Ian Smart: Scotland and the next election. The Tory trap that Johnson is preparing for Starmer may not work.

11 May

Ian Smart is a lawyer and blogger who has been a member of the Labour Party since 1974.

On the 28th of March 1979, the Labour Government led by Jim Callaghan lost a vote of confidence by a single vote, triggering a general election which will no doubt be of very fond memory to those of my readers old enough to remember it.

Most however will have largely forgotten exactly how that election came about. But not in Scotland we haven’t.

At the previous October 1974 General Election, the SNP had achieved their then-best ever result, returning eleven of Scotland’s (then) seventy-one MPs. Almost as significantly they were the second party, behind the Tories or Labour in just about every other seat in Scotland.

Opinion polling indicated that had there been an election in 1976 or 1977, they might well have secured a majority of Scotland’s seats.

They had got themselves here by, in electoral terms, being a sort of super-Liberal Democrats: all the localism, plus the added factor of a flag. If you wanted to oust a Tory incumbent (then more bits then than you might think) in bits of Scotland where Labour wasn’t really challenging locally, then you could vote SNP.

More worryingly for my own party, who then bestrode Scottish politics, the same thing happened where the Tories weren’t contenders. And we had much more to lose.

But underlying this there was still an assumption among the electorate that the SNP were ultimately (like, dare I say it, the pre 2010 Liberal Democrats) an anti-Tory party.

So let us return to the 28th of March 1979.

On the 1st of March there had been the first devolution referendum. A narrow majority had voted for the creation of (what would then have been) a Scottish Assembly.

But this still counted as a loss, thanks to a provision that victory required at least 40 per cent of the electorate voting Yes. This was introduced to the Bill by George Cunningham, a Labour MP, and passed because of support from a significant number of other Labour MPs also voting against their own Government.

And the extremely narrow and ultimately inadequate margin of victory for ‘Yes’, which pre campaign had been assumed to be a shoo-in result, was because many of the most prominent No campaigners had been from the Scottish Labour Party: Robin Cook, Brian Wilson, and, probably most famously, Tam Dalyell.

So, suffice to say, post-referendum relations between Labour and the SNP, never good, were at a long-term low. When Callaghan announced that he couldn’t simply ignore the 40 per cent rule, the Nationalists lost the plot and put down a vote of no confidence.

Margaret Thatcher, spotting the moment, took it over. By-elections had long since deprived Callaghan of an absolute majority and, all attempts to cobble one together having failed, the Tories, with the support of all eleven SNP MPs, won the vote. The rest is history.

What happened next is why this little history lesson holds a vital lesson for today’s Labour leadership – and a warning for Conservatives who complacently assume they will be able to re-run their brutally effective ‘Vote Miliband, Get Salmond’ campaign from 2015 at the next election.

The 1979 election is engraved in the hearts of Scottish Nationalists. They lost nine of their eleven seats, holding one of the others only by a whisker (and then because Labour, perhaps not entirely wisely, fielded a candidate who had only recently left the Communist Party).

More significantly still, Thatcher got down to the job.

The 1980s should have been a golden era for the SNP: the spectre of permanent Tory rule; their deep hostility to devolution; and a raft of policies which were not, to put it mildly, universally popular in Scotland.

But their efforts to capitalise on it were hamstrung by the fact, which Labour never stopped pointing out, that the Conservatives were only in power because the Nationalists had put them there.

The Nationalists simply could not get a hearing and at the 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections there was no speculation as to whether they would gain seats, only whether they would even keep the two they had.

Even the very minor revival, to six seats, they enjoyed in !997 was very much in the undertow of the Blair landslide in parts of rural Scotland which even the maestro could not reach and on the clear understanding that the SNP would never again vote to bring down a Labour government.

That understanding remains to this day and believe me, getting that to be formally acknowledged will be a central focus of Scottish Labour’s next general election campaign.

Now, having dealt with the past, let us deal with the future.

