Iain Dale: Your Brexit trade talks countdown. Fifteen days left until transition ends fully.

18 Dec

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

As I write my final column of 2020, the Brexit free trade negotiation is still not done.  Recent indications were that it will be, although their fate stlll seems swing back and forth.

But surely it has to be settled very soon if any deal is to be ratified by January 1st. I wouldn’t put it past the European Parliament to put a last minute spanner in the works, and declare that MEPs haven’t had time to scrutinise it. Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that.

– – – – – – – – –

This week, Liz Truss signed a trade agreement with Mexico, a country we do £7 billion worth of trade with each year.

I’m going to be honest, and say that I was rather surprised when she topped the ConHome list of cabinet ministers last month but, when you think about it, she’s quietly got on with her job, and done what she’s there to do – sign trade agreements.

We’ve now got rollover agreements with most of the G20 countries which the EU already had a trade agreement with. I remember the days when Remainers said this would be impossible to do.

Well, Truss has proved the opposite.No grandstanding, no fuss, just getting on with it. When she was appointed, I thought it was a strange one, but she’s risen to the challenge and proved herself.

Only six months ago, she was being tipped for the chop in a reshuffle. If she were ditched now, it would be incredibly unfair. When people prove themselves in a job, it’s often a good idea to leave them there – and the next twelve months are going to be absolutely vital in the promotion of Global Britain. It would be no time for a trade novice.

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The announcement on Wednesday of the four nation approach to Covid restrictions over Christmas was a disaster from a communications viewpoint. To try to pretend, as the Prime Minister did, that the policy and guidelines remained unchanged was ridiculous, and further undermined the government’s approach.

When circumstances change – and they have changed since the initial announcement of the Christmas rules on December 2 – it would be wholly reasonable to change approach, even if there might be a political backlash.

Infections are rising in large parts of the country, as are hospital admissions. Death numbers are rising again, too. In those circumstances, would surely be reasonable to tighten the guidelines. Other European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands have done it. It’s called leadership.

Boris Johnson appears to think the British public wouldn’t swallow it. All the polling suggests that they would. There will always be people who ignore anything the Government says and deliberately do the exact opposite, but most people do take notice of what Ministers and scientists say.

We know from the spike that happened after Thanksgiving in the America what happens when families get together. The virus spreads. And that’s what is undoubtedly going to happen over Christmas.

Would we be having this five day long super-spreader event, were it not for this annual holiday? No, of course we wouldn’t. In fact, I suspect much more severe measures than Tier Three would be imposed.

So when we get to the middle of January and we’re getting 40-50,000 new infections a day, and at the end of that month the death rate climbs to more than a thousand a day, many people will look back and blame the Prime Minister directly for it.

You can explain all you like that it’s individual people’s lack of discipline or adherence to the safety measures but the commentators and scientists will blame one person: Johnson.

I hope he’s got a good explanation ready. Having said all that, it will be interesting to compare infection rates in January in Wales with those of the rest of the UK. Mark Drakeford has said only two families may meet over Christmas rather than three, and is criminalising anyone caught breaching the limit. Nicola Sturgeon hasn’t gone that far, but she’s advising people only to meet on one day, with no overnight stay.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is saying that just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and that we should all enjoy a smaller, shorter Christmas. In essence, he’s trusting the people to do the right thing. In normal circumstances, that ought to be the right message. In this case, that message has been undermined, yet again, by a lack of clarity. It’s something I suspect we’re all going to live to regret.

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As this is my final column of the year, let me conclude by wishing you all a very Happy Christmas – and let’s hope that 2021 is a much better year for all of us and the country.

Iain Dale: Brexit. In the short-term, a bumpy ride. In the medium, a massive success – that’s my instinct, anyway

11 Dec

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

The one thing Britain and the EU are united on is that they both want a deal – but not at any cost.

As I write, we seem to be no nearer a deal with the EU now than we were a week ago. Neither side seems willing to move on any of the three main areas of contention.

So in retrospect, I am not sure what the point of the dinner on Wednesday night was. If, after, four and a half years the EU doesn’t understand what our bottom line is, I’m not sure a three hour conversation over a Turbot was going to change anything.

It’s clear that the EU does not appreciate what being a sovereign country means, and if they don’t understand it now, they probably never will. I’ve always approached these talks from the premise that sensible people will, in the end, come to a sensible deal, which is satisfactory to both sides. That’s what happens in the real world.

Or at least it used to. Yes, you get to the last minute of the last hour, and there’s a great deal of brinkmanship involved, but you get there in the end.

But sadly, at the moment, it looks difficult to see a pathway to a deal. There is a minority of Brexiteers which actively wants No Deal. I’ve never been one of them. However, I can’t deny that the devil in me – or perhaps the journalist in me – will be fascinated to see what happens if it comes to pass.

All sorts of doom-mongers will predict that we will go to hell in a hand cart, just as they did when we didn’t join the Euro. My instinct – and that is all it is – is that in the medium term the UK will become a massive success, but I can’t prove it. In the meantime, it’s going to be a very bumpy ride indeed.

– – – – – – – – – –

I was interested to see that in the last League Table of Cabinet Ministers, in which the ConHome panel of Party members, Liz Truss emerged as the top rated minister.

