Alliance for Unity, the new movement which could give Galloway his next political life

26 Sep

Next year’s Holyrood elections are shaping up to potentially make-or-break clash between unionists and separatists. If the SNP (plus their pro-independence foederati, the Greens) win a majority, the Government will come under increasing pressure to grant a second referendum on Scottish independence.

This fact has produced not one but two new parties, one on each side of the debate, which aim to skew the next Scottish Parliament towards their chosen position.

First out of the traps was the Alliance for Independence. Their plan is quite straightforward: to run candidates only in the regional list constituencies at the election, and encourage as many pro-independence voters as possible to back them after voting SNP at the constituency level. Whilst list SNP votes might get discounted if the Nationalists win a lot of FPTP constituencies, this new party would get the full entitlement and thus maximise the separatist caucus.

There are questions to be asked about this plan. Will the A4I really contribute much that the Scottish Greens (whose MPs are all elected on the lists already) don’t? Is it legitimate to so obviously game what is meant to be a proportional system? Is it all just a front for a controversial far-left politician?

In fact, that last point is one that might also be asked of the pro-UK counter to A4I: the Alliance4Unity, a new non-partisan unionist initiative being headed up by none other than George Galloway.

Galloway has form on this. He represents a quite old-school strain of left-wing unionism which backs Irish republicanism but is sternly opposed to separatism on the British mainland, which was traditionally viewed as antithetical to solidarity or, for the true believers, a distraction from the class struggle. (And after two decades of devocrats hiding behind the flag rather than defend their poor records, maybe they have a point?) During the 2014 referendum, Galloway conducted an independent town-hall speaking tour which offered many people who are usually bitterly opposed to his politics an opportunity to see how electrifying his oratory can be when he’s on your side.

Nonetheless, A4U represents a sharp break in his career. Whilst he has not previously been shy about falling in with the religious right when seeking sectarian votes for Respect, this looks like the first time he has openly collaborated with Tories. Their initial tranche of candidates includes not only Gorgeous George himself but Alan Sked, the founder of UKIP, as well as a GP, an ex-soldier, and a barrister, and the group is calling for a broader pact between the unionist parties.

Whether or not explicitly modelled on A4I, the A4U has adopted a very similar strategy of standing only in the regional lists in an effort to maximise the pro-UK vote. According to their website, any MSPs elected under the Alliance’s banner will sit as Independents and support any anti-independence administration. This will not only make it easier to run an ideologically heterogeneous slate, but may help to remove any barriers to cooperation between them and the mainstream pro-UK parties, who might balk (quite understandably) at collaborating with an organised party commanded by Galloway.

Yet its road to Holyrood won’t be easy. Some of its output on social media has been crank-ish, and there will inevitably be tension between the loose ‘alliance’ model and the professionalism expected of a modern political campaign. It also faces the task of trying to woo list votes from people who have voted for three different parties at the constituency level, a much tougher ask than the A4I’s bid for SNP switches, and it is harder to argue to the most committed unionist voters that a list vote for the Tories is a wasted vote.

For all that it at aspires to breadth and an electoral pact, the A4U’s future in Scottish politics will probably hinge on whether Galloway himself can identify and energise a section of the pro-UK electorate that is left cold by the major parties – perhaps in the left-unionist space vacated by a moribund and swithering Labour Party.

David Gauke: Johnson’s Covid policy – and why it’s opening up a rift between him and his traditional Tory supporters

26 Sep

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at last year’s general election.

For an amendment of no legal force that may not even be called, Graham Brady’s proposal that there should approve in advance any Covid-19 restrictions is of real significance.

On the face of it, it is an amendment that is more about process than substance – the extent to which Parliament, rather than just the executive, has a say on future restrictions. But in reality, it also exposes the divide between the position of the Government – and the Prime Minister in particular – and many of his Parliamentary colleagues on how far we should go in attempting to stop the spread of the virus. For the first time in many years, Boris Johnson’s position puts him at odds with the instincts of many on the right of the Conservative Party. What is more, his position appears to put him at odds with his own instincts.

The Coronavirus crisis has been immensely difficult for the Prime Minister. In part, that has been due to his own ill-health that took him out of action at the peak of the virus, and from which he has made a slow and painful recovery (although, from what I hear, he is now physically in good shape).

t has also been a crisis that has exposed his longstanding inability to grasp detail. A Prime Minister was needed to get Whitehall focused on the virus in February, identify and prioritise testing and tracing and spot that the Department for Education was heading for a fall with its approach to exam results. On all these issues, he appears to have been absent.

However, I suspect that the most challenging aspect of recent months for Johnson is that he has felt compelled to do things that alien to his normal approach to life. By restricting the freedoms of his fellow citizens, he is not acting like the great admirer of Mayor of Amity Island, the foe of the doomsters and gloomsters, the critic of pettifogging bureaucrats, the ‘freedom-loving, twinkly-eyed, Rabelaisian character’ for whom Toby Young – and many others – voted.

Why has this happened? His own experience of the virus may be a factor, but one can only conclude that he has been convinced that there is a real risk that, without further action, the virus will spread more widely – including to the vulnerable, and that this will result in very large numbers of deaths. Given the widely-held view that we locked down too late in March, this would not just be a health disaster but a political one as well.

His libertarian critics argue that these measures are panicked and unnecessary. There is anger over the projections of a weekly doubling of cases (a much worse trajectory than France and Spain have followed). Some point to Sweden or Brazil – countries that have been hit hard, but now have falling or stable levels of infection – to argue that herd immunity comes quicker than we previously thought, perhaps because of T cell immunity.

Maybe these critics are right; I certainly hope that they are. There are reputable scientists who are making the case, and we all want to believe those that are telling us that it is all going to be alright. But there are also reputable scientists who are making the opposite case, who are arguing that we should be tightening up further and faster (a view, incidentally, that has a lot of public support).

This is where the job of Prime Minister is a difficult and lonely one. I think we all know where Johnson would stand on this issue if he were still a Daily Telegraph columnist. We can also take a good guess as to his approach if someone else was Prime Minister, and he was an ambitious backbencher with a desire to free the ball from the back of the scrum.

