Ben Roback: Does controlling migration really matter to Biden and Harris? If not, what follows?

5 May

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

There are intractable problems that seem to always dominate governments – no matter the party, Prime Minister or President in office. The age-old problem of what to do about older people and social care has evaded a hat-trick of British Prime Ministers since Andrew Dilnot’s commission published its recommendations in 2011. The United States has its fair share of such difficulties – from guns and gangs all the way to climate change and carbon emissions.

Joe Biden is seeking to take on the vast challenge of immigration and the crisis on the southern border. Sensing how problematic the predicament is, Biden has delegated the task to his Vice President, Kamala Harris.

It is set to be her most important litmus test ahead of an almost inevitable future run at the White House. Succeed, and she can claim to have fixed one of America’s most dogged political, social and humanitarian problems. Fail, and her record will be tarnished forever. The scale of the challenge means that the President has handed Harris a poisoned chalice. What better way to dampen expectations of Biden retiring in 2024 in order to gift her the presidential nomination?

If the barometer for success is reducing illegal crossings, Harris might find that the only solution is being veritably Trumpian – increased deportations, harsher rhetoric, expanded powers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE).

In political terms, that is unconscionable for a Democratic Vice President, in the shadow of Donald Trump. Harris must deter illegal border crossings without being too harsh on the genuine immigrants and helpless children lumped together with economic opportunists.

The White House and Harris must aim high in order to succeed where their predecessors have failed

Most presidents try deportation. According to analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, more than 12 million people were deported during the Clinton administration. More than 10 million were then removed or returned during the Bush administration.

Barack Obama struck a softer tone on immigration, but nevertheless removed or returned more than five million people, including an estimated 1.7 million people who had no criminal record. With hindsight, Biden the presidential candidate called it a “big mistake” to have deported hundreds of thousands of them.

Trump tried a wall – campaigning on the premise that a physical barrier would stem the tide through Central America. The wall’s construction was mired in funding and contractual complications, but the 45th president left office having reduced the number of refugees admitted to the United States to its lowest level in 40 years.

How much responsibility the “big, beautiful wall” bears for that is mixed. The wall unquestionably embodied the United States’ new attitude to immigration, acting as a physical deterrent to attempted entry, alongside a raft of executive orders such as the Muslim ban and a reduction in the quote of people admitted to the US as refugees each year.

Progressives have cheered Biden…so far

The numbers of people arriving on the US border have grown since Biden took office, seemingly in part owing to a softer immigration policy compared to the Trump era. The President and his team are long enough in the tooth to recognise a political crisis unfolding before their eyes, and so doing nothing on immigration is not an option. So the White House has made a series of interventions so far.

Since January, the Biden administration has reversed a policy of turning away unaccompanied children, instead choosing to process them and place them with sponsoring families in the US. More recently, the White House announced it will raise the cap on refugees to 62,500 this fiscal year.

It followed outrage amongst immigration reform advocates and progressive Democrats after the President’s initial decision to keep the Trump-era ceiling of 15,000 admissions in place. So the move allows the White House to create clear daylight between Biden and Trump. But as the President himself says, “the sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year”.

Most importantly, in March, he handed his vice president a political grenade by putting her in charge of the southern border. It’s a bit like asking Priti Patel to launch her Conservative Party leadership bid after being tasked with reducing illegal boat crossings at Dover and Newhaven.

Is immigration really a priority for the White House?

The problem for Biden, and perhaps more significantly for Harris, is that while immigration is approaching crisis levels, it does not seem to be a major concern in Washington.

The Covid relief plan was an urgent necessity – an essential, albeit expensive, piece of big government legislation designed to stop the country falling to its knees

Next, the American Jobs Plan and the American Family Plan are hugely ambitious legislative packages that are a throwback to the days of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. In legislative terms on Capitol Hill and as the vaccine rollout continues, the full power of the US government is being felt.

John Kerry wants to lead the world on climate change. Anthony Blinken wants to reinvigorate old allegiances in order to combat the rise of China. Janet Yellen wants a global approach to corporate taxation to lower the playing field. Pete Buttigieg wants to make it easier to travel from Washington DC to Washington State.

The White House is firing on all cylinders. Is there any political or legislative oxygen left for anything else? That long and by no mean exhaustive list of political and policy priorities leaves little room for the kind of investment, attention and political capital required to deliver seismic immigration reform.

