Richard Ritchie: Human stories and political problems. Let’s hear more about able people held back by tax rises.

20 Jun

Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Whenever the media seeks to highlight a policy failing in health or welfare, it is assiduous in seeking out the most desperate of ‘hard’ or ‘sad’ cases, in order to confront ministers with the alleged inhumanity of their actions.

The Today programme presents an almost daily litany of personal tragedy, and Keir Starmer is following the precedent set by Jeremy Corbyn in reading out each week at Prime Minister’s Questions the saddest and most shocking letters he has received from his constituents or members of the public. And all the Government can do, because Ministers can’t possibly know the circumstances of each case, is to listen in compassionate silence and request the details.

There is a problem with this approach. While no doubt these cases are for the most part genuine, you cannot increase the general prosperity and well-being of the country by an obsession with the vulnerable. This may sound callous, but the danger is that by focusing all public attention on the weakest in society, one forgets what may be happening to the rest on whom the success of everyone depends.

So if it is unrealistic to expect any reduction in what some consider to be emotional blackmail, one might at least hope that similar examples were proffered of the damage caused by the policies forced upon politicians by the regular citation of human hardships.

If, for example, the experience of a few individuals reported on the media is perceived as a legitimate justification for an increase in taxation, then why not give similar scrutiny to the personal circumstances of a much larger group of people who have to pay the taxes? Individual case studies to embarrass ministers into spending public money could be matched by similar accounts of the personal consequences of the inevitable tax increases which follow.

These may never be as dramatic or as tear-jerking as stories related to welfare, the sick or the elderly: but it is, after all, only the fit, able and healthy who in the end are capable of increasing the wealth of the country upon which weaker members of society depend.

This is especially the case with the young and potentially successful. Take, for instance, a young graduate from a leading university who has chosen to become a Chartered Accountant.

Nobody is going to stand outside in the street applauding this choice. A young person employed in one of the leading accountancy firms will be paid from the outset a starting salary which is high by most young people’s standards, although significantly lower than the mega banking salaries earned by young graduates in the city. Moreover, it is likely the salary will increase every time the trainee passes each cluster of exams, which occur with a monotonous regularity – offering at least some compensation and reward for the hours of leisure sacrificed in search of a qualification.

So let’s play the media at its own game and cite a particular case  – the sort which Keir Starmer is unlikely to read out in the House. It’s not exceptional or dramatic, but it should be disturbing.

A trainee accountant whose annual salary was £27,750 in May 2021 increased to £30,500 in May of this year. So far, so good – some acknowledgment of hard work, at least until the state intervened.

But once taxation and National Insurance was deducted, the take-home pay of some £1,875 per month in May 2021 had increased to only £1,890 in May 2022 – an increase of £15 a month. This was due principally to a large increase in the amount required to pay off the student loan (an increase from £3 to £24 per month); and an increase in monthly tax & National Insurance payments from nearly £435 in 2021 to £526 in 2022. The rest was made up by a new monthly pension contribution which, however commendable and necessary, doesn’t provide much of an incentive for someone in their twenties.

Nobody is suggesting this leads to hardship. Some would say it’s a nice problem to have. But Conservatives shouldn’t say that. Here is a small, practical example of what is happening to an important section of the population as a result of this Conservative Government’s increase in taxation. The signal that this gives to those whose presence in the country is essential for the pensions and welfare of both present and future generations should be concerning.

It is so easy to say that people are willing to pay higher taxes – especially if, as in the case of care homes, these are meant to be hypothecated via the social care precept. But when taxation is viewed from the perspective of a young person just building a career, one can see how an increase in salary is currently almost entirely eaten up before any of it reaches a bank account.

Maybe this should be remembered more frequently when presented in graphic terms with the genuine hardships and tragedies of a minority of the population. Nobody should seek to forget or minimise the hardship experienced in this country.

But there ought to be enough taxable capacity to finance a decent safety-net without having to confiscate every young person’s increase in salary. Those who throughout their lives are expected to pay more into the exchequer than they extract are going to be very important if “the old, the lame and weak” are to be properly looked after in the future. That’s why we also need to remember the personal experiences of taxpayers – although possibly with more realism and less emotionalism than currently accompanies calls for higher spending.

The post Richard Ritchie: Human stories and political problems. Let’s hear more about able people held back by tax rises. first appeared on Conservative Home.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: This potential Labour leader suffers from a shortage of brio

11 May

“I will not give way,” Priti Patel declared. The Home Secretary is a specialist in not giving way. No one stands their ground in a manner more impervious to reasonable objection than she does.

She had just declared that “those on the benches opposite are eager to defend the murderers, paedophiles, rapists, thugs and people with no right to be here”.

Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, wished for some reason to respond. Patel took a large number of interventions from other members, but would not let Cooper say a word.

This looked unsporting, even though, as Patel said, “the Honourable Lady will have the chance to speak shortly”.

Cooper might conceivably be the next Leader of the Labour Party. We wanted to see whether she had become any more inspiring since she, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall were trounced by Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership campaign of 2015.

There were no Questions to the Prime Minister today: those do not happen while the Queen’s Speech is being debated, with crime and justice today’s topic.

When Patel sat down, Cooper at last got the chance to show what she could do. She said she had been taking part in Queen’s Speech debates for 25 years, and had never seen a minister so “afraid of taking questions from a shadow cabinet minister”.

What was Patel frightened of, Cooper wondered: “All my questions would have been factual. Maybe that was what she was frightened of.”

