Iain Dale: The number of people who tell me that they would ignore the rules of any new national lockdown is troubling

16 Oct

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

The number of people who tell me they would ignore the rules of any new national lockdown is troubling indeed. Despite YouGov reporting that 68 per cent of the nation support such an initiative, were to be in any way successful it would need the full co-operation of the British people, and I now wonder whether that would be forthcoming.

Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle back in the spring did an enormous amount of damage. It allowed people to say: “well, if it’s one rule for them and another for us, that’s it. I’ve done my bit’.

However ludicrous the logic might appear, it’s a view many people take. The story of Matt Hancock drinking in a bar after 10pm didn’t help either, no matter what the truth of it was.

It was a clever move by Keir Starmer to break with the Government and side with the scientists who want a circuit breaker lockdown. Clever politically – though perhaps not from any other standpoint.

For as Boris Johnson pointed out at PMQs, SAGE recognised, in the minutes of the meeting in September, that although it recommended a so-called ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown, it also that recognised the Prime Minister has to weigh this up with other considerations, not least economic and behavioural.

On the face of it, it seems more logical to adopt a regional and local approach to lockdowns. That’s the one that the Opposition leader wants to adopt on test and trace – yet otherwise he’s set on a national lockdown, even for areas with comparatively few cases.

No Labour spokesperson I have interviewed has been able to tell me how to explain to a business in North Norfolk why it should close, when in the whole of the area there are only 19 cases as I write.

Sometimes, we are led to believe that we’re the only country going through this. We hear very little in the media about what’s happening elsewhere in the world, apart from the United States.

Virtually every other country in Europe is introducing new restrictions and experiencing high rates of new infections – yes, even the sainted Germany.

As I write, France has hit 26,000 new infections. Emmanuel Macron has announced a curfew from 9pm to 6am in nine cities, including Paris. He has admitted that many of the country’s biggest hospitals are on the verge of being overwhelmed. Its test and trace system has been even more shambolic than ours, and has been largely abandoned. Where in the British media do you hear about that (apart from on my LBC show, natch)?

It’s as if every failing in the UK system is leapt upon as a further sign of both Johnson’s incompetence and deliberate spite towards a population that he clearly wants to die. It’s preposterous, of course. No one denies that there have been massive failings in all parts of the response to Coronavirus, but why is it that the failings in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland aren’t highlighted in the same way?

The figures in Scotland in many areas are worse than in England yet, because she does a press conference every day, Nicola Sturgeon is given a largely free pass by a supine Scottish media.

Holding a press conference in which you repeat yourself each day, but talk a good game, is no substitute for effective policy. And in most areas, Scottish government policy towards Coronavirus has been just as ineffective as that applied in other parts of the UK.

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On my Cross Question programme on Wednesday night, Richard Burgon’s answer to every question on Covid was to trot out a mantra of blaming Boris Johnson for every single failing.

Well, it’s a point of view, but to then rely on New Zealand as proof of the Prime Minister’s incompetence strikes one as incongruous to say the very least. He kept saying that New Zealand has done everything right, and if only we had followed its lead we’d have been OK.

Sometimes, you have to shake your head at the ignorance of some people. How is it possible to compare a country with a population density of 16 per square kilometre with another country which a density of 255 per square kilometre? How is it possible to compare a country whose biggest city’s population is 1.6 million, with one whose capital city has a population of nine million?

I could go on. The challenges of fighting a virus in a country like the UK is very different to that of New Zealand. Having said that, no one can deny the New Zealand government has done a brilliant job, and I am sure there are things we could learn from their experience.

Similarly, we can learn from other European countries, and you’d hope that there’s a lot of learning going on in the Department of Health. Sometimes, one has to wonder, though.

Take test and trace. Three months ago, I interviewed the Mayor of Blackburn. Because the National test and trace scheme was failing to trace people in Blackburn and the R rate was increasingly at a worrying pace, the Mayor and his local council decided to use its own public health people to set up a local test and trace system.

Contrary to some media outlets reported at the time, this was not set up in opposition to the Dido Harding system, it was designed to complement it. If the national system failed to trace someone in 48 hours, details were handed over to the local public health department. It worked like a dream.

‘This is the way forward,’ I thought to myself after the interview. And I assumed that arrangement this would be replicated across the country.

Not a bit of it. Only now is it beginning to happen – with the Department of Health, PHE and National Test and Trace finally working out that more local input is needed. Why has it taken so long for the penny to drop? Ask me another.

What we are seeing in so many areas is a failure of the machinery of government. This will be one of main areas for a public inquiry to delve into.

How can it be right for example, for Boston Consulting to be paid £7,340 per day for each of its consultants who have been hired to advise on test and trace? I do hope there’s a performance element to the contract…if so, they ought to be handing the money back

Obviously, a private company has to make a profit, but £7,340 per day equates to an annual rate of £1.8 million per consultant. There’s taking the piss, and taking the piss. And this qualifies on both counts. Whichever civil servant or minister signed this off has some very serious questions to answer.

And don’t get me started on the EU and the trade talks. I’d better leave that until next week, I think. If only for my own sanity and your blood pressure.

What could give the Government a sense of purpose – and chances to achieve? Making Gove Deputy Prime Minister.

18 Sep

Boris Johnson has a majority of 80, the Conservatives are still above 40 per cent in the polls, there is no leadership challenge pending, and there are still over four years to go until the next election.

