Robert Halfon: The Conservatives were the party of affordable and social housing – and must be again

24 Feb

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Conservatives need to remember something forgotten about our past. We were once the party that brought social housing to the people that needed it throughout this country.

In 1951, Tories went into a General Election with the phrase, “housing is the first of the social services”, proudly sat at its heart. Echoes of this could be heard when the PM last summer committed to “not just to defeating Coronavirus but to using this crisis to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades.” The first of which he said was housing. He is right, but I think we can go further with the housing we need.

The 1951 manifesto made clear that access to a good home, an affordable home, was central to productivity, family life and good health. This sentiment – this vision – is as relevant today as it was then. The difference, however, is today we have lost our way in making that vision achievable.

Harold Macmillan, the then minister in charge of delivery, ensured that the Government beat its target of 300,000 homes a year, and good homes at that. I know this, because I am proud to represent a small part, in the form of my constituency of Harlow. Our town was created as part of the post-World War housing boom, started by a Labour government but accelerated by a Conservative one.

These homes were true homes as well. Safe, secure, affordable and designed to be far better than what had come before. New Towns like Harlow were – and some will be surprised by this – incredibly popular. They were also made possible by Government investment in social housing. Housing that ensured everyone, whoever they might be and whatever they did, could benefit from the delivery of this vision that everyone should have a home, whatever their background.

In 1979, the BBC broadcast a show about Britain’s New Towns and visited Harlow. It interviewed both those who had moved out of shoddy accommodation in London, as well as the children for whom the town had always been home.

Harlow had been gifted, by both Labour and the Conservatives, a proud community who lived in quality social housing that allowed them to prosper. Children had a great start in life. They had fields to play in, good local schools to attend, sculptures to inspire them, their own bedrooms for big ideas to be imagined.

Unfortunately, this is where the story of Harlow and of housing takes a turn.

Nobody, not Macmillan, not Churchill, or Atlee for that matter, intended the post-War investment to be the final investment. To build the New Towns and that be that. Yet, in a way, this is what happened. Investment in housing wound down and the focus on the delivery of social housing took a 40-year back seat to reach a position like the one we are in now, with fewer than 7,000 new social homes a year being built.

A failure to deliver a positive vision for housing has consequences. Consequences whereby families are placed into, what can only be described as human warehouses – unsuitable, former office blocks – away from their communities, their families, in an act of social cleansing by predominantly London Labour councils. There’s no room to build a better life. There is one room and in it you eat, you watch TV and you sleep.

Families are in unsafe conditions. Exposed to vulnerable people. Parents are exhausted, taking their children on long commutes to distant schools. This is not how we used to do it. It is not a fair offer – it isn’t a Conservative offer.

Fortunately, the MHCLG Secretary of State is well aware this is not good enough and is taking steps to improve such conversions, demanding quality housing and more say by local councils.

However, this doesn’t tackle the underlying problem: that instead of measuring our housing success in the places we build and opportunities we bring, we engage in a relentless pursuit of “units”. We are doing this the wrong way round. Homes should not be measured in units delivered but in lives transformed.

Temporary accommodation, which is what many office-block conversions through permitted development rights often are, cost councils almost £2 billion in 2019/20. That’s a 55 per cent increase since 2014/15 and is money that by and large we pay to private landlords for providing unsuitable homes.

This is absurd. And we see it right across England. For example, in Blackpool, almost three-quarters of private renters are having to rely on housing benefit and yet the local authority is blocked from applying for grants for social homes due to the current rules. That doesn’t then mean public money is not spent, but instead of spending it on building homes to be proud of, we send it into the hands of private companies.

I share the ambition of the Prime Minister and the Government to unlock home ownership for a new generation. I am proud to be a part of the party that has done so much to champion it through measures like Right to Buy. But I also see no contradiction in being both the party of the home owner and the party of social housing. Quite the reverse.

By building the social homes we need, we may in fact be truly demonstrating that we are the party of home ownership. Not doing so, has made home ownership an impossible dream for too many.

Being stuck in an overpriced private rental market is the real barrier to ownership. According to Shelter, 63 per cent of people in private rented households have absolutely no savings at all. Two in five (40 per cent) of the population have less than £100 in savings. It is just not possible to save for a deposit if your money is having to all go into the pocket of a landlord.

Moveover, overcrowding has massively increased in the rental sector – from 187,000 homes in 2011 to over 300,000 right now. An affordable, social home would be.

Perhaps some Conservatives will be fearful of trusting local authorities with something like building homes – they fear they would be wasteful and slow. Surely, however, just as we can support academies as the model for delivering our schools, we should consider the role of Housing Associations in being a private route to social housing.

But for Housing Associations to succeed, we need a Conservative Government to unlock their potential. Because right now, social homes just aren’t being built. In fact, more than half of local authorities delivered no social rent homes at all last year and 50 local authorities have now gone five years without delivering a single social home.

We need to enable and incentivise better about what we need. Housing Associations are currently building a lot of shared ownership because that’s what policy is pushing them towards. Even without any extra investment we could change this by simple measures like increasing the flexibility provided around grant rates.

