Javid is Chancellor. Tugendhat, Foreign Secretary. May, Home Secretary. Introducing the Alternative Cabinet.

2 Sep

The Cabinet is widely and correctly dismissed as weak.  So we’ve had a go at assembling a stronger one.  Here is the result.

Our only rule is that no Commons member of the present Cabinet can be listed in this imaginary one. Some of those named below are very familiar to this site’s editors.  Others we don’t really know, and one or two we’ve never met.

The aim of the exercise isn’t to suggest that the entire Cabinet should be swept away, and this one appointed.  Nor that all the alternatives to the present incumbents are better.

None the less, We think that, person for person, this is a better and certainly a more experienced mix of potential Ministers – all of whom are waiting in the wings either in government or on the backbenches,

– – – – – – – – – –

Chancellor of the Exchequer

Sajid Javid

Javid never got a chance to deliver a Budget.  In our imaginary scheme, he would.  His economic instincts are dry, pro-current spending control, lower business taxes, and more infrastructure investment

Foreign Secretary

Tom Tugendhat

Undoubtedly a gamble, since he’s never held Ministerial office, but the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chairman and former soldier is one of the country’s leading foreign affairs thinkers.

Home Secretary

Theresa May

Whatever you think of her period as Prime Minister, May gripped a department that famously is “not fit for purpose” and, with some of her Tory colleagues campaigning against her, worked to keep net migration down.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office

John Redwood

He is more than capable, as his blog confirms, of thinking creatively about policy, the civil service and delivery – as one would expect from the most effective Tory head that the Downing Street Policy Unit has ever had,

Defence Secretary

Penny Mordaunt

Steeped in defence through family background and her Portsmouth constituency, Mordaunt had less than three months to prove herself in this post.  There’s a case for her having more.

Justice Secretary

Geoffrey Cox

Cox is a Queen’s Council as well as a convinced Brexiteer, and would bring heavyweight credentials to dealing with the judiciary, prisons, human rights and judicial review.

Business Secretary

Greg Clark

Clark is the sole former Cabinet Minister left in the Commons who lost the whip over Brexit, and under this plan would return to his old department.

Trade Secretary

Liam Fox

If Boris Johnson thinks Fox is capable of running the World Trade Organisation, he must surely believe that he could make a success of running his former department again.

Education Secretary

Robert Halfon

Our columnist is now Chair of the Education Select Committee, is a former Minister in the department, and has a populist, work-orientated passion for the subject.

Health Secretary

Jeremy Hunt

The appointment would be risky, because Hunt is bound to be caught up in the Coronavirus inquiry, but he has consistently been ahead of the game on social distancing plus test and trace.

Work and Pensions Secretary

Iain Duncan Smith

Universal Credit has been a quiet success story of Covid-19, and Duncan Smith has the seniority and experience to take it to the next level, given its indispensability as unemployment soars.

Housing, Communites and Local Government Secretary

Kit Malthouse

Former local councillor, London Assembly member, Deputy Mayor to Boris Johnson in London, Minister of State for Housing and Planning – and so well-qualified for the post.

Environment Secretary

Owen Paterson

Paterson knows almost everything about the brief, having held it under David Cameron, and as a convinced Leaver would have plenty of ideas for the future of farming post-Brexit.

Transport Secretary

Jesse Norman

Would be a promotion for a Minister who’s worked in the department before, and did a committed job there as Roads Minister.

Culture Secretary

Tracey Crouch

Knows everything there is to know about sport, and would be a popular appointment, were she willing to take the post on.

Scottish Secretary

Andrew Bowie

Young, personable, and seen as close to Ruth Davidson, which would help with a row about a second Scottish independence referendum coming down the tracks. A calculated gamble from a limited field.

Welsh Secretary

Stephen Crabb

Senior, thoughtful, knows the brief from first hand, will be across the internal Party debate in Wales about the future of devolution.

Northern Ireland Secretary

James Cleverly

Successful on conventional and social media as a Party Chairman, a strong communicator, and now gaining diplomatic experience at the Foreign Office – Northern Ireland would represent a natural transfer.

Party Chairman

Kemi Badenoch

Right-wing, and not afraid of thinking for herself on culture issues – as she has shown as a Minister in sweeping up in the Commons on race, justice and Black Lives Matter.  Would make a strong spokesman.