But he is not a columnist nor a backbencher but the person who has t person who has to make the decision. And unlike some decisions that a Prime Minister might make, if he gets it wrong the consequences will be both enormous and very quickly apparent to all.

So when faced with advice that the virus was now spreading strongly and that, without intervention, deaths would soon rise substantially, Johnson acted in much the same way as any recent Prime Minister would have done. Maybe his libertarian instincts softened some of the new restrictions, but essentially he has made a decision to be risk averse; to be conventional.

This is not the first time during the pandemic that he has reached that conclusion. But it has also been obvious that this sits uneasily with him. He does not like restricting people’s liberties (not a bad quality, by and large) and he likes to tell people good news. He has promised we would have this licked by July and then by Christmas. He has urged us back to our offices when it was predictable (indeed, predicted  that he would soon have to reverse that advice. Even on Tuesday, he seemed to consider it a matter of national pride that we, as a great freedom-loving people, have not been following the rules. The old Johnsom instinct is hard to suppress.

The consequence of this internal conflict is inconsistency and muddled messages. His natural supporters – those who value freedom and independence from the State and are most sceptical about the advice of experts – are in revolt. This has manifested itself in signatures for the Brady amendment. There are signatories from across the Conservative Party spectrum, but they notably include big Brexiteer beasts such as David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker and Bernard Jenkin. These could be dangerous opponents.

Of course, Covid is not the only issue where the Prime Minister is going to have to make a big choice in the next few weeks. Does he make the necessary concessions in order to conclude a Free Trade Agreement with the EU before the end of the transition period? Yesterday, James Forsyth suggested that a deal was close and that the UK might take a more flexible approach to the negotiations, choosing to fight some battles in the future (‘you have to make it through the short term to get to the long term’ says James, using language that will sound very familiar to anyone who served in Cabinet with Michael Gove in 2018-19).

The piece suggests that the Prime Minister is ‘totally focused on Covid’. But he will soon have to make a choice. On the one hand, he will be receiving advice from officials that the adverse consequences of No Deal are very significant, especially for a fragile economy. On the other hand, his instincts presumably tell him that this is all over-stated gloomsterism.

The Prime Minister knows that the instinct to take a risk, to chance it, to tell the experts to go to hell, is very strong both within himself and amongst many of his Parliamentary colleagues. He is already defying those instincts on one issue. If he is to take the necessary steps to get a Brexit deal (and I hope he does), he is going to have to defy those instincts on a second issue, too. Given that he is already in danger of losing his hold over his traditional allies, it is not obvious that he will.

Sunak said yesterday that “our lives can no longer be put on hold”. But that’s just what Johnson’s ready to do if he thinks it necessary.

25 Sep

The Government’s new Coronavirus plan seeks at once to help move the economy forward, through measures to open it up, while simultaneously moving society backward, through measures to close it down – at least by comparison with the status quo before the new restrictions were announced this week.

This strategy is more sensible than it may sound.  The effect of the virus worldwide, social distancing and our lockdown earlier this year was to put the economy into deep freeze.  Ministers want to protect the mild thaw that has taken place more recently.  This means that home and leisure, rather than work and schools, bear the brunt of the latest measures.

The problem for Boris Johnson, and for all of us, is that these may not work.  To cut a long story short, it will be very hard to build a firewall between work and leisure (because retail, cultural activity and the hospitality sector, for example, contain elements of both), and between schools and home (because if children get the virus, they will be sent home, which will keep many parents there – thus affecting work).

As Rishi Sunak knows only too well, this is the mutable background against which his statement yesterday was set.  In public earlier this week, the Prime Minister hinted heavily at further clampdowns, saying that “we reserve the right to deploy greater fire power, with significantly greater restrictions”.  In private, this site has yet to meet a Minister who isn’t expecting more curbs, and soon.

The Chancellor therefore aimed yesterday to help speed up the thaw, while understanding that Johnson may soon decide that he has no alternative but to slow it down again.  So for example, the Prime Minister may decide to bring forward the closing time for pubs and restaurants from ten o’clock in the evening: Sunak fought this off before the latest package of announcements, but the idea is not dead but sleeping.

Furthermore, Johnson is giving ground to the push by Graham Brady and company to give Parliament more control of Covid-19 policy – promising in the Commons this week, for example, to empower MPs to “question the government’s scientific advisers more regularly”.  How far the Prime Minister will go remains to be seen, but a new uncertainty is being added to the mix, since it’s unclear what the Commons will do with any new powers it gains.

So like his other big financial statements to date, Sunak’s statement had a strikingly provisional air.  Its centrepiece was the replacement of furlough, which paid people not to work, with a German-type scheme (as floated by Charlotte Gill on this site among others), which will pay people to work – or rather will co-pay them with employers.  It’s called the Jobs Support Scheme, and there’s a parallel plan for the self-employed.

The second string to the Chancellor’s bow was essentially an extension of measures that he’s already introduced – longer and looser repayment periods for Bounce Back Loans (“Pay as you Grow”), and similar action for Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans, together with further payment deferrals for VAT and self-assessed income tax returns.

The final element was to roll forward the date for VAT rates to return from five per cent to 20 per cent for the hospitality and tourist sectors.  Inevitably, the specifics have come under fire, with some asking whether firms will want to pay 55 per cent of wages to staff who under the terms of the scheme could work for only 33 per cent of thei r previous hours.

But it should be recognised that the Chancellor is trying to balance no longer paying people for not working under the furlough scheme, and replacing it with alternatives that are both workable and affordable.  If some think the new plan doesn’t go far enough, and that Sunak will return with more money and extensions as unemployment rises further, some believe it goes too far, asking: where will the money come from?

However, what to do if the economy continues to open up is one thing; what to do if Johnson feels he has to close it down again – for example, by shutting non-essential retail again – is another.  “Our lives can no longer be put on hold,” Sunak declared yesterday, signalling to restive Conservative backbenchers that, in the Cabinet debate about what to do, he is the leading champion of opening up.