But the Tory press this week is behaving as though none of that applies.  It hasn’t given up on the possibility of the Prime Minister winning in 2024.  However, it seems close to abandoning hope of him achieving anything substantial before then.

The joint catalyst of this development has been the Government’s adventures with international law, to which many voters are indifferent.  And its handling of the Coronavirus, to which they are not.  The common theme is that the country is all at sea, and that the captain has no sense of direction – or grip.

It may be that the media, some Tory MPs and Party donors are getting everything out of proportion.  The hysterical anti-Johnson hyperbole from the Remainer residue certainly muddies the waters.  To give an example almost at random, one prominent pro-Remain journalist once implied that Johnson’s Covid illness was faked.

None the less, ConservativeHome thinks that the critics have a point – and then some – for two solid reasons.  The first is all to do with the unique circumstances of last December’s election.  Johnson was elected to Get Brexit Done and spend a lot of money: at least, that’s what the hostage-free Tory manifesto suggested.

He has delivered Brexit as most voters see it (even if there is no trade deal), and his spending plans have been absorbed by the Coronavirus crisis, along with nearly everything else.  “Levelling up” is on hold.  So is the economy.  The manifesto had no programme for public service reform in any event.

If it had, the virus would make its delivery all but impossible. Covid means all hands to the pump, unless the Prime Minister is prepared to let the disease which put him in intensive care let rip.  That isn’t going to happen.  Global Britain may not either, at least if one means by it a coherent approach to China, Russia and radical Islamism.

The second reason is all bound up with Johnson himself.  We endorsed him last summer as “not the Prime Minister we deserve, but the Prime Minister we need right now”.  By which we meant that his character, gifts and personality are best shaped for campaigning rather than government.

Just before he made up his mind to declare for Brexit, he told friends that he was “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”.  That captures the essence of how he works when trying to deliver many ends, as one must in office, rather than single one, as is the case in elections.

A shopping trolley can’t move on its own.  It needs someone to direct it.  That person is thought by those demented Remainers to be Dominic Cummings.  Certainly, parts of the Government’s programme are Cummings-driven: upending the civil service, challenging judicial power, overhauling procurement, “investing in science”.

But Cummings’ hands are only some of those on the trolley.  His old Parliamentary supporters, Simon Case, colleagues from his London mayoralty days, Carrie Symonds: all these and others push and pull at Johnson, who has no enduring ideology of his own to steer by, and can be as indecisive in private as he is bombastic in public.

We don’t mean to suggest that the Prime Minister has no beliefs.  He does, and his experience in City Hall has shaped them.  He wants to build more houses (good for him), invest in infrastructure, spend money on policing – and he has liberal instincts on immigration, as Government policy confirms.

But these are not so much convictions as impulses.  This is not the man to throw himself into the culture wars, as his response to the Black Lives Matter eruption confirms.  Rather, he is Lord Stanley, pitching in to the Bosworths of the conflict only when they’ve already been decided.  So it was with Churchill’s statue and the Proms.

The big point is that his response to Covid-19 is in deep trouble.  Success would see test and track taking the strain this winter.  Instead, regional lockdowns have already kicked in, and it’s only September.  The Government wants life at work to be as close to the old normal as possible, but life at home to be a new normal – under compulsion.

Hence marshalls, curfews and the rule of six.  Last spring, voters swung behind the Prime Minister as they’ve sometimes swung behind others when wars break out.  Now, there is war-weariness.  The winter is shaping up ominously and the Parliamentary Party is skittish.

At this stage in editorials, the usual course is to reiterate advice.  Appoint better Cabinet Ministers – not just people who voted for you.  Find an Andrew Mackay-type figure to take the backbench temperature.  Get a single, strong Party Chairman.

We add: forget trying to carry out, in current cirumstances, a spending review that looks more than a year ahead.  Concentrate on sorting testing, keeping schools open – and saving the Union; concede that turning the civil service upside-down will have to wait; prepare for a pro-EU Biden presidency.  But there is a fundamental problem.

Johnson just isn’t the man to exercise self-discipline outside an election campaign.  This is integral to what makes him so interesting: As Sasha Swire puts it, he has a “greatness of soul…and best of all a wonderful comic vision of the human condition. He is not like any politician I have ever encountered before, and I have met many.”

He will carry on boostering about moonshots, world-beating systems and (James Forsyth writes this morning) hydrogen.  It’s a form of manic defence.  A David Cameron would think tactically; a Margaret Thatcher strategically.  But the Prime Minister doesn’t think so much as intuit.  And will carry on doing so because that’s how he is.

Perhaps memory can reach where advice can’t.  Johnson has worked at his best when he lurches noisily forwards and someone follows quietly behind, carrying a dustpan and brush: Simon Milton in London (then Eddie Lister), Stuart Reid at the Spectator.  To put it more neutrally, he performs and someone else administers.

The safe, secure choice to do this now would be Oliver Dowden.  The one that would cause a sensation, explode a mass of leadership speculation and conspiracy theory, and drag up horrible memories of commitment and betrayal would be the psycho-dramatic appointment of Michael Gove.

The media’s field day could last for the rest of this Parliament.  But in the meantime, Gove would get on with what he does better than any Minister other than perhaps Rishi Sunak: strategic thinking – and messaging – government with a purpose, and zeal for reform.

