Neil O’Brien: Challenges for the new Prime Minister 1) Energy. The Treasury will advise limited nuclear and carbon capture. It should be ignored.

1 Aug

Neil O’Brien was until recently a Miister at the Department of Levelling up. He is MP for Harborough.

Ah, the 1970s. The nostalgia industry has given the decade a familiar iconography.

Flared jeans and Milton Keynes… Mullahs in Iran….The Magic RoundaboutMy Sweet Lord and Concorde… decimalisation, stagflation and women’s’ liberation… Star Wars, Jaws, The Doors… Vietnam, Spam and Glam…. roller skates and economic policy mistakes.

Some of the most enduring images of the 1970s are the multiple energy crises. Office workers typing by candlelight during the miners’ strike. Cars queuing for petrol after the oil shock.

Among the most urgent questions facing our new Prime Minister is: are we heading back to the 70s this winter?

Gas prices in Europe went up a third last week after Russia said it will limit the flow to Germany. Goldman Sachs says recession in Europe is more likely than not. The US is already in recession. Last week saw predictions that household energy bills here could hit £4,000 a year.

Britain has decent gas supply: just under half our gas comes from our own continental shelf, a third via pipeline (almost all from Norway) and a quarter from LNG imports.

But the UK is unusually gas dependent: 40 per cent of our energy is from gas, compared to 25 per cent in the EU. Both UK and EU are in a traded market, with prices many times higher than the longer run average.

The UK also starts from really high industrial electricity prices, so increases are even tougher on industry.

A really high price becomes pretty similar in practice to a physical shutoff. Energy feeds into the price of everything else: McDonalds just raised the price of a cheeseburger for the first time in 14 years.

Countries around us are preparing for the worst. Germany is both ramping coal power and reducing demand, creating a market to reward companies that reduce gas consumption. EU members just reached an agreement to reduce gas consumption 15 per cent over the winter.

Short term

Over recent decades, policy focussed on optimisation not resilience: making things leaner, not tougher.

Now, in a more volatile world, that looks like a mistake. We stopped requiring a copper wire alongside new fibre phonelines, meaning a powercut now means phones cut too. We shuttered gas storage, sold gold, outsourced the production of vital medical kit to a dictatorship that hates us…

It’s the same story in energy, so our short-term options are limited. We can try increase our tiny gas storage. In February, the UK had just 8.5 terawatt-hours of stored gas, versus 36 in France, 79 in Germany and 84 in Italy – ten times more than us.

The Business Department just gave Centrica permission to try reopen the Rough storage facility, closed in 2017. But there are big engineering challenges. And while storage can help smooth spikes in prices, it doesn’t stop long term increases. Nor is there an option to stop exports: we export gas in summer but import in the winter. We’ll be extremely dependent on continental partners sticking to their side of the bargain.

National Grid have persuaded four out of five remaining coal power stations to delay closure which will help.

We could build a contractual market for demand reductions from businesses, as countries others are. National Grid imply they’re trying to do this, but their winter outlook is a bit opaque, perhaps to avoid people freaking out. An orderly market is better than industrial firms being forced out of business by price spikes. Public sector buildings could be the first participants.

Government could promote domestic savings too – it’s amazing that turning down the thermostat one degree can save large amounts.

Long term

In the longer term we’ve more options. What we do about nuclear is the biggest choice. Reducing reliance on gas would spike Vladimir Putin’s energy weapon.

At present, just 15 per cent of our electricity is nuclear, but only one station is being built, and all existing stations will be closed within a decade – Hinkley Point B shuts this week. The Energy Security Strategy included an aspiration to increase nuclear to 25 per cent of electricity by 2050, and said we’d take one new project to final investment decision this Parliament.

Yet the decision on nuclear is far from made.

In the new Prime Minuster’s early meetings, Treasury officials will sketch out an attractive-looking scenario with more limited nuclear, in which unproven technologies like carbon capture take the strain.

They’ll probably skim over the fact that this scenario involves us installing solar panels covering an area nearly the size of Greater Manchester.

They will argue that Great British Nuclear should be a “small, nimble organisation” and that we should “leave it to the market” to develop.

This would mean we build absolutely no new nuclear power, and the new Prime Minister should ignore them:

  • Even if prices fall, Russia has shown it will use energy as a weapon, and that won’t change.
  • Gas prices already soared in 2021, pre-invasion – as Dieter Helm points out, uncertainty is high and we can’t assume a future of low, stable prices.
  • With the global population exploding and relative power of the west declining, we should reduce our dependence on the kindness of strangers.
  • Demand for electricity is soaring: the Review of Electricity Market Arrangements last month suggested we need to triple capacity by 2035.
  • Renewables are intermittent, and can’t always supply at the key moment. National Grid calculates “Equivalent Firm Capacity”: how much reliable capacity a resource can displace without increasing the risk of blackouts. A combined cycle gas turbine is rated at 90 per cent, coal and nuclear at 80 per cent, but offshore wind at just 8.5 per cent, onshore wind at 6.3 per cent, and solar at 3.3 per cent, because it’s not sunny during the UK’s winter use peak. We need firm power.
  • The volume of onshore renewables we are already planning is likely to lead to extensive industrialisation of the countryside.
  • By a happy coincidence, the potential sites for new nuclear tend to be in coastal locations needing levelling up – the coasts of Cumbria and Lancashire, Anglesey, Hartlepool and so on.

Two things drive the cost of nuclear. The first is the cost of capital. The recent decision to move to a system where it is funded on balance sheet largely solves that.

