By focusing on Truss and Sunak’s squabbles, we forget Labour’s divisions – and the threat they pose

28 Jul

The last two weeks have not been great for the Conservative Party. From the leaking of private conversations, to accusations of heresy against the tribal Goddess Thatcher, and the suggestion that the leadership of a particular pair of candidates might “murder” our party, it has become an item of faith amongst most commentators that the Tories are currently writing Labour’s next attack ads for them.

That’s especially due to the rival accusations of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak that their opponent’s economic policy is “socialist”. If even the two candidates battling each other to be our next Prime Minister don’t believe the other is fiscally credible, it is all the easier for Labour to paint themselves as the sensible alternative and a government in waiting. What can be so bad about socialism, if even the Tories are doing it?

It is obviously a rum affair if the Tory Party is allowing Labour – the party that has left always left economic disaster in its wake – to seize the mantle of financial sanity. But their claim to being the grown ups across the floor in the House of Commons only survives on the basis that the last two weeks have seen journo eyes turned elsewhere.

So it falls to me to turn them back on the opposition. Of course, playing a quick game of “whataboutery” doesn’t erase the Tories’ current difficulties, or the obvious damage that Sunak and Truss’s current rancorous debate is doing to the public image of our party. But it does show just how dangerous handing power to Labour would be – as it always is.

Currently, Starmer and his acolytes find themselves in a tizzy over two issues to do with the railways: namely, their hypothetical re-nationalisation, and the recent strikes. In both cases, the major split is between a leader desperate to restore his party’s record after the horrors of Corbynism, and MPs unwilling to fully move on from Magic Grandpa.

In the former case, Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, recently ruled out a future Labour government renationalising the railways since it did not fit into her “fiscal rules” for day-to-day spending. This rather contradicted the words of Louise Haigh, the Shadow Transport Secretary, who recently told the ASLEF Journal that Labour was “totally committed to public ownership” of railways.

Haigh went on, in that same article, to call such a move “rational common sense”. That is not something that can be said of Reeves comments once she’d realised her blunder, said that she hadn’t heard her interlocuter’s question. So Labour’s official line is that they are “pragmatic about public ownership as long as it sits within our fiscal rules”. So that’s alright then.

But this messaging trainwreck – ahem – didn’t stop there. Only yesterday, Starmer ordered his frontbenchers to stay away from Militant Mick and the pernicious picketers of the RMT. Yet Sam Tarry – his Shadow Transport Minister (despite his pretensions) and a close, erm, friend of Angela Rayner – was out showing solidarity. By the end of the day, he had been sacked.

In both cases, we see a conflict between Starmer’s attempts to wrench his party back towards the electorate, and the socialist pretensions of those MPs and Shadow Ministers who have not got over the reheated Bennism of his predecessor. It is a timely reminder to those who hoped that Labour had overcome its divisions that they were not temporary, but baked in.

You could suggest the viciousness of this leadership contest was due to a particular malice known only to top Tories. But to do so would be to conveniently forget the splits that divided Labour under Corbyn, under Miliband, under Brown and Blair, under Kinnock – and probably, for good measure, under every Labour leader dating back to Keir Hardie.

Moreover, the pace of political life in the age of 24 hour news and Twitter is much faster. Splits are more obvious, action required more urgently. There is no long march through the institutions now – conflict between Labour’s left and right is blatantly on show, and a response from Starmer required as quickly as a journalist can tweet a question at him.

The same is true for the Conservatives. Our current leadership difficulties mean that we are hogging the news agenda, whilt Labour’s crack-up is meanwhile confined to Guido Fawkes and the letters page of The Guardian. It will remain there as long as our ex-Chancellor and current Foreign Secretary continue to insist on tearing lumps out of each other.

You might expect, therefore, for me to call on the two candidates to now kiss and make up, to stop the negative briefing, and focus on the future of the party that both claim to love enough to want to lead. But all that is too obvious to need saying. If Sunak and Truss cannot see that all this negativity will be disastrous, then they are not fit to be in Downing Street.

Instead, a reminder. I have commented already that this government (whomever leads it) is going the way of Edward Heath’s, smashed on the rocks of rising inflation, strikes, and an energy crisis. It will be all the more so if Truss decides to imitate the Barber Boom, or if Sunak persists with a quite revolution so subtle that Tory members fail to hear it.

The Labour Party of 1974 was divided: between left and right, over Europe, and over Harold Wilson and his potential successors. But it still won the two elections of that deeply depressing year, on the back of the failures of the Tories to grasp the country’s problems. The cliché that divided parties don’t win elections is wrong.

So if our two contenders really do what to keep Sir Starmer and his merry band of squabbling socialists out of Number 10, they need to get their act together and sort out our myriad crises. If not, then even an opposition as underwhelming as Starmer’s could have a clear path to power.

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Georgia L Gilholy: Levelling down – why attacking private schools won’t save state education

15 Jul

Georgia L Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.

Picture this. A sweaty mid-summer crowd waits with bated breath as a progressive politician is set to deliver a surprise speech. Somewhere across the country, the governing party remains embroiled in an internal crisis.