And Cooper did then produce some facts which were alarming. Within a year of an offence being reported, no charge has been brought in 93 per cent of robberies, over 98 per cent of rapes and over 99 per cent of fraud.

As one police officer had told Cooper, “It feels like once serious offences are effectively being decriminalised because there are no consequences.”

She reminded the House that soon after becoming Home Secretary, Patel told the criminals, “We are coming after you.”

Cooper continued: “You’d better start running faster because they’re all getting away.”

There can be no doubt that Cooper is on top of her brief. She remarked that she had warned in 2013 about the risk of falling charge rates.

But although she speaks with authority, one cannot say she established, in this speech, a claim to be any more inspiring than she was six years ago when Corbyn swept her aside.

John Macdonald: It’s unsustaintable for the Tories to offer so little to younger voters

10 May

John Macdonald is the Head of Government Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

It’s not just the cities, or the young and aspirational that the Conservatives are losing. Their very political engine is starting to break down, and to make it worse, they appear to be burying their heads in the sand – whilst simultaneously arguing that Labour’s success in London bodes poorly for the next general election.

Losing both Margaret Thatcher’s favoured Wandsworth Council and Westminster too suggests that the Tories are quite content with sacrificing aspirant prosperity for declinist welfarism.

Perhaps this is because voters have traditionally drifted towards the Conservatives as they got older. But rather than being an iron law, this is more simply a product of circumstance. The boomer generation was buoyed on a current of unprecedented economic growth, rising wages and the prospect of home ownership. Without any of these three factors in place, there is little reason for this phenomenon to be reproduced. In reality, there is no evidence to suggest people under 40 are moving right at all.

This was all well and good in the context of the 2019 election. By promising an end to 2017’s ‘Zombie Parliament’, end the Brexit headache and take the country Corbyn-neutral, the Conservatives could assemble a well distributed coalition of disenfranchised Labour-leavers in the North and Midlands, without worrying about losing their southern, prosperous (but often remain leaning) heartlands – on the basis that a vote for anyone other than the Conservatives would bring Jeremy Corbyn one step closer to occupying Downing Street.

But since Brexit is now more about results than bluster, blunder, and blue skies, and the Government is seen to be doing too little to alleviate the cost of living crisis, there is now space for voters to coalesce around anti-Tory sentiment.

It is looking increasingly uncertain whether the Conservatives will be able to hold on to their old, prosperous heartlands in the south while protecting their 2019 marginal seats in the North and Midlands. If voters become more at ease with a Lib/Lab coalition, the Tories’ thumping majority could end up being very short-lived.

In pursuing a political narrative of redistribution, from young to old, from prosperous south to left behind north, the Conservatives have fundamentally misunderstood the underlying challenges facing the country. Productivity and real wages haven’t recovered since 2008. The average house price is 65 times higher than in 1970. But average wages are only 36 times higher. The Government has announced tax rises worth two per cent of GDP over the last two years, the same that the last Labour Government did in ten.

This might not be so bad for those in or approaching retirement, who will be spared paying for the pandemic and will benefit from the rapidly rising value of their homes. But the young have lost formative years of education, early career opportunities and freedoms to a pandemic that they are paying through the nose for.

As it currently stands, the Government is creating a bloc of young voters that attempt to move from their place of their birth to seek prosperity, only to find themselves in cities being paid low wages, taxed at a high marginal rate of 42.2 per cent (if they’re a graduate) and scant chance of getting anywhere near the housing ladder. Quite often, these graduates then return home to non-graduate jobs, embittered by the stark reality that the economy is more oriented towards extracting revenue from them, rather than giving them the opportunity to live, work and start a family where they so choose.

What can be done? The Government could seriously consider treating Covid debt as war debt, hiving it off to be paid back at a much slower rate, and freeing the Treasury from its current, revenue first, growth second tax mentality, a policy being privately pushed by Liz Truss. Rather than exempting young people from income tax entirely, thresholds could be unfrozen, giving them a significant tax cut in real terms.

Adjusting student loan interest via CPI, the Government’s own standard measure of inflation rather than the higher RPI would also ease the pain on graduates reaching the soon to be lowered repayment threshold. Providing maintenance loans on the same terms to apprentices as students could also extend opportunities to those who don’t go to university.

To suggest that the Conservatives face a long-term existential crisis could be hyperbolic. They have succeeded at re-engineering the party time and time again, and the cohort they are targeting with welfare and subsidy is only just reaching its peak electoral salience.

But the Tories’ electoral strategy is jettisoning the fuel behind the prosperity of older generations, allowing them to coast without firing up the engines of growth. But unless the Party reorients itself around value creation, building houses and in offering young people a genuine shot at prosperity, it risks sliding into decline.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Starmer inflicts a second day of sanctimony on the House

20 Apr

If sanctimony could kill, Boris Johnson would have expired yesterday afternoon, the first time his fixed penalty notice was discussed in the Commons by Sir Keir Starmer.

But to the indignation of the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister survived that ordeal.

This left Sir Keir with a choice. Having climbed up on his high horse, should he continue in the same sanctimonious vein, or might it be better to rest the subject of the Downing Street parties, which is bound before long to return, and to ask the PM about something else?

Sir Keir opted for more sanctimony. Perhaps he thought that on Tuesday he had failed to administer a lethal dose, and that by radiating sanctimony across the Despatch Box for a second day running, he could finish Johnson off.