Leader of the Lords

Natalie Evans

The Lords leader is the exception to our rule, on the ground that the Government’s problem with top Ministers is focused in the Commons, not the Lords – where what’s needed is wider reform.

– – –

Entitled to attend

Leader of the House

Andrea Leadsom

Leadsom was an excellent Leader of the House, standing up to bullying John Bercow, and well up to dealing with the knotty complex of bullying/harrassment issues.  No reason for her not to come back.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Steve Baker

Adventurous choice – but, contrary to the fashionable noise about tax rises, what’s really needed is a proper zero-based review of public spending, a task to which Baker would commit himself zealously.

Attorney-General

Lucy Frazer

This QC consider herself unlucky to miss out last time round, and if there has to be a change in post she would slide in seamlessly.

Chief Whip

Graham Brady

The long-standing Chairman of the 1922 Committee Executive knows the Parliamentary Party as well as, if not better, than anyone, and would be perfect for the post were he willing to take it.

Covid. As Conservative MPs return to the Commons today, they should push for a faster return to normal.

1 Sep

The new intake of Conservative MPs have been formed by their experience of grappling with Covid-19 – in both Parliamentary and constituency terms.  Induction to normal Commons life hasn’t happened; the socialisation that comes with it hasn’t, either.  Some have been and will still be shielding.

So, in that last case, have some of their colleagues from previous parliaments, who will likewise have had to deal with a mass of consequences in their seats.  All return to the Commons today knowing that they have a big decision to make – one that will shape the debate that is now taking place about future levels of tax and spending.

It is as follows. Should they press a foot on the accelerator, and push for the opening-up of the economy, with no more nationwide lockdowns? Or should they let it hover above the brake, keeping the economy relatively closed-down, as they prepare to back such future shutdowns, mirroring the angst of virus-fearful constituents?

They could start looking for an answer by thinking back to the curtailment of normal Parliamentary proceedings at the end of March.  Within two months, the number of Coronavirus cases seems to have climaxed – even discounting for the dubiousness of the data and changes in recording practice.

There are three daily peaks documented during the period from early April to early May, running at roughly 5000 cases each a day.  By August 26, there were about a thousand. And with testing capacity now at about 300,000 people a day, a higher proportion of those with the virus are being tracked down, whether symptomatic or not.

New cases are almost certain to rise as winter sets in, as people mix less in the open air and more in confined spaces.  But what counts most is not the number of cases but the number of deaths – and, given the long-term damage to health that Covid-19 can do, hospitalisations.

There were 3,563 of the latter recorded UK-wide on April 1, the highest total, which by August 19 had fallen to 109The number of daily recorded deaths were at their highest on April 8 at 1,071.  On August 27, that total dropped to… none at all.

Now it is overwhelmingly likely that, come winter, the number of hospitalisations and deaths will rise.  But the story of the virus so far is of improving treatments, or declining lethality, or rising immunity – or a mix of all of these, despite the absence of a vaccine.

Crucially, the NHS is nowhere near being overwhelmed.  As Raghib Ali, a healthcare academic who has also been on the Coronavirus front line, has written on this site, it is hard to see on current trends how a second wave would overwhelm it.

The original Government lockdown slogan was: stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.  It had a logic to it.  The public would have risen up in horror after the broadcasting of Lombardy-type scenes in our hospitals – with people “gasping for air, clutching at their chests and at tubes pumping oxygen into their oxygen-starved lungs”.

That danger is remote at present.  Lockdown has been easing since May: true, that relaxation has sometimes been a story of two steps forward, one step back – with the NHS app imbroglio, the summer failure to re-open schools, and muddle about masks – but there is no longer a trade-off between “saving the NHS and saving the economy”.

In one sense, the balance is indeed between weighing the risk to public health, by relaxing restrictions more swiftly, against the risk to the economy, by doing so more slowly – the classic lives v livelihoods debate.  In another, the give-and-take calculation is not between the economy and health, but between different kinds of heath outcomes.

In May, we posed ten questions to the Prime Minister about the shutdown, one of which was to ask for the Government’s estimate of the non-Coronavirus health costs to date – in cancelled operations, impaired mental health, domestic and child abuse, cancer deaths and so on.  Answers are still obscure.

