Our Cabinet League Table. The Prime Minister falls into negative territory.

3 Oct
  • It’s not unprecedented for a Conservative Prime Minister to fall into negative territory in our monthly Cabinet League Table.  In April last year, Theresa May set a new record of scoring the lowest rating it has ever recorded – at -74. Compared to that, Boris Johnson’s -10.3 this month looks tame.
  • Nonetheless, it’s a rotten springboard from which to vault into Party Conference as it begins today.  As we wrote yesterday, it reflects weariness with curbs, frustration with what seem to be fluctuating and arbitrary rules, a sense that Ministers at the top of Government are divided – and a certain frustration with the Prime Minister himself.
  • Liz Truss up to second in the table, from 62 per cent to 70 per cent.  Dominic Raab and Michael Gove’s scores are both down but, with Steve Barclay and Truss, they are the only Cabinet Ministers to clear 50 per cent.  As recently as last December, the entire Cabinet was in the black, with 18 of its members above that 50 per cent rating.
  • Matt Hancock joins Gavin Williamson, Robert Jenrick and Johnson in negative territory. Amanda Milling clambers out of it (just about).  On a happier note, Douglas Ross more than doubles his rating from 26 per cent to 61 per cent: his aggression and energy in Scotland are getting noticed.
  • And finally: the Prime Minister has been low, though not nearly by this much, in the table before – shortly before he resigned as Foreign Secretary.  He bounced back then, and could do so again.  Once again, we make the point that this is much the same panel as gave him a 93 per cent rating after the last election.

Swire’s diaries help show how Johnson entered Downing Street, and has so far managed to remain there

3 Oct

Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power by Sasha Swire

“When the wives get nasty, you know the men have a problem.” So says Sasha Swire after Sarah Vine, wife of Michael Gove, and Samantha Cameron, wife of David, “fur flying, have a set-to” at the 50th birthday party of Andrew Feldman, on 29th February 2016.

For “Dave feels he is being stabbed in the back by Gove”, who has come out for Leave. According to Swire’s friend, Kate Fall, who works at Number Ten, Dave “is taking it very personally”.

What is a trailing spouse to do? The Duke of Edinburgh and Denis Thatcher are among the men who had to work out an answer. In both cases they used humour carried well past the point of self-parody to ease the boredom and insignificance of the role.

But the trailing spouse is still more often a woman, and Swire knows what it is like. Her husband, Hugo Swire, was Conservative MP for East Devon from 2001 to 2019, an early supporter of Cameron and a Minister of State from 2010-16.

Sasha worked for Hugo as his researcher. Towards the end of the diary entry quoted in the first line of this review, she describes what she and H, as she calls him, have been doing down at their house in Devon:

“Meanwhile, down at Chaffcombe we are having difficult conversations about why we are backing remain when our instincts are to leave. I have to somehow justify it to myself as well as convincing H. I spend the whole weekend drafting an article for Hugo for the local press on why he is supporting in, and we finally decide to do it from a foreign affairs perspective.”

This is of some interest, for it reminds one that not everyone who supported Remain really believed in that cause. In Hugo’s case he only does so out of loyalty to Cameron.

It is true that some Remainers argued their case with fanatical zeal. But as Harry Williams remarks in one of his sermons, “All fanaticism is a strategy to prevent doubt from becoming conscious.”

Swire’s diary is not particularly well written. She often lapses into the bland editorialising to which one fears she resorted when drafting articles to appear under her husband’s name.

She is not a new Alan Clark. She is not even a new Chris Mullin, of whom I found myself writing, when reviewing a volume of his diaries:

“Mullin is a gentleman. He avoids inflicting gratuitous pain in his diary. He observes with a keen and even mocking eye the deficiencies of Blair and Gordon Brown, but is never ungenerous about their gifts. He does not betray confidences. The social connotations of the word ‘gentleman’ are foreign to Mullin, who is a plain-living socialist. The Tories who cause him most pain are those who behave in an ungentlemanly way, while the vulgarity of New Labour causes him distress.”