Over the last year, she has kept a much lower profile than usual, and quietly got on with her job of reaching trade agreements with other countries. And on Wednesday, Singapore became the 22nd country to reach a post Brexit trade deal which will come into effect on January 1st.

Truss has confounded Remainer critics who insisted that no more than a handful of countries would be prepared to roll over their EU trade agreements. Expect quite a few more to be signed over the next few weeks, but most of the bigger ones have already been done.

One statistic which I wasn’t aware of is that the 40 different agreements we were part of as EU member states accounted for only 11 per cent of our total trade. Add this to the 44 per cent of our trade we do with the EU, and you can see that 45 per cent of our trade is conducted with countries under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation – and 40 per cent of that is with the United States.

– – – – – – – – – –

A word of praise for whoever organised the Comms on Tuesday for the first vaccinations. I’m told it was all handled by NHS England, and they did a fantastic job.

The pictures from Coventry hospital told their own story. They weren’t intrusive, and the elderly people interviewed said exactly the right things to encourage us all to get the vaccination.

It was a lovely touch for the first man to be vaccinated to be William Shakespeare from Warwick. I almost expected him to look at the camera and say: ‘my vaccine, my vaccine, my kingdom for a vaccine’.

I also want to issue a word of praise for Nadhim Zahawi, the newly appointed Minister for Vaccine Deployment. The rollout of the vaccine programme is one of the most difficult logistical challenges which any government has faced outside of wartime.

His role will no doubt be to unblock any bottlenecks, and occasionally knock a few heads together. He’s been one of the unsung heroes of Conservative governments since the days of David Cameron. Quite how he is still only a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State is a mystery.

He’s always been a minister who Downing Street can count on not to drop a bollock, and I have dubbed him the ‘Minister for Sticky Wickets’. If there’s any justice in this world, he ought to be a sure fire bet for promotion in the forthcoming reshuffle. I wouldn’t bet against him going straight into the Cabinet as Business Secretary.

Iain Dale: Let’s hear it for the private sector and hear less about a bigger state

4 Dec

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

“Let’s hear it for the private sector”. Seven words you hear very rarely nowadays. The current narrative is that the state can and should provide us with everything – even to the extent of providing breakfast and lunch for Scottish schoolchildren.

It’s not just the state taking over the role of parenting. It is increasingly involving itself in aspects of our lives which only a few years ago we would have been horrified by.

I totally back many of the measures taken to halt the spread of Coronavirus, but in order for the rest of the population to buy into them, they have to seem reasonable.

Dare I say the Welsh government’s decision to ban alcohol from being served in pubs and restaurants at all times of the day is a measure that is completely unreasonable? Quite how having a glass of wine with your lunch in a restaurant makes you more likely to spread Coronavirous or contract it yourself only Mark Drakeford knows. I know Wales has a proud tradition of Calvinism, but even so…

Without the private sector, many of our most recent medical advances would have been made. John McDonnell wanted to have a state-run pharmaceutical industry. We will never know how it would have been able to do what private sector drug companies are doing in terms of inventing Covid vaccines.

It’s certainly true that the private sector is often the worst advert for itself, given some of its more vocal adherents are not exactly an example to the rest of society, but I guess that’s human nature for you. The greed exhibited by too many of our highly paid executives does little to restore people’s faith.

Yet this week there has been a move by Tesco which rather restores one’s faith in big conglomerates. It is to return more than half a billion pounds they received in business rates relief to the Treasury.

I just hope that this is redistributed to very hard-pressed local councils. Morrisons quickly followed suit, and I suspect the rest of the big supermarkets will, in the end, grudgingly do so too.

Saisnbury’s say they won’t (at the time of writing), but it’s difficult to justify huge payouts in dividends if a similar amount is being received in business support from the Government in one form or another.

– – – – – – – – – –

Talking of people who give the private sector a bad name, let’s have a word about Sir Philip Green. I was the Jeremy Vine TV show on Wednesday talking about the demise of his Arcadia group and Debenhams, along with another guest, Becca Hutson, who seriously suggested that it was up to the Government to bail them out, and it was all the Government’s fault anyway because of Covid.

Seriously. She clearly hasn’t been reading the business pages of the newspapers over the last three years. Had she done so, she’d have been aware that the demise of these businesses had been predicted for a long time. While Covid has no doubt hastened their fall, there’s little doubt they were doomed anyway. Neither business had embraced online shopping in the way that their competitors have, and have suffered the consequences.

If I’m honest, I have a teency bit of sympathy for them in, that ten years ago, would I have imagined that I too would be buying clothes, suits and shoes on the internet? No. But I do.

To think the Government should become the employer of last resort is the economics of the mad house. Yes, I feel incredibly sorry for anyone who loses their job, but if the state comes to the rescue of Top Shop or Debenhams, then why didn’t it for BHS or Woolworths? Or countless other businesses.

Ah, they say, but the banks were bailed out, so what’s different about shops? Well, everything. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the consequences for the economy if the banks had all been allowed to collapse like dominos. That is not true of the retail sector. Business is all about strategy and risk. Get the strategy wrong and take the wrong risk, and you become another corporate casualty.

That’s what Sir Philip Green has done, and it is sadly his staff and customers who are suffering the consequences. And, all the while, he sits on his £100 million Monaco-based yacht and gets through the remaining £900 million of his personal fortune.

