Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Rayner mocks Raab and steals Starmer’s thunder

22 Sep

Angela Rayner is good at looking and sounding unimpressed. With a derisive smile playing across her face, and in rasping Mancunian tones, she asked Dominic Raab:

“How many days a worker on the minimum wage would have to work this year in order to afford a night at a luxury hotel, say in Crete?”

Raab had the decency to smile at this caustic reference to his late, unhappy holiday, which was interrupted by the fall of Kabul. He said some stuff about easing the burden on the lowest paid, but couldn’t think of a retort that would remove Rayner’s grin.

She proceeded to accuse him of “complaining about having to share his 115-room taxpayer-funded mansion with the Foreign Secretary”.

He replied that “she should check her facts”, since Chevening, the mansion in question, is funded by a charity, with not a penny paid by the taxpayer.

Somehow one felt that Raab, in the heat of battle, had not picked the best ground on which to fight this outbreak of class war.

It is possible, of course, that he did not wish to outshine the Prime Minister, for whom he was deputising.

Rayner clearly did wish to outshine Sir Keir Starmer, for whom she was standing in. Her rudeness came as a delightful change from his cautious, lawyerly manner.

Raab, himself by training a lawyer, today played the role usually taken by Sir Keir. He had a complete grasp of the arguments and facts, but was deficient in imagination, and therefore unable to raise anyone’s spirits.

No one will have got to the end of this session wondering why Raab cannot replace Boris Johnson, who has apparently been shuttling by train between New York and Washington, raising people’s spirits everywhere from the United Nations to the White House.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson dodges questions on Universal Credit and crops

15 Sep

No sign of Dominic Raab or Gavin Williamson on the front bench at PMQs. Excitable spirits wondered whether the Foreign Secretary and Education Secretary had already been consigned for reeducation at some dreaded Johnsonian college, where they would be prepared for vital roles in the supply chain, perhaps driving heavy goods vehicles or getting in the harvest.

Sir Keir Starmer began by posing an unanswerable question:

“How many extra hours a week would a single parent working full time on the minimum wage have to work to get back the £20 a week the Prime Minister plans to take away from them in his Universal Credit cuts?”

When we call this question “unanswerable”, we mean Boris Johnson could not answer it without contradicting Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who on Monday said “about two hours”, which nobody thought was right.

One could not help noticing Coffey was absent. Might she too be undergoing reeducation?

Johnson was not going to fall into the trap prepared for him by the Leader of the Opposition. “It is absurd,” he objected. “Every single recipient of Universal Credit would lose their benefits under Labour because they want to abolish Universal Credit, Mr Speaker.”

“The Prime Minister didn’t answer the question,” Sir Keir remarked.

“Wages are rising,” Johnson said, and sketched a picture of a happy land of high wages and high skills, which Labour would wreck by allowing unrestricted immigration.

Sir Keir drew a picture of an unhappy land where it would take “over nine hours a week just to get the money back”. How could anyone with children work an extra day a week just to replace the lost income?

Especially, he added, as the Government is also putting up taxes.

Johnson lamented that “the party of Nye Bevan” could fall so low as to vote against measures which would fix the NHS.

Sir Keir tried to put pressure on the Prime Minister by getting his benches to chant “up…up…up” as he mentioned tax rises.

“I see the panto season has come early,” Johnson retorted, and mocked Sir Keir for having written a 14,000 word essay about the future of socialism.

Sir Roger Gale (Con, North Thanet) brought bad news:

“On ‘Back British Farming’ day we’re in harvest time but, Mr Speaker, all is not safely gathered in.

“In three weeks, Thanet Earth in my constituency, the largest glasshouse company in the country growing tomatoes, has had to trash £320,000 worth of produce because of no pickers and no drivers.

“Because of the lack of labour force, the crops are rotting in our fields and on our trees.”

He urged the Prime Minister to “introduce immediately” a Covid Recovery Visa so this year’s crops are not lost.

Johnson declined to do so. He said the Government was “taking steps”, and the Seasonal Agricultural Scheme would be used to ensure that British farms get the workers they need.

