Profile: George Eustice, negotiating agriculture’s future between farmers, free traders, protectionionists and rewilders

7 Apr

George Eustice recently expressed the hope that a decade from now, the rest of the world will come to Britain to see how to run a successful, independent farm policy.

As Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he is in charge of the seven-year transition, begun at the end of 2020, from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy to new British policies for agriculture and the environment.

The invasion of Ukraine has prompted renewed fears about security of supply, and whether British farmers are now being paid to concentrate too much on rewilding and too little on food production.

Rewilding is not just fashionable, promoted by such figures as Isabella Tree and the Goldsmith brothers. It is official Government policy, as Eustice recently outlined at the Oxford Farming Conference:

“If we are to deliver the targets we’ve set ourselves for woodland creation in England – around 10,000 hectares of trees per year – and if we’re to deliver our objective of getting 300,000 hectares of land where habitat is restored, there is inevitably going to be a degree of land use change. I know that that causes some people some concern. But you have to look at the numbers we’re looking at in the overall context. Of the fact that we have some 9.3 million hectares of farmland in England, and so we are only looking at change taking place on a relatively small area of that land.”

The Government will pay subsidies in order to persuade landowners to enable it to reach its environmental targets. Eustice seeks with his usual tact to persuade sceptics that this is not just a way to hand out public money to the rich so they can pursue frivolous and faddish hobbies for which they should be happy to pay out of their own pockets.

Meanwhile the cost of living crisis has encouraged some Brexiteers to proclaim the virtues of free trade, as a way of cutting food prices, and to fulminate against agricultural protectionism.

Eustice himself is not much given to fulminating. He prefers to deliver careful, detailed speeches, stronger on pragmatism than on ideology, so in that respect profoundly conservative.

His recent addresses to the CLA  Conference and to the Conservative Spring Forum offer further examples of his style.

At the latter event, which occurred three weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine had raised worries about food supplies, he was at pains to deliver the reassuring message that “domestic food production gives us national resilience”.

He pointed out that while in the late 19th century Britain produced only 30 per cent of food consumed here, the figure now, for foods that can be produced in this country, is over 75 per cent:

“We are 86 per cent self sufficient in beef, fully self sufficient in liquid milk and produce more lamb than we consume. We are close to 100 per cent self-sufficient in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes. Sectors like soft fruit have seen a trend towards greater self sufficiency in recent years with an extended UK season displacing imports.”

And he denied that there was any contradiction between food production and environmental protection: these “must go hand in hand” and “are two sides of the same coin”.

As for the free trade argument, Eustice has at least advocated opening new markets to British produce, looking at the topic from the point of view of farmers rather than consumers:

“For the livestock sector, maximising value can depend on carcass balance and on being able to get access to a higher price for some cuts in overseas markets. There are opportunities for British agriculture in many Asian markets including Japan and India; opportunities for the Dairy industry in Canada and the US; and opportunities for the sheep sector in both the US and the Middle East. We have been working with the AHDB [the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board] on opening access to these markets…”

In 2017 Policy Exchange brought out a report, Farming Tomorrow, which contended that this was a once in a lifetime chance to achieve cheaper food for consumers, by abolishing tariffs on food imports while scrapping agricultural subsidies, with any remaining subsidies instead devoted to protecting the environment.

One of the authors of that report, Warwick Lightfoot, who has advised three Chancellors of the Exchequer but speaks here in a personal capacity, told ConHome that while Michael Gove, Environment Secretary from 2017-19, had indeed switched subsidies in that way, this could be a means of “keeping protection via the back door”.

When ConHome pointed out that Eustice has a farming background, and has spoken with approval of his ruggedly independent forebears who refused to do what the man from the Ministry of Agriculture told them, Lightfoot retorted: “You’ve got to think about people who’ve got an eating background.”

He remarked that he does his shopping in Lidl and would like to be able to buy cheap meat from abroad. The Government must put consumers’ interests first, and not accept propaganda from the National Farmers’ Union about the dangers of, for example, chlorinated chicken from America:

“I’ve just spent a month in America. Do you think I was taking a risk when I had a chicken caesar salad?”

Daniel Hannan, ConHome columnist, reckons “there is a massive problem with DEFRA”, which is “prone to capture from every passing Green lobby group”.

Eustice plays the deadest of dead bats to attacks on either himself or DEFRA. He talks in a lucid, ungimmicky, commonsensical way, and was presumably appointed partly in order to avoid picking fights. His ministerial career has been spent entirely in his present department, where he started as Parliamentary Undersecretary in 2013 and became Secretary of State in February 2020.

His family have farmed for six generations near Camborne, in Cornwall, and as he told the CLA:

“Advice was passed down the generations. My great grandfather, George Henry Eustice, had an outlook forged during the difficult inter-war years. It led him to embrace an ethos very much rooted in self-reliance. He used to say, ‘When the man from the Ministry tells you he is going to pay you to produce something, it’s time to get out!'”

As Eustice went on to remark, now that he himself is “the man from the Ministry, the scepticism of my forefathers does weigh on me”. He is not, by either upbringing or instinct, a man who favours central control.

He instead believes in the ability of farmers, through hard work and attention to detail, and often in defiance of what the state is telling them, to work out what is best.

This Cornish sense of self-reliance is a cardinal point. Eustice was born in 1971, educated at Truro School, studied horticulture at Cornwall College and ran for Cornwall’s cross country team.

For nine years he worked in the family business, a fruit farm which today has a restaurant, a farm shop, a herd of South Devon cattle and the country’s oldest herd of a rare breed of pig, the British Lop, which is not as well known as it might be because it does not look strikingly old-fashioned.

In the European elections of 1999, Eustice stood unsuccessfully as a UKIP candidate in South West England. He afterwards got a job working for the campaign set up by Business for Sterling to stop Britain joining the Euro.

When ConHome asked one of his colleagues in this campaign about him she replied: “Can’t really remember. Sorry. Strawberry farmer.”

Eustice served from 2003 as Head of Press to two Conservative leaders, Michael Howard and David Cameron. Day after day, he toured the Commons press gallery, unfazed by the tough questions put to him, but unimpressed by some of Fleet Street’s behaviour – he was to back Lord Leveson’s proposals.

In 2010 he stood as the Conservative candidate for his local seat, Camborne and Redruth, and won it, after a recount, by 66 votes from Julia Goldsworthy, who had been, on different boundaries, the Liberal Democrat MP for Falmouth and Camborne.

When the European Referendum came, Eustice was, as might be expected, a Leaver. But even here, he was studiously moderate in tone: he recommended the Norway route to leaving the EU.

In February 2019 he resigned from his post as Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, having lost faith in Theresa May’s negotiating strategy, and in July of that year he was reappointed to his old post by Boris Johnson.

Eustice has laboured mightily to draw up the legislation needed to replace European governance of farming and fisheries. He was regarded as a safe pair of hands during the pandemic, during which the following dialogue took place between him and Nick Ferrari on LBC:

 Ferrari: “You can only serve alcohol with a substantial meal…what constitutes a substantial meal? Scotch egg?”

Eustice: “Um, I think this is a term that is understood very much by the restaurant trade.”

Ferrari: “Would a Scotch egg count as a substantial meal?”

Eustice: “I think a Scotch egg probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service.”