As he begins to speak he outlines some of the ideas he plans to implement, should he and his team displace the incumbent rulers. One of his remarks, consistent with his previous comments on the topic, is his ambition of cracking down on the liberties of non-government schooling.

This is not Russia in the months preceding its Bolshevik putsch, nor France as the guillotine operators began to sharpen their blades, but among the anonymous glass and steel structures of Birmingham’s revamped city centre. The date is July 11th 2022. The speaker is Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

While Starmer is yet to ascend to the power possessed by historic radicals, his plans to rob independent schools of their charitable status risk many of the pitfalls such events set in motion.

Such plans would first and foremost, slap VAT on private schools, which they are exempt from under a charitable status.

The idea that this will accumulate enough cash to drag state schools toward a bright new future is nonsense. A 2018 review by Baines Cutler Solutions and KPMG demonstrated how axing this exemption will create a £416 million bill for the government within five years when accounting for the pupils that would be pushed back into state schooling as private schools would be forced to hike rates.

Yet as the Conservative Party continues to lack inspiring educational reforms, Labourites could well garner support for misguided assaults on the independent sector. Governments of all partisan stripes should be trusted not to attempt such a cheap and short-sighted shot, and instead invest in serious strategies to resurrect Britain’s flagging schooling system.

Starmer also fundamentally misinterprets Britain’s educational inequality as a casualty of unfair finances. School spending has been partly hammered by cuts over the past decade, but the UK remains one of the biggest bankrollers of education in the world.

Yet our system lags behind much of the post-industrial world. Socio-economic deprivation sadly holds back many students, but this is often an issue that begins in the home and impacts the classroom- not vice versa.

We once possessed an educational culture better geared toward social mobility regardless of whether one’s parents were toilet cleaners or CEOs, and we deliberately eliminated it. The destruction of grammar schooling, a system that Sir Keir benefited from, was never about widening opportunity. It was an emotional attempt at levelling classrooms regardless of the cost to children’s life chances, and it is a mistake that neither the Labour nor the Conservative party has attempted to rectify.

The civil service’s anti-grammar evangelist Graham Savage admitted that he favoured an American-style “democratic” comprehensive ethos, regardless of whether it stunted academic performance. It is a perfect example of wishing to tear something down for ideological purposes, without proving how its replacement will be an improvement. Indeed, the triumph of state education now leaves one in twenty Brits functionally illiterate.

It is obvious that the alumni of the independent actor dominate the highest rungs of British professions, but making private schools just that bit pricier will not aid meritocracy.

More middle-class students whose parents can just about afford minor private school places will finally be priced out entirely. There will be less money for bursaries, scholarships, and academy partnerships that help working and middle-class students who would otherwise have no hope of benefitting from private education, as indeed Sir Keir himself did.

I am someone who was not gifted the “golden ticket” of private education that 54 per cent of British journalists did. My particular school performed so badly that universities offered me places with lower grade requirements than they did pupils from the other 85 per cent of UK schools.

I do not oppose Starmer’s vision because I dread to think of the white-tailed boys of Eton sobbing into their croquet mallets, but because I think the plans are an attempt to sling “red meat” at a leftist base without the responsibility of truly rethinking education.

It also appears that many who praise Starmer’s approach pray for the total destruction of private schooling. This is as much a mistake as the destruction of the grammar system. Elites will always find a way to get their kids the best start in life, whether this means shipping them off to an international school or flooding the selective, faux-comprehensives that line the streets of Chelsea, Hampstead and Chiswick.

It is the job of the government to make up the shortfall for poorer families, ensuring that British society can cultivate the best talents, regardless of background. In a free society, elites will always exist. The trick is ensuring the checks and balances on their influence.

Creating needless financial hurdles for private schools will do little to hold the real elites accountable, and could leave the government with yet more funding shortfalls.

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James Frayne: Labour is wrong to think “Tory sleaze” is a vote-winner.

5 Jul

Labour strategists’ heads have been turned by sleaze stories. They’ve mistaken prominent media and social coverage for public interest and partisan support. Hoping to recreate the devastation caused by the “Tory sleaze” narrative in the mid-1990s, they have sacrificed clarity on their own policies and message for easy political wins. The reality is sleaze stories come and go without making any real impact on the polls at all. Let’s look at why this is.

Firstly, and most importantly, because people think politicians are “all the same”. Completely regardless of their party, voters think politicians are uniformly rich, mostly on the make, mostly dishonest, and living lives of excitement and glamour in faraway London. They think this for two reasons: because of Tony Blair’s inflated promises in the mid-1990s, and because of the expenses scandal.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of Tony Blair’s perceived failed promises. In the mid-1990s, against a backdrop of apparently endless scandals coming out of John Major’s Government, Blair cultivated an image of being decent and morally upstanding. With Shadow Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, he even promised an “ethical foreign policy”.

When it came down to it – and this happened quickly – Blair’s Government appeared no different from its predecessors. For many voters, being let down by Labour was worse than the original litany of scandals. The expenses scandal drove home this point: all this was, after all, spread across all parties.