The second is commissioning at scale. The countries that built nuclear cheaply benefitted from learning-by-doing – having the same teams building the same thing again and again. That’s what the French did in the 1970s and 1980s (in red below) and the South Koreans more recently (in pink).

The new Prime Minister should gear up Great British Nuclear to commission a substantial pipeline of plants. It should get control over the nuclear sites and drive the use of as much British content as possible.

There are choices about which technology to use. Newly nationalised EDF are unlikely to want to do more. We could partner with the Koreans, arguably the world leaders. We could buy back technology from Westinghouse, or buy equity in it. (Gordon Brown sold it to Toshiba in 2006, it’s now owned by a Canadian fund).

Or we could order a substantial number of small/medium sized, factory-built reactors from Rolls Royce, which might also open the way to exports in coming decades. That might also give some more flexibility we would be buying in smaller “lumps”.

Either way, the key is to make a clear decision and stick with it, and not do what the UK keeps doing, and building expensive one-off reactors.

Churchill said you should “never let a good crisis go to waste”. The new Prime Minister should seize this grim moment to end our energy dependence on hostile powers.

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Adam Tomkins: Two weeks ago, Johnson’s exit showed once again that our constitution works

21 Jul

Adam Tomkins is a Professor of Law at the University of Glasgow and was a Scottish Conservative MSP from 2016-21.

There is no doubt that, as prime minister, Boris Johnson sought to challenge a number of the ancient precepts of the British constitution. But, likewise, there is no doubt that the constitution has survived intact.

In the leadership battle still underway, it is notable – and to be welcomed – that none of the candidates attempted to put the constitution centre-stage.

Such voices as are calling for constitutional reform to address the alleged weaknesses that Johnson’s populism is said to have exposed are noises off. Rory Stewart on Twitter; Jonathan Sumption in the Sunday Times. Such voices should be heard, but the advice they are offering should, on this occasion, not be followed.

All prime ministers find things about the constitution to tinker with. Margaret Thatcher reordered our system of local government and enhanced the powers of the police. John Major worried endlessly about citizenship and whether citizens needed a new charter. Tony Blair wreaked havoc with the constitution, not least via devolution and the Human Rights Act. Gordon Brown wanted a new written Constitution (and was stopped, in large measure, by the civil service).

David Cameron promoted the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and tried to reform the House of Lords. The former has now been repealed and in the latter he was stopped by the brilliant Jesse Norman.

And Theresa May had to figure out how Brexit could be delivered at one and the same time in all four home nations without them coming apart at the seams. That project remains work in progress, not least as regards Northern Ireland.

Boris Johnson’s assault on the constitution was different, for he brought the same approach to constitutional rules as he did to any other sort of rule. He simply thought they were well and good when it came to other people, but that they did not apply to him.

Thus, he sought to dispense with Parliament when it was convenient to him to do so, the Supreme Court notoriously but, in my view, rightly ruling that his five-week prorogation of Parliament in 2019 was unlawful.

More recently, he rewrote key aspects of the Ministerial Code. And, at the beginning of the month, he clung to office for longer than anyone else would have done in his insupportable position.

Contrary to the views he has espoused from the Despatch Box this week, none of this had anything to do with delivering – or seeking to stop – Brexit.

I am no great fan of Baroness Hale’s judgments, still less of her larger-than-life taste in spider jewellery, but her Court was not acting as a bollard in the way of the will of the people to leave the EU: it was acting as a buttress for Parliament, ensuring that Parliament could not be shunted out of the way just because it was proving inconvenient to Her Majesty’s Government.

For the twelve hours leading up to Johnson’s eventual decision to quit Downing Street, from about 9pm on the Wednesday evening until 9am the following morning, it genuinely looked like the United Kingdom might be facing a true constitutional crisis (a term much overused and, in general, best avoided).

It is true that  Johnson had not been defeated in no vote of confidence, either in Parliament or in the parliamentary party, and it is true that he did not therefore have to resign. However, in those fraught hours it became apparent (eventually even to him) that the prime minister was unable to form an administration. Ministers at every level were resigning more quickly than they could be appointed, and Johnson was fast running out of eligible personnel to fill the ministerial ranks.

The Queen’s government must carry on. And yet, without ministers, there was nobody to undertake this task. When there is no Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and no Minister for Security (both of which positions fell vacant more or less simultaneously during that fateful period) there is a gaping hole in the national security of the United Kingdom, a hole any prime minister must fill immediately.

Had Boris Johnson not indicated before breakfast on the Thursday morning that he would resign from office, we would have been in the uncharted waters that, for the first time in her long reign, Her Majesty the Queen would have been under a duty to consider whether to dismiss the prime minister of the United Kingdom. This has happened elsewhere in the Commonwealth (notably in Australia in 1975) but the last monarch to dismiss the government in Britain was William IV in 1834.

It did not come to this but, even if it had done, this would have been evidence of the constitution working: not (contra Stewart and Sumption) that it needs reform. The prime minister is the person appointed who, for the time being, can command the confidence of the House of Commons. As soon as it is apparent that such confidence has been withdrawn, the prime minister must resign.

And, if it is apparent that a prime minister is seeking to remain in office after confidence has been withdrawn, the Sovereign has a simple choice. Either Parliament must be dissolved to allow for a general election; or the prime minister must be dismissed.