But it isn’t obvious that the gains from attempting to extinguish the virus altogether are now worth the losses from those deaths, abuse, damage to mental health, and so on.  So this is the time for Tory MPs and others to say so – and help to lead public opinion rather than follow it.

That means, in terms of opening-up the economy, switching state money and resources from paying people not to work to paying them to work and train.  Gordon Brown overworked this approach with his tax credits but, within constraints, it makes sense.

After all, his idea was taken from a Conservative original – Family Income Supplement, later re-badged as Family Credit.  Special help will be needed for those who have recently lost their jobs, and younger people seeking to enter a devastated jobs market.  Stephen Crabb is urging that Universal Credit take some of the strain.

In terms of closing down Covid-19, leading public opinion means pressing for hand-washing, face-covering and social distancing to do the heavy lifting, and lobbying not only for the opening up of schools and universities, but for a more rapid loosening of crowd, conference, retail, entertainment and group restrictions.

At first glance, that looks a lot like a Sweden-style approach.  However, it’s actually closer to Germany’s, because of the stress on mass testing.  Germany is now tightening up its lockdowns having previously loosened them, but it is the ambition of its testing programme that has marked the country out.

And while international Coronavirus league tables are deceptive, Germany (42nd in terms of deaths per million) is a clearly better model than Sweden (eighth in deaths per million) – and more comparable to the UK.  True, its healthcare model is different from ours. But then, so is Sweden’s.  So how have we done in Britain?

In the words of three senior politicians, “building an infrastructure that has capacity to test more than 300,000 people per day should be rightly celebrated”.  But they go on to say that the strategy must now be taken to its next level: “having the confidence to return to work…is now a must, but it can only be achieved by learning to live alongside the virus. Short of a safe vaccine, mass testing is the only way to realise this”.

This triple alliance consists of Tony Blair, William Hague and Jeremy Hunt – the last of whom, from the earliest days of the pandemic, has been alert to the success of mass testing and tracing in the Far East.  In the event of a winter surge, the choice is shaping to be: mass lockdowns, even a further national one…or more effective test-and-trace.

There’s no doubt which MPs should press for.  Short of a big uptick in deaths, testing and tracing must take the strain – not only to save livelihoods as well as lives, but to save lives as well as lives: those of people at risk from, for example, cancer or heart disease; and those whose lives are blighted by, say, ruined mental health or abuse.

Iain Dale: How many Cabinet members would your fantasy Cabinet. I count five. And it gets worse.

20 Aug

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

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to defend what’s happened over the last week or ten days with exam results.

Clustershambles doesn’t really cover it. And the trouble is that it has affected a huge number of people, not just the students and teachers concerned, but their parents and grandparents too.

Add them up, and we’re talking several million people, I imagine. Like the Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip, it’s had cut-through.

The latest YouGov poll, out on Wednesday should a four point dip in the Tory ratings to 40 per cent. While that is still a two point lead, it’s not difficult to imagine that next week Labour could be ahead for the first time in, well, many years.

Optimists might point out that we are three and a half years away from a general election and that time is a great healer. Maybe, but once a Government gets a reputation for crass incompetence it is very difficult to shake off.

– – – – – – – – – –

It was reported by The Independent (yes, it still exists online) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation on Monday, but that it was rejected by the Prime Minister. Only they know the truth of this, but it certainly hasn’t been denied by the beleaguered Education Secretary.

If he did indeed do the honourable thing, all credit to him. But surely if you resign, you, er, resign. It’s all very well for the Prime Minister to have said (if he in fact did), well, you got us into this, you get us out, but in the end once a politician loses the confidence of his or her client groups, it’s very difficult to get things back on an even keel.

Your Cabinet colleagues look at you as a dead man walking. Your enemies can’t wait until your inevitable denouement, and your “friends” melt away at the first whiff of grapeshot. If you’re going to survive, you don’t have long to plan how to do it. In Williamson’s case, he has until Christmas, given that I am led to understand that the reshuffle is now planned for January.

– – – – – – – – – –

The trouble with this Cabinet is that it has a distinctly second-rate feel about it. How many of them would make it into a Thatcher or Major cabinet. Very few, I would venture to suggest.