For example, the current grant rate for social housing is too low in most parts of the country and that means Housing Associations have to build more market sale and shared ownership to cross subsidise. If we removed the grant rate cap, or raised it, they could build more social rent.

We also need to look at how the current regulations and tax systems benefit the big developers making homes for private sale. The scales are too weighted towards helping the big boys at the expense of the communities they are building in. The recent plan to expand the small sites exception will make this worse. Currently, new developments of up to 10 units are exempt from providing any community benefit or affordable housing. The proposal to increase this exemption to between 40 and 50 units should be reconsidered.

Instead, the Government should look at how that contribution is made more effective. They have said they will replace the current method through Section 106 contribution with a new infrastructure levy, recognising that right now the system isn’t doing enough. However, the proposals need a lot more detail and could benefit from embracing existing good practice that we see in places like South Gloucestershire, where the Conservative-run council continues to be number one in the country for building social housing.

Finally, the Government should listen to the advice it received from the former Cabinet Minister, Oliver Letwin. His review into why homes weren’t getting built pointed directly at the cost of land. Innovative proposals around how to address this by changing the way we interpret phrases like “market value” exist and are worthy of consideration. Not least, because the status quo, in which land can rocket by 275 times its value following the grant of planning consent, are only creating perverse incentives to trade in land instead of building actual homes.

This Conservative government should not be afraid to fix the rules that are currently breaking our country’s housing market.

At the end of 2019, we earned the trust of the country by promising that we would make their tomorrow better than their today. During this pandemic, our Prime Minister rightly promised to build back better. We should, and we can, do all this if we again become the party of social housing.

Shapps has spotted a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give Britain world-class railways

28 Nov

What a wonderful time to be in charge of Britain’s railways. The pandemic both demands and enables a programme of improvements which would otherwise have taken many years to achieve.

Since March, about £10 billion of public money has been spent to keep the trains running. At first sight, that looks like an unmitigated disaster. It is certainly unsustainable.

But it also means the strike weapon has lost its edge. To threaten to bring empty trains to a halt is no threat at all.

Nor can the rail unions divide and rule, as they did when services were divided between different train operating companies, a system which had already collapsed before the pandemic.

This is a moment of central control, when the Government is paying the bills and can insist that the interests of passengers and taxpayers take precedence over the desire of the unions to prevent change.

Ministers recognise this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sweep away the accumulated absurdities, ranging from outdated working practices to the ludicrously convoluted fare structure, which are holding the railways back, and to press ahead with such innovations as the introduction of driverless trains, first seen on the Victoria Line in 1968 and the Docklands Light Railway in 1987.

In March this year, ConHome can reveal, a committee on rail reform was set up within the Department for Transport and began meeting weekly.

It is chaired by Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and attended by the Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, but nobody supposed the DfT could provide the specialised knowledge of how to run a railway.

So the expertise is provided by members of the committee including Sir Peter Hendy, Keith Williams, Andrew Haines and some of the Non-Executive Directors of the DfT, notably Tony Poulter.

Hendy, appointed by Ken Livingstone to run Transport for London, was kept on by the winner of the 2008 mayoral election, Boris Johnson, received a knighthood after the London Olympics of 2012 in recognition of the excellent transport arrangements during the games, and since 2015 has chaired Network Rail.

Williams, a former Chief Executive of British Airways, has since September 2018 chaired the Williams Rail Review, set up to make recommendations for reforming the entire structure of the industry, with the interests of passengers and taxpayers put first. Its work has not been published, but is being drawn on now.

Haines is Chief Executive of Network Rail, a former Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority, and before that was Managing Director of South-West Trains.

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this week that Shapps has asked Haines to produce a 30-year strategy for the railway called the “The Whole Industry Strategic Plan”.

And earlier this month, The Sunday Telegraph revealed that Haines has been asked by Ruth Hannant and Polly Payne, joint DfT directors general for rail, to report on the future of the East Coast Main Line, and to do so “from the perspective of a neutral single guiding mind”, rather than in his capacity as Chief Executive of Network Rail.

Hannant and Payne have for many years operated a job-share, and before arriving at the DfT in December 2017 were joint Directors of Higher Education Reform at the Department for Education.

One does not have to be Dominic Cummings to reckon this is perhaps not the best way to run a railway. Many in the industry think so too.

But the paucity of deep expertise within the DfT, and its propensity to meddle counter-productively with such matters as the timetable, demonstrate the need for another body, or “neutral single guiding mind”, to be in overall charge.

We require what the press likes to call a Fat Controller, though one cannot help reflecting that the original Fat Controller’s safety record was poor.

The safety record of Britain’s railways has in recent years been good. Some of the credit for that belongs to Mark Carne, Chief Executive of Network Rail from 2014-18, whose previous career at Shell was coloured by the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988.