Sasha does not avoid inflicting gratuitous pain, does betray confidences and is often vulgar, though she clearly thinks it is rather grand, and even gentlemanly (a characteristic she attributes to her husband), to behave in this way.

And she has often not actually been at the events she describes. As far as one can tell (but rather irritatingly one can’t at first reading be sure) she was not at the Feldman birthday party. If she had been, she would surely have told us more about it.

On many occasions, she relates what Hugo told her when he got home from some event. There is a second-hand flavour to these reports.

Her diary reminds one of the disappointment which can be seen on the faces of so many MPs. Hugo had hoped to make the Cabinet.

As for Sasha, she is cross that her father, Sir John Nott, Defence Secretary during the Falklands War, has never been made a peer, and she finds that she herself is either ignored, or else reproached for not having a career of her own: “It’s always a weak point for me.”

In other words, like many loud people, she wants to conceal her own insecurities. Her inadequate command of tone springs from a fundamental indecision about how to behave:

“Political wives are deeply involved but have no official status. Do we play submissive? Do we play supportive? Do we get lippy?”

Sasha veers between these different approaches, but is temperamentally inclined to be lippy. She observes with a caustic eye the deficiencies of the men around her. In August 2011, when they stay for three days in Cornwall with the Camerons at Polzeath,

“D talks a lot about sex, as does H – they are typical of a certain type of Englishman who no longer knows how to flirt because they have become terrified of causing offence. What they do instead is become lewd and chauvinistic with each other, which is the safe zone, instead of with us. In fact if a woman actually came on to them I think their eyes would pop out of their heads.”

For all its glaring deficiencies, or in some cases because of them, this is an entertaining and informative book, and will be a valuable source for historians who want to see how opinion changed within the Conservative Party.

How did Boris Johnson become leader? Sasha is quite illuminating about this. In 2012, she is a loyal Cameroon, who writes:

“There seems to be something of a campaign going on at the moment to push Boris back into Parliament… worryingly, it seems to have captured the public imagination… Unfortunately the Olympics have given him a platform to parade his populist touch… The idea of His Blondness with a finger on the nuclear button scares the shit out of me; it also scares the shit out of me that people don’t see him as the calculating machine he really is. This is a man who has no obvious political identity or any proven ability to grasp difficult questions and decisions.”

In March 2016, as the EU Referendum campaign gets under way, Hugo reports back from a dinner in Mayfair that Cameron “is very fired up about Boris and determined to finish him off”.

In October 2017, she says Johnson’s star is sinking: “the past few weeks have highlighted how he is clearly not a leader-in-waiting”.

In November 2018, Hugo is recruited to the Dominic Raab leadership campaign.

In March 2019, she observes that the Johnson leadership campaign is “always shambolic”, an assumption which will prove unsound. She also quotes Rory Stewart going “completely insane” and telling some MPs, “It’s going to be Boris against me, and I’m going to take Boris down.”

In July 2019, by which time Johnson is on course for victory, she says “the odds that he will be the shortest-serving PM are pretty high”.

In August 2019, she goes to a “small and select” dinner at Number Ten and sits on the PM’s right:

“Boris is about the best placement you can get. Cheeky. Flippant. Enthusiastic. Bombastic. Ebullient. Energetic. We have a good laugh…

“I look at his rotund build, thick, creased neck, pale, sweaty face, and characteristic dishevelled appearance; he looks back, as if he is working out if I’m shaggable or past my sell-by date…

“I don’t know what will happen to him, because events make politicians, but I have changed my view of him. Yes, he is an alley cat, but he has a greatness of soul, a generosity of spirit, a desire to believe the best in people, a lack of pettiness and envy which is pretty uncommon in politics, and best of all a wonderful comic vision of the human condition.”

The PM has seduced her, though she also thinks he “is desperately lonely and unhappy on the inside”. These diaries show how Johnson got where is today, and has so far managed to stay there. He knows how to mend fences.

The Conservative Party Conference programme – and which ministers are up and down

30 Sep

With only two days to go, the itinerary for this year’s Conservative Party Conference is upon us. Much has changed, thanks to Covid-19, not least the way events have been formatted. 

