Interview: Frost on Johnson’s future, tax cuts, admiring Cummings, Net Zero – and the abuse he has faced as he mulls his political future

14 Jun

If anything stops Lord Frost from carrying on in politics, it will be the “shocking” degree of personal hostility he has encountered, which he describes, unbidden, at the end of this interview:

“The degree of aggression, hostility on social media and beyond, has been quite striking to me. I’ve had people spit at me in the street, push me, shout at me on trains, this sort of thing.

“So I’m now a bit edgy about any kind of public interaction. That has been a real surprise and disappointment to me.”

He observes that because he became a minister without having first been an MP, he had not become accustomed to some of the rigours of life in the public eye.

Frost resigned as a minister in December last year, in protest at the Government’s “direction of travel”, but is now considering seeking election to the Commons, in order to press Boris Johnson and his team to adopt more Conservative policies, including tax cuts:

“The trouble is in many ways the damage is done in the sense that we’ve now shown to the world we’re willing to raise taxes. You can’t put that genie back into the bottle, other than through a recantation: ‘We got this wrong, it was the wrong thing to do, we’re a low-tax Conservative Party.'”

In this interview he describes how, while serving as a career diplomat, he became a Eurosceptic, and how later he became a “big admirer” of Dominic Cummings.

He deplores the restrictions on freedom of expression during the lockdowns of recent years, and opposes the target of reaching Net Zero by 2050:

“I think we’re going at it too fast with technology that can’t yet do the job, and the risk is that we end up with rationing and demand management rather than achieving the goal.”

But he began by discussing the Northern Ireland Protocol. This interview was conducted at teatime yesterday afternoon, before the Government had published its Bill, but Frost explained the principles which should inform policy, and why it was right in the first place to sign the Protocol, and is right now to insist on changes.

ConHome: “You tweeted this morning: ‘Many are asking for my view of today’s NI Protocol Bill…The Govt is right to act but must get the detail right.’

“You say in between those quotes that you need to read and study it. You won’t have been able to do that yet, but what would getting the details wrong look like, and what are the dangers inherent in the Bill?”

Frost: “We know there’s been a back and forth over the past week internally between groups with different views on this subject, and I suppose what might be a risk would be if they found compromises that tried to keep everybody happy, tried to find middle ways that don’t complete the logic of the direction that’s established.

“Are you going to take the [European] Court out completely, or is there going to be some residual role? Is dual regulation done in a simple way, or in a complicated way?”

ConHome: “You mean they mustn’t muddle it in such a way that all the people who think it isn’t being done properly are on their back, and all the people who complain about breaking international law are on their back, all at the same time? They’ve got to make up their mind what they’re doing?”

Frost: “Yeah, I think that’s fair. This is going to cause a lot of alarms and excursions, obviously. If we’re going to go through this we need to make sure we deliver the result that’s worth having at the end of it.”

ConHome: “What do you think of the objection that this is clearly in breach of international law, the Attorney General is there because she’s a Spartan, they’ve dragged in the Treasury devil but he’s not allowed to pronounce on the legality of the proceedings…”

Frost: “So who knows what’s happened internally on all of that. I think the Attorney General, she’s the legal adviser to the Government and what she says goes, and there’s always debate around things, but I think that is decisive.

“We’ll have to wait and see what the summary of the legal position is when it’s published. It sounds as if the Attorney is convinced there’s an international law support for this course of action.”

ConHome: “Is there not a case for publishing the whole legal advice?”

Frost: “Well it’s not normally done. I don’t think it’s necessary as long as you make clear what the Attorney’s view is.”

ConHome: “One view is that the main problem for the Government is that the Bill won’t persuade the DUP to go back into government in Northern Ireland before it is passed.

“If it doesn’t achieve this end, it will simply help create further ill-will for nothing, won’t it?”

Frost: “Every course of action on the Protocol now has some risk that it won’t bring along somebody, that it won’t bring along one group or another, somebody won’t like it.

“In the end you’ve got to act and invite everybody else to react to that action. So I hope the DUP do what’s necessary and begin to come back in to the Executive after this is tabled, if it is what we think.

“But if they don’t it doesn’t make it any less valid that we should be acting as we are.”

ConHome: “Does anyone ever change their mind about the Protocol? Such a high percentage of the debate is just experts, or supposed experts, repeating their previous positions.”

Frost: “It’s such a complicated and delicately balanced document in the first place that it’s capable of accommodating various interpretations.

“I thought it was carefully balanced, I thought it would last longer than it did, I thought the EU would run it in a more sensitive way than they have done.

“So the fact that they haven’t means I’ve changed my view slightly.

“But the text itself says what is says. It was a response to events.

“And those who say ‘I wish we’d not signed this’ or ‘You shouldn’t have signed it’ have got to face up to the reality at the time.

“It’s very easy for commentators to say ‘I wish it hadn’t been like this’. But they have to say what would they have done faced with the choice of signing an improved but still imperfect Protocol, and getting Brexit to happen, or endless prolongation of the constitutional war and possibly Brexit never happening.

“Those were the actual choices, and to pretend there was some other way through is just trying to have it all ways.”

ConHome: “The objection then becomes that having signed it, you’re in no position now to try to drive a coach and horses through the very vehicle that you signed in this Bill.”

Frost: “I mean I wish it didn’t have to be like this, is the simple answer. It wouldn’t have taken much to run it in a more sensitive way. It is of course not being fully implemented even now. It can only work because of the grace periods and so on.

“I wish it had been possible to do it differently but it isn’t.”

ConHome: “At the other end there are people who say, ‘We could deal rationally with Michael Gove. Indeed we reached a settlement with Michael Gove. But we found David Frost to be a complete monster, who stuck obdurately to a UK position and is responsible for some of this trouble.”

Frost: “So I think what’s happened since I left sort of disproves that. There are two answers to that question. One we came in, I came in in 2019-20 after three years in which the UK had not been saying clearly what it wanted and had been making a terrible hash of the negotiations.

“There was a need to be clear and a need to be forceful in what we said if we were going to get anything to happen.

“Second, this year Liz Truss initially started with a completely different approach and there was a month or so when everyone said this brutish, nationalist Frost has disappeared and we’ve now got somebody who can work.

“And where are we? We’re in exactly the same position. How negotiators are to each other is only a minor element in it. The question is what is the national interest involved.

“There hasn’t been any movement on the national interest involved and that’s why we are where we are.”

ConHome: “When did you become a Brexiteer? One looks at your C.V., Foreign Office, Ambassador to Denmark, you had this key strategy role in the Foreign Office. This is not a C.V. that’s automatically associated with support for Brexit.

