WATCH: Penrose says that the Prime Minister has “won a bit of time”

19 Jun

The post WATCH: Penrose says that the Prime Minister has “won a bit of time” first appeared on Conservative Home.

Ed Birkett: The Energy Price Cap has made the current crisis worse

30 Dec

Ed Birkett is the Head of Energy & Environment at Policy Exchange.

Every day this month the papers have carried dire warnings about coming increases in household energy bills. The current crisis is a symptom of rapidly increasing European and international gas prices, primarily caused by rising demand as economies have recovered from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The current crisis raises long-term questions about UK energy policy. However, the immediate challenge is what happens to the Energy Price Cap, which is expected to go up by 50% in April next year. The increase could cost the average household £700 per year.

Rising energy prices aren’t caused by the Energy Price Cap, but the cap still puts the Government under pressure on both sides: some in the Labour Party can argue that the Energy Price Cap was insufficient, and that only full nationalisation will suffice, whereas free marketeers can argue that trying to cap prices was economically naïve and bound to fail.

The price cap has undoubtedly contributed to the failure of energy suppliers (26 have failed since August). These failures raise bills still further because their cost is recovered through a levy on everyone’s energy bills. This could be over £100 per household next year.

There is a way out of this crisis, but it requires the Government to tread a very narrow path, starting with targeted support for households that can’t afford a 50 per cent increase in their energy bills, followed by reform of the Energy Price Cap.

The Energy Price Cap was introduced to stop loyal customers paying more for their energy.

The Energy Price Cap, introduced in 2019, sets an absolute limit on the price that energy suppliers can charge their domestic customers. This means that customers won’t pay significantly more if they don’t opt for the best tariff. The cap is set by the regulator Ofgem and is updated every six months. The cap does not apply to business users.

Before the current crisis approximately half of households opted-in to a fixed-price energy tariff. Fixed-price tariffs are typically better value, although not under current market conditions. Customers opting for them are known as “engaged customers”. The other half of households, known as “disengaged customers”, end up on worse-value variable tariffs.

You could argue that it’s not the job of government to bail out customers who are unwilling to switch tariff. However, this ignores the barriers that some customers – especially the elderly and the disabled – face when engaging with the energy market. Either way, by the 2017 General Election, both the main parties agreed that something had to be done to tackle the “loyalty penalty” paid by disengaged customers.

The current crisis is a symptom of higher international gas prices.

The primary cause of energy shortages is a stronger-than-expected increase in demand for gas and other commodities post-Covid. In simple terms, demand has recovered more quickly than supply.

The crisis raises questions over UK and European energy policy, and over the role of Russia and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. All of these factors need to be reviewed to ensure that the UK is better prepared for future energy shocks.

In most markets, when companies’ costs increase, they respond by increasing prices. However, in the energy market, there were two factors that stopped suppliers passing through price rises quickly:

Firstly, many customers have one or two-year fixed-price deals. Such deals are not a problem for suppliers, so long as they have bought energy in advance (known as “hedging”).

Secondly, the Energy Price Cap limits how quickly suppliers can increase prices for households on variable tariffs. Specifically, the Energy Price Cap lags changes in underlying energy prices by six to eight months. Suppliers know this rule applies, and it is generally not a problem for them, so long as they have bought energy in advance.

Many energy suppliers were unprepared for an energy price shock.

Unfortunately, many energy suppliers had not bought much energy in advance and had low cash reserves, so they went bust when energy prices spiked.

Some of the blame lies with suppliers that took too much risk. And some lies with the regulator, Ofgem, which should have had stricter oversight of energy suppliers’ finances. Ofgem recently proposed “stress tests” for energy suppliers – standard practice in the banking industry since 2014.

However, MPs and the Government must take their share of the blame for how the price cap was implemented. Because the Energy Price Cap lags underlying energy costs by six to eight months, it increases the financial risks faced by energy suppliers.

There were warnings about the design of the current Energy Price Cap.

One of my predecessors at Policy Exchange, Richard Howard, argued against an absolute price cap in 2017, warning that it “would represent a significant leap towards re-regulation of the energy market. It could severely impact competition, innovation and investor confidence”.