Washington will descend closer into a Congressional mid-term election overdrive soon. Democrats fear losing their razor-thin Senate majority in 2022, meaning serious policy upheaval needs to be completed sooner rather than later. With Covid relief done and infrastructure next, immigration does not appear to be anywhere near the top of the list for this administration. Time is running out.

Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.

Garvan Walshe: Russia’s building up troops on Ukraine’s border. Here’s what we can do to stymie Putin.

15 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

Tanks rolling towards the Ukrainian border. Paratroopers in Crimea. Mechanised troops to the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic sea between Poland and Lithuania. A “rotational” but in effect permanent presence on Ukraine’s frontier with Belarus.

These are just the most obviously military steps in Russia’s campaign to divide and confuse the West, and test the mettle of the Biden Administration.

They come as tensions increase in East Asia, with China increasing pressure on Taiwan, and the US trying to enlist Japan into backing up the island. The question on Russia’s mind is who are the Japans – the large, democratic American allies – of Europe?

Moscow could be forgiven for thinking there aren’t any. France was suckered into attempting a “reset” in relations in exchange for cooperation in the North Africa that never materialised. How seriously can Germany be taken until it cancels Nordstream 2? And the UK has just released a review of strategy promising a military tilt towards the Indo-Pacific.

Russia’s big disadvantage is that its economy is still relatively small (its GDP is the same as that of Spain and Portugal, or the Nordic countries), and its autocratic regime needs an expensive repressive apparatus to hold onto power.

Its advantage, however, is that such wealth as it has comes from natural resources, and these are easy for the ruling elite to capture. It’s much easier for the “Collective Putin”, as the ruling elite is sometimes known, to spend them on internal security, military hardware and foreign subversion than it is for a democracy constrained by law, voters unhappy about tax rises, and expensive welfase states.

Putin’s central belief is that the world is a transactional place where raw power is decisive. He finds it difficult to understand the Western talk of values, and dismisses it as cant, just has he knows that Russian lines about non-interference in the affairs of other nations or respect for international frontiers are empty propaganda – to be used, or discarded, as convenient.

But if he cannot quite fathom the levels of trust that Western countries still have for one another, he knows how to erode it by supporting nationalists from Marine Le Pen (whose party received loans from a Russian bank) to Alex Salmond (still a presenter on Russia Today), and of course, Donald Trump.

But 2021 has worsened the strategic environment. Biden has bluntly called him a “killer”. The autumn’s elections in Germany could deliver the Greens (who are not only anti-Putin, but anti-the oil and gas from which he makes his money).

His only solid European ally is Hungary, whose government has bought Russia’s vaccine, hired Rosatom to renovate its nuclear power plant, agreed to host and give diplomatic immunity from regulatory oversight,to the Russian state International Investment Bank, and provided a permissive environment for Russian spies. Viktor Orban’s collaboration with Putin, is however, enough to neutralise the EU’s Russia policy and limit the effectiveness of NATO.

The latest military build up is another attempt to increase pressure on the alliance now that Trump is no longer in a position to destroy it. Ukraine, which was formally offered a path to NATO membership in 2008, has repeated its request to join, splitting its friends from those who profess to be afraid to “poke the bear.”

But if immediate NATO membership for Ukraine is currently off the table, there is an opportunity here for the UK to be a “North European” Japan, and anchor North European security against Russia in support of the US-led alliance. This role should naturally fall to the UK, since France is heavily committed in North Africa, and Germany cannot be expected to be decisive, especially during a year where the election coincides with Russia’s annual Zapad military exercises.

Britain is in a position to convene a coalition of European countries worried about Russia, including Poland, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the Baltic states, possibly with Ukraine in association. A semi-formal initiative and northern analogue of France’s European Intervention Initiative, but obviously more defensive in nature, could focus on reinforcing the territorial integrity of its members, as well as security of the Baltic sea, and develop programmes of mutual assistance in civil resilience for circumstances below those that would warrant the invocation of NATO’s Article Five.

Such an initiative would, I believe, be well received in Washington, where a reinforcement of Britain’s role in the Euro-Atlantic, and not just the distant Indo-Pacific, theatre would bring significant relief.

Ruth Davidson: The pandemic has been devastating for the world’s poorest girls. We cannot turn our backs on them.

18 Mar

Ruth Davidson is the MSP for Edinburgh Central and Leader of the Conservative Party in the Scottish Parliament. This is a sponsored post by Crack the Crises.