“So when did it happen? Did you have to keep it quiet?”

Frost: “I regarded myself as a Eurosceptic pretty soon after I went to Brussels in the Nineties. I went to Brussels with quite conventional opinions and they changed through seeing the way it worked, to be honest.

“And this was the Major Government era and all the drama of that. I think I began to think leaving might be necessary, because one forgets now leaving was really quite a far-out opinion until quite late in this process, I began thinking it might be necessary around the time I left the civil service, around then, 2013.

“I think many of us, it was only when the renegotiation failed, indeed was never seriously tried in the first place, that it seemed like OK there’s no real option left other than leave now.

“It was probably known that my opinions were, within the Foreign Office, quite sceptic. There are people like Charles Grant for example who will say that ‘I never realised he was a Eurosceptic, he never seemed to show any sign of it when I met him’.

“Well good, I was supposed to be representing the Government, that was the job. It doesn’t mean one can’t have internal convictions on things.”

ConHome: “When you did the Scotch Whisky Association job [Frost was Chief Executive 2014-16] your line in the referendum was pro-Remain. Presumably that came with the job?”

Frost: “Again, I represented the views of the members on that. Actually, I was on the Council of Open Europe at the time, and Dom Cummings, who I didn’t know, did a bit of a hit job on me in May during the referendum campaign.

“So if you look on Guido round about that time you will find some of my internal emailing leaked to him, which shows that my private opinion was different.

“That was actually quite awkward for me at the time.”

ConHome: “Is Cummings a loss to the Government, or had the position become completely impossible?”

Frost: “I think he is a loss. I’m a big admirer of Dom. I haven’t agreed with him on everything, in particular on aspects of lockdown, Covid policy, we’ve had a different view, but I think his focus and ability to look through the day to day noise, focus on the goal, work out what’s important to it, what isn’t, you know that’s quite a rare skill in government, and it’s even rarer to be given a chance to act on it.

“So I think you need somebody like that, you need people who are able to do that. Otherwise you become overwhelmed by the day-to-day noise.”

ConHome: “Do they have that in the team now?”

Frost: “Well I don’t know the current team as well as I know the predecessor. It’s not obvious from events that they have that at the moment. But if they haven’t, they ought to try to get it.”

ConHome: “Are you enjoying being a columnist? You can say whatever you like, you’re not constrained by collective responsibility. Do you enjoy it?”

Frost: “I do quite. I might get a bit weary of saying, at some point, and want to do doing again. Who knows? But at the moment I’m enjoying it.”

ConHome: “You have become a kind of right-wing poster boy. You’re writing in favour of a small state, lower taxes, you’re sceptical about lockdowns, sceptical about Net Zero, you want less regulation.

“To the members, this is a dream, and you do recognise what’s going on. There’s a lot of conversation about ‘If only they’d do what Lord Frost tells them to do, and if only Lord Frost were there to do it’.”

Frost: “Yeah, I mean it’s been a bit of a surprise to me to be honest. I’ve been a party member, off and on, for some time, obviously you can’t do much more when you’re in government, but you’re allowed to have convictions about things.

“What I say now I just regard as normal conservatism. You know, let’s get the state back down to the size it was when Gordon Brown was in power, that’s good.

“That doesn’t make you in favour of a night watchman state. It just makes you in favour of trying to shrink it when you can.

“I think lockdowns were extremely damaging and liberated some extremely worrying forces and currents of opinion that we need to do our best to put back in their box.”

ConHome: “Which are what?”

Frost: “The authoritarian state. Vaccine passports and wherever that may lead. Some of the constraints on the free expression of opinion that happened from time to time during lockdown.”

ConHome: “Anything in particular?”

Frost: “The most obvious thing is where did all this start, was it a lab leak or not, the ability to debate that. I thought it was also suggestive they took quite some time before they acknowledged the vaccines don’t prevent transmission, they only prevent symptoms.

“There was a kind of month or two where that was obvious but it was not acknowledged in official statements, and then became too obvious not to.

“I think one of the most worrying things was the inability to look objectively at the evidence, weigh it up, come to reasoned conclusions. There was much too much doubling down on ‘we did this so we must stick to doing it, even if the evidence points in a different direction’.”

ConHome: “You said last month, ‘I don’t think the Lords is a particularly brilliant place to do real politics from. I think you need to be in the Commons to do real politics, that’s obvious…if in future the opportunity comes up and the party wants me to do it, obviously I would be ready to stand down from the seat and do proper politics again.’

“Do you want to be in the House of Commons?”

Frost: “It was a new thing to me. I left out of concern about the direction of travel and the plan B. I hadn’t really intended to continue political life in a different way.

“But then there’s been this speculation about would I do it. What you’ve just quoted says what I think. The House of Lords is a great institution and I don’t want to undermine Conservative colleagues who do a good job and are very necessary to getting the business through.

“But the fact is it’s an unelected house. You can’t take controversial positions in it, you can’t easily advocate cases, and in the end you can’t and shouldn’t I think really block and change things in the Lords.

“If you aspire to shape opinion and make things happen I think it’s right that you should be in the Commons. Whether I want and will do that I’ll see.”

ConHome: “To be clear, you’re mulling the possibility.”

Frost: “Yes, I think that’s fair.”

ConHome: “The obvious critique of all this is look, here’s Lord Frost, he was quite a senior minister, which means you’ve got to knuckle down and accept things you don’t like, on Net Zero, Covid, the direction of tax and spend and all that.

“And if Lord Frost didn’t want to do that within the Cabinet, in the Lords, why would he be any good at doing it collectively with colleagues in the Commons?”

Frost: “Well I think it’s a fair question. Obviously there are quite a lot of Tory colleagues in the Commons who have the same opinions as me on quite a lot of things, and that’s not a contradiction for them.

“What we need to do is get the Government onto an agenda that more Conservatives feel they can support.”

ConHome: “Do you think that Rishi Sunak has succumbed to the institutional grip of the Treasury and isn’t bold enough about income tax cuts?”

Frost: “Well I don’t know about him personally, and I’m always a bit cautious – lots of people attributed to me thought processes and beliefs that weren’t in fact the case.

“But obviously I think that the economic situation requires loosening of fiscal policy and tightening of monetary policy, and I think that means personal tax cuts, not rises. If we could reverse out what we’ve done that would be a start.

“I do think the Treasury orthodoxy is very strong, and I wouldn’t like to say he’s been captured by it, I don’t think that’s fair, but I do think the Treasury Finance Ministry view of the world is all about getting in money, it isn’t about structural reform to increase the productive capacity of the economy.