Such was the scale of disillusionment with politicians of all parties that the expenses scandal had little discernible impact on electoral politics. I remember running a series of focus groups with disgruntled non-voters in cities like Stoke around the time of the 2010 election and being staggered by how blasé voters had become by politicians’ behaviour. Why, I asked, were they not angrier about what their MPs had done? The answer: because they’re all the same and we expected it. Politicians’ reputations could not have shrunk any further.

Secondly, most modern sleaze stories make little impact because of sheer public boredom with it all. While people were initially irritated and often angry with the stories about Downing Street “parties”, they lost interest after a while since the stories went on for many months. In focus groups in the spring of this year, people regularly and wearily said they just wanted the media to focus on other things – most commonly, the cost of living crisis and Ukraine. Such was their boredom with it all, many voters said they no longer thought the PM should resign because they just wanted the news to return “to normal” and couldn’t take yet more stories on it all.

Thirdly, impact is muted because often people don’t judge stories to be great scandals at all. I make absolutely no comment here on any particular story (and certainly not on the most recent stories), but instead make a general point: oftentimes, stories the media and other politicians judge to be truly scandalous appear to be relatively trivial to others. Most people aren’t easily shocked.

As I have argued many times, this Government’s stock started to fall last autumn because of perceived failings on important policy issues – for example, the failure to stop the arrival of small boats from France. They looked incompetent and the parties provided what looked like explanatory context: they didn’t know what they were doing.

Ultimately, this is the great danger for this Government: not that the Government looks sleazy, but that it looks incompetent and that the PM is not exerting any control. The danger is it looks like they couldn’t run a booze-up in a brewery. Labour will never convince anyone they are better people. If they work out the challenge is actaully showing they’re more competent – by having important things to say about important issues – then the Conservatives really will be in trouble.  Until then, it will all just come and go.

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James Frayne: Strikes and Ministers. Have they taken back control only to lose all control – and be cast out by voters?

21 Jun

The polls are deceptively clear on the strikes. The massive differences between Conservative and Labour voters suggest both parties should take a tough line on either side of the debate.

However, the backdrop of a deteriorating economy makes the reality more complex. At a time when everyone is struggling, apparently “rich politicians” have to tread very carefully in turning down pay rises and in condemning strike action.

So while there’s a way for the Conservatives to maintain public support on this, it’s not as easy as it looks.

Let’s start by looking at where the polls are – and, specifically, at the major differences between different parties’ voters.

In early June, YouGov asked whether people supported or opposed rail unions striking over pay and conditions. Conservative voters opposed the strikes by 74 per cent to 14 per cent, while Labour voters supported the strikes by 59 per cent to 27 per cent.

I doubt this has changed much in the last couple of weeks; certainly, it’s hard to imagine Conservative voters becoming more sympathetic to strikers’ demands.

Looking at the polls on strikes more generally, it seems public opinion is set hard by political fundamentals. Conservative and Labour voters disagree wildly on attitudes to strikes.

Asked whether rail unions should ever be allowed to strike, YouGov’s June tracker showed Labour voters supported the right to strike by 74 per cent to 17 per cent, but Conservative voters opposed the same right by 53 per cent to 37 per cent.

And, even more broadly, asked whether it’s too easy for unions to be able to strike, 44 per cdent of Conservatives said it’s too easy, with 31 per cent saying the balance is about right; and 37 per cent of Labour voters said it was too hard to strike, with 33 per cent saying the balance was about right.

The same political gaps emerge on other questions regarding strikes. Conservative and Labour voters disagree about whether teachers should be allowed to strike, as well as about whether firefightersdoctorscivil servantsnursesair traffic controllers, and police officers should be able to strike.

So it would be easy to think that the Conservatives should stay implacably hostile to strikes and strikers and use the strikes as a dividing line with Labour. Certainly, that’s a possibility if the RMT and other unions continue to take a belligerent approach.

But there are undoubtedly risks for the Conservatives in all this.  Two stand out above all. 

First, and most importantly, the deteriorating economy means people everywhere are getting poorer. In the past, it was relatively easy to dismiss some workers’ claims for higher wages; now, with food and fuel prices rising and energy bills set to soar again, the reality is life is genuinely becoming harder.

This is obvious at one level, but it can get lost in the aggressive rhetoric of some union leaders. This time, strikers have a point: the Conservatives need to keep this reality in mind.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the wider public will support strikers’ demands; they will recognise the dangers of an inflationary spiral; they will also dismiss the idea that public sector workers are owed special treatment post-Covid. However, they won’t condemn people at least for asking, and will tolerate some industrial action (although there are, of course, limits).

Second, if more strikes break out, it’s possible the political chaos that appears to have gripped this Government will makes it look as though they’ve lost control of the country. It seems likely that this is what some union leaders are planning on.

It is a high-risk game for all; the public will react very badly if it looks like strikes are essentially political, but the Conservatives won’t want to appear unable to govern.