The pandemic has hit harder than I think any of us would have imagined when we first heard of another respiratory virus jumping species and spreading around the world. For over a year, our lives have been turned upside down.

While we have all been touched in some way, nobody would suggest that it has affected us all equally. There are dozens of factors that have impacted the way we’ve experienced the last year – in different parts of the UK we’ve faced different restrictions, our jobs have carried varying degrees of risk, and our age, ethnicity, whether or not we have children and our medical histories have shaped the challenges we face.

Following International Women’s Day, and when the safety of women and girls is hitting the headlines back home, it is worth noting that there are few groups for whom this experience has been more damaging than for the poorest girls in the poorest countries.

The UK Government has done much to highlight the inequality they face – the Prime Minister has been a champion for the power of girls’ education as a transformative force in development, and a series of ministers, including the brilliant Baroness Sugg who recently resigned, have driven that agenda forward.

Even before Covid-19 hit us, 130 million girls were out of school, but after the school closures introduced to restrict the spread of the virus, research suggests that ten million more girls are at risk of never returning to school. The immense efforts taken to get girls the opportunity of a better future that education provides are – in millions of cases – being reversed.

For too many girls, being out of school is not just about not learning. It can mean facing abuse, being put to work, being married off or otherwise having their futures snatched away from them. It is estimated that 2.5 million more girls are at risk of child marriage as a result of the pandemic, and one million more girls are at risk of adolescent pregnancy. For the lucky amongst us, this pandemic may have been a tedious intermission in our lives, but that, at base is all it has been. For these girls, it has taken away their ability to shape their own futures.

Over the last ten years, under Conservative Prime Ministers, there have been fewer more powerful forces for the rights of women and girls on the world stage than the UK Government. Projects like the Girls’ Education Challenge have supported millions of girls through school, our progressive leadership in family planning has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives in childbirth and helped women to control their own futures.

When others stepped back, such as in President Trump’s introduction of the Mexico City Policy restricting family planning, the UK stepped up. But Rishi Sunak’s announcement that the Government will break its promise to keep aid spending at 0.7 per cent of our national income puts this role in jeopardy just when it is most necessary. As every other member of the G7 increases its aid in response to the pandemic, the UK is alone in shirking from the task.

The recent reports of cuts in our support to countries like Yemen and Syria are a stark reminder of the practical impact of our broken promise. But It won’t just be in warzones where it’s felt. Girls growing up in extreme poverty, faced by the injustice of gender inequality and the oppression it brings, will have a lifeline withdrawn just when they need it most. I salute MP colleagues who are making it known to the Conservative whips that they will not be party to this abdication of our moral duty on the world stage.

For so many within the party, support of the 0.7 per cent is a cultural shibboleth helping to define the type of Conservatism we practice – and a quick headcount shows our number can tip the scales. So I welcome weekend briefing rolling back a permanent cut to a temporary one. But, frankly, I’d rather the Chancellor reconsidered his decision entirely. The UK shouldn’t balance its books on the backs of the world’s poorest and what a waste it would be to reverse the phenomenal progress towards gender equality of which we have been a part.

There has been much political discussion in recent years about how women succeed, what the barriers are and how we individually and collectively can overcome them. It’d be patronising to suggest that the intervention of others is the decisive factor in this, but it is absolutely undeniable that the context in which women grow up helps to shape their chances.

Millions of the next generation of women will have a tougher start in life, and a slimmer shot at success, because the withdrawal of UK aid will make it harder for them to learn, harder to avoid abuse and child marriage, and harder to take their futures into their own hands.

Garvan Walshe: The Integrated Review’s tilt to Asia could leave us vulnerable closer to home – and Putin

18 Mar

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

The Integrated Review has emerged as two documents in one. Much of it focuses on trying to bring together different types of threat to our security – from hostile states to terrorist groups, hybrid warfare and misinformation, as well as longer term problems like climate change.

It is full of sensible recommendations for “deeper integration across government”, better crisis management, more coherent policy development and so forth. This is as fine as it is not new (remember Tony Blair’s “joined-up government”?). It would be strange policy paper indeed that advocated the promotion of incoherence and the implementation of contradictory policies.

But government always has to do many different things at once, each making compelling (but often contradictory) demands on policy, reflecting different political constituencies and requirements, and promoted by people with the different personal agendas, as is to be expected in a democracy. Addressing this diversity takes time and thought that is always in short supply. The review is part of that process of thought, and worthwhile for that reason alone.