There was speculation during those hours that Johnson might seek a dissolution and take his chance at the ballot box. Had he done so, the Queen would assuredly have declined to dissolve Parliament, for much the same reasons (as it happens) that Hale’s Supreme Court gave for ruling Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament unlawful in 2019.

In the case of Royal discretion to refuse a prime ministerial request for dissolution, the position is as set out in the Lascelles principles – yet another written set of rules which form part of our very much written (but, of course, uncodified) constitution. It was perfectly plain that Parliament was viable and that others from the majority party could readily have been found to command its confidence.

That is the task now underway, and the British constitution continues to guide and steer us, as it always has. It reminds us that, whoever is temporarily at the helm of government, ours is always and only a parliamentary government. It is not a people’s government. It may be popular but it can never be populist. Its accountability is to the House of Commons, whose members we the people elect to undertake this task for us.

No prime minister has any personal mandate to do anything. Successful prime ministers know that they rule for only as long as Parliament continues to want them. Once that well of support runs dry, time’s up.

Them’s the breaks and, if a sitting prime minister fails to read the room and realise that time’s up, our backstop is the Sovereign. Not even Boris Johnson could change any of that..

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Stephen Booth: Macron’s Grand Project and Johnson’s Mare Norstrum. Are the two leaders talking past each other about Europe’s future?

30 Jun

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

At last weekend’s G7 summit in Germany, Emmanuel Macron tweeted that the Prime Minister had “expressed interest” in his new grand project, a proposal for a European Political Community. An Elysée Palace spokesman suggested the UK delegation showed “beacoup d’enthousiasme” for the idea.

Earlier this week, Downing Street sources and Liz Truss appeared sceptical that Macron’s proposal would appeal to the UK. However, in a further twist, yesterday afternoon, the Prime Minister told reporters that Macron’s idea was “worth looking at” and even laid claim to coming up with the idea first. “I had this idea back when I first became foreign secretary,” Johnson said. “There’s got to be a role for all of us in a wider conversation about issues that affect all of us.”

So, does this mark a new shared Franco-British vision for organising security and diplomatic relations across the European Continent? Not quite. As the Prime Minister acknowledged, “I think possibly what’s going on here is that there are several different ideas.”

Macron first outlined his proposal on 9 May in a speech to the European Parliament. His European Political Community would be open to those countries in the European neighbourhood who may or may not one day join the EU, and “it would not be closed to those who have left the EU”, i.e. Britain. However, while Macron has suggested his proposed new club could provide a vehicle for UK-EU relations, the primary consideration is the politically delicate matter of responding to Ukraine’s application to join the EU following the Russian invasion.

Ukraine’s membership bid was backed strongly and early by Eastern EU states, and EU leaders granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate status last week. However, Macron has also argued that the accession process cannot be fast-tracked and Ukraine must be held to the same standards as other candidates. He said the process could therefore “take several years, and most likely several decades.”

Macron’s solution is that his proposal could provide a means of binding Ukraine to the EU pending a lengthy accession process. It would provide a similar function for other EU membership candidates, particularly among the Western Balkans. He added that –

“This new European organisation would allow democratic European nations that subscribe to our shared core values to find a new space for political and security cooperation, cooperation in the energy sector, in transport, investments, infrastructures, the free movement of persons and in particular of our youth.”

This description sounds a lot like a “shadow EU” replicating much of what Brussels does already. It reflects previous Macron speeches advocating a “Europe of several circles”. At the heart of Macron’s proposed architecture is a more deeply integrated core group centred on the eurozone and inevitably led by France and Germany. The next circle consists of EU members outside of this core group, and Macron’s proposed European Political Community is the latest French attempt to define an outer tier of EU satellites.

Between 1989 and 1991, Francois Mitterrand proposed a European Confederation stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. After the fall of the iron curtain, the proposal was for a Europe of concentric circles in which the Central and Eastern European countries would be put in a political halfway house, providing a path to deeper political integration in Western Europe. The organisation would provide a forum for cooperation with the Soviet Union but excluded the United States. Understandably, the newly free Central and Eastern nations were not keen on sharing a new club with the Soviet Union and did not wish to be confined to a second-class European status. Consequently, Mitterrand’s project failed to attract support outside of France.

Macron’s proposal suffers from similar flaws. Because it is defined as an outer tier of EU membership, it is likely to both alienate Britain and prospective EU members who see it as an attempt to hold them at arm’s length indefinitely.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has stated that “no alternative to EU membership for Ukraine would be acceptable.” If Macron’s project were to keep his country permanently out of the EU, “it would be discriminatory, unfair and would contradict public statements from France and other countries that Ukraine is part of the European family,” he added.

Meanwhile, the UK already has a bespoke trade and cooperation agreement with the EU, which could be developed further in the future if thorny issues such as the Northern Ireland Protocol can be resolved. However, while Macron’s suggestion that the free movement of people should be a building block of his political community might appeal to aspirant EU members, it is an instant red flag that is likely to be anathema to any British government.

This is not the first time that Macron has tried to find a role for the UK in a post-Brexit relationship. He had previously suggested a European Security Council, yet the perennial question of how any new European security architecture would sit alongside and not distract from NATO remains. Finland and Sweden’s bids to join NATO, following a deal brokered with Turkey, simply illustrates the pre-eminence of the transatlantic alliance in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

Johnson’s admittedly briefly sketched out alternative to Macron’s political community would be a lot wider, including North Africa, and therefore need to be a looser institutional configuration. “My view is that we should rebuild the whole concept. I think that Turkey should be there. I think that Maghreb should be there and I think we should basically be recreating the Mare Nostrum of the Roman empire,” he said yesterday. “I think possibly rather than inventing new structures, let’s look at building up relationships.”

