Iain Dale: Johnson can say all the right words. But not in a way the public relate to, as Blair and Cameron could.

29 Jan

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

Sir Desmond Swayne is an adornment to our political life. Politics has always had mavericks and MPs who are outspoken, and he is the latest example.

However, his comments on “manipulated” Coronavirus statistics and interview with anti-vax champions were dangerous and outrageous.

He maintains that things he said in November were correct at the time – an assertion which in itself is questionable.

He then doubled down and claimed that it would be a “thought crime” for him to lose the Conservative Party whip.

Michael Gove has called on him to apologise, but he refuses.

I should make it clear that even though he has appeared with anti-vaxxers, whom he calls “nutty”, he is not one himself and maintains he is “evangelical” in his support for vaccinations.

He says that he didn’t know any of the people he was talking to were anti-vax and that he was purely talking about lockdowns.

For someone who loyally served David Cameron as Parliamentary Private Secretary, he has displayed the political judgement of a shrew on this issue.

– – – – – – – – –

It’s not been an easy week for the Prime Minister.

Quite naturally, when the 100,000 Covid death milestone was reached, he appeared before the press cameras looking very sober, and also somewhat exhausted and dishevelled.

He said all the right words, but was I alone in thinking that it just didn’t quite work?

Tony Blair and Cameron had a unique ability to not only say the right words, but to do so in a way that the public related to.

Not all politicians have that gift. Theresa May didn’t. Gordon Brown didn’t.

Boris Johnson is a politician made for the good times. His naturally sunny optimism is great in many circumstances.

Being sombre and downbeat, however, is not his natural demeanour.

I don’t blame him for that. None of us can change the way we are, merely do our best to say the right thing in the right way.

– – – – – – – – –

The suggestion from Nicola Sturgeon that Johnson shouldn’t have gone to Scotland yesterday is as ridiculous as it is insulting.

Johnson is Prime Minister of Scotland too, and in my view should be going to Scotland as often as possible and trying to build a relationship with Scots, which he doesn’t have at the moment.

She says in times of a pandemic he should not be rampaging across the UK.

He is the Prime Minister, not an ordinary member of the public. He has a duty to visit every part of the UK.

If the UK Prime Minister does not make the case for the union, who will? (And I say this as someone who is not unsympathetic to the notion of Scottish independence.)

Sturgeon sometimes appears drunk on her zealotry for Scottish independence.

She is in many ways an admirable political leader, and yet I wonder if she is about to overreach herself.

– – – – – – – – –

The calls for an immediate public inquiry into Covid have reappeared.

They should be resisted. I cannot see the logic of commencing an inquiry when the pandemic is still ongoing.

I am not saying it shouldn’t start until the last case has been eradicated, but surely its terms of reference cannot be decided until we have the end in sight.

Assuming the vaccine process has the desired effect, I’d have thought launching the inquiry at some point in the second part of the year was achievable and desirable.

Should it be a UK wide inquiry, or should there be four separate inquiries into the conduct of each of the four governments of the UK? These are the questions we need to ask.

Clearly the inquiry will seek to apportion blame for mistakes that were made, but these are mistakes that have been made by representatives of all the main political parties, who run the four different administrations.

Some are questioning the need for any inquiry at all on the basis it will cost a lot of money and will take years to report, by which time all the main political protagonists won’t be in office.

Surely it is absolutely vital to have a proper inquiry, from which everyone can learn the lessons for the next time something like this happens.

Not just the politicians, but the scientific and medical community too.

Henry Hill: ‘Stronger together’ – Ministers put vaccine at the centre of its latest pro-Union push

28 Jan

Government puts pandemic response at centre of latest pro-Union push

Boris Johnson is to put the outstanding success that has been the British vaccine rollout at the centre of his pitch to Scottish voters on an upcoming visit to Scotland, the Daily Telegraph reports. It says:

“UK ministers hope that the nation’s world-leading delivery of coronavirus vaccines, and the development of the Oxford jab in Britain, will finally cut through with Scottish voters by offering a tangible example of the benefits of the Union.”

The First Minister has attacked the visit as ‘non-essential’, a charge dismissed by British ministers.