It is also the first serious attempt at developing a new foreign policy doctrine for the UK since Brexit, and the Government has been wise to wait until the end of the Trump Administration before releasing it.

An unstable, corrupt, semi-authoritarian United States would have made an uncomfortable partner indeed in a world otherwise dominated by a resentful European Union and an assertive China. It is Biden’s restoration of sane, boring US leadership that makes a realistic post-Brexit foreign and security policy feasible. The Review is right to worry about China’s rise, and right, too, to recognise that the post-cold war world moment of Atlantic triumph is passing.

This last half decade has seen the return of geopolitics in the assertion of power by an adventurous Russia and an increasingly hardfline China.

Yet if there is cause for concern in this Review it is that the politics has crowded out the geo. Take, for instance, increasing the cap of available nuclear warheads. Perhaps it is useful to have the freedom to have more available, but without more submarines to launch them it is hard to see what practical they could it could have. It’s not as if the new Dreadnought-class submarines would have time, during a nuclear exchange, to swim back up the Clyde to reload. The proposal did, however, managed to nicely provoke the left.

It’s the “geo” that should give more pause for thought. The Review grandly divides the world into “Euro-Atlantic” and “Indo-Pacific” regions, without really acknoweledging that we’re right in the middle of one of them, and 6,000 miles away from the other.

I’m all in favour of standing up to Chinese aggression (and was even involved in this effort to come up with some ideas about how it might be done), and the Government, again, is right to reverse the beggary of the Osborne-Mandelson erea, when Falun Gong flags were removed from protestors lest they offend the Chinese premier, and the unwise and expensive contract for Hinkley Point C was agreed. Yet strategy is the art of applying means to secure ends, and this is where the Review’s “Indo-Pacific tilt” falls short.

It is indeed the case that the most serious threats to democracy and freedom on this planet are likely to emerge from the Chinese Communist Party, but it doesn’t follow from that that Britain’s main role should involve the prepositioning of military equipment in Asia.

Rather, the greater risk of conflict in Asia means that the UK’s aviation and maritime capability would be required to maintain deterrence against Russia in the event of a major conflict in Asia on which US resources had to be concentrated.

That would clearly be much harder achieve if most of the Royal Navy is in the Pacific protecting the Queen Elizabeth from Chinese anti-ship missiles. Such back-filling may not be the most exciting task but, given the facts of geography tilting to Asia, we risk finding ourselves in the position of the 1990s Colombian goalkeeper Higuita, who would pay upfield while leaving his net undefended.

It is in Europe, after all where Russia tries to make inroads, to the alarm of Poland, the Baltic states and the Nordic countries. It is to Europe’s south where the main ungoverned spaces that host terrorist training camps survive, and it is to Europe’s south-east where a difficult Turkey-EU relationship poses problems in the Western Balkans and Aegean.

And as much as the natural impulse of Brexit is to prove Britain’s openness and optimism by striking out to Asia, the Indo-Pacific tilt increases Britain’s security dependence on Europe, and in particular on the EU’s own institutions that are growing in military and policy-coordination capability. The debate in Paris and Berlin as well as the more traditionally integrationalist Brussels Rome, and Madrid now centres around achieving “strategic autonomy” (code for being able to do more without the US) for a more integrated European policy bloc. One of the strongest arguments against it has been that doing so would unnecessarily alienate the UK, whose interests also require it to contribute to European security.

The creation of such a strategically autonomous bloc has not, to put it mildly, been a British foreign policy objective over the last few hundred years, but a British decision to concentrate on projecting power in Asia would leave gaps, in the event that the United States is unable or unwilling to come to Europe’s defence. If the Government is convinved that a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is in the national interest, it needs to give more thought to who will backfill for us, and in particular our Nordic allies, when the next Russian provocation comes.

Iain Dale: Biden seems to forget his Defense Secretary’s name, and the media says nothing. Imagine if it had happened to Trump.

12 Mar

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

Poor Piers Morgan. Said no one ever. A narrative has grown over the last few days that he has been “cancelled” by ITV. He has fuelled that by alleging that he has been sacrificed on the altar of free speech.