I don’t want to annoy my readership here so I will only say that if you were a betting man or woman you might think the current most likely outcome of the next general election is a Labour plurality but without an overall majority. It is certainly much more difficult for us to win without Scotland.

But you see we would have Scotland whether we win there or not. For the SNP could never vote to bring down a Labour Government, even less so if the alternative were saving Boris Johnson’s bacon. If they did, they would pretty much lose all their seats (again).

This means that come the campaign, Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t need to offer the Nationalists “radical federalism” or indeed anything else. For what, in the event of a hung parliament, could they possibly do? If we’re far enough ahead in England and Wales they might just be able to abstain on our Queen’s speech but, if not, they’d just have to vote for it.

In 2015, Ed Miliband could not escape the trap the Tories dug for him in part because he couldn’t admit in advance that his party was about to get crushed in Scotland. Starmer has no need to hide from the facts, and this means he can take a very clear line on how he will conduct himself in the event of a hung Parliament.

This helps him both ways both ways. In England and Wales, we can rebut any suggestion by the Conservatives that Starmer would sign up to a deal which either undermined the Union or saw the Nationalists getting lots of extra cash when voters all over the country are grappling with the cost-of-living crisis.

And if the SNP object, Scottish Labour can pin them down on the question of whether or not they would support his Queen’s Speech.

That puts Sturgeon in a tricky spot: either she says her MPs will back it without conditions, disarming the Tory trap in England, or she sends left-of-centre voters in Scotland a clear signal that Nationalist MPs might stop Labour booting Boris Johnson out.

She won’t want to do that. The SNP haven’t forgotten 1979 – or what happened to the Liberal Democrats in 2015. So if the Tories are waiting for Starmer to play into Johnson’s hands on this, I suspect they’ll be sadly disappointed..

Stewart Jackson: A reshuffle that moved some of the Prime Minister’s critics into the Cabinet would be prudent

10 Jan

Stewart Jackson is a former Conservative MP and Special Adviser, and is the Founder and Director of UK Political Insight.

The precipitous recent decline in the poll ratings of the Prime Minister and predictions of electoral doom are indicative of two enduring phenomena: that Boris Johnson is unique and, like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair before him, dominates the political landscape.

Conservative MPs will largely sink or swim as a result of the electorate’s judgement of him. But there’s nothing new in these setbacks, and many Conservatives have little institutional memory, and perhaps little understanding, of the vicissitudes of modern politics.

The bien pensant liberal media classes and their cheerleaders such as Matthew Parris are loathe to concede it, but the Prime Minister is a historically significant figure. He not only led the movement (or at least the last throes of it) which resulted in the UK’s exit from the European Union but, more fundamentally, built a mighty vote-winning electoral coalition founded on culture and community rather than class and capital.

What Johnson has had in spades is not just celebrity and chutzpah, but luck: inheriting a safe Commons seat in 2001 when the Tories had detoxifying work in progress; coming to power in London during a Conservative renaissance in the capital when the voters were sick of Ken Livingstone, and quitting the Cabinet after the Chequers plan in 2018 – to usurp the pitiful May interregnum and break the Brexit impasse.

The Prime Minister’s greatest weakness is that he loves to be loved but, ironically, the more hysterical and cacophonous the shrieks of his critics, the stronger he becomes politically. To many Tory voters, all the usual suspects hate the Prime Minister – not least bcause they believe that he was and should be one of them.

However, he lacks a Praetorian Guard in Parliament who will walk through fire for him (even John Major had one) and the relationship that many Tory MPs have with the First Lord of the Treasury is cynical and transactional.

Covid restrictions, tax rises, self-inflicted wounds such as the Paterson affair, ethical issues, the fall out from reshuffles and recurring problems of miscommunication between Number Ten and Conservative MPs have all soured the glad confident morning of December 2019.

Johnson still has the power to forgive – and a reshuffle that pulled some hitherto irreconcilables and malcontents back into the tent would be prudent politics.

