far too many members in England…do not value the importance of the Union to their own British identity… They too often see Britishness and Englishness as one and the same. These attitudes extend to how we govern our country.”

“Are those attitudes improved now that Dominic Cummings has left Downing Street?”

Ross: “Well I always said those comments were not directed at any one individual. And indeed they weren’t just directed at the Conservative Party.

“I think we saw from the Labour Party, who oversaw devolution with the referendum in Scotland in 1997, that obviously led to the first Scottish Parliament in 1999, from Whitehall almost a view of ‘devolve and forget’.

“As if we could just provide funding to Scotland and not worry about how that was spent.

“And what we’ve seen over the last few years of SNP control in Holyrood is significant financial support going to the Scottish Government, the latest budget this year is the highest budget ever delivered to the devolved Scottish Parliament.

“But we’re seeing our standards in education falling. We’re seeing hospitals being built that can’t take any patients. We’re seeing our economy, pre-Covid, more sluggish than other parts of the United Kingdom.

“So it was a wake-up call to those within Government and outwith that we have to get rid of this devolve and forget attitude.

“Somehow a narrative that the English don’t care what happens to Scotland or the Welsh don’t care or those in Northern Ireland don’t care actually only aids the Nationalists.”

ConHome: “Some questions about the way the devolution settlement is working in Scotland.

“First of all, do you agree that Parliament should in some respects have more powers – for example, that MSPs should be covered by parliamentary privilege?”

Ross: “Yes. So I believe there are – I set out in a speech I did to Onward recently – some suggestions for strengthening the accountability within the Scottish Parliament.

“This should be done on a cross-party basis, I’m not saying the Conservatives have all the answers to this issue.

“But I think it was particularly revealing, to people across the country, that it took a Member of Parliament standing up in the UK House of Commons to reveal information that was not able to be revealed to MSPs sitting on an inquiry looking into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints and the procedure they set up.

“I’ve already raised issues about the Lord Advocate in Scotland being the head of the prosecution service, and also a political appointment sitting round the Scottish Government Cabinet table.

“I also think we could learn from the UK Parliament in terms of electing select committee chairs. I’ve sat in both Parliaments and been on committees in both, and I think we have far more rigour in our investigations and our questioning with select committee chairs who are elected by the whole House rather than party appointments that we have in the Scottish Parliament.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that a central problem with the devolution settlement in Scotland is not that there’s too much devolution but that there hasn’t been enough.

“And on that theme, you’ve called for local councils to have more powers, the power to set business-rate-free zones and to build more railways, deliver universal broadband. Could you expand on that?”

Ross: “Yes, so first of all I’m not advocating for more powers to go to Holyrood. I don’t think people suggesting now just devolve some extra powers and that’ll stop people wanting independence is credible.

“And I also say to the SNP, if you continue to call for more powers for the Scottish Parliament, just start using the ones you’ve got.

“In terms of devolution, what I want to see is more devolution from the Scottish Parliament to local councils.

“I do believe that local councils are better at delivering many of these policies. I was a councillor for ten years.

“For many people now in Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood seem as distant as the UK Government and the UK Parliament did in London prior to 1997 when there were calls for devolution.”

ConHome: “Aberdeen Council is reported to be applying for grants directly from the Shared Prosperity Fund. Do you know how that’s going?”

Ross: “There’s been an awful lot of positive discussion. I’m in regular contact with Douglas Lumsden, Co-Leader of Aberdeen City Council, he’s one of our excellent candidates on the North East list for the election in May, and with Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, who sees this as a way forward.

“He can see the frustration of councils in Scotland, particularly those outwith the central belt.”

ConHome: “Do you believe that Westminster should deploy the powers it has: for example, the Political and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee could launch an inquiry into the conduct of the civil service in Scotland, over why laws seem to have been crafted especially to investigate Alex Salmond, even after the Head of Propriety and Ethics in Whitehall expressed discomfort.”

Ross: “I think we have to look very closely at how the Scottish Government civil service worked throughout this process, and obviously the head of the Scottish civil service is answerable to the head of the UK civil service.