Sometimes being a professional controversialist can come back to bite you on the backside. Personally, I am very sorry he has left Good Morning Britain. In the five years that he has been presenting on it, its audience ratings have been lifted out of the doldrums to a point where the show could have potentially outgunned BBC Breakfast. That is in large part, but not exclusively, down to Morgan.

Even people who can’t stand him found themselves tuning in to rubberneck some of his poor interview victims. It was often compulsive viewing, even if at time it seemed to be too much about him, rather than the people he was talking to.

He was the cock of the walk who ruled the roost. His fellow presenters knew their roles and were happy to play them. Susanna Reid had a lot to put up with but she was brilliant in playing the yin to his yang. She became mistress of the well placed eye-roll.

So what happens now to both Morgan and GMB? Morgan will come up smelling of roses. He always does. He’s already being courted by Andrew Neil and GB News. It wouldn’t surprise me if he re-emerged on the new News UK channel. He’s know to be close to Rebekah Brooks. They’ve already signed by Lord Sugar, if rumours are to be believed. A show with both of them on it would be a surefire ratings hit.

As for GMB, it’s got a big decision to make. Do producers seek to replace like with like and recruit a Morgan sound-a-like or do they go the more conventional route? It’s a big decision to make and will define the show for the next few years.

– – – – – – – – –

It is profoundly shocking that a serving Metropolitan Police officer should have been arrested in connection to the disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard.

Cressida Dick looked crestfallen in her live news conference on Wednesday evening. I was in the middle of presenting Cross Question, and members of my panel found it difficult to maintain their composure. City AM’s Andy Silvester was close to tears. So was I.

The conversation about women’s safety is rightly continuing to dominate the news. While no one should run away with the idea that all men are misogynist women-hating bastards, it’s clear that a lot needs to be done to educate men on how not to spook women who are quite innocently walking along a dark street late at night.

Apparently the police have been knocking on doors around the streets where Sarah lived in South London and asking women to stay in and be more careful. While I understand the motive for doing that, their time might be better spent talking to men and asking them to think about ways they can help women feel safer. For example, if you’re walking down a street behind a woman late at night, just cross to the other side.

I took a call on my show from a mother who had been attacked in the woods by a man and the first thing she was asked by the police was “what did you do to provoke him?” The man was spoken to but unbelievably wasn’t charged. A few weeks later he committed a very serious offence against a woman and was sent to jail.

It is hardly surprising that so few women come forward to report incidents of sexual harassment or assaults if they don’t feel they will be taken seriously, or will be blamed by the police. That’s where attitudinal changes really need to be encouraged. And enforced.

– – – – – – – – –

This week Joe Biden appeared to experience a “senior moment” at the White House when he forgot the name of his Defense Secretary.

It was excruciating to watch. I covered it on my radio show but I hardly saw a mention of it elsewhere.

Imagine if it had happened to Donald Trump. Imagine the acres of newsprint that would be devoted to it. Imagine the US talks shows. They would have talked of nothing else. Imagine if Donald Trump hadn’t held a news conference for 40 days. Biden hasn’t seen fit to call a single one, I’m told.

And this is where people understandably lose patience with the media. They don’t like double standards. Biden is getting a free ride from the US media in a way that Trump never did. Nor should he have.

– – – – – – – – –

The Premier League has written to clubs, managers and players asking how VAR could be improved for next season. It’s very simple. Abolish it. It’s ruining people’s enjoyment of football. It really is as simple as that.

Ben Roback: Vaccination in America – a research and manufacturing triumph. Now for the next challenge: getting needles into arms

10 Mar

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Is the American vaccine rollout a success story?

Joe Biden is on the cusp of signing his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law, in advance of the 14 March deadline when the previous package of support runs out.

With the Senate split 50-50 and Kamala Harris breaking the stalemate, the White House has no choice but to keep every Democrat on side in any vote that progresses through the budgetary reconciliation process, in which only a simple majority is required.

The President’s plea for political unity has yet to bear fruit on either side of the political aisle. The divides that have split Washington appear just as entrenched as ever before; not a single Republican in the Senate voted to support the plan.

This meant that Senate Democrats were able to hold out for their own checklist of amendments. This situation emboldens Democrats to supply the de facto Opposition-In-Chief. Step forward, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose last-minute objection to the size and scope of the legislation required 11 hours of negotiation throughout the night to broker a deal.

The final bill’s headline measures include $400 billion in one-off payments of $1400 (quickly phased out for those with higher incomes), $300 a week in extended jobless benefits for the 9.5 million people made unemployed, and $350 billopn in aid to state and local governments. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill today.