Without further ado, ConservativeHome takes a look at who’s doing what, and how events have been categorised – as well as what this could imply for ministers.

The first thing to note is that every MP in the Cabinet is making at least one appearance, albeit in different formats. The MPs taking part in two events are Amanda Milling, Elizabeth Truss and Matt Hancock. The Prime Minister will also be delivering a speech and being interviewed by Lord Sharpe of Epsom.

The events have been categorised broadly into keynote speeches, fireside chats, interactive interviews, panel discussions and training sessions. 

Clearly the most important is the keynote speech, which the following Cabinet ministers will be giving:

  • Dominic Raab (15:00 on Saturday)
  • Priti Patel (15:00 on Sunday)
  • Rishi Sunak (11:50 on Monday)
  • The Prime Minister (11:30 on Tuesday)

Milling will also be opening the conference at 11:30 on the first day.

Next up there’s the fireside chat. There are two versions of this, one involving being asked questions by an interviewer, the other by party members. The latter is arguably a more complex task; ministers are out on their own dealing with questions. The ministers doing this are:

  • Michael Gove (11:45 on Saturday)
  • Alok Sharma (14:30 on Monday)

Fireside chats involving an interviewer include:

  • Robert Buckland (16:00 on Sunday) – interviewed by Ken Clarke.
  • Gavin Williamson (11:00 on Monday) – interviewed by Peter Ashton, a headteacher and his former politics teacher.
  • Matt Hancock (16:30 on Monday) – interviewed by Patrick Stephenson, Director of Innovation and Healthcare at Fujitsu.

There’s also the “interactive interview”. It’s not obvious what makes this different from the “fireside chat”, but the ministers taking part in these are:

  • Liz Truss (14:30 on Saturday) – interviewed by Robert Colville, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.
  • Matt Hancock (14:00 on Sunday) – interviewed by Nimco Ali OBE, CEO and Founder of the Five Foundation.
  • Grant Shapps (15:00 on Monday) – although it does not say who will interview him yet.
  • Oliver Dowden (15:30 on Monday) – interviewed by Joy Morrissey, MP for Beaconsfield (this is labelled as simply an “interview”).

Then there are the panel discussions. More sceptical Conservative members may notice that a number of fairly high profile Cabinet ministers are taking part in these. They may ask why they have not been put forward for the fireside chat or an interview – instead being accompanied by ministerial teams.

These include:

  • Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, who’s partaking in the Ministry of Defence Panel Discussion (12:15 on Saturday) with other ministers from the department.
  • Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who’s chairing a discussion (13:30 on Sunday) with party members and other ministers from the department.
  • Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, who’s chairing the The Department for Work & Pensions Panel Discussion (11:30 on Monday) with other ministers from the department.
  • George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who’s holding a panel discussion (14:00 on Monday) with other ministers from the department.

It looks as though Downing Street has taken a decision to downgrade their profile.

Last up on the agenda are events focussed around increasing participation in Conservative campaigning. It’s clear, in particular, that CCHQ is keen to push for more female participation, with events on Female Entrepreneurs and Training, and Women and the 2021 Elections, alongside training support for young people.

Cabinet League Table: Johnson plummets into the bottom third of our Cabinet League table

5 Sep
  • In our first post-general election survey, no fewer than 18 Cabinet members had a satisfaction rating above 50 per cent.  Now, only six do.
  • Of those six, Liz Truss is a fraction higher than she was (61.7 per cent to 61.3 per cent), Dominic Raab up an insignificant point (66 per cent to 67 per cent), and Rishi Sunak up to the top of the table (79 per cent to 83 per cent).
  • Jacob Rees-Mogg has risen by only two points, from 48 per cent to 50 per cent, but was then tenth from bottom.  Now he is sixth from top.  The difference between his change in score and change in place says everything you need to know about how Cabinet ratings, generally, have fallen.
  • None more so than Boris Johnson.  In that post-election table, he was top on 93 per cent.  Now he is eighth from bottom on 25 per cent.  That’s a drop from sixth from top on 57 per cent last month – a fall of almost half into the bottom third of the table.
  • Robert Jenrick is still in negative territory, and Amanda Milling now joins him.  Gavin Williamson may take comfort from the fact that his expected fall into negative territory isn’t record-breaking.  In April last year, Theresa May reached -74 per cent.
  • The members’ panel has good record as a guide to activist voting in leadership elections, so we’ve no doubt that this month’s survey is picking up unease about the Government’s competence, consistency and sense of direction.