The planned New Year reshuffle would be the right time for the change, though we admit that it almost certainly won’t happen.  All the same, the Government’s shaping up to be in its own bleak midwinter by then.  Sure, the next election is there to be won.  And never underestimate Johnson’s strange bond with a big slice of the British people.

But getting the state’s creaking machinery up to responding to Covid, let alone achieving much before 2024, depends on him doing what all of us find it hardest to do: changing what he does; almost who he is.

Ryan Bourne: A lesson from this pandemic. State action fails even when the case for it is strongest.

16 Sep

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

A week may be a long time in politics, but a fortnight seems an eternity. A two-week period that started with Ministers urging everyone back to work, ended with “the rule of six,” Covid Marshalls, and discussion of curfews and a phone line for people to dob in neighbours for breaching pandemic laws.

If the sharp pivot in public health policy was a shock, the tone about enforcement was more jarring. It’s one thing to set clear guidance, buttressed with legally-enforceable regulations that, in reality, depend on an honour system. It’s another to brief papers of threatening enforcement of unpoliceable laws.

Gone is Boris Johnson the instinctive libertarian, imposing restrictions with a heavy heart. Conservatives now push authoritarian messaging. If nothing else, this doesn’t seem a sustainable way to get buy-in for infectious disease control. Especially since the government’s own mixed messages are a large part of the problem.

The implicit Coronavirus strategy has changed (again), but the Government has not publicly spelt it out. They aren’t trying to suppress the virus, it seems, but now want to protect much formal market activity to boost GDP (hence, school openings and “get back to work”), while sacrificing much socializing in recompense.

Without articulating that trade-off, the public is bemused: Rishi Sunak’s been subsidising indoor dining, but you now can’t have dinner with your own extended family. More than six kids can congregate at school. but not outside for a birthday party. Wedding rehearsal meals are banned, but wedding reception dinners for up to 30 are fine. You can mix with people at work, but can’t gather for a pint.

These rules strike people not so much as “confusing” (as journalists claim), but stupid. They know the virus isn’t choosy between work and leisure, and that the value of each is subjective. The British people complied with measures when they had public health coherence. Now, our Government is imposing its values of what’s important, but without saying so, and while brandishing a bigger stick.

So it’s unsurprising to see a more liberty-conscious pushback now. But I suspect this reflects more than just “Covid fatigue”, or lesser willingness to comply following the Dominic Cummings episode. At least some of it appears to be waning confidence in government’s abilities too.

For years, certain Conservatives have pushed the party to discuss “the good government can do” to distance themselves from us pesky libertarians, with our supposed vice-like grip on keeping the party freedom-oriented. It was always a delusional read on reality, but, as it happens, most British free-marketeers recognised early on that Covid-19 was a genuine collective action problem requiring government involvement and guidance.

Steve Baker’s emotional speech to Parliament exhibited the sentiments of most of us. We acknowledged the uncertainties, and so tolerated the crude initial lockdown, but demanded it be limited in time and used for something—preferably to build a competent, rapid test-and-trace system that could help normalise economic life and provide feedback about where risks occurred.

The failures in delivering even this, however, have been a textbook case study in why governments fail. The early centralised approach to testing and provision of PPE showed the limits of government planning. Lockdowns caused a raft of unintended consequences. Some vested interests have been given favourable treatment in policy or guidance. Officials downplayed the potential efficacy of masks, because they wrongly thought of markets as zero-sum, rather than dynamic. Recent attempts to fine-tune human behaviour week-to-week in the North West has proven about as successful as Keynesian fine-tuning of the economy in the 1970s. A libertarian making the case against government intervention couldn’t have scripted it better.

The consequence of all this is a growing hopelessness about government. Johnson is right that a daily rapid testing regime, for example, could be a gamechanger, as economists agree. But judging from the reaction I got last week in explaining why, the public thinks the state is incapable of delivering. I was regaled with horror story after horror story on access to even existing testing, now confirmed by news reports. Confidence in the “moonshot” is non-existent.

If state planning worked in winning War World Two, it was asked, why not have government build a New Jerusalem in peacetime? I wonder: will government failures in this pandemic lead to an attitudinal change away from faith in government action. just after the Conservatives have embraced it? Why would you trust people promising to use government power to “rebalance of the economy” by “doubling down on leveling up” when it has made such a pig’s ear of a core competence?

To be clear: I disagree with other libertarian friends who think the pandemic is by-and-large over, and that we can “get back to normal.” I’m not making a point about epidemiology. What I’m saying is that the pandemic has provided a crash course in how government fails even in instances where the case for suspending freedoms is strongest. It’s possible the public may just blame this particular government for “incompetence,” of course. But if they do generalise, then we may find inadvertent new converts to the cause of freedom through cruel experience.

Terry Barnes: Abbott’s trade appointment is a masterstoke

28 Aug

Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government.

Whatever one thinks of the reported appointment by Boris Johnson of former Tony Abbott as a Co-President of the Board of Trade with Liz Truss, it is certainly one in the eye for the diminishing band of diehard Remainers.

Abbott’s putative role was greeted with disbelief and even derision among Australia’s left-leaning media elite who have little love for him, just has he has no love for them. Their reaction has been echoed by the likes of Emily Thornberry, who has not hesitated to give the former Australian Prime Minister a very undiplomatic and uncharitable, even vicious, character assessment in slamming the appointment.