Swift passage is expected despite progressive Democrats, led by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, questioning whether they can support the legislation. Conservatives fear the package is too generous and wasteful, pointing to underlying economic and employment data. The US economy added a surprisingly high 379,000 jobs in February, with expectations for higher numbers ahead as bars and restaurants reopen and Americans begin to travel again.

Republicans are therefore expected to offer blanket opposition in the House. That makes Biden’s next task – selling the plan to red and blue states around the country – an uphill struggle.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink

Whilst Congress has horse-traded over the legislation, the Biden administration has kept one eye fixated on ramping up the nation’s best line of defence against the virus – vaccine production.

The President’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA) last month has bolstered vaccine production and increased the supply of testing kits and PPE. Just as importantly, it prevents exports of certain materials needed to manufacture vaccinations, including gloves and filters.

The invocation of the DPA is not unique to this president; Donald Trump was often accused of not giving Covid the time, attention or respect it deserved, but he invoked the authorities of the DPA no fewer than 18 times to counter the pandemic. Biden’s invocation of the DPA and overarching Covid strategy meant the White House has brought forward the target date for vaccinating all Americans by two months to the end of May.

The expedited vaccination timeline was attributed to an agreement, brokered by the White House, between Johnson & Johnson and Merck. The traditional pharmaceutical competitors will now work together to expand the former’s vaccine production capabilities. By that measurement, the US vaccine rollout is a success story in parallel with our own, given the numbers on our shores suggest all those over 50 may now be vaccinated by the end of March — two weeks earlier than planned.

Politicised jabs

It is a sad reality but hardly surprising that attitudes to the vaccine have become deeply embossed along political lines. A poll this week found 67 per cent of Americans plan to get vaccinated or have already been inoculated – good news, given that the World Health Organization said that 60-70% of a population must acquire resistance to the virus, either through infection or vaccination, to achieve herd immunity.

Look deeper, and partisanship becomes clear. 23 per cent of Republicans said they would “definitely” not get vaccinated, while another 21 per cent said they “probably” will not get the vaccine when it is made available to them.

So if the aim on both sides of the political divide is one nation under vaccination, Donald Trump holds a disproportionate amount of power in his hands. Given the strength of feeling the Republican base retains for their recently departed leader, a campaign led by the former president encouraging Americans (read: Republicans) to get the vaccine would be a hugely powerful tool in the fight against vaccine misinformation.

To his credit, at the recent CPAC conference, which confirmed Trump as the runaway leader for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, the former President said the word “vaccine” a dozen times. Trump continues to identify the vaccination program through the prism of his own administration’s success in getting Operation Warp Speed underway. He touted his defiance of the FDA and the expedited approval of two vaccines. “So everybody go get your shot”, he encouraged the audience. Those words were an island of sanity amidsr a sea of familiar grumblings about election malfeasance and political score-settling.

Warren Buffet has made a career out of his “never bet against America” mantra. In the fight against Covid, the United States has shown renewed strength. The traditional timescales for vaccine testing, approval and production have all been upended. Supply no longer looks to be an issue since the invocation of the DPA.

Biden and Trump deserve joint credit for the progress made so far. Until this point, the American vaccine program looks to have been a proud success story. But researching, approving and manufacturing vaccines for the masses is only as useful as the ability to get it into people’s arms. Failure to launch a major cross-party campaign encouraging vaccination uptake will render Operation Warp Speed (Trump) and the increased firepower of the federal government (Biden) moot. The onus now rests with the American people, and their willingness – or otherwise – to get the vaccine. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Jason Reed: Dowden’s latest task? Regulating the internet. Here’s what Australia can teach us about that challenge.

10 Mar

Jason Reed is the UK liaison at Young Voices, a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center and a communications advisor for the British Conservation Alliance.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden finds himself burdened with an almighty task: regulating the internet. His new ‘Digital Markets Unit’, set to form part of the existing Competitions and Markets Authority, will be the quango in charge of regulating the social media giants. Dowden, like the rest of us, is now trying to discern what can be learned by rummaging through the rubble left behind by the regulatory punch-up between Facebook and the Australian government over a new law forcing online platforms to pay news companies in order to host links to their content.