“I also think there’s an opportunity for the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, which I sit on, to look into it. It’s chaired by an SNP member, so we may have some challenges in getting that into our future work programme, but absolutely, I think there is a clear role for scrutiny within the UK select committee system, following on from the report of the Scottish Parliament committee.”

ConHome: “Should the UK Government here do more to involve the Governments of the devolved administrations in their decision-making, over immigration, say, or trade deals?”

Ross: “Well I mentioned that in my Policy Exchange speech, and it was more just about more dialogue, it’s not saying direct decision making.”

ConHome: “At one point last year, Michael Gove was reported to think that just occasionally, there’d be a case for inviting Nicola Sturgeon and the leaders of the devolved administrations to sit in at Cabinet meetings. What do you think?”

Ross: “No I don’t think that would be particularly helpful. Clear, distinct subject matters which affect the whole of the UK such as travel arrangements, quarantine arrangements, restrictions that may differ north or south of the border or into Wales, are right to be focussed on a small committee, and I’ve sat in on a number of these committees when I was a Scotland Office minister, so I can see the value of them.

“I think inviting devolved leaders to actual Cabinet meetings is a step too far, and I’m not sure it would be reciprocated by offers of the Prime Minister to go to the Scottish Government Cabinet meetings or the Welsh Assembly Cabinet meetings.”

ConHome: “How substantial a problem for your election campaign this year is Boris Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland?”

Ross: “I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as an opportunity for me to continue to show that I’m the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. I am the leader standing for election to Holyrood.

“NIcola Sturgeon and the SNP are already using this in their leaflets, saying ‘vote for the SNP or vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party’.

“But the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His policies are having a positive impact in Scotland, such as the vaccine rollout; the levelling up funding will see investment into Scotland.

“But in terms of the running of the party here, our manifesto, our team, it’s led by me. I think that’s right for the Scottish Conservatives and it’s certainly the approach I’m taking into the election.”

ConHome: “Are you looking forward to Boris joining you on the campaign trail?”

Ross: “Yeah. It’ll be a very different campaign trail, so let’s be honest, he’s not going to be popping up every couple of days to do visits, and we’re all trying to get our head round exactly what this campaign’s going to look like.

“But I was at Political Cabinet last week, we had a good discussion on the election in Scotland, and obviously in Wales, and there’s big elections in England, we’ve got by-elections coming up as well, so the Prime Minister’s going to be busy all over the country.

“But we’re probably going to do an awful lot of it like this. It’ll be Zoom meetings. We’ll see how it all pans out.”

ConHome: “Do you know Oliver Lewis?”

Ross: “Yes.”

ConHome: “What was your take on him?”

Ross: “Yeah, I worked well with Oliver, first of all he was always extremely engaged with Scottish MPs during the Brexit negotiations, and then when for a short time he was the head of the Union Unit I spoke to him a number of times, and I think he had some really good things to offer.

“Clearly it didn’t work out, but he is someone I will still look at what he says and listen to what he says.”

ConHome: “It doesn’t make a difference that the Unit’s no longer there?”

Ross: “I don’t think so. Clearly the change in personnel was something that attracted quite a lot of media attention. I actually think the move to the Cabinet committee system, with senior members of the Cabinet, is a good thing, having the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Minister of the Cabinet Office, the Secretaries of State like Alister Jack, it’s a powerful committee.”

ConHome: “One of the things people know about you is that you’re a great football referee. What help is that to you in your present role? Because your role now is partisan, you’re on the pitch, you’re trying to wipe the floor with the opposition.”

Ross: “Well I don’t quite get onto the pitch, because I’m an assistant referee, just from the sidelines, and I’m not even doing that at the moment, I’ve got a hamstring injury.

“But I do think for political leadership it’s a good thing, because you’ve got to take instant decisions, based on what you see in front of you, knowing that that decision will not please everyone, in many cases my decision will please no one, and you’ve got to have a pretty tough skin to do it in the first place and to defend and stick by your decisions.”