Instead, Howard called for a “relative price cap”, which would “set a cap on the differential between the highest and lowest price charged by each supplier”. The idea was backed by John Penrose MP, who argued for it on this site. Howard maintained that a relative price cap “would likely achieve much of the same benefit for consumers, with far less Government involvement in the market.”

In the short term, the Government must cushion the blow of rising energy prices for those who can’t afford it.

Energy companies and others have put forward a range of proposals to cut the impact of higher bills from April next year. These include cutting VAT on energy bills or government rather than customers paying the cost of green levies. These proposals all amount to basically the same thing – government temporarily subsidising the energy bills of some or all households.

When Policy Exchange looked at this in September, we recommended a temporary increase in the Warm Home Discount, an existing bill subsidy for low-income households. To reduce the fiscal impact of this measure, the money could be provided by the Treasury as a loan, recovered through a levy on all energy bills when prices fall.

In the medium term, the Government must reform the Energy Price Cap.

Assuming that the public and politicians want to retain some form of price protection for disengaged energy customers, there are two main options to reform the Energy Price Cap.

The Government could either implement a relative price cap, as described above, or a “social tariff”, which would cap prices only for those on low incomes. These options are explored in more detail in a recent Policy Exchange report.

However, in the short term, the current price cap must be maintained. Energy suppliers are already buying energy ahead of the next price cap period, which starts in April. Any sudden changes to the cap could negatively impact on suppliers have done the right thing by hedging in line with it.

When the Energy Price Cap was debated in the Commons in 2018, John Penrose MP argued that:

“Free market Tories are pretty concerned that we are choosing the most anti-competitive, complicated, bureaucratic and inflexible cap on offer.”

Unfortunately, these concerns have proven correct.

Once we have weathered the current storm of higher energy bills, the Government must look again at the price cap. Their aim should be to make the cap more competitive, less complicated, less bureaucratic and more flexible.

The relative price cap looks like the right answer – ensuring that all households pay fair energy prices without putting the financial stability of energy suppliers at risk.

John Penrose: How ‘street votes’ could both fund levelling up and ease the housing crisis

28 Oct

John Penrose is Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum, and is MP for Weston-super-Mare.

A sluggish economy means neuralgia for any Chancellor, because it turns budget day into a zero-sum tug-of-war. For every group that gets more taxpayer cash, there’s another that must lose out.

But higher growth is economic aspirin: it clears the headache because there are more winners and fewer losers. And one of the biggest-ticket routes to faster growth is to free up our sclerotic, ponderous housing market so we can build loads more of the right types of homes in the right places.

A paper from Create Streets says it could be worth £9 billion a year for the Chancellor without raising tax rates. That’s a lot of aspirin.

It’s easier said than done, of course. Everyone agrees we have a massive housing shortage, and that it’s making homes unaffordably expensive to rent or buy for far too many people. But agreeing what to build where is where the headaches come roaring back.

Even then, there are plenty of things that everyone agrees on. Outside city centres, most of us are unimpressed by high-rise towers. Outside towns and villages, almost no-one likes building on green fields. So why is agreeing what to build where so hard?

One way to make it less difficult is to think local. I’ve just proposed a Private Members Bill in Parliament which lets individual streets or neighbourhoods take things into their own hands.

If they don’t like their local Council’s plans, they could create their own instead. They would include a local development style code to make sure any new buildings and extensions match the best of what’s there already, so they give neighbourhoods back their character and beauty by stopping ‘anywhere-ville’ estates of identical houses. They would have democratic local support, because they’d have to be approved in a local referendum, with a ‘super-majority’ (perhaps 60 per cent of the votes) threshold to make sure it was genuinely what everyone wanted.

They would be greener, because denser neighbourhoods let more people live closer to their jobs, replacing commuting and cars with bikes, buses and walks. They would protect green fields by giving builders lots of new, convenient urban sites to develop and improve, and be cheaper and more productive because all the electricity, water, schools and health centers are already installed nearby.

And, best of all, once they were approved everyone in the neighbourhood would benefit, because they’d all be able to modify their homes according to the new plans if they wanted to, without needing any further planning permissions.

Any exceptions? Well, yes but only a few: everyone would still have to follow building regulations so any new construction was safe, and if you or I wanted to build anything different from whatever the new neighbourhood plan allowed, or to alter a protected heritage building, we’d still have to apply for planning permission in the normal way.