“The trouble is in many ways the damage is done in the sense that we’ve now shown to the world we’re willing to raise taxes. You can’t put that genie back into the bottle, other than through a recantation, ‘We got this wrong, it was the wrong thing to do, we’re a low-tax Conservative Party.’

“And that should be the direction of travel. I’m not sure how likely that is, mind you.”

ConHome: “On Net Zero, what’s your view? That the target is too severe?”

Frost: “I think the way I would look at it is not to get into ‘Is it the right target?’ or ‘Is global warming scientifically justified?’ or whatever. From the political point of view, my view is that with the technology we’ve got I don’t see how we deliver the target by 2050 unless we are rescued by fusion power or some massive advance in battery power.

“But at the moment those things don’t seem likely. And I don’t see how we are going to decarbonise the grid by 2035. I don’t see how the technologies exist.

“And everybody is ignoring the fact that the intermittency of renewables (a) is a problem in itself (b) imposes huge costs elsewhere on the grid by the way of backup and inefficiency.

“I think we need more focus on security. We need a more realistic focus on the speed of the transition. I think we’re going at it too fast with technology that can’t yet do the job, and the risk is that we end up with rationing and demand management rather than achieving the goal.”

ConHome: “Lots of our readers will think all that is simple common sense, and will therefore ask, ‘What did other people say in government when you put this view to them?'”

Frost: “One other consequence before I answer the question. Net Zero affects huge parts of the economy, not just in energy prices but in systems, the way it works.

“And if you want serious post-Brexit reform that produces greater efficiency, lower costs, simpler ways of doing things, the existence of the Net Zero target is a big inhibition on that.

“You’re essentially saying large parts of the economy are off-limits for the purposes of reform.

“So that’s the context that I used to have those discussions in. Without going into detail, I think many people would acknowledge that.

“I think people reasonably point out Net Zero was in the manifesto, it was something that was campaigned on, it was one of the pledges, it should be taken seriously.

“I don’t want to speak for others. But many people have a degree of uncertainty and unease about it that is not always dealt with.”

ConHome: “What were your feelings at 9 p.m. last Monday when you heard that 148 Conservative MPs had voted against the Prime Minister?”

Frost: “Well, I was happy the PM had survived, I wasn’t that surprised to be honest the vote against was so high, reading the runes.

“I think the Prime Minister, I’ve said it, I think he’s a remarkable guy, he’s done a lot for this country, he deserves a chance to deliver and to continue with the agenda, so I’m glad he’s survived from that point of view.

“But I do think he’s got to deliver the agenda. That’s the question mark now. And I’ve worked as closely with him as anyone over the last five years, and I feel for him, the agonies of this very, very difficult politics.

“But equally, we’ve got a majority of 80, we must do something with this majority of 80 to keep improving the country.

“Can I say one other thing I meant to say, just about coming into politics?

“Most people become ministers and do controversial things in politics after they’ve been an MP. For me it all came suddenly out of the blue, and having to get used to the public exposure suddenly, without any kind of prep, has been quite shocking in some ways to me.

“The degree of aggression, hostility on social media and beyond, has been quite striking to me. I’ve had people spit at me in the street, push me, shout at me on trains, this sort of thing.

“So I’m now a bit edgy about any kind of public interaction. That has been a real surprise and disappointment to me.

“I mean it shows the passions that have been unleashed.”

ConHome: “Is it one of these things that you might rationally have anticipated, but you can’t emotionally until it actually happens? The reason you might rationally have anticipated it is you were Boris Johnson’s special adviser, so you’ll have seen the antipathy, hatred and venom that he was the target of. But until it happens to you, you can’t quite believe it’s happening.”

Frost: “Exactly, exactly. And I think if you’ve had time to get used to the idea it’s one thing. All of a sudden to find it there has been shocking.

“I mean I’m not saying I should be protected from hostile comment on social media. Don’t get me wrong. I definitely don’t think that. There are plenty of block and mute tools. I certainly don’t think we need an Online Harms Bill to protect me from comment.

“But the degree of personal hostility, and sometimes as I say face to face, has been striking. If anything stops me carrying on it’s more likely to be that and the knock-on than anything else. Which is a pity, really.”

The post Interview: Frost on Johnson’s future, tax cuts, admiring Cummings, Net Zero – and the abuse he has faced as he mulls his political future first appeared on Conservative Home.

Steve Barclay: My fellow Conservatives face a choice. Look outwards, and follow Johnson. Or look inwards – and tear ourselves apart.

6 Jun

Steve Barclay is Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chief of Staff at Ten Downing Street.

Over the weekend, the whole country came together to celebrate Her Majesty the Queen’s 7

years of selfless service.

I very much enjoyed the special events put on to celebrate this remarkable occasion, and I know that my parliamentary colleagues – and readers of ConservativeHome – were participating in celebrations in communities across the country.

As we return to Westminster today, the Conservative parliamentary party faces a choice: we can focus on delivering the policies needed to meet the challenges faced by those communities – and of people across the whole United Kingdom.

Or we can choose to waste time and energy looking backwards and inwards, talking to ourselves about ourselves.

In my view, politics is always about the future – because the people who elect us are focused on the challenges and opportunities ahead, not the debates of yesterday.

That is why the next general election will be decided on who offers the best vision for the future of the United Kingdom, not on prior mistakes or successes.

Our remarkable vaccine rollout – the fastest in Europe – and our unprecedented economic support during Covid helped save lives and livelihoods. But that won’t form the basic choice in front of voters next time.

Equally, nor will the mistakes – for example, the contents of the Sue Gray report.

We have lost half of this Parliament to Covid. That is not the fault of the Prime Minister or of Conservative MPs – and our constituents understand that. But it will be our fault entirely if we choose to waste the remaining half of the parliament on distractions over leadership.

The country faces many pressing challenges right now – so we must focus on what matters to the livelihoods of constituents rather than the obsessions of those on social media. My colleagues understand from their constituency work and surgeries just how much the cost of living situation is impacting hardworking people. Pressure on energy bills and food prices is causing real stress and anxiety across the country – and this will continue into the winter.

It is crucial that we show people we are delivering on the change they voted for in 2019.

If we continually divert our direction as a Conservative Party – and by extension the government and the country – into a protracted leadership debate, we will be sending out the opposite message.

Our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has shown in his leadership on Ukraine, in getting Brexit done, in protecting jobs from the pandemic and resisting the repeated calls for a lockdown in the summer, that he is the right person to make the bold calls needed to respond to the economic challenge we now face. He is dedicated to unlocking talent across the UK and levelling up, and to delivering on our promises to the people who elected us. That is at the heart of the Cabinet’s agenda.