A much mocked ruling, but even here, Eustice himself was not remembered. He is now in charge of regulating an industry of great importance:

“There is a food manufacturer in every parliamentary constituency in the UK – except Westminster. The food industry is bigger than the automotive and aerospace industries combined and more evenly dispersed across our country.”

He does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, when farmers were told what to do. His inclination is not to order either rewilding or maximum food production.

Eustice contends that environmental measures, for example to protect the health of the soil, are also, in the long term, good for productivity, and make farming more resilient.

He recently warned that rises in the price of wheat and of energy are bound to lead to rises in the price of other foodstuffs. What he did not say is that higher prices will be good for farmers, with the most resourceful and enterprising of them doing best.

Higher prices are of no concern to the prosperous middle-class consumer who frequents farmers’ markets, buying delicious but amazingly expensive local produce. Higher prices will, on the other hand, be a body blow to the poor, who will soon notice whose side the Government is on.

In his maiden speech in the Commons, Eustice quoted some words from a letter written by Richard Trevithick, the famous inventor from Cornwall, who did not become rich from the steam engines he designed – rather the reverse – but who had no regrets:

“I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities, and even from the great engineer, the late Mr James Watt, who said to an eminent scientific character still living, that I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine. This so far has been my reward from the public; but should this be all, I shall be satisfied by the great secret pleasure and laudable pride that I feel in my own breast from having been the instrument of bringing forward and maturing new principles and new arrangements of boundless value to my country. However much I may be straitened in pecuniary circumstances, the great honour of being a useful subject can never be taken from me, which to me far exceeds riches.”

Eustice observed that the Government could not have all the answers: when one wants to attempt “what the world calls impossibilities”, brilliant individuals like Trevithick are indispensable.

Book review: Francois describes how the unfashionable side won Brexit

8 Jan

Spartan Victory: The Inside Story of the Battle for Brexit by Mark Francois

“Nothing has more retarded the advancement of learning than the disposition of vulgar minds to ridicule and vilify what they cannot comprehend,” Dr Johnson once wrote.

A variant of this problem blighted the furious debates since 23rd June 2016 about how and indeed whether to implement the verdict handed down by voters in the EU Referendum.

People like Mark Francois were ridiculed and vilified. Little attempt was made to understand either him or his Essex constituents, who in the referendum had voted by a margin of 67 to 33 per cent to leave the EU.

Now Francois has written a book which anyone who is interested in why and how Brexit happened should read. An Essex man speaks, and tells us not only about the parliamentary manoeuvrings of the last few years, but about the character of a part of the British nation which cannot bear being bullied or preached at.

Pugnacious, patriotic, loyal, hard-working, quick-witted, emotional, able to distinguish immediately between friend and foe, unworried by class distinction, uninterested in correct spelling, fond of a good joke and a pint: these are among the characteristics of Essex man which leap out from Francois’s account.

He has an unfashionable love of World War Two analogies, as in this passage when he is standing against Ken Livingstone in Brent East in the 1997 general election, and a message arrives from the Conservative Party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, which informs them that the campaign is going “extremely well” and they just need to make “one last great effort in order to secure John Major a record fifth term in office for the Conservative Party”.

“What do you make of this, Mark?” the Chairman of the Conservative Association in Brent East asks Francois, to which he replies:

“Chairman, of course if you and I were in front of the rest of the Association we would have to maintain morale. However, as I have come to respect you over these last two years and we are alone, I interpret this message to mean three things: One: Berlin will never fall. Two: Our great counterattack across the Oder River begins at 05.30 tomorrow and Three: We will break the will of the enemy to resist with the use of the terror weapons and fight on to ultimate victory.”

No mainstream publisher wanted to bring out this book, so Francois with the help of Amazon has brought it out himself. This in some ways makes it a more authentic expression of his point of view: no editor has smoothed away the rough edges, corrected the grammar, toned down the jokes which might be regarded in metropolitan circles as tasteless.

One could be having a pint with Francois, perhaps in an establishment “which is about to kick off massively in about 15 minutes”, as a friend who can sense such things warned him on one occasion: the riot actually started in 12 minutes.

But this is a deeply serious book. Francois really means what he says. He wants so much to work out what Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement means that he reads it: something very few people could face doing.

One of the many virtues of this book is that he quotes the actual words of speeches and other important documents: he realises that the actual words matter, and in the case of the Withdrawal Agreement he concludes that in Article 174, the superiority of the European Court of Justice in the dispute resolution mechanism means that once ratified, this provision cannot be “over-trumped” even by Act of Parliament.

For a long time the European Reform Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs maintained internal discipline, thanks in part to a secret whipping operation run by Francois which he takes great pleasure in describing.

The ERG split on the question of whether, on 29th March 2019, to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, or to hold out against it. Some, like the Chairman of the ERG, Jacob Rees-Mogg, thought it was better, in this third Meaningful Vote, to accept the only version of Brexit that was on offer, rather than risk losing everything.

Others, such as Francois and Steve Baker (whose fiery speech to the ERG is printed in this book, and was quoted in the recent ConHome profile of him), decided to fight on to the bitter end.

These are the 28 Spartans, who got their name because, as Francois relates, soon after the second Meaningful Vote he was having dinner with Paul Goodman, editor of ConHome, who said how stressful it must be to be holding out so doggedly against unremitting pressure from the media and the Whips.

Francois agreed, and said “we have felt like the 300 Spartans guarding the pass at Thermopylae.” Goodman proceeded to use the term in a piece for ConHome, “Enter – or Rather Exit – The Spartans” (also reprinted in this book), and the word entered general use.

Goodman predicted, correctly, that “this time round, the Spartans may actually win”. May failed to get Brexit done, and Boris Johnson then got it done in a form more acceptable to the ERG.

This history is so recent that it has obscured earlier events. Francois entered the Commons in 2001 as Member for Rayleigh, in Essex, having cut his teeth as a councillor in Basildon, was soon on friendly terms with George Osborne, and served on the front bench under David Cameron both in Opposition and in Government.

He was not, as the more ignorant of his critics may imagine, a crank who refused ever to be satisfied with what the leadership was doing.

During the referendum campaign, he at first thought “the odds were very much against us winning”, but started to change his mind when he heard Osborne on the Today programme “effectively threatening the British people with a ‘punishment Budget’ if we were to vote to Leave the EU”:

“Both George and I had read history at university, and one thing that runs as a golden thread through British history is that you cannot bully us. Many have tried and all have failed. The British are an inherently reasonable people, often far more patient than many of their counterparts, but there is a point beyond which they simply will not go. And what sounded like a blatant attempt to bully or frighten the British people to vote to Remain in the EU, seemed to me a fundamental error…”

A free people cannot be coerced: Francois at this point showed a better grasp of the temper of the British people than Osborne did.

Francois was born in London in 1965, but when he was only six his parents took him to live in Basildon, a new town in Essex, to a house on an estate which looked like a prison, so was known as Alcatraz. His father did heavy manual labour, such as scrubbing out the inside of large industrial boilers.

His mother was from Italy, where they went on holiday each summer. Mark was sent to the local comprehensive school, and was one of two pupils out of the 226 who arrived that term who went to university.

When he was 13, his father gave him a copy of If, by Rudyard Kipling, and told him that “if ever I was anxious or uncertain and for whatever reason he was not around to offer advice, then I should read the poem again and it would help me decide what to do.”