On the subject of building relationships, the Johnson-Macron meeting at the G7 summit appears to have proven something of a positive step towards a reset in Anglo-French relations. Both leaders have identified the opportunity and need for a wider European dialogue. However, delivering the right vehicle requires further thought and cannot be premised on the idea that non-EU states are merely satellites of Brussels.

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David Willetts: We aren’t getting an explanation from the Government of its pay policy that is honest about the coming pain

21 Jun

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.

Paul Goodman’s excellent piec on this site yesterday admitted that he was so old that as a student he remembered the Battle of Orgreave. I’m even older. I was working for Margaret Thatcher at the time, and remember meetings punctuated with messengers straight from one of Shakespeare’s history plays: “Nottingham is with us.” or “Kent is hostile”.

We wrestled with inflation and pay demands then. There are some lessons which are still relevant today.

First, there is still some truth in the economic proposition that pay increases on their own do not cause sustained inflation which can be brought down by a tight financial policy. Monetarism is often seen as some esoteric economic doctrine, but it was actually a political strategy as well.

If you believe pay demands cause inflation, then the Government has to tackle inflation by doing deals with workers on their pay. Back then, Labour’s links to the trade unions meant they were better placed to do such deals than Conservatives.

So Tories needed a credible way of controlling inflation that did not depend on their relationship with trade unions. The refusal of ministers to get involved even in public sector pay negotiations today is a version of the lesson that was learnt then.

There was a second Thatcherite insight which is relevant today. Inflation is not just a matter of economic theory. It is also deeply political. It is how a society reconciles inconsistent and over-ambitious claims on resources.

Thatcher saw it as the evidence of a moral failure – a failure to recognise we had to live within our means. If we all promised ourselves more than the economy could afford, then one way to reconcile these conflicting claims was to reduce their value by inflation.

Some people and organisations with incomes set in cash without inflation protection lose out. Responsible Government has to deliver the unpalatable but honest message that we are not as rich as we think we are. That is key to Britain’s problem today. We are poorer than we hoped because of a combination of the costs of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the higher cost of energy including the costs of the investment to move to Net Zero and the economic effects of Brexit.

So if you were to add up the incomes we all think we are going to get next year, that figure is ahead of the economic reality, and inflation is the only way to make the figures add up. Thatcher’s stern Methodist explanation of these truths barely appears in modern politics.

Apart from these enduring insights the parallels with the 1970s and 1980s are very different from today. Trade unions have much lower membership now. Indeed compared with the 1970s employers and capital are stronger and workers are weaker. That is one reason a lower proportion of GDP goes on wages. Trade union power is almost entirely in the public sector – there are few private sector strikes.

The public sector is much slower-moving and less responsive to economic shifts than the private sector. So when Covid hit us, public sector employees were more likely to keep their jobs and pay – also, partly, because more of their jobs deliver essential services. Public sector workers have more protection of jobs and pay in a recession.

But when inflation is rising fast then lagging, public sector pay puts them at a disadvantage. Public sector pay loses out when inflation is high. So at the moment total private sector compensation including bonuses is rising by eight per cent. Basic pay in the private sector is rising by five per cent. In the public sector that is closer to three per cent. So the sector of the economy with higher rates of unionisation also has lower increases in pay. Strikes are the result.

Ironically, inflation may reduce real pay in the public sector whilst also in the short term boosting public revenues. More people are pulled into higher rates of tax. Public budgets set in cash terms lose some of their value.

Overall, pay is rising less than inflation. This is not some inflationary spiral. It looks as if the adjustment to our being poorer is partly happening through pay rates. The disappointment of expectations which inflation brings is particularly felt amongst workers. They are unhappy, but they are not getting an explanation of what is going on around them which is honest about the economic pain and recognises who is bearing it.

The Government has indeed belatedly tried to protect people, especially those on the lowest incomes from rising energy prices. But it still needs to pull all this together in an account needs to show the scale of the adjustment we are going through and that whilst the sacrifices will be widespread there will also be some protection for the groups worst affected.

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Robert Tombs: Our recent history rebuts the perennial narrative of British decline

20 Jun

Robert Tombs is the author of This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe, which appears in an updated paperback edition on 28 July. He is a fellow of the Centre for Brexit Policy.

Throughout the United Kingdom’s existence, its rulers – and many foreign friends and enemies – have been convinced it was on a downward spiral.

The ‘memorable era of England’s glory is past’, thought William Pitt in the 1780s, and the Emperor of Austria agreed: Britain had ‘fallen utterly and forever, all influence and force lost … a second class power.’

We were ‘a weary Titan’, lamented Jospeh Chamberlain in 1902. Dean Acheson, the former US Secretary of State declared in 1962 that Britain had ‘lost an empire and not yet found a role.’

This litany of pessimism (and there is much more in the same vein) is always at least in the background, and indeed it often dominates discussion.

It reflects the glaring imbalance between our size and our global role. The world communicates in our language, copies swathes of our culture, uses many of our political and legal principles, and has followed our path of economic development.

Such disproportionate power and influence have often seemed precarious and fragile, even fraudulent. So it is easy to feel that we have declined from some unspecified Golden Age.