Rishi Sunak is fast tracking reforms to enable our pension funds and insurance firms to unlock billions in capital for investment in places that have felt ignored in the past. These are the big-ticket changes Brexit offers to communities like my own, who voted strongly to leave.

Priti Patel is ahead of our target to recruit 20,000 police offices to make our streets safer, and Sajid Javid is rolling out community diagnostic centres around the country to help clear the Covid backlogs.

Grant Shapps has set out reforms to help rail commuters who have to pay higher fares due to out-of-date trade union working practices. Jacob Rees-Mogg is reducing the size of Whitehall, ensuring we deliver more efficiently for everyone.

In all this, we are saying to people: we will support you. To get the skills you need. To get the investment your area needs. To ensure your local streets are safer and your health is supported.

And later this week, the Prime Minister will set out plans to expand home ownership to Generation Rent – building on our core Conservative belief that people aspire to own their own homes.

He and I are instinctive tax cutters: we know the tax burden as a result of Covid  is high and we know this would be the most benefit to the majority of our constituents. Money left in people’s pockets helps them plan and grows the economy.

The Parliamentary majority we hold is incredibly rare. To waste time now on continued internal factionalisaton would be indefensible to many of our party members – given how hard they worked to secure that majority.

I first stood for Parliament in 1997, when John Major had been hamstrung with a single figure majority. We then endured 13 years of Blair and Brown with no majority, before the frustrating constraints of coalition. We must not squander the enormous opportunity we have with our majority now – to make real Conservative change and deliver across the country.

The Queen’s Speech set out the government’s top priorities for the year ahead: growing the economy to address the cost of living, making our streets safer, funding the NHS to clear Covid backlogs, and providing the leadership needed in challenging times.

The problems we face aren’t easy to solve. Democracies around the world are all currently facing similar challenges. But under Boris Johnson’s leadership, our plan for jobs shows how we are navigated through these global challenges. To disrupt that progress now would be inexcusable to many who lent their vote to us for the first time at the last general election, and who want to see our Prime Minister deliver the changes promised for their communities.

The threat to the rule of law from left and right

16 May

How parochial our Bill of Rights is compared to the sweeping, modern constitution of Russia. “The pretended Power of Suspending of Laws or the Execution of Laws by Regall Authority without Consent of Parlyament is illegall,” says the first, taking the reader to the vanished world of the late seventeenth century.

“Fundamental human rights and freedoms are inalienable and shall be enjoyed by everyone since the day of birth,” declares the second: a statement of the obvious in any progressive, liberal democracy.

I draw the contrast, with all its savage irony, to make a point: that the rule of law is guaranteed not by words on paper, but on what people do – on their institutions and culture they create.

The thought applies to the Government and the rule of law.  We know the charge against it: that not so long ago, the challenge to the rule of law came from the left, and that now it comes from the right.

And that it covers everything from the prorogation dispute in the last Parliament, to parties in Downing Street and the threat to break international law in this one.

David Gauke has made a case for this view on this site and Daniel Hannan a case against.  I want to open my own take by conceding Boris Johnson’s weaknesses.

Most politicians pride themselves as being on top of the facts.  Though the Prime Minister can do facts as well as anyone when he puts the work in, the truth is that they bore him.

On the canvas he paints upon, the dazzling colours of hyperbole and metaphor count for much more than the black and white drudgery of facts.

Being fired for making up a quote, pyramids of piffle, late declarations of interest: given the background and his temperament, it’s not surprising that he has become the first Prime Minister to have been fined for breaking the law.

Which makes it all the more important to understand how he comes to hold the post with such a large majority.  Let’s go back for a moment to a turning point in the story: prorogation.

In 2019, John Bercow, then Speaker, made a ruling on proceedings about Brexit against the advice of the then Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir David Natzler, and in defiance of convention, as Bercow himself admitted.

His decision paved the way for Dominic Grieve, Yvette Cooper, Oliver Letwin, Hillary Benn, Nick Boles and company taking control of the Order Paper and the Commons.

Focus for a moment not on what they did, and its rights and wrongs, but how it came about.  Bercow was illustrating my point about how the rule of law is sustained or compromised.

There are few constraints on the Speaker of the Commons precisely because it is assumed that they won’t be needed.

By voting Bercow into office and propping him up, Labour and other MPs lit a constitutional fire.  And it is Dominic Cummings’ way to fight fire with fire.

So the prorogation plan was devised.  Which takes us to the Supreme Court’s ruling that discontinuing the session was unlawful.  Again, I ask you not to take a view on the judgement, but to consider the background.

The Court could have taken the view expressed previously by the Lord Chief Justice – that the prorogation was “inherently political in nature and there are no legal standards against which to [its] legitimacy.”

That it did not reflects a change that has taken place in the courts over the past quarter of a century or so – what Policy Exchange calls the growth of judicial power.

In simple terms, this places a higher premium on universal rights and a lower one on British particulars than was once the case.

Perhaps this was always likely to be so given the Human Rights Act, the development of the European Court of Human Rights, and the effect on the courts of almost 50 years of EU membership.

There may come a time when right and left swap sides on judicial power.  I can imagine a Labour Government governing, as the last one did, with scant regard for individual freedom.

Remember Tony Blair’s plan to detain terror suspects without trial for three months.  In similar circumstances, I can imagine Conservatives reaching for the Human Rights Act and the European Court.

The point I’m making reaches beyond party politics: namely, that the shift that has taken place within “the academy”, as the nexus of senior judges and legal academics is called, about the nature of law in Britain has big implications.

Only a minority seems to believe that, ultimately, Parliament is no longer sovereign: that in the last resort there are certain fundamentals that MPs have no authority to breach through legislation.

But the spectre of “conceptual overreach”, as the impeccably moderate Robert Buckland called it, was real enough to spook him as Lord Chancellor.

He wanted to restore “the very conventional thinking that Parliament makes laws that give power to the executive and are checked by the judiciary”.

So, then: a Speaker who didn’t play by the rules, and judges with an activist take on law.  Now we move from the courts, and the shift in power from elected to unelected, to other arenas.

Sometimes, such changes are for the best, or so it seems.  Consider Gordon Brown’s decision to declare the Bank of England independent, for example.

At the time, he was applauded for curbing the power of politicians to debauch the currency.  Today, the Bank itself is accused of doing exactly that.

You don’t have to believe that Brown’s decision was wrong, at least in principle, to believe that the accrual of power by unelected people raises questions of accountability.

