Profile: Grant Shapps, the blandly implausible Cabinet star who is taking on the RMT

24 Jun

When Grant Shapps was 13 he declared: “My name is Grant, I’m from Pinner, and my ambition is to be a Conservative Cabinet minister.”

Simon Johnson, now Chair of the Rugby Football League, heard him say this when they were both in BBYO, the Jewish youth organisation, and remarks: “At the height of Thatcherism in the 1980s that was a very brave thing for him to say – it exposed him to a lot of mickey-taking.”

Shapps is now a Conservative Cabinet minister. As Secretary of State for Transport, he is in the front line of the rail dispute, but well before that he was one of the few people trusted by Downing Street to put the Government’s case on the morning media round.

He continues to be exposed to a lot of mickey-taking, but mingled with that is a note of respect. As one former minister remarked this week to ConHome:

“In a normal Cabinet of quality he would be a minor chord. But in this Cabinet, where mediocrity is laced with incompetence, he’s a bit of a star.”

A serving minister went further:

“I love Grant. Pre-Christmas, when there was the possibility of a lockdown, he was completely pivotal in Cabinet in stopping it. His intervention was crucial.”

Another influential Conservative, who has seen a lot of Shapps over the years, said of him:

“I can’t help but like him, even though I wouldn’t trust him. He’s probably the Government’s best communicator in terms of the Cabinet. He exudes confidence. He’s absolutely right about the rail strike – he’s brilliant. He reminds me a little bit of Jeffrey Archer.”

Shapps is an odd mixture of ambition, boldness, implausibility, realism and professionalism. All front-rank politicians need the self-belief to recover from, or better still shrug off, what may seem to spectators like a knockout blow.

The Prime Minister possesses that quality, and so, in a different register, does Shapps. When Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT, blamed the rail strike on “Old Etonians speaking Latin and Greek”, the jibe did not land on Shapps, educated at Watford Grammar School (by then already a comprehensive), Cassio College and Manchester Polytechnic, and as a teenager more interested in designing computer games and setting up small businesses than in academic work.

Class war cannot work against the classless Shapps. “He’s got much better on the media,” a close observer remarks. “He’s one of the few who talks normally.”

One might say Shapps talks blandly. He is not much given to coining memorable phrases. He makes his case in a reasonable, workaday tone of voice, which offers his opponents no weak point against which to counter-attack.

And because he has been Transport Secretary since July 2019, so for almost three years, he has had time to work out how to continue the modernisation of the railways, which began many years before he came on the scene.

ConHome revealed in November 2020 how Shapps proposed to seize the opportunity offered by the pandemic to give Britain world-class rail.

The vast sums of public money which were needed to keep the trains running through the emergency meant this was a moment of central control, when it became possible, as well as morally right, to sweep away obsolete working practices.

That argument has only become stronger since. As Shapps himself put it in a speech delivered on Thursday of last week:

“These strikes are not only a bid to derail reforms that are critical to the network’s future and designed to inflict damage at the worst possible time, they are also an incredible act of self-harm by the union leadership.

“Make no mistake, unlike the past 25 years, when rising passenger demand, year after year, was taken for granted by the industry, today the railway is in a fight.

“It’s not only competing against other forms of public and private transport, it’s in a battle with Zoom, Teams and remote working. In case the unions haven’t noticed, the world has changed.

“Many commuters, who three years ago had no alternative to taking the train, today have the option of not travelling at all. Wave them goodbye and it will endanger the jobs of thousands of rail workers.

“The last thing the railway should be doing right now is alienating passengers and freight customers with a long and damaging strike.”

The strike is about who wields the central power which has been reestablished over the railway. Lynch and his colleagues in the RMT wish to demonstrate they can bring the network to a halt, and that they will continue to be able to do so.

The union barons used to be a power in the land, a great estate of the realm, because they could shut things down. In the 1970s, neither a Conservative Government, led by Edward Heath, nor a Labour one, led by James Callaghan, could work out how to regain the initiative.

In the 2020s, the Government would have to be extraordinarily incompetent – never, admittedly, a possibility which can be excluded – for things to play out as badly as they did in the 1970s.

Shapps was born in 1968, so remembers the 1970s. He not only announced in the early 1980s that he wished to be a Conservative minister, but at that time showed precocious gifts as a campaigner by getting himself elected National President of the Jewish youth organisation to which he belonged.

In an interview given to The Jewish Chronicle in September 2010, Shapps said:

“I feel totally Jewish; I am totally Jewish. I don’t eat pork, we only buy kosher meat and we don’t mix meat and milk. I like being Jewish and I married a Jewish girl. It’s like a way of life and it’s good to be able to instil some of that sense of being in your kids.

“All of that makes me seem as though I am quite observant but actually the flipside of this is I don’t know if there is a God or not. But one thing I am absolutely certain of is that God wouldn’t care if you were Jewish or Christian or Muslim.”

Although there are many politicians who, while nominally Christian, Muslim or Jewish, don’t know if there is a God, few actually say this.

Shapps is not merely undogmatic on his own behalf: he says God, if He exists, would be undogmatic too.

As a politician, Shapps does not preach doctrine, but is instead keenly interested in practice. “His approach has been generally sensible in a department that isn’t sensible,” as one Tory transport expert put it.

A railway specialist was less complimentary: he feared that Great British Rail, set up by Shapps, will become “another vast government bureaucracy that no one will be able to manage”.

But most observers think Shapps has done quite well at leading a department which is extraordinarily difficult to lead. One may compare and contrast him with Gavin Williamson.

Both men were desperate to get back into the Cabinet, both were astute enough to realise that Johnson was the horse to back in 2019, but Williamson, rewarded with the post of Education Secretary, soon found himself in serious difficulties, which Shapps, rewarded with Transport, has not.

The road to the fulfilment of his boyhood ambition has been a long one, strewn with obstacles, including a car accident in America in which he almost lost his life, and a bout of cancer which could also have proved fatal.

His recreation, when he can find time, is to fly his own Piper plane, made in 1985. His department has to deal with the airline industry, formidable at lobbying though not always good at hiring enough staff or treating them properly.

Shapps, son of a graphic designer, as a young man set up a printing business, but also sought to become an MP. He failed first in 1997, when he stood in North Southwark and Bermondsey, coming a distant third, and next in 2001, when he lost by 1,196 votes in Welwyn Hatfield.

In 2005, he won Welwyn Hatfield by 5.946 votes, and threw his support behind David Cameron, whose nomination papers he signed.

Under Cameron, steady promotion followed: Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2005, shadow Housing Minister in 2007, Minister of State for Housing and Local Government in 2010, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2012.

But the other Chairman was Lord Feldman, who when profiled on ConHome was described as “the more important” of the two, with much closer ties to Cameron.

There are eight references to Feldman in David Cameron’s memoir, For The Record, and only two to Shapps, one of which reads, in its entirety:

“Grant Shapps became Chairman. He was loyal, energetic, and really wanted it.”

Shapps was sometimes known to the Cameroons as von Schnapps, a nickname which perhaps suggests he was not taken with complete seriousness. He made valiant and for a time successful attempts to get Conservative activists bussed to wherever they were most needed.

But after the general election victory of 2015, he was demoted to the post of Minister of State for International Development, no longer attending Cabinet, and in November of that year he stood down because of  grave bullying allegations which had been made about Team2015, the scheme to move young activists around.

