A warm welcome to GB News. The channel’s launch signals a wider reset for the media.

14 Jun

Yesterday, after much anticipation, it was the launch of GB News, a TV channel that has promised to shake up traditional media in the UK. More than 164,400 people reportedly tuned in, ahead of BBC News (133,000) and Sky News (57,000), and it’s no wonder the ratings were highest. Over the last year, GB News has had a huge amount of free publicity, due to the strong reactions its very existence has provoked. 

For Conservatives, Brexiteers and otherwise, GB News is a sign that their views are finally going to be fairly represented in broadcast media (after years of watching Question Time panels with only one Leaver, and shock election results). For others, it’s the death of political impartiality in TV journalism; the Americanisation of British politics, and even worse. So what was the reality of GB News’ first night?

The immediately striking thing about GB News is that it unabashedly embraces “Britishness”, with a logo that incorporates the colours of the Union Jack – and an assurance from Andrew Neil, Chair of GB News, as he opened the show. Staring into the camera – think John Humphreys at the opening of Mastermind in terms of the lighting – he told viewers that  “we will not come at every story with the conviction that Britain is always at fault”, in what will surely be a comforting message to those fed up of Britain bashing.

Neil’s speech set out GB News’ mission. It wants to be diverse in all senses – representing Brenda from Bristol as much as the London activist – promote free speech, and to get to the “real” issues worrying voters (expect less about Downing Street curtains, and more on council tax). “Because if it matters to you, it matters to us”, Neil said – in a slogan that underpins GB News’ desire to be led by its audience. Throughout, viewers were allowed to ask questions via video link.

Soon after his opening segment, Neil introduced viewers to the presenters for the show, many of whom will be familiar to either people who tune into Sky/ BBC, or those in favour of less “traditional” media. In fact, the beauty of GB News is how its organised its hires. Executives have paired household-name presenters – Alastair Stewart, Colin Brazier, Simon McCoy – with voices from more unorthodox outlets (think podcasts especially), where they have gained large followings and been brave at calling out cancel culture, among other “woke” trends GB News wants to combat (Andrew Doyle and Inaya Folarin Iman, for instance).

GB News clearly wants to challenge accepted doctrines of our time, from whether you should take the knee at a football match to the idea that lockdown’s benefits outweigh the negatives. Dan Wootton, who has his own show on GB News, laid into the Government’s policies – in a move that will have pleased those, including myself, who are worried about restrictions being expanded today. Some of the reactions on Twitter showed just how unfamiliar the public is with having this perspective put forward on TV. (It’s interesting that nowadays you find it most on Talk Radio or podcasts – again, showing how much these opinions have come off TV to the listener market).

Although the show had some teething issues – the sound didn’t work when Neil Oliver was interviewed, for instance – some of the attacks on GB News said more about its critics than the channel itself. The Guardian gave the show one star and called it “deadly stuff” in a review more bitter sounding than Guy Verhofstadt post-Brexit – and others obsessively Tweeted their hatred for the show. Why did they spend the hottest day of the year doing this if it was so torturous?

GB News should be congratulated for throwing its hat in the (media) ring. It’s easy to complain about the status quo in broadcasting, but to actually change it is something few do – especially in such a short period of time.

GB News’ emergence should also be seen in a wider context – as a “reset” moment for the media. Quietly audiences have been slipping away to channels they feel better represent them, whether UnHerd, Triggernometry, The Megyn Kelly Show (and these are just my favourites). So it’s really no wonder why the media is more scathing than ever in its reviews of new competitors. With the talent and energy behind it, it won’t be surprising if GB News continues to do well in the ratings – and we wish it well at ConservativeHome.

Iain Dale: Cummings is behaving like a woman or man scorned. But you can’t dismiss all that he says.

28 May

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

Thousands of people died needlessly. That’s the main allegation Dominic Cummings made in his seven hours of evidence to the health and science select committees.

But boy oh boy did he go further than that. So far Downing Street has remained relatively calm and rejected most of what Cummings has said, as indeed did Matt Hancock in the Commons yesterday morning. Many people may think Cummings is behaving like a woman or man scorned, and they’d probably be right.