Google acquiesced immediately, agreeing to government-mandated negotiations with news producers. But Facebook looked ready to put up a fight, following through on its threat to axe all news content from its Australian services. It wasn’t long, though, before Mark Zuckerberg backed down, unblocked the Facebook pages of Australian newspapers and, through gritted teeth, agreed to set up a direct debit to Rupert Murdoch.

The drama down under has been met with a mixed response around the world, but it is broadly consistent with the trend of governments shifting towards more and more harmful and intrusive interference in the technology sector, directly undermining consumers’ interests and lining Murdoch’s pockets. The EU, for one, is keen to get stuck in, disregarding the status quo and unveiling its ambitious plan to keep tabs on the tech giants.

In the US, the situation is rather different. Some conspiracy theorists – the type who continue to believe that Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States – like to allege that the infamous Section 230, the item of US legislation which effectively regulates social media there, was crafted in cahoots with big tech lobbyists as a favour to bigwigs at Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on. In reality, Section 230 was passed as part of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, long before any of those companies existed.

Wildly overhyped by many as a grand DC-Silicon Valley conspiracy to shut down the right’s online presence, Section 230 is actually very short and very simple. It is, in fact, just 26 words long: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Not only is this a good starting point from which to go about regulating the internet – it is the only workable starting point. If the opposite were true – if platforms were treated as publishers and held liable for the content posted by their users – competition would suffer immensely. Incumbent giants like Facebook would have no problem employing a small army of content moderators to insulate themselves, solidifying their position at the top of the food chain. Meanwhile, smaller companies – the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow – would be unable to keep up, resulting in a grinding halt to innovation and competition.

Another unintended consequence – a clear theme when it comes to undue government meddling in complex matters – would be that vibrant online spaces would quickly become unusable as companies scramble to moderate platforms to within an inch of their lives in order to inoculate themselves against legal peril.

Even with the protections currently in place, it is plain how awful platforms are at moderating content. There are thousands of examples of well-intentioned moderation gone wrong. In January, the Entrepreneurs Network’s Sam Dumitriu found himself plonked in Twitter jail for a tweet containing the words “vaccine” and “microchip” in an attempt to call out a NIMBY’s faulty logic. Abandoning the fundamental Section 230 provision would only make this problem much, much worse by forcing platforms to moderate much more aggressively than they already do.

Centralisation of policy in this area fails consistently whether it comes from governments or the private sector because it is necessarily arbitrary and prone to human error. When Facebook tried to block Australian news outlets, it also accidentally barred the UK-based output of Sky News and the Telegraph, both of which have Australian namesakes. State-sanctioned centralisation of policy, though, is all the more dangerous, especially now that governments seem content to tear up the rulebook and run riot over the norms of the industry almost at random, resulting in interventions which are both ineffectual and harmful.

The Australian intervention in the market is so arbitrary that it could easily have been the other way around: forcing News Corp to pay Facebook for the privilege of having its content shared freely by people all over the world. Perhaps the policy would even make more sense that way round. If someone was offering news outlets a promotional package with a reach comparable to Facebook’s usership, the value of that package on the ad market would be enormous.

Making people pay to have their links shared makes no sense at all. Never in the history of the internet has anybody had to pay to share a link. In fact, the way the internet works is precisely the opposite: individuals and companies regularly fork out large sums of money in order to put their links on more people’s screens.

If you’d said to a newspaper editor twenty years ago that they would soon have free access to virtual networks where worldwide promotion of their content would be powered by organic sharing, they would have leapt for joy. A regulator coming along and decreeing that the provider of that free service now owes money to the newspaper editor is patently ludicrous.

That is not to say, however, that there is no role for a regulator to play. But whether or not the Digital Markets Unit will manage to avoid the minefield of over-regulation remains to be seen. As things stand, there is a very real danger that we might slip down that road. Matt Hancock enthusiastically endorsed the Australian government’s approach, and Oliver Dowden has reportedly been chatting with his counterparts down under about this topic.

The humdrum of discourse over this policy area was already growing, but the Australia-Facebook debacle has ignited it. The stars have aligned such that 2021 is the long-awaited point when the world’s governments finally attempt to reckon with the tech behemoths. From the US to Brussels, from Australia to the Baltics, the amount of attention being paid to this issue is booming.

As UK government policy begins to take shape, expect to see fronts forming between different factions within the Conservative Party on this issue. When it comes to material consequences in Britain, it is not yet clear what all this will mean. The Digital Markets Unit could yet be a hero or a villain.