I interviewed Alastair Campbell on Wednesday (it will be on the Iain Dale All Talk podcast next Wednesday), and he reckoned that most of the current crew wouldn’t have even made it to Minister of State in Mrs T’s day.

Do it yourself. Go through the whole cabinet, and think how many of them would make your own fantasy cabinet. I just did so and came up with a total of five. Lamentable.

But it gets worse. Look down the list of Ministers of State – the ministers who would normally be next in line for the cabinet. I count five that are cabinet material. This is a dire state of affairs.

But it gets even worse. Normally you have a range of former ministers who you could think about bringing back to add a bit of weight and gravitas. Trouble is, most of them left Parliament at the last election. Looking at the greybeards on the Tory benches with cabinet experience you have Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, John Redwood, Maria Miller, Greg Clark, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Cheryl Gillan, Chris Grayling, Damian Green, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Esther McVey, Andrew Mitchell, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers.

Now, how many of those could realistically be restored to cabinet status to bring something extra in terms of political weight, gravitas or character? I’ll leave that to your impeccable judgement.

– – – – – – – – – –

So far this year, I haven’t taken any holiday at all. However, next week I’m on holiday in Norfolk – apart from the fact that I’ll be writing this column, doing several podcasts and appearing on Any Questions.

I realised last week that I’ve lost the art of doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’ve got my laptop open and I will be flicking through Twitter or something.

Next week, I’m going to try to do some reading, and I mean reading for pleasure – not reading something because I have to for my job. Talking of which I have just done an hour-long interview for my Iain Dale Book Club podcast with Danny Finkelstein. He’s just published a book of his collected columns. What a truly fascinating man he is. The podcast will be released on Friday 4 September.

Rob Sutton: Sir Philip Barton – a key player in Johnson’s quest for global Britain

5 Aug

Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Sir Philip Barton, the British High Commissioner to India, has been announced as the incoming Permanent Under-Secretary of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). He will take over from Sir Simon McDonald, who is stepping down at Johnson’s request, on September 1 and oversee the long-awaited merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID)

An FCO lifer, Barton will inherit complex internal dynamics and be vital to the success of Johnson’s mission to reshape Britain’s role on the world stage. He has been with the FCO since 1986, punctuated occasionally by secondments to the Cabinet Office. Early assignments included Caracas, Nicosia and Gibraltar, and he was Private Secretary to the Prime Minister under Major, then Blair.

From 2011 he was Deputy Head of Mission to the USA in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2016 he was High Commissioner to Pakistan, and he is currently serving as High Commissioner to India. He has been tested during political crises, as the Director General, Consular and Security at the time of the Salisbury poisonings and most recently as Director General of the Covid-19 Response at the Cabinet Office.

His appointment has thus far had a positive reception. Dominic Raab has called him an “outstanding public servant and diplomat” with “experience across all areas of foreign policy.” Sir Mark Sedwill said he “will bring to the role an understanding of overseas development funding together with experience of international relations.” Jeremy Hunt Tweeted that “he is one of the most thoughtful & diligent civil servants I worked with & carries great wisdom lightly.” Andrew Adonis described him as “an immensely able & experienced ambassador who is well equipped for the big challenge of heading the diplomatic service at this time of crisis.”

He is well-liked and trusted. It is important that he is perceived as a safe pair of hands and a natural choice within the civil service. With multiple high-profile civil servants stepping down since the 2019 general election, a controversial appointment to lead FCDO would have put No 10 on the back foot at a time when it should be looking to craft a positive vision for the future.

For Barton, the challenges are both internal and external. Within the FCDO, a new hierarchy must be built. Creating clear chains of command from two parallel organisations with competing interests will cause friction. Buzzwords like “coherence” and “integration” will seem premature if the new organisation is wrought with internal power struggles and turf wars. We should have some idea of Barton’s initial success by the end of September.

Long term, he will need to ensure the functions of the FCDO’s constituent departments can be executed. Tensions are an inevitability, and tailoring a unified mission will be difficult when commercial and political interests and poverty relief pull in different directions. All this as Britain seeks new trade deals across the globe and weighs its future relationship with Europe.

Barton appears to be an exceptionally good fit to take on these challenges. His background is less Eurocentric than his predecessors in the role. He looks away from Brussels and towards Commonwealth nations with whom Johnson will be eager to renew relationships.