What does all this mean for the them? Above all, they need to make it clear they understand everyone is suffering financially and that times are tough – but that economic policy will be applied universally, consistently and fairly. They should certainly argue that strikes are wrong, but, unless and until many more strikes break out, their tone should be reasonable and non-condemnatory.

The chances are that some union leaders will over-reach, and stray from a reasonable financial case to a broader political case. It’s almost certain that some striking activists will take such an approach

At that point, the Conservatives would be justified in taking a more hostile tone, but they absolutely will not get to it soon. The public is almost always entirely reasonable: most will oppose the strikes but sympathise with the strikers; they will be angry if it looks like the strikes are essentially about getting Boris Johnson out (even if that sympathise with that outcome too).

The post James Frayne: Strikes and Ministers. Have they taken back control only to lose all control – and be cast out by voters? first appeared on Conservative Home.

Andrew Bowie: I’m a Conservative MP, and I ask. Where’s the big idea? What’s the offer to the country?

10 Jun

Andrew Bowie is MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party.

“People in this country are crying out for a Conservative party that is decent, reasonable, sensible, commonsense, and in it for the long term of this country. And that is the party we are going to build, and I want everyone to join in.

“If you want to build a modern, compassionate Conservative party, come and join us. If you want me and all of us to be a voice for hope, for optimism and for change, come and join us. In this modern, compassionate Conservative party, everyone is invited. Thank you.” – David Cameron, 6th December 2005

When I am conflicted about an issue, a policy or a vote; when I, not infrequently, question why I do what I do, why I am here, what drove me into politics and particularly, into the Conservative Party, I recall the words above.

I first heard them sitting in my mum’s car outside Morrisons Supermarket in Inverurie, the town I grew up in. I was 18 years old, had passed the Admiralty Interview Board for the Navy and was awaiting entry. And as the rain came down on that car in that supermarket car park, I heard on Radio 5 Live the result of the Conservative Party leadership election.

No one in my immediate family were Conservative voters in the 2000s. Not one of my friends voted Conservative in the 2000s.

But I heard those words from David Cameron. And I knew then that the Conservative Party was my party. I knew then that the country I wanted to see: a country built on positive, optimistic, compassionate, foundations, could only be built by a Conservative Party that spoke to a new generation – a generation fed up of Labour’s failures but unsure of the Tories; built with the words and actions of a new generation of Conservative MPs – Cameron, Osborne and a guy called Boris Johnson.

And that’s why I’m a Conservative. Because of those words and those people.

In 2010, I was so excited to read the foreword to the Conservative Manifesto

“A country is at its best when the bonds between people are strong and when the sense of national purpose is clear. Today the challenges facing Britain are immense…But these problems can be overcome if we pull together and work together. If we remember that we are all in this together.

Some politicians say: ‘give us your vote and we will sort out all your problems’. We say: real change comes not from government alone. Real change comes when the people are inspired and mobilised, when millions of us are fired up to play a part in the nation’s future. Yes this is ambitious. Yes it is optimistic. But in the end all the Acts of Parliament, all the new measures, all the new policy initiatives, are just politicians’ words without you and your involvement.”

This is what I believed. It is what I still believe. And those words inspired me not only to vote for, in my first general election, but to join the Conservatives.

But something has gone wrong.

Charlotte Ivers recently wrote a Sunday Times column headlined “The Tory party hasn’t had an idea since 2005.” In it she suggested that, secure in power for over a decade, we in the Conservative Party have no motivation to innovate.

Sadly, I cannot disagree.

We see evident now in the Conservative Party, my party, a strange mix of complacency, entitlement, fear and exhaustion.

Complacency bread from the fact that the Labour Party, after more than a decade in turmoil and opposition pose no electoral threat.

Entitlement bred from the comfort of office and power.

Fear bred from the nagging doubt that we might actually be wrong, and that years on the opposition benches await.

And exhaustion from twelve hard years of Government that have seen economic crises, migrant crises, an independence referendum in Scotland, Brexit, snap elections, a global pandemic and war in Europe.

It is a toxic combination. Made even more difficult by the need to keep on side the majority of that unwieldly coalition of electors that returned the Conservatives to Government in 2019.

So we end up here. Talking the talk of lowering tax whilst increasing National Insurance. Giving investment incentives to increase our domestic oil and gas production whilst imposing a windfall tax. Making the right noise about cutting the size of government not recognising it was our party that created two new departments in the last six years. Espousing the values of Global Britain whilst shrinking our diplomatic presence overseas.

Entering into a race with the Labour Party about who can spend more on x.

Where’s the spirit of 2005? Where’s the big idea? What’s the challenge to us? What’s the offer to the country?

I often say I am an optimist. Being an Aberdeen Football fan, a Scotland Rugby fan and a Scottish Conservative, I have to be. That’s why I backed Johnson for leader in 2019, because I knew he was too.

And I firmly believe, whoever is leader of my party, the Conservative and Unionists remain the only party capable to tackling the challenges that face us as a nation.

But we need to rediscover that confidence. We need to look back to our recent past. We need to reach out, think radically, be bold. Explain, again and again, that to taking our country forward requires all of us, not just Government, to make a difference.