But as we point out, the Prime Minister has this week signalled something very close to the opposite: that our lives are soon likely to be put on hold again (or for some, kept on hold).  Indeed, the Budget is, so to speak, on hold: it’s been cancelled, and replaced by yesterday’s pared-down package of measures.  There is a questionmark over the Treasury’s plan for a three-to-four year comprehensive spending review (CSR).

That there hasn’t been a new CSR since 2015 is a sign of the scale of challenges that confront the Chancellor.  Minimising tax rises and spending cuts by means of faster growth would be a daunting one for Sunak in normal conditions.  And these are abnornal ones.

Iain Dale: We all want our city and town centres to return to normal. But that isn’t possible at present – so we must get used to it.

25 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

A sign of a Prime Minister in trouble is when journalists start writing articles about possible successors, and who might be the runners and riders in a leadership contest.

Given that Boris Johnson has only been the Conservative leader for just over a year, it comes as something of a surprise that he’s already being written off by some of his colleagues and commentators.

Some allege that it’s clear that he’s suffering from so-called “Long Covid”, and knows in his heart of hearts that he’s not performing on all six cylinders. Others reckon that if he gets a free trade agreement with the EU and the post- Coronavirus economy returns to something like normality, he might decide his work is done and he’ll be off to enjoy the fruits of a post Prime Ministerial career.

The truth is that no one knows. I find both these scenarios entirely plausible, if not wholly likely. It is very rare for a Prime Minister to give up office voluntarily, even when they might not be in the best of health. Tony Blair did – sort of, although a Gordon Brown shaped gun had been put to his temple. Harold Wilson did, but he knew his mental capacity was on the decline.

A party leader only serves at the pleasure of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Yes, there are rumblings of discontent but, again, this is nothing unusual. Margaret Thatcher experienced such tremors throughout her leadership, but it took the cowards 15 years to get rid of her.

I find it difficult to foresee that things would get so bad within the next twelve months that Tory MPs would get rid of the man who brought them an 80 seat majority only 10 months ago. But in politics, the unexpected often happens.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Matt Forde’s Political Party podcast this week, I recounted a tale from my schooldays which left him open- mouthed with horror.

Back in 1978, when I was 15  my school held an end of term fancy dress disco in the cavernous school hall at Saffron Walden County High. I decided to go as a gamekeeper, given I had all the gear.

I arrived at the do dressed up in proper ‘Seth Armstrong’ gear (if you aren’t an Emmerdale fan, you won’t get that reference), replete with flat cap and wellington boots.

But more to the point, I was also carrying a double barrel twelve-bore shotgun (my father’s) and a cartridge belt full of live cartridges. No one batted an eyelid. If I did that now, the Police would be called and I’d probably get a mention in the Daily Mail, and get an ASBO. Innocent times.

– – – – – – – – – –

I am starting a new series of 55 podcasts on each of our 55 Prime Minsters to accompany the book I am editing on the subject which comes out in November.

Yesterday, one of the contributors pulled out of recording the podcast, because his three meetings in London that were summarily cancelled and transferred to Zoom calls – so he didn’t want to come in just for one.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon had continued to urge people to work from home if they could, whereas in England we had all be encouraged to return to work outside it if we could from July onwards. In hindsight, that was wrong.

Of course, we all want to get our city and town centres back to normal, but policy cannot be guided by an understandable desire to keep sandwich shops in business. We are not yet ‘Pret a Manger’.

The thought that this could all go on for another six months is not one any of us relishes, yet I think it was quite right of the Prime Minister to say that.

In March, he was criticised for what some described as false optimism, when he intimated that everything would be back to normal by Christmas. Now he’s being criticised for being a doomster…Sometimes, as a politician, you just can’t win.

– – – – – – – – – –

There’s a new authorised biography of Diane Abbott out this week. In the index it says I get a mention on page 52. The only Dale mentioned on that page is Diane’s maternal grandmother, Dinah Dale. I wonder if we are by any chance related? Now there’s one for Who do you think you are?  It’s entirely possible we could be related, you know – I can’t count either.

Raghib Ali: Covid-19. The pluses and minuses of the Government’s new plan – and why there should be no more lockdowns.

25 Sep

Dr Raghib Ali is an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, and a Visiting Research Fellow of the Department of Population Health, University of Oxford. He writes in a personal capacity.

Last week, I explained on this site why there is still significant potential for harm from a second wave – both directly from Covid-19, and indirectly from its effect on the NHS’ ability to keep all essential services running.

Today, I will try to address the key question as to what our response should be. The situation now is almost the exact inverse of the one I discussed in June in relation to lifting lockdown restrictions. The divisions remain, and the public health messaging still needs to improve but there is now wider acknowledgement of the need to balance the harms of Covid-19 with those of lockdown.

I wish I had the same confidence as the armchair epidemiologists about the best course of action, but the truth is that although we do now have actual experience of dealing with first waves (as opposed to just modelling), ‘the science’ is still highly uncertain, with conflicting evidence for the effectiveness of different strategies (mitigation vs. suppression) in different countries.

I have set out in more detail on my blog why it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions but, in brief, the evidence we have is generally from low quality observational data which have significant limitations – and so we don’t know for certain if the reduction in disease was due to the intervention or other factors.

Also, many interventions were instituted simultaneously and so we don’t know which had the biggest effect in reducing infection. However, it is clear that the measures taken pre-lockdown (self-isolation and social distancing) did reduce infections and must remain the cornerstone of our response.

Between-country comparisons are particularly problematic as countries differ in so many important ways but I will briefly discuss the experience of Sweden as its approach has attracted so much attention (and supporters and detractors). Compared to its nearest neighbours, it has (so far) had a five to ten times higher death rate with a similar economic decline. This supports the case that those countries that locked down earlier had less deaths from Coronavirus (because they had less cases) – as would be expected given the virus needs human interaction to spread.

However, when compared to the UK, Belgium or France, Sweden has a similar level of deaths with a much better economic performance and has demonstrated that first waves can be ended with measures short of a full lockdown (including, crucially, keeping schools open).