His experiences will also help to ensure Britain continues to be a world leader in international development. Pakistan is one of the five biggest recipients of UK aid funding, and Barton’s time as High Commissioner will have given him a better understanding of the challenges of poverty relief than his peers appointed to industrialised European nations. This will go some way to settle the nerves of those who worry international development will be an afterthought for the new office.

Barton will take the helm at the FCDO at a time of internal upheaval and international uncertainty. His career path is typical enough to avoid controversy but his specific experiences may prove invaluable to performing the multiple tasks which his success will depend upon. The Government aims to complete the formation of FCDO by the end of September, so we will know soon enough whether he is up to the task.

John Bald: Academisation does not guarantee higher school standards

28 Jul

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.

West London Free School celebrated the end of the school year with a concert and an announcement by headteacher Clare Wagner that no lessons had been missed during lockdown. Pupils in Years 10 and 12, the pre-examination years, had taken school exams, and six pupils, from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, had received offers from Oxford or Cambridge. The contrast with the National Education Union’s panoply of excuses not to do this, with the Guardian’s article on Manchester Grammar School, implying that state schools couldn’t possibly, and with the “Woke” lobby’s insistence that minority ethnic groups are essentially victims, could not be greater. Like Michaela, West London has travelled a long and sometimes difficult road, but has shown that the ethos of hard work and kindness works, and is the solution to the problems that have beset education since Labour’s botched introduction of comprehensives in the 60s. Like Michaela, West London is not (apart from twelve music places) selective, and, like Michaela, it has shown the difference between a genuine comprehensive school and a secondary modern.

There is a further contrast with Stantonbury International School, a sprawling, oversized comprehensive in Milton Keynes, which boasts of “Proud traditions, wide horizons and high achievement,” and has just received an Ofsted report, that is as bad as those that made headlines in the days of the late Sir Chris Woodhead. Numbers are high at 1,600, pupils are not safe, behaviour is poor, learning is haphazard, and examination results strongly negative from pupils starting points, with only three per cent achieving the English Baccalaureate (West London has 69 per cent). Like most comprehensive schools, it hides the full scale of the disaster behind the screen imposed by Lib Dems during the coalition, which provides an opaque summary rather than the full picture. Gavin Williamson should restore the requirement that schools publish their full results by grade and subject.

Stantonbury, an Academy with the Griffin Schools Trust since 2016, illustrates the difference between mass academisation and the best Free Schools, which are driven by the dynamism and vision of some of the best minds in education, as evidenced by Michaela’s second book, The Power of Culture, edited by Katharine Birbalsingh but written by members of staff. Each chapter is a detailed and intensely personal account of the author’s contribution, as head of department or year group, deputy, special needs co-ordinator, new teacher or school secretary. The result is a complete picture of its contribution to society as well as to its pupils’ education, including, but not limited to, some of the best examination results in history. Katharine Birbalsingh is not the fictional Miss Trunchbull of Crunchem Hall, but a smiling, happy person who uses authority much as the late Cardinal Hume did, in the service of the pupils.

New teachers are told that pupils will only give their best to a teacher if they love them, which comes from understanding that teachers care, and give their best to the pupils. This is not achieved by a raised voice, but by clarity and careful explanation, so that the pupils buy into the school’s ethos and share its purpose. At 380 pages, this is a demanding read, but worth it. It is the best book on school education that I’ve ever read, and better than I ever expected to find.

Back at Stantonbury, the Griffin Schools Trust has taken action to replace the senior team and the governors. But the school has been under its control since 2016, and was identified by Ofsted as requiring improvement two years later. It is fair to ask why it took virtual meltdown to lead to the necessary action, and whether this and some other multi-academy trusts are any better than the local authorities they replaced. Some of the most celebrated are demonstrably worse, and it was not good enough for Jeremy Hunt to tell me at the leadership hustings last year that I should focus on what had gone right rather than what had gone wrong.