While there is no legal way he can be forced to compensate any of his employees, surely anyone with even a small heart would make some sort of effort to alleviate the misery of those who are about to lose their employment? I’m not holding my breath, though. He’s not that sort of man, as was clear from the evidence he gave to a select committee not that long ago. A more repulsive human being I have rarely seen.

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Back in 1997, I did something mad and opened a specialist political bookshop in Westminster called Politico’s. It soon established itself as a meeting place and event venue, too.

Seven years later I closed it, and took it online, due to a combination of the advent of Amazon, a huge rent increase by our landlords, the Crown Prosecution Service and the congestion charge. But I sold the online business a couple of years later.

This week, I have resurrected the name and the online shop at http://www.politicos.co.uk. The intention is for it to become a one stop shop for all sorts of political items and ephemera, not just books. I hope that ConHome readers will be regular customers.

Iain Dale: Yes to what’s in the new tiers. But No to who’s been put in them. Using county boundaries is barking mad.

27 Nov

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

I write this just as Matt Hancock is announcing which areas of the country are going into which tiers from next week. I’m afraid the Government have got this completely wrong.

I agree with strengthening the measures in the tiers, but using counties as the geographical criteria is just barking mad.

Take my own county of Kent – where we are being put into Tier Three, despite most of the county having very low rates of infection. Indeed, the borough I live in has one of the lowest infection rates in the country.

Yet the Medway Towns – especially the borough of Swale – are dragging down the rest of the county into the top tier. The fact is that people who live south of the M20 do not often venture north of it.

Similarly, North Devon is in Tier Two despite the rate of infection being one of the lowest in the country – even lower, I’m told, than neighbouring Cornwall, which is in Tier One. Surely, as Damian Green and Greg Clark have suggested, it would be far more sensible to divide the country up into district council areas?

– – – – – – – – – –

When there’s nothing else to write about, so the saying goes for political journos, a nice little speculative story about a reshuffle never goes amiss. No one ever looks back and holds your words against you, even when you get it spectacularly wrong.

On Monday, Rachel Sylvester had a go at predicting what Boris Johnson might do in a pre or post Christmas reshuffle. She touted Sajid Javid for the Foreign Office with Dominic Raab moving to the Cabinet Office, with Michael Gove replacing Priti Patel at the Home Office, who would then take on the party chairmanship.

The flaw in this argument is that there would then be no woman holding any of the great offices of state. No doubt in order to persuade Patel that she wasn’t being demoted, the role of the Party Chairman would have to enhanced and reimagined.

As I’ve written before, back in the day the job was considered to be the best job to have outside the top three. Those days are long gone, but perhaps with the right person in the job they could return.

Sylvester also touted Jeremy Hunt to replace Gavin Williamson at education. I’ve heard worse ideas, and in many ways he would fit the job like a hand in a glove.

But would he take it? It’s a bit of a comedown from travelling the world as Foreign Secretary, and you get the feeling he’s quite enjoying his life outside tovernment, chairing the Health Select Committee. Home Secretary might be more of a pull. It would be difficult to turn down a great office of state.

The problem the Prime Minister has is that there is little point in having a big, meaningful reshuffle if there isn’t much new talent available to replace the Cabinet dead wood. And if you look down the list of ministers of state, well, without being unkind, there aren’t many of them who you automatically think would do any better than those currently clinging on to their cabinet roles. Kit Malthouse, Penny Mordaunt and Kwasi Kwarteng would be the three prime candidates for promotion, in my view.

With the departure of Messers Cummings and Cain, Boris Johnson would do well to promote several ministers who are good media performersm and make ir clear that going out and explaining government policy on the airwaves is one of the prime tasks of Cabinet ministers – on the basis that if they don’t do it, no one else will.

On that criteria, Kemi Badenoch, Gillian Keegan, Victoria Atkins, Victoria Prentis, Jo Churchill, Chris Philp and Robin Walker ought to be given more prominent, public-facing roles.

In my opinion, the role of the Cabinet Office should be recast, with at least two ministers appointed whose roles would be to be Ministers for Radio and TV – the ministerial equivalents of Allegra Stratton.

Communication is everything in modern government, You can have the best policies in the history of politics, but if no one knows about them, or if the Opposition succeed in their attempts to portray them negatively, it’s all for nothing.

Iain Dale: “The sun is incomparably more powerful than any work of man.” When Johnson’s guru on global warming was Corbyn’s brother.

20 Nov

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

So he’s gone. The departure of Dominic Cummings from Number Ten eclipsed the concurrent departure of Lee Cain, and understandably so.

But it is the latter’s exit which is already being noticed in broadcast studios up and down the country. Downing Street’s former Director departed a week ago today, and by last Monday Matt Hancock was appearing on Good Morning Britain. The boycott had ended.  However, rather than be welcoming and emollient, Piers Morgan did what Piers Morgan does, and gave Hancock a bit of a mauling.

There’s little doubt that the new regime headed by James Slack and Allegra Stratton is striking a very different tune. The tone is one of cooperation and helpfulness. And believe me, it’s a refreshing change.

The point that the Cain/Cummings regime failed to understand is that if Ministers aren’t put up to explain government policy, no one else will do it for them. It’s early days, but I hope the Slack/Stratton regime gets that. The early signs are good.