But sanctimony can be dangerous also to whoever radiates it. The more one claims to be holier than thou, the less attractive one may sound, and the fewer friends one may find one has.

So Sir Keir decided to make some friends. It was reported that Johnson, when addressing Tory MPs last night, had criticised the Archbishop of Canterbury and the BBC for attacking the Government’s Rwanda migrants plan more vociferously than they had attacked Vladimir Putin.

Sir Keir today called on Johnson to “apologise for slandering the Archbishop”, and went on to accuse him of attacking the brave BBC journalists who have been reporting from Ukraine.

Johnson bridled: “I said nothing of the kind.” Yesterday he made a great show of contrition. Today it was equally important that he demonstrate fighting spirit. Otherwise people would think his spirit had been broken.

This accusation that he had been “traducing journalists” showed, the Prime Minister declared, that Sir Keir “must be out of his tiny mind”.

Johnson also found occasion to call Sir Keir “a Corbynista in a smart Islington suit”. After all, had not Sir Keir campaigned at the last general election to have Jeremy Corbyn made Prime Minister?

Politics is often a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils: a point which sanctimonious politicians refuse to admit.

Allan Mallinson: What if Putin opts to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

22 Mar

Allan Mallinson is a former soldier, and a novelist and writer. His The Making of the British Army is published by Penguin Random House.

Ben Wallace wrote on this site last week that Vladiir Putin should be in no doubt that escalation will meet a robust response. A day earlier, Garvan Walshe described the need for “escalation dominance”.

They’re right, of course. And unthinkable though it may seem, we need therefore to talk about tactical nuclear weapons. We’ve almost forgotten what they were.

The only thing that ever bothered me in the 1980s, when the Cold War was at a dangerous fork in the road and I was commanding a squadron in Germany, was the periodic guard duty at the nuclear ammunition storage site near Paderborn.

It wasn’t the thought of a nuclear accident – where else to be in that event but at ground zero? – or attack by Spetsnaz or terrorist gangs, for we could have dealt with that. Rather was it the military police battalion of the 59th (US) Ordnance Brigade (Special Ammunition Support).

The MPs’ job was security, and they took it hyper-seriously. (If not, why not?). A Lance Corporal that stumbled when interrogated about his precise orders could bring a career-stopping rebuke from the Commander-in-Chief for the officer in command.

The ammunition was nothing to do with the strategic nuclear deterrent (Polaris), technically. These were low-yield shells for the Royal Artillery’s eight-inch calibre howitzer (range about 12 miles), and warheads for the Lance ballistic missile (range, 50 miles or so): they were tactical – “battlefield” – nuclear weapons (TNW).

Each national contingent on NATO’s Central Front — the US, British, Canadian, German, Dutch and Belgian — fielded the same delivery systems, but the warheads were American, to be out-loaded during a crisis, and fiercely guarded for the rest of the time.

The Royal Air Force (Germany), along with the other national air contingents, had sub-strategic nuclear bombs and missiles of their own. The targets of RAF(G)’s TNWs were troop concentrations to the east of the River Weser, in the event of Soviet spearheads breaching the so-called Weser Line on the western side of the Upper Weser valley. The Lances and howitzers of the Royal Artillery’s 39th Heavy and 50th Missile regiments would have joined in the interdiction.

That, however, was the purely military view of TNW, and there were indeed some who regarded nuclear artillery as “just a bigger bang.”

The other view was that of the policy staff in Whitehall. I remember during my first week in the directorate of military operations being told by a senior mandarin that the General Staff did not understand deterrence.

In essence, the policy staff’s view was that of Sir Humphrey Appleby when he explained Deterrence to the Jim Hacker in Yes, Prime Minister.  Hacker thought he probably wouldn’t use Trident in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain, and that they, the Soviets, probably knew it – so buying Trident was pointless.

Sir Humphrey agreed, up to a point: “Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn’t. But they can’t certainly know.”

Hacker doubted this. “They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn’t.”

Sir Humphrey was then at pains to explain the essential element of uncertainty in deterrence theory: “Yes, but though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t, they don’t certainly know that, although you probably wouldn’t, there is no probability that you certainly would.”

Which is why when in 2015 Jeremy Corbyn, pressed by Sarah Montague, the Today presenter, on whether there were any circumstances in which he would use the nuclear option, said “No”, he effectively cancelled deterrence and made himself unelectable as Prime Minister.

Sir Humphrey didn’t explain to Jim Hacker the role of TNW in deterrence theory. It was comedy, after all, and the joke was better delivered quickly. But the purpose of TNW, said the real Sir Humphreys in the 1980s, was to provide a plausible ladder of escalation: graduated response, rather than the erstwhile and rather less plausible doctrine of massive retaliation, with its notion of mutually assured destruction.

What those eight-inch nuclear shells did was provide multiple threads in the seamless cloak of escalatory deterrence logic – from the first rifle shots as Soviet troops set foot across the Inner German Border, to the release of multiple warheads over Russian cities.

TNWs weren’t meant to be used; they were meant to demonstrate that the cloak of deterrence was indeed seamless, and that there was therefore real peril for the Soviets in any offensive. Strategic and tactical nuclear weapons were inseparable in deterring both conventional and nuclear attack, which was why NATO could never sign up to “no first use.”