There had also been unwelcome publicity about Shapps’s business activities, touched on in this recent piece for ConHome by William Atkinson, including the use of the pseudonym Michael Green and the promotion of a get-rich-quick scheme which seemed unlikely to make anyone better off.

In October 2017, Shapps  said the Conservative Party could not “bury its head in the sand”, and called for the resignation of the Prime Minister, Theresa May.

The plot was a flop and she did not resign until the summer of 2019, when Shapps backed Johnson to succeed her, and became celebrated for the accuracy of the spreadsheets which he prepared for the Johnson campaign.

“He successfully adumbrated the weaknesses and venality of his colleagues,” as one Johnson supporter put it. Shapps had again proved his usefulness, and made sure everyone knew it.

He also makes sure everyone knows that Mick Jones, lead guitarist of The Clash, is his cousin.

Johnson is a fan of The Clash, and especially of Joe Strummer, the band’s lead vocalist. In November 2005, when Johnson was asked by Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs for “record number seven”, he replied:

“Right. Ah, this is fantastic. It is The Clash, “Pressure Drop”, and the great thing about The Clash, of course, was apart from anything else, Joe Strummer was towards the end an avid Telegraph reader and it was the highest moment in my journalistic career when Joe Strummer actually sent me a letter saying how much he’d admired a column I’d written, about hunting funnily enough, and he was a fantastic man, a great hero of mine, a good poet as well as a fantastic rock musician.”

The Prime Minister will be excited to have appointed a Transport Secretary whose cousin performed with Strummer. Here is not the least of Shapps’s implausibilities.

The post Profile: Grant Shapps, the blandly implausible Cabinet star who is taking on the RMT first appeared on Conservative Home.

Tory leadership elections. A brief history.

6 Jun

A confidence ballot in Boris Johnson may or may not be triggered this week.  While we wait to find out, here is a potted history of Conservative leadership elections

  • Nine Conservative MPs have been returned as Party leader since elections have been introduced – Edward Heath in 1965, Margaret Thatcher in 1975, John Major in 1990 and 1995, William Hague in 1997, Iain Duncan Smith in 2001, Michael Howard in 2003, David Cameron in 2005, Theresa May in 2016 and Boris Johnson in 2019.
  • Five of these nine were elected by MPs only (Heath, Thatcher, Major, Hague and Howard) and four by MPs and party members (Duncan Smith, Cameron, May, Johnson).
  • Six of the nine became Prime Minister: Heath, Thatcher, Major, Cameron, May and Johnson.
  • Four of the nine became Prime Minister after being elected Conservative leader (Major, Howard, May, Johnson). Three of the nine became Prime Minister having formed a government after a general election (Heath in 1970, Thatcher in 1979, Cameron in 2010).
  • One of the nine was elected unopposed – Michael Howard.
  • Two were backbenchers when elected – Howard and Johnson.
  • Four were subject to leadership challenges: Heath, Thatcher (twice), Duncan Smith and May.
  • Three of these took place before the rules governing challenges were changed in 1998 (Heath and Thatcher, twice) and two after (Duncan Smith and May).
  • Two were Leader of the Opposition when challenged: Heath and Duncan Smith. Both lost. Heath was challenged by Thatcher in 1975. Duncan Smith contested a ballot of Conservative MPs in 2003 that had been triggered by the required percentage of Tory MPs.
  • Two were Prime Minister when challenged: Thatcher and May.  Both won (Thatcher twice).  Thatcher was challenged by Anthony Meyer in 1989 and by Michael Heseltine in 1990.  May contested a ballot of Conservative MPs that had been triggered by the required percentage of Conservative MPs.
  • Thatcher resigned shortly after winning the first ballot of the 1990 contest; May resigned in June 2019 having won a ballot of Conservative MPs in December 2018.
  • John Major resigned as Conservative leader in 1995, stood for re-election, and was returned by Tory MPs.

The only point I would stress is that no Conservative leader challenged when Prime Minister has either a) lost a confidence ballot and b) survived winning one by even a year (the Meyer challenge to Thatcher took place in December 1989, the Heseltine one in November 1990).

Johnson may have wanted to be Churchill. But he has ended up like Heath.

30 May

Dig out your flares and Chopper bikes – the 1970s are back in fashion. You may not be mad, in a coma, or back in time, a la John Simm, but one cannot escape the obvious parallels between our current political climate and the decade that style forgot. Our headlines are filled with inflation, energy crises, and the long-heralded returns of ABBA to Wembley and Nottingham Forest to the top flight. Even the Sex Pistols are back – and just in time for a jubilee. It really does feel like we are all doing the time warp again.

And now we can add another throwback to that list: strikes. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has long been quietly preparing for what is being described as the ‘biggest industrial battle in a generation’. With a national ballot poised, the railway union is threatening a ‘summer of discontent’ to protect jobs and win a bigger pay rise. For the Government, the revival of industrial militancy is almost as unappetising a prospect as a return of cheese hedgehogs.

That is especially as, with inflation at a 40-year high, it is not only the RMT that are considering action. The teachers’ National Education Union and the postal workers’ Communication Workers Union are also balloting members. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s push to remove 91,000 civil service jobs has caused the civil servants’ Public and Commercial Services Union to contemplate striking, and the Trades’ Union Congress is asking for a national demonstration next month over living standards.

One can understand their reasoning. In the year to March, nominal total pay rose 10.7 in the finance and business sectors, helped by some healthy bonuses. But in the public sector, the rise was only 1.4 percent – and with inflation galloping past 10 percent, that means large real terms cuts for many on low and middle incomes. The largest union is Unison, representing the NHS. With workers there facing only a 3 percent pay rise, how long can it be until we see nurses on picket lines again?

As unfortunate as inflation may be for many workers, the threat their strike action poses to the country goes far beyond a few cancelled trains or pupils getting the a couple of days off school. The real damage that trade unionists did to Britain in the 1970s – asides from undermining democracy and letting the dead go unburied – was to unleash an inflationary wage-price spiral. Galloping inflation meant galloping wages demands, in a vicious circle of rises that required punishing interest rates and biting tax rises to finally be tamed.

Of course, there are some crucial differences between now and the 1970s. Doctor Who and popular music are much worse, for one thing. But thanks to Mrs Thatcher and Gordon Brown, the structure of our economy is also very different. As Karen Ward of JPMorgan has pointed out for the FT, the share of the workforce that is unionised has fallen from over half in 1979 to only 24 percent today. Moreover, the Bank of England is now independent, with a clear duty to keep inflation in check.

Yet there is still cause to be seriously concerned. Threadneedle Street has hardly covered itself in glory when it comes to keeping the inflationary genie in the bottle. Andrew Bailey is playing catch up on interest rates whilst price rises surge towards double the Bank’s estimates of only six months ago. And even if the days of 25 percent inflation may be long gone, pay settlements anywhere near the current rate of inflation would ensure that a phenomenon ministers hope will be transient will soon become bedded in. The 40-year period of low inflation would be well and truly over.

What is the Government planning to do? Grant Shapps, as is his wont, has talked a good game. Ministers are looking at legislating to make industrial action illegal unless a certain number of staff are working, a proposal mentioned in the 2019 manifesto. But hoping the unions “will wake up and smell the coffee” suggests the Government’s broader strategy largely involves keeping its fingers crossed. An administration focused on living by the next day’s headlines is not ready to fight a prolonged battle against militant workers.