My erstwhile colleague at Crosby Textor and electoral wunderkind, Isaac Levido, has compared the post Covid scenario as like when the tide is at its lowest: all the Prime Minister’s problems lie like broken boats on the harbour floor.

Brexit and future relations with the EU, the cost of living crisis and soaring energy prices, social care and the demographic timebomb, delivering the levelling up agenda and regional and national infrastructure, the busted local government funding and planning systems respectively, fighting the “Blob” in the delivery and reform of publc services and the endemic problem of uncontrolled immigration – all are moving up the list of voter salience.

But there’s nothing new under the sun. In 1979, Thatcher wrestled with an inflation rate of 13 per cent and interest rates of 17 per cent. Even John Major, barely a year before besting Neil Kinnock in the 1992 General Election struggled with a jobless figure in the millions, 10 per cent interest rates and annual price rises of seven per cent – none of which Johnson will experience next year or, most likely, before the next general election.

The last two months will have actually helped Johnson and his most devoted supporters to shake free the contagion of complacency and “BoJo is teflon” exceptionalism: the Cabinet revolt against further Covid restrictions was  timely and good for efficient government. It means that in future, controversial policies are likely to be more routinely challenged, and will be improved upon by robust critique.  The Iraq War showed that Cabinet government by fan club very rarely ends well.

The Prime Minister’s most urgent strategic challenge is the same as that for Thatcher, Blair, Major and David Cameron – namely, how to reinvent his Government. For Brown and May – similar personalities – it was already too late. But such reworking was done in 1986 after Westland and in 1991 before the ERM catastrophe.

Most recently, David Cameron offers hope and inspiration. (Yes, I did write that sentence!) His clever decision to back a Private Members’ Bill to give effect to an EU Referendum in 2014 soothed the Eurosceptic fever in the Commons, and allowed the Conservatives to focus on their retail offering to voters at the 2015 election.

What also helped teamwork and discipline then was a narrow but consistent poll lead for Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, and the prospect of a re-energised Opposition and a possible SNP-Labour colation government.

Today, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is off life support, is winning the right to debate, is more credible than during the last six years, and sp tighter polls will concentrate the minds of fractious Conservative MPs. For all that, though, Labour is miles from looking like a government in waiting and, frankly, if Wes Streeting is the answer, it’s a very silly question.

Specifically, the Government must rebuild its demoralised electoral coalition, keep the Right broadly united and it develop a positive case for the continuance of a Conservative Government – a compelling narrative and a legacy.

Support amongst Leave voters has slumped from 72 per cent to 56 per cent during the last six months, and Red Wall voters are disilusioned and impatient.

Currently, many Tory supporters in the South and South West, ABs and C1s who voted Remain, but were terrified of a Corbyn government, are angry about tax rises, general incompetence, planning, Tory Sleaze 2.0 (sic) and are shopping around for a protest vote.

Ironically, Theresa May’s entrance speech on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street in July 2016 provides the Prime Minister’s own template for rejuvenation.

There’s more than enough time to deliver on a commitment to localism – a repeat of the successes in Tees Valley and the West Midlands. Michael Gove has the acumen and strategic nous to understand that building enough houses for young voters is now existential for the Conservative Party – after all, you can’t create capitalists who don’t and can’t own capital. And deregulation, tax cuts and demonstrable Brexit wins, such as freeports, must be front and centre in the Conservative story.

The voters don’t care for Singapore on the Thames, but they generally favour traditional Tory values.The Cabinet, for all the media criticism, still has condident and pesuasive voices, such as Steve Barclay, Grant Shapps and Ben Wallace.

Johnson still has aces to play: by historic standards, he’s still polling reasonably well, even if the May local elections will be brutal. And as public opinion in the wake of the Colston statue trial has shown, the War on Woke energises his base, and is a cultural wedge issue which drives many newer Conservative voters.