But it is too early to say that Sweden has escaped a second wave as they generally occur about three months after the end of the first and Sweden’s only ended in July. However, I think it is unlikely as they have not reached the 20 per cent antibody level which may provide herd immunity (they are at about seven per cent.)

Also, in general, lockdowns postpone rather than prevent infection (although the death rate should be lower in second waves, due to better treatments) and Israel provides an example of their limitations where they now have a much larger second wave of deaths which has led to a second lockdown. And this cycle of lockdowns would need to be repeated until vaccines / very effective treatments become available – of which there is no guarantee.

Of the large European countries, Germany has (so far) managed the Coronavirus most effectively, with lower deaths in the first wave (and less economic damage) and no second wave yet – which seems to be due to better testing and tracing, and shielding of those at highest risk.

However, it is still too early to say which countries’ strategies are correct, and we won’t know until the end of the pandemic. But, of course, we have to make decisions now based on the best evidence we have.

Although I don’t agree with all the measures, I think the approach outlined by the Prime Minister and Chief Medical Officer – which can be seen as a hybrid mitigation / suppression strategy – is broadly correct ,and rightly focuses on the balance of benefits and harms in order to produce the best overall outcome.

And although there is now broad agreement that we must try to prevent a second national lockdown, there is already pressure to increase the restrictions further.

But before doing this, I would urge the Government and Parliament to ask these three questions:

  • First, how good is the evidence that the intervention works in reducing Covid-19?

We have a much better evidence base now, with the different interventions used over the summer and some data from the ‘natural experiments’ being conducted as devolved nations introduced slightly different measures (e.g. on the rule of 6, size of bubbles, household mixing, etc.)

Measures should also be in place for at least two weeks to assess effectiveness before considering new ones; but should also be reviewed regularly, and not kept any longer than necessary. (The Government should also urgently fund trials to test different interventions in different regions to get better evidence.)

  • Second, is it clear that making these restrictions mandatory (with penalties) makes a significant difference to compliance/ effectiveness of these measures?

In some cases, this is clear (e.g: breaking self-isolation rules where the voluntary system was not working well) but, in general, the harms of (particularly social) restrictions could be reduced by making them voluntary.

  • Third, and most importantly, does it clearly have more benefit than harm in relation to overall health, quality of life, education and jobs?

It is hard to see how a second national lockdown could be justified, even on health grounds, with the Government’s  own health cost-benefit analysis  showing that, in the long-term, the health impacts of the two month lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater than those of the direct Covid-19 deaths. (Importantly, this analysis was on the basis that mitigations to reduce Coronavirus infections (e.g. social distancing) were in place – otherwise the harm from Covid-19 deaths was more than three times greater than lockdown.)

Other analyses have also come to the same conclusion – particularly when also considering the economic costs of lockdown – which also harms health and society.

The evidence for the effectiveness of local lockdowns is mixed, but they will still have associated harms – and will exacerbate inequalities and so similar comprehensive, cost-benefit analyses are needed – with the input of economists and educationalists as well.

New lockdowns should only be considered when there is clear evidence of more benefit than harm, and closing schools must be the last resort.

We need to prioritise those interventions that most reduce the direct and indirect harms from Covid-19 (which will therefore decrease the need for more restrictions) while doing the least harm to everything else – particularly other health harms, education, and the economy.

Based on our experience, these are three interventions which could save thousands of lives this time:

  • First, improving the public health messaging and reducing fear. Thousands died and suffered at home either because they thought they needed to ‘stay at home’ to ‘protect the NHS’ even when they were seriously ill – or they were too scared to come to hospital. We need to reassure the sick and ideally provide separate Covid-19 units/ hospitals to give them more confidence to attend – which also means keeping Covid-19 hospitalisations at a low enough level to enable this.
  • Second, ensuring that all NHS services are kept running. while also managing Covid-19. Millions have suffered, and thousands will die, through the closure of NHS services – which we now know was not necessary and mustn’t happen again. We must urgently establish the level at which Covid-19 admissions will overwhelm the NHS – not in the sense that we used before (i.e. emergency and critical care) – which is no longer a risk – but all other essential services as well. And this time, we must use the increased capacity available from the Nightingales and private hospitals.
  • Third, protecting those at highest risk including care home residents and hospital patients with regular testing & isolation, and ‘smarter shielding.’  This can be much better targeted now with all the data we have and individual ‘Covid-19 risk calculators’ should be urgently rolled-out to help people understand their own risk and make their own informed decisions. It will also help people to overcome their fears and seek medical help when required, as well as help to reduce Covid-19 disparities.

I do not, however, believe this shielding should replace the other measures to suppress the virus in the general population. There is currently not enough evidence to show that it is possible to effectively shield all those at high risk or to reach herd immunity without significant direct harm to the lower risk groups where adverse health effects occur in about a third of cases, including the young and those with mild symptoms.

(Of course, test and trace is also critical – and there is certainly room for improvement, particularly in schools, but the UK does have one of the highest testing rates in Europe.)

The public have the most important role of all in controlling the virus, and so must be convinced to follow the current restrictions and given support, as needed, to do so. To improve public consent and compliance, the Government should publish and explain the evidence – and be honest about the decision-making process, the uncertainties and the trade-offs.

The coming months will be challenging for all of us, and we will need to learn to live with the virus and change our behaviour accordingly. For some, that will mean reducing our social contacts; for others – overcoming our fears; and for all, looking out for the vulnerable, being patient and making sacrifices for the common good.

Finally, having served on the front-line, I am only too aware of the death and suffering that Covid-19 causes – but the harms of a second lockdown would be greater. And so we must follow the current measures and by protecting society, education and the economy – as well as the NHS – we will save, and improve, the most lives.

Dying by numbers

24 Sep

Covid-19 can cast a “long shadow”.  Its aftermath effects include “fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain”.

One study suggests that the proportion of those who first catch the virus and then develop such persistent symptoms is about 15 per cent.  But there’s still much we don’t know about it and evidence is hard to come by.  Nonetheless, it is clearly wrong to claim that the Coronavirus is no worse than flu.