To do so would require a level of foresight and nerve often lacking from the current administration. It is all very well for ministers to complain about tax rises, high spending, or a lack of a plan for growth. But they were elected on a platform of reversing austerity, were complicit in the scrapping of the Government’s only major supply-side reform, and now balance calls for tax cuts with fantasies of raising defence spending to 3 percent in the near future. It is not only the trade unions who should be smelling that coffee.

So the Government finds itself racing towards a fundamental challenge to both its authority and its efforts to get inflation down. Boris Johnson is buffeted by inflation, union militancy, and energy crisis. He hops from u-turn to u-turn, in a government whose only major achievement relates to our membership of a European community. The Prime Minister has long sought to play up the parallels between himself and Winston Churchill. Now his situation much more closely resembles that of Edward Heath, whose premiership was scuppered by economic crisis, trade union strength, and his own hubris.

Of course, it is an open question whether it is Tory MPs or the country who will answer “who governs Britain” first. But a Heathite economic record will bring a Heathite drubbing at the ballot box. If the Government cannot stand firm and get a handle on this inflation, then the most likely outcome at the next election is a Labour government by default, cobbling a majority together with the Liberals and the SNP like Wilson and Callaghan. The only consolation of such a defeat would be that it might produce the same sustained reassessment of Conservative economic thinking that Heath’s defenestration did 50-odd years ago.

Gerry Lyons: How the Bank of England has failed to control inflation. And what should be done to reform it.

3 May

Dr Gerard Lyons is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. He was Chief Economic Adviser to Boris Johnson during his second term as Mayor of London.

This week sees the Bank of England celebrate 25 years of independence. Quite rightly, the current rise in inflation has raised questions about whether it is time to reassess its remit and governance.

There has been a rise in inflation across western economies. That this is more than a UK issue should not divert attention from where the problem lies.

If you are driving a car and approach a red light and decide to not only ignore the signal to stop but put your foot down on the accelerator, you are driving dangerously. That some other cars may do the same does not change that fact. It is not safety in numbers, but is more likely to cause greater carnage. Last year, in monetary policy terms, central banks went through the red light – with their feet down on the accelerator. The Bank of England was near the front.

At that time, it was clear that our economy was recovering and inflationary pressures building. The supply-side shock triggered by the pandemic was already evident. The correct policy would have been to tighten policy, not add fuel to the fire by increasing Quantitative Easing to a mammoth £895 billion.

The question I posed then was: which ‘p’ was this inflation? Would it pass-through, persist or become permanent. The Bank strongly believed it would pass through quickly. It was evident it would persist. It was unlikely to be permanent because of intense global competition but, even if inflation persists, once it then eases it may settle at a higher level than before, say nearer three per cent to four per cent than one per cent to two per cent.

The danger, as was clear at the time, was that even if the initial cause of inflation is a supply-side shock, action needed to be taken to prevent cost-push inflation by which firms raise prices to pass on higher costs, or second-round effects allowing prices and inflation expectations to creep higher. Effective communication as well as clear actions were called for. We got neither.

What are the lessons and implications?

Consider the 1970s. It may be hard to believe, but Britain began the 1970s as the low inflation country of Europe. Monday 15th February 1971 was Decimalisation Day, when we moved from 240 pennies in the pound to 100 new pence.

Ahead of that day, I remember paying my bus fare with pennies that had been minted not just in the early part of the twentieth century but some in the nineteenth century too, with Queen Victoria’s head on them. That such old coins were still legal tender was testimony to how well Britain had kept inflation under control.

Apart from the First World War, when annual inflation averaged 15.3 per cent in the UK, only the 1970s saw high inflation, averaging an annual 12.5 per cent during that decade. There is no reason why, with the right policies we cannot return to being a low inflation economy.

The 1970s showed that inflation is deadly. That’s why the complacency with which the Bank treated it last year was wrong. It is felt by everyone, with the poor and those on fixed incomes like pensioners suffering the most.

Another lesson is that the measures necessary to control inflation are deeply uncomfortable, often requiring sharply higher rates, with damaging economic consequences. Nowadays, with borrowing higher, the economy is not only vulnerable to higher rates, but can be impacted sooner as policy tightens.

UK policy rates are currently only 0.75 per cent, while annual consumer price inflation in March was seven per cent, ten times higher than its rate of 0.7 per cent a year ago. And it will head higher.

Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan all lost elections because of their inability to control inflation. A central feature of the two general election campaigns in 1974, and even of that of 1979, was the use of a shopping basket to show how the Government had failed. Don’t be in any doubt as to who pays the price for a failure to control inflation.

Given this background, and how important monetary policy is in everyday life, one might think Westminster would pay more attention to the Bank of England – to how it is governed and keeping inflation under control. It is now as the cost-of-living crisis bites and the economy slows sharply.

The weekend saw much coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Blair landslide in 1997. An early decision – on 6th May 1997 – was to award operational independence to the Bank of England.

Although a surprise – having not been mentioned in the campaign – independence had been a topic of discussion for some time among economists. Indeed, I remember a well-attended Society of Business Economists debate early in 1997 where David Currie gave the case for central bank independence and I argued against. There were pros and cons. It would embed low inflation expectations, but there was a need for transparency and democratic accountability.

Even the Bank’s own Quarterly Bulletin in 1995 had carried an article by a leading economist, Robert Barro, showing that it was not independence but often an external factor that was the driving force behind inflation. Indeed, China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 contributed to intense competition – helping to drive inflation down globally and in the UK for much of this century.

Inflation has averaged two per cent over the last quarter century. While welcome, this should not divert attention from how the economy has suffered the consequences of three major policy mistakes from the Bank.

First, monetary policy has fed rampant asset price inflation, in financial markets and property. Alongside low property supply, this has fed intergenerational inequality.

Second, a cheap money policy through low interest rates and Quantitative Easing has fed financial instability as markets do not price properly for risk.

Third, the Bank’s recent policies have fed inflation.

Attention usually focuses on the Monetary Policy Committee and interest rates. Thus, the Bank’s other policy committees on prudential regulation and financial policy are too often freed from scrutiny – as is the interaction between these policies. The economy, after all, is significantly affected by the prudential controls placed upon on banks, and peoples’ ability to borrow has been impacted by micro-prudential regulations.

While the Bank, in recent years, has played a welcome role in how finance can help achieve the green agenda, there are other important areas that the Bank should confront. Not least among these is the low level of commercial lending to small firms. It should also be more of a cheerleader for the Square Mile.

Now, it is time to ask whether the Bank’s inflation targeting regime has run its course. I favour a new remit based on a target for nominal GDP. An anti-inflationary monetary policy remains critical, but change is well overdue.

In this much-needed review of the Bank there needs to be a reassessment of its governance, transparency and accountability.

The Bank’ governance is overseen by the Court, but this is rarely held to account, and would appear to pay only lip-service to diversity, not least in thought. Groupthink can be a problem with policymakers. In my view, one might ask if the Bank’s historic underrepresentation of those from working class backgrounds in senior positions hinders how it sees its policies affecting those on low incomes. Its communications too have caused problems. Yet, effective communication is critical – not only to the public and financial markets, but to global audiences too.

Tony Lodge: Heath, Thatcher, Major, Blair – and the litany of errors that left us dependent on gas imports

22 Feb

Tony Lodge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Britain and its leaders are learning the hard way. For the first time since the early 1970s, the country is facing an energy cost and supply crisis and – as then – a Conservative Prime Minister is largely helpless as he grapples with the climax of bad policy making which stretches back over a generation.