The Soviets had to be convinced of the real peril, of course – and so the soldiers and airmen had to plan for the actual use of TNW, practise their firing, and store the warheads and missiles well forward. And indeed the policy staff tended to view calls for any substantial strengthening of conventional defence, as the soldiers were always urging, as potentially diminishing deterrence, since it might increase the threshold of tactical nuclear release and therefore tempt a Soviet conventional attack with limited objectives.

Some soldiers thought this was all nonsense. Several chiefs of the general staff in the 1980s, notably two of the most cerebral – Dwin Bramall and Nigel Bagnall – would happily have scrapped all nuclear weapons, strategic and tactical.

They supposed the Soviets acted with the same rationality as they themselves, and were probably right to, although we’ll never know because the Soviet leadership was never put to the ultimate test. The arguments ceased with the collapse of the Soviet Union, when TNW were withdrawn from Europe and, in effect, scrapped. The Russians, on the other hand, did not scrap theirs.

Putin quite evidently acts with a different rationality, his logic based on different premises. What if, therefore, in contemplating using TNW, he becomes sufficiently certain that NATO, unable to respond with other than strategic nuclear weapons, will never gain the authority of its members to escalate?

In the public imagination, his crude but tellingly vague nuclear threats over Ukraine suggest intercontinental strikes. But what if he were contemplating a TNW strike against a “legitimate military target”? And how, in any future confrontation with NATO, would the alliance deter that same threat — or if deterrence fails, would restore deterrence?

To win Cold War Two, we must get real again about deterrence. NATO rearmament must address the seam that has been inserted in the previously seamless cloak.

Richard Holden: With Labour as the alternative, Conservatives cannot afford any more divisions

18 Jan

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

West Shield’s Farm, Satley, Co. Durham

There are fewer better reality checks than meeting a handful of County Durham farmers, on site, as the light fades and the temperature drops, in the bleak mid-winter. They had got in touch with me about small gangs of people trespassing on their land with dogs and guns, causing repeated criminal damage and leaving them in fear for their families, livestock and their own safety if confronted.

These aren’t the poachers you might find in a by-gone episode of The Archers or Jake from Withnail and I – with a brace of pheasant in his jacket and an eel down his trousers. They’re just thugs who often leave what they shoot in their late-night “sport” and cause lots of damage to farmland and property as they do it. My local farmers have come together in the worst hit areas to fight back, sharing descriptions and number plates caught on cameras with each other and the police.

Any farming community has long memories and lots of small, mostly friendly, local rivalries. Sometimes these are more serious with little schisms and long-running, low-level animosity between, and even within, farming families. But usually, like with this mutual interest to get these local thugs off their patches, they come together in mutual benefit, for their shared interest when they need to and for the benefit of all.

Seeing those farmers reminded me of a time before I was an MP, when I was working behind the scenes. In various roles at Conservative HQ and in different government departments there were tough times. The most challenging time I had wasn’t Boris Johnson or Theresa May’s leadership campaigns, or during the 2015/6 Lords V Commons (unprecedented war) on Universal Credit, or ISIS in Iraq/Syria when I was at the MoD, or DfE battles with The Treasury over funding. The toughest time I had working in politics was at the end of May’s time in No 10 when I was at the Department for Transport.

There were events – drones at Gatwick at Christmas – that caused chaos. This happened at the same time as the Department was facing relentless attacks, trying to undermine our negotiating position with the EU and our ability to withstand a no-deal Brexit, which anyone interested in delivering the best deal with the EU needed to keep on the cards. The cabinet minister I worked for at the time eventually became the only Brexiteer left in cabinet. Others were picked off or left and we were very vulnerable to attacks, mostly motivated by other parts of government and the Conservative Party at the time, egged on by the media and the Opposition, who basically said that Brexit would never work and that they didn’t want it in the first place.

It was horrible. It was nasty, internecine warfare played out daily in the press. It was a political civil war in the governing party and in the country. It could have ended in a Corbyn-led Labour government and at times it was a bloody close-run thing that it didn’t.

Out of that chaos, eventually, Johnson emerged. He faced down the Brexit deniers and eventually forced a General Election. That delivered the first big majority in over three decades and allowed him to deliver on the express mandate of the British people to “Get Brexit Done” – whatever side they’d been on in 2016. The world then got side-swiped with a pandemic. Initially, we didn’t know much about it except that there were bodies being piled in football stadiums in Italy and elsewhere. Even now it is evolving. The calls that our Prime Minister and senior members of the cabinet have made and make on this are massive and have had to be done with far less idea about the outcome than any Brexit negotiation.

But unlike Brexit, the decisions being taken, at pace, have also been potentially matter of life and death for people. They’re also about the survival of many jobs, businesses and education across the country. And we have the same armchair generals thinking their solution is the right one as we did during Brexit. I’m as much a freedom loving Conservative as the next. I joined the party well over 20 years ago when William Hague was our leader – even first term Blair/Brown was too much for that Northern teenager then who felt that London-centric Labour had nothing to offer and did not understand the towns and villages he was growing up in. I don’t have all the answers to what we should do now and I trust that my colleagues in government come from the issue from same starting point as me in their decision making about the future.

Just before Christmas, our party looked like it might eat itself up over the response to Covid-19 – and we’ve got further big decisions before my next column. The damage we do ourselves if we constantly second guess everything ministers do is deep, not just to ourselves but to public confidence. Starmer, Streeting and Co have already proved their instincts are not ours. They wanted to keep lockdown back in July when it wasn’t needed. They would have kept us in the European Medicines Agency for ideological reasons. They wanted more restrictions over Christmas. And they are licking their lips at the prospect of facing a divided party.