The long shadow effect is also a reminder that one doesn’t either get Covid-19 and end up in hospital, or else not get it at all.  However, the UK, like other countries, would not be responding to the virus with a mix of shutdowns, new laws, voluntary action and testing were the Coronavirus not a killer.

As this site explained yesterday, we believe that a choice between more mass lockdowns and a Swedish option would be the wrong one: the best policy to counter Covid-19 is mass testing.  But successful testing will inevitably be go hand in hand with social distancing and other preventative action.  And the scale, duration and sweep of all anti-virus measures will ultimately be shaped not by the long shadow, but by death numbers.

These are notoriously hard to calculate, both here and abroad.  The NHS in England has changed the way in which they are assessed at least twice: in April and August.  The daily figures “do not include deaths outside hospital, such as those in care homes”, and each daily release is always lagging, since “reporting in central figures can take up to several days”.

Furthermore, there is over-counting, because the figures include cases in which Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, which doesn’t necessary mean that it was the main cause of the death, and under-counting, because the figures can’t catch every single case. Those that follow are therefore heavily caveated.

Two similar peaks are recorded as having being reached: 1,152 deaths on April 9 and 1,172 on April 20.  Were England to suffer, say, eleven hundred Covid deaths a day for a whole year, that would be some 369,600 deaths in all, plus more in the rest of the UK.

But nothing like that, of course, has actually happened.  Writing on ConservativeHome, Raghib Ali says that “we now have good evidence from death certificates that Covid-19 was the underlying cause of death in about 50,000 people”.  Still, that’s about 30,000 more than the 20,000 that Patrick Vallance said would be “a good outcome”.

Those recorded deaths began to fall in late April, and the last figure we can find, yesterday’s, was 37.  Since August 8, they have ranged from 55 to zero.  Those inclined to minimise the severity of Coronavirus will quote those low totals, while those disposed to maximise will quote Vallance’s figure, from his presentation earlier this week, of some 200 deaths a day by November – some 5,600 that month.  Or point out that it could be higher.

Replicated each day for a year, that would suggest about 67,000 deaths.  But that’s based on cases doubling every seven days, as at present – with no change.  Vallance himself conceded that such an assumption is “quite a big if” – which raises the question of whether he should therefore have raised it at all, or at least clearly put it in a more rounded context.

Which would include looking at what’s happening in two other European countries whose increase in numbers we seem to be following: France and Spain.  (As last spring, the figures suggest that the UK is treading in the footsteps of some other European countries.)

If 50,000 cases in mid-October were to be followed by 200 deaths a day by November (“the Vallance model”) 10,000 cases a day (“the French/Spanish model”) would be followed by 40 deaths a day.  If we play the same game of replicated that number each day for a year, we get 13,440 deaths.

That would be lower than annual flu death totals in England during recent years. Public Health England estimates that on average 17,000 people died from flu in England annually between 2014/15 and 2018/19.

But whether the number of deaths each day by November is 200, more than 200, or 40 (or fewer), there is no reason to believe that a rise from present levels would be sustained.

Ali says that “deaths should also be significantly lower due to the lower age profile of cases…better shielding of those at highest risk and possibly a lower viral load  due to social distancing and masks. We are also now much better at managing the disease with more effective treatments.”

Were we to follow Spain and France after all, and if test and trace doesn’t show clear signs of improvement, the mood on the Conservative backbenches is likely to shift away from Government policy, which is ultimately based on state-enforced lockdowns, and towards Sweden’s, and mass voluntary action.

Dying by numbers

24 Sep

Covid-19 can cast a “long shadow”.  Its aftermath effects include “fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain”.

One study suggests that the proportion of those who first catch the virus and then develop such persistent symptoms is about 15 per cent.  But there’s still much we don’t know about it and evidence is hard to come by.  Nonetheless, it is clearly wrong to claim that the Coronavirus is no worse than flu.

The long shadow effect is also a reminder that one doesn’t either get Covid-19 and end up in hospital, or else not get it at all.  However, the UK, like other countries, would not be responding to the virus with a mix of shutdowns, new laws, voluntary action and testing were the Coronavirus not a killer.

As this site explained yesterday, we believe that a choice between more mass lockdowns and a Swedish option would be the wrong one: the best policy to counter Covid-19 is mass testing.  But successful testing will inevitably be go hand in hand with social distancing and other preventative action.  And the scale, duration and sweep of all anti-virus measures will ultimately be shaped not by the long shadow, but by death numbers.

These are notoriously hard to calculate, both here and abroad.  The NHS in England has changed the way in which they are assessed at least twice: in April and August.  The daily figures “do not include deaths outside hospital, such as those in care homes”, and each daily release is always lagging, since “reporting in central figures can take up to several days”.

Furthermore, there is over-counting, because the figures include cases in which Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, which doesn’t necessary mean that it was the main cause of the death, and under-counting, because the figures can’t catch every single case. Those that follow are therefore heavily caveated.

Two similar peaks are recorded as having being reached: 1,152 deaths on April 9 and 1,172 on April 20.  Were England to suffer, say, eleven hundred Covid deaths a day for a whole year, that would be some 369,600 deaths in all, plus more in the rest of the UK.

But nothing like that, of course, has actually happened.  Writing on ConservativeHome, Raghib Ali says that “we now have good evidence from death certificates that Covid-19 was the underlying cause of death in about 50,000 people”.  Still, that’s about 30,000 more than the 20,000 that Patrick Vallance said would be “a good outcome”.

Those recorded deaths began to fall in late April, and the last figure we can find, yesterday’s, was 37.  Since August 8, they have ranged from 55 to zero.  Those inclined to minimise the severity of Coronavirus will quote those low totals, while those disposed to maximise will quote Vallance’s figure, from his presentation earlier this week, of some 200 deaths a day by November – some 5,600 that month.  Or point out that it could be higher.

Replicated each day for a year, that would suggest about 67,000 deaths.  But that’s based on cases doubling every seven days, as at present – with no change.  Vallance himself conceded that such an assumption is “quite a big if” – which raises the question of whether he should therefore have raised it at all, or at least clearly put it in a more rounded context.

