Profile: Steve Barclay, the scrum-half who could win the game for the Prime Minister or else end up buried under a pile of bodies

9 Feb

Steve Barclay, Boris Johnson and Guto Harri all love rugby. Here is a connection which casts light on the recent changes in Downing Street, and which younger and fitter colleagues may care to explore further.

Barclay’s career at Fylde, a famous Lancashire club, began years before he had anything to do with politics:

“I got into rugby because my father was – and still is – one of the club’s stalwarts and I played my first game aged five for the Under 9s.
“They were short so I got thrown on with my older brothers Ian and Nick and I was so small I had to wear two rugby shirts to make me look bigger!
“My dad was chairman and then president of the club and coached the junior section for 39 years on a Sunday morning. My mum, Janice, was on the Ladies’ committee for 20-odd years and Ian captained and played for the First XV for years.”

This long-term commitment entailed regular practice. Steve played at scrum-half, a position in which he too reached the first team, making his debut when he was in his second year at Cambridge, “travelling back on a Thursday night for training and then playing the match on Saturday”.

In conversation in June 2019 with Nick Robinson, Barclay explained what he liked about this position:

“the thing with a scrum-half is you’re in the middle of the action, because you get the ball out and you’re that interlink between the pack and the backs, and for me whatever role you’re doing, and I’m sure it’s the same in media, you want to be where the story is.”

That is not a bad description of the role he has taken on as Boris Johnson’s Chief of Staff. Barclay is where the story is, and like any scrum-half will be trying, under acute pressure and with no time to make mistakes, to connect one part of the team with the other.

Previous Chiefs of Staff – Jonathan Powell, Nick Timothy, Gavin Barwell – responded to Barclay’s appointment by doubting whether it would be possible for him to do the job well.

I don’t pretend to know whether he will be a success or not. So much of what passes for political commentary consists of categorical predictions about the future, which is by definition unknowable.

The point of this profile is the more modest one of trying to give some idea of what kind of person, and politician, Barclay is.

Even here, there are difficulties. Barclay possesses the art of expressing himself in a lucid but astonishingly unmemorable way.

And yet he does not seem an inconsiderable figure. Although he does not sound original, no one has ever accused him of being incompetent. His demeanour is courteous, unruffled, good humoured.

A minister, a Leaver, remarked to ConHome that Barclay is approachable, and easy to talk to; is not one of those figures who conveys the sense that he or she is too busy, self-important or shy to welcome an overture from an unknown colleague.

At the time of the 2016 Referendum he was the only one of the 17 Whips to come out for Leave; an act of courage in a club devoted to unity.

And yet, the same minister pointed out, Barclay has also been loyal to three successive leaders since entering Parliament in 2010, David Cameron, Theresa May and now Johnson.

In old fashioned terms, Barclay is a team player, which is said to be what Number Ten has lacked.

Johnson used to speak of picking up the ball if it happened to come loose from the base of the scrum. He was for four years a member of the Balliol rugby team, passionately devoted to the game, delighting in his own ability to endure pain, but perhaps more excited by quixotic acts of personal heroism than by regular training sessions so as to raise in small, unglamorous but ultimately decisive instalments the professionalism and co-ordination of the whole team.

Barclay was born in Lytham St Annes in 1972. His mother, originally from Blackpool, was a civil servant, while his father, from Bury, worked in IT, and for several years as a full-time trade union official.

Their youngest son was educated at King Edward VII School, Lytham, a fee-paying establishment, did a short-service commission with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, and read history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

A member of that college, which has been attended by a number of distinguished conservatives, said this week of Barclay:

“The one person I knew who recalled him is now dead. Gerald Meade (our head porter for many years) told me he remembered him.”

How characteristic of Barclay – rising in Lancastrian rugby, not yet involved in politics, never an attender at let alone participant in debates at the Cambridge Union – to have got to know the college porter, a big but local figure, while not seeking to impress scholars of wider renown.

Nor did he go, as Cambridge graduates intent on making their fortune are inclined to do, to London. He went to the College of Law at Chester, where he became involved in politics “at the local level” and found he enjoyed it.

In 1997, he fought Manchester Blackley, a seat unwinnable by a Conservative even in a good year, and got “a good kicking”. In 2001 he stood, aged 29, in Lancaster and Wyre, and lost by 481 votes.