The following year, his father died of a heart attack, a sudden and terrible blow from which his mother never recovered.

Before the third Meaningful Vote, Francois looked out a copy of If, read it, and found by the time he got to the end that “I was absolutely settled in my mind about what to do”.

The next day, when the ERG met to debate how to vote, Francois quoted the first stanza in his speech:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, 

But make allowance for their doubting too

Kipling is not a fashionable poet, but If still has claims to be the nation’s favourite poem, and one can imagine the emotion with which he would invest Brexit if he were alive now.

The people who take pleasure in mocking Francois will never read his book, but if they did, they might learn something.

Richard Holden: Covid has kept Britain in chains since we left the EU. Now we’re set to break free.

4 Jan

Mounter and Sons Sawmill, Willington, Co. Durham

A hard core of my colleagues in Parliament are Brexperts. Many spent decades campaigning against – or in some cases for – Britain’s membership of the European Union. It is the issue that in no small part tipped constituencies like mine ‘over the edge’ between 2015 and 2019.

Finally, the scales fell from local people’s eyes, and they saw what they’d had an inkling of for some time: that Labour no longer respected the view, or even the votes, of people in North West Durham. Inner-London Labour thought it knew better and the public, finally, gave it the boot across the Red Wall.

The first big piece of legislation that the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs voted for was the EU Withdrawal Agreement. This month marks a year on from the end of the so called ‘transition period’, when our ties to the European Union were severed de facto, as well as de jure. Some said would be the start of ‘Britannia Unchained’ and others predicted would be the greatest foreign policy disaster since Suez.

Within a few weeks of MPs voting through the Withdrawal Agreement, the global pandemic hit. What leaders in Britain and the EU had thought would be the biggest challenge of the decade – Brexit– suddenly became secondary. And the impact of leaving the EU, whatever side of the debate you were on, now feels small fry compared to the: lockdowns, colossal borrowing, and worldwide efforts that have gone into tackling Covid.

I’m tempted to put my neck on the line at this point, and say that we’re coming to the end of Covid. Like the rest of the country – and the world – let’s pray that is the case. And if it is, what lay behind Brexit will return centre-stage alongside the fall-out from the virus

While many will groan at the prospect of the return of Brexit as a political issue, I welcome it wholeheartedly. I long to see the eyes of Government and the country lifted from two years of crisis management to a discussion about where we now see ourselves, and how we deliver it. The country is sick to death of circular debates about the social etiquette of mask wearing and meeting via Zoom and Teams.

Like my Conservative colleagues from every intake, I am desperate for Parliament to be at the heart of the debate about international trade, securing our borders and Britain’s place in the world.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen flashes of the future. Such as: AUKUS – the new tripartite defence agreement with Australia and the United States. The UK’s application to join the Trans-Pacific-Partnership. Improved post-EU trade deals with Japan, Australia, and many other countries, alongside scores of roll-over deals.

There will be challenges. How to manage the place of Northern Ireland in the UK raises profound constitutional questions. With the Northern Ireland Assembly elections looming large, dealing with a Sinn Fein First Minister (if the polls are to be believed) in a few months will be challenging.

Mounter and Sons, a wood pallet manufacturer in my constituency, is facing increased costs and bureaucracy in dealing with the EU. The most substantial of these is heating all pallets leaving for the EU, which wasn’t required before Brexit. This is just one of examples from my own constituency of blocks to trade that both sides surely want to see removed in further negotiations to the benefit of all concerned. These are eminently achievable if the will is there.

In 2016, my constituents voted to leave the European Union. And in 2019, they voted again to finally make it happen. After two years of the focus of the Government being elsewhere – rightly – it’s time start reminding people again that they made the correct choice both times.

That means getting some focus back on getting Britain out into the world, and dealing with those very tricky issues Brexit throws up. After the last couple of years, that task of unchaining Britannia seems more manageable, and getting on with it will be welcomed more than ever by the whole country.

Ten predictions about Brexit that have not transpired

3 Jan

Six years ago, we started to hear a series of predictions about the misfortunes that would beset us if we voted to leave the European Union. They are still coming. In August, we had claims that Brexit would cause food shortages over Christmas with empty supermarket shelves.

Sometimes the dire warnings have been impossible to refute, since they come without a date. No specific deadline is offered for the apocalypse – as with the man who used to walk along Oxford Street with a sandwich board declaring “The end of the world is nigh”.

Before January 31st 2020, those challenged over their claims could respond: “we haven’t left yet.” Another means for the gloomsters dodging accountability for their claims was to state that any positive news would have been even better if the referendum had gone the other way. “Despite Brexit…” thus became a familiar refrain on the BBC news bulletins.

Fair-minded people though, will surely feel that enough time has passed to assess how some of those claims have measured up to reality.

Unemployment

In June 2016, when we voted to Leave the EU, we had 1.64 million unemployed, a rate of 4.9 per cent. It is now 1.4 million, a rate of 4.2 per cent. (“Despite Covid…” one is tempted to add.)

George Osborne, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, stated:

“A vote to leave would represent an immediate and profound shock to our economy. That shock would push our economy into a recession and lead to an increase in unemployment of around 500,000.”

That was among the more modest claims. The Treasury analysis offered that as the best case “shock scenario”. But in the worst case “severe shock scenario” unemployment was to rise by 820,000.

The CBI’s estimate was that “nearly a million” jobs would be lost.

Then we heard repeatedly – from the TUC, Nick Clegg and others – that three million jobs in the UK “depended” on our membership of the EU. The implication – that unemployment would increase by three million if we left relied on the assumption that our exports to the EU would be reduced to nil.

For variety, sometimes regional claims were offered – Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, gave a figure of 500,000 for London. David Miliband declared 100,000 jobs in the north east relied on EU membership. He suggested Nissan would quit our shores – a month ago they announced £13 billion of new investment in their Sunderland plant.

House prices to crash

Osborne said opting for Brexit would “affect the value of people’s homes” to the tune of 18 per cent. Thus “negative equity” was included in the Remain armoury. The Treasury small print suggested this would be over two years and that prices would rise by 18 per cent less than forecast.

The IMF was more emphatic declaring we could expect “sharp drops in equity and house prices, increased borrowing costs for households and businesses.”

Many younger people hoping to get on the housing ladder might have wished it would come true. Anyway, the average price of a UK home in June 2016 was £214,000. It is now £268,000.

World War Three

Some have argued that NATO is the main safeguard for peace in Europe. But others argued that leaving the EU would risk war. David Cameron said:

“Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash to make that assumption.”

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, warned that a UK vote to leave the EU would destroy western civilisation:

“As a historian I fear Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety.”

A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic

During a visit to Warrenpoint Harbour, in Co Down, Osborne claimed:

“There would have to be a hardening of the border imposed by the British Government or indeed by the Irish Government and that would have an impact on business.”

Others went further predicting customs posts and border checks, even a return to “the troubles”. While there is certainly unfinished business to resolve with the EU over trading arrangements, the border remains open.

EU nationals resident in the UK to be “sent home”

A constant refrain was that Brexit was motivated by xenophobia. Will Straw, Director of Stronger In, announced that the EU nationals living in the UK would be “sent home”. In fact, they have been offered “settled status” which the vast majority have taken up.