– – – – – – – – – –

It’s almost as though Boris Johnson has got religion. His zealous promotion of green policies have drawn widespread admiration from those involved in the environmental and climate change movements. And he’s done it without unsettling those on the Tory right who view the green lobby as the enemy.

His ten point plan contained some genuinely interesting proposals, albeit not fleshed out with a huge a amount of detail. I had to laugh, though, when Mishal Hussein on the Today Programme took Alok Sharma to task for “only” providing an extra £4 billion of money to fund the ten point plan.

It’s got to a pretty pass when £4 billion is considered a trifling sum. It wasn’t that long ago that £4 billion amounted to the entirety of the annual public sector borrowing requirement. Those were the days…

– – – – – – – – – –

The Prime Minister’s green credentials appear to have been burnished in recent times, and of course I’m scratching my head to think who on earth could have been whispering his ear…

Well, she has done a very good job, because it wasn’t so long ago that Johnson wrote a paean of praise to Piers Corbyn’s theory – yes, that’s Piers Corbyn, brother of you-know-who – that it is the sun’s activity rather than man’s which shapes our weather.

Here is an extract from a Johnson Daily Telegraph column in 2010:

“The question is whether anthropogenic global warming is the exclusive or dominant fact that determines our climate, or whether Corbyn is also right to insist on the role of the sun. Is it possible that everything we do is dwarfed by the moods of the star that gives life to the world? The sun is incomparably vaster and more powerful than any work of man. We are forged from a few clods of solar dust. The sun powers every plant and form of life, and one day the sun will turn into a red giant and engulf us all. Then it will burn out. Then it will get very nippy indeed.”

Five years later, in December 2015, he was at it again in the Telegraph. Concerned about an unseasonably warm winter, who did our future Prime Minister turn to again for some meteorological input?

Why yes, it was Piers Corbyn who was on Speed Dial One in the London Mayor’s office. The Jezzabrother reassured Johnson that the warm spell was “nothing to do with the conventional doctrine of climate change”. Johnson himself rejected any idea that recent changes in our weather were anything to do with man-made global warming.

I wonder if he holds that same belief five Decembers later? I’d love to ask him myself, but even despite the departure of Messers Cummings and Cain, I suspect I’m still on the naughty step.

– – – – – – – – – –

This week, I have been crippled by back pain. Anyone who has ever experienced it knows who awful it can be, yet those who haven’t can rarely resist the temptation to snigger. I’ve never understood why.

It culminated last Friday evening with me being able to barely put one foot in front of the other. Each night, after my radio show, I walk from Leicester Square to Charing Cross Station to catch the 10.10pm train. The walk normally takes me some four to five minutes.

I knew as soon as I embarked on the short trip, that I would miss my train. My strides became tiptoe steps of about six inches each. I shuffled along like a decrepit 90 year old. Halfway there, I was accosted by someone who recognised me and wanted to chat. I was almost in tears of pain by that point.

Eventually, I made it onto a train 20 minutes later. I sat down and realised the configuration of the seats would make the pain even worse. So I moved to a first class seat which had more support. I phoned my partner to ask him to come to collect me from the station as I knew I couldn’t walk to get my car in the station car park. Never have I felt so pathetic.

When the train arrived at Tonbridge I genuinely wondered if I would be able to get off the seat and get off the train. I managed it just in time. It took me five minutes to manoeuvre myself into the front seat of John’s SUV. I could barely string two words together I was in so much pain. I even wondered whether he should drop me off at the local A&E.

When we got home I then had to contemplate climbing the stairs of our house backwards. I went straight to bed, wondering if I could even lie down to sleep. I took my shirt off, and then the awful truth dawned on me. I couldn’t bend down to take off my shoes of my trousers. I had to call John.

It was at that moment that it all came out. I just started crying – not just because of the constant physical pain I was enduring, but because I realised I had turned into my mother. For the last 30 years of her life she was in constant physical pain due to terrible hip issues (she had five hip replacements), knee problems, osteoporosis and back issues.

But you always have to find humour in these situations. As John was pulling off my trousers I muttered: “I thought you’d be doing this in 20 years time, not now. But at least I’m not dribbling…” If looks could kill.

Iain Dale: Trump is displaying all the signs of believing his own lies. And he is undermining democracy itself.

6 Nov

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

As I write this column on Thursday lunchtime, we still do not know for sure who will be inaugurated in Washington on Wednesday 20 January next year.  As Sky’s Mark Austin said earlier this week, the Americans will never be able to take the micky out of us for cricket – a game that can go on for days without a result.

It looks more than likely that Joe Biden will be the next President, which didn’t seem to be the case when I finished presenting LBC’s marathon seven-hour overnight election show.

At that point, it seemed clear that Donald Trump would be staying in the White House. He was ahead in most of the crucial swing states. But when I woke up after three hours’ sleep on Wednesday morning, the situation was beginning to change.

By the end of Wednesday, Biden had pulled ahead in both the popular national vote. Michigan became the American equivalent of Nuneaton or Basildon.

When he saw which way the wind was blowing, Donald Trump did what he does best: disrupt. He went on TV to say that there was widespread vote fraud in the states that he now appeared to be losing, and that all vote counting there should stop. However, the counts should continue in all the states where he was ahead. Brazen.