But you can’t dismiss all that he says and wave it away as the ranting of a bitter former employee. There can surely be no doubt that there are serious questions for many people to answer, not least the Prime Minister, Health Secretary and former Cabinet Secretary.

The picture Cummings painted was one of chaos at the centre of government. He said neither he nor the PM were qualified to do their respective jobs and it was a miracle they were both in Downing Street.

I do have a question though. Given Cummings was regarded as Deputy Prime Minister by most people – the most influential man in Number 10, the man with the ear of the Prime Minister, how credible is his “nothing to do with me guv” line?

He was there. He was present. Boris Johnson relied on him, yet he maintains that his warnings were ignored. Yes, he did admit failures on his own part, he apologised again for his visit to Barnard Castle, but the vitriol poured on Hancock in particular had to be seen to be believed. He accused him of lying to the Cabinet, lying to parliament and said he and Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, had tried to persuade the PM to sack his health secretary.

Do I think this is all very damaging to the Government? Yes I do. Do I think it damages Johnson? Yes I do. Do I think it will have any effect on his or his party’s opinion poll ratings? I’m not sure I do. Does the Cummings evidence mean we’re more informed about what happened over care homes, PPE, and lockdowns? Yes, it does. And it also argues for the inquiry to start maybe earlier than is currently intended.

Sometimes these set piece evidence sessions get a huge build up in advance and then on the day it’s a bit of a let-down. Not on Wednesday. This was the most extraordinary select committee evidence session I have witnessed in 40 years of watching them. And that’s saying something.

– – – – – – – – –

How times change. Twelve months ago most journalists and commentators were labelling Cummings a complete liar over his trip to Barnard Castle. They were calling on Johnson to sack him. Now they are hanging on Cummings’ every word, as if his truth is the gospel truth. And it’s clear why. Because they see his evidence to the select committee as a way to initiate the process of bringing down a Prime Minister.

Now it may well be that history will record yesterday as the day which marked the beginning of the end for Johnson, but I doubt it. My suspicion is that when the next batch of opinion polls are published, the Teflon reputation which the PM enjoys won’t have been dented too much, if at all.

I may be wrong, but that’s how it feels to me. Why do I think this? Well, I call it the LBC listener test. When Britain is angry about something, people tend to call into LBC in their droves to get it off their chests.

That didn’t really happen on Wednesday night. Apart from the usual suspects, who phone in every day no matter what we are talking about, the phone lines didn’t really hum. Yes, we had quite enough callers to fill the show, and then some, but were my colleagues in the gallery rushed off their feet? No. They were on the night of Barnard Castle, though…

Having said that, Gaby Hinsliff of The Observer Tweeted yesterday that she’d got the builders in and when they arrived, they were talking about Cummings. She didn’t say whether it was in a good way, or whether they were saying how dare he attack Johnson!

– – – – – – – – –

One thing is sure – that any reshuffle is unlikely to come before the summer recess. If anything, Hancock’s position has been shored up after Wednesday’s events. Even if he is moved, it would have to be to an equivalently ranked position, like education, for example.

If there is a reshuffle it will surely either be held in late July or early September. There were rumours last week that the reshuffle was to be held this Wednesday to deflect attention away from the Cummings evidence. I can’t really believe that was ever a serious suggestion, because it would have undoubtedly backfired. It would have deserved to.

– – – – – – – – –

I first met David Amess back in the mid 1980s when I was working in Parliament and he had just been elected as MP for Basildon in the 1983 landslide. It was a different time. A couple of weeks ago I spent an hour talking to him about his life and career in politics. I think ConHome readers will enjoy it.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Johnson’s former adviser gives us politics as a disaster movie

26 May

“We’re heading for total and utter catastrophe,” Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, told his colleagues on the evening of Thursday 12th March 2020.

Or as Helen MacNamara, the Deputy Cabinet Secretary, put it when she burst into the meeting he was holding with two of his scientific advisers: “I think we are absolutely fucked.”