Declinism reached new depths in the postwar period. What caused it? Militarily, we were certainly overtaken by the USA. But then so was every other Great Power. The end of empire was a severe blow to the prestige of the political and diplomatic establishment. Yet the empire had brought limited economic advantage and was a huge drain on resources.

The economy was portrayed as falling behind Europe, but this was only because Italy, France and Germany were experiencing a one-off boom. Ironically, this came to an end just as we joined the EEC, and we have outperformed the Eurozone since its creation.

The declinist mindset is damaging. It persuaded governments in the 1960s and 70s to beg to join the European Common Market. The EEC was ‘the lifeboat’ and Britain ‘the sinking Titanic’, as one of Edward Heath’s close advisors put it. So however disadvantageous the terms, we should ‘swallow the lot,’ decided the chief British negotiator.

This same mindset underlay Remainer sentiment, and affected the politicians and officials who swallowed the EU’s ‘divorce settlement’, treating Brexit as a damage limitation exercise rather than a national opportunity.

Britain, to them, is a weak and failing country, that can only survive in the EU lifeboat or clinging to its gunwales – however many leaks the lifeboat keeps springing.

If we look at our history dispassionately, it is not a story of decline, but one of remarkable continuity over three centuries: as the smallest of the half-dozen or so most powerful states, but arguably the most enterprising and influential.

If one drew up a ‘league table’ over the last three hundred years, it might suggest that we have recently risen.

Never before in our peacetime history have we been Western Europe’s leading military power (our army in the 1930s was much smaller than that of Czechoslovakia, for example). Never before have we extended security guarantees as far east as Finland – Palmerston would have had a fit!

Brexit was a victory – even though a narrow one – over declinism and ‘Project Fear’. Most voters refused to accept that their country was incapable of successful self-government, and they have stuck to that opinion. Forceful aid to Ukraine has shown what is possible.

Our global role has been assessed by Professor Brendan Simms, the Cambridge international relations specialist, as ‘probably in third place after the United States and China, and certainly among the top four or five actors in the global system.’ We need governments that will act accordingly.

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

6 Jun

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

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

years of selfless service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrian Lee: Witness – what a Cold War classic teaches us about totalitarianism and radicalisation

27 May

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Seventy years ago, in May 1952, an extraordinary memoir was published that would have a profound impact on the nascent American Conservative movement.

Unusually, the author, Whittaker Chambers, a one-time writer-editor for Time magazine, was a former member of the American Communist Party and a self-confessed Soviet spy.

The 808-page book, entitled Witness, became a bestseller, and was even serialised in the Saturday Evening Post, then America’s most widely circulated weekly magazine.

A cursory glance at the volume reveals the reason for its success: the quality of the writing. Susan Jacoby, author of Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, remarked that Witness was “written with such emotional conviction that it is hard to put down even today”.

Until 1948 few people had heard of Whittaker Chambers. In personality terms, he was not an impressive figure. Chambers, a burly and ponderous middle-aged man, possessed little charm and had no public speaking ability.

Arthur Schlesinger, a writer and historian commented in 1997 on a meeting that he had with Chambers in 1946:

“I was writing a piece on the American Communist Party for Life magazine, and someone told me I should talk with Whit Chambers. I found a squat, lugubrious, unprepossessing, taciturn man initially resistant to my questions and studiously uninformative in his answers.”

Later, Schlesinger succeeded in striking a rapport with him but at the end of their meeting, Chambers informed him that he had originally suspected that he was a communist and was on his guard. T.S. Matthews, Time’s managing editor, remarked of Chambers that there was “a suppressed air of melodrama about him.”

Chambers first entered the public’s conscience by accident. On 31st July 1948, a forty-year-old American, Elizabeth Bentley, answered a subpoena and appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to testify at a public hearing of her activities as a courier for Soviet spies.

Bentley, a middle-class woman with several academic degrees, had joined the Communist Party in March 1935 and had subsequently been engaged in espionage until 1945.

The years of stress had taken their toll and by the mid-Forties she was suffering from both alcoholism and depression. The worse her condition became, the more she feared that her Soviet paymasters would eventually dispose of her. Eventually, she defected and became an FBI informant.

At the HUAC hearing, Bentley (dubbed the “Red Spy Queen” by the press) mentioned Chambers’ name as a former Communist contact and a subpoena for his attendance followed.

Amongst the three Democrats and the three Republicans who attended the HUAC session on 3rd August 1948 was a young, first-term, Californian congressman, Richard M Nixon, who’s career progression would be forever linked in the public’s mind to the events about to unfold.

Ironically, Nixon was not initially impressed with Chambers a witness, describing him later in unflattering terms:

“His clothes were unpressed; his shirt collar was curled up over his jacket. He spoke in a rather bored monotone and seemed to be an indifferent if not a reluctant witness.”

Chambers began by reading from a pre-prepared statement which concluded dramatically: “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism.”

He then went onto describe what he called the “Ware Group”, an underground organisation of the American Communist Party formed in 1933.

Originally established as a Marxist study group, the Ware Group was aimed at recruiting the young graduate elite of the new Roosevelt Administration. Special advisors, senior staffers, lawyers and economists employed within the New Deal agencies were their targets.

This was a huge advancement, as previously the Communist Party had attracted mainly poor, working-class, Eastern European emigres. It was also highly lucrative for the Party, as members were instructed to make “exceptional money sacrifices” each month.

By 1934, it had grown to 75 members, divided into cells. Chambers became the leader of the Ware Group in 1935 and told HUAC that the principal aim of the group was to infiltrate America’s federal government and to place its members in positions of influence.