And off he went to reshuffle his ministerial team: a measure which however comprehensive it is, might well not produce enough workers to get in the lost crops.

Ten questions for Johnson’s reshuffle

7 Sep

  • What does the Prime Minister do about economic policy?  His instinct is for government to spend a lot; Rishi Sunak’s is for it to spend less.  Boris Johnson would clearly be reckless to lose his second Chancellor in less than two years, and we don’t believe that he will try to move him. Furthermore, it isn’t at all clear who would play Anthony Barber to the Prime Minister’s Edward Heath.  But Sunak’s public pitch for loyalty over social care yesterday only confirmed the tensions between him and the Prime Minister. Johnson will be brooding over the future of the man who is favourite eventually to replace him.
  • Who runs Downing Street?  The Prime Minister frets about the unresponsiveness of the official machine.  He has lost Dominic Cummings.  He is installing a Delivery Unit.  He is beefing up his own political operation.  Does he take the radical option of creating a Prime Minister’s department?  Or the established one of relying on the Cabinet Office?  Either way, who does he put in charge?  Does he keep Michael Gove?  Move in Dominic Raab.  Or else send for Oliver Dowden – just as David Cameron’s former Deputy Chief of Staff is enjoying his own place in the sun in his own department (and perhaps eyeing Education)?
  • What about the Home Office and the Foreign Office?  Some in Number Ten share our panel’s lack of confidence in Priti Patel; Raab has been in place for almost two years.  Gove has been punted for both posts but, for all his talents, there is only one of him.  And if he moves out of the Cabinet Office, who will take the lead on Scotland?  Our bet for Foreign Secretary were the shuffle to come late would be Alok Sharma, now that he has globetrotting experience wearing his COP26 hat.  Will Johnson really promote the Cabinet League Table-topping Liz Truss, who he is bound to see as a potential rival?
  • Who does Johnson bring back and at what level?  John Whittingdale was brought back to support Dowden.  James Brokenshire was returned to help Patel.  When his illness worsened, another former Cabinet member, Damian Hinds, replaced him.  The message is: keep your nose clean, and there’s a way back.  But is the Prime Minister prepared to do the same at Cabinet level – summoning Liam Fox or Jeremy Hunt or Iain Duncan Smith or Geoffrey Cox or Robert Halfon or other members of the Alternative Cabinet?  For given the scale of the foreign and domestic policy challenges, there’s a lack of experience at the top.
  • Which women…?  The optics will be an inevitable feature of the shuffle, whenever it comes.  Johnson will want to increase the number of women at the top table.  Anne-Marie Trevelyan must be top of the list to return, but she only recently started her job as Energy Minister.  The Prime Minister will be keeping a watchful eye on the ambitious Penny Mordaunt.  Kemi Badenoch must be on any list for promotion, but is she ready to run a department?  Look out for Lucy Frazer, a potential future Justice Secretary; Chloe Smith if her health allows and, if media deployment is any guide, Helen Whateley. Will Tracey Crouch return?
  • …Ethnic minority members?… Nadhim Zahawi is being punted for co-Party Chairman, but he could also slot in at Education, where he has served as a junior Minister, or perhaps at Culture.  James Cleverly has been out of the domestic media eye at the Foreign Office and must be due to go back in it again.  Kwasi Kwarteng has only recently been appointed and will presumably stay where he is.  Lower down the ranks, Claire Courtino will go up sooner rather than later; then there is Ranil Jayawardena and, down in the Whips’ Office, Alan Mak.
  • …And Red Wallers…?  If promoting ethnic minority members is playing identity politics, so would be favouring white working class people.  MPs for the new Conservative northern and midlands seats aren’t necessarily working class – nor Red Wallers, strictly speaking – but they are yet another group that Johnson must consider.  Cabinet promotion from the 2019 intake would be drastic, and Johnson is more likely to turn to the trailblazers of 2017.  That might mean, say, Lee Rowley, the Tory Deputy Chairman, but the name most frequently raised is that of Simon Clarke, the former Business Minister.
  • P.S: what about appointment on merit?… Beware, Prime Minister, of the backlash from your average Conservative MP: male, white, and (in his view) overlooked because of political correctness.  “With one exception, those promoted in our intake have been women, ethnic minority members, or gay,” one 2019er complained to ConHome.  What about the Kit Malthouses and Edward Argars?  (The latter has had much to do as a Health Minister during the pandemic.)  Is there a quota on Old Etonians that keeps out Jesse Norman?  What about able backbenchers, such as Richard Fuller?
  • …And communicators?  The Government is short at the top of people who can get on the front foot on TV, if that’s quite the right way of putting it.  There’s Sunak, Gove, the Prime Minister himself, a more relaxed Grant Shapps, and Kwarteng.  And that’s about it.  Which is why Cleverly is due a return, and perhaps Brandon Lewis too.  He would fit in at Housing were Robert Jenrick to be moved, but on balance this is unlikely.  Jacob Rees-Mogg has been confined to the Commons as Leader of the House, and were he appointed Chief Secretary, he would be restricted to the Treasury.
  • What’s the least bad timing?  The infallible rule of reshuffles is that the anger of those sacked outweighs the gratitude of those promoted.  A shuffle this week would refresh the Cabinet before the conference season.  But one later would ease moving Raab, Ben Wallace or both: besides, it isn’t yet clear that Covid has run its course.  We assume when the shuffle comes Gavin Williamson will be moved, and at least two Cabinet members fired.  More, and Johnson will risk a “night of the long knives”.  Fewer, and what’s the point?  P.S: the promotion of the Johnsons’ old mucker Zac Goldsmith is a possibility.