This is politics as a disaster movie. In his evidence today to MPs, Cummings made Downing Street sound like the control room of a space ship which is hurtling towards oblivion while most of the senior people on board go on convincing themselves, thanks to the operation of almost irresistible groupthink, that no course correction is required.

The captain, Boris Johnson, is “about one thousand times too obsessed with the media to do his job”, and has only become Prime Minister because the other candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, was even worse.

“A choice between two people like that,” Cummings said, “is obviously a system that’s gone extremely badly wrong.”

And as MacNamara has just announced: “There is no plan.”

Cummings proceeds to “press the panic button”, but will it be too late? For a long time it seems that it will be. Today’s dialogue, though often riveting, will have to be cut before this picture makes its way to a big screen near you.

The Department of Health pretended it had prepared for the pandemic, but instead collapsed under the strain, unable even to obtain sufficient supplies of Personal Protective Equipment.

By Cummings’ account, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, lied that “everything is fine on PPE,” and then lied again, blaming the shortages of PPE on Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of the NHS.

How would he rate Hancock’s performance, Rosie Cooper (Lab, West Lancashire) wondered, somewhat superfluously.

Cummings: “I think the Secretary of State for Health should have been fired for at least 15 or 20 things.”

And Cummings did what he could to get this message across: “I said repeatedly to the Prime Minister he should be fired. So did the Cabinet Secretary. So did many other people.”

Meanwhile a small number of brilliant people wrestled to regain control of the stricken space ship. Cummings wishes he had been quicker to understand how bad things were: “If I’d acted earlier lots of people might still be alive.”

At the start of this long session, and several times during it, he said how sorry he was for his own mistakes.

But he also described the rescue mission which he and a few others mounted, once they realised “all the claims about brilliant preparations…were basically completely hollow.”

The behavioural scientists who advised the Government insisted the British public would not accept a lockdown, which is one reason why that essential measure was not introduced sooner.

Unfortunately, Cummings pointed out, “in the field of behavioural science there are a lot of charlatans”.

That is no doubt true, but as Edmund Burke once wrote, “The temper of the people amongst whom he presides ought…to be the first study of a statesman.”

It is the responsibility of ministers to judge what the people of this country will accept: whether in this instance we would accept being prisoners in our own homes, forbidden even to go to the pub, let alone to watch the races at Cheltenham or the football at Anfield.

A big call, but the buck stops with Johnson, not with his advisers, no matter how gifted they may be, and Cummings is clearly very gifted.

Spoiler alert. At the end of the movie, the space ship is saved, though only after an horrifically high number of those on board have died.

We have taken heavy casualties and had one hell of a fright, but as the credits roll, and the feel-good music plays, we are not, perhaps, quite as censorious as Cummings, played as usual by Dominic Cumberbatch, is about the manifold deficiencies of those who were supposed to be running the show.

The Troubles legal cases. After yesterday’s outcome, could the Government return to Lord Caine’s proposal?

5 May

Yesterday the case against two former paratroopers over the killing of John McCann, an Official IRA commander, in 1972 collapsed due to a lack of fresh evidence.

At Langanside Courts in Belfast, Mr Justice O’Hara ruled the evidence “inadmissible” almost 50 years after Soldier A and Soldier C first gave statements, and said material from 1972 had been put before the court “dressed up and freshened up“.

The case has inevitably been incredibly divisive. McCann’s family have accused the state of “failure” at “all levels” over the lack of prosecution.

In the meantime, there’s growing anger in Westminster about veterans being taken to court. Johnny Mercer, the former veterans minister who recently resigned over the Government’s handling of the investigations into the Troubles, called the trial “farcical”.

Soldier A and C’s was the first prosecution around the Troubles shooting since the Good Friday agreement of 1998, but currently over 200 veterans, many of whom are in their seventies and eighties, are at risk of criminal investigations too. Soldier A and C’s legal team had warned in 2016 that earlier evidence from their clients would not be admissible (the soldiers gave statements in 1972 and subsequent ones in 2010), so it raises the question of how the case reached the court – and what else could follow.