Sue Gray’s investigation, which we await the results of will be the short-term determinant of what comes next for our party’s leadership. Many colleagues in Parliament and Conservative supporters in North West Durham have reflected to me that it will determine their view in coming days. But wherever it goes and whatever its consequences, it needs to be a moment where we draw a line under the questions being faced by the Government – one way or the other.

Like my North West Durham farmers facing the anti-social behaviour of the new breed of poachers, we Conservatives need to come together as we face our own anti-Conservative vote poachers in the opposition. Labour would love to see our freedom curtailed permanently for ideological reasons. In government we Conservatives have had to for short-term practical reasons. We are not the same and need to show the public we’re ready to move towards an endemic, rather than pandemic health response.

We have a common enemy as a nation in Covid. As Conservatives we have a common opposition in those whose instincts are not ours on how to deal with it in Labour. Labour would pursue a different path for ideological reasons – they’ve pushed for a different response throughout. I know that Conservatives in government want the same thing as backbenchers and the people who voted for me: freedom returned, Brexit delivered, levelling up in action, crime fought and borders secure, long-term fiscal stability with sound money and fairer, lower taxes, where work is always rewarded and our public services sustainably funded. Let’s allow Sue Gray get on with her job then get on with ours.

Lisa Townsend: It’s time for Conservatives to address the party’s women problem

11 Jan

Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.

I’m not a fan of ‘women’s issues’. For a start, we make up 51 per cent of the electorate, so if we’re going to discuss sex-based minority policies then we should really be starting with men. Current tactics however, are not working for women.

We know that, historically, women were more likely to vote Conservative. The oft-quoted Fawcett Society claim that without women’s suffrage, the UK would have seen an almost continuous Labour government since the Second World War, should serve as a reminder to us all how important women are in determining who gets to hold the keys to 10 Downing Street.

But right now, the party has a woman problem – a young woman problem, to be more specific. It’s been steadily growing since 2015 and according to recent polling, it’s getting worse. So bad in fact, that without urgent action to regain the trust and confidence of women we will be handing victory to Labour at the next general election. Keir Starmer will be hoping for a 1997-style swing in female voters and the way things are going, he may well get his wish.

Despite our electoral success, in 2015 and 2017, women under 35 were more likely to vote Labour. This was even more stark in 2019 when 47 per cent of men voted Conservative compared to only 42 per cent of women. Older women remain more likely than their male peers to vote Conservative, but we all know what happens if we rely on an ageing cohort for our electoral success.

In 2017, despite a female prime minister and a supposed end to the macho culture at No 10, it was women who found themselves persuaded by Jeremy Corbyn’s promises for a fairer society. More pay, better housing and safer communities. None of these are ‘women’s issues’ but Labour understood that women hold huge electoral power in their pencil-wielding hands, and they made a point of speaking directly to women, in a way that we did not.

The Conservative Party can no longer rely on women to get us over the line, and we shouldn’t be surprised. Women are more likely to be floating voters, less loyal to a party and an ideology, and more influenced by trust – or the lack of – in a leader. It may be the one example where past habits are no longer the predictor of future behaviour. We must try harder to win that trust back, and this will involve going back to basics – at least in terms of our understanding of women.

I’m not a fan of the ‘women and equalities’ brief, but I am pleased it is headed by someone who knows what a woman is. Liz Truss is a rare and brave Cabinet member for questioning Stonewall, publicly and forcefully, paving the way for politicians like me to speak out against a damaging form of trans ideology that places the feelings of men above the safety of women and children.

I don’t believe this is an exclusively women’s issue (it affects us all when gender and sex are conflated), but I do believe that if we are to win and retain women as voters we have to be clear that we know what a woman is. Today, many women who have previously voted Labour, Lib Dem or Green tell me they feel politically homeless. And the one belief those parties have in common: that anyone who calls themselves a woman must be treated as such – no questions asked. Where does that leave those of us who believe that being a woman is more than a ‘feeling’?

It is not too late to win back those who thought Corbyn was the answer or who believe Starmer would be better than Boris Johnson. We don’t need a pink bus or a manifesto for women, we just need to be clear that this Conservative government understands their concerns and their fears.

It was hugely encouraging to see last week’s additions to the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, including longer sentences for sexual offenders, more time to report domestic abuse and a new ‘breastfeeding voyeurism’ offence. I make the assumption here that there are no men who wouldn’t want to see their mother, wife or daughter given these extra protections, or wouldn’t actively push for these measures. Being the party of law and order appeals to men and women equally.

It was a Conservative government that gave women the vote on the same terms as men, the Conservative Party which has given the UK the only female prime ministers the country has known and now we is the only party which seems to know what a woman actually is. We must not miss the chance to show women all over the UK that their vote and their safety is and always will be safe with us.

Stewart Jackson: A reshuffle that moved some of the Prime Minister’s critics into the Cabinet would be prudent

10 Jan

Stewart Jackson is a former Conservative MP and Special Adviser, and is the Founder and Director of UK Political Insight.

The precipitous recent decline in the poll ratings of the Prime Minister and predictions of electoral doom are indicative of two enduring phenomena: that Boris Johnson is unique and, like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair before him, dominates the political landscape.

Conservative MPs will largely sink or swim as a result of the electorate’s judgement of him. But there’s nothing new in these setbacks, and many Conservatives have little institutional memory, and perhaps little understanding, of the vicissitudes of modern politics.