Our Cabinet League Table. Raab plummets from third from top in July to fourth from bottom last month.

5 Sep
  • Last month, Dominic Raab was third from top in our Cabinet League Table, on 73 per cent.  This month, he drops by 21 places to fourth from bottom, coming in at 6 per cent and narrowly avoiding negative ratings.  It’s one of the biggest falls ever in our table – almost on the scale of Theresa May’s dizzying fall from top of the table into negative territory in the wake of the bungled 2017 election.
  • Meanwhile, Ben Wallace moves up from ninth, on 51 per cent, to fourth, on 64 per cent.
  • The Westminster story of the last week or so has concentrated on Raab v Wallace – and this finding seems to show Conservative activists taking sides.  Our take is that it’s more of a verdict on how British servicemen and the Foreign Office have reacted to events in Afghanistan; and on Wallace’s robust take on Joe Biden and, perhaps, Pen Farthing.  The Defence Secretary seems to be morphing into a politician who, like the Prime Minister himself, is seen by many people outside Westminster as authentic.
  • Boris Johnson drifts up from fourth from bottom on three per cent to seventh from bottom on 13 per cent.
  • Otherwise there’s little change in the table, but it’s worth closing by having a look at Priti Patel.  Last month, she was tenth from bottom on 26 per cent.  This month, she is eight from bottom on 18 per cent.  As recently as May, she was among the top members of the table: sixth from top on 64 per cent.  You will have your own view on the reasons for her fall.  Ours is: channel boats.

Profile: The Foreign Office, damaged by the retreat from Kabul, but free at last of Blairite illusions

3 Sep

The retreat from Afghanistan leaves the Foreign Office and Foreign Secretary much diminished in reputation. Dominic Raab was unable, in his appearance on Wednesday before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to efface the impression that until Sunday 15th August, the day the Taliban entered Kabul, he and his colleagues fell far below the level of events.

They were unable or unwilling to grasp how quickly the situation was deteriorating. Raab had gone on holiday, and at first refused to come back.

Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, who should have been directing the urgent redeployment of staff and other resources to meet the emergency, was likewise on holiday, and disinclined to return.

And one regrets to say that Sir Laurie Bristow, the British Ambassador in Kabul, had apparently been given instructions to leave, along with his staff, even though they were the people with the local knowledge needed to process the mass of applications from Afghans who had worked for the British – an order countermanded at the last moment as far as the ambassador was concerned.

It would be unfair to judge this lamentable performance against some imaginary standard of perfection. Evacuations are seldom easy, and this one could have been a hell of a lot more bloody, as Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, points out in this week’s Spectator.