But such action will be hobbled without firm and radical action on immigration.Similarly, “barnacles must be scraped off the boat” – such as socially liberal tokenism in new legislation, tax rises to fund green initiatives and appointing political opponents to public bodies.

It surely isn’t too much to ask for a Conservative Government to be, well, fundamentally Conservative? Competent, compassionate and communitarian. Johnson has limited time to deliver but at least he now knows and comprehends more than ever, as a classical scholar, the immortal words of the Roman slave to his Emperor: “respice post te, mortalem esse memento” – “look around you, remember you are mortal.”

Profile: COP26’s Alok Sharma – who put himself on the map by inadvertently shedding tears in Glasgow

17 Nov

Politics, Alan Watkins used to observe, is a rough old trade. But occasionally, amid the ritual insults and casual cruelties, we see a politician give way to more generous feelings.

Such a moment occurred in Glasgow at the end of COP26, when Alok Sharma fell silent, unable to speak for emotion as he said sorry for a last-minute diminution in what had been agreed.

Delegates could see he was on the brink of tears, and began to applaud. The wider world applauded too, touched by the sight of a politician who had entered with a full heart into the task of bringing the climate conference to a successful conclusion.

Here was proof of the old dictum that an ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts. At the age of 54, Sharma had at last emerged as a political figure in his own right. Ed Miliband, for Labour, had “nothing but praise” for him.

“He really does deserve an honour,” agreed a floating voter who in her time has backed everyone from Tony Blair to Nick Clegg.

Sharma until this moment had appeared to be yet another minister who was no more than a dull, laborious apparatchik, a careerist who had long since sacrificed his capacity for human feeling.

This was not actually the case. In July 2017 Sharma wept in the Commons while delivering, as Minister of State for Housing, a statement about the Grenfell Tower fire.

And those who knew him well esteemed him. Oliver Letwin, whom Sharma served as Parliamentary Private Secretary from June 2015, yesterday said of him to ConHome:

“Absolutely splendid person. Clever, conscientious, high-minded, kindly, easy-going, delightful company. The tops.”

A year later, Theresa May sent Sharma as a junior minister to the Foreign Office, where he enjoyed the distinction, almost certainly unique among Alan Duncan’s colleagues, of not once arousing the wrath of that acerbic diarist.

The Foreign Secretary, a certain Boris Johnson, received a mixture of praise and blame from Duncan.

Johnson formed a high opinion of Sharma, who in 2016 had been a staunch Remainer, but who now thought it was essential to respect the result, because “anything else would not be good news for democracy”.

He went on to explain, in an interview with ConHome in February 2019, that after the referendum

“I was disheartened for a period of time. But actually straight after that, when Theresa May became Prime Minister, I became Minister for Asia and the Pacific, and I spent literally every other week getting on a plane to Asia on a Wednesday and coming back on a Sunday.

“The interesting thing was that absolutely every single government and every single foreign investor that I met thought that us leaving the European Union would present significantly more opportunities for bilateral trade and investment.”

In 2016 Sharma had endorsed May’s candidacy for the leadership. In 2019, he wrote a piece for ConHome explaining why he was backing Johnson:

“I have worked closely with him in Government, during my time as a Foreign Office Minister. I saw just how deeply he cares about Britain’s place in the world and our ability to project a global footprint, which will be increasingly important post-Brexit. I have also seen first-hand his ability in meetings with foreign dignitaries to strike up good and productive relationships and engender real warmth and positivity.”

So the “global Britain” project, which seems to its critics like so much hot air, is one that Sharma has been working on for several years.

He was born in Agra, on the Yamuna River south of Delhi, but at the age of five moved with his parents to Reading, on the River Thames west of London. They set up a business, and his father, Dr Prem Sharma, became a respected figure in the Conservative Party, for which Alok first volunteered to deliver leaflets when he was 11.

He was educated at the Blue Coat School at Sonning, on the Thames, and at the University of Salford, where he read Applied Physics with Electronics, after which he qualified as a chartered accountant and became a banker, working in London, Stockholm and Frankfurt.