The bien pensant liberal media classes and their cheerleaders such as Matthew Parris are loathe to concede it, but the Prime Minister is a historically significant figure. He not only led the movement (or at least the last throes of it) which resulted in the UK’s exit from the European Union but, more fundamentally, built a mighty vote-winning electoral coalition founded on culture and community rather than class and capital.

What Johnson has had in spades is not just celebrity and chutzpah, but luck: inheriting a safe Commons seat in 2001 when the Tories had detoxifying work in progress; coming to power in London during a Conservative renaissance in the capital when the voters were sick of Ken Livingstone, and quitting the Cabinet after the Chequers plan in 2018 – to usurp the pitiful May interregnum and break the Brexit impasse.

The Prime Minister’s greatest weakness is that he loves to be loved but, ironically, the more hysterical and cacophonous the shrieks of his critics, the stronger he becomes politically. To many Tory voters, all the usual suspects hate the Prime Minister – not least bcause they believe that he was and should be one of them.

However, he lacks a Praetorian Guard in Parliament who will walk through fire for him (even John Major had one) and the relationship that many Tory MPs have with the First Lord of the Treasury is cynical and transactional.

Covid restrictions, tax rises, self-inflicted wounds such as the Paterson affair, ethical issues, the fall out from reshuffles and recurring problems of miscommunication between Number Ten and Conservative MPs have all soured the glad confident morning of December 2019.

Johnson still has the power to forgive – and a reshuffle that pulled some hitherto irreconcilables and malcontents back into the tent would be prudent politics.

My erstwhile colleague at Crosby Textor and electoral wunderkind, Isaac Levido, has compared the post Covid scenario as like when the tide is at its lowest: all the Prime Minister’s problems lie like broken boats on the harbour floor.

Brexit and future relations with the EU, the cost of living crisis and soaring energy prices, social care and the demographic timebomb, delivering the levelling up agenda and regional and national infrastructure, the busted local government funding and planning systems respectively, fighting the “Blob” in the delivery and reform of publc services and the endemic problem of uncontrolled immigration – all are moving up the list of voter salience.

But there’s nothing new under the sun. In 1979, Thatcher wrestled with an inflation rate of 13 per cent and interest rates of 17 per cent. Even John Major, barely a year before besting Neil Kinnock in the 1992 General Election struggled with a jobless figure in the millions, 10 per cent interest rates and annual price rises of seven per cent – none of which Johnson will experience next year or, most likely, before the next general election.

The last two months will have actually helped Johnson and his most devoted supporters to shake free the contagion of complacency and “BoJo is teflon” exceptionalism: the Cabinet revolt against further Covid restrictions was  timely and good for efficient government. It means that in future, controversial policies are likely to be more routinely challenged, and will be improved upon by robust critique.  The Iraq War showed that Cabinet government by fan club very rarely ends well.

The Prime Minister’s most urgent strategic challenge is the same as that for Thatcher, Blair, Major and David Cameron – namely, how to reinvent his Government. For Brown and May – similar personalities – it was already too late. But such reworking was done in 1986 after Westland and in 1991 before the ERM catastrophe.

Most recently, David Cameron offers hope and inspiration. (Yes, I did write that sentence!) His clever decision to back a Private Members’ Bill to give effect to an EU Referendum in 2014 soothed the Eurosceptic fever in the Commons, and allowed the Conservatives to focus on their retail offering to voters at the 2015 election.

What also helped teamwork and discipline then was a narrow but consistent poll lead for Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, and the prospect of a re-energised Opposition and a possible SNP-Labour colation government.

Today, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is off life support, is winning the right to debate, is more credible than during the last six years, and sp tighter polls will concentrate the minds of fractious Conservative MPs. For all that, though, Labour is miles from looking like a government in waiting and, frankly, if Wes Streeting is the answer, it’s a very silly question.

Specifically, the Government must rebuild its demoralised electoral coalition, keep the Right broadly united and it develop a positive case for the continuance of a Conservative Government – a compelling narrative and a legacy.

Support amongst Leave voters has slumped from 72 per cent to 56 per cent during the last six months, and Red Wall voters are disilusioned and impatient.

Currently, many Tory supporters in the South and South West, ABs and C1s who voted Remain, but were terrified of a Corbyn government, are angry about tax rises, general incompetence, planning, Tory Sleaze 2.0 (sic) and are shopping around for a protest vote.

Ironically, Theresa May’s entrance speech on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street in July 2016 provides the Prime Minister’s own template for rejuvenation.

There’s more than enough time to deliver on a commitment to localism – a repeat of the successes in Tees Valley and the West Midlands. Michael Gove has the acumen and strategic nous to understand that building enough houses for young voters is now existential for the Conservative Party – after all, you can’t create capitalists who don’t and can’t own capital. And deregulation, tax cuts and demonstrable Brexit wins, such as freeports, must be front and centre in the Conservative story.

The voters don’t care for Singapore on the Thames, but they generally favour traditional Tory values.The Cabinet, for all the media criticism, still has condident and pesuasive voices, such as Steve Barclay, Grant Shapps and Ben Wallace.

Johnson still has aces to play: by historic standards, he’s still polling reasonably well, even if the May local elections will be brutal. And as public opinion in the wake of the Colston statue trial has shown, the War on Woke energises his base, and is a cultural wedge issue which drives many newer Conservative voters.