Nothing, evidently, must be done to put safety at risk. But just as it is no longer necessary to check the oil in a car by opening the bonnet and inspecting the dipstick, for there is a light on the dashboard which will tell you if more oil is needed, so it is no longer necessary for each train to be checked every 24 hours by a driver who walks all round it at ground level, on a path wide enough to keep out of the way of other trains, and well lit enough to be used at night.

The unions insist on this ritual, which has become a ridiculous waste of the highly paid driver’s time, and of taxpayers’ money. Like modern cars, modern trains tell you when something goes wrong.

In the era of nationalisation (1948-93) the railways appeared to be in inexorable decline, and the most famous figure associated with them was Dr Beeching, who proposed to close a third of the network, which is pretty much what happened.

Since privatisation, passenger numbers have doubled, the network has undergone many improvements, there is a lot of new rolling stock and some of the lines closed by Beeching are being reopened.

Lord Adonis has argued with his usual brio the case for doing this, while Larry Elliott has pointed out that without Beeching, which left so many towns cut off, Brexit might never have happened.

One of the great attractions of creating improved railway services is that this cause appeals far beyond the ranks of Conservatives.

Good railways, railways of which everyone can feel proud, are a quintessentially One Nation policy, levelling up in action, and the 2019 Conservative manifesto rightly promised that

“we will restore many of the Beeching lines, reconnecting smaller towns such as Fleetwood and Willenhall that have suffered permanent disadvantage since they were removed from the rail network in the 1960s.”

There is now every prospect that passenger services between Ashington and Newcastle, lost in the 1960s, will soon be restored. The line runs through Blyth, long a Labour stronghold but captured by the Conservatives last December.

Ashington itself is in the constituency of Wansbeck, held last December by Ian Lavery for Labour with a majority of 814, compared to a majority of 10,435 in 2017. Perhaps the new line will help tip Lavery into oblivion.

Beeching was a blunder of Harold Macmillan’s later and less happy years as Prime Minister. It ought now to be undone, along with the destruction of the Euston Arch.

This cannot, however, become an excuse for wasting taxpayers’ money on “fantastically overpaid and inefficient” train drivers, as one source close to the reform committee describes them.

Nor does anyone know how quickly or fully the demand for rail travel will revive. The likelihood is that some commuters will decide they would rather work from home.

And there are many demands on the Treasury’s funds. Rishi Sunak will heed the calls of the NHS, social care and other good causes before he listens to the railways, especially if he thinks the latter are squandering taxpayers’ cash.

So a realistic deal has got to be made with the rail unions. The powers that be are disposed to allow existing drivers, who are mostly quite old, to retain their perks, but not to show the same indulgence to new recruits.

Bob Neill: There is no good reason to apply the same Covid restrictions throughout London

19 Oct

Sir Bob Neill is MP for Bromley and Chiselhurst, and is Chair of the Justice Select Committee.

I do not naturally sit on the libertarian wing of our Party, and neither am I an adherent of the Great Barrington Declaration proposals that some of my colleagues embrace. I am very much a One Nation Tory and, like my Bromley predecessor, Harold Macmillan, not adverse to state intervention in the right circumstances.

And yet, despite those differences, I find myself agreeing with the view of many who fall into these two former camps: the Government’s approach to this pandemic is not only increasingly clumsy and ill thought through, but in itself, potentially dangerous.

I reach that conclusion based not on ideology but instead, like a growing number of my colleagues, through a frustration that what the Government claims it is doing – targeted local interventions based on the evidence, something I wholeheartedly support – and what it is actually doing – taking a broadbrush to lockdown great swathes of the country – are two very different things.

Our response to Covid-19 should be firmly rooted in empiricism. That was a much harder task in March when far less was known about the virus, how it spreads, who is most at risk, and how it is best treated. Seven months on, and thanks to the genuinely inspiring work of those researchers and experts toiling in the field, we find ourselves in a very different position.

Let me be clear: I have the upmost respect for our medical and scientific advisers. They are tasked with providing their honest and truthful assessment to ministers, including on worst case scenarios, and I give short shrift to anyone who criticises them for doing so.

But, just as it is their job to say how they see it from their particular area of expertise, it the job of politicians to mediate between, on the one hand, the feedback they are receiving from SAGE, and on the other, the very real evidence, seen on every high street and in every city centre, of businesses in free fall. That is no easy balance to strike, but we are elected to make tough decisions.

Regrettably, by moving the entirety of London into Tier 2, the Government is widely missing the mark. As the Prime Minister knows well from his time as Mayor, our capital is a vibrant patchwork of different communities – just one of the things that makes it perhaps the greatest city in the world. From the calm of Richmond Park to the hustle and bustle of Brick Lane, and with a population over three times the size of the UK’s next largest metropolitan area, it’s as diverse as it is big.

Why then is it deemed acceptable to assume that what is necessary in one area will be suitable in another? The London Borough of Bromley, a part of which I am proud to represent, is a case in point. Bordering Kent, and twelve times larger in size than the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, with our large parks, ancient woodlands, and even an open farm or two, you’d be forgiven for forgetting you were just a 25 minute train journey from Charing Cross.