Matt Hancock also got in on the act this week, repeatedly saying in a press conference that the anti-coronavirus effort showed that the UK was “stronger together” – a likely candidate for the next referendum campaign slogan. The Herald reports that the Health Secretary particularly highlighted the way that the English ambulance service has supported its Scottish counterpart in recent days.

By contrast, Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of ‘failing to provide seven-day vaccination’ after jab figures from Sunday were half that of the previous day. The First Minister blamed a ‘data lag’.

However, research has shown that Scottish voters want to hear about what Scotland offers the Union, not just what the Union gives to Scotland. If he wants to build a case that speaks to that self-respect, the Prime Minister needs to make sure it stresses that the benefits of Britain are a two-way street.

Meanwhile, Douglas Ross has rightly said that unionists would boycott any effort by the Scottish Parliament to throw an illegal or unofficial referendum on Scottish independence. Experts have apparently branded plans for such a vote as ‘deluded and pointless’, but Sturgeon needs the prospect of it to keep her increasingly restive forces in line in the event that the Prime Minister refuses to grant a Section 30 order.

Gove should beware Brown’s guidance on the Union

Meanwhile, Michael Gove has reportedly reached out to Gordon Brown to try and strengthen the Government’s efforts to keep the United Kingdom together. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has “compared notes” with the former Prime Minister, according to the Scotsman. Brown has recently warned that the UK risks becoming a ‘failed state’, and the paper says:

“Mr Brown is leading a review of Labour’s policy position on the constitution which could suggest a federal system with new powers for Holyrood and is expected to return its recommendations within 18 months. Such a model – which has been promoted by some within Scottish Labour for years – would see almost all powers apart from foreign policy and defence devolved to the Scottish Parliament. That option could be a third choice in any referendum.”

We can only hope that Gove, whilst polite, gave any such suggestion short shrift. Not only would it be absurd to put the option of an overall overhaul of the entire British constitution on a ballot paper issued to Scots alone, but we are well past the point when ‘more powers’ devolution had any credibility left as a unionist strategy – although it is telling that the Scotsman report undermines Brown’s efforts to pretend that his plans are not simply another tranche of ‘more powers’ thinking.

As I wrote for CapX this week, Brown actually has perhaps the strongest claim of any individual man to be the architect of the current constitutional calamity, and his analysis is very obviously built entirely around locating fault in the bits of the constitution he didn’t touch and directing scrutiny away from his disastrous legacy. Almost a year on from my clash with him in Newcastle last February, his answers are no stronger. A ‘British Isles Diplomatic & Defence Community’ is not what unionists should be fighting for.

Fortunately, we have reached the point where the tide is starting to turn against Brown’s thinking. The UK Internal Market Act was an important re-assertion of the prerogatives of the centre, and William Hague has noted (whilst being impeccably polite) that “constitutional tinkering won’t stop the Scottish nationalist juggernaut”. There’s no clever trick which will ‘solve’ the problem of the SNP. They need to be taken on and defeated.

Davies resigns, Davies returns

In case you missed it, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives stepped down this week after becoming embroiled in a scandal over alleged breaches of the Covid-19 regulations via ‘boozing’ in the Welsh Parliament.

Paul Davies and Darren Millar, a key ally and until recently Chief Whip, both denied wrongdoing but stepped down in the face of opposition attacks, media scrutiny, and a mounting backlash from the Tory grassroots. This was after he received the unanimous support of the Senedd group, apparently before they saw the official report into the incident and allegedly because they saw him as the only bulwark against his likely successor.

If true, that gambit failed and Andrew RT Davies is back in the driving seat in Cardiff Bay. A right-wing Brexiteer who is significantly closer to his activists on constitutional issues, he now has a few months to both take the fight to Labour and stave off a challenge on his unionist flank by Abolish the Welsh Assembly, which according to current polling is on track to enter the Welsh Parliament at the upcoming elections.

Scottish Parliament flexes its muscles in the Salmond scandal

Things continue to hot up in the battle between Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, as MSPs double down on their efforts to extract key evidence and the Scottish Government digs in to resist them.

The First Minister continues to insist that she did not mislead the Scottish Parliament, but Scottish Labour is now saying that her husband Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, should be investigated for perjury over his evidence to the official inquiry.