Barra McGrory, formerly the Northern Ireland director of public prosecutions, was behind the decision to press ahead with the prosecution, who it’s been pointed out represented Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness while in private practice. Mercer has been critical of the PPS, and asked for “an urgent independent inquiry to establish whether [its] decision was made ‘properly and correctly’.”

Clearly the Government needs to take decisive action, with legislation expected in next week’s Queen’s speech. But it must strike a careful balance, which respects Northern Ireland’s judicial structure (such as having its own Attorney General) relating to its delicate political settlement, while stopping veterans’ cases dragging out for years.

One solution that could create much-needed balance was proposed in 2019 by Lord Caine, formerly an adviser to six secretaries of state for Northern Ireland. His idea was to apply a modified version of Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 and the common law on self-defence, an idea which John Larkin, Northern Ireland’s Attorney General, raised that year in a lecture.

The modification would help legal authorities distinguish between “a split second error of law on the one hand, and the execution of an act of studied illegality on the other.”

Caine proposed that once a legal authority could make distinctions on these complex cases, this could in turn be used for a certificate system. He wrote: “A certificate could only be issued if that legal figure were to conclude that a person potentially under investigation or facing trial had not honestly believed that the action he or she took with lethal or injurious effect was reasonable in the circumstances. If no certificate were to be issued, the investigation or proceedings would cease. Should a certificate be issued, the investigation or proceedings continue in the normal way.”

Elsewhere, there have been proposals for the Government to create a new investigative body to look through the files of 3,600 Troubles deaths and remove cases where there is no compelling evidence. But it could take a long time – during which veterans’ desperately need an end to the ongoing situation.

While reportedly some ministers think the Caine certificate system goes too far, Downing Street seems to be struggling around any proposal at all. Yet its paralysis could prove as politically risky as trying to override the judicial processes that brought Soldier A and C to court.

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

5 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Smith often advised politicians:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DfE has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at school reopenings. But the perennial problem is communication.

25 Feb

With little over a week to go before schools reopen, Gavin Williamson has been busy trying to persuade all parties concerned that it’s safe to go back.

Yesterday at a Downing Street press conference, he outlined plans for schools in England. One of the Government’s biggest moves is a “pandemic package” of extra funding to help pupils catch up with all the learning they have missed during the course of 2020/21.

The Government will fund £700 million in total for England, with a £302 million Recovery Premium dedicated towards state and primary schools. This is designed to help schools support disadvantaged students in whatever way they think is best – whether that’s additional clubs and activities, or something else.

The other huge development is that A-Level and GCSE results in England this year will be decided by predicted grades (teachers deciding pupils’ exam results, based on a combination of mock exams, coursework and essays). More on that later.

As for safety, face masks will not be compulsory in schools, but “highly recommended”, and Nick Gibb, the education minister, said he hoped the majority of students would volunteer to have Coronavirus testing twice a week. Secondary schools and colleges are also allowed to stagger reopenings on March 8 to get testing in order.

The DfE has gone to huge efforts to try and get schools running again. It is trying to pre-empt every criticism that has been levelled at the Government during the pandemic, from schools not having enough tests to concerns about how far behind pupils are, which will be addressed with mass testing and after-school classes, respectively.

One of the toughest challenges for the Government has been deciding how to mark grades. It cannot win, whichever route it takes. When it used an algorithm over the summer – designed by Ofqual – to decide GCSEs and A Levels, this led to huge outrage about exam results. But predicted grades aren’t perfect either. When the Government switched to them after the Ofqual furore, it led to grade inflation (last year a total of 76 per cent of GCSE results were a grade 4 or above compared to 67.1 per cent in 2019).

Williamson said 2021’s predicted grades will be “fair to every student”, and Gibb promised “the best system possible to ensure there is consistency and fairness in how teachers submit grades for their students.” But you sense that it’ll be another troublesome summer for the Government.

Add to that it is already dealing with increasing calls to bump teachers up the vaccine queue. These will only grow after Germany announced it was doing this (even in spite of its terrible difficulties rolling out the vaccine, which make it no model to follow). 