These are multiplied when those responsible for regulating government and Parliament overlap.  And gain the power to police MPs for flouting “anti-racism, inclusion and diversity”, as is proposed.

Or when the police themselves choose to fine – or not to fine – politicians without explaining why, with potentially momentous consequences.

A literal view of the rule of law would be that Johnson or others are only in breach of it if and when they are found to be so by the courts.

I am taking a broader one which argues that the rule of law is compromised by people of all parties and none as much when Speakers break with convention as when Ministers are fined.

As it would be were the consensus about the neutrality of the courts and the impartiality of regulators to break down. We are not America yet, but it could happen.

There, the threat is anarchy – a Left that wants the police defunded and a Right that cries foul when it loses elections.  In Russia, the reality is what follows the breakdown of order: tyranny.

In short, the British consensus about the rule of law is under strain. The Government has a problem with it in the sense that a man has a problem if he catches Covid.  He may recover quickly, and he may not.

Yes, he can make his and others’ condition worse by behaving irresponsibly.  But there is no point in berating the patient without also seeking to understand the illness. It strikes down Speakers when they break rules.

Judges display symptoms if they deny Parliamentary sovereignty. Regulators risk catching it if they grab for more power.  Like Covid, threats to the rule of law are social.  They spread.  There is reaction and counter-reaction.  It is a more profound challenge than most of Johnson’s critics want to understand.

Profile: J.K. Rowling, striving to stop Starmer nailing his colours to the fence on trans

16 Mar

When J.K. Rowling was 14 years old, she heard about Jessica Mitford, who “had run away at the age of 19 to fight with the Reds in the Spanish Civil War”, and “charged a camera to her poor father’s account to take with her”.

By Rowling’s account, “It was the camera that captivated me.” Mitford the upper-class Communist became her heroine, and many years later, in 2006, she reviewed Decca: the Letters of Jessica Mitford, for The Daily Telegraph.

The idol of a 14-year-old cannot always withstand the mature and sceptical gaze of a 41-year-old, as Rowling by then was. But in this case there was nothing to worry about:

“Decca’s letters sing with the qualities that first made her so attractive to me. Incurably and instinctively rebellious, brave, adventurous, funny and irreverent, she liked nothing better than a good fight, preferably against a pompous and hypocritical target.”

People who have not been following Rowling’s battle against Sir Keir Starmer and other Labour politicians on the vexed question of trans rights might suppose this to be a case of a famous author who dabbles for a day or two in Twitter without understanding what she is getting herself into.

Such a view would be gravely to underestimate Rowling. Like Mitford, she likes nothing better than a good fight. She has been deliberately, not accidentally, provocative, for she enjoys danger and is convinced of the justice of her cause.

At the end of last week, Sir Keir visited British troops in Estonia. While there, The Times reported, he said that “trans women are women”, and when asked to define a woman, replied:

“A woman is a female adult, and in addition to that trans women are women, and that is not just my view — that is actually the law. It has been the law through the combined effects of the 2004 [Gender Recognition] Act and the 2010 [Equality] Act. So that’s my view. It also happens to be the law in the United Kingdom.”

This provoked a series of furious tweets from Rowllng:

I don’t think our politicians have the slightest idea how much anger is building among women from all walks of life at the attempts to threaten and intimidate them out of speaking publicly about their own rights, their own bodies and their own lives. 1/3

Among the thousands of letters and emails I’ve received are disillusioned members of Labour, the Greens, the Lib Dems and the SNP. Women are scared, outraged and angry at the deaf ear turned to their well-founded concerns. But women are organising. 2/3

Now @Keir_Starmer publicly misrepresents equalities law, in yet another indication that the Labour Party can no longer be counted on to defend women’s rights. But I repeat: women are organising across party lines, and their resolve and their anger are growing. 3/3

Rowling speaks as a woman of the Left. She is a friend of Sarah and Gordon Brown, and gave the Labour Party a million pounds when he was leader.

Nobody could accuse her of being pro-Tory. Harry Potter, her most famous creation, spends his holidays being persecuted by the ghastly Dursley family, who live in Privet Drive and read The Daily Mail.

She has said that in 1994-95 – when as an impoverished single mother, having fled with her daughter, Jessica (named after Mitford) from her short and abusive first marriage, she was writing her first Potter book – it was Labour’s proposals for lifting single parents out of poverty which appealed to her, and Tory moralising about marriage which disgusted her.

Before the 2010 general election she wrote a piece for The Times in which she said that since becoming rich, as she did soon after her first book was published in 1997, she had not changed her mind. She still could not stand the Tories.

During the Barnard Castle affair in May 2020, when Boris Johnson stuck by his adviser Dominic Cummings, the official Civil Service Twitter account published a tweet which described the Government as “Arrogant and offensive”, and asked: “Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?”

Rowling wished to know the name of the official who had posted this rapidly suppressed tweet, so she could pay him or her a year’s salary. She denounced Cummings’ “indefensible hypocrisy” and described Johnson’s behaviour as “despicable”.

While the trans row is not at the front of the public’s mind, it poses a mortal danger for Labour, opposing as it does two groups which believe themselves to be in exclusive possession of the truth, while their opponents are plunged in unforgiveable error.

Trans activists maintain that men who know themselves to be women should be able on their own authority to declare themselves women. They are inclined to accuse anyone who disagrees with them of being transphobic, an offence placed on a level with racism, i.e. unforgiveable.

Rowling and co hold that sex is a biological given, and say it would be intolerable to allow access to women-only spaces to men who claim to be women. Many traditional feminists are outraged that their hard-won women-only spaces might be invaded in this way.

The majority of public figures, confronted by such a contentious issue, where one is liable to be denounced in bitter terms if one adopts a clear position, try to keep their heads down. (So too many commentators. Here is a ConHome interview with James KIrkup, one of the few journalists to have followed the story.)

No less a figure than Tony Blair has warned, “Keeping your head down is not a strategy.” He went on to say:

“On cultural issues, one after another, the Labour Party is being backed into electorally off-putting positions. A progressive party seeking power which looks askance at the likes of Trevor Phillips, Sara Khan or J.K. Rowling is not going to win.”

Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary and one of Labour’s most experienced frontbenchers, nevertheless sought, the other day, to keep her head down, saying when asked to define a woman:

“I think people get themselves down rabbit holes on this one… I’m not going to get into rabbit holes on this… As you can see I’m avoiding going down rabbit holes because I just think this is pointless.”

If Cooper’s view had prevailed, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland would never have been written.

Such evasiveness infuriates Rowling. On Tuesday 8th March, International Women’s Day, Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, was asked on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 to define a woman, and said:

“There are different definitions legally around what a woman actually is . . . you’ve got the biological definition, legal definition, all kinds of things.”