Iain Dale: The EU has no interest in Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. It just sees it as a mechanism to exert its power.

5 Mar

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

Most budgets are curate’s eggs. Good in parts. This one was no different.

Politically, it was a triumph for Brand Rishi. It was well delivered. His post-Budget press conference was slick and smooth. He comes across as a transparently nice and competent individual. That’s because he is.

But was it a budget with a narrative? Was it a “reset” budget? Was it a transformational budget? No, it was not.

It is possible to argue that it couldn’t be anything else than be a budget for the short term, given we have no idea where we will be this time next year, but even if you accept that argument, it disappointed on a number of levels.

The super-deduction measure was innovative and will have a massive event on investment over the next two years. And then it ends. It’s too short term, and should have surely been tapered.

Did corporation tax really need to be increased in one go by six per cent in two years’ time? Wouldn’t a gradual approach have been better, even if you accept it needed to rise. Which I do not.

It’s a tax rise which will inevitably make this country less likely to attract the levels of foreign inward investment in the long term. You can’t argue one day that lowering business taxes is a good thing and makes us more competitive, and then argue that by putting up corporation tax by a quarter still means that we are just as competitive.

Leaving the EU certainly gave some companies pause for thought about locating here, or increasing their presence here. We are lucky that most decided to go ahead anyway, but we do not need to give any company an excuse not to do so.

We may still have the fifth lowest rate of corporation tax among G20 countries, and yes, as Sunak argues, our rate will still be lower than in American, Canada, France, Germany and Italy.

But I’m afraid that argument cuts little ice in a world where the last thing the British government needs to do is do anything to put off businesses considering building a presence here.

Having said all that, two snap opinion polls show that the public approve the Budget with only 11 or 12 per cent disapproving. So from a political point of view, it was job done for the Chancellor. But I still wonder whether a bit more long term, “reset” thinking was needed and that both Sunak and the Government might come to regret that it was largely absent.

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If the pandemic hadn’t happened, surely this Budget would have been all about the post Brexit economy. Brexit wasn’t mentioned directly once in the Chancellor’s speech, although towards the end we heard a few oblique references.

What we needed was a pathway to the future, not just over the next couple of years, but over the next couple of decades. We needed a vision.

Businesspeople needed to be reassured about the future of our trading patterns, not just with the rest of the world, but with the EU. Too many businesses seem to be finding that the so-called “free trade agreement” with the EU is nothing of the sort. The inevitable bureaucratic teething problems in trading with EU countries are still there, two months on.

OK, there are no queues at Dover, but the attitude of (particularly, but not exclusively) of French customs officials leaves something to be desired. I hear time and time again reports that countries deal perfectly happily and efficiently with the US, China or even Russia, yet find it that deliveries to European customers are being returned to them by couriers with no explanation and on multiple occasions. They feel powerless to do anything about it.

And don’t get me started on the Northern Ireland protocol, whose only effect so far as I can see has been to effectively annexe Northern Ireland to the EU. Just as Martin Selmayr threatened.

The EU has no interest in Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. It just sees it as a mechanism to exert its power. It is a constitutional outrage that British companies are not free to trade without restriction to all parts of the sovereign United Kingdom. The checks that are now being demanded by the EU are so disproportionate as to be totally unreasonable. The British government bent over backwards to make a compromise to meet EU concerns that the Single Market could be compromised, but its goodwill has been exploited at every turn.

At some point this has to stop, and the unilateral extension of the grace period is the inevitable consequence of EU inflexibility. It is not, as the Irish government unhelpfully says, a breach of international law. What it is, is a sign that Britain’s patience with the EU on this issue is about to expire.

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I’ve been watching a new documentary on how Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election called The Accidental President.

It’s made by the British film maker James Fletcher, who is now based in New York. Fletcher will be familiar to many for his work filming David Cameron for the WebCameron project back in the day.

It’s a fascinating account of Trump’s rise to the presidency. There was no narration, no voiceover, just 90 minutes of original campaign footage together with lots of testimony from political commentators, eye witnesses and vox pops.

The most powerful moment was when commentators were asked to name Trump’s campaign slogan. They all trotted out “Make America Great Again”. They were then asked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan. None of them could recall it, bar one, who recalled it was “Stronger Together”. He then followed it up with “whatever that means”.

If proof were needed that political slogans can be all powerful, then we now have it.