Although cases are rising in Bromley, like many suburbs in the south of the city, they remain considerably lower than in other parts of London (at the time of writing, Bromley has roughly 70 cases per 100,000, compared to 144 in Ealing).

When I made that case to the Health Secretary, the significant number of commuters in our capital was given as the reason for the pursual of this blanket strategy. But again, that simply isn’t born out in the evidence. As of this week, even by the Government’s own statistics, tube journeys are only at 33 per cent compared to the same time last year, and bus journeys 59 per cent. Overground train commuting is also reckoned to be down to 10 to 15 per cent of pre-Coronavirus levels.

The Government should be in no doubt: this one-size fits all approach will have real repercussions, not just for businesses, especially those in the hospitality, events and arts sectors, but also for hundreds of thousands of isolated, elderly or vulnerable people (did anyone consider that Bromley is home to more pensioners than any other London borough?). Additional and targeted support must now be provided.

I do not for one second underestimate the seriousness of this virus or the need to protect the NHS, nor am I against strict interventions, but a far more localised and nuanced approach, as Germany and others have shown is possible, should be the way forward. Clobbering businesses in London to make admittedly difficult political decisions elsewhere more palatable is not.

And finally, if we are to continue to take the public with us, we have to be honest about the broader costs and trade-offs involved. Failing to control the pandemic obviously has serious health consequences, but missed hospital appointments and medical tests for other conditions (some themselves life-threatening) does too, as does isolation and separation from family and friends. The same risk to mental and physical health is there with increased unemployment, or the stress of seeing the collapse of a family business built up over many years.

Of course, we want to protect the NHS, but we will not do that in the long run if we wreck the economy and destroy the tax base that funds it. Sad to say, I do not think we are always getting that balance right.

Iain Dale: Covid-19. There is no good reason why the arts sector should get a billion pound bailout while coach operators do not

2 Oct

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

Like most of you (I hope) I was absolutely appalled by the US Presidential debate on Wednesday. I stayed up to watch it, last I have done for virtually every debate of this kind since I saw Ronald Reagan whip Jimmy Carter’s sorry ass in 1980.

I suppose that I knew what was about to happen but, even so, to see it actually unfurl in front of my eyes was a real shock.

Trump was at his bombastic worst, flailing around in all directions and socking it to Joe Biden from start to finish. He ignored all the rules of the debate and reduced the moderator, Chris Wallace from Fox News, to a jabbering wreck.

All Biden had to do in response was be vaguely coherent and look statesmanlike. He failed on both counts. He was like a rabbit in the headlights, barely able to get a sentence out without stuttering. He repeatedly said ‘here’s the deal’ without actually explaining what the deal was. He lost his cool too often, and insulted Trump in the same childish way that Trump insulted him.

They both made our own political leaders look like giants in comparison. Even Boris Johnson at his blustering worst couldn’t have been as bad as either of these two embarrassments to their nation. And to think that there are two more of these debates to come. Watching them will be like rubbernecking a train crash – one for the whole of America.

– – – – – – – – – –

The understandable tension that exists between protecting the nation’s health and reopening the economy has been stark this week.

Whatever decisions the Government takes are bound to be wrong for either side of the extremes of this debate. Taking the ‘right decision at the right time’ is proving to be impossible.

Everyone hailed the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme: it certainly did wonders for the restaurant industry, and probably saved some businesses from going under.

But there’s also little doubt that it gave people a false sense that everything was about to return to normal. Not so. Coronavirus will be with us for many, many months to come. Normality – whatever that is – will not return until a mass vaccinisation programme is launched, and that won’t be until well into 2021.

Until then, everyone will have to adapt the best they can. For some sectors, it will be easier than others. The wedding industry, together with events and exhibitions, get a lot of publicity for the understandable woes they’re going through, but there are plenty of other sectors which don’t get any publicity at all, but are suffering just as badly.

I’ve taken up the cause of coach operators, who are going through some incredibly tough times, especially the smaller, often family-owned businesses. These are perfectly good and viable companies yet, through no fault of their own they are now living on a financial precipice.

These are the companies I hope that the Government will find an innovative way of helping. Banks cannot be relied on to come to their rescue and, while I fully accept that taxpayer subsidies cannot go on for ever, there is no reason that the arts and culture sectors should get a £1.5 billion bailout, when others are getting the sweet sum of diddly squat.

– – – – – – – – – –

After a couple of weeks of stories speculating about the Prime Minister’s health, motivation, finances and mojo, it’s been good to see him re-enter the fray this week, and actually looking and acingt the part.

Bluster will always be part of Johnson’s armoury, but he has to learn when it’s appropriate to deploy it and when not. In Prime Minister’s Questions this week, he decided to reduce it to Defcon 4, which was the right thing to do.

His statement to the Commons and press conference were at least part way to rediscovering the Boris of old. Now that the stories have started about the timing of his eventual departure from the job, it will be difficult to stop them.