Certainly, the Prime Minister has caught everyone by surprise by bringing Abbott, as a former “colonial”, into the heart of Whitehall. Perhaps it was one of Dominic Cummings’s wheezes to put the wind up the mandarins and the British trade establishment.

One person who will be very satisfied with a co-presidency of the Board of Trade – however archaic and anachronistic the Board itself is today – is Abbott himself.

A great student and devotee of British history, and especially of Winston Churchill, Abbott will be well-aware that he is following in the footsteps of one who he regards as one of the greatest figures in all history, whose presidency of the Board under Asquith was his first Cabinet post. He will also surely derive some pleasure from another previous holder of the political office being the very Viscount Sydney after whom his home city is named.

But beyond the historical parallels, and the strangeness at first glance of Abbott’s appointment, there is much to suggest that he is the right man for the job.

It is often forgotten that Abbott was not only a Rhodes scholar but is also British-born, at a time when Australian citizens were also deemed British subjects, and there was free movement and residency rights in both directions.

He retained his dual British citizenship until he stood for the Australian parliament in late 1993. Both it, and the heritage that he has always felt that his birth conferred on him, has made him more passionate about Britain, and more determined that she regains what he sees as her rightful standing in the world, than many resident Britons. He desperately wants Britain to succeed in once again venturing independently from the EU into the world of international trade free just as Australia, after decades of growing pains, eventually did the same from her mother country.

Then of course there’s Brexit. Abbott was already out of office in Australia by the time of the 2016 referendum, but from the very outset he was a passionate and influential supporter of Brexit. Anyone who has read his pro-Brexit writings will know that Abbott is full-blooded for Brexit and very, very bullish about Britain’s prospects of negotiating, just for starters, strong, effective and highly lucrative trade deals with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union. Indeed, if Abbott takes up this role, the appointment will be a strong signal from Number 10 that the highest priority for bilateral trade agreements is what was once called the Old Commonwealth.

And it is not as though Abbott has no reliable form in trade negotiations. Far from it. On his watch as Prime Minister, Australia cut world-leading trade deals with China, Japan and South Korea, moving swiftly to close them where the previous Labor government had dithered.

Even with Australia’s relations with China going through a very rough patch – this week, a senior Chinese diplomat patronisingly told the Canberra press gallery that the relationship is like a bad marriage where only one partner, Australia, is to blame – the deals that Abbott signed are working, and have opened wide new markets for Australian exporters and investors across the board.

So when Abbott talks about trade deals, he knows full well of what he speaks, and can supply insights derived from experience, and an international contact book, to help substitute for the expertise and confidence about going it alone that has atrophied in Britain since she joined the then European Economic Community in 1973.

Lastly, Abbott is not part of the British, Remain-grieving, establishment. As a former Prime Minister in a Westminster parliamentary democracy, he understands how Whitehall’s machinery of government works, but he is alien to the culture of the Whitehall mandarinate. His will be a voice in the circles of government unequivocally for making Brexit not only work, but for it being a spectacular success. Like his compatriot, Lynton Crosby, Abbott will derive his greatest satisfaction from his role by proving his naysayers wrong, and delivering for all of Britain trade outcomes that will boost not only the United Kingdom’s prosperity, but its prestige at home and abroad.

On hearing of the reported appointment, the “Abbott-haters” in Australia have not hesitated to accuse him of defecting to the opposition and undermining Australia’s best interests. Looked at superficially, that is understandable but, in reality, the appointment is the opposite. Australia, and other countries with whom Britain is looking to secure trade deals, will benefit greatly if their British trade and investment grow the economic pie for both countries. Lending the expertise of Australia’s former Prime Minister to her former colonial power is an indication of a mature bilateral relationship, not a subservient or dysfunctional one.

A Canadian, Mark Carney, was appointed Governor of the Bank of England by David Cameron and George Osborne, partly to bring fresh perspectives and ideas into Threadneedle Street and the City. While his success was mixed, not least because of his opposition to Brexit, turning to Carney sent a message that not all financial and monetary policy wisdom resides in Whitehall and the Square Mile.

The same logic applies to Abbott and international trade. However his role may finally be defined, Johnson appointing Abbott to a far more than symbolic role at the Board of Trade, supporting him and Truss as they strive to fully implement Brexit in the face of a sullen if not outright hostile European Union and a Coronavirus-blighted world, may prove to be a post-Brexit masterstroke.

The next BBC Chairman? Send for Charles Moore.

25 Aug

The BBC’s pusillanimous decision to have not only Rule Britannia!, but Land of Hope and Glory, played rather than sung during Last Night of the Proms is the worst of both worlds.

It won’t do enough to appease a tiny woke minority, but is more than sufficient to anger a lot of people.  The best summary of the decision to date is in today’s Times: “white guys in a panic”.

The decision comes as Boris Johnson broods over the coming decision about the BBC’s next Chairman.  Lots of names are being floated as runners-and-riders. Most look very speculative.

Almost certainly, those writing won’t have much hard information, if any – given the Prime Minister’s propensity to play his cards not so much close to his chest as stuffed up his vest.

All that said, two intriguing names stand out from those punted.  Put them together, and an old rivalry is newly re-ignited.