Pressed for Labour’s definition of a woman, Dodds replied:

“I think it does depend what the context is, surely. You know, there are people who have decided that they have to make that transition. Because they live as a woman, they want to be defined as a woman.”

Rowling tweeted:

“Someone please send the shadow minister for equalities a dictionary and a backbone.”

She also tweeted a picture of Joanna Cherry, an SNP MP who agrees with her on the trans issue, and provided the caption for it:

“This is what a woman who owns a dictionary and a backbone looks like.”

And as it was International Women’s Day, she tweeted:

“Apparently, under a Labour government, today will become We Who Must Not Be Named Day.”

My literary adviser (I have not read the Potter books) points out that Voldemort, the villain, is most often referred to as He Who Must Not Be Named.

Rowling has 13.9 million followers on Twitter, Sir Keir 1.2 million and Dodds 73.3K. Of the three, Rowling is undoubtedly the most entertaining.

For she is not just an avoider of questions or a creator of soundbites. She is prolific and audacious. Some authors, having sold 500 million copies of their most famous series and seen it translated into 70 languages, might be tempted to rest on their laurels.

Rowling would be bored to death by such a life. Rather than emigrate to some sunny tax exile in order to preserve as much of her fortune as possible, she married a Scottish doctor, bought a house outside Perth, had two more children, went on writing books, and set up charities devoted to such causes as multiple sclerosis (from which her mother died), social deprivation and orphanages in Ukraine.

In June 2020 she wrote a piece about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues, in which she said of her decision to support Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who had lost her job for what were deemed “transphobic” tweets:

“I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch and, of course, for my books to be burned, although one particularly abusive man told me he’d composted them.

“What I didn’t expect in the aftermath of my cancellation was the avalanche of emails and letters that came showering down upon me, the overwhelming majority of which were positive, grateful and supportive. They came from a cross-section of kind, empathetic and intelligent people, some of them working in fields dealing with gender dysphoria and trans people, who’re all deeply concerned about the way a socio-political concept is influencing politics, medical practice and safeguarding. They’re worried about the dangers to young people, gay people and about the erosion of women’s and girl’s rights. Above all, they’re worried about a climate of fear that serves nobody – least of all trans youth – well.”

Rowling was born in Gloucestershire in 1965. Her parents had been in the Royal Navy, and were both 19 when she was born. This was not a gilded, Mitford world, but the house was full of books. She went to Wyedean comprehensive school, where she was head girl, and from there to Exeter University, where she read French, which included a year in Paris.

She always wanted to be a writer, but like most people with that ambition, doubted whether it would be possible. After various unsuitable jobs, such as bilingual secretary, she found the first Harrry Potter story taking shape in her mind on a train journey.

There is a directness in Rowling’s manner which is found in few politicians. She goes for things, and on the trans question she has gone for the whole lily-livered Labour leadership.

If and when she gets them to stop nailing their colours to the fence, she will have done them a service.

David Hare: How Javid can ensure the elective recovery plan for the NHS delivers

18 Feb

David Hare is Chief Executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network

“It’s NHS waiting lists, stupid” should be the mantra for all political parties as we head towards the next general election.

With NHS waiting lists at a record high – recent figures show 6.1 million are currently waiting – and improving access to NHS care consistently rated as the number one priority for the public, tackling the backlog in NHS treatment must be top of the to-do list for the Government/ a government in waiting.

This is especially sensitive since, from April, people and businesses will be paying more in National Insurance for the health service, and, not unreasonably, will want to see something tangible in return.

Tax rises are always controversial but with a cost-of-living crisis on the horizon due to rising inflation and energy prices, this new health and care levy represents yet another additional squeeze on people’s already-stretched finances – and one which the Government will come under ever increasing pressure to justify.

Last week Sajid Javid, the Health and Social Care Secretary, announced the NHS’s new “elective recovery plan” setting out how the NHS intends to tackle the backlog of treatment. The plan includes some important goals including eliminating the number of people waiting more than a year for treatment, with the anticipation that waiting lists will start coming down from 2024.

It also sets out how it will bring in more capacity to a desperately stretched NHS, including making more use of independent sector capacity and giving people greater information and choice over where they can receive their NHS care.

These measures are welcome and recognise the important lessons of how the Blair/Brown government successfully tackled record waiting lists in the 2000s. But how do we turn the plan into concrete action to make sure the public gets value for money from the new levy?

First, as this is essentially a question of demand for NHS services currently outpacing supply, let’s make it easy and straightforward for new providers to open up services for NHS patients.

There are currently over 400 independent healthcare facilities in the country with capacity available in every clinical commissioning group location. And like the establishment of “Independent Sector Treatment Centres” set up in the Blair years, new investment could swiftly be brought in to establish even more local services for patients to help bring down the waiting list.

Second of all is getting the finances right. The public will not be happy with billions of pounds going to the health service with no way of understanding what it has bought. It’s therefore important that the principle of “payment by results” or, more simply, “money following the patient” is retained so there’s a clear trail of where the additional money for the NHS has gone, and a real incentive for as much activity to be delivered as possible.

Third, to real see change in the NHS, there needs to be a relentless focus on driving down NHS waiting times with every part of the health system understanding its role. The plan published this week sets out some welcome ambitions to reduce the waiting list from 2024 and eliminate the number of people waiting over one year by 2023.

But while the public don’t expect miracles overnight, they are unlikely to be content sitting tight for two years before they see any tangible impacts on their access to care. Clear milestones setting out how exactly the NHS will get reach these targets are therefore needed to reassure people that action is being taken now to clear the backlog.

There’s no doubt that the health service has a mountain to climb in bringing waits down for patients and that those working in the health system have already moved mountains for their patients. But higher taxes for a materially poorer NHS is simply not an option for the Government. The hard work of delivery needs to start now.

Professor Pollard’s warning about unsustainable vaccine boosters should actually give us hope

6 Jan

With the success and speed of the Government’s vaccine booster programme, it’s easy to think that this is the future now; that going forward, the nation will be jabbed at monthly intervals, so as to keep Coronavirus under control.

However, over the last week, Professor Pollard, Chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation, as well as Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, cast doubt on this plan. In a newspaper interview, he warned that vaccinating the planet every six months was not affordable or sustainable, and that there still isn’t “full certainty” on the benefits of a fourth booster, even though Israel has gone ahead with it for members of the population aged over 60.

What does this mean for the Government’s strategy going forward? Although Pollard doesn’t make any decisions on its policies – due to his involvement making vaccines – he’s still one of the most important advisers in the country, and his words offer clues about what ministers’ next moves and thinking may be.