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

25 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our latest Cabinet Survey. Sunak stable at the top, but Hancock’s ratings are in poor health.

7 Aug
  • Johnson sinks again. The Prime Minister falls from sixth to eighth, but more significantly falls into a lower decile for the third month running. In the table we published in May, he was in the 80s. Last month, the 50s. Now, the 40s.
  • Sunak: returning to Earth? The Chancellor’s scores remain comfortably ahead of those of his colleagues, but he’s out of the 90s and down seven points. It’s easy to be popular when handing out money: paying for it is the real test of political skill.
  • A stable podium. Apart from Johnson’s exit from it there is otherwise a lot of stability at the top table. Sunak, Dominic Raab, and Michael Gove take the medal positions again, albeit with the latter two swapping places, and Liz Truss and Priti Patel likewise hold on to fourth and fifth positions.
  • Negative territory. Both Gavin Williamson and Robert Jenrick stay in the red, but with significantly improved scores on last week. Will they be back in black next month – or will a backlash against planning reforms or A Level grades trip them up?
  • Hancock’s rating in poor health. In April, the Health Secretary took a top-three spot with a score of +88. Now it is just +39, down five on last month, and he languishes in the lower half of the table.

Rob Sutton: Sir Philip Barton – a key player in Johnson’s quest for global Britain

5 Aug

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

Sir Philip Barton, the British High Commissioner to India, has been announced as the incoming Permanent Under-Secretary of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). He will take over from Sir Simon McDonald, who is stepping down at Johnson’s request, on September 1 and oversee the long-awaited merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID)

An FCO lifer, Barton will inherit complex internal dynamics and be vital to the success of Johnson’s mission to reshape Britain’s role on the world stage. He has been with the FCO since 1986, punctuated occasionally by secondments to the Cabinet Office. Early assignments included Caracas, Nicosia and Gibraltar, and he was Private Secretary to the Prime Minister under Major, then Blair.

From 2011 he was Deputy Head of Mission to the USA in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2016 he was High Commissioner to Pakistan, and he is currently serving as High Commissioner to India. He has been tested during political crises, as the Director General, Consular and Security at the time of the Salisbury poisonings and most recently as Director General of the Covid-19 Response at the Cabinet Office.

His appointment has thus far had a positive reception. Dominic Raab has called him an “outstanding public servant and diplomat” with “experience across all areas of foreign policy.” Sir Mark Sedwill said he “will bring to the role an understanding of overseas development funding together with experience of international relations.” Jeremy Hunt Tweeted that “he is one of the most thoughtful & diligent civil servants I worked with & carries great wisdom lightly.” Andrew Adonis described him as “an immensely able & experienced ambassador who is well equipped for the big challenge of heading the diplomatic service at this time of crisis.”

He is well-liked and trusted. It is important that he is perceived as a safe pair of hands and a natural choice within the civil service. With multiple high-profile civil servants stepping down since the 2019 general election, a controversial appointment to lead FCDO would have put No 10 on the back foot at a time when it should be looking to craft a positive vision for the future.

For Barton, the challenges are both internal and external. Within the FCDO, a new hierarchy must be built. Creating clear chains of command from two parallel organisations with competing interests will cause friction. Buzzwords like “coherence” and “integration” will seem premature if the new organisation is wrought with internal power struggles and turf wars. We should have some idea of Barton’s initial success by the end of September.

Long term, he will need to ensure the functions of the FCDO’s constituent departments can be executed. Tensions are an inevitability, and tailoring a unified mission will be difficult when commercial and political interests and poverty relief pull in different directions. All this as Britain seeks new trade deals across the globe and weighs its future relationship with Europe.