He had meanwhile qualified as a solicitor, but by his own account “found the law quite boring”. In the “Life before politics” section of his website, he records with marvellous lack of brio:

He worked as an insurance company lawyer for Axa Insurance, as a regulator for the Financial Services Authority, and as Director of Regulatory Affairs and then Head of Anti-Money Laundering and Sanctions at Barclays Retail Bank.

He was by now Mr Barclay of Barclays. He also got on the A list of parliamentary candidates and was in 2010 returned with a majority of 16,425 for North East Cambridgeshire, a huge, remote, fenland area with poor transport and much poverty.

Barclay was elected to the Public Accounts Committee, where he became known as a severe interrogator, perhaps too severe for his own good, for he received no preferment.

According to one of his colleagues, he was very ambitious, and very angry not to be brought into government:

“I think he has some quite pungent private views which he only shares with a few people.”

But although an undertone of anger can be detected in his pronouncements, on the surface he remained equable and good-natured.

After the 2015 election he was made a whip, in 2017 he became Economic Secretary to the Treasury, in 2018 he had a spell as Minister of State for Health and Social Care, and on 16 November 2018 he entered the Cabinet as Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab having resigned from that role, and Michael Gove having declined to take it on.

Barclay defended, with good grace, the May Government as it sank beneath the waves. No one blamed him, amid such humiliation and confusion, for on one occasion speaking one way and voting the other.

In the summer of 2019, Barclay backed Johnson for the leadership. Once Johnson was Prime Minister, and needed as resilient a team as possible to pilot Britain out of the EU, he kept Barclay in place as Brexit Secretary until the country left the EU on 31st January 2020,

The following month, Johnson made Barclay Chief Secretary to the Treasury, until September 2021, when Barclay became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office.

In a speech delivered as Chief Secretary in July 2020, Barclay said:

“As a constituency MP, I have on many occasions run up against a system that is slow and siloed.

“In frustration, I’ve found myself asking why there is a seven-year gap between funding being agreed for a road scheme and the first digger arriving.

“Or why it takes a decade to decide to produce a full business case on whether to reopen eight miles of railway track – taking twice the length of time of the Second World War.

“Before becoming a minister, I sat on the Public Accounts Committee for four years, where reports repeatedly showed schemes where the outcomes did not reflect the inputs.

“As an example, nine regional fire control centres were built at a cost of three-quarters of a billion pounds. Not one of them worked.”

He insisted “we can create a smarter and faster culture in Whitehall”. This is what he will be trying to do in No 10. As scrum-half he could soon find himself buried beneath a pile of bodies, or else helping his bloodied and bloody captain to drive for the line and win the game.

Fracking? Let the Lancastrians decide

4 Jan

No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time. Get the barnacles off the boat. It was rather an obscure issue, but a few Tory MPs had been grumbling about the emails they were getting after some scaremongering from eco-activists. Thus, shortly before the 2019 General Election, the Government announced a moratorium on fracking.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business, Energy and Clean Growth Minister at the time, declared:

“Today’s decision will not in any way impact our energy supply.”

Interviewed for this site last year, Kwarteng, now Business Secretary, was unrepentant. (“Walls were shaking and plates were falling off them….we have a full democracy and all the rest of it…I think there were too many communities that were being disrupted. We’re a small country. The fact that it can work in the United States, and it works successfully, it’s what – a thousand times bigger than England?”)

The United States does have a lower population density than we do. (94 people per square mile compared to 727 people per square mile over here.) But fracking would not take up that much space. 400 well pads across the UK would be enough to reduce our gas imports by half. Each pad would be less than the size of two football pitches. So far as the wider environmental arguments are concerned, the Shale Revolution has enabled the United States to reduce its carbon emissions.  Natascha Engel, who resigned after just seven months as the government’s shale gas commissioner, said that “fracked gas with half the emissions of coal” is “an essential element in any transition to a renewable future”.

The argument about energy independence was put forcefully by Andrew Neil, in the Daily Mail, on Saturday:

“All across Europe virtue-signalling politicians kowtowing to the green lobby boast of their refusal to allow any fracking for natural gas in their countries, while forgetting to mention this means pouring billions of dollars into the treasure chests of the Kremlin and Middle East despots, on whose gas we now depend. And we’re now ever so grateful to the Americans for currently shipping us billions of cubic metres of gas we need — and which the U.S. has to spare because it has fracked.”