The crucial factor here is whether he actually enjoys the job, and whether it is what he thought it would be. In any normal era, winning an 80 seat majority would mean you had a cast-iron right to fight the next election. (Of course, in 1987 Margaret Thatcher won a 100 seat majority and was out on her ear only three and a half years later.)

Contrary to what some people are writing, Conservative MPs may be a bit whingey and whiny at the moment, but they know that there would be no appetite to turf out a Prime Minister who won an election only nine and a half months ago.

No, if Johnson decides to depart early, it will his decision and his decision alone. The historical precedents suggest that his is unlikely to occur. With the exception of Harold Wilson, no Prime Minister in the last century has left office voluntarily. And before you cite Macmillan and Eden at me, both were forced to resign because of ill health. Blair was forced out by Brown, long before he really wanted to go, too.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow I am speaking (in person, rather than via Zoom) at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. The audience will be socially distanced and I’m not even sure I’m allowed to do a conventional book signing afterwards. Strange times.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: A better day for Johnson, who refuses to go grouse shooting

16 Sep

Boris Johnson had an easier time than at his last two PMQs. He adopted a more magnanimous tone, which suits him better.

This was a compliment to Sir Keir Starmer, who by absenting himself for a Covid test, enabled the Prime Minister to feel under no real pressure, and therefore to sound kinder and gentler.

Angela Rayner stood in for the Leader of the Opposition. She was rather good, but did not constitute a threat. Johnson felt no compulsion to strike low blows in order to neutralise her, as he sometimes attempts under cross-examination from Sir Keir.

The Prime Minister knew there was no profit in roughing up a woman. He instead insisted that he shared her pain, and her love of care workers. He said she was “right to express the frustration of people across the country” at delays to testing.

Soon he was telling her she was “absolutely right” to raise some other issue. The PM was daring to be dull: not a manner to which he cares to resort, but everyone obliged to defend the performance of the British state finds in the end that dullness has its uses.

Rayner sought to provoke him: “Next time a man with Covid symptoms drives from London to Durham it’ll probably be for a Covid test.”

Johnson remained amiable, so she accused him of treating the restoration of grouse shooting as the Government’s top priority, in order to curry favour with his friends and benefactors who own grouse moors.

At last, we thought, we could sit back and enjoy a bit of old-fashioned class war. The ancient Labour sport of toff hunting was alive and well.

Surely Johnson would strike back with a word in praise of Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister from 1957-63, whose reputation as a moderniser was latterly somewhat obscured by photographs of him on grouse moors.

Johnson was too disciplined to take the bait. What a professional. He remarked that Labour was “carping from the sidelines” and “raising issues that are tangential”. He himself preferred to believe that “with the common sense of the British people” the crisis could be surmounted.

So this was a sad day for those of us who cherish outdated stereotypes to do with grouse moors. But it was quite a good day for Johnson.

Johnson benefits from the scorn of critics such as Parris, for it suggests the PM is still an outsider

28 Jul

“There seems no pressing need to embark on the second volume, provisionally entitled The Statesmanship of Boris Johnson, which I hope one day to offer the world.”

So I wrote in 2007, for the paperback edition of my account of his early life, published in hardback the previous year.

Distinguished commentators of the Right and Left, including Alexander Chancellor, Stephen Glover and Paul Routledge, were among those who had greeted with incredulity my suggestion that Johnson might yet become Prime Minister.

David Cameron was firmly in the driving seat as Conservative leader, and in the reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet which he conducted in the summer of 2007 – necessitated by Gordon Brown’s Cabinet reshuffle on becoming Prime Minister a few days earlier – had kept Johnson at arm’s length, as Shadow Spokesman on Higher Education.

Both men had been to Eton and Oxford, but as I attempted in a subsequent update of the book to explain, their temperaments were incompatible:

“There is something about Boris which is an affront to serious-minded people’s idea of how politics should be conducted. By refusing to adopt their solemn tone, he implies that they are ridiculous, and the dreadful thing, from their point of view, is that a large part of the British public agrees with Boris. So it is not just lefties, but people from every part of the political class, who cannot bear his unwillingness to take them as seriously as they take themselves. It was after all a Tory leader, Michael Howard, who had sacked Boris [in 2004], and Howard’s chosen successor, Cameron, has similar instincts about what does and does not constitute reliable behaviour…

“For while Cameron is a favoured son of the Establishment, and takes the Establishment’s view that there are certain things which are just not done, Boris is an outsider, a loner, a man who likes to be on genial terms with everyone but who has no circle of political intimates. Cameron is a man of astonishing gifts, including cool judgement under pressure, but his instinct is to work within the existing framework of rules. Boris frets under such restraint and is always ready to drive a coach and horses through it. Cameron believes in order: Boris believes in being free. Cameron is bound to regard Boris as a bit disreputable, while Boris is bound to regard Cameron as a bit limited.”

This divide had a decisive influence in 2016, when Brexit was the issue. Cameron sought to uphold the status quo, but Johnson drove a coach and horses through it.