The first is Andrew Neil – Chairman of Press Holdings Group (which owns the Spectator), founding Chairman of Sky TV, former Editor of the Sunday Times…and the BBC’s most effective political interviewer.

The second is Charles Moore – Former editor of the Spectator, the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Telegraph, Margaret Thatcher’s biographer…and a committed critic not only of the Corporation but of the licence fee itself.

The two men have something of a history: Neil edited the Sunday Times at the same time as Moore did the Sunday Telegraph, the best part of 25 years ago.

Both are right of centre in politics, but of a chalk-and-cheese difference in flavour.  Moore is a high Tory, who can’t see an institution without wanting to shore it up.  Neil is a low one, who can’t see one without itching to tear it down.

It is part of the binding genius of Thatcherism that both men rose with it and were at home with it.  Of the two, the first may be unavailable and the second judged unsuitable.

Neil would know more than a bit about the corporation from the inside, and his energy, intelligence and swagger would shake it up.  But he is reported to be involved in a new centre-right TV enterprise to rival Sky News.

Moore was once fined for refusing to pay the licence fee.  If a Neil appointment would have senior BBC managers heading for the doors, a Moore one would see them running for the hills.

(On the advice of Dominic Cummings and others, the Prime Minister swerved a TV interview with the Neil during last December’s election campaign.

Cummings argued that though the Twitter class might foam itself into a lather, most voters wouldn’t even notice the row.  The election result suggests that he was right.)

ConservativeHome is not in favour of making of making the licence fee voluntary, but believes that the Corporation is losing its way, and urgently needs to re-connect with its Reithian vocation.

As the Last Night of the Proms fiasco shows, the BBC’s problems are not confined to, or even demonstrated by, its news coverage.

Rather, it is of orientating it towards the nation as a whole, including the majority that voted Leave in 2016, and Britain outside central London, where much of the Corporation’s senior management is based.

Like him or not, Moore understands Reith’s inheritance, and would be more than capable of applying its ideals to (especially) education, drama, the regions, and programming as whole.

Finally, being Chairman of the Corporation is not to be confused with being its Director-General. Moore, Neil or whoever would be operating at one remove.

Johnson left the Spectator under Neil but flourished at the Telegraph titles under Moore.  This bit of personal history will of course have no bearing whatsoever on any decision that he will take.

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

20 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why injustices to school students haven’t sparked a revolt by Tory backbenchers. So far.

16 Aug

An uprising by Conservative MPs is most likely to succeed in the following laboratory conditions.

First, if it has a clear aim.

Second, if Parliament is sitting, and votes can be held – on amendments to a Bill, for example; or on an Opposition motion.  Or even if there are no votes, but a Minister is suddenly hauled to the despatch box to answer an urgent question or open a Standing Order 24 debate.

Third, if it is widely and deeply held.

All these elements were present during the recent row over free school meals for children during these summer holidays.  The revolt’s objective was clear: to compel Rishi Sunak to find the money to fund them.  Parliament was sitting.  (Labour duly slapped down an Opposition Day motion on the subject.)  And finally, backbench opinion was relatively united in wanting the Chancellor to stump up the required £120 million or so.

None of these circumstances applied to last week’s A-level results, and their aftermath, and one of them at least won’t to this week’s GSCE awards, which will be issued on Thursday.  This is despite Ministers conceding that both sets of results are unfair to many pupils.  (If they didn’t admit the point, they wouldn’t be encouraging appeals, would they?)

So why the difference?  Because, first, those MPs unhappy with last week’s A-level results have no agreed objective.  Some hanker after the SNP solution – that’s to say, for the Government simply to give way, and let the grades recommended by schools stand.  Others would like the results to be scrapped altogether, and exams being sat in the autumn.  Most hope that that the appeals process will somehow iron the difficulties out.

Second, Parliament isn’t sitting. Which means no UQs, no SO24s, no Opposition Day motions – and no votes.

Finally, Tory MPs differ not only over potential solutions to the problem, but also over how big it is in the first place.  A few are personally affected, with their own children sitting exams; more have schools and pupils in their seats which they complain have been penalised.

But others from a variety of seats report a low number of complaints to date.

So, crucially, backbench opinion has been divided. Or so WhatsApp group debate among MPs reportedly suggests.

“On the Richter Revolt scale, I’d put this at about six,” one experienced hand told ConHome.  Some Tory MPs feel that the Government should resist a Scotland-style U-turn; others still are primarily concerned about any move that would allow more grade inflation.

Above all, perhaps, newish backbenchers have learned from the Dominic Cummings saga – their first experience of a real e-mail and social media pile-on.  “I’m not planning to write any full replies for a fortnight,” one newcomer said.  “I want to see how the appeals process starts to bed down.”

Furthermore, much of media moved on, after a day of intense coverage, from A-levels to French quarantine. There is less commentary than might have been expected in today’s papers.  And fewer vituperative quotes about the Education Secretary, too.

None the less, Gavin Williamson and Nick Gibb are in very serious trouble.  Yesterday’s Ofqual U-turn over appeals was a shambles, and will register on the Conservative backbenches.  Those GCSE results will come later this week, affecting a larger number of pupils.