And the wishful thinking which permeated the Foreign Office, the belief (as Raab said on Wednesday) that it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year, was widely shared, not only in Downing Street but in Washington.

Wallace makes an astute point about the impossibility of knowing exactly when a regime will collapse:

“History shows us that it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence. When the Soviet Union crumbled, when Libya collapsed, when the actual moment came in Afghanistan, intelligence hadn’t failed. It was just limited, as it always is at the very end.”

But in such circumstances, political judgement becomes all the more important. One needs to recognise the point at which changing facts on the ground have rendered the intelligence obsolete.

And long before that point, one has to be careful about relying too heavily on intelligence which says “we are winning”. When the intelligence agencies, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and others agree an assessment at the Joint Intelligence Committee, it is extremely difficult for them to be impartial.

No one has a strong incentive to say “we are losing” or even “my department’s work does not appear to be all that effective”, especially when the actual moment of defeat is probably still a long way off.

Considerable figures – Richard Holbrooke for the Americans and Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles on the British side – who long ago warned that we had adopted a losing strategy in Afghanistan were not heeded.

Raab and his officials are reported to be on poor terms. This is in part a matter of personality. Raab likes to have things under control.

Everything has to pass through the Foreign Secretary’s extremely large private office. Officials and junior ministers are allowed very little discretion. Relations with other departments are likewise kept under strict control, and are not at all good.

But this is not just a matter of temperament, important though that is. It is also a question of what kind of a department the Foreign Office is, and what it is for.

Forget for a moment nation-building in Afghanistan. Within the Foreign Office itself, there has also been a kind of nation-building going on: an attempt to bring the department into strict conformity with the most progressive ideas of how the British nation should be, as set out in the Equality Act 2010.

Ambassadors recently started stating at the end of an email their preferred pronouns, and at the foot of the staircase in the Foreign Office photographs were put on display of the first woman ambassador, the first black ambassador and so forth.

All this was in full accordance with what Tony Blair and his followers were preaching both at home and abroad. Liberal interventionism, set out in his Chicago speech of April 1999, had become the new orthodoxy.

In 2001, after the September 11th attacks, Blair at once declared, in his Labour Conference speech,

“The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”

And in his memoirs, published in 2010, he writes, with reference to Afghanistan and Iraq:

“I conceived of September 11 as making all previous analyses redundant, or at least duty-bound for re-examination. We could no longer presume that countries in which this virus persisted were none of our business. In the choice between a policy of management and a policy of revolution, I had become a revolutionary.”

So the costly attempt to build a liberal democracy in Afghanistan had begun. Successive Foreign Secretaries followed Blair’s lead and have spoken of our moral duty to uphold women’s rights in Afghanistan.

This policy had the merit, for its advocates, of being impossible for any western politician to oppose. It nevertheless sounded like an inadequate reason for putting British troops in harm’s way, and now stands exposed as the most flagrant Blairite humbug.

All of which is rather confusing for the Foreign Office. To its dismay, it has lost the European Union, the cause to which so many of its best minds have been devoted since the 1960s.

True, it has gained the Department for International Development, but it cannot be said as yet fully to have digested this acquisition.

And yet through the fog of battle, elements of a new doctrine can be discerned. Spending on defence has already been increased, with the Treasury conceding, quite exceptionally, a four-year settlement, while spending on aid has been cut.

There has been a shift from soft to hard power; from liberal idealism to Realpolitik. The Prime Minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, John Bew, is the author not only of biographies of Castlereagh, one of the great Foreign Secretaries, and Attlee, but of Realpolitik: A History, a subtle study in which is found the observation:

“To define oneself as standing for or against something remains a natural human inclination, as does seeking reconciliation between one’s morals and the nasty, brutish world. Yet it is also an activity better suited to moral philosophy or theology than to foreign policy analysis.”

Realpolitik does not offer some simple key to foreign policy dilemmas. To understand reality, and act in accordance with that reality, is a complicated and never-ending endeavour.