Rudi Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer – a man who has lost all of his previously respected reputation – made public pronouncements in which he speculated on whether the Democratic National Committee was behind multiple voting, and even went so far as to ponder whether Joe Biden himself may have voted 5,000 times. He demeaned himself – and not for the first time.

All candidates are entitled to challenge a count if they genuinely fear there has been foul play. In this country that rarely, if ever, happens. It has to be said that in the US it has happened rather too often.  But if you accuse your rivals of interfering in the electoral process, you need to have some evidence for your accusation.

This is dangerous talk from Trump, since it completely undermines any trust in the democratic process. It is now easy to imagine a situation in which Biden scores a higher number of electoral college votes than Trump did in 2016 – and yet the President still doesn’t accept the result. There will also be protests, and maybe even violent riots, which seek to keep Trump in the White House.

Being a disrupter is not necessarily a 100 per cent bad thing. But being a president who cannot accept a basic tenet of democracy – i.e. the acceptance of electoral loss – is not a good look. The trouble is that Trump displays all the signs of being someone who comes to believe his own lies.

The fact, however, that he has won five million more votes than he did in 2016 does tell us something important. We cannot write him off as an aberration. Trump caught a political wave in 2016 – one of dissatisfaction with politics in general and Washington in particular. If it hadn’t been him it would have been someone else.

The Tea Party’s rise in the 1990s and early 2000s was the first sign that something was changing, but the Washington elites chose to ignore it. It’s a bit like the Labour Party telling the electorate here that they keep getting it wrong, and what they really want is something that the elites in Islington tell them they should want. The electorate resile against this, and do the very opposite.

On Wednesday morning, I was watching the BBC’s election coverage and heard one of its journalist saying that to appeal to working class voters amounts to “economic populism”. It’s that kind of elitist arrogance that turns people off the so-called mainstream media – and plays into the hands of Trump.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rishi Sunak seemed to catch Labour off balance yesterday, when he announced that the furlough scheme is to be extended until the end of March. This will provide a lot of reassurance to a lot of people who previously must have feared they would lose their jobs entirely.

It is a legitimate criticism that this announcement came very late in the day, and too late for many thousands of people who had already been laid off – but better late than never.

There is still not enough support of the self-employed, and those who operate limited companies. After eight months, this is simply not good enough. To say “it’s all too difficult” just does not wash. These are, as Margaret Thatcher, might have said “our people” – and they deserve better treatment than they have so far had from a Conservative government.

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On Tuesday I achieved a lifetime ambition – to interview Sir Cliff Richard.

I have a very short list of people I would like to interview before it’s too late, and he was top of it. I spent an hour with him via Zoom, and it was all I hoped it would be.

I told him I wanted it to be a conversation rather than an interview, and that’s how it turned out. I didn’t want it to be an hour where he would just come out with well-worn anecdotes and lines, and I didn’t want to just ask the usual questions he gets asked in interviews.

The fact that I had an hour meant that it really could be a proper conversation. He talked openly about his religious faith, the sex abuse allegations that he had to endure, what he really thinks of the BBC and why he’s fallen out of love with Britain. And of course we talked about his music career.

Even if you’re not his biggest fan, I think you’ll enjoy the interview, which you can hear on my Iain Dale All Talk podcast.

Iain Dale: Stop this utter selfishness and pathetic whinging about not having a normal Christmas to look forward to

30 Oct

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

Again, it feels like the calm before the Covid storm, doesn’t it?

As more and more swathes of the country go into Tier Three lockdown, it’s clear that, by this time next week, most of the north and parts of the Midlands will have joined Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire in that tier. It’s only a matter of time before London does too, I suspect.

This week, even Germany has gone back into a partial lockdown.  Spain has declared a state of emergency.  France has announced a further draconian lockdown – and Coronavirus in Belgium is seemingly out of control.

At some point in the next two or three weeks, the Government will be forced to take a very difficult decision. No one wants a second national lockdown, but I’m afraid it is looking all but inevitable.

We could of course, take a different pah, ignore the scientific consensus and let the virus take its course – or let it rip, might be a more accurate way of putting it. I cannot see any responsible Government taking that course of action.

In the end, we are going to have to learn to live with this virus. But until our test and trace system is worthy of the name, or a vaccine becomes available, it’s very difficult to see any degree of normality returning to our lives in the next six months – or maybe for longer.

– – – – – – – – – –

After the political debacle about the provision of free school meals, and yet again being comprehensively outplayed by a young Premier League footballer, the next challenge for the Government is how to counter the pathetic accusations about the government ‘cancelling’ Christmas.

Those who make the accusation claim to be those who don’t have a Scooby Doo about what Christmas is all about. It’s not some quasi-materialistic present giving binge; it is a religious festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

There is nothing the Government can do or will do that could cancelsthat celebration. Yes, it may mean that family gatherings are more limited in number. Yes, it may mean that we don’t do as much present-buying as we have done in the past. Yes, it will be different.

But for God’s sake, if people don’t understand the seriousness of the situation the country may be in by Christmas, then there is nothing anyone can say or do which will shake people out of their utter selfishness and pathetic whinging.

I can say that. The Government can’t. But somehow, they will need to take on the view that somehow we should all be given a free pass on Christmas Day to let the virus rip.