Above all, the Education Secretary’s capacity to help craft a return to school for England’s pupils may have been terminally damaged.  He is pushing the cause today, amidst a very bad time for him.  We will return to these matters tomorro.ws

Morgan Schondelmeier: State-directed research is no substitute for the marketplace of ideas

14 Aug

Morgan Schondelmeier is Head of External Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

While we find ourselves in “unprecedented times” it seems that the Government is increasingly dipping into precedent policies. From revamping Milliband’s 2015 food advertising ban to proposing spending that would make Corbyn blush, the Government seems dead set on recycling old ideas.

So why then, if they can’t even think of particularly new policies, are they proposing that Government bureaucrats dream up scientific advancements?

We saw in the spring budget the creation of a grand narrative, and £800 million, devoted to reinventing British science, technology and innovation through the creation of the British Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Just like the first ARPA was a response to the Soviet Union, this agency would be the answer to China’s state-sponsored technological progress, cementing Britain’s place on the global scientific stage.

But what is ARPA? In a new paper out this weekend by Professor Terence Kealey, the Adam Smith Institute looks at the history of the state directed research project from the USA and the hopes of its champions in the UK.

It’s yet another example of old ideas dying hard. ARPA, soon to have a British sibling after being strongly championed by Dominic Cummings, was plucked from a project established in the United States during the 1950s. In response to the Soviet’s launching Sputnik, Eisenhower established ARPA to fund pure scientific research – in the hope of creating the technology to beat the Soviet Union.

Eventually, ARPA was found to be inefficient and expensive and so funding was cut and their purpose was limited to purely defense-related applications. Symbolically, the organisation became DARPA, with the D standing for defence. Its proponents thought this change in the early 1970s would lead to the downfall of American science. But instead, as history showed us, private innovation flourished.

You may have heard the story about how the Internet and personal computer technology were funded by the US government. In reality, ARPA made only tangential contributions that largely came to fruition after the leading minds left the organisation as it became focused on defence applications. The ‘brain drain’ from state-funded ARPA to privately backed research ventures like Xerox PARC was the real impetus for the technological revolution. Xerox PARC are the ones who created windows, the mouse, the laser printer, and ethernet.

So what has led Cummings to emulate, to the letter, a less than stellar project from the US? Firstly, he conflates the success of ARPA with the success later found in Xerox PARC and Silicon Valley, and as having all been borne of state funding.

But secondly, and perhaps more saliently, this Government is making the same mistake socialists have made across history; thinking that the genesis of economic growth is central direction rather than bottom-up, market-led innovation. That without government direction, we won’t ever reach the next technological milestone.

And that is the grand misconception with research and development. The idea that the market and private enterprise is failing to devote resources to new and untested technologies, because the risk is too great. So the Government must step in to ensure that our answer to Silicon Valley is Tees Valley. But in reality, instead of bringing jobs and growth to our left-behind towns, it will be a boon to PhD students in established university and metropolitan areas to pursue their pet projects.

Our approach to technological research and development is fundamentally broken. We need to rework our attitudes towards innovation, not just our funds. The Government is seeking to give with one hand, while taking away with the other. It has throttled innovation and enterprise through its policies and throwing money at the problem, without fundamentally changing the environment in which it hopes to make innovation flourish, won’t actually bring jobs or growth or create new technologies.

For too long, our adherence to the European Union’s precautionary principle, whereby we regulate innovative technologies like GM crops, has strangled new developments. Our approach to patents is overzealous and makes it harder to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. High corporation taxes and the factory tax make it too expensive to conduct business in the UK, pushing our leading minds overseas.

All of these things can be fixed, and without spending a dime. Far too often governments, like this one, fail to acknowledge their role in hampering the progress which would otherwise be brought around in a free marketplace. Instead of recognising themselves as the problem, they are set on trying to be the solution.

So instead of spending £800 million trying to copy an idea the United States gave up on 40 years ago, the Government should take a critical look at the ways in which they can revamp our approach to innovation.

Were we to step back and look at what works around the world to increase innovation and scientific progress, we wouldn’t find ARPA, but a free and liberal marketplace for ideas which allows great minds to pursue the radical notion that our best inventions are yet to come.

Dom Morris: The focus on physical contest is compromising national security. An upcoming review must change that.

2 Aug

Dom Morris is a Conservative campaigner, writer, farmer and foreign affairs advisor.

It has been reported that Dominic Cummings has been visiting defence and security establishments in the last few weeks. This is of course in the run-up to the UK’s Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review. Cummings is fighting the security establishment “blob”; one that is obsessed with troop numbers and antiquated battlefield charges. Recently the Defence Secretary allegedly banned senior officers from talking about their respective services because of tribal one-upmanship.

I have never understood why organisations wishing to advance are sent on a “retreat”. I am beginning to feel the same way about this Integrated Review. An essential effort bringing together our defence, development and diplomatic capabilities into a single set of ends, way and means; the Integrated Review is starting to feel more like a (tribal) retreat than an integrated “advance”. Staring through the rear-view mirror at yesterday’s wars, we must look out over the dashboard and onto a new horizon that is more complex and more contested.

The same old lobbying messages are being churned out from the national security blob in advance of the Integrated Review. There are no innovative messages about transformation, just the same old: can the Queen Elizabeth Carrier take on China? How many soldiers makes an army, one division or two? Do we even need the Royal Marines and in what rig (*uniform)? Why do we need an airborne brigade?

Spoiler alert. It’s not how big it is, it’s how you use it. And I suspect that Cummings knows this.