An Academies pioneer once told me in private that “We haven’t got enough good people,” and the meltdown at Stantonbury proves the point. Barry Smith, who turned Great Yarmouth Charter Academy from sink to a thriving community in under a year, is now doing similar work in Hackney, and would do so wherever he went. Other distinguished headteachers, like Dr David Moody, formerly of Harris Battersea and now CEO of Academy Enterprise Trust are making a similar impact. But have we got enough of them? And are we making the best use of those we have? Until these questions are answered, the success of Academies as a national system of education will remain in the balance.

Andrew Mitchell: I used to be adamantly opposed to all forms of assisted dying. Here’s why I changed my views.

22 Jul

Andrew Mitchell was International Development Secretary from 2010 to 2012. He is the MP for Sutton Coldfield.

The All Party Group on choice at the end of life – composed of members of both the Commons and the Lords – held its first ever virtual meeting last week.

That more than 60 members of Parliament chose to attend at 9am is an eloquent testimony to the seriousness with which Members of Parliament are examining the issue. At the meeting I agreed to be the co-Chair of the group along with my Labour colleague Karin Smyth, the Member of Parliament for Bristol South.

When I entered the House of Commons in 1987, I was adamantly opposed to all forms of assisted dying. But over the years (perhaps it is part of the ageing process) I have completely changed my mind.

Let me explain why.

It is first and foremost because of my experience as a constituency MP. I have sat in my office in the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield and heard stories from so many of my constituents. Often with tears pouring down their faces, they have given me deeply intimate details of the last days of someone they loved but who died a miserable and sometimes very painful death.

By the end of these meetings, often with tears coursing down my own face, I was invariably left with two overwhelming feelings: the first is that we would not let an animal we loved be treated in such a way and, second, I do not myself wish to go through the sort of end of life experience that my constituents have so often eloquently described.

And just as I would not want it for myself, I no longer want members of my family or those I represent in Parliament to have to navigate so awful an end.

I believe the time is approaching when Parliament must examine this again. This is not a party political issue subject to whipping; it is an issue of conscience where members of the House of Commons hold different views reached entirely honourably on the basis of their own personal beliefs.

Assisted dying could be the great liberal reform achieved by this government. Public support for assisted dying is overwhelming and consistent across all parts of society. Out of the British public, 84 per cent support assisted dying including 86 per cent of Conservative voters. Of Conservative Party members, 67 per cent support assisted dying. It is interesting also to note that 79 per cent of people of faith and 86 per cent of people with disabilities support assisted dying.

Support is also highest in the North East, East Midlands and Yorkshire and Humber. It is lowest in London. So this is not a liberal metropolitan issue; it is one that unites the country.

Assisted dying is legal in 10 states in the United States of America (some for more than 20 years), two states in Australia, nationwide in Canada and likely to be nationwide in New Zealand later this year. It is interesting to note that in no country with legalised assisted dying has the law been repealed. And in Britain we now have the opportunity to look at the differing legislative approaches in all of these countries, evaluate them, and deliver the best possible results for our constituents.

Consider these facts:

  • Everyday 17 people in the UK will die in pain and distress that cannot be prevented by even the very best palliative care.
  • Hospices now acknowledge that some dying people are in so much pain medication doesn’t work.
  • One Britain travels to Switzerland for assisted dying every week at a cost of around £10,000, the expense, the difficulty of traveling when terminally ill and the challenges of obtaining the necessary documentation put this option out of the reach of all but a few.
  • Those who accompany their loved ones to Switzerland run the risk of police prosecution. Ann Whaley, married to her husband Geoffrey for more than 60 years, was interviewed under caution by police officers.
  • Around 300 terminally ill people take their own lives every year behind closed doors. The effect of these suicides on their family and on responders can be devastating. Some of them have gone wrong, which has added to the immense distress. Mavis Eccleston helped her husband of almost 60 years, Dennis, who was dying in agony to take his own life and was later prosecuted for murder. She was acquitted by a jury but only after 18 months of investigation. This brought huge distress to her and her family.

There is also a risk in maintaining the status quo as attitudes among the public change. The increased reporting of cases undermines public confidence in the law. Almost half of police and crime commissioners including five Conservative PCC’s have called on the Government to review the law saying the current law does not protect vulnerable people.

The medical profession’s views are shifting too: the Royal College of Physicians moved its position to neutrality in 2019 and the Royal College of General Practitioners who surveyed their membership this year found a surge in support for assisted dying – 41 per cent compared to just five per cent in 2013.