Scottish independence

Plenty of speculation has taken place over whether Brexit will prompt the break up of the United Kingdom. It was noted that Scotland voted Remain by a large margin. The contention has been that an opportunity to rejoin the EU would offer the Scots an incentive to leave the UK.

But the opinion polling offers no sign of this being their “settled will”. Most show a small unionist majority. For example, a YouGov poll for The Times shortly before the EU referendum showed wishing to stay in the UK at 48 per cent to 41 per cent. The most recent YouGov/Times poll on the matter, from six weeks ago, showed little change with the unionists ahead by 46 per cent to 40 per cent.

Stock Market crash

On June 23rd 2016, the day of the EU referendum, the FTSE 100 closing price was 6,338. It is now 7,403. At first, we were told that the FTSE 100 didn’t count as it covered big international companies. The FTSE 250 was a better measure. All right then. The FTSE 250 closed at 17,333 on June 23rd 2016. Today it is on 23,481. There was an initial sharp fall in share prices – prompting Remainers to declare that France had overtaken us as the World’s fifth largest economy. But that did not last long. Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director, was among those forecasting a long term and serious fall in the value of equities.

Lower wages

The TUC claimed during the EU referendum campaign that Brexit would mean wages would fall by £38 a week. At that time average earnings were £503 a week. They are now £586 a week. Allowing for inflation, steady in real terms.

Recession

Linked to some of the gloomy “Project Fear” economic messages was the declaration that a vote to Leave would mean an instant DIY recession. The Institute for Fiscal Studies announced that such a foolish decision would result in “two years of austerity.” Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, claimed the eurozone was growing faster than the UK – with the implication that closer integration was our best bet.

The UK’s economy continued to grow – by 2.3 per cent in 2016, 2.1 per cent in 2017, 1.7 per cent in 2018, and 1.7 per cent in 2019. True, it fell in 2020, by 9.7 per cent –  but that was due to the pandemic. We have bobbed back up over the last year. The eurozone has generally performed worse.

Dirtier beaches

Various claims were made that outside the EU our environment would suffer. For instance, Caroline Lucas, the Green Party leader, said the EU was needed to keep our beaches clean.

But the Marine Conservation Society, which organises the annual Great British Beach Clean, offers some intriguing data: “The average litter recorded per 100m is falling year on year across the UK, with an average of 385 items found this year compared with 425 in 2020 and 558 in 2019.” Friends of the Earth said leaving the EU would mean the air we breathe would be more polluted. But it is cleaner.

Conclusion

In some ways ,it is still early days. Though we are an independent country, the use we have made of that has been very cautious. Only a negligible amount of the red tape inherited from the EU has been lifted thus far. The free trade deals – such as the one with Australia – are being phased in at an agonisingly slow pace – though we have seen how leaving the European Medicines Agency has made a huge difference in terms of the vaccination programme.

No doubt there will be challenges and mistakes as our island story continues. But we can now conclude that the Project Fear merchants got it wrong. Their tone was arrogant and emphatic. There was a bullying message that their official credentials meant they were stating facts; that it was beyond debate. Any challenge to their prognosis would be an impertinence. Yet for all their supposed expertise, this alphabet soup of official bodies proved to be wildly out. They have not yet proved terribly contrite about it.

A year of Brexit

2 Jan

The beginning of formal politics in 2022, as Parliament returns next week, is a good time to write about Brexit – roughly a year on since Britain left the European Union.

Tomorrow, Harry Phibbs will be writing.  On successive days, we will have three columnists in a row: Richard Holden, Daniel Hannan and Garvan Walshe.  I will write on Friday (events permitting as usual).

Three questions apply.  How much if at all does the past matter, if at all, with regard to what was said on both sides – during the referendum campaign and afterwards?

How is Brexit going, especially when compared with what was predicted?  Are we making the most of it, and if not what should we do to get the best out of it?

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.

Sarah Ingham: People voted to take back control of Britain’s borders – the time is well overdue for some political will

26 Nov

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

This weekend brings the First Sunday in Advent, the start of the liturgical year in the Christian calendar.

For most of us, it signals that other annual rite – the Countdown to Christmas. Shopping! Santa! Sleighbells in the snow! And endless lists: cards to be sent, presents to be given, food to be shopped for. It’s little wonder that those responsible for producing lunch or dinner on the 25th collapse into a Quality Street-Netflix coma on the sofa on Boxing Day.

‘The more the merrier’ is the plucky response to the arrival of unexpected guests. It is Christmas, after all. Time to eat, drink and be merry. There’s plenty of room around the table (‘budge up’) and the garden chairs can be brought in from the shed. Extra roast spuds mean no-one will notice any shortage of turkey, but if it looks like guests might go short, FHB.

Family Holds Back brings us to the vexed issue of immigration, dominating the headlines again with the tragedy in the Channel on Wednesday.

Although immigration is an area of public policy that affects each and every citizen, governments throughout this Elizabethan age have allowed it to become so seemingly intractable that they have frequently appeared to give up on it – or to make maladroit interventions such as the Hostile Environment strategy.

Never mind the 2005 ‘Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking?’ series of election campaign posters, what on earth were the Coalition thinking in 2012 when it signed off the Hostile Environment as a good idea? In 2018, this was blamed for the Windrush Scandal, which continues to cause misery for those affected and blight the reputation of Conservatives.

Further entangling immigration with the always sensitive issue of race is not the most sensible way of resolving a problem which frequently troubles so much of the electorate. This concern peaked in 2014 and stood at around 45 per cent in the months leading up to the June 2016 Referendum, according to IPSOS-MORI’s regular Issues Index poll. After the vote for Brexit, voters were no longer so bothered. As an issue worrying them, it plummeted to 10 per cent in late 2019, the lowest level since March 2001.

This contraction of concern suggests that, while the association between race and immigration looms large in the minds of policymakers – often to toxic effect – most voters are able to decouple the two issues.

Indeed, the electorate could well suspect that invoking racism has long been a convenient if cynical means by which politicians close down any debate on the immigration, perhaps in the forlorn hope that the problem will go away. This was reflected by Gordon Brown during his mask-slipping encounter on the 2010 campaign trail with ‘that bigoted woman’.

In voting to end free movement of people in the Brexit Referendum, voters showed the country of origin of those people was pretty irrelevant. Belgium or Brazil or Benin, who cares? To paraphrase the PM, they issued their instruction: they wanted Britain to take back control of our borders.

Earlier this month, YouGov reported that immigration is once again back among on the public’s agenda, with 73 per cent saying the Government is handling the issue badly. Ministers must brave opponents’ inevitable if hackneyed accusations of ‘dog whistle politics’ (ironically, itself a dog whistle for accusations of racism) and exert some political will.

Voters are alarmed, not just by the tens of thousands of migrants landing on Britain’s beaches in the past year, but by the latest terrorist attack in Liverpool on Remembrance Sunday. The suicide bomber, a failed asylum seeker, was able to game the deportation system for seven years, not least by faking conversion to Christianity. Adding to disquiet is what appears to be an act of hybrid war against the West: the recent weaponization of migration by Belarus, who encouraged migrants illegally to enter the EU via its borders with Poland and Lithuania.