We are suffering from a Clausewitzian delusion that has indoctrinated our national security community. Clausewitz focused upon fighting adversary’s military forces in the physical domain (*battlefield) – his doctrine has led us to a groupthink focusing on a physical contest while our adversaries have moved on.

It is no longer just about soldier vs soldier, plane vs plane and ship vs ship. Our lightweight understanding of Clausewitz has seen an institutional subjugation to his work. The different arms of government and the military largely analyse, plan and deliver separately. From planning to measurement of effect (*results), we apply a 19th Century philosopher living in fiefdom and fealty, to complex 21st Century constant competition.

We are obsessed by troop numbers and a myopic campaigning approach predicated on change only happening on the battlefield – there is no accepted methodology for integrating politics, information campaigns and behaviour change capabilities into the blob’s campaigning machine. No rheostat to turn up our posture against Russia or China across the physical, information, cognitive, cyber and space in an orchestrated fashion – we need a graphic equaliser!

The world has changed and so too has conflict. There is no longer “home” and “away”, no longer peace and war. Our adversaries fight us every day across multiple domains, able to accept multiple failures but quickly reinforcing success. Russia Today, Salisbury, Huawei, vaccine disinformation campaigns. It you are shaking your head, read the Gerasimov doctrine. The Russians have been overt about the new covert. Piling resources, capabilities, and expertise into new, subtle ways of disrupting the rules-based system in order to escape its wrath on Crimea and Syria.

Our adversaries wish to contest, and, where necessary, defeat us on the airwaves and in people’s minds to avoid meeting us on the battlefield. And the Coronavirus pandemic is accelerating these trends. Rather than finding and fighting our adversary’s military and security apparatus on the battlefield, we must contest and, where necessary, defeat their nation state to offer their populations something better restore global stability.

This endeavour is multi-domain and must take us far beyond traditional battlefields. What people see on social media has as much chance of changing behaviours as security forces on the ground (*war in 140 characters). Our immature doctrine has begun to recognise these domains; physical, information, cognitive, cyber and space. But we must be more radical.

Every commander in the military fears the Question Four (*has the situation changed?) moment. In the middle of an Integrated Review, has something fundamental to our success changed? In national security terms the answer is a profound “yes” and the Integrated Advance should recognise this immediately.

Nothing less than a transformative national security programme will prepare us for this new Covid world. An Integrated Transformation must bring together all her Majesty’s Government’s levers of power, orchestrated in an [AI]evidence-led fashion. For constant competition (*rather than liberal tides raising all boats) is here to stay and we are losing the peace, let alone winning the war.

Here are some quick wins to kick start an Integrated Advance:

1. Conduct a “Project Solarium” to inform the Integrated Review – Just like President Eisenhower did when things changed with Russia, lock Britain’s best from academia, practitioners, senior officers and techies in Downing Street until they come up with a punchy, transformative National Security Directive to create a new security architecture.

2. Build a National Operations centre to bring together the disparate departments into a 24/7 capability owned by the National Security Adviser – Presently departmental Sir Humphreys pull the strings aloft the National Security Council.

3. Embrace data and bring in the techies – Our analysis capabilities are third world. AI, information domain and cognitive capabilities must be prioritised.

4. Triple the Military Strategic Effects budget – We spend nowhere near enough on information and cognitive campaigning.

5. Sack some seniors – There is a risk aversion and a refusal to transform amongst some seniors. On a combat fitness test, those that lag behind get chopped. The stakes are higher here.

6. Promote techies – Send a signal to thrusters (*commanders tipped for the top) that it’s no longer teeth arm (*a military’s fighting troops) that get to the top. Show the chiefs of tomorrow that it is no longer just about heavy metal, they need to strap into a laptop.

7. Reward innovation and risk taking – Presently they are punished.

8. Open leadership positions across the national security community to Britain’s best in the private sector, academia and tech companies. The senior leadership are neither incentivised, nor rewarded for changing fast enough. Competition will change that.

9. Establish a National Security College – Cross-domain contest is not taught, there is no unifying doctrine. We don’t expect our soldiers to go to war without training, neither should our leaders.

10. Develop a single planning process across government to orchestrate multi-domain contest. Presently National Security Council decisions are enacted by departments planning in isolation, is it any wonder that cross-government plans don’t join up?

11. Transform the structures of Procurement through rapid cross functional teams – Adopt the American procurement/’worx’ (e.g. SOFWorx) programmes leading rapid innovation and pull through – connect the clever people, industry and the user (the soldier) to rapidly develop kit and capability according to user need.

Unless the Integrated Review turns into a Transformative Advance I fear that Sergeant Major Cummings will give Project Blob a reshow (*failure of standards on parade – do it again!)

Dom Morris: The focus on physical contest is compromising national security. An upcoming review must change that.

2 Aug

Dom Morris is a Conservative campaigner, writer, farmer and foreign affairs advisor.

It has been reported that Dominic Cummings has been visiting defence and security establishments in the last few weeks. This is of course in the run-up to the UK’s Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review. Cummings is fighting the security establishment “blob”; one that is obsessed with troop numbers and antiquated battlefield charges. Recently the Defence Secretary allegedly banned senior officers from talking about their respective services because of tribal one-upmanship.