But one of the themes running through the present Prime Minister’s career is a delight in exposing liberal humbug, and a keen appreciation of the real balance of forces in any particular situation.

Boris Johnson is not, palpably, a perfectionist. Nor is he a preacher who gets caught up in visions of his own moral greatness. He is a realist, an anti-Blair, inclined to take people as they are, rather than attempt, whether in Britain or Afghanistan, to remake them as they ought to be.

One aspect of realism in foreign policy is to recognise that success may hardly be noticed; may indeed be achieved because no one is boasting about it.

Our policy at the United Nations, carefully concerted with France and apparently working rather well, is a contemporary example of this.

Triumphalism in foreign policy can be a very dangerous sign. One thinks of Neville Chamberlain giving way to it after Munich. Nor is expertise of much value, when unaccompanied by a commonsensical estimate of what is and isn’t possible.

Sir Anthony Eden offers the great modern warning: an expert who lacked the mental robustness to cope at the highest level, and got us into Suez. In the mid-19th-century, we find Lord Aberdeen, the Conservatives’ most trusted authority on foreign affairs, a man with a deep horror of war, who got us into the Crimean War because he failed to impress on Tsar Nicholas I the danger Russia would run by seizing Turkish territory.

It is fruitless to seek for some golden age in British foreign policy. Even at the height of the British Empire, it consisted most often in the management of weakness.

No sane British statesman ever committed the British Army to a continental conflict except in case of dire necessity, and victory could only then be attained by building coalitions.

Britannia ruled the waves for a hundred years after Trafalgar, but the Royal Navy could not avert humiliations which occurred at numerous points on land, including the retreat from Kabul in 1842, from which there was only one survivor.

The expedition in early 1885 to rescue the wretched, rash, intruding General Gordon from Khartoum arrived just too late.

And within living memory we have seen America, as the great imperial power, exposed to similar humiliations, of which the worst was in Vietnam.

But America still emerged victorious from the Cold War. The retreat from Kabul has filled the August press, and prompted a cry of anguish from Blair.

It marks a change of tone in western policy: a move away from the hubristic policy of nation-building. But there is no reason why, in any but the very short term, it should signify a weakening either of the United States, or of the British Government’s development of a more realistic foreign policy, entrusted to a revived Foreign Office and, before long, to a new Foreign Secretary.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Raab fails to win friends and influence people

1 Sep

It is a rare gift to be able to spot the exceptional occasions in politics when all previous assumptions must be abandoned and precipitate action taken.

On the basis of Dominic Raab’s evidence this afternoon to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, nobody at a senior level in the Foreign Office possesses that gift.

The department seems to have been sunk in summer torpor as the Taliban advanced at lightening speed across Afghanistan.

Nobody in King Charles Street, or in Downing Street, had worked out that at this rate, Kabul would fall within weeks, days, even hours.

The conventional wisdom in Whitehall was that this was a time to relax, a chance to take oneself off and recover from the exertions of the past year. Even the Prime Minister had at long last departed for the West Country.

Raab himself was already on holiday in Crete, though he today refused, somewhat petulantly, to say on which day he had departed. He said he had already made “a fulsome statement” on that matter, unaware that the word “fulsome” means (as Chambers Dictionary puts it) “cloying or causing surfeit: nauseous: offensive: gross: rank: disgustingly fawning”.

Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary, to whom would normally fall the administrative responsibility for responding at high speed to the unfolding disaster, by assigning the people and other resources needed to carry out the evacuation, was likewise on holiday.

Tom Tugendhat (Con, Tonbridge and Malling), the chair of the committee, sought to establish how much attention ministers had been paying not only to Afghanistan, but to neighbouring countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, through which evacuation by land might or might not be permitted.

The only conclusion to be drawn from Raab’s evidence was that almost no ministerial attention had been paid to those countries, few if any ministerial visits had been paid, and even ministerial telephone calls to their opposite numbers in those countries were almost unknown.

Nor did ministers consider it worth speaking to the British ambassadors in Kabul and neighbouring countries. That, the Foreign Secretary explained, was not how things worked: “All the ambassadors would feed in their advice.”