In squaring up to confront immigration, ministers could do worse than re-read the 2019 General Election manifesto. Even the most hardened Corbynista could not object to a system that aimed to be ‘firm, fair and compassionate’. The current apparent free-for-all is grossly unfair to almost everyone apart from people smugglers, but especially to the 27 migrants who drowned off the French coast on Wednesday.

With net migration to the UK standing at 313,000 in the 12 months to March 2020, policymakers should be asking themselves whose quality of life worsens thanks to the current unplanned mess. Hint: it’s not, for example, the residents of Surrey’s ritziest gated communities, who can access private schools, private hospitals, private dentists, private doctors, private carers for their old age and private security guards. Former Prime Ministers with extensive property portfolios also escape the adverse impact of too many people chasing too few resources.

To permit such massive influxes from overseas without providing commensurate public services is have spent the past two decades expecting the vast majority of the British public, whatever their ethnic background, constantly to budge up. Successive governments have not bothered to get in the extra spuds; Family Holds Back seems to have been the overarching policy response – if one indeed exists.

The Conservative party is the party of immigrants, many living the British dream who make a positive contribution to the country. Despite missteps like the Hostile Environment, we are the party of hope, not hate.

The time is long overdue for a government with a near 80-seat majority and a Cabinet which includes Sunak, Patel, Javid, Zahawi and Raab, not to mention ministers Sharma, Badenoch, Cleverly and Kwarteng to take control of immigration

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.

Interview with Kwasi Kwarteng: “My job is to make us not lose sight of the fact that we are Conservatives”

1 Oct

Eloquent, ebullient and frequently bursting into laughter, Kwasi Kwarteng did not look as he gave this interview yesterday morning like a minister in the middle of a crisis.

He is confident the petrol supply situation is “getting better”. Britain, he says, is making the transition from a low-wage economy with high immigration to a high-wage economy, which is what people wanted when they voted for Brexit, and although various business associations are resisting this change, it will happen quite rapidly.

As Business Secretary, Kwarteng is opposed to tax rises: “I don’t believe we can tax our way to wealth.” He calls himself “a pragmatic Thatcherite”, outlines how that philosophy can meet present-day challenges, and expresses no sympathy for gas suppliers who have got into difficulties: “Why on earth did they enter the market?”

Kwarteng communicated the genial toughness which is evidently intended to characterise the Johnson Government’s approach to business, with those who merely want to preserve the status quo granted no sympathy.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS, pronounced “Bays”) is housed in a dreary modern building at the end of Victoria Street, but from Kwarteng’s office on the eighth floor enjoys a spectacular view of Westminster Abbey.

He said that unlike Angela Rayner, he would never use the word “scum” to describe political opponents, and neither would Boris Johnson. In Kwarteng’s view, it is sometimes best just to stand back and let the Labour Party argue with itself about subjects which are of no interest to most people:

“I think the best approach is for us just to simply allow the Left to have these incredible navel-gazing debates on identity politics, because actually Critical Race Theory is not something that comes up on the doorstep, it’s not something that’s going to put food on anyone’s table.”

Kwarteng, profiled on ConHome after his appointment in January, said his department is not there to act as “a cash dispenser”, but to enable private investment. He is heartened to have confounded the head of Goldman Sachs, who predicted that after Brexit no one would invest in Britain.

The Business Secretary began by discussing what should happen in the coming days in Manchester:

ConHome: “What’s the conference all about?”

Kwarteng: “The conference is about focussing us to win the next election. It’s only two and a half years, tops, until May ’24, and we’ve got to focus obviously on trying to consolidate our coalition, and that’s all about economic opportunity, that’s all about the Prime Minister’s phrase talent is everywhere but opportunity is still focussed in a few areas.

“And that’s the intuition behind the levelling up, that phrase, if you like.

“My job is to make us not lose sight of the fact that we are Conservatives. We believe in markets, we believe in individual responsibility, we believe in the ingenuity of the individual to come up with ideas that can transform society.

“It’s very difficult sometimes to make that voice heard, when we’ve had all the interventions that we’ve seen with respect to the Covid response.

“And just to illustrate that, I was elected in 2010 and the deficit then was £160 billion, something like that, and it seemed like a huge amount of money, we were talking about Greece, we were talking about bankruptcy.

“We’ve just spent in one year, ’20-’21, £350 billion on Covid support, well over twice what the deficit was. And no one batted an eyelid.

“And there’s that great phrase in one of my favourite books, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes, and he says that before the war we spent millions, after the war we spent hundreds of millions, and we discovered we were all so much richer, so [laughing] it was a completely different order of spending and nothing bad happened.

“And our job I think is to try to get back to some kind of – and I know the Chancellor’s very much on this – to try to get back to some sort of fiscal discipline.

“But it’s hard. There are lots of competing pressures. You saw David Davis say with the foreign aid cuts, their argument was we’ve spent hundreds of billions, what’s a few more million?

“The way I see BEIS, and I’ve talked about this a lot, we can’t see BEIS as a cash dispenser. Officials think of BEIS sometimes as if it’s DWP, or as if it’s the Health Service.

“But it’s an enabler. We should think about the money we spend as enabling private capital investment. If you speak to Michael Heseltine, he’s quite good on this stuff, he talks about his career and he says he was never in a big spending department, he always saw himself in departments which were driving private economic growth and investment.

“So he was Defence Secretary, he was sort of equivalent to Michael Gove, I mean he wouldn’t want me to say…”

ConHome: “Is it too late for you to bring Michael Heseltine back in some form, by the way?”

Kwarteng: “Look, I mean, we have differences over Brexit, I’m not going to bring him back in tomorrow. But he was a great minister, and I enjoy talking to him.”

ConHome: “Brexit was a vote for many things. It was in part a vote for lower migration of a sort, higher wages, a different economic model.

“Isn’t what’s going on with this difficulty with the petrol fundamentally about the sort of economy we want. The road haulage people, like some of the fruit pickers, like some meat processors, basically want to go back to the old ways.

“They want Government to issue hundreds of thousands of visas, and they’re trying to use public pressure to get you to change course.”

Kwarteng: “That’s absolutely right, and I’ve said this a number of times, certainly privately. The reason why constituencies like mine [Spelthorne] voted decisively for Brexit, 60 per cent to 40 per cent, was precisely this issue.

“I remember three weeks before the referendum in 2016, I came out of Staines station and someone came up to me and said ‘I’m voting for Brexit.’

“And I said, ‘Oh, why are you doing that?’

“And he said, ‘Well I haven’t had a wage increase in 15 years,’ and he was someone who worked in the building trade, lots of people do work, certainly in my constituency, in that kind of self-employed, small business, logistics, construction world.

“And that was in his mind what this was all about. And so, having rejected the low-wage, high-immigration model, we were always going to try to transition to something else.

“What we’re seeing now is part of that transition. You’re quite right to say people are resisting that, particularly employers that were benefiting from an influx of labour that could keep wages low.”

ConHome: “Aren’t you therefore in a very difficult political position, because they have a kind of weapon, which is the queue, the shortage.

“All you can do, other than take various emergency measures, is tough it out.”

Kwarteng: “I think this is a transition period. As economists would describe, between Equilibrium A and Equilibrium B there’s always going to be a transition period.

“I think it could be quite short. I think what we’re seeing already is quite a lot of investment in the UK. I’ve got a list on my board of lots of things we’ve announced, of investments.