Whilst Edward Heath in 1972 faced the wrath of coal unions who had been allowed a stranglehold on energy supplies for too long, Boris Johnson endures a far worse situation – Britain’s growing inability to generate and supply the affordable power it needs. This is coupled with a desperate and growing dependence on imports of gas and electricity to keep the lights on, homes warm, and industry working.

The biggest domestic story of 2022 is likely to be energy prices. Forget parties at Number 10, channel migrants, or Covid fraud. The real crisis for Conservatives will be the steep rise in household bills, and the clear and obvious inability of Ministers to do much about it. Expect power company CEO summits in Whitehall, more urgent statements in the Commons and more public spending intervention to artificially fix prices.

On energy strategy, Britons have endured an unrivalled record of bad policymaking since the 1970s. Contradictory plans and missed opportunities have seriously eroded security of supply, affordability and helped drive jobs and key industries overseas. The die is cast for the short term and here is why.

Lessons could have been learned and the right decisions taken in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but were ducked. We are now paying the price. The right policies then would have shielded Britain now from a creaking system which is wildly exposed when the wind doesn’t blow, and we desperately hold out for the next shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as North Sea supplies fall and gas storage remains poor. How did it come to this and what can we do?

Following his mauling in the first miners’ strike of 1972, Heath foolishly rejected a plan to build over 30 new nuclear reactors totalling almost 40 gigawatts (GW) of new electricity generation. The first plant would have opened in the early 1980s, started insulating Britain from high oil prices and helped wean the country off unionised coal.

Surprisingly and regrettably, Heath, the great Francophile, had ignored the bold plan and leadership from France to build no less than 40 nuclear plants between 1965 and 1985, which today still generate around 70 per cent of comparatively cheap electricity. Instead, Heath left the field open for Labour plans to increase coal burn via the 1974 ‘Plan for Coal’.

In 1980, Margaret Thatcher announced plans for eleven large reactors totalling 20GW of new electricity capacity, but only one was built at Sizewell. The then huge oversupply of coal, power generation overcapacity, abundant North Sea gas and a deep recession had together hurt the short-term commercial case for new nuclear build.

As coal wasn’t the answer and the case for nuclear lacked friends, Britain turned to its precious North Sea gas resource. It is this choice which is now hurting and will continue to do so for some time. The 1990s ‘Dash for Gas’ has led to Britain becoming one of the world’s largest gas consumers per capita, both for household use and particularly for the generation of electricity. Over 30 years, Britain’s North Sea gas bounty has been squandered to a perilous state where supply is increasingly now met from imports.

John Major and his ministers were warned during the early 1990s that the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) would be significantly run down by the mid-2000s if the proposed fleet of large new gas burning powered stations went ahead. Michael Heseltine reassured the Commons in 1992 that UK gas reserves would last for 55 years. He was wrong.

Many argued, including the then Chairman of British Gas, that North Sea natural gas is a valuable premium fuel and should not be wasted to generate electricity, where 50 per cent of its efficiency is lost in the process, unlike when used for direct heating or cooking. This argument was lost and gas replaced King Coal, generating over 50 per cent of UK electricity for the first time in 2010.

Britain’s gas overdependency and growing electricity import habit is the problem, and I first highlighted this for ConservativeHome 13 years ago. The focus must now be urgently to prioritise more domestic gas exploration and extraction, stop supporting plans to import more untaxed electricity from overseas and now turbo-charge new nuclear power. The latter should receive the same focused policy support as that enjoyed by those tasked with beating Covid.

This strategy must surely be Treasury-led. After all, when gas is produced overseas the Treasury loses huge revenues. When electricity is increasingly imported from Europe (as a result of the EU forcing Britain to close power plants early), its generation does not pay British carbon or transmission taxes because the power plants are overseas. Britain is offshoring its fuel supplies, power generation, and consequently losing billions in revenue alongside the erosion of energy security.

Between 2019 and 2020, liquefied natural gas (LNG) represented 40 per cent of all gas imports compared to an average 14 per cent in 2017/18. Imported gas pays no corporation tax in the UK, but it is perversely treated as producing ‘zero emissions’, despite it travelling thousands of miles by ship and carrying a large carbon production footprint. It therefore doesn’t face the same carbon costs, as UK producers which means gas imports are effectively subsidised compared to home production. This import dependency could reach as high as 75 per cent within the next 10 years, so new price spike crises are guaranteed to increase in frequency.

Britain’s dash for gas was a medium-term fix based around a once rich but now dwindled national resource – which has led to huge over-exposure to volatility and imports. Everything must now be done to invest in new domestic gas production to help us through, whilst prioritising the transition to new nuclear power with which renewables and green storage will co-exist. We must stop offshoring our ability to keep the lights on and keep households warm.

Edward Heath lost in 1974 after his second battle with the miners, the three-day week and soaring prices. Conservativs should beware.

K.Harvey Proctor: The real case against Starmer’s term as DPP. How Operation Midland stole my job, my home, and my reputation.

15 Feb

K.Harvey Proctor was MP for Basildon from 1979 to 1983 and for Billericay from 1983 to 1987.

On 31st January, the Prime Minister criticised Keir Starmer for his alleged inaction in prosecuting Jimmy Savile.

Since then, the Prime Minister has been admonished by Savile’s complainants, the Speaker of the House of Commons, some of his own MPs including the Chancellor and the media. Key aides of the Prime Minister have resigned in response.

What are the facts? Starmer established an inquiry under Alison Levitt, and apologised for the Crown Prosecution Service’s failures in the Savile case. As the Prime Minister apparently intends to do on “Partygate”, Starmer took responsibility for the organisation he led, irrespective of any personal responsibility.

In defending the Prime Minister, Dominic Raab claimed that Sir Keir has questions to answer on his tenure as DPP… Raab is right, though he failed to go into details. Let me present the powerful case against Starmer – the one Starmer is terrified to have even mentioned, let alone be questioned upon.

Boris Johnson should have picked Starmer’s real Achilles’ heel. Instead of Savile, the Prime Minister should have criticised Starmer for his “believe the victim” policy while Director of Public Prosecutions.

Instead of upholding the principles of justice that we observe in this country, Starmer succumbed to the post-Savile hysteria and the corporate guilt many institutions experienced.

Was Starmer concerned about chronically low rape convictions, and the impact that these were having on his career as DPP and his potential political career in the future?

Whatever the explanation may have been, he wrote in a 2013 Guardian article that “false allegations of rape and domestic abuse are few and far between…The system makes judgements about people’s credibility that are unwarranted [and there is a] misplaced belief that fake accusations are rife”.

His campaign to provide better treatment to “victims” of the criminal justice system became political and culminated in his Victims of Crime Bill, 2015 – though the correct term is “complainants” not “victims”. He made speech after speech in support of “victims”, which were picked up by the police establishment, inwardly digested and thus bolstered the general diktat.

Thus encouraged, the police abandoned old-fashioned policing, thought they would become “right-on” and got it exactly wrong. Starmer and Simon Bailey, once the police’s national spokesman on child abuse, thought that false sexual accusers were minimal, less than one per cent.

In his report on Operation Midland, Sir Richard Henriques, a distinguished former High Court Judge, thinks substantially differently: he found 10 per cent.  An article by Sir Richard’s article in Daily Mail during 2020 makes this clear.  I know who I believe.