As assisted dying becomes more established and understood in other English-speaking countries, demands in the UK for the law to change will continue to grow.

Many of us hope that the Health Select Committee under Jeremy Hunt, its distinguished and experienced Chair, might consider an inquiry which took evidence from the various sections of society that are most affected: dying people and their families, police officers, healthcare professionals and coroners, so that the issue can be explored further.

The Health Select Committee will currently be heavily preoccupied with the Covid crisis but perhaps in due course they may feel this is a subject which they are well placed to examine.

So finally, what are the modest changes those of us who want reform are seeking?

  • We want to give people who are terminally ill (and also in the final months of their lives) the option of dying on their own terms. We want this to be an active choice by a rational person to end their own life as they wish.
  • The change in the law we propose would contain stringent safeguards to protect people; it would only be accessible to mentally competent adults.
  • Two doctors would assess the person making the request to ensure that they met the eligibility criteria under the law. They would explain all other care options in full.
  • A High Court judge would examine the person’s request and make sure that it was being made voluntarily – free from any pressure or coercion.
  • Once the request was approved, a doctor would be able to prescribe life-ending medication for the person who would then take it themselves under the supervision of a doctor or another healthcare professional.
  • Healthcare professionals who wanted to exercise conscientious objection would, of course, be able to do so.
  • There would be clear reporting procedures for doctors as well as monitoring through an annual report published by the Government.

The law change that we propose is based on one that has operated in Oregon in America for 23 years. We would like to add additional safeguards built in to make it right for the UK. There have been no cases of abuse of Oregon’s law and no extension of its eligibility criteria throughout these 23 years. This model of assisted dying legislation has since been adopted in nine other US states and passed by lawmakers in Australia and New Zealand.

Wherever you stand on this issue, let us now have a calm and measured debate on the best way forward. I believe this is a reform whose time is approaching.

Rob Sutton: Introducing the top 50 Conservative MPs on Twitter

29 Jun

Conservative MP Twitter power rankings: the top 50

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Amongst the social media giants, Twitter is the primary battleground for political discourse. It’s also one of the key avenues by which MPs convey their message, and has near-universal uptake by members in the current House of Commons.

The effectiveness with which Twitter is utilised varies considerably between MPs, but it is difficult to compare like-for-like. How does one take into account the differences between, for instance, a freshman MP and a veteran Cabinet member? Length of service in Parliament and ministerial rank give a considerable advantage when building a following.

In this article, I have compiled a power ranking of MPs in the current Parliament, with the top 50 shown in the chart above. The MP’s follower count was adjusted by factoring in their previous experience, to better reflect the strength of their following and their success at engagement on the platform.

Being Twitter-savvy is about more than just a high follower count: any Secretary of State can achieve this just by virtue of the media exposure their office brings. Building a Twitter following based on thoughtful commentary and authentic engagement requires skill ,and can be achieved by members across all Parliamentary intakes and ranks of Government.

Though the top 10 is still dominated by MPs holding senior ministerial offices, the composition of the list beyond it is far more variable. A number of prominent backbenchers are in the top 20, and four members from the 2019 intake make the top 50, beating longer-serving and higher-ranked colleagues.

I hope that this list serves as recognition of the skill and contribution by Conservative members to public debate and engagement, beyond ministerial duties which so often dominate any mention in the media.

Building a model of Twitter power rankings

Success is judged by number of followers, with higher follower counts indicating greater influence on Twitter. The follower count was adjusted using three key parameters:

  • The number of years since an MP was first elected to Parliament.
  • The number of years the MP’s Twitter account has been active.
  • Their highest rank within Government achieved since 2010.

Higher values for each of these would be expected to contribute to a higher follower count. I built a model using the open-source Scikit-Learn package, and fitted it to data from the current Parliament.

The model was then used to predict how many followers a given MP might expect to have based on these three factors. The steps taken to produce a final “Twitter power score” were thus as follows:

  • Using these three factors, multiple linear regression was used to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers an MP might have.
  • Their true follower count was divided by the expected follower count to produce a single number which represented the MP’s performance at building a following.
  • Finally, a logarithm was taken of this ratio to make the number more manageable and to produce a final Twitter power score.