Even more significantly, MSPs have invoked legal powers “never before used” to compel Scottish prosecutors to hand over “documents obtained in the criminal investigation into Mr Salmond and passed to his defence” which they believe are key to getting to the truth. The deadline for the handover is tomorrow. Salmond has apparently been warned that he could be prosecuted if he referred to these documents.

Henry Hill: As rumours swirl about the UKIM Bill, unease in Government about an ‘appease the SNP’ mentality

10 Dec

Is there an ‘appease the SNP tendency’ inside the Government?

Yesterday, I wrote about the deal Michael Gove has struck to try to ameliorate the problems caused by Boris Johnson’s capitulation to Brussels over an Irish Sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Conservative MPs are also wary about parts of the agreement, with the Daily Telegraph reporting that the role of the European Court of Justice is a source of particular concern. Some are even threatening to try and re-insert the ‘international law-breaking’ clauses of the UK Internal Market Bill when ministers try to take them out.

On the face of it, the removal of those clauses ought to make it easier for the Government to pass the rest of the Bill, with its controversial but important provisions regarding mutual recognition of regulation in the British internal market and allowing Westminster to step in to replace EU regional funding powers.

But Paul Waugh, of the Huffington Post, instead suggests that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster might be preparing to jettison those provisions too, following the backlash from the devolved administrations and a heavy defeat in the House of Lords.

Coming as it does on top of the unease about his Ulster bargain, these won’t assuage unionists concerned about Gove’s approach. Whilst Waugh says abandoning the provisions would be good for the Union – a position wholly rooted in discredited devolutionary orthodoxy – such a retreat would simply be a re-enactment of the very failures by Theresa May that made the UKIM Bill necessary in the first place.

Fortunately, those I have spoken too so far suggest that such a move is not on the cards and that the Prime Minister recognises the importance of re-connecting Westminster to the day-to-day lives of everyone in the United Kingdom.

However, apparently Waugh’s report does reflect conversations that were taking place at one point, there is unease in some quarters about an “appease-the-SNP” mentality on the part of some of Gove’s advisers – embodied by the leaked Hanbury memo and kites flown for such outré proposals as putting Nicola Sturgeon in the Cabinet, as well as the impression that the ‘CDL’ is trying to develop arguments for a referendum the Government is publicly committed to refusing.

As I wrote elsewhere recently, Boris Johnson should stamp out any talk of conceding a referendum. As the First Minister and her Party’s woes continue to mount (of which more below), the prospect of an imminent re-run of 2014 is the greatest gift he could give them.

Unfortunately, the old retreat-and-pray mentality still dominates outside the Government. Sir Keir Starmer has unveiled Labour’s ‘new offer’ to Scots ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections and it consists of – you guessed it – a promise of ‘more powers’. Nor is that the only Labour intervention. Gordon Brown has joined forces with several Labour mayors to demand the Prime Minister takes urgent action to save the Union. Can you guess what they want? Got it in one: ‘more powers’.

Labour’s stubborn determination to keep having their one idea until the clocks strike thirteen and it finally works makes it all the more important that the Government do what the Opposition won’t: pass the UKIM Bill, and defend British governance through our shared Parliament.

Twist in the Sturgeon tale as First Minister’s husband contradicts her evidence to MSPs

This week, MSPs investigating the Scottish Government’s botch inquiry into sexual misconduct allegations against Alex Salmond – which ended up costing taxpayers’ over half a million pounds – took evidence from Peter Murrell. He is a very important man in Nationalist circles, combining as he does the roles of the SNP’s Chief Executive and the First Minister’s husband.

It did not go well. In fact, Murrell is already facing demands that he be recalled before the committee. Why? Because his evidence seems to directly contradict that offered to MSPs by Sturgeon herself.

At the centre of the current row is the question of what Sturgeon knew and when, and in particular to meetings she had with Salmond in 2018, which were not minuted.

The First Minister claims that the meeting took place in her capacity as leader of the SNP, in which case no official record was required. But that strongly suggests that Murrell ought to have known what the meeting was about. He says he didn’t, because “the issue raised at the time was a Scottish Government matter”.

Opposition MSPs have leapt on the discrepancy. Murdo Fraser, quoted in the Press & Journal, put it starkly: “Peter Murrell’s words indicate that Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament, gave false evidence to the committee, and broke the ministerial code.” They also pressed the Chief Executive on leaked messages which suggest he was trying to put pressure on the authorities to investigate Salmond.