Although the UK government’s scientific advisers have repeatedly spelled out the rationale for the vaccine order, it has been hard to compete with the likes of Tony Blair (who has also called for teacher prioritisation) and everyone else who has suddenly decided they’re an epidemiologist.

Overall, the Government’s biggest problem has always been communication. Up against a vocal opposition – that’s the teaching unions, not Labour – Williamson has struggled to make the case for keeping schools open (and it is a strong one).

As I wrote in November for ConservativeHome, one way the Government could have moved its plans forward is by using an independent taskforce in the way it did for vaccines (with Kate Bingham in charge). I also wrote that “it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good” – at a time when public attitudes to school reopenings actually improved.

Likewise, despite the speedy roll out of the vaccines and a palpable excitement about the Government’s roadmap to easing lockdown, one senses that the problems with school reopenings are far from over.

The mass testing ‘blitz’. Cummings’ Operation Moonshot strategy returns.

17 Feb

Before his dramatic departure from Downing Street, Dominic Cummings had taken the lead on one of the Government’s most ambitious strategies to manage the Coronavirus pandemic; the “Operation Moonshot” mass-swabbing project.

This was the Government’s “game-changer” in the Coronavirus wars – particularly at a time when there was uncertainty over whether a vaccine would be discovered, and growing concerns about the ability of NHS Test and Trace as “Plan B” in pandemic strategy.

Mass testing is designed to tell people if they have Coronavirus within 30 minutes (as lateral flow tests – used for this purpose – do not need lab processing), so that they can isolate speedily. Over the last few months, the Government has piloted mass testing in Liverpool and, more recently, parts of the country where the “South African” and “Kent” variants have been detected.

Along the way, the system has received huge criticism for being “extortionate” and even destined to “fail miserably”. “How the UK spent £800m on controversial Covid tests for Dominic Cummings scheme“, reads one article, which raises concerns around his work behind the scenes, where he had also been developing an Advanced Research Projects Agency (more about that here). Others criticise the efficacy of mass testing, which one study found to have missed 50 per cent of cases.

The point of mass testing is in the name, though – it monitors transmission of the virus at a large scale. To be more specific, it picks up lots of asymptomatic cases. It’s not perfect but quickly means infected people can go into isolation.

The Government and its advisors clearly see huge merit in this approach, and are planning a “mass testing blitz” to ease the current lockdown restrictions. As part of a campaign that’s provisionally titled “Are you ready? Get testing. Go”, NHS Test and Trace plans to send out more than 400,000 rapid lateral flow tests to workplaces and homes per day.

It’s reported that this will be tailored to the staged reopening of the economy, with schools starting again on March 8; universities and further education in late April; and hospitality, leisure and sports in early May (depending on whether Coronavirus rates are low enough).

There is also discussion around whether large and small businesses can be given lateral flow tests between April and May, as well as proposals for music festivals, sports events and arena gigs. Indeed, at Monday’s Downing Street press briefing, Boris Johnson said that mass testing could be used as a possibility for getting theatres and nightclubs open again.

Mass testing will face some public resistance, particularly after the progress that’s been made on vaccine passports. There are concerns about how these could impact on civil liberties, and questions about why we need even more health monitoring by the state.

People may also be wondering why, if there’s a vaccine, the Government is still investing so much time and money in mass testing.

But clearly the Government needs a multi-faceted approach to the pandemic – bearing in mind how unpredictable elements of it have been, with the rise of new variants that could, on a depressing note, eventually bypass the vaccine.

Mass testing is also designed to work alongside contact tracing which has been found to have a limited effect on the R rate.

Although all of these processes have had enormous scrutiny, and – yes – incredibly expensive, the problem is not necessarily the tools themselves – but that the Government has had to create highly complex infrastructure in the middle of a pandemic (the messiest, most resource-intensive way to do things). Thus stories around mass testing and contact tracing are mostly about hiccups in each system, rather than their future potential.