The final step of taking a logarithm means it is easier to compare between MPs without those who have very high follower counts (such as Boris Johnson) making the data difficult to compare, but it does not affect the order of the ranking.

Compiling the data

Having decided which factors to correct the model for, I collected the required information. All three factors were easy to find reliable sources for. The Twitter page for each MP displays the date the account was created, and the Parliamentary website provides the date of their first election to Parliament and previous government posts.

Members who are newly returned to the backbenches following governmental duties (such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt) are scored at their highest government rank since 2010 to recognise this. I was able to find the Twitter accounts and required information for 319 Conservative MPs who were included in this ranking.

To build a model based on this data required incorporating the highest government rank numerically. To do this, I assigned scores according to their rank. These grades recognised their relative seniority and media exposure associated with the office, with higher scores assigned to more senior positions:

  • Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State, Speakers, Leaders of the House and Chief Whips are scored 3.
  • Ministers of State, Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chief Whips are scored 1.
    Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Whips are scored 0.5.
  • Backbenchers score 0.

When assigning these values, I considered the typical sizes of follower counts of MPs in each category. When comparing Secretaries of States to Ministers of State, the median follower count is around twice the size, but the mean follower count is around eight times the size, as a handful of very large follower count skews the results upwards.

Deciding on weightings requires a (somewhat arbitrary) decision as to which measures to use when comparing between groups, and the scores I decided on were ultimately chosen as a compromise across these different measures, which produced stable results when used in the model.

It is also worth explaining why Prime Ministers are grouped with Secretaries of State, despite the far higher media exposure and seniority of their post. When deciding on the respective weighting for different levels of government post, a sufficiently large pool of MPs was needed to produce a meaningful comparison. The only data points for comparison of Prime Ministers are Boris Johnson and Theresa May, so it is difficult to give them their own weighting without it being either unreliable or arbitrary.

While grouping them with Secretaries of State and other senior positions might be perceived as giving them an unfair advantage in the weighting, I felt it justified given these challenges in determining the “fair” weight to assign them. With this done, I had three parameters for each MP on which to build a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers.

Calculating the number of expected Twitter followers

I built a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers using the Scikit-Learn, a popular machine learning package in the Python programming language. The model used multiple linear regression to fit the input parameters to the known follower count.

The input data was prepared by removing extreme high outliers in the data which skewed the fit toward high numbers and away from the vast majority of MPs before fitting. Once fitted, an “expected value” of Twitter followers could be calculated for each MP, based on the year of their first election to parliament, the number of years on Twitter and their highest government rank since 2010.

Including more parameters increases the ability of the model to describe the difference between MPs’ follower counts (the variability). By increasing the number of input variables included in the model, more of the variability is captured:

  • One variable captures between 20.3 per cent and 36.1 per cent of the variability.
  • Two variables capture between 39.1 per cent and 43.1 per cent of the variability.
  • All three variables capture 48.7 per cent of the variability.

These three variables are therefore responsible for almost half of the variation between MPs in their follower counts. The remainder of the variability is likely due to a range of factors which the model does not include, of which the MP’s Twitter-savviness is of particular interest to us. I discuss these factors further below.

Limitations in the model

There are multiple other parameters which could be included in future iterations which I did not include in this model. In particular:

  • Membership or Chairmanship of Select Committees.
  • Previous election to a council, assembly, devolved legislature or the European Parliament.
  • Membership of the Privy Council.
  • Government positions prior to 2010.
  • Prominent positions within the Conservative Party, such as the 1922 Committee or European Research Group.
  • Twitter-savviness and effectiveness of their comms team.

Another limitation was not accounting for the perceived relative importance of various governmental departments: a Great Office of State or Prime Minister is scored the same as any other Secretary of State. The difficulties involved in ranking governmental departments were beyond this first model. The length of service in a given government post was also not considered.

Finally, the choice of model to fit the data may not be the optimal choice. Multiple linear regression assumes, per the name, that the distribution is linear. But the large outliers might be better described by a power law or Pareto distribution, or the non-linearities of a neural network.

During next week, ConservativeHome will produce profiles of six individual MPs who have performed notably well in the power rankings, and who reflect the contributions brought by members beyond their ministerial duties, if they have any.

Johnson, Starmer – and their strategies in firing people

26 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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