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Cummings explains why it is safer to be a gambler than a bureaucrat

17 Mar

Anyone wondering why first Michael Gove and then Boris Johnson hired Dominic Cummings will find the answer in the latter’s performance this morning before the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

On such occasions it is usual for the witness to emit, as a defensive measure, thick clouds of politico-bureaucratic smoke, so dull and stifling that only those who have mastered the official language of Westminster and Whitehall can discern what, if anything, has been said.

Cummings is not like that. He loves freedom and hates bureaucracy. He may be wrong, but he is seldom unclear. As ConHome reported in 2014, in what appears to be the first profile of him ever published, “he prefers…not to beat about the bush”.

If one were a minister trying to hack one’s way through the Whitehall jungle, while not forgetting where one is actually trying to go, one would want Cummings at one’s side.

Near the end of the session, Graham Stringer (Lab, Blackley and Broughton) remarked that about 90 per cent of scientists had voted to remain in the EU, and wondered whether this was because co-operation had become more important to them than science.

About 90 per cent of witnesses would have given us some platitudes about the necessity in science for cooperation.

Cummings instead remarked:

“scientists can cooperate globally without having to be part of the nightmarish Brussels system which has blown up so disastrously over vaccines. Just this week we’ve seen what happens when you have an anti-science, anti-entrepreneurial, anti-technology culture in Brussels, married with its appalling bureaucracy, in its insane decisions over the warnings on the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

He had begun by remarking on “the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy”, from which the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), an organisation championed by Cummings, is supposed to liberate some of our scientists.

“Extreme freedom” is more important, Cummings contended, than money. He wants ARIA to be run by “a director and four trustees”, who have “good taste in scientific ideas and in scientific researchers”.

It must not become part of the great network of committees, each with the power of veto or at least of intolerable delay, which circulate emails for months or years between each other before blocking original but unpredictable proposals and deciding to give the money to established, middle-aged scientists who already have well-funded laboratories.

A brilliant 21-year-old who might turn out to be a new Newton, Darwin or Turing is told, by the representatives of the present system: “You’re mad, of course we’re not funding you.”

Nobody could have predicted that within a short time Turing’s work would lead to computers and cracking the Enigma machine.

Cummings agreed with Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) that only an “existential crisis” tends to bring the “extreme freedom” which ARIA needs to enjoy.

In the early stages of the Covid crisis, Cummings remarked, the Vaccine Taskforce had to be given that freedom, because the Department of Health had been a “total disaster” in such fields as procurement.

Carol Monaghan (SNP, Glasgow North West) wondered, “How do we avoid extreme freedom leading to extreme cronyism?”

Cummings replied that cronyism is rife in bureaucratic systems. He remarked that General Groves had run the Manhattan Project, handing out vast sums with no more than a handshake, and later investigation had shown the work was remarkably free of cronyism and corruption.

Katherine Fletcher (Con, South Ribble) suggested ARIA needs to have a high failure rate. Cummings replied: “Sure. You’re completely right. If it isn’t failing then it’s failing…it isn’t taking enough risks.”

He added that venture capital firms generally make their money “from a tiny number of successes”.

“Individuals have to be able to place bets,” he remarked. “Not committees.”

The Prime Minister is denounced, by his critics, as a gambler. Cummings today explained why being a gambler is safer than being a bureaucrat.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson wishes to remain in office for another ten or 20 years, so goes on the defensive

10 Mar

“Who does the Prime Minister think deserves a pay rise more?” Sir Keir Starmer began. “An NHS nurse or Dominic Cummings?”

Brevity is the soul of wit, and Sir Keir is getting briefer. Johnson could have retorted that it’s much cheaper to raise the pay of Cummings than of NHS nurses, as there’s only one of him.

The Prime Minister might have added that Cummings is worth every penny of the pay rise awarded shortly before his departure from Downing Street, for he had previously devised two slogans of genius: “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done”.

But Johnson wishes to remain Prime Minister for another ten or 20 years, so instead declared that “we all owe a massive debt to our nurses”.