– – – – – – – – – –

Arzoo Raja is 13 years old. She lived in Italy with her Christian parents. She too was brought up as a Christian. On October 13, she was abducted from outside her house. A few days, later the Italian Police said they had received marriage papers, which stated she was 18.

Her new “husband” was 44 year old Ali Azhar, who also stated Arzoo had converted to Islam, and her new name was Arzoo Faatima.

Her parents provided her birth certificate to the Italian and Pakistani authorities to prove that she was 13. This cut no ice with the Sindh High Court in Karachi, which ruled that she had converted of her own volition, and that she had entered into the marriage of her own free will. The court even criticised the Pakistani police for “harassing” Arzoo after her abduction.

In effect, the court has validated both forced marriage and rape. There have been protests on the streets of Lahore and Karachi.

Countries like the UK cannot stand by, and trot out the well-worn narrative that we can’t interfere with the judiciary of a sovereign nation.

No, but we can turn off the aid tap. We can call in the Pakistani High Commissioner for an interview without coffee. We and other countries have both the power and influence to stop this.

Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, has a daughter called Tyrian. He should think how he would have felt if his daughter had been abducted like this when she was 13.

Just for reporting this news on Twitter I have been accused of being islamophobic and “not understanding” the culture. Utter tosh. If we are meant to keep quiet about child abduction and forced marriage, we have come to a pretty pass. I, for one, will continue to speak out, no matter what the backlash.

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On Thursday morning we all woke up to yet another terror attack in France, with two people being beheaded and another murdered in the name of “the religion of peace”.

Apparently, it is politically incorrect to point out that while the barbarous acts were taking place, the perpetrators were joyfully shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.

Muslims quite rightly point out that these acts are ‘not in my name’, but the uncomfortable fact is that this is not the view of the terrorists.

In his autobiography, David Cameron says he regrets maintaining that these kind of terror attacks were nothing to do with Islam. He argues that adherents of mainstream Islam have tried to disassociate themselves from the attacks without ever really understanding what has driven the terrorists to assert that they do their dastardly deeds in the name of their religion. He is right.

Iain Dale: The way the BBC and Sky News behave, you’d think we are the only country in the world with a second wave

23 Oct

It’s been another difficult week for the Prime Minister, who has come under attack from Labour both for the failure to come to an agreement with Andy Burnham, or to cave in to demands for kids to get free school meals in the next few school holidays.

Sometimes in politics it is right to say so far – but no further. Bottom lines are important in conducting negotiations.

However, in the case of the money offered to Greater Manchester it is a little difficult to understand how the two sides could fall out over a trifling £5 million.

On free school meals, it would cost £157 million to provide them during the autumn half term, Christmas, February half term and Easter holidays to those children already due to receive them.

Given the U-turn that Marcus Rashford forced in the summer, I do wonder whether this has been worth the political and reputational fallout. “Tories rip food from starving children’s mouths” is the narrative that’s already developing, and however ridiculous that is, sometimes it’s just not worth the political fight.

The Government is right to point out that circumstances are different now and schools are open. But it cuts little ice. The Labour Party is promoting the narrative that the Tories are happy to pay £7,000 a day to failing test and trace consultants, and £12 billion to fund the failing test and trace system, yet quibble over a few million to feed hungry children. You can just see the election videos now…

Mark my words, there will now be a further ratcheting of demands, and what I mean by that is that there will now be a campaign to permanently provide free school meals in school holidays, Covid or no Covid. To do that would cost £350 million a year.

A small price to pay to protect our children’s health, the campaigners will say. But it would be yet another way of the state taking over parental responsibilities. Where does the role of the parent end and that of the state begin? This is an argument which is going to gain a lot of traction in the next few years.

Since the state will inevitably take on a much bigger role in promoting an economic revival that it would normally do, it is yet further proof that all politics is cyclical. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the big state v small state argument was one of the big political debates of the day. Fifty years later, I suspect it will dominate the 2020s.

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The way the BBC and Sky News behave, you’d think Britain was the only country in the world experiencing a second wave.

It’s happening virtually everywhere to one degree or another. Belgium and France seem to be experiencing the worst of it, with Spain and the Netherlands also having massive problems.

Even in Germany, local restrictions are being introduced all over the country. France’s track and trace system has more or less totally collapsed.

Does our insular looking media ever tell you any of this? You get a bit of coverage in The Times, and that’s about it.

It is absolutely the case that catastrophic errors have been made in this country over the last eight months, and I do not seek to hide from that.

All I am saying is that many other countries have faced similar issues and made the same mistakes. It’s not to defend the wrong decisions that have been made, but we rarely get any nuance or context.

The British people know that those in charge are having to make very difficult decisions day after day, and they have sympathy with that. All they ask if for a bit of honesty when things go wrong, and that politicians hold their hands up.

That’s where the Government’s comms strategy has been failing. People appreciate honesty, not obfuscation. Boris should take more of a lead from how Macron has handled failure and learn from it.

– – – – – – – – – –

I’ve made more progress in reading Tom Bower’s new biography of Boris Johnson. Having expected a complete hatchet job, I’m finding that it’s nothing of the sort.

Yes, there’s a lot about Johnson’s weaknesses, but Bower has done a fine job in writing a book which provides real insight into the Prime Minister’s life and character.

His final two chapters on the Coronavirus crisis are incredibly powerful, and go totally against the conventional wisdom that the politicians have been a shambles, and the scientists and civil service have been on the side of the angels.