But such action will be hobbled without firm and radical action on immigration.Similarly, “barnacles must be scraped off the boat” – such as socially liberal tokenism in new legislation, tax rises to fund green initiatives and appointing political opponents to public bodies.

It surely isn’t too much to ask for a Conservative Government to be, well, fundamentally Conservative? Competent, compassionate and communitarian. Johnson has limited time to deliver but at least he now knows and comprehends more than ever, as a classical scholar, the immortal words of the Roman slave to his Emperor: “respice post te, mortalem esse memento” – “look around you, remember you are mortal.”

Daniel Hannan: Don’t write off Johnson just yet

22 Dec

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Here is a thought that, in the current climate, might seem almost recklessly counter-intuitive. Boris Johnson is doing a good job – better, in the circumstances, than his rivals would be doing. I don’t just mean that he is less bad than Keir Starmer or Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May. I mean that he is playing an almost impossible hand as well as could realistically be hoped.

I advance that proposition as a fiscal conservative and a lockdown sceptic. ConHome readers will be familiar with my frequent screeds against this government’s prodigality and illiberalism. But it is not enough to argue that the PM is spending too much or that the lockdowns have been too harsh. You have to show me someone who, given the present national mood, would be doing better.

Let’s deal, in order, with the three main charges against Johnson: that his administration is at best careless and at worst sleazy; that he was too ready to close the country down; and that, more generally, he has been absorbed by the Blob that he was supposed to extirpate.

Is Johnson really being undone by cheese and wine? No. What newspapers call “sleaze” is almost always a symptom rather than a cause of a government’s unpopularity. Just as the original “Tory sleaze” scandals in 1993 reflected rage over the ERM fiasco, and just as the 2009 MPs’ expenses revelations followed the financial crisis, so the current furores about parliamentary standards and illicit gatherings in Downing Street and flat redecorations are a chiefly a sign that the benefit of the doubt has been lost.

Six months ago, Johnson could painlessly have replaced the parliamentary standards commissioner on grounds that she seemed to have a penchant for going after Eurosceptics and that, in any case, the processes themselves were flawed.

Likewise, he could have advanced a perfectly credible defence of the (alleged) get-togethers in Downing Street. He might have pointed out, for example, that a glass of wine after a day in a shared office is hardly a party. He could have brandished the image of himself conducting a quiz at his computer as clear evidence that he was following the rules (how bizarre, and yet how telling, that it should be seen as somehow dodgy). He could have argued that, if sleaze means using public office for private gain, then using private money to do up a state-owned flat is ezaels – the precise opposite of sleaze.

If this were really about alleged corruption, the PM would have little to worry about. Voters sense that he is the least venal of men. His manner, his car, his suits – all tell the same story, namely that this is a bloke with no interest in owning valuable things. Yes, voters might see him as shambolic, light on detail, reluctant to moralise. But these attributes were priced in before the 2019 election.

In his short book on Winston Churchill, Johnson lists that great man’s various cock-ups – Gallipoli, the Gold Standard, backing Edward VIII during the abdication crisis – and notes that none of them ruled him out of contention. Why? Because, however chaotic or over-exuberant he could appear, no one ever accused him of lining his pockets. As for the subject, so for his biographer.

If not sleaze, then, what? The obvious answer, for many, is the lockdown. A man who used to write wonderful Telegraph columns about liberty, and whose editorial line at The Spectator was solidly anti-nanny state, has confined us in our homes, closed businesses and seen a massive commensurate increase in spending.

All true, alas. But – and I write as someone who spoke and voted against Plan B in Parliament last week – who would have done better? Even with the Plan B restrictions, Britain is more open than almost any other country. Why? Because Johnson ignored the doom-mongers and unbolted on July 19.

It is worth recalling how much criticism he got at the time. It was “dangerous” and “unethical” according to 122 scientists who signed an anti-Johnson letter in The Lancet, “reckless” according to Starmer, who feebly tried to get #JohnsonVariant trending. Yet infections, hospitalisations and fatalities fell – to the almost literal disbelief of commentators who, for a while, reported the opposite.

Nor was it just commentators who expected the worst. Modellers at Warwick University forecast at least 1,000 deaths a day (in the event, the highest daily toll was 188). SAGE told us that daily hospital admissions would be between 2,000 and 7,000 (the highest daily total was 1,086). Neil Ferguson predicted 100,000 infections a day (they peaked at 56,688).

Now tell me, my fellow lockdown-sceptics, how many other politicians would have resisted that pressure? How many would have done the same on Monday, in the face of an almost hysterical media campaign for a new lockdown?

Again and again, Johnson emerges as a level-headed optimist. Those leaked Cummings WhatsApp messages, intended to put him in a bad light, in fact show him doing precisely what he should be doing, namely taking a stand for liberty and demanding overwhelming evidence before he shifts his ground.

What, though, of the third complaint, the one that I suspect most animates ConHome readers, namely that Johnson has squandered an 80-seat majority and that, all in all, we might as well have had Starmer?

Oh, come off it. Would Starmer have delivered Brexit? Would he have signed free trade agreements with 70 countries? Would he be privatising Channel 4 and appointing a non-socialist to run the BBC? Would he keep our statues standing or stiffen criminal sentences?

Would he be legislating to stop travellers trespassing on private land? Or to return failed asylum seekers without endless vexatious appeals? Would he have opted out of the EU’s vaccine procurement programme? Would he be creating freeports? Would he beef up our defences or pursue AUKUS – a deal he has actually condemned as warmongering?