Sturgeon has also been dragged into a ‘secrecy row’, according to the Daily Record, over meetings with her most senior civil servant about the anti-harassment policy which was used in the Salmond investigation.

And on the ‘other problems’ front: the elderly are still dying in Scottish care homes; more public sector bodies are clamouring for the First Minister’s £500 bung to NHS staff; and one of Scotland’s top historians has accused the SNP of placing “arrant propaganda” in schools.

More fence sitting from Starmer as Labour MPs challenge deportation flight

4 Dec

This week, the Home Office’s plan to deport 50 convicted criminals to Jamaica for violent, sexual or drug offences was disrupted after a campaign by Labour MPs.

Two days before the flight was scheduled to take off, Clive Lewis wrote to Priti Patel to demand she “cancel the planned deportation of up to 50 Black British residents” adding that deportations “epitomise the Government’s continued ‘Hostile Environment’ agenda”, and that “[t]ackling institutionalised racism starts one step at a time.”

Nearly 70 mostly Labour MPs signed Lewis’s letter, including Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Rebecca Long-Bailey, John McDonnell Lloyd Russell-Moyle, and celebrities such as Naomi Campbell and Thandie Newton wrote to airlines asking them not to carry out the Home Office’s orders. After a series of legal challenges, 30 criminals were taken off the flight, including a rapist and a London murderer.

Where was Keir Starmer in all this? Many noticed that he was not one of the signatories on the letter, nor was his deputy Angela Rayner, suggesting they disapprove of Lewis’s intervention (which, ironically, challenged a policy set by the last Labour government). But he has done nothing to indicate an opinion either way. Perhaps he thinks, like the Covid tiers, he can abstain his way out of the matter.

The incident raises questions about Starmer’s leadership, not least because of the degree of influence opposition backbenchers now have over Home Office policy. It is unusual for them to write these sorts of letters without the backing of shadow cabinet ministers. Notably, 12 other frontbenchers did not sign. So who is in charge?

Labour’s National Executive Committee even appeared to tell Starmer and Rayner off for not signing the letter, writing: “we are alarmed that there has been no comment from you both in response to the deportation flight scheduled for 2nd December… we request that you make a decisive and compassionate intervention.”

In his Labour Party Conference speech, Starmer famously promised “This is a party under new leadership”. He was keen to project the sense that he would bring the various factions of Labour together, though recent events are yet more evidence of how difficult that goal is, with Corbyn and McDonnell calling the shots elsewhere.

The bigger question, of course, is what this means for Starmer’s future policies. Many will remember him promising at his party’s conference “never again will Labour go into an election not being trust on national security”. But his refusal to comment, let alone act, on a matter involving murderers, rapists and violent criminals is hardly going to reassure many voters.

Part of the reason Starmer is reportedly quiet on some issues is down to advice from Joe Biden’s campaign team, which has instructed him not to get involved in “culture war issues”. But this mindset seems to have gradually extended to all manner of political policy. Often people think Starmer is calculated in his political moves, but too much fence sitting does not a Prime Minister make.

Dean Godson: It’s easier for the right to a left on economics than for the left to move right on culture. That’s a plus for Johnson.

21 Nov

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.

Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.

Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.

Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).

But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.

The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.

A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.

This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.

There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.

Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).

This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.

Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.

Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.

That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.

The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.

The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.

The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.

Nick Hillman: Three options for higher education. Less support for students, fewer of them – or else they pay more

10 Nov

Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former Special Adviser to David Willetts during his time as Minister for Universities, but this piece was written in a personal capacity while he was on annual leave.

Politics is governed by the rule of three, whether it is Blairite rhetorical flourishes (‘Education, Education, Education’) or policy options provided by civil servants to Ministers (generally one good, one bad and one ugly). Even Brexit was a three-headed beast: Remain, Deal or No Deal.

This lesson was rammed home for me when working on pensions policy in the early 2000s. Adair Turner was tasked with finding a solution to the ‘pensions crisis’ and he liked to make it sound deceptively simple by saying there were only three solutions: more taxes for bigger state pensions; a higher retirement age; or people saving more. He recommended all three.