“The head of Goldman Sachs said to me three years ago, ‘No one’s going to invest in the UK because of Brexit.’

“And then about three months ago I said to him, ‘Look at all the investment.’

“He said, ‘Ah, that’s because your assets are cheap [laughter].’ They can hop on the left foot and then hop on the right.

“And we’re seeing investment, we’re seeing success. You speak to investors around the world, they’re all very interested in Britain.

“Not just because of the success they saw with things like the vaccine rollout, great science base, great intellectual capital, but also they see us as a less highly regulated, if you can believe it, jurisdiction than many others around the world.”

ConHome: “How long will this transition take? Because a counter-argument would be it would take a few years to scale up…”

Kwarteng: “No, no, the whole issue of immigration into the UK was something that happened, this particular issue of immigration from the EU, was something that started in 2004, and completely transformed the way we did our economy.

“In fact, the Romanian extension was in 2013, I remember Mark Reckless and Keith Vaz, they were on the Home Affairs Select Committee, they went down to Luton and welcomed these people.

“And that was only eight years ago, and then three years after that we voted for Brexit. I think in terms of the global economy, I think you can see very rapid shifts.

“I think in a year we could be in a totally different place to where we are today.

“I’ve just been speaking to people in the steel industry and they’re saying there are high steel prices, they think they are going to sell lots of product, Liberty are going to do a financing deal that I’ve read about in the newspaper.

“Three months ago, these people were saying this is a disastrous situation.

“So in terms of the economy, I think things can turn round very very quickly, and in five years’ time I don’t think we’ll be talking about this. We’ll be talking about other things.”

ConHome: “Will petrol stations be back to normal by the…”

Kwarteng: “Yes, they are. I’ve got some data here.” [Cameron Brown, Kwarteng’s special adviser, quickly removed two sheets of paper bearing what look like coloured graphs.]

ConHome: “Is that the hand-out? Is that for us?”

Kwarteng: “I think things are stabilising, is the word we use. And I think it’s getting better. There’s been an intense period of anxiety and a lot of pressure.

“That was an extraordinary thing about the power of the media. If I look back on Monday 20th September, my two issues there were carbon dioxide, and the shortage of it, and the gap with the energy suppliers.

“Those were the two issues. This petrol forecourt thing literally flared up I think on the Thursday, there was a leaked conversation, the thing was splashed in the paper on the Thursday.

“There was a full-blown crisis by the weekend, which is now stabilising, and I am hopeful that it will recede, but let’s see.”

ConHome: “Are there any circumstances in which you could conceivably imagine referring to your political opponents as ‘scum’?”

Kwarteng: “No, never. I don’t know whether she was as they say under the influence, or tired and emotional. I don’t know what that was all about.

“Famously it was Aneurin Bevan who said ‘they are lower than vermin’, but he was sober and that was a deliberate piece of insult.

“I don’t think it’s helpful, talking about scum. I think she’s trying to speak to that visceral tribal anti-Tory thing, to shore up the base, but in terms of the wider electorate, I think that doesn’t really work in Britain, that kind of name-calling.

“I don’t think it’s very prime ministerial. The funny thing is, she tried to say the Prime Minister says these things.

“Boris never says things in anger. All of those phrases, they’re either dressed up in the fancy-dress costume of metaphor, or there’s an ironic thing.

“I can’t remember him at any time in 30 years saying ‘So and so is scum’. There’s no venom in the way he uses words. So I think equating that with the Prime Minister is completely inaccurate. He never abuses people in the way that Angela Rayner did.”

ConHome: “No, he doesn’t. Nor does he say, as you quote Margaret Thatcher saying on page four of your book, Thatcher’s Trial: ‘Moral qualities were the secret of our economic success.’ That’s another thing you can’t imagine Boris Johnson saying.”

Kwarteng: “The whole first part of that book is rooting her philosophy in a kind of Manichean Methodism. That’s intellectual history.”

ConHome: “So what are you? Are you a Thatcherite or a pragmatist?”

Kwarteng: “I’m a pragmatic Thatcherite.”

ConHome: “She was a pragmatic Thatcherite, actually.”

Kwarteng: “She sort of was. The thing that fascinated me about doing research about her is she did have this Manichean, you’re either with us or against us, good/bad, black/white, very binary way of thinking.

“But within that, you’re right, she was pragmatic, and she picked her battles when she could. I’m struck by the way in her first term, everyone says they only got going in the second term, in the first term they did some pretty radical things, like get rid of price controls, get rid of exchange controls – I mean, that was a big deal – and some of the privatisations.

“I think to be a Thatcherite in 1985, and to be a Thatcherite in 2021, are always going to be slightly different things. The context – and this is what I love about history – there’s always a context to these things.

“In 1985, you’re trying, essentially, to denationalise, because you’ve had 40 years of quite sclerotic, unimpressive growth, and a huge expansion of the public sector, that can’t respond to innovation.

“In 2021 we’ve got a triple whammy of Brexit, where we have to think about how we’re going to reorder our legal subsidy control, that sort of stuff; you’ve got Covid, which was an unprecedented situation in which the whole world reacted to a global pandemic in a way it never has done; and then you’ve got the whole Net Zero agenda, which whether I like or not, whether you like it or not, is part of the law of the land, we have a legal obligation to try to decarbonise our economy by 2050.

“So these three things frankly didn’t exist in 1985, and we’ve got to navigate them, and we’ve got to use our ideas, our brains, our philosophy if you like to deal with that situation.”

ConHome: “One of the issues that keeps coming back is tax. In the run-up to the Health and Care package you said ‘I don’t see how we could increase National Insurance’, though to be fair you then made some qualifying remarks after that, to suggest it might be possible.

“The point is, very plainly you really didn’t like it very much.”

“Do you think we’re near the point, with a pretty high tax burden as a percentage of GDP, that we’re basically running out of room to raise taxes?”

Kwarteng: “I will frame my answer to your question, or your thoughts, very broadly.

“I’ve never understood how we incentivise economic activity by increasing tax. I always come back to that. We can talk about raising taxes in the short term to deal with a short-term crisis.

“But broadly, higher tax is basically a tax on economic activity.”

ConHome: “What’s the first thought that comes into your mind when you hear the Chancellor say, ‘We’re going to put up corporation tax?”

Kwarteng: “He is I think doing a fantastic job. It was only just a little bit more than a year ago that people were saying there’s going to be massive unemployment, there’s going to be a huge kind of catastrophe.

“And I think he’s navigated that really nimbly. And that’s all I would say on that.

“But broadly, do I believe in higher taxes? No. I don’t believe we can tax our way to wealth.”

ConHome: “And you don’t think we’re near a point where having put up a number of taxes…”

Kwarteng: “You’re doing a really good job of getting me to stray outside my portfolio [laughter]. But I’m not going to go there. I am a low-tax, small-state, what’s the Gladstonian phrase, let…”

ConHome: “…money fructify in the pockets of the people.”

Kwarteng: “That was very clumsy.”

ConHome: “It’s memorable.”

Kwarteng: “Fructify in the pockets of the people. I’m a great believer in all of that. But you know, he didn’t have to deal with Covid. And actually he probably wouldn’t have bothered. I mean he would just have let the thing rip.”

ConHome: “The present Prime Minister is much more Disraelian, actually.”