If any of the British diplomats on the spot sought to raise the alarm, and there is no evidence that any of them did, the message got lost as it travelled up the chain of command.

According to the central intelligence assessment in Whitehall, Raab told the committee, “it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year”.

All he could offer, as evidence that Afghanistan had not been entirely forgotten in recent months, was the curious statistic that there had been “over 40 meetings” about Afghanistan in his department between mid-March and 30th August, which meant there had been “at least one” meeting “every four days”.

Kabul fell on 15th August, so one assumes the meetings became remarkably frequent in the last two weeks of that month, leaving not very many to cover the earlier period.

Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda) reminded Raab that the Foreign Office’s travel advice for British nationals in Afghanistan only changed on 6th August.

Raab is now travelling to the region. “This isn’t the time to be making best friends,” Tugendhat remarked.

“Better late than never,” Raab might have replied.

The Foreign Secretary was tense, lucid, disciplined, unyielding and isolated, and had certainly not made best friends of the committee.

WATCH: “The central assessment” suggested “it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year”, Raab tells the Foreign Affairs Select Committee

1 Sep

James Frayne: Polls suggest the Government will not face a backlash for the principal of withdrawal in Afghanistan

31 Aug

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

How will the disorganised exit from Afghanistan affect the reputation of the British Government?

Coverage in the media has rightly focused primarily on President Biden’s role – given the US is by far the biggest foreign player in Afghanistan – but the British Government – and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, particularly – have faced harsh scrutiny. What should we expect to follow politically?

Three interesting polls suggest the most fundamental answers. The first comes from YouGov in 2017, which asked the British public whether they thought it was right or wrong for Britain to have become involved in various wars and global conflicts since the Second World War.

While large majorities supported Britain declaring war on Germany in 1939 and engaging Argentina in 1982, significantly more opposed than supported British engagement in Afghanistan (43-25 opposed, with the rest saying “don’t know”). In addition, more people opposed than supported engagement in Libya (44-19), Iraq in 2003 (55-18) and Iraq in 1991 (35-30).

The second also comes from YouGov, a few weeks ago, which asked people about whether Britain should accept asylum seekers from Afghanistan – and also, crucially, whether Britain had a “moral duty” to accept those asylum seekers.

While the first question showed a majority support accepting Afghan refugees (52-29), perhaps surprisingly a majority could not be found to support the contention that Britain had a moral duty to accept refugees (48-36 agreed).

Third, another YouGov poll, from 2014 when Britain began scaling back operations in Helmand, which showed how the public had grown utterly weary of our engagement in Afghanistan several years ago.

They supported the withdrawal of troops from Helmand by a massive 83-5; they thought our whole engagement had not been worthwhile by 56-25; they doubted the Afghan security forces could maintain security by 67-13; and they thought the Taliban would return to power by 65-15.

These polls suggest a number of big things. First, and most importantly, that the Government will not face a backlash for the principal of withdrawal because people didn’t want troops to be there (or in the Middle East) in the first place. In fact, the public are generally sceptical about foreign intervention against states generally (as opposed to terrorist groups, which they tend to support).

Second, they show there’s a limit to the “mess” they think Britain specifically is responsible for (if people simultaneously think we should accept asylum seekers but don’t particularly consider it to be our moral duty).

Third, they show the public have long considered Afghanistan to have been a failure and that they long expected a return to the status quo ante.

While political and foreign policy commentators dwell on whether British and American withdrawal will make people think Afghanistan was a tragic waste of lives, or that it will make people question whether politicians can make the case for foreign intervention again, the truth is the public have already made up their mind on these – and did so long ago.

The deep sympathy the public feel for British troops and the sacrifices they made, the anger they feel on their behalf, as well as their general disappointment with how Afghanistan turned out, made themselves felt in the polls several years ago when other Prime Ministers were in power.

While the public are looking on at the Taliban’s advance with horror and sadness – with sympathy for Afghan civilians – they expected it and they doubt there is much that we can do, beyond extending a home for a small number of Afghans (along with other countries around the world).