In 2013, while he was DPP, Starmer wrote that, “false allegations can ruin reputations and devastate lives… .. such cases will be dealt with robustly and those falsely accused should feel confident that the criminal justice system will prosecute those cases wherever there is sufficient evidence, and it is in the public interest to do so”.

But two of my false accusers from 2015, Witnesses A and B, have lifelong anonymity. A & B have yet to be investigated, let alone prosecuted after seven years. The MPS still refuse to allow proper investigation and accountability – stating in 2016 that “ there was nothing to prove police had been knowingly misled by a complainant”.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) ordered an outside police force – Merseyside Police – to conduct an investigation into my complaint. It found in favour of the Metropolitan Police. I subsequently lodged an appeal against  these decisions which is still being considered. No explanation as to why witnesses A and B have lifelong anonymity has ever been given to me by the Metropolitan Police.

Genuine victims of child sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy.  I believe that allegations of any nature against an individual should be taken seriously.

However, that should not be to the detriment of professional policing, fairness, and justice. Upon making an allegation, a complainant should be given the time and space and be listened to. It is then the duty of the police to fully investigate and do so expeditiously, without fear or favour. It is not the job of the police to apportion guilt prior to investigating the claims, as we have seen with the Metropolitan Police and its shambolic handling of Operation Midland.

In November 2014, Starmer’s change in policy was endorsed by the then Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Tom Winsor, who stated that “the police should immediately institutionalise the presumption that the victim is to be believed”.

Indeed, it was – by the Metropolitan Police, in announcing to the world at the start of Operation Midland that the allegations made by “Nick” (Carl Beech), of a VIP paedophile ring operating at the heart of Westminster in the 1970s and 1980s were “credible and true”.

“Credible and true” was the euphemism for “believe the victim” used by Detective Superintendent Kenny McDonald , the head of Operation Midland, at a press conference at New Scotland Yard on 18th December, 2014.

From this moment on, with the search of my home and office on 4th March 2015, the nation was led to believe I was a serial child-murdering paedophile before any investigation had begun, let alone concluded.

The IPCC and the IOPC in Operation Kentia cleared all Metropolitan police officers of misconduct and did not even interview key personnel.  The then Commissioner for the Metropolis, now Lord Bernard Hogan-Howe, gave me a face to face apology in December 2016, offered me compensation – and then resigned before agreeing any. It was left to me to gain mediation three years later for settlement, however incomplete.

The direct impact on my life of Starmer’s perverse policy was that I was, again, public enemy number one. No amount of vindication will prevent the “no smoke without fire” brigade still believing that I am the monster that Carl Beech and the Metropolitan Police painted me to be.

My private life was destroyed. I felt my life had been extinguished. I lost my job, my home, my small but content family unit and my reputation. Even after compensation, the financial cost to me is £500,000. I received death threats. I had to leave the country for a year and, since returning, I have lived in a shed for 18 months and, even when I could afford accommodation, I have had to change homes for safety.

I will never return to being the person I was prior to Operation Midland.   It is impossible to overestimate the damaging impact of such torment on an individual. It has scarred me for life and will live with me until the day I die.

As DPP, Sir Keir’s job was to uphold the law. Instead, he overturned the basic principle of innocence until proven guilty. He did not just overturn it; he shattered it and contributed to the inducement of a moral panic.

I know that I am not alone. I am in the company of Carl Beech’s other victims within Operation Midland: Sir Edward Heath, Lord Brittan, Field Marshal Lord Bramall – and other innocent individuals up and down the country who have suffered from this iniquitous change of policy, but lack the platform I have been thrust upon.

However, Starmer refuses to answer questions on this subject, the most catastrophic policy inaugurated during his time as Director of Public Prosecutions.  He has not apologised. I believe Starmer’s silence is deafening. He should be held to account.  I believe the real supporters and guardians of genuine complainants are those calling for the historic balance between complainants and the accused to be restored.

Starmer’s job as DPP was to uphold the law. Instead he overturned the basic principle of innocence until proven guilty. Starmer has questions to answer and apologies to make. To reiterate and assert what I said in Lord Ashcroft’s book, Red Knight, Sir Keir Starmer is not fit to be Prime Minister. He is not fit to be a Leader of the Opposition; he should not grace the benches of the House of Commons.

Liam Fox: I didn’t vote for Johnson as Conservative leader. But now isn’t the time for others to challenge him.

5 Jan

The Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP is former Defence and International Trade Secretary. He was the UK’s Nominee to be Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2020

In the last Conservative leadership election, I did not vote for Boris Johnson. He subsequently sacked me from the Cabinet as he was perfectly entitled to do. I, therefore, cannot be accused of being a sycophant in writing that this is absolutely the wrong time for the Conservative Party to think about a leadership challenge.

Even if we reach the effective end of the pandemic, there will be an enormous task to recover at home and abroad. Global trade will continue to be disrupted for some time and demand downturn in the stronger economies could potentially become a problem for developing nations in their ability to service their debts.

Across the globe, inflation continues to cast a dark shadow with central banks too slow to react as part of their “groupthink” belief that the problem is “transient”. In Britain, a generation that has never experienced the horrors of inflation will learn that it hits the poorest in society hardest.

Politically, the challenge that inflation will bring to the public finances will make it difficult to splash out on big public spending projects, though this may be the silver lining. Abroad, we have an increasingly assertive China making belligerent noises about the South China Sea and Taiwan and, closer to home, the threat of Russian military action against Ukraine. It is a difficult and dangerous period.

This is a time for the whole government to concentrate its efforts on the substantial tasks at hand rather than engaging in a bout of navel-gazing that will lead to division and paralysis. It is not a time to be led by what opinion polls tell us.

Those who hate Johnson because of his role in the referendum campaign, or because they are unwavering in their opposition to the Conservative Party, will never be placated. We should not be swayed by their voices.

Equally, we need to understand the weariness of the public after two years of Covid-19 restrictions of one form or another. As more familiar issues return to centre stage in our politics, the public will expect progress on a wide number of fronts which is all the more reason to focus on delivery. We also need to break away from a culture that sees politics as some sort of X factor contest where personalities become more important than the substantive issues of the day. We do not need potential candidates forming shadow campaign teams within the parliamentary party with the inevitable diversion of energy and division.

It is easy for us to forget the state of our politics when Johnson became leader of the Conservative Party. There was a clear attempt by those who had campaigned to remain in the European Union to prevent the democratic will of the electorate from being carried out. It was, in effect, an attempted political coup against the British people.

Theresa May profoundly believed that it was a matter of honour that she should deliver the verdict of the Referendum but, after her parliamentary majority was lost in 2017, the forces of the opposition parties, a number of Conservative MPs, and the appalling – and unconstitutional – behaviour of the then Speaker, John Bercow, combined to put the whole Brexit process at risk.

The election of 2019, under Johnson’s leadership, produced the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher’s win in 1987 and ensured that Brexit was completed. Just how satisfactory the Brexit agreement will be in the long term remains an active topic of debate, especially in relation to Northern Ireland.

At the time, the most frequent complaint was that Brexit had come to dominate the political landscape so much that all other issues had been pushed to the sidelines. People would ask, “Will we ever get to talk about anything other than Brexit?”. Careful, as they say, what you wish for.

No one could have foreseen how, less than two months after the Conservative election victory of 2019, the world would be gripped by the Covid pandemic. Never has a single issue altered our political discourse as much or consumed so much government bandwidth.