Mass testing’s best days may be yet to come. It’s uncertain. But with Cummings reportedly spending his notice period working on this programme, it’s clear his influence in Downing Street lives on.

Profile: Carrie Symonds, experienced Tory adviser turned Prime Ministerial consort – loyal to her friends, detested by her enemies

17 Nov

Mary Wilson, Audrey Callaghan, Denis Thatcher, Norma Major, Cherie Blair, Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron, Philip May and Carrie Symonds are the nine people who over the last half century have borne the often heavy burden of being the Prime Minister’s consort.

The world does not yet know what to make of Symonds: which of two competing narratives, one highly favourable, the other almost unbelievably dismissive, to accept.

A minister for whom she worked as a special adviser told ConHome: “She was fantastic – utterly loyal, very sound and great fun.”

He pointed out that long before she met Johnson, she was a dedicated Conservative activist: “Carrie is a Tory through and through – not some arriviste.”

Many Conservatives, including many Conservative MPs, believe Symonds showed excellent political judgment by urging Johnson to sack two of the most senior members of his Downing Street staff, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, at the end of last week.

For although Cummings had masterminded the Vote Leave campaign, and Cain had worked for it, neither of them had any respect for Conservative MPs, and both of them tended to erupt in fury when their orders were questioned.

Last Friday, out the turbulent advisers went, but not quietly. They and their friends briefed most bitterly not against Johnson, or against the many others who wanted them gone, but against Symonds, who in many ways presented a softer target, for she could be accused of getting ideas above her station, harassing the Prime Minister and impeding the proper running of the Government.

“Close pals” of Cummings and Cain told David Wooding of The Sun on Sunday:

“Carrie wants to be a new Princess Di character. She’s already got her own spin doctor and own team of people and seems to think she is the most important person in No 10.

“It’s all about the court of Carrie. She’s not helping Boris at all. Everything she does is about her and not him.”

According to Simon Walters, writing in yesterday’s Daily Mail:

“Insiders said the acrimony between Miss Symonds and Mr Cummings and Mr Cain was obvious as far back as March.

“It was then that she allegedly tried to stop the Prime Minister hosting a Covid crisis meeting to deal instead with a newspaper report claiming she wanted to get rid of their beloved Jack Russell cross Dilyn.

“Mr Cummings ‘forced’ Mr Johnson to overrule his fiancée, it was claimed. He told No 10 officials to block any phone calls from Miss Symonds to the Prime Minister about the dog…

“Miss Symonds was said to be livid at a report in The Times which claimed that she no longer liked the animal.

“She went on Twitter to denounce it, saying: ‘Total load of c***. There has never been a happier, healthier and more loved dog than Dilyn.'”

A second source yesterday told ConHome that Symonds would ring Johnson over and over again until he did what she wanted, and insisted that Cummings and Cain had defended the Prime Minister against an unreasonable demand: “It’s pretty bad to be calling the editor of The Times on behalf of your girlfriend’s dog.”

Millions of dog lovers will understand why Symonds was so distressed, and if Auberon Waugh, founder of The Dog Lovers’ Party, were still with us, he would surely contend there could be no better reason to ring the editor of The Times.

H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908-16, remarked in his memoirs:

“The office of the Prime Minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it.”

The same could be said of the role of Prime Minister’s consort. Symonds can make it up as she goes along, is indeed obliged to do so.

She is 24 years younger than Johnson, and the first person to live openly at Downing Street with the Prime Minister without being married, though they are engaged.

In early April, when he went into intensive care, Symonds was terrified he was going to die. At the end of that month, she gave birth to their first child, Wilfred. She hopes to have more children.

Her own parents, Josephine Mcaffee (née Lawrence), a lawyer who did some work for The Independent, and Matthew Symonds, a founder of that paper, were not married to each other.

Anne Symonds, mother of Matthew, and his father John Beavan, later Lord Ardwick, were likewise political journalists of note, and unmarried to each other.

So for Carrie Symonds to feel an affinity with a political journalist of bohemian habits is not entirely surprising.