But he hankered after politics, and his wife, who is Swedish, encouraged him to put in for the seat of Reading West, which he won for the Conservatives in 2010, after the previous, Labour MP, Martin Salter, had retired.

In his maiden speech Sharma remarked:

“The comedian and actor Mr Ricky Gervais grew up in Whitley, not far from where my parents lived when they first moved to Reading. I do not know Mr Gervais personally, but it is entirely possible that we loitered in the same shopping precinct when we were youngsters. Of course, one of us has now gone on to great things – and the other has become a Member of Parliament.”

One notes a talent for self-deprecation which might have been the prelude to a lifetime of obscurity. But as Sharma has repeatedly demonstrated, modesty is not incompatible with strong emotion.

In 2013, he paid tribute in the Commons to a Conservative leader who had just died:

“My father often remarked that Margaret Thatcher was not just the first British female prime minister, but the first British Asian prime minister. He was not joking – he does do jokes, but never about Baroness Thatcher. He always said that she might not look like us, but she absolutely thought like us. What he meant was that she shared and empathised with our values, experiences and ethos. For immigrant families such as mine, she was aspiration personified…

“My parents started their own business in the late ’70s. As anyone who has run a business or tried to run one knows, it is pretty hard work when it first gets started. My parents certainly went through some pretty tricky times, but the one thing of which they are absolutely certain and I am absolutely certain is that if it were not for the economic policies that Margaret Thatcher and her Governments followed, they would not have prospered—and without them, I would certainly not be here today.”

One trusts that some brilliant young scholar is already studying the affinities between Thatcher and a number of ministers who came to prominence after 2019 (cf Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak).

This is work that could most fittingly be performed at Oxford University, in penance for denying Thatcher, its alumna, an honorary degree.

For although some of the finest young minds in that home of lost causes are Roman Catholics, one trusts that light will also be shone on the affinities between Methodism, Hinduism and Thatcherism. Religion plays a larger role in British politics than our generally secular press is capable of noticing.

Sharma said after Glasgow, at the Sunday afternoon press conference in Downing Street, “I’d had about six hours’ sleep in three days.”

His tears were the result of tiredness: no doubt that is part of the truth. And no doubt another part of the truth is that, as he told Nick Robinson,

“I just get on with things with the minimum of fuss and do the best I can.”

But success brings its penalties, one of which is that people cease to be so charitable.

“People like him, but he is incurably lightweight,” a senior Tory close to the COP26 negotiations told ConHome. “Yes, he was nice to people. He has a fawningly oleaginous manner.

“But he was not even in the room when the deal was done between John Kerry and the Chinese negotiator, Xie Zhenhua. The UK team didn’t even know the deal was coming. Sharma was crying out of frustration and fury that he’d been humiliated.”

That is certainly not how it looked to the delegates in the hall in Glasgow, or to the wider audience. But is is perhaps a measure of Sharma’s arrival as a major player that he now attracts criticism.

Norcott tells us why Radio Four is no longer funny

29 May

Where Did I Go Right? How The Left Lost Me by Geoff Norcott

When did comedy on BBC Radio Four become no laughing matter? And why has Labour lost the working class?

If Geoff Norcott were writing this review, he would now drop in a deadpan joke, just to reassure the reader, or readers, that he is not about to go all portentous on us.

He sounds nervous about not being funny enough often enough. For a comedian, this is a good fear to have, though at a personal level it must also get wearing.

There are laughs on almost every page of Norcott’s memoir. “I laughed out loud – Andrew Gimson, ConservativeHome” will not shift a single extra copy, could indeed reduce sales by suggesting that no decent, left-wing member of society would want to be seen dead reading this book.

All the same, I laughed out loud. And since I never quite believe recommendations of this kind – for it is more than possible that the reviewer is given to over-statement, or is trading favours with the author, or else has absolutely no sense of humour – here is a passage by Norcott himself.