Despite inevitable mistakes being made (which every rational person understands), if the Government had not had both the freedom and wisdom to order large quantities of vaccine in the early stages of the pandemic, Britain would not have been able to produce the world-leading vaccine campaign that we did.

At the same time, the Prime Minister led the G7 and maintained a strong interest in the whole issue of climate change at a time when many others regarded it as an unnecessary sideshow.

This is not remotely to suggest that all is well in the Johnson premiership. For many Conservatives, including myself, the current government smacks too much of “big tax, big spend, big state” more reminiscent of Edward Heath than Margaret Thatcher. The question of the Northern Ireland border remains a thorny subject, and for many a continued border within the United Kingdom is incompatible with the entire ethos of a Conservative and Unionist Party.

The current investigation into whether Covid rules were broken has opened a “one rule for one and another rule for others” narrative that will be hard to dispel. Perhaps more importantly, it has exposed what many of us have believed for some time to be a chaotic internal management system. Johnson has many strengths. Campaigning is one of them, administration is not.

It often takes time for Prime Ministers to understand that the mechanics and organisation of government matter. Sir Tony Blair describes how it took his entire first term for him to realise that when he thought he was pulling levers, he was, in fact, pushing string. It is essential that both sound administration and good political instinct are combined in Number 10 if the Prime Minister is to have any longevity.

One of the most precious commodities for any Prime Minister is their time. It is important that the Prime Minister builds the right team around him, with someone with the authority to make the right calls on what needs to go into his box and to decide which ministerial papers can be signed off on his behalf to prevent a logjam of decision-making in Whitehall. As a former Secretary of State, I know that finding such a person isn’t easy. They require a range of qualities: loyalty, trust, reliability, and especially for our current climate an incredible amount of political experience and a well-practiced political antenna.

He also needs to take an interest in the reshaping of Whitehall.

So, while the current opinion polls are much less flattering than in recent times, we need to remember two things. First, we are 11 years into a period of Conservative government (or at least Conservative led) and it would be more remarkable if we were not having a dip in the polls.

Second, governments have recovered from much worse positions than this, as those who remember the more difficult times of the 1980s will attest. Leadership changes can bring about short-term improvements in political fortunes, but the internal wounds can leave long lasting scars, as the political assassination of Thatcher proved.

Given that the pandemic has become the central and defining issue of Johnson’s government so far, there is some merit in the argument that we will only know the Government’s real agenda in the coming months and that we should defer judgement. This is a time for unity over division, hard work over personal ambition, and putting the country before party. It is not a time for a leadership challenge.

Cockerell’s greatest hits remind us that many of our PMs have been extremely odd

11 Dec

Unmasking Our Leaders: Confessions of a Political Documentary-Maker by Michael Cockerell

Short of a Christmas present for a friend who is interested in politics? Buy this book.

Michael Cockerell, born in 1940, has asked nine of our leaders, beginning with Harold Wilson,

“Do you have any doubts about your ability to fulfil the role of Prime Minister?”

A simple but brilliant question, for the respondent is in danger of avoiding insufferable arrogance by veering into the admission of inadequacy.

Edward Heath just said: “No.”

Boris Johnson, at the time Mayor of London, replied:

“I think people who don’t have doubts or anxieties about their ability to do things probably have something terrifyingly awry. You know, we all have worries and insecurities. And I think it’s a very tough job being Prime Minister. Obviously, if the ball were to come loose from the back of a scrum – which it won’t – it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.”

Cockerell had induced Johnson to go further than ever before, and the bit about the ball coming lose from the scrum became a big story.

How does one encourage a politician, or indeed anyone else, to reveal bit more of themselves? A contradictory set of qualities is required.

Many political interviews are sterile because the interviewer has an agenda; wishes to be regarded by colleagues, and also by viewers and listeners, as a noble seeker after truth, never afraid to pose the tough, newsworthy questions.

The interviewee has a different agenda; is determined to stick to the line previously agreed with colleagues, and to give no hint of frailty or division.

These two agendas seldom bring out the best in each other. Self-righteous stridency intensifies official obduracy, which in turn provokes greater stridency.

How is the interviewer to handle a politician who has decided exactly what to say, regardless of what he or she may be asked? Cockerell recalls,

“On one occasion, as Sir Robin Day set off for one of his major Panorama interviews with Mrs Thatcher, he said to me: ‘Why don’t I start the interview, “Prime Minister, what’s your answer to my first question?”‘”

Wit helps, and so does a kind of sympathy with the subject. If one simply belabours a politician, one is unlikely to understand much about them, or to receive much in the way of confidences.

Cockerell is mischievous, and his programmes are so enjoyable to watch because he sees that politics is often a theatre of the absurd, but he also has a kind of fellow-feeling with his subjects.

Heath could be wonderfully rude. On one occasion he asked Cockerell, “do you have any training at all for this?” Cockerell arranged to interview him in Broadstairs, where Heath was born and brought up.

Rather unusually, Heath was in a good mood: “Smell that air – wonderful isn’t it – the best in the world,” he says as he steps from his car. Cockerell goes on:

“He had never before talked publicly about his girlfriend from Broadstairs. She was Kay Raven, the daughter of the local doctor, who went out with Heath before the war and for six years waited patiently for his return from the front. Heath did take up with her again after the war and his friends expected the couple to marry. But he never got round to proposing. Why was that? I asked. ‘She decided she would marry someone else, but I don’t discuss these things,’ said Heath.

“‘Did you get over it?’

“‘Yes.’

“‘It was said you kept her photograph by your bed.’

“‘Yes.’

“‘Did you?’

“‘Yes,’ and Heath looked away, as if he was close to tears.”

This goes a long way beyond conventional political interviewing, as do all Cockerell’s documentaries. He wants in each of them to find the person as well as the politician.

But this book also works as a survey, delightfully brief and unportentous, of our politics since the 1960s: a sort of “greatest hits” compilation, and none the worse for that.

There is always a temptation to regard the embarrassments of the present day as the most dreadful we have ever had to endure.

“The worst since the Second World War” and “the worst since Suez” are two phrases indispensable in the reporting of any diplomatic setback.

And the present Prime Minister’s failings are quite frequently discussed, by his critics, as if these eclipse the failings of any previous holder of the post, and public life has fallen to the lowest level ever known.

Cockerell reminds us that after Harold Wilson called the 1970 general election, he appeared on a BBC TV programme, Election Forum, which had solicited questions from viewers, and Robin Day began the programme by saying:

“This question represents an angry theme running through many of these cards. In view of your past record of lies and broken promises, do you really expect the electorate to place any reliance on your word?”

Wilson’s Press Secretary, Joe Haines, suspected BBC dirty tricks, for the studio was “intolerably hot”, which meant sweat was pouring down Wilson’s face and he seemed untrustworthy, whereas the studio had been so cold for his opponent, Edward Heath, the floor manager had to send out for a cardigan.

Lies, or alleged lies, are by no means a new feature of British politics, nor is suspicion of the BBC.

In the “hysterical era” of the late 1960s, “all kinds of lurid rumours about conspiracies against Wilson were circulating, many involving high public figures such as Lord Mountbatten”.

Cockerell gives an enjoyable account of the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should stay in Europe. The big money, some of it supplied by the European Commission, favoured staying in, so Cockerell asked Alistair McAlpine, Treasurer of the Yes campaign, who ran things from a top-secret headquarters in the Dorchester Hotel, whether his lot were in danger of being seen as fat cats who wanted to stay in Europe.