That chucking money at a problem rarely solves the issue but that targeted investment can.

We need to be proud of ourselves and our past, but understanding of different opinions of it.

We need to build a new, positive relationship with the EU. Never compromising on our sovereignty or the integrity of our union, but working with them to resolve issues and together to tackle our shared challenges.

We need our Foreign Office to shout from the rooftops in every capital in the world how great a country, how great an enabler for change, how positive a force the United Kingdom is.

And we need to talk to a new generation in the same way Cameron, Osborne, and yes for eight great years, Boris did in London.

That is why I am a Conservative. That is why I joined this great Party – the most successful political party in the history of the world. Because I truly believe, if we start doing all this, now, our future is bright. And it is Conservative.

The post Andrew Bowie: I’m a Conservative MP, and I ask. Where’s the big idea? What’s the offer to the country? first appeared on Conservative Home.

Penny Mordaunt: They said a US trade deal couldn’t be done. It can. We are doing it.

27 May

Penny Mordaunt is Minister of State for Trade Policy, and is MP for Portsmouth North.

Proper Conservatives are used to being shouted at by armchair lefties. Check the scenes below the line if you want a taste. Brexiteers are bigots. Conservatives are evil. Tory scum (ironic – given that the soft water areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire were where the Labour Party was so heavily defeated).

Still, we get used to it. They said we couldn’t revive the private sector during the Seventies. We did. They said we couldn’t retake the Falklands in the Eighties. We did. They said that the EU was an unstoppable enterprise in the Nineties. It wasn’t. They said we were finished as a party two decades ago. We weren’t. A decade ago they said Scottish independence was inevitable. It wasn’t.

We also get used to hearing how much more superior Labour would be in government, if only it had the chance. Perhaps it would intrude on the delusion to recall their track record? In 120 years of the Labour movement from Keir Hardie to the present day a Labour Leader has only been returned to office twice. We should be confident about what we stand for. We should remember that, more often than not, it is Conservatives that have been in tune with the British people. Part of the reason for that is our respect for those who step up and take responsibility, particularly those who create wealth and opportunity.

What comes from the liberal left is a unique combination of the deeply ignorant and the profoundly opinionated. It is half-baked certainty sitting on a thick base of groupthink. It’s the sort of certainty that can only come from over-educated under-achievers. People who have never done anything. Never created or built anything. People who don’t value others that do.

Since Brexit, it has become fashionable to say everything is an economic disaster. Well, that isn’t true either. We have record low unemployment and the country remains one of the largest recipient of foreign direct investment. Not despite Brexit. Because of it. Despite the challenges of the pandemic we are starting to realise the trading opportunities that come from our new freedoms.

The Left are at it again on the subject of a Free Trade Agreement with the US. They ignore that we have completed five rounds of negotiations at a federal level. They say of our state level efforts: “Individual states cannot sign trade agreements.”

They can. (California did so with Japan only in March this year in a deal to boost trade and tackle climate change. They say: “The Americans have sent us to the back of the queue.” They haven’t. Britain remains one of the largest foreign direct investors in America. They say: “US Federal officials just aren’t interested in UK all the time there are negotiations on the Northern Irish Protocol”.

Frankly, that’s irrelevant. Wherever I’ve been in the last year at the state and City level, I’ve been welcomed by open-minded, helpful and collaborative officials. They don’t care where I’m from. All they see is mutual opportunity. They say: “you should not just focus on the federal level.” In fact, 93 percent of all US economic growth will come from the metro areas. This makes Mayors as relevant as State Governors to nations and regions looking to forge partnerships and open up trade.

This week, we sign the first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with an American state, with almost half of the 50 Americans states to follow. The trailblazer states include: Indiana, Oklahoma, North and South Carolina. It is expected that Texas will be one of the first eight states to sign an MoU with the UK.

This first agreement, with Indiana, marks a milestone in UK’s trade with the US. It will help open the door to businesses looking to export or invest in the state. It will increase collaboration on clean tech to fuel sustainable economic growth. Above all else, it shows UK ‘state level strategy’ is securing results.

The MoU format creates a framework to remove barriers to trade and investment, paving the way for UK and local businesses to invest, export, expand and create jobs. The state of Indiana is an entrepreneurial powerhouse, offering UK firms significant opportunities in areas like renewable energy, advanced manufacturing and pharmaceuticals.

The UK is the seventh largest export market for Indiana, and the state buys $1.4 billion worth of goods from the UK. This agreement will accelerate and grow this even further. The agreement specifically will look to improve procurement processes and strengthen academic and research ties, enabling easier collaboration. It will support our professionals with provisions on diversity aligning with our levelling up agenda to ensure economic growth benefits all communities across the country.

It will help talented people from the UK and US to work in either country by clearing the way for their professional qualifications to be mutually recognised. We are focussing on four priority professions – architecture, engineering, legal services, audit and accountancy for mutual recognition of qualifications and processes.