During the hearing on 3rd August, Chambers mentioned the names of several of the group’s most active participants. One name sent a ripple through the committee room: Alger Hiss.

Hiss was regarded widely as New Deal royalty and one of the most senior high-flyers in the Democratic administration. The 43-year-old graduate of both John Hopkins University and Harvard Law School had served variously at the Justice Department and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, before transferring to the State Department in 1936.

In 1944 he was appointed as Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs and was responsible for drawing up plans for the new United Nations. In February 1945, Hiss attended the “Big Three” Yalta Conference as part of the American delegation.

(Infamously, Yalta determined the east-west partition of post-war Europe.)

Hiss went on to be Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on International Organisation, which created the UN Charter. In 1946 he was appointed as President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

On 5th August, Hiss appeared before HUAC and denied ever being a Communist or having personally met Chambers. Democrats vocally supported Hiss and denounce his accuser.

Chambers returned to the committee on 17th August and in the presence of Hiss, repeated his allegations. Hiss threatened Chambers with a libel action should he repeat the allegations in public. Chambers duly obliged on a national radio programme and Hiss responded by filling a lawsuit.

On 17th November, Chambers responded by producing 65 pages of documents stolen from the State Department in 1938, typed on Hiss’s personal typewriter and a series of letters handwritten by Hiss. Experts confirmed Hiss’s handwriting and the typeface of his typewriter.

On 2nd December, Chambers handed over five rolls of 35mm film allegedly taken by Hiss of State Department documents. It was the beginning of the end for Hiss, who by this time had changed his account of events several times.

Because of a statute of limitations, Hiss could not be charged with espionage, however, the Grand Jury indicted him on two counts of perjury. The first trial ended in a hung jury, but on 21st January 1950, after re-trial, Hiss was convicted. He was subsequently given a five-year prison sentence.

Hiss maintained his innocence until his death at the age of 92 in 1996. Liberal America refused to accept the verdict and turned its venom against the ambitious Richard Nixon.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, intelligence emerged that pointed to Hiss being an agent for Soviet military intelligence (GRU) and operating under the codename “Ales”. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democratic Senator, conceded: “Hiss was indeed a Soviet agent and appears to have been regarded by Moscow as its most important.”

Chambers’ memoir, Witness, is a book from a bygone era, but continues to provide insights that are relevant today.

Firstly, it explains how a person who had lost his religious faith replaced it with a utopian political creed. Secondly, it describes how totalitarian states seek to covertly subvert and undermine liberal democracies. Thirdly, the book reveals the process of awakening and de-radicalisation, as the ideology is exposed as a sham.

Finally, it stands as testament to the personal courage of an individual determined to speak the truth, despite facing the wrath of establishment opinion.

Whittaker Chambers became a conservative and a senior editor at National Review. He died in 1961 but was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously by President Reagan in 1984.

Peter Franklin: Don’t turn the Conservative Party into a cargo cult

23 May

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

In the 1930s and 40s, the US military established military bases across the south Pacific. As a result remote island cultures, with little or no contact with the outside world, suddenly found themselves face-to-face with the might of twentieth century America. Though the islanders were in no position to understand the outsiders’ technology, for a brief moment they were able to share in its benefits. But then something terrible happened: the visitors went away again.

It may be that some of the islanders were happy to see the back of the Americans, but others were desperate for the visitors — and their hitherto unimaginable wealth — to return. Indeed, in some places that longing took on a religious aspect.

So-called cargo cults sprang up in numerous locations. Cult practices sometimes took the form of ritually re-enacting the mysterious things that the visitors got up to — like clearing landing strips in the jungle. In other cases, mock aircraft were created out of local materials and symbols like the Red Cross reproduced as objects of reverence. The hope was that such rites would somehow bring back what had been lost.

Cargo cults might seem ridiculous to us — and in fact the term itself has fallen out of academic favour for that very reason. However, we westerners would be foolish to assume that we’re not susceptible to the same kind of thinking. Instead of working through the challenges that face us in the here-and-now, it is often easier to re-enact scenes from an imagined heyday.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with respecting the past and trying to learn from it. But equally we must be aware that our problems are constantly changing, and the solutions that we apply must change with them.

I’m worried that a discombobulated Conservative Party has forgotten this. Consider, for instance, our response to the return of inflation — and the criticism directed at the Bank of England for not getting on top of it. Clearly, we’ve got a major problem on our hands, but the idea that we can solve it by yanking up interest rates — because that’s what worked before — is pure cargo cultism.

The inflationary monster today is not the same beast that was slain in the 1980s. Nor does its origin lie in the last decade or so of very low interest rates, otherwise it would have shown itself years ago. Rather, the beast was born out of the extraordinary disruption to global supply chains caused by the pandemic and compounded by Putin’s war.

There was a furious reaction when the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, suggested that policymakers were helpless in the face of these inflationary pressures. Bailey could have chosen his words more carefully, but he’s a lot closer to the truth than those who believe that UK interest rates can control global commodity prices.

Other Conservatives see a lack of growth as a bigger problem than rocketing prices. In the long term, they’re probably right — but they’re wrong about the means by which they want to revive the economy: i.e. tax cuts. Again, we see a demand for the ritual re-enactment of policies from the Thatcher era; but the conditions that applied then don’t apply now.