“We were the fat cats,” McAlpine said. “But we were the intelligent cats.”

McAlpine explained how they set out “to depict the anti-Marketeers” – figures such as Enoch Powell, Tony Benn and Dr Ian Paisley – “as unreliable people, dangerous people who would lead you down the wrong path.”

David Cameron remarks that because of what Europe was doing to his party, “Not once during 11 years as Conservative leader did I feel secure for any length of time.”

This sense of transience ought to be felt by every Prime Minister. We have the right to throw the rascals out at any moment of our choosing.

But not, one hopes, before their oddities have been recorded by Cockerell.

Vox Pub in Sidcup: “I think that Boris will get in and Labour will have to have a rethink”.

1 Dec

The traveller who arrives in Sidcup by train and turns up Station Road towards the town centre comes almost at once upon a sign to Orpington, scene of the astonishing Liberal by-election triumph in 1962.

It would be still more astonishing if the Liberal Democrats were to win tomorrow’s by-election in Old Bexley and Sidcup. In the Alma pub, just off Station Road, the Lib Dems were mentioned only once, by a voter still angry with them for supporting the Conservatives in 2010.

Many more people mentioned Labour, but again in tones of anger and disappointment, with Sir Keir Starmer not yet thought to have made the party fit for its former supporters to return to, and a vote for the Conservatives still reckoned by some to be needed in order to make Labour come to its senses.

Several people mentioned Richard Tice, who is standing for Reform UK, successor to the Brexit Party, but no one thought he is as formidable a campaigner as Nigel Farage.

Boris Johnson came in for heavy criticism from Conservative voters for his recent performances, but few could yet name an alternative leader they would rather see in Downing Street.

Hence perhaps the confused state of British politics: Johnson has become less popular, but no clear rival to him has emerged, and even some of his critics said they will still vote Conservative in the by-election, or indeed that they have already done so by post.

A curious dynamic could be detected, whereby Labour might help to prop up the Tory vote by itself being even less convincing.

James Brokenshire, who died on 7th October, held Old Bexley and Sidcup for the Conservatives at the last general election with a majority of 18,952 over Labour, who received 10,834 votes, with the Lib Dems in third place on 3,822.

So Labour ought to be the main challenger here, but Sir Keir has stayed away from the by-election, and may have timed this week’s Shadow Cabinet reshuffle to forestall criticism in the event of a weak performance tomorrow.

The Lib Dems recently showed what can be done in a by-election by turning the Tory majority of 16,223 in Chesham and Amersham into a majority for their candidate of 8,028.

It would be amazing if Labour achieve anything comparable in Old Bexley and Sidcup, especially when one considers the story of this man, who works in insurance and wants to “punish Labour”:

“I’m not from South-East London [Sidcup is on the border with Kent]. I’m from East London. I’ve been here for 20 years.

“I grew up in Cable Street, Stepney. My parents were Irish Catholics, working class, who came over here in the 1950s.

“I first voted in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher got in. I despised her politics – she was a fantastic politician, I respected what she did, but I was never going to be a Tory.

“I voted for a Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson! The only thing I would say is the reason I did that was I was actually trying to punish the Labour Party for being so absolutely stupid.

“I just hated and despised them for finding a winning formula [under Blair], and then moving to the Left. And then Corbyn – are you completely mad?

“He’s like Dennis Skinner and those guys – I admire them for the fact they stick to their principles – Tony Benn, Michael Foot, great men – but Corbyn, I just thought you cannot be serious.

“Tony Blair – he won three elections – two landslides.

“We didn’t win because we didn’t take it far enough to the Left? Are you stupid?

“So what do you do, you put up Boris Johnson who is the antithesis of Jeremy Corbyn and he wins and takes your heartlands away from you.”

ConHome: “What do you think of Keir?”

The insurance worker: “I like him. He is a good guy. I think he’s fighting an internal battle that I’m not sure he’s going to win.”

ConHome: “And what do you think of Boris Johnson?”

The insurance worker: “He might get away with it. He is what he is. He wouldn’t be my choice of PM in a million years. I think he’ll get in and Labour will have to have a rethink.

“In 2019 I voted Tory for the first time ever. I didn’t vote for Boris. I got very annoyed when the Liberals went with the Tories. I got so annoyed with Labour when they went for Corbyn.

“This experiment of going Left didn’t work, so they went further Left! I am Labour, and Tony Blair gave me the Labour Party I wanted.

“I voted Tory in the by-election [by post] because I’m still pissed off with the Labour Party. They need to persuade me.

“I do beat myself up voting Tory. I’m one of those people, I have to vote. I’m just that annoyed. Someone that grew up on Cable Street, in Stepney, Tower Hamlets as it’s now called, I shouldn’t be in this position. Labour need to persuade me to vote for them again.”

A retired man having a drink with two of his friends said: “It’s sad that the incumbent MP has died. I’ve not met the new MP. I’m a traditional Conservative voter and I will vote Conservative, I have already [by post].

“But my comment would be it’s time Boris went and we got someone more competent in the job. We call him the buffoon.”

Second man: “I think he did well with Covid.”

The first man: “I support the Conservative Party but I’m not a member of the Conservative Party. I’m not quite sure who there is who I’d like to take over.

“He falls over his tongue so often it’s embarrassing. And now he’s upset Macron again, not that that’s difficult to do. He’s texted him a letter. What’s he doing behaving like a teenager?”

Third man: “I’ve been Conservative most of my life. I’m not sure about Boris lately. Just lately he’s been a bit of an idiot.”

First man: “At the back of my road there’s the playing fields. The Round Table on Guy Fawkes Night would always have a fireworks display to raise money for charity. I was waiting with some of my friends and we saw Ted Heath rushing down the road with some policemen.”

Heath, who died in 2001, served as MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup until 2001, having first won the seat of Bexley (which had different boundaries) by 133 votes from Labour in 1950.

“I said, ‘Mr Heath, would you like to come for a short cut through here?’ He said ‘Thank you very much’ and his shoulders shook.”

So he showed Heath through his own house and back garden onto the playing fields. He remembered the former Prime Minister with respect:

“He was a good constituency MP. I had cause to write to him on a couple of occasions and I always got a reply. I think he was a nice chap and he suffered a lot at the hands of the press. I guess if you put yourself in that position you have to put up with it.”

Not all Conservative voters will stick with the party tomorrow. Richard Payne, aged 72, who until the age of 44 was a foreign exchange dealer but later worked as a milkman and a plumber, said he could be called “pissed off from Sidcup”, and will “definitely” be voting for Reform UK:

“Well I think the Government’s in a state. The Tories are letting everyone down. Boris is letting everyone down. Immigration, people coming over willy-nilly, it’s ridiculous.

“They’re kowtowing to the French all the time. We didn’t vote for that. And believe it or not, I’m a lifelong Tory supporter. I’ve always voted Conservative in the past.

“At the end of the day you need strong leadership. And the only person in my time who’s had strong leadership is Maggie. She’s my hero.

“To begin with, Boris was all right. All right, he’s had a tough time with the pandemic, it’s not easy to walk into something that’s never been known.”

ConHome: “He got Brexit done?”

Payne: “Well yeah, but he wouldn’t have got back in otherwise. His trade agreement with the EU wasn’t much better than Theresa May came out with, and that was rubbish.