The deepening of relationships at state level is leading to some interesting new opportunities. There are offers to swap officials in key government departments, so our respective teams can learn more about how we both operate. Agriculture Commissioners in the US and DEFRA officials have expressed an interest in participating. Some US states have offered to fund UK businesses and producers to visit the US and learn more about their market. In return, we are partnering up different parts of the UK with places we want to help level up in the UK. The whole process has created real momentum towards a federal deal too.

The state-level strategy is paying off and this is just the first of many agreements we’ll be signing in the future as we look to bolster our £200bn trading relationship with the US. Green trade will be at the heart of talks as both sides look to accelerate clean tech development, with a particular focus on electric cars and low emissions technology solutions. This agreement is just a beginning.

How has this happened? With flexibility, determination and imagination from our civil servants and economic staff. Despite the hammering that they get from media, our colleagues have worked wonders. With great ideas from organisations like the IEA focused on removing the barriers that bring people, ideas and capital together. With great business engagement and a determination from Government to deliver the opportunities Brexit promised.

Government can and is creating the infrastructure for enterprise. For many years business has been told to wait for government, for the rules to be established. It is time for business to assimilate a new enterprise culture. It is time we let it.

Caino, Caino, it’s off from work we go

24 May

Boris Johnson has three hurdles to clear in relation to rule-breaking parties in Downing Street during Coronavirus – or “alleged gatherings on Government premises during Covid restrictions”, to use the title of Sue Gray’s interim report.

The first was the Metropolitan Police’s investigation.  Last week, it announced that it had concluded its enquiries and has issued 126 fixed penalty notices to 83 people over events on eight separate dates.  The Prime Minister received one fine only – for walking in on and stating at a surprise birthday event over which he claims no prior knowledge.

Since the police haven’t disclosed the reasons for their decisions, we have no idea why relatively junior staff who attended these events received fixed penalty notices, why Johnson was given only one, and why Simon Case, the Head of the Civil Service, received none at all.

I will spare readers a Holmesian probe of who may have attended which gatherings when; whether an event might have been within the rules at one point in time and not at another; under what circumstances someone who enters and leaves an event may not actually have been attending it – and so on.

“Junior staff were encouraged to come forward and fess up, having been told at the time that the events were within the rules.  It’s unfair that they should be punished while their seniors and the politicians shelter behind lawyers,” one Number Ten staffer told me yesterday.

But for all the one-law-for-them and another etc, and the police’s silence over their workings, the single fine left the Prime Minister in a durable position – at least as far as Conservative MPs were concerned.  Most do not believe that he should quit for being surprised with cake, or without it, whichever it may have been, on a single occasion.

Furthermore, a critical mass of them seem to have concluded that Keir Starmer is weak, Labour unconvincing, that the English local election results weren’t really as bad as all that, and that Johnson has a chance of turning it all round by 2024.  The Ukraine war is another factor prayed in aid.

However, yesterday’s leaked photos will have a certain impact, as they were always bound to do.  I doubt they will change the minds of many voters one way or the other.  But they will reinforce the anger, both genuine and opportunist, of Johnson’s enemies and critics.

If it walks like a party and quacks like a party, then it’s a party, they say.  The Prime Minister will doubtless argue from the dispatch box that Lee Cain’s leaving event, at which the photos were taken, was nothing more or less than workers saying farewell to a colleague, and raising their glasses to wish him well.

Downing Street somehow got itself into a tangle over who called a meeting between Johnson and Gray, and seems to be nervous that she will be much more critical of the Prime Minister than some expected.  Her report is the second hurdle.

Johnson can take comfort from the condition of his internal enemies, who were dismayed by him receiving only a single fine, concluded that he was off the hook for the moment, and are worried that if they succeed in triggering a confidence ballot, he could win it – after which the rules bar another challenge for a year.

And he will be encouraged by the state of his external opponents, too.  The police investigation into the event that Keir Starmer attended in Durham has taken the wind out of Labour’s sails.  No wonder it’s the Liberal Democrats and not the officlal Opposition who are calling for an inquiry into the Met’s decisions.

However, many Tory MPs have been waiting for Gray’s report and it is certainly capable of sparking a ballot.  If he survives it, a third hurdle will loom: a Privileges Committee inquiry into whether he misled the Commons over the parties or social events or whatever you want to call them.

Our last survey found that 59 per cent of Conservative member respondents believe that “the controversy about staff gatherings in Downing Street is being overblown by the media and is not important to most voters”.  Thirty-eight per said otherwise.

I suspect that these proportions won’t have changed very much, but that those who hold both views will hold them more intensely.  A majority of Party members want to move on: there is a war in eastern Europe and a cost of living crisis, after all.

But for better or worse British politics is stuck with this post-Covid saga until autumn at the earliest – unless a coup suddenly carries Johnson off.

Anthony Browne: What is the point of the Liberal Democrats, other than to offer a refuge to protest voters?

16 May

Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire and a former Europe Editor of the Times.

And the winner is…the Liberal Democrats.  At the recent local elections, Britain’s fourth party (remember the SNP) gained more council seats than any other. And judging by their reaction, they clearly missed the lessons about being magnanimous in victory. 