Kwarteng: “He’s more like Disraeli arguably on public spending as well.”

ConHome: “Disraeli would have said Gladstone was worse than Covid.”

Kwarteng: “Absolutely.”

ConHome: “The wind sometimes doesn’t blow, though it does today, as we can see from the flag on the top of Westminster Abbey. And sometimes the sun don’t shine. Is there a risk that this drive to Net Zero will compromise security of supply?”

Kwarteng: “I think that’s a perfectly legitimate question, and when I answer these questions I pivot back to the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan, The New Decalogue as he calls it.”

ConHome: “That was a satire.”

Kwarteng: “He said it ironically and I’m saying it ironically. And in that, there’s a clear commitment to nuclear power.

“Now I think our nuclear power story has been a shame, because we had early advantage, we were very good on nuclear power, but we simply haven’t invested in it enough in my view over the last 40 years.

“And I think that’s a key missing piece of the puzzle, in terms of energy security.”

ConHome: “But what about security of supply, is that going to be all right?”

Kwarteng: “I saw Iain Martin today in the paper. This is not a supply issue, OK, it’s a distribution issue.”

ConHome: “At the moment, yes.”

Kwarteng: “It has never been a supply issue.”

ConHome: “And will not become a supply issue?”

Kwarteng: “I do not believe it will become a supply issue. It’s like an old-fashioned bank run. But actually, in terms of security of supply, that has never been an issue.

“The point is getting the supply distributed properly, and of course with the HGV driver issue that’s been more challenging.

“In terms of the energy issue, the gas suppliers essentially came into the market with a price cap and then they failed to see that if wholesale prices were significantly above the price cap they’d be out of pocket, and some of them didn’t even hedge for that.”

ConHome: “The price cap stops it being a proper market, doesn’t it?”

Kwarteng: “Yes, but why did they enter it?”

ConHome: “Why did the Government impose the price cap?”

Kwarteng: “That’s a very good question, but once it’s there, why on earth did they enter the market? They still thought they could make money.

“And then when the wholesale price was much higher than the price cap they complained, but I said, ‘The price cap was there when you entered the market, you should have sold oranges or something, or entered another business.’

“They knew what the situation was, and then some of them expected government bailouts, and thankfully that hasn’t really had any resonance, because people could see that they entered the market, they’ve been caught, the tide has revealed that they were wearing nothing, and I’m afraid some of them are going to have to exit the market.

“Having said all that, some of the smaller companies have really driven innovation in the market, so the price cap has allowed for greater competition, has allowed for new entrants, and now, some of those entrants who haven’t been as well-managed are having to leave the market.”

ConHome: “This is probably the moment to sneak in the fracking question. It comes up a lot. People on the Right say look, we have this shortage, why haven’t we fracked?”

Kwarteng: “So I was very pro-fracking. My first summer as Energy Minister, we had Cuadrilla fracking in Lancashire, and I remember speaking to the MP, and he was a pro-fracking person, and the limit I think was 0.5 on the Richter scale.

“This thing came in at about 2.9, and walls were shaking and plates were falling off them.

“And someone said we’d never have had the coal industry if we’d had that approach, which may or may not be true, but the coal industry started in whenever, 1650, and we’re talking about 2020 when we have a full democracy and all the rest of it.

“So we said that we would impose a moratorium and when we had new evidence that this could be done without too much disruption we would look at the moratorium again.

“And I think there were too many communities that were being disrupted. We’re a small country. The fact that it can work in the United States, and it works successfully, it’s what a thousand times bigger than England? Something like that.

“They would frack in a hundred places, and maybe one would be successful. But we don’t have that luxury here.

“There’s also geological questions. I know a firm that Tim Eggar was involved with, they fracked all over Poland and it didn’t work.

“So I get the whole fracking thing, but I don’t think it’s the answer. I think more nuclear is the answer. I think a wider range of renewable technology and things like tidal stream, those sort of things, can help us as well.”

ConHome: “The Government takes Critical Race Theory seriously enough to have a minister go to the Despatch Box and say it shouldn’t be taught in schools.

“Why is it that Kemi Badenoch seems to be the only Conservative among a mass of MPs who takes Critical Race Theory seriously?”

Kwarteng: “No one knows what Critical Race Theory is. If you ask 360 MPs what Critical Race Theory is, how many do you think on our benches would be able to give you a coherent answer?

“To be fair to Kemi Badenoch, that is part of her brief. She was Minister for Equalities even when she was in the Treasury.

“And she’s got a particular approach, I think a very robust approach to a lot of this sort of thing.

“I think the best approach is for us just to simply allow the Left to have these incredible navel-gazing debates on identity politics, because actually Critical Race Theory is not something that comes up on the doorstep, it’s not something that’s going to put food on anyone’s table.”

ConHome: “Are you saying it’s not a problem in any way?”

Kwarteng: “I’m saying I don’t see why we should engage with it. Even your readers, people who subscribe to ConservativeHome, I’d be amazed if more than about five or ten per cent know what Critical Race Theory is.

“I’m trying to run a business department that affects the whole of the UK economy. My views or otherwise on Critical Race Theory are singularly irrelevant to how I do my job.”

ConHome: “Can only women have a cervix?”

Kwarteng: “What did Sajid Javid say? I agree with him.”

ConHome: “I think he said it defies science.”

Kwarteng: “All these things, I know they’re very important to a minority of people, but they’re not really levelling up issues, they’re not about the prosperity of the UK, they don’t deliver jobs.

“It’s the worst kind of rabbit hole which I don’t think sheds any light on anything, it doesn’t improve people’s lives.”

ConHome: “Can you deliver levelling up, Net Zero, industrial strategy, skills, without more localism – without more elected mayors?”

Kwarteng: “Really good question. I think you’ve got to have more local involvement. I think the Prime Minister’s view, which I share, is we shouldn’t get into a theological debate about the structures and what the people are called.

“We’ve got to just deal with what we have. Because if you were very rationalistic and Napoleonic about it, dare I say, you would just spread the combined mayoral authorities across the UK.

“You’d divide the UK up into mayoralties and then you’d have a little mayor with a little badge.”

ConHome: “You’d have a Mairie.”

Kwarteng: “Exactly. We’re not going to do that, so we’ve got to work with the structures, and some of them do work very well, the mayoralties, some county councils work very well, we’ve got to work with the kind of patchwork that we have, we’re not going to rationalise things in a kind of centralised way.”

ConHome: “If Johnson wasn’t Prime Minister he’d be finishing his book about Shakespeare. What book would you be finishing?”

Kwarteng: “I’ve already got one on the stocks about the Congo called Masters of the World, and it’s been there since I’ve been made a minister. I’ve done the research, so it’s simply a question of cleaning up the text.”

Payne journeys through the Red Wall seats to discover how Labour lost them and Johnson won

18 Sep

Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England by Sebastian Payne

The first thing Sebastian Payne prompted me to do was to order a copy of English Journey by J. B. Priestley. For Payne starts his book in Gateshead, where he grew up, and is sporting enough to quote what Priestley wrote about it in 1933:

“No true civilisation could have produced such a town, which is nothing better than a huge dingy dormitory.”

Payne is not a second Priestley. He is neither such a good writer, nor so rude. But he is a good investigative journalist, who wants to understand what happened in the Red Wall seats where the Conservatives made such inroads in 2019.