So now we have an outsider as Prime Minister, a situation less unusual or paradoxical than one might suppose, for an essential features of our tradition, and a reason why it has survived, is that the Conservative Party has often been led by outsiders.

Margaret Thatcher, Harold Macmillan, Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli are four obvious examples: all on occasion could not, as a matter of temperament more than ideology, stomach the Establishment line taken by the then party leader.

All at one time or another – though not of course in perpetuity – were able as a result to appeal to parts of the nation which were far removed from the Establishment, and which regarded the Establishment’s moralising with disgust.

This is the line in which Johnson belongs. He has a particular affinity with Disraeli, a scandalously disreputable figure in his youth, this early history obscured by his ability to charm Queen Victoria, and by posthumous adulation.

Like Disraeli, Johnson has dismayed his liberal opponents by winning support from patriotic working-class voters who believe in the greatness of Britain, symbolised today by Queen Elizabeth II and our armed forces.

The present Queen would never dream of being partisan in the manner of her great great grandmother, but Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm for her or the armed forces, and sympathy with various terrorist movements, cost Labour dear in December 2019 among its traditional supporters.

Matthew Goodwin suggested, in a piece yesterday for Unherd entitled “Why Boris Johnson keeps on winning”, that the Prime Minister has so far retained the support of these patriotic working-class voters because like them, he rejects the view of many on the Left that Britain is in decline:

“Ever since the vote for Brexit, Left-wing and liberal writers have been consumed by ‘declinism’: the belief that Britain’s best days are in the past. Declinists are united by the assumption that, because of decisions that went against their own politics, Britain has become a diminished world power, is falling behind other states and is led by incompetent, amateurish elites who either lack the required expertise or ‘correct’ ideology to reverse this decline or, worse, are actively perpetuating it…

“One reason why declinists are so vicious is that they have found themselves written out of the national story — election defeats or referendum outcomes have left them on the sidelines, with little power or influence. One reason why Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and Munira Mirza have been so strongly attacked is not only because they committed the double sin of being Conservatives and Brexiteers, but because they are essentially the first group to have gone up against the ‘liberal establishment’ and won.”

Johnson benefits from the disdain of his critics, for it shows his supporters that he is still, in some respects, an outsider, one who is despised rather in the way they were despised when they voted for Brexit. Here is dear old Matthew Parris in a recent column for The Times:

“his colleagues always knew his shamelessness from his personal history. That he isn’t even clever, however, they are only now discovering. If competence shone through then I think the shamelessness would remain an embarrassment that his colleagues would be prepared to suppress. But he’s losing, and the combination of incapacity and shamelessness is beginning to curdle.”

A dozen other commentators might be quoted, all as determined as Parris to take the lowest possible view of the Prime Minister.

One day they will almost certainly be right. Johnson will fall: he will take the blame for something he has done, or even, it may be, for something he has not done, or something many of us thought at the time was a good idea. The role of Prime Minister is essentially sacrificial: ask Lord North, Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden or Tony Blair.

But until the culminating debacle, whatever it turns out to be, Parris and the rest render Johnson incomprehensible. How can a man who “isn’t even clever” have won two London mayoral elections, the EU referendum, the leadership of the Conservative Party and a general election?

A second volume is required to plumb this mystery. Is Parris clever enough to see through Johnson, or Johnson clever enough to incur the enmity of Parris? I shall endeavour, while writing it, to provide evidence for both schools of thought.

David Lidington: Why I profoundly disagree with my friend and former colleague, David Gauke

7 Jul

David Lidington was the MP for Aylesbury from 1992 to 2019, and has held a number of roles including Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.

Last Thursday, in a piece that was characteristically both thoughtful and thought-provoking, my friend and former Cabinet colleague David Gauke came to a pessimistic conclusion. Choices had been made, he argued, which compelled the Conservative Party to pursue “the war on woke and Rooseveltian economics”. Implicit in his analysis was the suggestion that those whom he termed “small state free marketeers and one nation social liberals” had no future in the party and might have to look elsewhere.

I profoundly disagree. Throughout the 45 years that I’ve been a member and for decades before that the Conservative Party has been a coalition. Economic liberals, defenders of traditional values and institutions, social reformers, blue-green environmentalists: all have found a home. Different leaders of the party, at different times have chosen to emphasise different elements of the broad Conservative tradition.

As Paul Goodman pointed out yesterday, human beings tend not to fit neatly into a single, neat political category. Margaret Thatcher was strongly in favour of opening up broadcasting to greater competition and market discipline. Yet she was also passionate about the need for high standards of decency in what was broadcast – which meant intervention and regulation. I have crossed swords with Iain Duncan Smith many times over Europe, but have also admired his efforts to promote a Conservative approach to social justice.

The present government’s commitment to “level up” the opportunities available to people living in towns and estates that have for years felt left-behind and ignored will need to draw on all strands of Conservative thinking if ambition is to be realised: incentives for free enterprise to create wealth and jobs, and government action, both national and local, to provide modern infrastructure, drive urban regeneration and boost expectations and outcomes in education and training.