Ministers similarly claimed there were just three options when, a decade ago, the Coalition was looking for ways to save public spending on higher education in England: fewer students; less spending on each student; or higher fees backed by higher loans. They rejected the first two options, as had New Labour before them, and announced much higher fees.

The changes delivered a settlement that has stood the test of time. The Cameron/Clegg £9,000 tuition fee system has already lasted longer than the £1,000 fees of 1998 to 2006 and the £3,000 fees of 2006 to 2012. It is likely to survive longer too, as promising to end student fees has little electoral appeal: it didn’t work for Michael Howard or Jeremy Corbyn.

But the reason £9,000 fees delivered savings to the Treasury was the way that student loans scored in the national accounts. To cut a long story short, tripling fees and loans to £9,000 in 2012 reduced the deficit (though it still increased the national debt). This was because accounting standards said repayable student loans did not count as current public spending.

Some accused the Coalition of using financial trickery. In one light, the new system looked like win:win, as it enabled more support for universities and big savings for the Treasury. In another light, it looked like lose:lose, as students accrued larger debts while the Government still faced high costs in the long term because of larger loan write-offs.

Either way, the bigger fees prompted an angry response. Exactly a decade ago, in November 2010, fierce student protests on the streets of London targeted CCHQ, the Cenotaph and even the Prince and Princess of Wales. Yet the arguments of those who opposed the system were hugely overcooked.

Yes, the progressive features of the student loan repayment terms mean some money is never repaid. But, as David Cameron’s memoirs make clear, higher fees and loans allowed for the removal of the student number cap. And more graduates mean more tax. The OECD said the loan write-off costs ‘are just a tiny fraction of the added fiscal income due to better educated individuals paying higher taxes.’

Anyone who still believes the wool was pulled over people’s eyes back in 2010 should remember there is only one thing worse than politicians keeping to standard accounting conventions – and that is politicians ignoring standard accounting conventions. Gordon Brown tried to do this on tax credits, and all governments would try similar tricks if they could get away with it.

Nonetheless, the debate over student finance is far from over because two big things have happened since 2012.

First, in a wasteful and opportunistic announcement at the 2017 Conservative Party Conference, Theresa May relaxed the already loose student loan repayment terms. By increasing the repayment threshold to £25,000 (up from £21,000), she ensured that a significantly lower proportion of public money lent to students would be repaid.

Second, and in part because of this increase in the repayment threshold, the accountants changed their mind. Now, the portion of any student loan that is expected to be unpaid counts as in-year government spending when the loan is taken out. Osborne saved billions overnight via £9,000 fees (as well as the subsequent shift from maintenance grants to larger maintenance loans), but the new rules reverse those savings.

In March 2020, before the pandemic let rip, the Office for Budget Responsibility said that the reclassification of student loans was a key factor in pushing the UK’s financial forecasts for 2023/24 and after from the black and into the red. The inclusion of so much student loan outlay in the national accounts has therefore put spending on students on the radar for the coming spending review.

As the financial commentator Paul Wallace warned in Prospect last year: “The Treasury was happy to countenance a big expansion of university finance when it did nothing to blemish its scorecard in reducing the deficit. It will take a sterner view once the actual costs show up in the budget deficit.”

We are also awaiting the official response to the Augar review of post-18 education. Among its many recommendations, this included ways to reduce taxpayer exposure to tuition fee loans, such as via a lower fee cap of £7,500 and a longer student loan repayment period (up from 30 to 40 years).

Once again, the Government is facing three options: providing less money per student through lower fees and loans, which would drive some universities to the wall; reducing student places, just as the number of school leavers is about to start a decade-long growth; or tougher student loan repayment terms, which would mean paying a little more. None of these options is palatable.

If it were down to me, I wouldn’t cut education spending at all. The triple whammy of Brexit dampening down skilled migration to the UK, economic change wrought by the pandemic and higher unemployment among lower skilled people in the coming recession mean we should be investing as much as we can in all types of education. More education is always better than leaving people to build blank spaces on their CVs.

Yet if the higher education sector must take some further pain in the spending review, then tougher student loan repayment terms of the sort in place in other countries and of the type recommended by the Augar panel is a better place to start than pushing universities to the brink or blocking aspirational learners from enrolling in higher education.