That leaves plenty of people who could benefit. Experts estimate that 15.5 million homeowning families would be eligible for street votes if they want to. Even if only a fraction of them decide to go ahead (and the whole point of Street Votes is that they don’t have to if they don’t like the idea: no-one is imposing unwanted estates of new houses on anyone) it could transform the ones that do, and create a surge of economic growth into the bargain.

From the Chancellor’s viewpoint, that means more VAT, more income tax, more corporation tax, and more national insurance contributions – without higher tax rates.

How much easier would his job be if he had an extra £9bn per year to play with? That would let him fund the Campaign for Better Transport’s proposed reversals of the Beeching railway cuts, and give each regional mayor their own single funding pot to spend on any project with a positive business case. He could probably throw in Northern Powerhouse rail and some tram networks, too.

If we want to level up properly, we need growth to fund it. Street Votes can be one way to let communities and neighbourhoods level themselves up, along with the rest of the country.

Mak is co-Chair of the new Conservative Party Policy Board

24 Nov

ConservativeHome wrote recently about the appointment of Neil O’Brien as a new Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party, and Chair of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board – a promotion with wider implications.

We weren’t alone in doing so. The news about our columnist got a lot of publicity, including an interview with him in the Times.

But what has not been evident so far is that there was already a Vice-Chairman of the Party responsible for policy.  Step forward, Alan Mak.

That most missed his own earlier appointment isn’t surprising, since these Vice-Chairmen have a way of rapidly coming and going.

At any rate, Mak is still there – and this site is told that he will co-chair the Board with O’Brien.  The third MP who will sit on it is John Penrose, who chairs the Conservative Policy Forum.

Another member will arguably carry more weight than any of them: Munira Mirza, the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit.

Her presence on it, and that of Joel Winton, her deputy, is a sign that the Board should be taken seriously.  Iain Carter, who heads up the Conservative Research Department, will also be a member.

And there are to be Parliamentary Party representatives – which raises the question of who these are to be.  ConHome is told that the intention is that they be selected. (By whom, exactly?)

We suspect that Graham Brady and the 1922 Committee Executive will have something to say about that.  The ’22 had its own elected policy committees during the run-up to the last election.

Unlike O’Brien, Mak has neither run a think-tank nor served as a SpAd – let alone as a senior one in George Osborne’s Treasury.

Nonetheless, he is no policy slouch: see his pieces on the Fourth Industrial Revolution for this site.  And he was agitating about about ending child hunger almost 18 months ago – well before the Marcus Rashford push.

The twin-hatting arrangement seems awkard to us, and we doubt it will last long.  “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere, / Nor can one England brook a double reign, / Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.”

One or other of these gentlemen will presumably be wafted heavenwards in a blaze of glory during the New Year reshuffle that must surely come…

…Unless Boris Johnson has second or third or seventy-seventh thoughts, and puts the whole thing off until after the spring’s local elections.

Bim Afolami: Conservatives need a new economic vision

14 Sep

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin and Harpenden.

Covid-19 gives us the chance to examine deeper questions about the nature and direction of economic policy. I believe it is time to have a rethink of our economic philosophy as a Conservative Party, and rediscover some fundamental Conservative principles – which are, and always have been, much broader than support for market economics. We need to embrace an active enterprising state, reformed and reforming, that can help drive an enterprise nation forward. And one with strong environmental credentials, which can deliver an everlasting environment.

Much of current Conservative economic thinking was set in the Thatcherite revolution, succinctly described by Nigel Lawson in 1984 as “increasing freedom for markets to work within a framework of firm monetary and fiscal discipline”. I agree with that and believe that articulates a simple truth at the heart of macroeconomics which is still true.

However, the greatness of Thatcher was not ideological. It was because she was radical in reaching solutions for the economic problems of that time in ways that were rooted in Conservative principles of freedom, opportunity, self-reliance and prosperity on the basis of hard work.

We need to do the same today. Conservative thinking on economic policy has become muddled in recent years. We profess to believe in a balanced budget, but we do not want to reduce government spending. We often talk about reducing bureaucracy and regulations – yet our tax code continues to become more complicated and the quangocracy goes from strength to strength. We believe in devolution, yet the Treasury keeps its iron grip on all major infrastructure decisions. We need to be clear what and who we are for and show how timeless Conservative principles also apply to our new age.