“As far as I’m concerned you can forget Labour. Blair was bad. Corbyn was even worse. Starmer reminds me of John Major. Faceless. Grey man.

“Excuse me. We’ve got to look after the British people. You’ve got to look after your own. The duty of a government is to protect its people. If Nigel Farage was standing I’d vote for him. He seems to be the only one who’s got the courage of his convictions.”

ConHome: “What’s the name of the guy who’s taken over from Farage?”

“Richard Tice. He hasn’t got his persona. I can’t believe that Farage would not be there in the background. This really came out in the Brexit vote. He was saying stop all the immigrants coming over. He was accused of being racist. We do need immigrants obviously, but not uncontrolled. It has to be controlled.

“The NHS is a – forget the NHS – I’ve been waiting for a knee operation for goodness knows how long. I can’t get to see my doctor. They said you need a new knee three years ago.

“He’s done a good job in rolling out the vaccinations. I’m not anti-vax. I’ve had them all. Booster. Flu jab. If they had another booster I’d have that.

“Boris has got to follow through with it. It’s no good promising the world and you end up with nothing, or very little. You can’t keep deceiving the British public. If Labour had a stronger leader he might well get kicked out.

“There’s too many bleeding heart liberals in the country. There are. I’m not racist. Racism is a two-way street, but it doesn’t seem to work that way in reality. We can’t call these people coming over in boats illegal immigrants, we’ve got to call them migrants.

“He’s trying to appease everybody and you can’t do that. You’ve got to say this is where we stand and that’s it. But he doesn’t do it.

“If he doesn’t pull his finger out he’s going to be out.

“Though without the help of Macron we can’t do anything, and Macron is a little shit, all five foot three inches of him. Him, Sarkozy, Napoleon. At the end of the day, I don’t think the French people hate the English. It’s just him.”

Before going to the Alma, I spoke to a group of six ladies, friends from Holy Trinity Church, who had just had lunch in the Pascal Bistro, Station Road, and were drinking coffee.

“Jeremy Brokenshire will be a very, very hard act to follow,” one of them said.

“We miss Jeremy terribly,” a second agreed.

“The young man who’s being put forward [by the Conservatives, Louie French], I’m glad he’s local, but otherwise we don’t know anything about him,” the first woman remarked.

“He sounds all right to me,” a third said.

“We haven’t really heard anything about him,” a fourth said.

“We’ve had lots of literature. But then I’ve had a bit from Reform UK and from Labour,” the first woman said.

“I think the Conservatives will get in because of the area.” the second woman declared. “I will vote Conservative – I can’t imagine voting for anyone else. But just recently there’ve been a number of gaffes and I don’t think that’s going to help.”

“He’s making silly mistakes,” the first woman said. “For example the open letter to the French president. What’s that all about, stupid man?”

“Whoever happened to come in just at the beginning of the pandemic was going to have a difficult time,” the second woman said.

“But there was nothing wrong with that letter,” a fifth woman put in. “Apparently it was read out on the radio to a French MP and he agreed with every item on it.”

“So why did they cancel the invitation to Priti Patel?” the first woman asked.

“We don’t like him to make mistakes,” the second woman said.

“We like Boris,” the first woman said. “For a few years I voted for the Green Party.”

“Bring back Margaret Thatcher, that’s what I say,” the fifth woman said.

Gales of laughter, and cries of “No! No!” from some of her friends.

“I voted for Margaret Thatcher but I’ve completely changed my views since,” the first woman said.

“I would be surprised if they weren’t voted in again,” the second said. “The Reform guy has been round door to door,” she added.

“He’s certainly put in the hours of work,” the first agreed.

It did not sound to me as if Reform is going to peel off a very large chunk of the Tory vote. But I may have been misled by the sheer friendliness with which I was received by almost everyone in Sidcup.

Emily Carver: Kate Bingham is right – the machinery of government is in trouble. It’s time Johnson proved he has a vision.

24 Nov

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

When a crisis hits, long-term reform understandably slips down any leader’s priority list. Harold Wilson’s attempts to shake up government were scuppered by the sterling crisis. Edward Heath’s plans to roll back the tentacles of the state were derailed by an unemployment crisis and subsequent economic turmoil.  

Now, with a general election less than two and a half years away, Boris Johnson’s promise of a ‘revolutionary overhaul’ of Whitehall seems little more than a pipedream. With the immediate threat of the pandemic having occupied much of the Government’s bandwidth, an agenda of radical reform has been firmly pushed into the ‘too-difficult pile’.  

To be generous to the government, crises have a way of getting in the way of long-term thinking. As Harold MacMillan said “events, my dear boy, events”. However, there is little excuse for a government with an 80-seat majority not to address the well-known failures of Whitehall.

Former vaccine tsar Kate Bingham made a powerful intervention in The Times this week, claiming that had we relied on the existing machinery of government, our world-leading vaccination programme would have been no such thing. If things don’t change, she warned, we will be left woefully unprepared for the next public health emergency. 

Highlighting the “devastating lack of skills and experience in science, industry and manufacturing” across all levels of government, she argued that civil servants have a tendency to treat business with “hostility and suspicion”. This, she said, had led to some damaging decisions such as the recent cancellation of the government’s contract with Valneva before its Covid vaccine had completed final clinical testing.   

Bingham’s criticism of the culture of the civil service is damning, though unsurprising. She noted that the machinery of government is “dominated by process, rather than outcome”, that there is “a culture of risk aversion that stifles initiative and encourages foot-dragging”, and that a preoccupation with how decisions may play with the media is impeding performance. Many people within the civil service will testify to this. 

As the Institute of Economic Affairs has warned, the precautionary principle is very much embedded in government decision-making at all levels. A degree of risk aversion may be desirable under some circumstances, but it can be crippling in times of crisis, when what is needed is fast and decisive action. 

As Bingham identifies, “groupthink” is one of the major challenges within Whitehall, as it is across so many of our publicly funded institutions. We know that the civil service is hampered by the dominance of a metropolitan left-liberal world view. Time and time again civil servants are accused of obstructing Conservative policies for political reasons – not least when it came to getting Brexit over the line. 

Endless diversity and inclusion initiatives will do little to remedy this. Cummings’ credibility may be questionable, but his calls to recruit ‘weirdos and misfits’ into the civil service was a sound one. A civil service that does not allow for independent thought will fail to attract or retain the brightest minds. That’s if the painful box-ticking application process isn’t enough to put them off to begin with. 

Of course, a crisis may derail long-term thinking, but it can also act as a catalyst for change. Bingham is right that the vaccine taskforce has demonstrated the value of the private sector – and Whitehall must learn form this. But with a headcount of over 465,000 people, the civil service is a beast to reckon with.  

Real reform cannot be beyond the wit of man – Margaret Thatcher is proof of this. Yes, the Government has made attempts to reform the excessively bloated bureaucracy. The merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office was one such move. Plans to shift jobs out of London and link pay to performance may also help to encourage new ways of thinking and boost standards respectively. But these don’t go nearly far enough. 

In recent weeks, it has become clearer that the Prime Minister lacks a coherent vision for this country. The tax burden, ever-increasing public spending, and endless statist interventions in the name of the green agenda show little in the way of any meaningful economic strategy. 

Now, following his much-criticised speech to the CBI, it’s time for the Prime Minister to prove he does have a vision. One way would be to recommit to scaling back the scope of the state – and make good on his promise to sort out the machinery of government.