We’re not perpetually on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve. Rather our number one economic problem is the chronic failure of British business to invest in productivity improvements — despite the incentives of lower Corporation Tax, cheap migrant labour and minimal borrowing costs. The Chancellor acknowledged this structural impediment in his Mais Lecture earlier this year, but even he felt the need to appease the tax cut fetishists in his ill-fated Spring Statement.

The ritual re-enactment of past triumphs isn’t limited to economic policy. The Conservative cargo cult is also attempting to resurrect the Right to Buy. To widespread groans, the Government has dusted off a policy to extend the Right so that housing association tenants can buy their homes too.

This is fine in principle, but the offer isn’t attractive without a hefty discount on the market value of the relevant properties— and who is going to pay for that? First proposed in 2015, the Government has already tried, and failed, to make this policy work. There’s no reason to suppose that a second attempt will be any more successful. One has to ask whether a serious effort will be made at all — or whether the announcement was just an excuse to conjure up the past.

However, I don’t want to give the impression that the conservative cargo cult is only about the 1980s. Thatcherite nostalgia is big part of it, but there are more recent triumphs to hark back to — not least, our miraculous escape from the clutches of the EU.

However, the problem with getting Brexit done is that you can’t do it again. Or can you? One fears that the main reason why the government has chosen this moment to unpick the Northern Ireland Protocol is that it needs a Brexity distraction. But if they think they can summon up the spirit of 2019, they’re badly mistaken. Brexit was about getting the EU out of our lives and allowing the UK to forge its own path. That means levelling-up and shaping and economy that works for everyone, not refighting old battles.

That’s why my heart sank when I read about Suella Braverman’s call to bring back the Conservative Party’s torch logo. Digging up this old totem really would be the ultimate cargo cult move. But anyone who thinks that dressing up in Margaret Thatcher’s clothes is going to stop Labour from taking back the Red Wall or the Liberal Democrats from making in-roads down South is deluding themselves.

If the Conservative Party really wants to honour its past, then, like Thatcher, it must fearlessly face-up to and tackle the problems of the present. If that means breaking new ground and attempting the previously impossible, then so be it. After all, our greatest duty to tradition is to take it forward into the future.

Ian Smart: Scotland and the next election. The Tory trap that Johnson is preparing for Starmer may not work.

11 May

Ian Smart is a lawyer and blogger who has been a member of the Labour Party since 1974.

On the 28th of March 1979, the Labour Government led by Jim Callaghan lost a vote of confidence by a single vote, triggering a general election which will no doubt be of very fond memory to those of my readers old enough to remember it.

Most however will have largely forgotten exactly how that election came about. But not in Scotland we haven’t.

At the previous October 1974 General Election, the SNP had achieved their then-best ever result, returning eleven of Scotland’s (then) seventy-one MPs. Almost as significantly they were the second party, behind the Tories or Labour in just about every other seat in Scotland.

Opinion polling indicated that had there been an election in 1976 or 1977, they might well have secured a majority of Scotland’s seats.

They had got themselves here by, in electoral terms, being a sort of super-Liberal Democrats: all the localism, plus the added factor of a flag. If you wanted to oust a Tory incumbent (then more bits then than you might think) in bits of Scotland where Labour wasn’t really challenging locally, then you could vote SNP.

More worryingly for my own party, who then bestrode Scottish politics, the same thing happened where the Tories weren’t contenders. And we had much more to lose.

But underlying this there was still an assumption among the electorate that the SNP were ultimately (like, dare I say it, the pre 2010 Liberal Democrats) an anti-Tory party.

So let us return to the 28th of March 1979.

On the 1st of March there had been the first devolution referendum. A narrow majority had voted for the creation of (what would then have been) a Scottish Assembly.

But this still counted as a loss, thanks to a provision that victory required at least 40 per cent of the electorate voting Yes. This was introduced to the Bill by George Cunningham, a Labour MP, and passed because of support from a significant number of other Labour MPs also voting against their own Government.

And the extremely narrow and ultimately inadequate margin of victory for ‘Yes’, which pre campaign had been assumed to be a shoo-in result, was because many of the most prominent No campaigners had been from the Scottish Labour Party: Robin Cook, Brian Wilson, and, probably most famously, Tam Dalyell.

So, suffice to say, post-referendum relations between Labour and the SNP, never good, were at a long-term low. When Callaghan announced that he couldn’t simply ignore the 40 per cent rule, the Nationalists lost the plot and put down a vote of no confidence.

Margaret Thatcher, spotting the moment, took it over. By-elections had long since deprived Callaghan of an absolute majority and, all attempts to cobble one together having failed, the Tories, with the support of all eleven SNP MPs, won the vote. The rest is history.

What happened next is why this little history lesson holds a vital lesson for today’s Labour leadership – and a warning for Conservatives who complacently assume they will be able to re-run their brutally effective ‘Vote Miliband, Get Salmond’ campaign from 2015 at the next election.

The 1979 election is engraved in the hearts of Scottish Nationalists. They lost nine of their eleven seats, holding one of the others only by a whisker (and then because Labour, perhaps not entirely wisely, fielded a candidate who had only recently left the Communist Party).

More significantly still, Thatcher got down to the job.

The 1980s should have been a golden era for the SNP: the spectre of permanent Tory rule; their deep hostility to devolution; and a raft of policies which were not, to put it mildly, universally popular in Scotland.

But their efforts to capitalise on it were hamstrung by the fact, which Labour never stopped pointing out, that the Conservatives were only in power because the Nationalists had put them there.

The Nationalists simply could not get a hearing and at the 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections there was no speculation as to whether they would gain seats, only whether they would even keep the two they had.