For one, Pollard suggested that it’s “not unreasonable” to think a future Covid vaccine scheme could be like the flu programme, albeit the latter has a more seasonal pattern. The comparison between the two diseases has been made before, but it’s become much easier to argue for in recent times, due to the Omicron variant – symbolising that we may have milder variants to come  – and immunity building in the population, either naturally or through the vaccine. It would mean that far from giving everyone multiple vaccines, we become more selective, with only the vulnerable contacted and inoculated.

Pollard also said that we need to vaccinate the whole planet “not just our little corner of it”. This is not the first time he has offered such a warning. In July, writing for The Times, he urged the public to think of its “responsibility to humanity”, flagging the fact that without even, widespread distribution, new variants can emerge. He concluded by saying “It is difficult to justify getting third doses ourselves, especially if not clearly needed, ahead of zero-dose people whose lives remain at risk.”

This argument has been one that hasn’t gained much traction over the last few years. Although the UK takes part in the COVAX scheme, which has provided huge numbers of vaccines (100 million doses by June 2022), there hasn’t been palpable public support for letting other nations “catch up” before moving onto boosters.

One imagines attitudes might have changed here, however, though. Gordon Brown recently became one of the most vocal supporters of better worldwide distribution, calling the current situation a “stain on our soul”, and, in general, there’s more awareness that current jabs could be rendered ineffective if variants grow elsewhere. In 2022, we can expect an even greater drive from governments and the World Health Organization, to get the world jabbed.

Overall, even though Pollard’s words appeared to surprise many – sparking a lot of dramatic headlines – there was quite a positive message underneath them, with him saying that the worst of the pandemic is “behind us”.

Given that more than 90 per cent of over 12s having had their first vaccine in Britain, and 80 per cent having had two doses of it, we have every reason to be hopeful moving forward. In an encouraging sign that we can expect less lockdowns, Pollard said that society has to open up at some point – and that there’s no point in trying to stop all infections.

Sometimes it’s hard to forget, too, that there are plenty of unknown variables that will shape our future battle(s) with Covid, just as the vaccine was a game changer. Scientists continue to work on even better inoculations, so that they’re better tailored to new variants. 

Moreover, they are being developed into different forms, which, in turn, should make them easier to distribute around the world. One company, for instance, is developing a dry-powder formulation of a Covid vaccine for a single-user inhaler; another, a pill, targets mucosal cells in the intestine; and researchers in Lancaster are looking into nasal spray, and that’s just the start of it.

All in all, while it’s could be taken as a bad sign that boosters aren’t “sustainable”, Pollard’s interview indicates a “new normal” to which we can all aspire.

Charlotte Gill’s Podcast Review 8) Matt Chorley with Andrew Gimson, Nick Robinson with Ed Balls

5 Jan

Every fortnight, ConservativeHome will compile a handful of podcast recommendations – content that has been published in the weeks preceding – for its readers. Although these will mainly focus on podcasts for conservative listeners, we will try to include other options – should they be particularly interesting. Sometimes this feature will contain other types of media.

Title: Red Box Politics Podcast
Host: Matt Chorley
Episode: Gimson’s PMs: Thatcher to Johnson

Duration: 1 hour, 1 minute
Published: December 12
Link: Here

What’s it about?

In this fun exchange with Matt Chorley, Andrew Gimson, Contributing Editor to ConservativeHome, author and historian, takes Matt Chorley on a passage through time of Britain’s Prime Ministers, starting with Margaret Thatcher and ending with Boris Johnson. The episode, recorded towards the end of last year, marks 300 years since Britain got its first Prime Minister, in the shape of Robert Walpole, in 1721. It’s packed with insights, as well as comparisons between leaders; find out who Gimson thinks Johnson most closely resembles towards the end.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “Blair knew how to talk to everyone, from a duchess to a cleaning lady. He could adopt the right tone and he had a genius, I’m afraid, for annoying his own party and thereby convincing Middle England that he must be a sound-enough chap and he was really a bit of a Tory.”
  • On Gordon Brown: “Who knows, perhaps he would have been a very great Prime Minister if he’d come in ’97, but he’d waited for 10 years, pretending to be satisfied with the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer”.
  • On David Cameron: “He was a very Anglican figure in some ways; he very much believed in good behaviour and compromise, but – as far as doctrine was concerned – he was fairly flexible about that.”

Very informative, and the hour goes by fast.

Title: Political Thinking with Nick Robinson
Host: Nick Robinson
Episode: The Ed Balls Christmas Special One

Duration: 37 minutes
Published: December 27
Link: Here

What’s it about?

Recorded before Christmas, in this interview Nick Robinson sits down with Ed Balls, former Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, to discuss a huge amount, from his life outside of politics, from his love of cooking, to teaching at King’s College London, to the 10 years he has spent learning the piano. Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion is when Balls discusses his interest in understanding people with whom he disagrees; it makes a nice change from some of the name-calling that Conservatives and/ or Brexiteers have got used to, from the Opposition benches, in recent years.

Some teaser quotes:
  • On a career in politics – “It’s not a conventional career, where you can rise up and you can see your future stretching before you… In politics, it’s totally not predictable, and there’s so much luck, whether you happen to be in the right place and the moment opens up, but when you get the opportunity, it’s brilliant, hard, such a responsibility, such an honour.”
  • “Genuinely, I thought I’m in danger of having a midlife crisis – so therefore I should plan it.”
  • “One of the key things you have to do in politics is you have to be reaching out to people who need to be persuaded. And if you’re going to take the current situation, there are people who voted Conservative in 2019, who voted Labour in 2015 or 2010… Labour’s not going to win unless it persuades those people to come back. And if it sometimes sounds as if Labour is saying ‘you voted for the evil guys’… I mean, how bad, how reprehensible.”

An interesting exchange – indicating a man who has yet to tire of the limelight.

Title: The Brendan O’Neill Show
Host: Brendan O’Neill
Episode: David Starkey: Lockdown is the revenge of the elites

Duration: 58:29 minutes
Published: December 24

What’s it about?

In this jam-packed episode, David Starkey leaves you under no illusions around what he thinks of Boris Johnson – clue: it ain’t pretty – his government and lockdowns. What’s especially interesting, is that, despite vehemently opposing the Government’s pandemic measures, Starkey has a fairly no-nonsense approach to the vaccine hesitant – taking listeners through the reasons why he thinks libertarian arguments have failed here.