Which would include looking at what’s happening in two other European countries whose increase in numbers we seem to be following: France and Spain.  (As last spring, the figures suggest that the UK is treading in the footsteps of some other European countries.)

If 50,000 cases in mid-October were to be followed by 200 deaths a day by November (“the Vallance model”) 10,000 cases a day (“the French/Spanish model”) would be followed by 40 deaths a day.  If we play the same game of replicated that number each day for a year, we get 13,440 deaths.

That would be lower than annual flu death totals in England during recent years. Public Health England estimates that on average 17,000 people died from flu in England annually between 2014/15 and 2018/19.

But whether the number of deaths each day by November is 200, more than 200, or 40 (or fewer), there is no reason to believe that a rise from present levels would be sustained.

Ali says that “deaths should also be significantly lower due to the lower age profile of cases…better shielding of those at highest risk and possibly a lower viral load  due to social distancing and masks. We are also now much better at managing the disease with more effective treatments.”

Were we to follow Spain and France after all, and if test and trace doesn’t show clear signs of improvement, the mood on the Conservative backbenches is likely to shift away from Government policy, which is ultimately based on state-enforced lockdowns, and towards Sweden’s, and mass voluntary action.

Profile: Graham Brady, who played a quiet part in deposing May, and now keeps a watchful eye on Johnson

24 Sep

An adviser to Boris Johnson warned him earlier this year not to be alone with Graham Brady. Here already was a sign of prime ministerial weakness, or evasiveness, in the face of a determined upholder, not just of the rights of Conservative backbenchers, but of parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive.

Nobody would describe Sir Graham Brady as evasive. He is sincere, vigilant and as Chairman of the 1922 Committee, considers it his duty to convey, in the manner of a polite but implacable shop steward, the views of his members to the Prime Minister.

Like a considerable number of those members, he is furious that ministers have “got into the habit of ruling by decree” during the pandemic. In May, Brady called on ministers to look at “removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”, though he recognised that many voters approved of these restrictions:

“The public have been willing to assist. If anything, in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home.”

Last weekend, Brady went further, and told The Sunday Telegraph:

“In March, Parliament gave the Government sweeping emergency powers at a time when Parliament was about to go into recess and there was realistic concern that NHS care capacity might be overwhelmed by Covid-19.

“We now know that the NHS coped well with the challenge of the virus and Parliament has been sitting largely since April. There is now no justification for ministers ruling by emergency powers without reference to normal democratic processes.

“It is essential that going forward all of these massively important decisions for family life, and affecting people’s jobs and businesses, should be exercised with proper supervision and control.”

In other words, Parliament must have the final say on any new measures the Government introduces to fight the pandemic. That is the amendment to the Coronavirus Act 2020 demanded by Sir Graham, which as Paul Goodman noted here on Monday, could command widespread assent on the Conservative benches:

“The danger for Downing Street, if it comes to a debate and a vote, is that it faces a coalition of high-minded constitutionalists, supporters of a Swedish option, low-minded opportunists who dislike Johnson, feel under-promoted, are grievance-haunted (or all three), plus backbenchers who are simply unhappy and bewildered.”

Every Tory leader has to be mindful of what his or her own troops will wear. The Conservative Party is a coalition of such disparate or even contradictory elements that many people, unaware of the lesson (“never again”) learned from the disastrous split over the Corn Laws in 1846, cannot comprehend why it remains together.

Brady possesses a resolute independence of mind. “He really couldn’t stand David Cameron,” one of his colleagues remarks. Nor, one may surmise, is he particularly keen on Johnson.

For in Brady, we find a Conservative of a different stamp. He was born in Salford in 1967 and educated at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, an establishment to which he remains fiercely loyal, after which he read law at Durham, where he was immensely active in student politics and married Victoria Lowther, with whom he has two children.

In his twenties, he earned his living by working for public affairs companies, and also for a couple of years for the Centre for Policy Studies, before gaining selection for his home seat of Altrincham and Sale West, which in the Labour landslide of 1997 he retained by the slender margin of 1505 votes.

At the age of 29, he was the youngest Conservative MP, and in his maiden speech he declared his passionate loyalty to grammar schools:

“In the borough of Trafford, successive Conservative administrations have worked, not only to preserve our excellent grammar schools, but to raise standards in the high schools as well. What we have achieved is an example of selective education that works and it should be taken as a model for improving education across the country.

“I believe passionately in the role of the grammar schools as the greatest of social levellers and I fear that before long I will be called upon to defend my old school, Altrincham boys grammar school, from those who would see the remaining 160 grammar schools destroyed. As a believer in grammar schools, I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools.”

He served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Ancram, a junior Whip, Education spokesman and in 2003 as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the new Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard.

The following year he became Shadow Europe Minister, a post he retained under Howard’s successor, David Cameron. But in 2007, when a tremendous row erupted within the party over grammar schools, Brady resigned because “in conscience” he had to be free to speak his mind, and to argue his unfashionable case:

“Grammar schools in selective areas are exactly the motor that does drive social mobility more effectively than comprehensive areas.”

A generally sympathetic colleague says of Brady that when grammar schools are mentioned “his eye lights up with insanity”, an expression coined by Disraeli, who reported that this was what happened to General Peel on hearing the words “household suffrage”.

Cameron says in his memoirs, For The Record:

“I felt that the call to ‘bring back grammars’ was an anti-modernisation proxy, and I wasn’t going to stand for it.”

There was a class element in this row. Etonians couldn’t generally see the point of grammar schools. Conservatives from less gilded backgrounds often knew from personal experience that such schools could transform lives.

In 2010, Brady stood for the chairmanship of the ’22, just after Cameron’s brazen attempt to neuter that committee as the voice of backbenchers had been seen off, with his proposal to allow members of the Government to vote in its elections being withdrawn.

Brady’s resignation three years earlier had proved his independence, and he had indicated, after the 2010 election, that he and other Tory MPs would have preferred a minority Conservative Government – “That, I think, is generally the feeling of colleagues” – to the coalition formed by Cameron with the Liberal Democrats.