Even the very minor revival, to six seats, they enjoyed in !997 was very much in the undertow of the Blair landslide in parts of rural Scotland which even the maestro could not reach and on the clear understanding that the SNP would never again vote to bring down a Labour government.

That understanding remains to this day and believe me, getting that to be formally acknowledged will be a central focus of Scottish Labour’s next general election campaign.

Now, having dealt with the past, let us deal with the future.

I don’t want to annoy my readership here so I will only say that if you were a betting man or woman you might think the current most likely outcome of the next general election is a Labour plurality but without an overall majority. It is certainly much more difficult for us to win without Scotland.

But you see we would have Scotland whether we win there or not. For the SNP could never vote to bring down a Labour Government, even less so if the alternative were saving Boris Johnson’s bacon. If they did, they would pretty much lose all their seats (again).

This means that come the campaign, Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t need to offer the Nationalists “radical federalism” or indeed anything else. For what, in the event of a hung parliament, could they possibly do? If we’re far enough ahead in England and Wales they might just be able to abstain on our Queen’s speech but, if not, they’d just have to vote for it.

In 2015, Ed Miliband could not escape the trap the Tories dug for him in part because he couldn’t admit in advance that his party was about to get crushed in Scotland. Starmer has no need to hide from the facts, and this means he can take a very clear line on how he will conduct himself in the event of a hung Parliament.

This helps him both ways both ways. In England and Wales, we can rebut any suggestion by the Conservatives that Starmer would sign up to a deal which either undermined the Union or saw the Nationalists getting lots of extra cash when voters all over the country are grappling with the cost-of-living crisis.

And if the SNP object, Scottish Labour can pin them down on the question of whether or not they would support his Queen’s Speech.

That puts Sturgeon in a tricky spot: either she says her MPs will back it without conditions, disarming the Tory trap in England, or she sends left-of-centre voters in Scotland a clear signal that Nationalist MPs might stop Labour booting Boris Johnson out.

She won’t want to do that. The SNP haven’t forgotten 1979 – or what happened to the Liberal Democrats in 2015. So if the Tories are waiting for Starmer to play into Johnson’s hands on this, I suspect they’ll be sadly disappointed..

The Northern Irish legacy legislation. There will be no amnesty. But will there be a statute of limitations?

4 May

Last year, we wrote about how and why Conservative MPs were putting pressure on the Northern Irish Office to expand protections for ex-servicemen to cover veterans of the conflict in Ulster.

This campaign has not gone away. In December, Mark Francois called on Brandon Lewis to resign over the Government’s failure to bring forward legislation to end prosecutions; just last month protesters ‘blockaded’ the NIO because several former soldiers are facing fresh prosecutions with no new evidence.

Yet the weight may finally be over: early in April the Secretary of State indicated that there would be developments “within weeks”, and the Times reported that “the British government is believed to be close to finalising legislative proposals on so-called legacy killings”. Meanwhile, Leo Docherty told the Daily Telegraph that:

“I’m pleased to say, we expect from the Northern Ireland Office a bill that will give closure to veterans of (Operation) Banner, of whom there are some 300,000. We expect this bill to give closure with honour and finality and I expect that to come forward very soon.”

What is not yet clear is what form it will take. A straightforward amnesty is deeply unpopular on all sides in Northern Ireland.

There is also anger amongst unionists that existing legacy structures are perceived to disproportionately target state security personnel whilst former terrorists enjoy de facto amnesties. We reported last month that Lewis is planning new legislation that will make it clear that New Labour’s controversial ‘comfort letters’ scheme has no basis in law.

He offered an indication as to his line of thought in this report from the Derry Journal:

“When you move through a process that isn’t driven by a prosecution but which is driven by an investigation to get to the truth on a balance of probabilities like the coronial courts then you are seeing people able to get to the truth and to get an understanding”.

Lewis in the same piece emphasises that a statute of limitations does not mean that historical investigations will cease:

“One of the things I think that gets slightly misread in terms of the Command Paper we published last summer is that, yes, it does outline a statute of limitations as a sort of foundation to develop a wider package….I need to be really clear about this – we will continue investigations.”

He specifically references the inquiry into the Ballymurphy massacre, and how difficult it was to get “some recognition of the truth and understanding of what happened” in that case. In the end, the judge-led inquiry took evidence from over 150 witnesses, including “more than 60 former soldiers”, according to the BBC.

Taken together, this suggests the Government may be planning an approach which prioritises ‘truth and understanding’ over increasingly hail-Mary shots at securing criminal justice.

After all, as the Secretary of State has pointed out, nature sets its own statute of limitations: time passes, mortals age, and many of those involved may not be with us for too much longer. Lifting the threat of prosecution may encourage people to engage with ongoing investigations and ensure that victims and their families get at least the truth, if not justice.

Whether or not this will make unionists or nationalists happy is another question.

But it perhaps ought not to be the decisive one. This may be yet another area where a toxic political dynamic suits many of the local players even as it fails to serve the long-term interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. As the author Brian Rowan said of amnesty proposals:

“If we don’t go there, then we aren’t going to have a legacy process and with the wars over, we’re going to spend the next 30 years fighting the peace”.

For so long as it remains part of the United Kingdom, the Government is ultimately responsible for ensuring that Ulster receives not only peace, but order and good government. It cannot content itself with being a sort of constitutional child-minder. If Lewis thinks his proposals (whatever their final shape) are in the best interests of the Province, he should enact them.