This Government is therefore unlikely to be affected by those big, existential questions being played out in politics and the media. For this Government, its greatest vulnerabilities are around important but relatively narrow questions over whether it handled the logistics of withdrawal in the right way.

Did it act swiftly, competently and with good judgement as it helped British civilians, diplomats and Armed Forces out of the country – as well as those Afghans directly associated with the British and American operations in the country since 2001? (The questions in whether the Government is providing the right level of asylum support will emerge later).

In short, these are mostly questions of judgement and competence – although, certainly regarding the treatment of Afghans who directly helped Britain, there are also questions of fairness and decency.

It seems very likely that there will be enough horror stories of slow and poor decision-making from various Government Departments and agencies that the Government will take some blame. These stories will come out over the course of the next few weeks.

While unnamed Government sources are seeking to apportion blame to particular politicians (Raab, most obviously), the public don’t and won’t think along these lines; within reason, they think of the Government as an entity, rather than as being devolved in any meaningful way.

This means there’s a limit to what “damage control” the Government can do by throwing particular politicians and officials under a bus. It will all land at the door of the PM where public opinion is concerned.

Will there be enough stories, cumulatively, to provoke a general backlash against this Government at last? Time will tell (I have no idea what’s coming out) but I doubt it. Hard as it is for many commentators to understand or believe, for most of its supporters, this Government has a lot of credit in the bank on questions of judgement and competence.

In a world where politicians are seen endlessly to over-promise and under-deliver, this Government has delivered on two massive promises: to “get Brexit done” and to introduce new controls over immigration.

It has also delivered a world-class vaccination programme. These aren’t small things. Most of this Government’s supporters will not therefore be saying – as opponents will – “there they go again”. This again puts a limit on the negative effects the Government will see.

But competence is a strange question. Beyond extreme incidents that directly affect the lives of ordinary people – like the final days of our time in the ERM, when interest rates were raised, crippling many – most errors, even big ones, just gently chip away at a Government’s reputation.

This is not to suggest that competence isn’t a big deal – on the contrary, it’s vital, and I suspect it’ll be ultimately competence that does it in the end for this Government – but rather that it can take a surprising amount to lose it. We’re not there yet; Afghanistan won’t do it.

Red tape makes integrating refugees into our society harder and more expensive

28 Aug

It was a spirited effort at a “Gotcha!” question, but it didn’t really work. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, was asked, in an interview on GB News, if he would provide a spare room in his home to accommodate an Afghan refugee. He replied:

”I’ve got a very young family and I’m not sure that I would be in a position to do that.”

The thinking behind the question – that for moral declarations to mean anything, the practical consequences need to be considered – was sound enough. The Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, the Home Office announced, will welcome up to 5,000 vulnerable Afghans to the UK, who have been forced to flee the country, in its first year. This will rise up to a total of 20,000 in the long term. A further 5,000 are expected to be granted sanctuary under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy. That is for Afghan nationals and their families who were employed by the British forces and Embassy – as interpreters or in an array of other jobs. They will all have to stay somewhere and there is already a housing shortage. But in a nation of 67 million people, even the upper estimate of 25,000 should not be impossible to achieve. A comparable number have been welcomed here under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme which started in 2014.

It is not dependent on Raab’s spare room. Given that Raab does not favour requisitioning spare rooms from the rest of us I don’t think the implication behind the question – that of hypocrisy – sticks. But supposing Raab did make an offer and got on the phone to the housing department at Elmbridge Borough Council, his local authority. His offer would be turned down. The Home Office guidance says only self-contained accommodation or property classified as HMOs should be offered. This might only be guidance but all local authorities appear to accept it.

There is an admirable small charity called Refugees at Home which does place refugees in spare rooms. Gary Lineker was one of the hosts. But it only caters for a few hundred – a fraction of one per cent of the 200,000 or so refugees and asylum seekers in this country. The charity has far more offers of rooms than refugees seeking placements – even though those making the offers seek no payment either from the taxpayer or the refugees. The explanation is that no placements are made by the authorities. That leaves a few people who have fallen through cracks in the system and so are referred by the British Red Cross or some other organisation. It is a worthy endeavour – rescuing a few of those that due to the failings of officialdom might otherwise be sleeping rough. But it operates on a very limited scale.