Barton appears to be an exceptionally good fit to take on these challenges. His background is less Eurocentric than his predecessors in the role. He looks away from Brussels and towards Commonwealth nations with whom Johnson will be eager to renew relationships.

His experiences will also help to ensure Britain continues to be a world leader in international development. Pakistan is one of the five biggest recipients of UK aid funding, and Barton’s time as High Commissioner will have given him a better understanding of the challenges of poverty relief than his peers appointed to industrialised European nations. This will go some way to settle the nerves of those who worry international development will be an afterthought for the new office.

Barton will take the helm at the FCDO at a time of internal upheaval and international uncertainty. His career path is typical enough to avoid controversy but his specific experiences may prove invaluable to performing the multiple tasks which his success will depend upon. The Government aims to complete the formation of FCDO by the end of September, so we will know soon enough whether he is up to the task.

Bella Wallersteiner: A “Work Out to Help Out” scheme could boost the nation’s health and save our struggling gyms

3 Aug

Bella Wallersteiner is Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Greg Smith MP.

The two most memorable images of lockdown are a panic stricken Dominic Raab informing the nation that the Prime Minister had been admitted into intensive care juxtaposed with Joe Wicks exuding his irrepressible optimism while exalting the nation to join his daily workout. Joe Wicks has faded from our screens but the Prime Minister has had a Dasmacene conversion to lose weight and become as “fit as a Butcher’s Dog”.

There is a clear correlation between obesity-related conditions (those who have a BMI over 25) and patients in hospitals who require intensive care and intubation. Never has it been more important for the nation to take responsibility for its own health and thereby protect the NHS before the onset of winter when outdoor exercise regimes become more difficult to manage. The country will not be heading to their local parks on a cold dark autumnal evening in November.

It is all too facile for me as a relatively fit and healthy 25 year old to preach the benefits and merits of exercise to those who do not have easy access to open spaces and gyms. While it is amazing how much can be achieved by a simple work out in your average living room, better still is to leave your home, join your local gym and create a new daily work out routine.

Gyms are often maligned as intimidating spaces whose denizens spend their time toning their perfectly sculpted bodies in front of mirrors to reach the beach-ready, Love Island physique. The reality is very different as they have worked hard to become welcoming and inclusive spaces which encourage people of every shape and size in a national effort to increase fitness and reduce weight.

On March 21, UK’s 7,000 gyms and leisure centres were closed for the duration of the lockdown and only reopened on July 25 as part of the Government’s third stage of the national recovery from Covid-19 restrictions. Will the one in seven of the population who used to have gym memberships continue to inject £5 billion on keeping fit?

If my experience of attending gyms in the fortnight since gyms reopened is anything to go by the public has yet to be convinced. Monthly direct debits to gyms are not being renewed and while I have enjoyed the luxury of an empty gym this is not sustainable. We will see a swathe of gyms and fitness centres closing; a permanent loss to local communities with thousands of jobs disappearing and more empty spaces in our towns and cities.

The Prime Minister wants to level up Britain’s left behind areas, he should also be urging us to get on our spin bikes and thereby providing a leg up to this struggling industry.

At a time when the Government has launched its Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, with a £10 voucher for every meal out, there should be a similar financial inducement to encourage people to renew long-lapsed gym memberships and to support their local gym and fitness centres. A 25 per cent Government-backed discount on monthly gym memberships would incentivise people to join their local gyms and shed surplus weight gained during lockdown.

Comprehensive Government guidelines have ensured that gyms, pools and leisure centres have reopened safely. Measures include timed bookings to limit the number of people using a facility at any one time so that social distancing can be maintained, enhanced cleaning regimes which ensure that all equipment satisfies Covid-19 hygiene protocols and one-way systems reducing unnecessary contact between gym users.

The challenge now is for people to overcome their understandable reluctance to step back into enclosed spaces which have been caricatured as feted petri dishes for the spread of the Coronavirus. If we are to beat the pandemic the nation needs to be match-ready for the much anticipated second wave which could come sooner than expected.