In a piece for ConHome he explained why he was standing:

“Coalition government has been hailed as a part of a ‘new politics’. I believe that enhancing the role of Parliament and the status of MPs as the elected champions of our constituents is just as important. For too many years the Executive has eroded the power of Parliament and back benchers have increasingly been marginalised, I want to play a part in reversing that process.”

Brady defeated the other candidate, Richard Ottaway, who was thought to be favoured by Cameron, by 126 votes to 85.

If one wants to see how deeply Brady feels about things, one has only to read the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture which he delivered under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2014. He began by quoting with approval Margaret Thatcher when she gave the same lecture in 1996:

“In politics, integrity really lies in the conviction that it’s only on the basis of truth that power should be won – or indeed can be worth winning. It lies in the unswerving belief that you have to be right.”

Brady went on to say:

“Political parties have become over-reliant on focus groups and opinion research to identify the key target voters in the key ‘swing’ seats. The message is too often crafted to appeal – not to be right, and the biggest focus group of all – the British electorate – grows ever more disenchanted.”

Conservative backbenchers have not grown disenchanted with Brady. Sir Charles Walker, who became Vice-Chairman of the ’22 in 2010, the same year as Brady became Chairman, told ConHome:

“He’s a man who believes in Parliament and a man who believes in doing things properly. Graham is straight as a die. He’s straight in his dealings with people. So it’s no surprise he’s moving this Amendment. The Chairman of the ’22 should be spiky. That’s his role – to be a critical friend. The ’22 is rightly regarded as being a powerful organisation and leaders are best advised to be wary of it. But it’s also capable of providing great support in time of difficulty.”

The most difficult period in Brady’s chairmanship came during the last two years of Theresa May’s prime ministership. He was knighted in the 2018 New Year honours, the investiture taking place in March 2018, so at this point in the story he becomes once more Sir Graham.

The ’22 was fractious and divided, and Sir Graham was the recipient of the letters from Tory MPs which, if and when the 15 per cent threshold was reached  – 48 MPs out of 317 – would mean she faced a motion of no confidence.

Nobody knew how many letters he had received, for he did not breathe a word, but nobody doubted he was showing complete integrity in his counting of them.

In December 2018 the 15 per cent threshold was crossed, but the Prime Minister survived the subsequent ballot by 200 votes to 117. This supposedly meant she could not be challenged by this method for another year.

But on 24th May 2019, after the Conservatives had performed disastrously in European elections which would not have taken place in the UK had she managed to get Brexit done, out she went.

Brady’s role in this was one of the utmost delicacy. He reckoned the game was up, but had to say so with discretion, for not all his colleagues agreed with him.

Once she realised she had to go, he wished to take soundings to see whether he could launch his own leadership bid. Since the ’22 would be running the leadership election, he stepped down.

He soon found he had no support, so he did not run. Nor, to the astonishment of more worldly figures, did he endorse any other candidate: not even his fellow Leaver, Boris Johnson, when it became evident that Johnson was going to win.

Others who rushed to join the winning side were rewarded with Cabinet posts. A minister told ConHome: “I know Graham believed he was going to be offered a job, and thought it should be a Cabinet position.

“But he had never come out for Boris, and Boris’s whole operation is based on people who are loyal to him.

“Graham was disappointed he didn’t get anything, went back to being Chairman of the ’22, and since then he’s been quite grumpy.”

This reading of events comes from a Johnson loyalist, and others will feel it was to Sir Graham’s credit that he did not sell out his long-established independence.

Sir Graham, who is still only 53 years old, is in person an affable figure, ready to be amused by things, unperturbed by journalists, and not inclined to idealise Tory MPs, of whom he remarked at the 2018 party conference, when the question of letters demanding a vote of confidence was starting to become of interest:

“The distance between what some of my colleagues say they might have done and what they actually have done can be considerable.”

On another occasion, interviewed by ConHome, he lamented the “ennui, apathy and cynicism” shown by colleagues who declined to use the machinery set up to enable them to feed in policy proposals for consideration in the 2015 manifesto.

He is loyal, as we have seen, to an idea of truth which stands above party politics. Sir Graham is now a severe impediment to any attempt by Downing Street to go on running things without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

And if and when Johnson suffers a severe loss of confidence on his own side of the House, Sir Graham will once more find himself being asked from day to day, indeed from hour to hour, how many letters he has received.

Garvan Walshe: Four actions we can take to help Belarus achieve its freedom

24 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

The streets of Minsk, bathed in September morning sun, were absolutely empty yesterday. Not a soul under the clear blue sky. A sudden U-turn towards tough anti-Covid policies? Belarus making it to the world cup final? Of course not.

The real reason was that Aleksandr Lukashenko had decided to get himself reinaugurated as president – weeks early – and in secret.

Lukashenko’s regime has been shaken by almost two months of street protests following an election, in which he faced off against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband he had imprisoned in order to take him out of the race.

The rigging was farcical: observers recorded a middle-aged woman climbing down a ladder outside a polling station with bags of surplus ballots (a ballot-stuffing plan had gone awry when too many voters turned up, and space had to be created for their votes), and nobody believed the 80 per cent vote share officially recorded. Those deserted Minsk streets must have been filled by everyone who actually voted for him.

Lukashenko’s regime, in place since the Soviet Union collapsed, and so unreformed that its security service is still called the KGB, is looking very vulnerable.

Regime thugs initially responded to peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence, but have found protests led by women to be much harder to contain. Balaclava-clad men have been snatching protesters off the streets, but predictably just caused the protests to grow further.

Vladimir Putin has offered the Belarusian regime $1.5 billion, and perhaps covert riot-control support, but appears to have balked at more decisive intervention. Despite rigging his own constitutional referendum to allow him to stay on beyond the term limits he himself included in the previous version of Russia’s fundamental law, Putin finds himself on the ropes. Covid has dramatically reduced oil and gas demand, while protests have taken off, not only in Moscow, but across the country. It was on a flight back from one of those protests, in Siberia, that Alexei Navalny collapsed with Novichok poisoning. The last thing Russia needs right now is another rebellious province.