I have never understood why organisations wishing to advance are sent on a “retreat”. I am beginning to feel the same way about this Integrated Review. An essential effort bringing together our defence, development and diplomatic capabilities into a single set of ends, way and means; the Integrated Review is starting to feel more like a (tribal) retreat than an integrated “advance”. Staring through the rear-view mirror at yesterday’s wars, we must look out over the dashboard and onto a new horizon that is more complex and more contested.

The same old lobbying messages are being churned out from the national security blob in advance of the Integrated Review. There are no innovative messages about transformation, just the same old: can the Queen Elizabeth Carrier take on China? How many soldiers makes an army, one division or two? Do we even need the Royal Marines and in what rig (*uniform)? Why do we need an airborne brigade?

Spoiler alert. It’s not how big it is, it’s how you use it. And I suspect that Cummings knows this.

We are suffering from a Clausewitzian delusion that has indoctrinated our national security community. Clausewitz focused upon fighting adversary’s military forces in the physical domain (*battlefield) – his doctrine has led us to a groupthink focusing on a physical contest while our adversaries have moved on.

It is no longer just about soldier vs soldier, plane vs plane and ship vs ship. Our lightweight understanding of Clausewitz has seen an institutional subjugation to his work. The different arms of government and the military largely analyse, plan and deliver separately. From planning to measurement of effect (*results), we apply a 19th Century philosopher living in fiefdom and fealty, to complex 21st Century constant competition.

We are obsessed by troop numbers and a myopic campaigning approach predicated on change only happening on the battlefield – there is no accepted methodology for integrating politics, information campaigns and behaviour change capabilities into the blob’s campaigning machine. No rheostat to turn up our posture against Russia or China across the physical, information, cognitive, cyber and space in an orchestrated fashion – we need a graphic equaliser!

The world has changed and so too has conflict. There is no longer “home” and “away”, no longer peace and war. Our adversaries fight us every day across multiple domains, able to accept multiple failures but quickly reinforcing success. Russia Today, Salisbury, Huawei, vaccine disinformation campaigns. It you are shaking your head, read the Gerasimov doctrine. The Russians have been overt about the new covert. Piling resources, capabilities, and expertise into new, subtle ways of disrupting the rules-based system in order to escape its wrath on Crimea and Syria.

Our adversaries wish to contest, and, where necessary, defeat us on the airwaves and in people’s minds to avoid meeting us on the battlefield. And the Coronavirus pandemic is accelerating these trends. Rather than finding and fighting our adversary’s military and security apparatus on the battlefield, we must contest and, where necessary, defeat their nation state to offer their populations something better restore global stability.

This endeavour is multi-domain and must take us far beyond traditional battlefields. What people see on social media has as much chance of changing behaviours as security forces on the ground (*war in 140 characters). Our immature doctrine has begun to recognise these domains; physical, information, cognitive, cyber and space. But we must be more radical.

Every commander in the military fears the Question Four (*has the situation changed?) moment. In the middle of an Integrated Review, has something fundamental to our success changed? In national security terms the answer is a profound “yes” and the Integrated Advance should recognise this immediately.

Nothing less than a transformative national security programme will prepare us for this new Covid world. An Integrated Transformation must bring together all her Majesty’s Government’s levers of power, orchestrated in an [AI]evidence-led fashion. For constant competition (*rather than liberal tides raising all boats) is here to stay and we are losing the peace, let alone winning the war.

Here are some quick wins to kick start an Integrated Advance:

1. Conduct a “Project Solarium” to inform the Integrated Review – Just like President Eisenhower did when things changed with Russia, lock Britain’s best from academia, practitioners, senior officers and techies in Downing Street until they come up with a punchy, transformative National Security Directive to create a new security architecture.

2. Build a National Operations centre to bring together the disparate departments into a 24/7 capability owned by the National Security Adviser – Presently departmental Sir Humphreys pull the strings aloft the National Security Council.

3. Embrace data and bring in the techies – Our analysis capabilities are third world. AI, information domain and cognitive capabilities must be prioritised.

4. Triple the Military Strategic Effects budget – We spend nowhere near enough on information and cognitive campaigning.

5. Sack some seniors – There is a risk aversion and a refusal to transform amongst some seniors. On a combat fitness test, those that lag behind get chopped. The stakes are higher here.

6. Promote techies – Send a signal to thrusters (*commanders tipped for the top) that it’s no longer teeth arm (*a military’s fighting troops) that get to the top. Show the chiefs of tomorrow that it is no longer just about heavy metal, they need to strap into a laptop.

7. Reward innovation and risk taking – Presently they are punished.

8. Open leadership positions across the national security community to Britain’s best in the private sector, academia and tech companies. The senior leadership are neither incentivised, nor rewarded for changing fast enough. Competition will change that.

9. Establish a National Security College – Cross-domain contest is not taught, there is no unifying doctrine. We don’t expect our soldiers to go to war without training, neither should our leaders.

10. Develop a single planning process across government to orchestrate multi-domain contest. Presently National Security Council decisions are enacted by departments planning in isolation, is it any wonder that cross-government plans don’t join up?

11. Transform the structures of Procurement through rapid cross functional teams – Adopt the American procurement/’worx’ (e.g. SOFWorx) programmes leading rapid innovation and pull through – connect the clever people, industry and the user (the soldier) to rapidly develop kit and capability according to user need.

Unless the Integrated Review turns into a Transformative Advance I fear that Sergeant Major Cummings will give Project Blob a reshow (*failure of standards on parade – do it again!)