Jonathan Hughes: In memory of Jonathan Sacks – whose words and writing contributed so much to British politics and society

9 Nov

Rabbi Jonathan Hughes is the orthodox rabbi to about 700 families in Radlett, Hertfordshire, and lectures widely as a motivational speaker to various audiences in and around the City of London and at secondary schools.

I was acutely shocked and saddened when I heard the news that former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, died in the early hours of Saturday morning. He was aged 72, and only about a month had passed subsequent to a cancer diagnosis.

As a young rabbi serving in his rabbinate, Rabbi Sacks was a personal mentor and role model to me. I can still hear his warm address to me from the synagogue pulpit in Hendon as I was about to embark on a new rabbinic role elsewhere. He was all about empowering those around him, challenging them to fulfil their calling and potential.

Even more memorable was the time when, profoundly disappointed by the actions of someone close to me, I burst into Rabbi Sacks’ home in St Johns Wood where he was addressing a group of youth leaders.

I gave him the details and, instead of indulging my abject despair, he warned me: “never give up on people.” His words have been a game-changer in the way I approach my rabbinic work, and I was particularly proud to have contributed to a book of essays on Jewish law and philosophy presented to Lord Sacks marking his retirement as Chief Rabbi.

Sacks, an orthodox Jew, was born in London in 1948 and, in 1991, became Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – the spiritual leader of the largest grouping of orthodox Jewish communities in the UK. It was a position he held with distinction for 22 years.

A prolific writer of over 30 books and regular contributor to radio, television and social media, Sacks was knighted in 2005, and made a crossbench life peer in 2009. In 2016, he was awarded the Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” He had been described by the Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation”.

Sacks has been universally lauded as an extraordinarily gifted orator, writer and social commentator. Although his inspiration was keenly felt within the worldwide Jewish community, his impact was never limited to his co-religionists. Lord Sacks’ intellect, eloquence and charisma made an indelible impression in the hearts and minds of people from every type of background and belief system.

His was a voice of reason in a tempestuous world of chaos and division, a voice that transcended faction and tribal loyalties. His unwavering moral philosophy was one that revered community, heritage and moderation. He was outspoken in his condemnation of those who committed acts of violence in the name of religion.

His cerebral prowess belied his humble piety. One example ought to be shared to exemplify the simplicity of his faith, clothed as it was in the elaborate raiment of philosophy and scholarship. During his lifetime, Lord Sacks seldom mentioned that he had battled cancer twice before – once in his 30s, and later in his 50s.

When asked why he eschewed publicly reflecting on these ordeals, he responded that he had witnessed his father undergoing many operations and heath problems in old age, and that these had sapped his strength until he was forced to walk on crutches.

Sacks added that his father had not been the beneficiary of much in the way of Jewish education, but did possess enormous faith. He said he used to watch his father in hospital reciting psalms and could see him getting stronger as a result. It seemed that his mental attitude had been: “I’m leaving this to God. If he sees that it’s time for me to go, then it’s time for me to go. And if he still needs me to do things here, he’ll look after me.’”

Sacks said that he had adopted exactly this attitude. During both bouts of cancer he said, “I felt, if this is the time God needs me up there, thank you very much indeed for my time down here; I’ve enjoyed every day and feel very blessed. And if he wants me to stay and there’s still work for me to do, then he is going to be part of the healing and I put my trust in Him. I didn’t feel the need to write a book about it. It was for me not a theological dilemma at all.”

Lord Sacks was a fearless critic of antisemitism and piercingly diagnosed all of its menacing metastases, including obsessive antipathy towards Israel and Zionism. He had a warm relationship with Gordon Brown during the latter’s premiership. However, as Labour moved further towards the radical Left, Lord Sacks felt the duty to speak out. Indeed, recently he had been critical of Jeremy Corbyn, amidst the row over antisemitism in the party.

Sacks’ vision for a more harmonious British society included dignity in difference, and recognising the need for meaning at the heart of the human condition. He was often prescient in identifying the ethical gaps in a secular society that often focused on ephemeral pleasure over spirituality and responsibility. His was a message of selflessness over individualism, and he took pride in his religious Jewish identity without ever sounding dogmatic or arrogant.