For years, Conservatives have fretted about our loss of support in old industrial areas and among people on lower incomes. The fact that we now represent seats in County Durham and South Yorkshire as well as Surrey and Sussex is something to be celebrated: it gives our words about standing for One Nation much greater credibility.

If a successful policy of levelling up (and at the same time improving our chances of holding those seats) means a tilt towards the economic and industrial policies of Macmillan, Heath and Heseltine, it should be seen as a pragmatic response to the needs of the times, certainly meriting debate and argument, including within the Conservative family, not some heretical departure from the one true faith.

Nor do I share David’s pessimistic conclusion that there is an inexorable electoral logic which must compel the party to abandon the ideas, policies and perhaps even the support of liberal Conservatives.

By 2024 the Conservative Party will have been in office for 14 years. The coming economic storm, even if, as we all hope, it is short-lived, will have left many people scarred. The Labour Party will be led by someone who is not Jeremy Corbyn. The temptation to vote “for a change”, to “give the other lot a chance” will be strong. It will be as great a challenge to secure re-election then as it was for John Major in 1992. We shall need every vote from as broad a coalition of support as we can.

Of course we shall want to hang on to traditional Labour supporters who lent us their votes last December, which in turn means that in four years time they need to see that we are at least beginning to deliver results for their families and neighbourhoods.

But that on its own won’t be enough. By 2024 there will be about three million new electors on the register who were too young to vote in 2019. According to YouGov, at last year’s election the tipping point – the age at which someone is more likely to have voted Conservative than Labour – was 39.

That is better than 2017, when it was 47, but still leaves no room for complacency. While it is possible that those who were in their teens, twenties and thirties in 2019 will automatically shift into the Conservative column by 2024, we cannot count on it happening.

In any case, we ought to be seriously concerned that so many people in their twenties and thirties – working, paying tax and often holding both professional and family responsibilities – should have preferred Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism to what we had to offer.

To win again in 2024 we shall need to secure support from more younger voters than we did in either of the last two elections and to do that will mean reaching out to people whose values are, in the convenient shorthand, more “socially liberal” than those of their parents and grandparents, and who want to see political parties to take seriously their concerns about issues like the environment.

Next year, the Prime Minister will host a world summit on climate change. The Glasgow conference will be an opportunity for the United Kingdom and its Conservative government both to showcase its own ideas to address the climate emergency and to demonstrate global leadership on the issue.

In recent years, “green” policies have been identified with the liberal wing of the party. David Cameron took a lot of flak early in his leadership for focusing on this agenda.

Again, it’s easy to oversimplify: I’m old enough to have been in the audience at the party conference in 1988 to hear Mrs Thatcher declare that: No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full. The key point is that it will be both right and in our electoral interests to take action on the environment and to be seen to do so.

Another political reality that the party must grapple with is the fact that voters from British people of Caribbean, Asian, African and central European heritage make up a significant proportion of the electorate in a growing number of constituencies.

Yet again, we need to beware of oversimplification. Many of my former constituents from Pakistani, Indian and Polish backgrounds are on the social conservative rather than social liberal end of the spectrum. They are certainly a long way from being “woke”.

But they care passionately about racism – sadly almost always because they and their children have been at the receiving end of abusive or insensitive comments – or worse. They judge politicians in part by how they handle these matters. Community relations and anti-racism are causes that, like the environment, have been championed within the Conservative Party by its liberal wing and, once again, are issues where our electoral interest coincides with what it is right to say and do.

The Conservative Party’s electoral success has rested in large measure on its ability and willingness to adapt to the realities of social and economic change. Far from giving up in despair, liberal, centrist Conservatives should redouble our efforts to influence the party’s thinking about how we can win again in 2024.

Johnson, Starmer – and their strategies in firing people

26 Jun

After years of Jeremy Corbyn doing nothing to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, many were astonished yesterday by Keir Starmer’s decision to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey as Shadow Education Secretary

He took action after she Retweeted an article by actress Maxine Peake, containing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory; namely that Israel was linked to the killing of George Floyd in the US.

According to The Huff Post, Starmer gave Long-Bailey four hours to delete the post and apologise, but she did not do this – also refusing to take calls from his office, culminating in her prompt dismissal.

Many marvelled at Starmer’s decisiveness, using this as evidence for the increasingly fashionable assumption that Conservatives should be worried about him at future elections (one that this writer does not agree with, incidentally; the “taking the knee” photo will haunt him for years).

The move challenged stereotypes of Starmer – that he’s “forensic” and lawyerly in manner – as it was combative, as well as making him look straightforward (certainly something of an achievement after Labour’s past calculations to thwart Brexit).

Starmer’s decision to remove Long-Bailey from his Shadow Cabinet first and foremost reflects his commitment to eradicating anti-Semitism – and thank goodness for that. 

But it may also demonstrate two other things. First, that he is sceptical about Long-Bailey’s overall popularity with the electorate – and wanted to get rid of her anyway. One suspects outside the Twitter bubble, voters overwhelmingly associate her with Corbyn’s dire tenure, and haven’t been won over with her tendency to use phrases such as “democratising the economy” and “progressive patriotism”, as well as her obsession with the “Green Industrial Revolution”.