She was born in London in 1988, and educated at Godolphin and Latymer School and at Warwick University, where she took a First in Art History and Theatre Studies.

Symonds has referred in a tweet to one of her formative early experiences, at the International Fund for Animal Welfare: “It was my internship at IFAW, many moons ago, that first got me hooked on all things animal welfare and wanting to do my bit.”

She is a passionate environmentalist and defender of animal rights. In her first speech after moving into Number Ten, delivered at Birdfair 19, she said:

“Trophy hunting is meant to be a prize… Trophy hunting is the opposite of that… It is cruel, it is sick, is is cowardly, and I will never ever understand the motives behind it.”

That is pretty much her only recorded speech. Last Saturday afternoon, when the PM programme on Radio 4 did a profile of her, it found there are “relatively few recordings” of her.

In another tweet, posted on 2nd December 2016, the day after Zac Goldsmith lost the by-election in Richmond Park where he stood as an Independent, having resigned his seat as a Conservative in protest at the go-ahead being given for the third runway at Heathrow, Symonds declared:

“My first job in politics was working for @ZacGoldsmith & not sure I’d have worked for the Tories if it hadn’t been for him. Owe him a lot”

She worked in 2010-11 as Campaign and Marketing Director for Goldsmith, followed by a series of increasingly senior press jobs at CCHQ, and spells as a special adviser to John Whittingdale and Sajid Javid.

One observer recalled that during the general election of 2015, when she was Head of Broadcasting at CCHQ, Lynton Crosby regarded her as “the best thing since sliced bread”.

In 2016 Symonds demonstrated her independence of mind by becoming one of the handful of SpAds to back Vote Leave, at whose headquarters she appears first to have met Johnson.

During the general election of 2017 she ran Goldsmith’s campaign to regain Richmond Park.

CCHQ believed Goldsmith was going to win easily, so turned off VoteSource in Richmond Park and commanded that resources be redeployed in order to hold off the Lib Dem challenge in Kingston & Surbiton.

Symonds, who worked extremely hard and knew Richmond Park was on a knife-edge, had the wit to defy CCHQ, and had copied VoteSource – a precaution which as Mark Wallace reported for ConHome, other associations were to take before the local elections of 2018, in order to guard against another withdrawal of this essential record of canvass returns.

Goldsmith scraped home in Richmond Park by 45 votes, while Ed Davie recaptured Kingston & Surbiton for the Lib Dems by 4,124 votes. Symonds had made the right call, and was made Director of Communications at CCHQ.

Here she soon fell out with one of Crosby’s protégés, Iain Carter, who was at this time Political Director, and is now Director of Research.

“They both wanted to run the show,” one observer said. “Carrie had very strong views about people. She was unspeakably bad news.”

Symonds resigned in August 2018, after being reprimanded for poor performance. She was also accused of briefing against the Government of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and questions had earlier been raised about her expenses claims.

In January 2018, she had learned that John Worboys, the taxi cab rapist, was due for early release. She had herself been drugged by Worboys in 2007, when she was only 19 years old.

The Ministry of Justice said nothing could be done to challenge the Parole Board’s verdict. Symonds was one of the women who had the courage to launch a crowd-funded bid to overturn the decision, which they succeeded in doing.

Soon after she left CCHQ she joined Oceana, a global marine protection charity funded by Bloomberg.

In September 2018 Johnson and Marina Wheeler, to whom he had been married for 25 years and with whom he has four children, announced that they were to divorce, and Johnson’s new relationship with Symonds became known.

Her entry into Downing Street, and exceptional access to the Prime Minister, will have disconcerted those at CCHQ who had formed a low opinion of her.

A Government source yesterday ridiculed Symonds’ critics for moving from describing her as “a bimbo” to calling her “Lady Macbeth”, and added that both of these descriptions are “absurd”.

The source added that she does not see official papers, cannot block appointments, “is not in the slightest bit regal”, but is instead witty, charming and self-effacing, and has good judgement: “The PM has said the reason he’s PM is that she’s there.”