They declared they were on course to take many Conservative marginal constituencies, including those of Dominic Raab, Alex Chalk and my own. They recently won Owen Paterson’s previously safe Tory seat of North Shropshire in a by-election, and are determined to repeat the trick in the upcoming by-election in Tiverton and Honiton.

So the Lib Dems back? Many voters didn’t forgive them for going into coalition with Conservatives in 2010 in the wave of Cleggmania, and they were wiped out as a national force in 2015. One of the key political questions now is whether they are on the brink of a national resurgence. Will the Conservatives shoring up the Red Wall in the North lead to the crumbling of a blue wall in the South?

To understand the threat, one needs to understand how the Lib Dems work – and they are not like the two main political parties. Few political commentators realise how different they are. Their performance at local elections is strong for a party that is, let’s be honest, invisible nationally.

did not have many surprises entering Parliament in 2019, but one of them was the total irrelevance of the Lib Dems at a national level. There are just too few of them to have any impact. They don’t sit on many committees (for example, I am on the Treasury Select Committee, which has no Lib Dem member), they don’t pass any amendments, they don’t lead many debates. On good days, their leader will be allowed to ask a question.

However, the Lib Dems are rampant in quite a few Conservative constituencies. Local Tories often wonder why people support the Lib Dems. There is no identifiable belief system (at least not any more). People who support free enterprise will generally be Conservative, and those who support socialism will tend to support LabourBut what is Lib Demmery?

Traditionally the answer to why people support the Lib Dems is that they provid a protest vote. They are the “none of the above” party, defined by what they aren’t rather than what they are. That works wonders in by-elections after a scandal, such as in North Shropshire.

It is true that they facilitate a protest vote but, like other Conservatibe MPs involved in daily street-by-street battles with the Lib Dems, I know there is more than that.

In South Cambridgeshire, as in some other areas, they are in power in local government, and so locally they are not a protest voteRather than being the local representatives of national parties, they position themselves as valiant local champions serving their communities.

Their voluminous election literature positions them as “local campaigners”, while their opponents are just interested in national glory and “don’t care” about local voters who they “take for granted. The irony is that the Lib Dem message of how they are just local champions is actually used nationally – their leaflets are verbatim copies in their battlegrounds across the country.

The main reason that people become activists for the Lib Dems is simple: they are asked. Lots of Lib Dem activists admit privately they are actually instinctively conservatives, but got drawn into Lib Dem campaigning. Most Lib Dem activists aren’t actually members of the party, but rather people who have been asked and agreed to help out to do something “for their community.

In many places, they have huge delivery networks of activists, enabling them to put out leaflets with wonderous frequency. Astonishingly, national Tory strategists have discovered that some of those people who deliver Lib Dem leaflets are actually Conservative Party members.

In contrast to other parties, the Lib Dems have an election strategy which they write down in books and publish in pamphlets, and aim to replicate constituency by constituency. Their strategy is to engage community campaigners, and start with hyper-local campaigning, on almost street by street issues.

Infiltrate parish councils, and politicise them. Establish your name and stand for district councils, the county council – and then Parliament. They don’t fight in the air wars of the media waves, but rely instead on their almost limitless ground troops to fight house to house. It is bottom up, rather than top down.

Being the political underdog at a national level gives them an often rather distinct self-rightousness, which leads them to believing the end justifies the means. Their election literature is by far the most negative of any party. Their canvassers spread slander (during the general election, they openly spread false stories about me). A Labour MP said to me last week: “aren’t the Lib Dems just foul?”.

that The fact they have no real policy beliefs – do they like higher taxes or not? – and think the ends justify the means, leads to astoundingly hypocritical campaigns that are bewildering to their opponents. Labour and Conservatives try hard to have coherent local messages in local elections. The Lib Dems often end up campaigning against themselves in different parts of a district – basically telling voters whatever they want to hear. In the southern part of my constituency they campaigned to push a trainline to the North, and in the northern part they campaigned to push it to the south. They campaign against something, get elected, and then quickly change position.

Because they are essentially a party of protest, opposing what anyone in a position of responsibility does, they often struggle with actually running local government. Being in power involves making difficult decisions, and justifying them. For the Lib Dems, the tactic is to deny responsibility for their own decisions, and take credit for anything that is good, even if they have nothing to do with it.

In South Cambridgeshire, they have decided to build far more houses than the national government thinks is necessary, but rather than defend it they try to blame their unpopular decision on national government. They Conservative Government has decided to build a very popular Cambridge South station, which the Lib Dems take credit for.

So what is the actual point of the Lib Dems as a political party? Many of their opponents see them as politically parasitical opportunists. Saying anything to get into power, taking no responsibility for what they actually do, and taking credit for the work of others. But they at least inject competition into local politics.

The only way the Conservatives will beat the Lib Dems is not to defeat them in the TV studios or policy discussions or in newspaper columns. As we have shown in those areas of the country where we have beaten them back, we have to recruit our own ground troops to campaign on the doors and in the village halls. We need our own local champions campaigning on local issues. We need to out Lib Dem the Lib Dems. As the Lib Dem campaign strategy says: you win where you work.