He doesn’t just assert that there have been major failings on the part of the latter – he provides the evidence. This book is well worth £20 of anyone’s money.

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Tomorrow at 5.25pm I’m appearing on Pointless Celebrities with Jacqui Smith as my partner in crime.

Honestly, the woman is taking over the BBC Saturday night schedule, what with her Strictly Come Dancing antics and everything.

Our Pointless episode was recorded back in January. and I was beginning to despair that it would ever be shown. We were up against Michael Fabricant and Martin Bell, Ayesha Hazarika and John Pienaar, and Camilla Tominey and Rachel Johnson.

I’ve never done a game show before, and if I’m honest, I’m not sure I wholly enjoyed the experience. I don’t mind doing things out of my comfort zone, but these sorts of shows present a huge opportunity to make a complete fool of yourself.

I didn’t – at least I don’t think I did – but there’s a tremendous pressure to say something hilariously funny or incisive. I’m not wholly sure I stepped up to the plate. Hopefully everyone will be too distracted by my red suit…

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“Did the hon. Lady just call me scum?”

Yes, apparently she did. That was the question Chris Clarkson, a Conservative MP, asked Angela Rayner.

The deputy speaker, Dame Eleanor Laing was furious with her and told her off in no uncertain terms – although bizarrely she didn’t make her apologise.

Sky News, however, clipped the episode up without even including Dame Eleanor’s comments and made out that it was a matter of dispute as to whether Rayner had actually said it.  It’s exactly the sort of editing which encourages distrust of the so-called Mainstream Media.

Anyway, I suspect that quote is going to hang in the air for a long time. Several people suggested I should commission a mug with it on for my online shop. So I have. And it’s proved surprisingly popular among male purchasers… Should you wish to join them, buy it here.

Iain Dale: The number of people who tell me that they would ignore the rules of any new national lockdown is troubling

16 Oct

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

The number of people who tell me they would ignore the rules of any new national lockdown is troubling indeed. Despite YouGov reporting that 68 per cent of the nation support such an initiative, were to be in any way successful it would need the full co-operation of the British people, and I now wonder whether that would be forthcoming.

Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle back in the spring did an enormous amount of damage. It allowed people to say: “well, if it’s one rule for them and another for us, that’s it. I’ve done my bit’.

However ludicrous the logic might appear, it’s a view many people take. The story of Matt Hancock drinking in a bar after 10pm didn’t help either, no matter what the truth of it was.

It was a clever move by Keir Starmer to break with the Government and side with the scientists who want a circuit breaker lockdown. Clever politically – though perhaps not from any other standpoint.

For as Boris Johnson pointed out at PMQs, SAGE recognised, in the minutes of the meeting in September, that although it recommended a so-called ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown, it also that recognised the Prime Minister has to weigh this up with other considerations, not least economic and behavioural.

On the face of it, it seems more logical to adopt a regional and local approach to lockdowns. That’s the one that the Opposition leader wants to adopt on test and trace – yet otherwise he’s set on a national lockdown, even for areas with comparatively few cases.

No Labour spokesperson I have interviewed has been able to tell me how to explain to a business in North Norfolk why it should close, when in the whole of the area there are only 19 cases as I write.

Sometimes, we are led to believe that we’re the only country going through this. We hear very little in the media about what’s happening elsewhere in the world, apart from the United States.

Virtually every other country in Europe is introducing new restrictions and experiencing high rates of new infections – yes, even the sainted Germany.

As I write, France has hit 26,000 new infections. Emmanuel Macron has announced a curfew from 9pm to 6am in nine cities, including Paris. He has admitted that many of the country’s biggest hospitals are on the verge of being overwhelmed. Its test and trace system has been even more shambolic than ours, and has been largely abandoned. Where in the British media do you hear about that (apart from on my LBC show, natch)?

It’s as if every failing in the UK system is leapt upon as a further sign of both Johnson’s incompetence and deliberate spite towards a population that he clearly wants to die. It’s preposterous, of course. No one denies that there have been massive failings in all parts of the response to Coronavirus, but why is it that the failings in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland aren’t highlighted in the same way?

The figures in Scotland in many areas are worse than in England yet, because she does a press conference every day, Nicola Sturgeon is given a largely free pass by a supine Scottish media.

Holding a press conference in which you repeat yourself each day, but talk a good game, is no substitute for effective policy. And in most areas, Scottish government policy towards Coronavirus has been just as ineffective as that applied in other parts of the UK.

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On my Cross Question programme on Wednesday night, Richard Burgon’s answer to every question on Covid was to trot out a mantra of blaming Boris Johnson for every single failing.

Well, it’s a point of view, but to then rely on New Zealand as proof of the Prime Minister’s incompetence strikes one as incongruous to say the very least. He kept saying that New Zealand has done everything right, and if only we had followed its lead we’d have been OK.

Sometimes, you have to shake your head at the ignorance of some people. How is it possible to compare a country with a population density of 16 per square kilometre with another country which a density of 255 per square kilometre? How is it possible to compare a country whose biggest city’s population is 1.6 million, with one whose capital city has a population of nine million?

I could go on. The challenges of fighting a virus in a country like the UK is very different to that of New Zealand. Having said that, no one can deny the New Zealand government has done a brilliant job, and I am sure there are things we could learn from their experience.