The Americans are also able to avoid the sharp price increases for energy which we face.

The claims about earthquakes do not deserve to be taken seriously. The US has had zero evidence of any earthquake-related fatalities since substantial production of shale oil and shale gas got underway there in 2011.

If the Government was genuinely worried about the “earthquakes” (really just tremors equivalent of a lorry driving past your house) then why has it done nothing to thwart the “testing to extract heat, power and lithium from deep geothermal waters in Cornwall” reported in the Sunday Telegraph which have caused equivalent vibrations? Perhaps because those endeavours are counted as “green”?

Kwarteng probably knows all this. So it really comes down to the politics – the signs that, however unjustified, the scaremongering has worked. But having taken some soundings from councillors in Lancashire, where there is huge potential for shale, I don’t think that opposition is necessarily the “settled will” of local inhabitants. Few noticed the supposed “earthquakes” – much less suffered any damage. Cuadrilla, the firm undertaking shale exploration, offered compensation for any damage caused but insurance assessments of the small number of claims found scant evidence of any.

The “plates falling off walls” that Kwarteng mentioned usually turned out to be apocryphal. Perhaps if Kwarteng scoured Little Plumpton in Fylde he might triumphantly discover a piece of crockery chipped in allegedly suspicious circumstances. But even if he did so, he should set that misfortune against the deaths each year from hypothermia – ‘the primary cause of cold-related death’, according to one government analysis and the 25,000 excess winter deaths in England and Wales that we see on average each year. This winter has been mercifully mild. But what impact on hypothermia will there be next winter – due to the needless doubling of energy bills? What will be the impact in future years if the Government’s flawed policy is maintained?

In contrast to the supposed risks, the economic benefits to Lancashire from shale development would most likely prove considerable. A genuine opportunity for “levelling up”. However, supporters of fracking are nervous about speaking out for fear of being confronted by vociferous and militant opponents. One of them told me:

“What is to be gained by speaking out and getting a lot of hassle? We probably are the silent majority. There’s a reason we are silent.”

Would a referendum be the answer? Allow the voters of Lancashire to decide whether or not fracking should be allowed. Rely on the clash of democratic debate to subject the claims and counter-claims to proper scrutiny. Cross-party campaigns could be designated for both sides with a booklet for each household giving space to each side. Debates could be held on regional TV and radio stations. Other referendums could be held in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire or anywhere else that there is proven potential for shale development.

To be meaningful, there should be some kind of agreement between the Government, Lancashire County Council, and the shale industry, as to the terms to be offered. It would be understandable if Cuadrilla and other firms were hesitant. Thus far, they have found Her Majesty’s Government as resilient as a chocolate teapot. The deal could include fast-tracking the planning process and full compensation if a future Government banned fracking for political reasons. It would need to specify the level of tremors that would be allowed – 4.0 Richter scale limit is allowed in the United States. Then the industry might consider what incentives it would offer Lancastrians. What about a £100 Council Tax discount for ten years in the boroughs where fracking took place and a further £50 a year for the whole county? What about a few million for environmental projects such as planting trees and cleaning beaches?

If the Government and county council were feeling timid, they could still remain neutral in the referendum – merely offering the proposal as one that was practical and acceptable to proceed with, should that be the wish of the majority.

Even if only one county voted to allow fracking that would probably be transformational for our energy supply. If, after a few years, none of the supposed hazards materialised then other parts of the country might well agree to follow.

If we had bold national leadership, then our shale industry in this country would be well-established by now. Given that we do not, then surely local democracy is the way to resolve the matter. Let the people decide. Who could object to that?

Simon Fell: The Government must resist calls to change its policy on fracking

15 Oct

Simon Fell is the MP for Barrow and Furness.

I welcomed the Government’s effective ban on fracking just before I was elected as the MP for Barrow and Furness two years ago.

I have always urged the Government to keep local safety and environmental concerns at the forefront of its decision-making when it comes to the extraction of shale gas.

Viewing the challenges caused by wholesale gas prices rocketing these past few weeks, I’m as sure as ever that fracking is not the solution and believe the Government should resist calls to change its policy.

Let’s not forget that the sole reason why the moratorium was put in place is because the Oil & Gas Authority – the independent regulator – found it was not possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking.