Christopher Chope: Harm from Covid vaccinations. Don’t leave victims behind.

12 May

Christopher Chope is a former Minister, and is MP for Christchurch.

The Government accepted that Covid-19 vaccines might cause serious harm to some people when it decided to bring Covid-19 vaccine damage within the ambit of the existing Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme (the “VDPS”).

But ever since, it has been stalling on addressing those who have claimed. Not a single one of over 1,300 claims has yet been decided, not even those in which a coroner’s verdict has determined that the vaccine was the cause of death. It is intolerable that the Government is failing those people who did the right thing, were vaccinated, but then suffered serious harm or bereavement as a result.

I first raised the issue in Parliament last June, when I presented a Private Members’ Bill. This was briefly debated in September, when I called for an independent review of disablement caused by Covid-19 vaccines and better compensation arrangements for those who have suffered. Since then, I have received hundreds of emails, often with harrowing reports from the families and friends of those who tragically died or continue to suffer severe injury or life-changing consequences.

After a barren year, there is now some positive news to report. The Minister for Vaccines and Public Health, Maggie Throup, has confirmed that external assessors will begin assessing claims next week, on May 16. They are contracted to assess 1,800 claims in the first year. It is worth comparing the scale of this with the situation pre-Covid, when only 80 vaccine claims were being made each year.

Let us hope that the plight of vaccine damage victims will no longer be neglected. The Prime Minister said last summer to the wife of a fit 44 year old software engineer that her husband is “not a statistic and must not be ignored”. The man in question, Jamie Scott, spent 124 days in hospital following severe brain injury caused by the vaccine. The Health Department’s failure to act on the Prime Minister’s words is a political embarrassment.

The assumption must be that the policy of non-engagement on this issue was deliberate. Public health officials are keen to avoid scrutiny about the fact that the vaccines are not 100 per cent safe. The Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has received more than 450,000 suspected adverse reaction reports under its Yellow Card scheme, with the first report dating back to 9 December 2020.

he truth about the vaccines not being absolutely safe is therefore out in the open. My argument to the Government is that being in denial about vaccine damage is undermining the very vaccine confidence which the Government has been trying to promote. The consequence of this is apparent from the declining take up of boosters.

At my meeting with the Minister, I asked her whether the Government agreed that some people had died as a direct result of having received Covid-19 vaccines. Much to my surprise, she could not answer that question, and requested more time in which to do so in writing. She promised such a response within 14 days, but told me this week that she will respond to me “shortly”.

This shows that the Government is really agonising over whether or not to admit that, for some, Covid-19 vaccines have had fatal consequences. This is all the more bizarre when the Yellow Card scheme refers to over 2,000 fatalities, the Office for National Statistics has confirmed a series of fatalities, and even the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine product information leaflet confirms fatal outcomes were observed.

Hopefully, the Government will now change its approach, be open and transparent about the facts and provide the necessary financial help to victims. The level and extent of that help is itself a further problematic issue. Currently, the scheme provides a lump sum of £120,000 for every case where the level of disablement is at least 60 per cent. I have raised with the Government the need to increase that sum (which was last revised in 2007) in line with inflation, reflecting increases to similar schemes. Payments under the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (“IIDB”), for example, have risen by 39 per cent since 2007.

There is also a problem with the arbitrary 60 per cent disablement threshold. The minimum threshold to trigger benefit entitlement under the IIDB is only 14 per cent with the benefit prorated according to the level of disability. Sadly, however, the Government has not yet given any indication of a willingness to revise the VDPS so that it is more sensitive to individual circumstances. While £120,000 will be more than those with less serious injuries require, for young people needing fulltime carers for life, the payments need to be far higher.

Now that we know the Government has no legislative plans on this subject for this Session, I hope that someone who is successful in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills will take up the cause. A new organisation called Vaccine Injured Bereaved UK has recently been formed to campaign for changes to the legislation. I support their call for a bespoke scheme to cover Covid-19 vaccine damage.

This is justified because the Government uniquely has given an indemnity to manufacturers against product liability thereby precluding most civil claims for compensation. Such a bespoke scheme would also be able to address the eligibility criteria, what evidence of causation is necessary, and what specific support the NHS should provide for those who have suffered and continue to do so.

It may be difficult for the Government to deliver a nuanced message about Covid-19 vaccines, especially when the Government put such intense pressure upon people to be vaccinated. Vaccine passports became the order of the day, even briefly becoming a condition of employment. Government messaging was designed to compel those who were vaccine hesitant into compliance.

Now that the truth is gradually emerging, not only about the risks for some from the vaccine, but also about the lack of efficacy, particularly of boosters, the public debate around this issue is becoming more lively. YouTube has suppressed official data and information which I have divulged in Parliament. Recently, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Wes Streeting, reportedly called me an “anti-science extremist”. Such insults are fortunately proving to be counterproductive, with ever more demands for the Government to be transparent.

There is now a clear opportunity for the Conservative Party to be on the side of those who have suffered for doing the right thing, even if the Labour Party continues to be in complete denial.

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

11 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More significantly still, Thatcher got down to the job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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