The term “Red Wall” was coined by the pollster James Kanagasooriam to describe seats which had never returned a Tory MP since 1997 (or in some cases since the Second World War); voted on average by 63 per cent for Brexit (compared to the national average of 52 per cent); had a substantial Labour majority during the 1990s; and also had a substantial minority Tory vote.

Four such seats went blue for the first time at the 2017 general election: Mansfield, North East Derbyshire, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Walsall North.

Thirty four went blue in 2019, and another 14 stayed in Labour hands. Payne quotes a Labour aide who says the 2019 result could have been even worse:

“We looked at the North and Midlands and thought the whole thing could just go, it could have been another Scotland for us.”

But to lose 34 seats is still pretty bad, and Payne sets out to discover what happened, and whether 2019 “was a fluke, or a realignment”.

His method is to visit ten Red Wall seats, each of which gets about 30 pages of text: Blyth Valley, North West Durham, Sedgefield, Wakefield, Don Valley, Great Grimsby, North East Derbyshire, Coventry North West, Heywood and Middleton, and Burnley.

In the course of his researches he interviews 120 people, including many former Labour MPs, often spoken to remotely, in part because of the pandemic. So we hear from Tony Blair, David Blunkett, David Miliband, Alan Johnson and many others.

In Blyth Valley, he meets Ronnie Campbell, former miner, Labour MP there from 1987-2019, when he retired because of a heart complaint; and Ian Levy, former mental health nurse, who proceeded to win the seat by 712 votes for the Conservatives.

Levy told Payne how he came to stand:

“We would often go out for a meal or a drink, me and my wife Maureen. On the wander back, when I’d had a few beers, I would start complaining about the state of the town centre: the state of the bus shelters, the feeling of despondency there was in the town where people feel really, really let down, and that their vote is taken for granted.

“I think she was happy to hear this, once, twice, maybe 30 times. But once it got to 40 or 50, she’d absolutely had enough. I remember this one night in particular she said, ‘Either do something about it or shut up.’ And I said, ‘Right, OK then.'”

The next day he told her he was going to stand for Parliament. His “gut feeling” took him towards the Conservatives, but he found there was no Conservative Association in Blyth Valley, so he wrote to David Cameron, explaining his passion for Blyth, the problems he had identified and how he intended to fix them.

Much to his and Maureen’s surprise, he received a positive reply, and in 2016 was invited to CCHQ for an interview, after which he became the prospective parliamentary candidate.

His first campaign, in the 2017 general election, was run with £500 donated by Matt Ridley, described by Payne as “the aristocratic science writer and libertarian campaigner based in Northumberland”.

Levy’s daughter and her friends distributed leaflets, and the Conservative vote rose to 15,855 (it had been 8,346 in 2015), but the genial Campbell was still well ahead, with 23,770 votes.

Two years later, the Conservative vote increased again, to 17,440, while Campbell’s successor fell back to 16,728. Levy in his second campaign had won a famous victory.

“One of the nuisances of the ballot,” Lord Salisbury once remarked, “is that when the oracle has spoken you never know what it means.”

There is a temptation, when seeking to explain what happened in the Red Wall seats, to pretend to greater knowledge than is actually possible.

It can be difficult enough to know what is going on inside one’s own head, let alone anyone else’s, as one makes up one’s mind how to vote. Here is Payne on his own decision in the EU Referendum of 2016:

“On both sides of my family, almost everyone voted Leave. I was deeply torn: my northern hinterland and instincts pulled me towards Brexit, but after twenty minutes in the polling booth, my head put a tick in the Remain column.”

One rejoices to find such a balanced outlook, such conscious doubt, in a reporter for a newspaper, The Financial Times, which expressed such dogmatic enthusiasm for remaining in the EU.

There is an overwhelming sense, in every place visited by Payne, of having seen better days. Great industries have collapsed,  so has the communal life which they engendered, and handsome town centres are left to rot.

Local pride is wounded at every turn by evidence of neglect, shoddiness and former greatness. The prosperous, of whom there are more than one might think, flee to houses on the periphery.

And as Payne explains, the Labour coalition has broken down:

“From its inception, the party was built on a Hampstead-to-Humberside electoral alliance, bridging metropolitan liberal voters, typified in the north London enclave, to the working-class voters in England’s working-class towns. Brexit annihilated this alliance, but Labour’s shift on other matters set the stage for the demise, according to Blair.”

Blair talks at considerable length to Payne. The ingenuity with which he justifies himself is impressive, and his self-righteousness is insufferable.

Nothing is ever Blair’s fault. Norman Tebbit, speaking from his office in the House of Lords, strikes a different note:

“There were mining communities in rural areas where there was very little other work. Unfortunately we could have run those mines down much more slowly. We could have done more to help to bring jobs to those areas. There was a deep and profound economic and social change that went on, which was adverse to those local people.”

One of the paradoxes of Payne’s account is that he talks to so many politicians, he does not always allow the voices of local people to be heard.

We instead get the generally rather bland language of professional politicians, discussing what to do about the Red Wall seats, what to do about Brexit, and still cut off from the people who in 2016 seized the chance to make their voice heard, administering a most tremendous shock to the metropolitan liberals who had ignored them for so long.

The weakness of Theresa May after the 2017 general election turned out to be a trap for the Remainers. Peter Mandelson tells Payne how Blair assembled a group of like-minded Labour figures and told them they had “a real opportunity” to get Leaver voters to think again.

After they had spent some time trying to persuade Leave voters that leaving was not such a great idea, Mandelson told Blair “We’re not gaining traction here”, but Blair would not accept this.

The People’s Vote campaigners were not thinking straight. As Mandelson says, the question of “what would be on the ballot paper of a second referendum…was insoluble”.

Labour, which in 2017 was still promising to implement the referendum result, ended up in a ridiculous position at the 2019 election, seen by Leave voters as an attempt to wriggle out of getting Brexit done, and Johnson won a thumping victory.

Johnson enters this book at the end, campaigning in May 2021 in the Hartlepool by-election, another famous Tory victory:

“With Jill Mortimer, the Tory candidate, he paced up the seafront in his trademark blue suit – sans coat, despite the weather. He was mobbed. Soon, the traffic piled up as every car stopped to point and shout, ‘Boris!’ He was the Pied Piper in the middle of a hurricane. He asked each voter he stopped to talk to if the party could count on their support. Bar some who were uncertain, every one answered in the affirmative. No one said they were backing Labour. The response was unlike any I have seen to any politician on the campaign trail, in any election: dozens of Hartlepudlians wanted selfies and elbow bumps with the Prime Minister. You cannot imagine David Cameron or Theresa May eliciting such a response.”

Payne later interviews Johnson:

“Recalling the scenes on the beach front, I asked why he felt he was so personally popular with working-class voters, despite his Eton and Oxford background? Was it that he was seen as an unconventional political insurgent? After running his hand through his mop of hair several times, Johnson said, ‘Look, it beats me.’ He appeared to be on the cusp of revealing more, before restraining himself. ‘It’s not about me, this is about this country.'”

Yes, it is about what kind of country we are, what kind of nation. And to cast light on that question, I hope another author, a latter-day Priestley, will make an English journey and spend more time talking to random members of the public, unimportant people.