His father, a one-armed trade unionist, has become seriously ill, and the family have gathered at the hospital, braced for bad news:

The consultant breezed in. You might think “breezed'” is already a verb loading the bases for bias but there’s no other way of describing it. She was in her early forties, seemed to be sporting a recent suntan and bore no hallmarks of someone about to deliver the kind of sombre news she was there to impart. As she checked the notes she seemed to remember the context and did a tilted head sad-face which reminded me of Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous when she feigned melancholy with her daughter Saffie. 

She started with a decent level of gravitas, “So I’m afraid to say it is late-stage pancreatic cancer.”

We all stopped, breathed in and looked at one another.

Then, after a brief pause, the consultant added, “It’s the same cancer Patrick Swayze died of.”

I stared straight at her. It was such a bizarre thing to say. I didn’t know what she was getting at, whether she’d said that to shed light on the condition or if she was suggesting we, as a family, should be proud that our dad was going out with a relatively high-profile cancer twin. Meanwhile, Dad was staring so hard at the woman I was convinced he was about to turn the air blue.

“Who the fuck is Patrick Swayze?” he eventually asked, never especially up on pop culture.

“He’s the one from Big Trouble in Little China,” my sister explained.

“No,” I interrupted, “that’s Kurt Russell, he just looks like Patrick Swayze.”

If you enjoyed that passage, you will enjoy Norcott’s book. If not, not.

But this book is not just enjoyable. It also explains, without portentousness, why comedy on Radio 4 has stopped being funny, and why Labour lost the workers.

For Norcott is a comedian who alone among his trade, decided to come out as a Conservative. In this memoir he describes his journey, as Tony Blair would call it, from a dodgy South London council estate to voting Tory.

Looking back, he detects twinges of small-c conservatism even his his childhood. At the age of 11, he goes off to school, leaving his mother in her dressing gown, “smoking and gasbagging” with the other mums, who are sitting on the stairs adjacent to her front door:

“When I got back at 3.30 p.m. she was still sitting there, still in her dressing gown. I was livid.”

He remarks that this experience “has left me with a lifelong distrust of dressing gowns”.

He was certainly not ready to come out as a Conservative, but he does already have a “pathological fear of poverty”. His parents have got divorced, which makes their finances more precarious, but he admires the work ethic of his stepfather.

This, palpably, is the way to escape poverty, as long the state doesn’t take most of your money in taxes and hand it out to the idlers on the estate who sit around all day in their dressing gowns, getting more money from inactivity than they would from an honest day’s toil.

But I have slipped into preaching mode, which Norcott never does. His conservatism is more a matter of intimations than of moral certainties.

Those belong to the Left. His parents took every chance to reinforce the prevailing narrative that the Tories “don’t give a toss about normal people”.

Something about this doesn’t quite fit. Norcott, born in 1976, goes to Rutlish School in Merton Park, and while he is there, a former pupil becomes Prime Minister.

At the 1992 General Election, the Conservatives run a successful ad campaign addressing the charge that they don’t care about normal people:

“What did the Tories do with a working-class boy from Brixton? They made him prime minister.”

Norcott is not exactly a Major fan:

“Like most people in Britain at that time, my view was that I didn’t mind him. He inspired an almost ideological level of ambivalence.”

Yet when Major comes to speak at his old school, it turns out there is more to him than that:

“The staff at Rutlish, like at most teaching faculties, were overwhelmingly left wing. Coming off the back of the Thatcher years, they were quite open in their contempt for the Tories. And yet, on the night Major came, it’s fair to say he surprised everybody by charming their leftie pants right off them. ‘What an honest man,’ they eulogised. It was also noticeable that he had a particular effect on the ladies. Before his affair with Edwina Currie became public knowledge, the last thing you’d have had Major down as would’ve been a ‘playa’, but the female staff were disturbed by how charismatic they found him… As my mate Michael put it, having met him, ‘The bloke’s a fucking unit. He’s got shoulders like a cupboard.'”