A former colleague at CCHQ is less impressed: “She’s well versed in making people feel good about themselves, but she’s more obsessed with status than with achieving anything.

“When she was having a very torrid time at CCHQ, she talked round lots of Cabinet ministers to support her.”

The media finds it impossible to reach a just assessment of Johnson’s strengths and weaknesses, because it order to appreciate his virtues, it is necessary to approach him in a spirit of sympathy, whereupon one is immediately open to the charge of sycophancy, and of overlooking his faults.

But if, in order to guard against sycophancy, one begins by enumerating his faults, one is liable never to get round to admitting that he has any virtues.

A version of this problem may apply to Symonds. If you are her friend, and she can trust you, she will be all sweetness and light.

If she sees you as an enemy, or suspects you are going to come between her and the Prime Minister, she will brief against you with a ferocity which may seem unhinged, but which is born, perhaps, from an acute awareness of her vulnerability.

Normal relations between the Conservative leader and Conservative MPs are breaking down

28 Oct

The poor bloody infantry are fed up. As Paul Waugh reports, Conservative backbenchers complain that on the question of free school meals during half term they were sent into action without either a clear objective or a proper plan.

The high command should have foreseen there would be a problem and worked out what to do about it.

Instead of which, those Tory MPs who were bold enough to go over the top, generally the younger and less experienced recruits, found themselves exposed to a hail of criticism.

The moral high ground is firmly in the hands of Marcus Rashford, who has 3.7 million followers on Twitter, to whom he declares in his Pinned Tweet: “It’s time we put party politics aside and worked together to find a long-term sustainable solution to child food poverty in the UK.”

The only practical response to such a statement is to agree with it. Rashford must be treated as an ally, not an adversary, and any accidental exchanges of fire with Rashford’s supporters must be replaced by whole-hearted co-operation in the great cause of feeding the nation’s children.

Instead of which, Downing Street failed to see there was a problem, let alone to grip it, and the Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, expressed the hope that Conservative MPs would have a great half term.

Backbenchers feel Downing Street does not take them seriously, and does not realise they can act as a valuable early warning system, exposed as they are to public opinion in their constituencies.

The letter to the Prime Minister on Monday from over 50 Conservative MPs in northern seats, expressing the fear that the Government’s levelling up agenda is being abandoned, is a further sign that normal methods of communication with Downing Street are reckoned to have broken down.

All Prime Ministers find themselves accused, from time to time, of failing to listen to their own backbenchers. One should not imagine that it is unusual for the leader to seem, especially to his or her own troops, to have become cut off in Downing Street, isolated from normal human emotions, unable any more to see how the poll tax will strike ordinary, sensible voters.

But it is a bit early for Boris Johnson to start suffering from this condition. Part of the trouble is that as long as the pandemic rages, he cannot play his natural game, which is to get out and meet people.

A second problem is that he has never taken the House of Commons seriously. He is by no means the only Tory leader of whom this could be said: neither Theresa May nor David Cameron was really a House of Commons person.

But it is still a pity that Johnson has never had the time or the inclination to get to know his fellow parliamentarians better.

Nor, so far as one can see, does anyone else in Downing Street really know them, or possess that awareness of shifts in parliamentary opinion which is the fruit of long experience.

This is, in fact, an inexperienced administration, containing few ministers or advisers who have been around for more than a few years.

Johnson himself, as I noted when writing my account of his early life, likes to learn how to do things by actually doing them. This was how he approached being Mayor of London, and it began to work once he had found immensely knowledgeable people like Sir Simon Milton who could do the bits he was never going to learn how to do.

There is a kind of high-minded commentator who implies that in the right hands, i.e. those of someone as gifted as the commentator, government can be an exact science. This rhetorical device serves to show in an even worse light the errors made by the present incumbent. We could have had perfection, and instead we have to put up with this.

The public is generally more charitable. It recognises that in coping with a crisis like the pandemic, an element of trial and error is unavoidable.

But there comes a point where it expects that lessons will have been learned from the errors. And it is on this capacity to learn from mistakes that the success of Johnson’s prime ministership will depend.