In these revolutionary moments, the survival of the regime depends on projecting a sense of “inevitability”, Rob Thomas, an Eastern Europe analyst, tells me. Legitimacy has long been forfeited, and the state lacks the sheer repressive capacity to put down such a large uprising. The best he can hope to do is to try and outlast the protesters, and hope the winter cold can send them home.

As much as Putin and Lukashenko might want to believe their own propaganda that this revolution is a CIA or George Soros plot, it is in fact a domestic movement to overthrow an unaccountable leaders who has overstayed his welcome. The pressure for change is coming from inside Belarus. Our job is to keep it in the international spotlight.

As well what might be called the standard toolkit – applying Magnitsky sanctions to regime-connected figures, clamping down on money laundering, preventing the export of surveillance and internet censorship technology, and stepping up funding of civil society through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – there are specific things that can put pressure on Lukashenko’s regime.

First, Belarus has a surprisingly successful tech sector, responsible for over five per cent of GDP. Such work can be done anywhere, so we can help Belarusian firms and programmers set up legal structures to keep their earnings outside Belarus while continuing to work where they are. Taxes due on this activity could be held in trust, and released to Belarus after it holds free and fair elections.

Second, visas should be relaxed to allow Belarusians who want to work and study abroad to come to the UK and also set up businesses with minimal red tape, on the same terms as the Ankara Agreement used to allow for Turkey.

Third, to blunt Russia’s energy weapon, we should work with Lithuania in particular to enable gas pipelines to Belarus to flow in reverse, and, together with other democracies, provide financial guarantees for liquified natural gas to be sent to a transitional Belarusian government.

Fourth, if further pressure is needed to create pressure for a transition to free and fair elections we could recognise Tikhanovskaya as an interim legitimate president, as part of a negotiating process that would allow both her and Lukashenko to stand down in favour of a neutral but democratic figure.

The empty streets and secret inauguration show that despite Cyprus blocking EU sanctions (an action surely unconnected to the large quantities of Russian money deposited in his banks) Lukashenko is running scared. If we can deny him international legitimacy, and put further economic pressure on the regime, we can play our part in supporting Belarusians’ struggle to choose their own future.

Garvan Walshe: Four actions we can take to help Belarus achieve its freedom

24 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

The streets of Minsk, bathed in September morning sun, were absolutely empty yesterday. Not a soul under the clear blue sky. A sudden U-turn towards tough anti-Covid policies? Belarus making it to the world cup final? Of course not.

The real reason was that Aleksandr Lukashenko had decided to get himself reinaugurated as president – weeks early – and in secret.

Lukashenko’s regime has been shaken by almost two months of street protests following an election, in which he faced off against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband he had imprisoned in order to take him out of the race.

The rigging was farcical: observers recorded a middle-aged woman climbing down a ladder outside a polling station with bags of surplus ballots (a ballot-stuffing plan had gone awry when too many voters turned up, and space had to be created for their votes), and nobody believed the 80 per cent vote share officially recorded. Those deserted Minsk streets must have been filled by everyone who actually voted for him.

Lukashenko’s regime, in place since the Soviet Union collapsed, and so unreformed that its security service is still called the KGB, is looking very vulnerable.

Regime thugs initially responded to peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence, but have found protests led by women to be much harder to contain. Balaclava-clad men have been snatching protesters off the streets, but predictably just caused the protests to grow further.

Vladimir Putin has offered the Belarusian regime $1.5 billion, and perhaps covert riot-control support, but appears to have balked at more decisive intervention. Despite rigging his own constitutional referendum to allow him to stay on beyond the term limits he himself included in the previous version of Russia’s fundamental law, Putin finds himself on the ropes. Covid has dramatically reduced oil and gas demand, while protests have taken off, not only in Moscow, but across the country. It was on a flight back from one of those protests, in Siberia, that Alexei Navalny collapsed with Novichok poisoning. The last thing Russia needs right now is another rebellious province.

In these revolutionary moments, the survival of the regime depends on projecting a sense of “inevitability”, Rob Thomas, an Eastern Europe analyst, tells me. Legitimacy has long been forfeited, and the state lacks the sheer repressive capacity to put down such a large uprising. The best he can hope to do is to try and outlast the protesters, and hope the winter cold can send them home.

As much as Putin and Lukashenko might want to believe their own propaganda that this revolution is a CIA or George Soros plot, it is in fact a domestic movement to overthrow an unaccountable leaders who has overstayed his welcome. The pressure for change is coming from inside Belarus. Our job is to keep it in the international spotlight.

As well what might be called the standard toolkit – applying Magnitsky sanctions to regime-connected figures, clamping down on money laundering, preventing the export of surveillance and internet censorship technology, and stepping up funding of civil society through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – there are specific things that can put pressure on Lukashenko’s regime.

First, Belarus has a surprisingly successful tech sector, responsible for over five per cent of GDP. Such work can be done anywhere, so we can help Belarusian firms and programmers set up legal structures to keep their earnings outside Belarus while continuing to work where they are. Taxes due on this activity could be held in trust, and released to Belarus after it holds free and fair elections.

Second, visas should be relaxed to allow Belarusians who want to work and study abroad to come to the UK and also set up businesses with minimal red tape, on the same terms as the Ankara Agreement used to allow for Turkey.

Third, to blunt Russia’s energy weapon, we should work with Lithuania in particular to enable gas pipelines to Belarus to flow in reverse, and, together with other democracies, provide financial guarantees for liquified natural gas to be sent to a transitional Belarusian government.

Fourth, if further pressure is needed to create pressure for a transition to free and fair elections we could recognise Tikhanovskaya as an interim legitimate president, as part of a negotiating process that would allow both her and Lukashenko to stand down in favour of a neutral but democratic figure.

The empty streets and secret inauguration show that despite Cyprus blocking EU sanctions (an action surely unconnected to the large quantities of Russian money deposited in his banks) Lukashenko is running scared. If we can deny him international legitimacy, and put further economic pressure on the regime, we can play our part in supporting Belarusians’ struggle to choose their own future.