Let’s put the question another way. Who is enjoying the PM’s discomfort? Labour and the Lib Dems, obviously. But also the European Commission, Emmanuel Macron, Rejoiners, woke academics – everyone, in short, who wants to see Brexit Britain fail.

As a free-market conservative, I am in despair about a lot things right now. The debt level, the retreat into protectionism, the demand for the smack of firm government. But these things are consequences of the pandemic. If you want to blame someone, blame whoever caused the original Wuhan outbreak. The idea that Johnson, of all people, is getting an authoritarian kick out of our misery is too silly for words. We are pretty much the freest country in Europe. Merry Christmas!

Dean Machin: Policymakers must understand the reasons people go to university – or else educational reforms will be resented

13 Dec

Dean Machin is Head of Public Policy at the University of Portsmouth. He is a former philosopher who has advised David Willetts and written a report on data-sharing for the Social Mobility Commission.

It is the increasingly settled wisdom that universities are failing to deliver yet they are more popular than ever. Why?

Putting aside conspiracy theories about universitiesingenious ways to inveigle young people into their clammy embrace, part of the explanation must be that, university apart, the options for school-leavers are poor. But we won’t change what school-leavers aspire to without understanding why university is so attractive, particularly to disadvantaged young people.

The Apprenticeship Levy, which unintentionally led to a decline in intermediate and advanced apprenticeships at the same time as a significance increase in higher apprenticeships, highlights how policy can misfire when policymakers do not understand people’s motivations. A party that has always seen itself as working with the grain of human nature should remember this.

It’s about taking control of your future, not just productivity

The Centre for Policy Studies recently proposed a package of measures to incentivise the kind of training and education that will make both individuals and the country richer in the long run. The pre-supposed purpose of university is to improve productivity. Courses that do not this should be taken at students’ “own risk. Whether this is the ‘right’ purpose of a mass university system is beside the point: if reforms based on this premise jar with why people choose university, perverse outcomes will follow and many young people will be left frustrated and angry.

As any university recruiter will tell you, there are a whole raft of often idiosyncratic reasons why anyone chooses university or one university over another. But some generalisations are possible.

First, university is a fairly permanent aspiration. In 2010 the Millennium Cohort Study found that 97 per cent of mothers of seven year olds wanted their children to go to university. A more recent survey found that 65 per cent of parents with children under 10, and 70 per cent of parents with children 1115, want their children to go to university.

Second, through UCAS there is a well-designed and relatively efficient national system to turn young people’s occasionally vague aspirations to university into effective applications. There should almost certainly be some similar system for further education and apprenticeships.

Third, school leavers have few good alternatives to university but – and this is the central point – for disadvantaged young people, university is by a long way their best bet. The state pays upfront for their education and offers (means-tested) living-costs – weighted to enable them to move to another town or city. There is no comparable level of support for any other option.

If you do not live in a place that offers many economic opportunities, and if you have few financial resources and little social capital (so no friendly aunt in Islington to provide lodging while you find your way in the media), university is your best bet to reduce the degree to which your background determines your future.

Francis the Train Guy recently found social media fame because of his infectious passion for trainspotting. When interviewed, he cited university as giving him the confidence to be open about what is generally viewed as a tedious pass-time. He contrasted the liberating effect of university with the pressure to conform at school and sixth form.

For Francis, it was trainspotting and for some others it will be their sexuality. For most, though, it will be an ambition to be something that perhaps their parents find incomprehensible, or that no-one in their background has ever seen as feasibly achievable. In his speech ‘What is education for?Michael Gove put the general point rather well. Education has an emancipatory, liberating, value. … I believe education allows individuals to become authors of their own life story. Education helps you take control of your own life.

Is emancipation the state’s business?

Life is not sustained by productivity increases alone and having greater control over your own life is something citizens can demand of their politicians. Public funding for this is also uniquely valuable for disadvantaged young people – those with little social and financial capital behind them. More advantaged young people might not need state support to see the world as full of opportunities, to develop self-confidence, or to make their aspirations effective. Disadvantaged young people almost certainly will. Narrowing university funding only to areas that make people more productive would level down, not up.

So what?

While this argument reinforces Government wisdom to provide alternatives to university – different people will become authors of their own story in different ways – it also highlights the need for policymakers to understand the varied reasons that draw people to university. Without this, well-intentioned reforms might have perverse consequences and be resented. Attempts to push people on to technical courses at local further education colleges, for example, who might otherwise leave home for university (possibly to study the creative arts!) could end up being as popular as Jeremy Corbyn.

When describing the liberating benefits of university, the Train Guy made no mention of the subject he studies (engineering if you are interested). The benefits of university are not reducible to the economic returns of studying a particular subject. If they were it would be very difficult to explain the 2021 HEPI Survey finding that while 25 per cent of those surveyed would have changed course or university, only eight-nine per cent wished they had not gone at all.

Those who think is this all is nonsense and that investment in universities must succeed or fall on the basis of productivity increases should note one thing. To implement their view not only will policy have to change but so will people. Young people must start to want different things. It has always been a standard critique of left-wing parties that their policies would work if only the people were different.

Finally, and more practically, the foregoing identifies a test for the Government’s post-18 education reforms: do reforms give disadvantaged young people those with little social and financial capital a greater chance to be “authors of their own life story” or just the chance to be more productive? Answering this question will offer a very good guide to which reforms will work and which will not.