Similarly, we can learn from other European countries, and you’d hope that there’s a lot of learning going on in the Department of Health. Sometimes, one has to wonder, though.

Take test and trace. Three months ago, I interviewed the Mayor of Blackburn. Because the National test and trace scheme was failing to trace people in Blackburn and the R rate was increasingly at a worrying pace, the Mayor and his local council decided to use its own public health people to set up a local test and trace system.

Contrary to some media outlets reported at the time, this was not set up in opposition to the Dido Harding system, it was designed to complement it. If the national system failed to trace someone in 48 hours, details were handed over to the local public health department. It worked like a dream.

‘This is the way forward,’ I thought to myself after the interview. And I assumed that arrangement this would be replicated across the country.

Not a bit of it. Only now is it beginning to happen – with the Department of Health, PHE and National Test and Trace finally working out that more local input is needed. Why has it taken so long for the penny to drop? Ask me another.

What we are seeing in so many areas is a failure of the machinery of government. This will be one of main areas for a public inquiry to delve into.

How can it be right for example, for Boston Consulting to be paid £7,340 per day for each of its consultants who have been hired to advise on test and trace? I do hope there’s a performance element to the contract…if so, they ought to be handing the money back

Obviously, a private company has to make a profit, but £7,340 per day equates to an annual rate of £1.8 million per consultant. There’s taking the piss, and taking the piss. And this qualifies on both counts. Whichever civil servant or minister signed this off has some very serious questions to answer.

And don’t get me started on the EU and the trade talks. I’d better leave that until next week, I think. If only for my own sanity and your blood pressure.

Iain Dale: If Milling isn’t up to being Party Chairman, why was she appointed in the first place?

9 Oct

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

I have to admit that I didn’t watch any of the Conservative virtual conference online. Judging by the number of registrations, it can be deemed a success. Twenty thousand people registered, and there were often more than 6,000 people watching.

I’m told fringe meetings proved more popular than the set-piece cabinet minister speeches (wasn’t it ever thus?) with some events, including those hosted by ConHome) attracting online audiences in four figures.

Given that normal fringe meetings might attract a couple of hundred people at most, this ought to give the conference organisers food for thought for the future. CCHQ told me this week that future conferences would almost certainly be hybrid events, and that’s exactly right. The more people who are able to take part, the better.

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Watching highlights of the US Vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, it almost seemed like normal politics had returned.

For the most part, the debate was conducted with mutual respect, good humour and dignity from both candidates. Yes, there were some interruptions, but that happens in debates. We had none of the abuse, insults and acrimony that characterised the debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a week before.

And it wasn’t just the President who was guilty. We don’t know yet whether the next debate, due to take place in Florida next week, will go ahead. If it does, let’s hope that it’s more edifying than the first one.

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On Tuesday, I deputised for Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph.  I thought long and hard about writing what I did – but it had to be said.

I wrote about the role of the Party Chairman, and how its importance has diminished over the years, and how the present incumbent, Amanda Milling, was performing no useful role, except to travel the country and eat a few rubber chickens

It gave me no pleasure, and in many ways it’s not her fault. She’s performing the role dictated by Number Ten. She has no power to change anything, and scant little influence. Her co-chairman, Ben Elliot, is the one in control and we all know it.

The one role she could perform, but hasn’t got the experience to do, is to get out there on the media and be a lightning rod for the Prime Minister. That’s what Cecil Parkinson did. It’s what Norman Tebbit used to do. It’s what Brian Mawhinney did for John Major. And it’s what Brandon Lewis did for Theresa May.

Amanda Milling went on Any Questions last Friday, and proceeded to read out lines from her briefing notes. It was buttock-clenchingly embarrassing. A programme insider reckoned she was the worst guest they had had on in recent memory.

Again, in many ways, I don’t blame her for that. Everyone tells me that Milling was an excellent Deputy Chief Whip, but we all know that whips don’t do media, and don’t speak in the chamber.

So to appoint someone with little media experience as co-Party Chairman was bizarre to say the least. It did her no favours whatsoever. By all accounts, the Number Ten machine is frustrated by her performance. No shit, Sherlock. Well, they shouldn’t blame her for it, they should apportion the blame to the person who made the appointment.

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I was disappointed but not surprised to see Liam Fox fail to reach the final two in the race to become the next director general of the World Trade Organisation.

The EU was always determined to scupper him, which says far about them than it does about him. He is very well qualified to do the job, which will now be a straight fight between candidates from South Korea and Nigeria. Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, has spoken out and said the whole charade has not been “to the greater glory of the European Union”.

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Just as the Conservative Party has had to put its conference online, so have literary festivals – or at least some of them. I’ve done quite a few on Zoom over the last few months, but appeared in person last Saturday at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, as trailed on this site last week.

The event was organised it very well, ensuring that both speakers and audience were safe. Next Friday ,I’m doing the Bristol Festival of Ideas remotely, but the Wells Festival of Literature in person on the same day.

Then on Sunday October 18, I’m in Twickenham being interviewed on stage by LBC’s Steve Allen, and then on  October 24 in Diss, Norfolk.

On that occasion Brandon Lewis will interview me, which I suspect he’s going to relish, given he tells me I always give him such a hard time when he comes on my show. Ticketing details can be found here.