The economy should benefit the person with ideas rather than inheritance. It should support families and communities rather than allowing multinationals to rip them apart in the name of efficiency – the family and small communities are the bedrock of society. It should unashamedly help the British business grow and scale here at home – and be better at supporting our national champions in different sectors. Finally, as climate change worsens, we should aim to make the UK the cleanest economy in the world, truly a Conservative act, conserving our green and pleasant land for our descendants.

I believe that there are five principal, significant, long-term economic problems in the UK at the moment, and that Conservative economic thinking needs to provide a sensible response to them. These are: (i) poor investment and productivity growth; (ii) too much SME debt and too little equity; (iii) growing fiscal challenge; (iv) unbalanced growth – the need to level up; and (v) climate change.

To deal with these we need an enterprising state, which can help power an enterprise nation.

An enterprising state

Central government needs to be a macro-enabler. It needs to use its broad strategic oversight to enable the private sector and devolved parts of the public sector to do transformative things.

The Government has set out its clear intention to build and deliver much more and better infrastructure. Yet the way for us to achieve this cannot be for the Treasury to control every single infrastructure decision of any consequence. We need to facilitate private investment in infrastructure, by allowing many more development corporations to be set up using innovative financing models that allow money to be raised locally.

We should establish a UK Sovereign Wealth Fund (long championed by John Penrose MP) that would create a pot of savings that could pay for state pensions and benefits. The Fund would provide an intergenerationally fair solution that would take some of the burden of these costs from being shouldered by future generations. It would also be an ‘anchor investor’ providing long-term investment capital for British entrepreneurs and start-up businesses and would help provide equity to UK SMEs which have too much debt to grow.

An enterprising state cannot be governed by command and control from Whitehall. We need to give local areas and cities the ability to experiment with different ways of doing things, to learn from their own experiences and from each other. This should have two aspects.

The first is that all regions (particularly in England) need to have a greater degree of fiscal autonomy. We should allow regions to (i) raise local income, sales and tourism taxes (all up to a limit); (ii) make decisions on infrastructure to allow them to give private companies the ability to build and operate new infrastructure; and (iii) give local public services much more freedom on procurement.

The second aspect is that the enterprising state needs to remember that economic growth and success can often come from investment in non-economic things by local people. Investing in a village hall or local library may not have an ostensible economic benefit, but improving the local environment of a small town can have incalculable improvements to the lives of those who live there, and can have significant economic benefits through increased desirability and investment.

An enterprise nation

We Conservatives know that prosperity does not fundamentally come from government. It comes from people willing to start and sustain a business.

We should reduce NI for new hires, keep taxes on the self-employed low, and maintain the difference between capital taxes and income taxes – capital taxes should be low because we should reward those who take risks.

The central government should also work with the private sector to help the UK’s technological landscape. Emerging technologies like blockchain should be utilised to help revolutionise our approach to trade and SME finance through a Centre for Distributed Systems, established in a partnership between the government and the private sector.

On the environment, we need to see this as an economic challenge and opportunity. The state’s role should be twofold. First, the Government needs to continue to issue binding targets for decarbonisation in key areas and give more targets across different areas of the economy.

The second aspect is to provide, and to help corral, the finance required for every aspect of decarbonisation. This finance will be needed to help ensure that there are very few barriers for individuals, communities and businesses which prevent them transitioning into a low carbon future.

Lubricated by this finance, inventors and innovators will be able to take advantage of the UK’s position as the first major country to turbocharge our approach to net zero and export its technologies across the world. This could be transformative for the UK, and the jobs created across all industries will be created all over the country, at different skill levels. Levelling up to save the planet.

Conclusion

What I have tried to do here is to sketch out a new economic vision for the Conservative Party. We can build on the achievements of the past 30 years by addressing our modern weaknesses. We have every chance of leading in the world in a new type of Conservative economics just as we did in the 1980s. We can achieve it.

John Penrose: Here’s how we can put ‘levelling up’ at a centre of a One Nation agenda

8 Aug

John Penrose is MP for Weston-super-Mare.