The Home Office insists that self-contained accommodation is necessary due to “safeguarding”; that given the vulnerable state of refugees, a spare room would be “inappropriate”.

This bureaucratic inflexibility seems flawed for various reasons. Firstly, it fails to acknowledge that refugees will have different requirements – for instance if they are single or families. Secondly, it is making the perfect the enemy of good. By pushing up the cost to the taxpayer of taking refugees it means fewer can be taken and more are left languishing in the UN camps.

Thirdly, is it always the case that self-contained accommodation is ideal? Might not a friendly resident landlord or landlady be helpful as a source of integration?

Incidentally, greater flexibility would also help with easing domestic homelessness. Local authorities are very reluctant to take up offers of spare rooms.

Another area where red tape should be cut, involves restrictions on working. Refugees are allowed to work but asylum seekers have legal restrictions prohibiting them from working for 12 months. In Germany, asylum seekers are allowed to work after three months. Why have any restriction at all?

The argument is that asylum seekers usually enter the country illegally and that the hazardous voyage they undertake should not be incentivised. I see the point. But would those hiding in a lorry or crossing the Channel in dangerously small boats know or care if they would have to stay on benefits for six months? We need to stop them entering the country in the first place. Tony Abbott’s approach in Australia ensured that illegal boats heading for his country were towed to an offshore centre. From there they were able to make a claim for asylum. But if it was rejected they could return home but not to Australia. The approach was tough but it was also compassionate. It meant the attempt stopped being made – previously hundreds had drowned. Our Border Force operation must be strengthened to stop boats from illegally reaching Britain’s territorial waters.

In any case, not all asylum seekers have entered the country illegally. What about Afghans who are here studying or with a work permit and are due to go back to Afghanistan? They might apply to be allowed to stay as refugees. What is achieved by banning them from work while we make up our minds?

For all the emotion, it all comes down to numbers. Few politicians would argue that we should refuse to accept any refugees. Or that we can accept everyone. So it is a question of taking as many as practical within the constraints of the pressures on social cohesion, the housing shortage, and the strain on the taxpayer. Some of the existing regulations are counter-productive in meeting these challenges. A more practical approach would allow us to welcome more people to our shores than it would otherwise be feasible for us to accommodate.

Sunak leads our first Next Tory Leader survey in two years

2 Aug

By the time the next Conservative leadership election takes place, the winner may not be in the list above, some of whom may not even be in Parliament.

Nonetheless, we believe that it’s worth bringing back our Next Tory Leader survey question (though quarterly rather than monthly).  Here is its first finding since Boris Johnson was elected to the post two years ago.

Only three people make it into double percentage figures.

The first and the clear front-runner in this list is Rishi Sunak.  The Chancellor has returned a consistently high score from our panel when asked about his handling of the pandemic.

He will doubtless gain from being presentable and new: unlike, say, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Sajid Javid, he hasn’t fought a leadership election before, and there is about him a vague but powerful sense of being the coming thing.

Besides, some will ask, who else is there?

One answer is Liz Truss, although her percentage score is the best part of three times less than Sunak’s.  The International Trade Secretary has topped our Cabinet League Table for the last eight months.

This being so, it would be surprising were she not to feature prominently in the poll.  Her supporters will see her 12 per cent as a total that she can build on.

Meanwhile, the third person in double figures is not even a Cabinet Minister.

It’s worth keeping an eye on Penny Mordaunt, who polls a bit better than a mass of her seniors in this trial canter.  How has she done so while being neither at the top table, nor a prominent backbencher with an independent profile?

Our best guess is a mix of some aggressive Commons performances, a new book, Leave credentials (which still count) and a breezy, no-nonsense, military style.

That her views are more socially liberal than those of many Party members may matter less than her actually having some.

Authenticity counts for something in modern politics, and Mordaunt has a dash of it. No-one else makes it into double percentage figures.  We’ll have another look at the Next Tory Leader question in the wake of the autumn’s Conservative Party Conference.