Norcott observes that the Labour candidate, Neil Kinnock, “seems a bit of a pillock”, for example by saying “We’re all right!” in “a preposterous American accent” at “a needlessly glitzy and self-congratulatory rally in Sheffield”.

It is also harder, Norcott remarks, to become Prime Minister if you are “bald, ginger or Welsh”, and “Kinnock was all three”:

“I’m not saying those aversions are morally justifiable but part of the Conservative mindset is understanding the public as it is, not as you wish it to be.”

In the mock general election held at his school in 1992, the year Major astonished the pundits by winning, Norcott ran as a Liberal Democrat.

Not long after this, his mother loses the use of her legs, he has to spend a lot of time looking after her, and his predicted grades at A level slump.

Goldsmiths College, whose recent alumni include Damien Hurst, Blur and Tracey Emin, offers him a place to read English if he gets two Bs and a C.

He astonishes everyone, including himself, by getting three As, but goes to Goldsmiths anyhow, where he finds the corridors “full of toytown revolutionaries trying to save Cuba, whales and rainforests”, while “a lot of the people I knew back in Mitcham were still busy trying to save themselves and their families”.

For the first time, he realises that he is “properly working class”. When people look down on him he feels chippy, but when they are supportive he feels patronised.

He has one or two strange jobs in advertising, veers into becoming an English teacher, almost by accident starts a parallel career on the comedy circuit, and gets married to the love of his life, who suggests, when he has gone full-time as a comic and is casting around for new material, that he could make some jokes about becoming a Conservative.

Which he does. The joke is that he is the only Conservative comedian. The entire trade is monolithically left-wing, which is one reason (though he doesn’t bother, or is too tactful, to point this out) why Radio Four has ceased to be in the slightest bit funny (though I admit it may have started to be funny again: I reach with desperate agility for the off button whenever a supposedly comic programme is about to be aired).

We are being told what to think. Instead of being invited to laugh at the world as it is, we are instructed to hold the right opinions about the world as it ought to be.

The objection to the progressive package deal is not that the opinions are wrong, but that they are compulsory.

Puritans can’t bear the theatre, its frivolity, immorality and unpredictability. They yearn to shut it down, and somehow they have managed to shut it down on Radio Four, crushed beneath a leaden layer of self-censorship.

The subversiveness of comedy – which usually includes the absurdity of the comic, the willingness of him or her to look ridiculous and make jokes at his or her own expense – has been supplanted by a uniform and monumentally dull moral certainty.

Self-righteousness is not funny, but why waste one’s time getting into a row about it, when the only effect is to make one’s opponents more self-righteous.

As the 2015 General Election approaches,

“In the circles I moved in, it seemed it had been universally decided that no one agreed with austerity and unconvincing head of sixth form Ed Miliband would surely become leader of the world’s fifth largest economy.”

Instead of which, the Conservatives under David Cameron win an overall majority of 17. “WHO DID THIS?” Norcott’s right-on colleagues scream.

“11.3 million people,” he wants to reply, but is “hesitant about throwing sarcasm into an already febrile environment”.

The media devote a lot of attention to the “Shy Tory” phenomenon, but in Norcott’s view they overcomplicate the matter, for

“all that really happened was people had seen the increasingly vengeful moral certainty of the Left in full view since 2010 and had wisely decided to keep schtum.”

Norcott is not particularly keen on Boris Johnson, and says almost nothing about him in this book: “He’s not my kind of politician.”

But one cannot help reflecting, as one reads this account of the awakening of a South London Conservative, that one reason for Johnson’s success is his unrivalled ability to mock the solemn rule of virtue which the self-righteous hypocrites of North London are determined to impose on us.