Some teaser quotes:
  • On Boris Johnson: “He doesn’t seem really to believe in anything very much… he lurches from one position to another; and…, as very often happens to people in power who don’t have strong views, he has been captured.”
  • “We’ve got a government that thinks it knows better than those who elected it, because it’s powered by a civil service, it’s powered by a judiciary, it’s powered by… various kinds of medical elites”.
  • “All the time we hear ‘the science says’. Science doesn’t say; science isn’t a device for manipulating popular opinion; science is speculative; science is hesitant; science debates. Instead it’s being turned into a weapon of propaganda and manipulation, and above all a gigantic alibi for incompetence.”

As with Gimson’s interview, you get your money’s worth – in terms of a large amount of insight packed into one episode. Starkey challenges stereotypical notions of what a conservative should support in terms of Covid measures.

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

Did the Treasury seek to punish dissident backbenchers by withholding cash from their seats?

5 Nov

Politics and pork have always been inseparable – and, no, I’m not referring to visits to Beijing by Liz Truss.  If you doubt it, read Andrew Gimson’s brief life of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, whose take on his colleagues was that “all men have their price”.

The very nature of human beings welds the two together, not necessarily wrongly, even in the best of western liberal democracies.  Constituents want money.  Government has it.  MPs compete to move it from the latter to the former.  So it was in the beginning, is now, ever shall be – and should be, unless you trust dictators with the cash instead.

But there are rules of the game, and a question raised by this week’s events is: are Ministers breaking them?  More specifically: has the Treasury sought to punish dissident backbenchers by withholding Towns Fund cash from their seats?

Some background: the Financial Times reported a claim this morning that some Conservative backbenchers who were wavering over Wednesday’s vote on Owen Paterson “were told that ‘they would lose funding for their constituency’ if they failed to toe the line”.  The story rang a bell.

I’ve heard rumours to similar effect over the last few months – variously referencing the Towns Fund, the Levelling-up Fund and money for targets seats at the next election.  Some of these named the Whips as the source of threats.  Others, the Treasury.

So what’s the truth of the matter?  Getting to it demands an understanding of the context, which could take one back a very long way.  But to save space, I will start with the last Labour Government, move on to the Coalition and Cameron adminstrations, and return to this Government – Treasury, whips and all.

“Fiddled funding,” the Conservatives fumed in 2002, arguing that Labour was moving “funding away from high-performing councils in the south to Labour-controlled metropolitan councils”.

The Housing Select Committee complained that “the new formulae do not appear to be evidence-based”.  The Times put it more trenchantly: “Labour will tax Tory voters to fund heartlands”.  There was more from the Party in 2010: “shifting money to Labour’s rotten boroughs”, that year’s general election Campaign Guide proclaimed.

And so to the Coalition and Cameron governments – and, in particular, to the 2015 Conservative Manifesto, parts of which were a hymn to spending in marginal seats (gluttons for research punishment should settle down with page 15).

“The way that the Treasury team worked was: you scratch our back and we’ll scratch yours”, one source told me.  It’s important to stress that there was nothing remotely unlawful about what happened under both George Osborne and Gordon Brown.  There will have been authorised and defensible cross-constituency criteria for the funding of each new hospital, road, police station and so on.

The difference between what the Treasury did then and what it has done recently was described to me in this way: “it was ‘do something for us and we may be able to do something for you’.  Now it’s ‘if you don’t do something for us we won’t do something for you’ “.

Which takes us to the Towns Fund, which gained £1 billion last spring’s Budget, and aims to help level up towns and aid recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.  So did the Government seek to punish rebellious Tory backbenchers by first pledging and then withdrawing Town Hall Funds (before eventually restoring them)?  And did the Treasury lead the charge?  The facts are obscure.

MPs who I’ve spoken to agree that, in a few cases, the Government attempted to withdraw funding to which it was already committed from towns represented by independent-minded backbenchers, pleading new pressures on public spending.

But there is no agreement about why it did so.  One backbencher says he was told that the whips had compiled a list of MPs who would be affected; that the Treasury was responsible for the list – and that, after he made representations, the funding was restored.  At no time was he told that the way in which he had voted or spoken was responsible for the planned cut.

Another tells much the same tale, but with a twist: that, though he wasn’t told by either the whips or the Treasury that the way in which he had spoken or voted was responsible…he was told by other Ministers that the way in which he had voted and spoken was responsible.

Other sources say that the Treasury, not the whips, made the call about which funding to halt.  Steve Barclay was involved in the decision-making, I’m told, but that in itself implies nothing improper.  As the Chief Secretary for the Treasury at the time, responsible for public spending, it would have been odd if he hadn’t been.

Did Rishi Sunak know?  There would be nothing wrong had he done.  But Treasury sources deny it – adding that the Chancellor restored the funding.  So who at the Treasury tried to cut it because of the way MPs had spoken and voted, if anyone?

Had the Ministers who spoke to my source simply got the wrong end of the stick?  The question is important because the Towns Fund, like those projects funded under Labour, the Coalition, Cameron (and indeed Theresa May) would have been financed under established criteria.  Neither Ministers nor anyone else has the right to tear them up to extact revenge or exert pressure.

The new funds are especially sensitive because of the role of the MP.  Sending money from the centre to localities raises an age-old political question – namely, what incentive has a government to devolve power to opponents?

The Towns Fund squares the circle, or tries to, by seeking to involving MPs in decision-making. “The MP (or MPs) representing the town should be invited to engage in the process of designing and agreeing the Town Investment Plan”, its prospectus declares.  The critieria for the Levelling-Up fund go further.

“We expect Members of Parliament, as democratically-elected representatives of the area, to back one bid that they see as a priority,” these declare.

“Such support from local MPs is not a necessary condition for a successful bid…MPs can have a positive role in prioritising bids and helping broker local consensus”.  In my view, there is more to these arrangements than political horse-trading: embedding MPs in local decision-making seems to me a good thing – until or unless it becomes a distraction from their responsibilites at Westminster.

All in all, I can’t find any evidence of wrongdoing, at least yet.  But were any MP to put the claim in the Financial Times on the record, those claimed to be responsible for issuing threats would potentially be in very serious trouble.

There are two readings of events.  The first is that talk of the whips or the Treasury or anyone else seeking to withhold funds to punish MPs is just that – talk, inflamed by the excitable if not hysterical atmosphere at Westminster.  The second is that there’s something in it, whether the money concerned is Towns Fund cash or Levelling Up cash or (moving off taxpayer-funded pots) target seat cash.

If so, anyone tempted to menace his colleagues in this way should resist the urge to do so.  The list of Government Ministers isn’t the cast of To Play the King, even if some of them, now and again, may think otherwise.