He did not proceed to say the massive debt will be paid by giving them a more than one per cent pay rise. But he did say “we will look at what the independent pay review body has to say, exceptionally about the nursing profession, whom we particularly value”.

Can it be that the Government will give ground on nurses’ pay, in order to distract the nation’s attention from pay restraint elsewhere in the public sector?

Sir Keir was not mollified: “He clapped for carers, then he shut the door in their face at the first opportunity.”

Johnson insisted that “we have massively increased funding for our amazing NHS”. The Prime Minister long ago decided, probably on Cummings’ advice, that the NHS is a national religion before which it is essential to bow down and worship.

Sir Keir accused him of being a hypocrite, who only pretends to venerate the NHS: “The mask is slipping.”

Johnson played safe, resorting to a tried and tested line: “We vaccinate, he vacillates.”

Dan Jarvis (Lab, Barnsley Central) bowled another short question: “If the Prime Minister is serious about levelling up the country does he honestly think that favouring the Chancellor’s Richmondshire constituency over Barnsley for financial support is the best way to do it?”

A moment’s hesitation from the PM as he worked out how to block this delivery: “Mr Speaker, we’ve, er, we are devoted to levelling up across the entire country, and that goes for Barnsley as well as everywhere else.”

Labour has not yet found a way to beat Johnson, but it does sometimes throw him on the defensive.

How to advise Lord North, or Heath, or Thatcher, or Johnson

5 Mar

Political Advice: Past, Present and Future edited by Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose

The press is excited by stories about Boris Johnson’s advisers. Who is in, who out? Who is briefing against whom? Carrie Symonds is running the country from her sofa! The news that leopards are to be reintroduced into St James’s Park shows she is. And anyhow, who paid for the sofa?

Readers who wish to take a longer view of political advice are advised to get hold of this book. But be warned: it does not offer a crib, a cut-out-and-keep guide to how to be an adviser.

The lesson of the book is that there are no lessons. If this volume were by a single author, we could perhaps deduce from it a doctrine, but it is actually the work of 14 different contributors, who on 8th June 2017 met for a one-day conference on Political Advice at All Souls College, Oxford.

We are not fed anything so misleading as a theory of advice, but in these 14 essays we do find intimations, continuities and recurrences as we travel with these authors from Periclean Athens via the Renaissance, Tudor England, the Scottish Enlightenment, British orientalists in Persia, Edward Heath’s managerialists in Whitehall and astrologers at the court of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, to an account of the impossibility of advising Donald Trump.

Nobody can govern alone: every ruler needs help, and as the editors, Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose, remark in their introduction, the people running the show today “have no more time or concentration than their predecessors in antiquity”.

There is a limit to how much advice anyone can take in, let alone make use of. William Waldegrave writes, in this volume, about his experience of being a member of the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) from 1971-73.

Heath, both as Leader of the Opposition and from 1970 as Prime Minister, had a tremendous appetite for policy advice. He was a man of his time, for as Waldegrave reminds us,

“the late 1960s had seen much discussion of whether Britain’s institutions had sufficiently modernised themselves: the civil service was among those subject to criticism, including self-criticism. This had led in 1966 to the establishment, after a select committee of the House of Commons had levelled the accusation of amateurism at the modern service, of the Fulton Committee…it made trenchant criticisms of what it saw as the cult of the generalist, the lack of influence by scientists, poor training and recruitment practices and other matters.”

The CPRS was one way in which Heath was determined to modernise the machinery of government, by creating a central strategic staff who would engage in long-term thinking and apply the latest management techniques, many of them imported from the United States, to which “two exceptionally able younger Conservatives”, David Howell (now Lord Howell) and Mark Schreiber (now Lord Marlesford) had been despatched on a mission to find out what was happening there.

In 1970, Howell made, in his pamphlet A New Style of Government, the first use in the United Kingdom of the word “privatisation”. According to Waldegrave, these British experts “linked management theory to political doctrine in a more interesting way than is found in most of the American work of the time”, relating “managerial efficiency…to the development of modern liberal free-market doctrines”.