Robert Halfon: Usually, my inbox is flooded with emails on every conceivable subject – just not John Lewis or wallpaper

5 May

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

The People’s Priorities

Usually, my inbox is flooded with emails on every conceivable subject, from animal rights to free school meals and Universal Credit. But, bar a few robotised missives, I have had barely a peep from Harlow residents about Lulu Lytle, John Lewis, wallpaper or sofas. Neither has interior design been mentioned on the doorsteps to our local council candidates.

Although this may be unfathomable to the Westminsterocacy, is this really that surprising? The country has been in a state of national emergency. We appear to be getting over the worst of the pandemic, the vaccination programme has exceeded all expectations and the gradual padlock removal from the lockdown gates is upon us.

In the run-up to local elections, much of the farrago is seen as political opportunism. Not least with the leader of the Labour Party posing in John Lewis with a wallpaper roll – an Ed Miliband “bacon roll” moment (although at least this went viral).

So, without counting chickens, I am relatively hopeful for these elections. Conservatives have run a gritty street campaign focusing on affordable housing, education and skills, and value for council taxpayers. Good Conservative councils cost you less.

Meanwhile, in a hangover from the Corbyn era, in my constituency of Harlow, a Labour Candidate has been campaigning and organising a petition against army Cadet course in a local school. Not quite the people’s priorities. Starmer has a lot of work to do if he is to change his party a la Blair.

In the meantime, every good wish to Conservative council candidates and to all campaigning volunteers activists, every good luck and success. You deserve it.

The Watchful Peace

Whatever happens tomorrow at the polling stations, it really does mean that, in terms of the pandemic here in the UK, the era of the “Watchful Peace” is upon us.

Unlike last summer, during which I dutifully munched holiday burgers to “Eat Out to Help Out” and naively imagined the worst was over, this time it really does feel a little different.

If we can keep various Covid strains from entering the country (or at least like South Korea, successfully knocking them on the head when they arrive), we could get back to the way things used to be, before March 2020.

The question is, of course, how back to normal will things ever be? Is everyone just going to crowd back on commuter trains, or spend hours in traffic driving to and from work on the M1, M4 and M11? Will the urban Pret a Mangers suddenly fill up once again? Can our larger office buildings in the City be rejuvenated as the worker-bees return?

For my part, I hope not. It is not that I want to stay at home – far from it. I am looking forward to the day when Parliament is back to its old self once again.

However, if there can be more balance between work and home life, surely that can only be a good thing? If people spend more time in their own communities, local economies, small businesses and employment all stand to benefit, not just those of large cities. If there is less commuting and travelling, that means less traffic, pollution and more importantly, a significant cut to the cost of living.

I believe that employers should decide where they need their employees to be, but many will be more imaginative than they have been in the past. There are huge savings in office costs to be had and potentially more productive workers.

With the advent of Microsoft Teams and Google, connections are that much easier. Of course, nothing will ever substitute human relationships and face-to-face meetings, especially networking and sealing the deal. However, I suspect under the watchful peace, it will be more quality over quantity.

Not forgetting the private sector workers who kept the show on the road during Covid

But in speaking of the above, I am just referring to those employees who have been able to work from home during the pandemic – predominantly, the so-called “professional classes”.

The other day, I was called by a national newspaper asking me if I would give a supportive quote to the idea of public sector workers getting a medal for all they have done during the pandemic. “Absolutely”, I said, “but what about all those millions of workers from the private sector who also kept the show on the road – the supermarket workers, delivery lorry drivers, couriers, pharmacy employees and many more besides?”

Unlike the employees I was referring to in the previous segment, not only don’t they have the luxury of even having the option of being able to work from home, but travail for long hours on low pay. There are no 38 Degree-style automated campaigns battling for their wage increases, or a proper pension.

Recognising the millions of people in the private sector who did so much during the Coronavirus can’t just be about a medal. I have long believed that the central purpose of levelling up must mean cutting the cost of living for those just about managing.

The Government should recognise their contribution by focusing on further tax cuts for the lower paid and strengthening their employment rights so that these workers can also enjoy a quality of life.