When politicians talk about opportunity, life chances and how to escape poverty, they tend to make two particularly well-worn assumptions.

The first is that the best route to success is middle-class, white-collar professional work; an office job that doesn’t involve overalls, oily rags or heavy lifting. Something like law, accountancy, teaching or IT.

It’s not a stupid assumption either; these are all well-paid, high-skill jobs which have international scope, open doors to huge networks of helpful contacts, and offer clear, well-understood career paths as well.

But it leads most politicians, whether they are from the political left or right, to focus heavily on improving access to good academic teaching and qualifications at schools and universities, and less on the dozens of other routes to success in modern Britain.

The second presumption is that there’s a finite amount of opportunity, so that someone who starts with more must give up something for everyone else to succeed. It’s a zero-sum view of the world; the sense that what’s holding you or me back is obstruction by other people who don’t want to be leapfrogged on the ladder of life. This ‘opportunity hoarding’ is emotionally comforting because it gives us people to blame if we aren’t happy with the way our lives are turning out, but is the precise opposite of what both One-Nation Conservatism and ‘Levelling Up’ is all about.

Opportunity should be infinite

We believe that opportunity is – or can and should be – unlimited, providing we organise ourselves properly. The answer to the advantages and better life-chances of one person’s excellent education isn’t to destroy the good school they went to, but to make every other school as good as theirs, or better. And the answer to spiralling house prices and generation rent isn’t to demonise private landlords, but to build lots more homes (in the right places) so everybody can afford to buy one if they want.

In other words, levelling up is generous, big-hearted and open-handed. That’s why I’m really excited by the breadth of ideas in this collection of policy proposals. Of course education – particularly in academic subjects – matters hugely, but these ideas range far more widely than that. They acknowledge that, for many people, being good at academic exams isn’t the best or only route to happiness and success, and that other things matter too.

Character and community

Like what? Well, let’s start with character traits and community attitudes towards people who are ambitious; do their families and friends build them up, or cut them down? And do they instil emotional resilience and encourage people to bounce back from failure, or tell them they shouldn’t have tried in the first place? How do we instil those attitudes in communities and families where they haven’t been strong for generations?

Then there’s independence and self-reliance. Whether it’s running your own business or owning your own home, having control over more parts of our lives makes us feel happier, more secure and more fulfilled than depending on the good opinion of a landlord, a boss or a bureaucrat. So what will help more people take the first steps towards either or both of these things?

Confront the tough questions

Some of the things that matter most are difficult to discuss, because they ask hard questions that it would be easy to shy away from. Like why some places, or social classes, or races, are more or less successful than others in modern Britain?

What is the secret sauce which makes London and the south-east so much more productive than almost every other part of Britain, and how do we apply it everywhere else as well? And, equally, why do so many Chinese and Indian children do so much better at school than their black, Bangladeshi or white working class male classmates, and how can we close the gaps?

The squeezed middle

And then there’s the ‘squeezed middle’. The middle-income, middle-class, mid-career families who will inevitably end up shouldering most of the costs of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not because it’s their fault, or because they have the broadest shoulders, but because it happened on their watch. So the extra taxes to repay the – truly enormous – costs of protecting their grandparents from infection, and helping their children make up lost time on interrupted schooling, or the cuts to public services if taxes don’t increase, will inevitably fall mainly to them.

That isn’t fair or right, but it is happening nonetheless. So how do we help? How can we make things like housing more affordable, or retrain people with higher skills in mid-career, so they can earn more in a more productive economy and avoid a lifetime of grindingly high taxes or eroded public services instead?

These essays don’t pretend to provide all the answers – they aren’t a complete or rounded election manifesto – but they offer some thought-provoking ideas about how this One-Nation Conservative government should set about ‘Levelling Up’. They point towards a post-Covid and post-Brexit Britain that is hopeful, optimistic, energetic and positive: where people can succeed no matter where they started from, or who their parents were. Where your success doesn’t come at the expense of mine, so I can be generous and take pleasure in celebrating your achievements, rather than living a pinched or jealous life because you have something I don’t.

A happier, fairer, country, in other words. If you’re at all interested in how we could create it, then I hope you will read on…

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.