Second, it arguably gives Starmer more leverage to demand Boris Johnson sacks members of his own team. The Prime Minister has already been under enormous pressure to do this, following the saga with Dominic Cummings, as well as recent attacks on Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary. 

He is accused of trying to force through permission for a development by Richard Desmond – a billionaire donor he “inadvertently” sat next to at a dinner – who then paid £12,000 to the Tories soon after he got the green light.

Newspapers appear to have given up on getting rid of Cummings, and have now turned their sights on Jenrick, perhaps viewing the mild-mannered MP as an easier target. 

Take The Daily Mail (Desmond is the former owner of the Express newspapers, as Iain Dale points out here, incidentally), which accused the Prime Minister of not being decisive enough over his Housing Minister. “It’s also another instance of Boris Johnson failing to act decisively when one of his ministers or senior advisers falls short of the standards the public expect”, read its leader, which praised Starmer’s “non-nonsense approach” and suggested Johnson “should learn from” it.

Anyone reading The Daily Mail over the last few months will know that it’s been consistently against (pro-Brexit) Johnson, so the attack is no surprise – but does the paper have a point? Has he been weak over the Covid-19 crisis when it comes to sacking people? 

The events over the last few months have arguably softened Johnson’s image, with his u-turn on free school meals, and the enormous sums being spent on Covid-19 protections. He comes across as something of a yes man.

With all this, it’s easy to forget that he can be ruthless when it comes to his team. This was clear in his first reshuffle as Prime Minister, in which he sacked Jeremy Hunt as Foreign Secretary, replacing him with Dominic Raab, as well as asking Hunt’s supporters Liam Fox and Penny Mordaunt to go. It was “the biggest government clearout since Harold Macmillan’s infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in 1962”, wrote PoliticsHome.

Later on, in what was referred to as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, Johnson fired five Cabinet ministers, including Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Sajid Javid resigned after the Prime Minister demanded he lose his team of advisers. Clearly Johnson is ready to strike if he sees fit to – so his critics will demand why Cummings and Jenrick don’t fit the bill.

This, one suspects, is not part of some grandiose plot, but down to the simple principle of belief: the Prime Minister does not think that either man is in the wrong.

A lot has been said about Cummings, but my own view is that his explanation made sense – and furthermore that No 10 could have gone on the offence in reminding people how unusual his circumstances are. A chief adviser in a nationwide pandemic, living in a house that receives death threats, who’s had the press (seemingly permanently) camped outside, and Covid-19, will have one of the most challenging lockdowns.

Jenricks’ case, on the other hand, is ambiguous and will come increasingly under scrutiny, with Labour now reporting him to parliament’s watchdog.

Text messages between him and Desmond demonstrate the latter to be a pushy character, repeatedly trying to get his housing scheme through. Jenrick seems uncomfortable in response, reminding Desmond that he’s Secretary of State and that he cannot have contact with him “whilst he was making” a “decision with respect to the planning application”.

As Andrew Gimson sets out in his recent profile of Jenrick, one Tory backbencher has described him as “a decent man”; one is less flattering, suggesting that he’s “a suit” – who simply takes orders. He has released 129 pages of emails, texts and letters in total – to clear his name. From reading some of the exchanges, one suspects, if anything, his main issue is being too polite.

Either way there is a false equivalence between what may be a mistake, and Long-Bailey’s disgraceful post. Especially after Starmer cautioned her, it would have been unacceptable for her to stay in her position.

What was especially poignant about yesterday, on a semi-related note, is how shocked members of the Left were with what happened, not used to being on the receiving end of such swift justice.

In recent years, it’s the Right that has been accustomed to its figures being “cancelled” – be it Toby Young’s resignation as Theresa May’s university adviser, or Roger Scruton’s firing after being misquoted.

A big feature of May’s tenure was her inability to stick up to the mob on such matters, as well as the endless departures under her leadership, ranging from misconduct (Gavin Williamson’s dismissal after he leaked highly classified information about 5G) to those leaving on behalf of Brexit strategy.

With his massive majority, Johnson has not faced such a chaos – his team is far more loyal, but it will still remain a priority of the Government to stand strong against the cancel culture fostered by members of the Left.

Yes the Government should dismiss MPs on legitimate grounds – if any investigation shows Jenrick to have deliberately been in the wrong than he has to go – but the Tories no longer need to cave to media pressure and concocted outrage. Voters will respect them for this, too.

Starmer has a totally different goal, however; restoring a sense of moral order to Labour. As aforementioned, I believe his actions this week will only take him so far. Long-Bailey was an easy win for a party that knows Corbynism was a major, defeating factor at the last election.

Showing bravery in other contexts – how about condemning statue-toppling, for starters? – is a much different enterprise. On these less crowd-pleasing matters, Starmer’s “non-nonsense approach” is fairly non-existent.