Above all, Sacks’ legacy will live on in his many students, congregations and followers, who include leading figures in divergent fields. He has left an historic impression upon religion in the UK and many thousands will feel bereft at the loss of his towering presence and courage. He was taken from us far too early, and is survived by Elaine Taylor, his wife of 50 years, along with their three children and many grandchildren.

Andy Cook: To help reduce mass unemployment, back up Universal Credit with Universal Support

2 Nov

Andy Cook is Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Social Justice

In politics, as often in life, you seldom get praise for what doesn’t happen.

But when we look back on the recent history of this pandemic, we will recognise Universal Credit as a great success story. Had we still been operating the paper-based system of the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown era, we would have had unemployment queues snaking round city centres. It wouldn’t have needed an England footballer to point this out, it would (quite rightly) have shamed the country.

I remember that time well. Despite massive government spending, I founded a charity to tackle unemployment – because there were generations of kids who were being harmed because they didn’t see the benefits of work in their home life. We musn’t return to those days.

We are now facing the grim prospect of unemployment as high as 13 per cent – that’s around four million people without a job. In July, 5.6 million people were receiving welfare with almost half officially “searching for work.” One of the areas with the highest numbers of new Universal Credit claims is leafy Guildford in Surrey.

Britain faces the very real problem of mass, long-term unemployment. At the beginning of 2020, there were 3.1 million people in Britain who were not working, but wanted a job. This figure could grow by more than two million due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Benefit claimants are increasingly vulnerable, with more complex challenges, meaning that they need more support when navigating our welfare system. Inadequate support for some claimants has resulted in some falling in to a ‘state of crisis’ – increased financial insecurity, food bank usage, evictions, and homelessness as well as worsening mental health.

Unemployment can be disastrous for any individual. Unemployment is not just the loss of an income, but the loss of a sense of purpose, identity, and dignity. Poor health quickly follows.

If we want to get really serious about tackling poverty, we have to get serious about making sure people get into jobs. Financial pressures can lead to debt, housing problems, relationship strains, and in the most extreme cases, violence, homelessness, substance misuse and criminal activity.

This is the true cost of an unemployment crisis. Worklessness has a lasting impact on communities, and children growing up in a workless household are more likely to perform poorly at school, less likely to work themselves, and end up involved in the criminal justice system.

For all the winter eeconomic plans announced by the Chancellor, tackling the human toll of worklessness will be the biggest long term challenge. Long before the pandemic struck, the UK still had a long-term unemployment problem, with particular challenges from disability, and a disability employment gap that had hardly shifted in a decade.

Despite remarkable successes over the last ten years in halving the number of people unemployed for two years or more, the other half still exist, pandemic or no pandemic. The challenge will now be to make sure that our millions of newly unemployed (and their families) don’t join them as long term unemployment ‘stats’.

There are real human lives behind the statistics – which is why the Chancellor must look seriously at Universal Support.

Universal Support gets money to local charities to offer real personal support for jobseekers. Run by local authorities, Universal Support works alongside Universal Credit payments, with the aim of helping welfare claimants tackle the real barriers to sustained work.

Helping people who may be applying for Universal Credit, but who also need help in stabilising their housing situation, advice on dealing with burdensome debt, help in accessing opportunities to develop skills, or getting an appointment for a medical diagnosis – Universal Support commissions local charities who work with people rather than statistics.

A truly compassionate social security system should be about helping to support people fallen on hard times, not just a welfare check in the post. It is self-evidently not enough for programmes to get people work ready if there is no work. So it’s also time to channel our inner Reagan and go for some big tax cuts targeted at the regions to rebalance the UK and encourage the creation of jobs.

The recovery must be driven by the private sector, but the Government should seize the opportunity to direct this in a regionalist way with rebalancing as an explicit goal.

The Centre for Social Justice’s paper “The Future of Work: Regional Revolution” makes the case for enterprise zones in the UK’s most left behind towns and cities: tax breaks and financial incentives would be offered specifically to businesses operating in these regions. State loans to start-ups should have job creation in our poorest areas as an explicit objective.

We can’t just treat unemployment as a problem on a spreadsheet. There are real human lives behind the statistics, which is where Universal Support comes in. We need to see it in every town. Economic measures to rebuild our regional economies need to go alongside welfare support that stops the spiral of unemployment and offers a compassionate helping hand into newly-created jobs.