What happened? Heath made a complete hash of things, and in February 1974 the British people threw him out of office. His administration had been characterised, not by long-term thinking, but by desperate short-term expedients which culminated in the lights going out.

And yet all that advice was not entirely wasted. After 1979, privatisation became, with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, one of the Government’s most significant and successful policies.

She too was tremendously keen on getting good advice. She and her advisers learned from Heath’s mistakes, and for a long time her judgement of what was politically possible proved better than his.

But as Waldegrave goes on to say, both Houses of Parliament continue to feel “a deep suspicion of Bonapartist tendencies on the part of the Prime Minister”.

We don’t want a presidential system in this country, and got the central staffs created by Lloyd George and Churchill to fight the two world wars disbanded as soon as those conflicts were over.

Waldegrave, who served as a minister from 1981-97, regrets “the steady erosion” in recent times

“of a sense of Cabinet collectivity. Mr Blair is perhaps most to blame for this, but Mr Cameron is not innocent either. What the press has called ‘sofa government’ – combined with an over-intrusive regime of freedom of information – has taken us back to the time before Maurice Hankey and the establishment of the Cabinet Secretariat in 1916. Some major items of policy are not discussed collectively at all, and if they are discussed, little is recorded for fear of an immediate and politically driven application under the Freedom of Information Act. This is a recipe for bad decision-taking, as well as for ultimate lack of accountability.”

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister too recently for his behaviour in office to be considered in this volume. But one can’t help wondering whether his critics have been asking the wrong question.

They have assumed he is too weak: that he will soon be swept from office. Perhaps they should have been asking, instead, whether he is too strong: whether Bonapartist tendencies are beginning to manifest themselves.

For whoever occupies Number Ten has a near monopoly of the political advice which other ministers would need in order to make forceful arguments in Cabinet, or Cabinet committee, about any subject beyond their departmental responsibilities.

Sajid Javid refused, on being told he would not be allowed to choose his own advisers, to continue as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jesse Norman, currently serving as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, contributes to this volume an essay entitled Smith as SpAd? Adam Smith and Advice to Politicians.

The first part of this title has a Wodehousian ring. It prompts the thought that in modern English literature, the greatest provider of advice is Jeeves, and the greatest recipient Wooster.

Adam Smith often advised politicians:

“In 1766-7, he supplied information about French taxes to, and corrected the calculations of, Charles Townshend, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in relation to the Sinking Fund designed to repay debt incurred during the Seven Years’ War; the fund was topped up in Townshend’s 1767 budget. He also advised Lord Shelburne on colonial policy at this time. Lord North thanked Smith for his advice on his 1777 Budget, when he took ideas from The Wealth of Nations for two new taxes, on manservants and on property sold by auction. He took two more ideas in 1778: the malt tax and a very Smithian duty on the rentable value of buildings. Also in 1778, Smith wrote ‘Thoughts on the State of the Contest with America’, a long and considered memorandum setting out different options for British policy towards the American colonies, then in revolt, at the request of his friend Alexander Wedderburn, the Solicitor General.”

We also find Smith advising on trade between Britain and Ireland. Just now his help would be invaluable. He recognised, as Norman puts it, “that the world was an imperfect place, in which evils could exist and persist”.

Smith was not the laissez-faire ideologue for which he has sometimes been mistaken. Nor was he the kind of generalist with which the Fulton Committee, and latterly Dominic Cummings, considered the civil service to be over-provided. Smith was a Commissioner of Customs, active in the regulation and suppression of smuggling.

Colin Burrow remarks, in his essay entitled How Not To Do It: Poets and Counsel, Thomas Wyatt to Geoffrey Hill:

“The figure of the frank speaker condemned to the margins of political life, and thus unable to deliver counsel to his monarch, became one of the major literary personae of the later Henrician period.”

Twitter is just now infested with such frank speakers, who do not turn out to be gifted poets, but spend their days denouncing with hysterical self-righteousness anyone with whom they disagree.

The adviser has to be willing to compromise; often works for palpably inadequate leaders; but is at least on the field of play.

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.