In other words, fracking to extract shale gas just isn’t safe. This has been echoed multiple times recently by the Business Secretary, citing the “shaking walls” and “falling plates” after fracking in Lancashire.

It is also worth remembering that, shortly before the Government’s moratorium on fracking was announced, the companies involved were asking the Government for earthquake limits to be relaxed to make fracking more commercially viable.

So fracking fell at the first hurdle – safety. But there are others it would have to clear if we were to begin scaling it up.

The second hurdle is popularity, and the simple fact is that fracking is deeply unpopular. It drives down house prices, brings more heavy traffic which country roads can’t handle, and pollutes the natural environment. The views of local communities should come first, and they overwhelmingly oppose fracking.

This is a crucial point, because fracking is often depicted as an industry which would scale up in the Bowland-Hodder and Midland Valley areas (i.e. in the North of England and Scotland). But the Weald basin – which stretches across the bottom half of South-East England – would also be opened up to exploration if we were to change the current rules to suit the fracking industry.

It’s extremely doubtful that Conservative MPs and their voters in the South would stand for this. New Conservative heartlands in the North shouldn’t be expected to either.

In Barrow and Furness at least, this opposition certainly isn’t due to ‘energy NIMBYism’. I’ve joined countless other Conservative MPs in supporting more renewable and nuclear energy investment in our constituencies. That’s because, with clean energy, there’s much more public support and a much stronger business case.

Even if the Government were to ignore public opinion, face-down a Conservative backlash, relax our regulatory and planning frameworks, abandon a manifesto pledge, and undermine Net Zero, one of its core domestic and foreign policy agendas, there is still the issue that the economics of fracking do not add up.

First, what sense is there in pivoting towards unpopular, uncertain, unsafe fracking just as the clean energy revolution is gathering pace around the world?

Solar and wind enjoy strong public backing, including among Conservative voters, and are the cheapest new electricity sources available to us. The solutions to wind lulls or cloudy days exist – whether battery storage, interconnectors to Europe, or clean hydrogen. They just need scaling up.

Given the North West’s existing expertise and supply chains in nuclear energy, why would anyone call for investment to be diverted from new nuclear to shale gas extraction?

It’s very doubtful that the American shale gas boom in the late noughties is something that could ever be repeated in the UK. Even if we could overcome all the local democracy challenges that prevented fracking when the Government was committed to exploiting our shale gas reserves, shale gas would not be able to meet a meaningful share of UK gas demand over the next decade to have a meaningful impact on prices.

It’s also worth remembering the National Audit Office’s finding that, since gas is a globally traded commodity, UK gas prices inevitably reflect those in Europe. It would require an impossibly large influx of fracked gas to make a dent on European prices and therefore to cut British households’ gas bills.

During the next decade, more and more private investment will continue to surge in the direction of renewables, as has been the trend for a number of years. The opportunity costs would be staggering if the UK opted now to invest in a declining industry right as the global transition to clean energy picks up pace. The truth is that, even before you turn to the environmental damage it causes, fracking’s time has been and gone.

Fracking is a non-starter for a legion of reasons. The Business Secretary is right to reject calls to start this debate all over again when there are more important and urgent decisions to be made to tackle the challenges we face now. The only way to protect consumers from the price of natural gas is to invest in clean energy and energy efficiency as quickly as possible.

Previous success makes the county council elections challenging for the Conservatives

25 Mar

Earlier this week I considered the elections for Police and Crime Commissioner elections and the district councils. As these were last contested in 2016, they offer the potential for Conservative gains. By contrast, the county councils represent a problem of success for the Conservatives. They were last fought in 2017. After Sir John Curtice did some number crunching, he declared that the results equated to a projected national vote share of 38 per cent for the Conservatives, 27 per cent for Labour, 18 per cent for the Lib Dems, and five per cent for UKIP. Current polling suggests a healthy Conservative lead over Labour but not as high as that – the latest one I saw had it at nine per cent. Perhaps that is a crude measure to rely on to forecast local elections over a month away. But it gives a broad indication that the Conservatives will be on the defensive for this electoral category.

Elections will take place in 21 counties – Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset still have county councils but they are being excluded due to proposals to switch to unitary status in those areas. Of those, 19 are Conservative controlled. Two are under No Overall Control. Those two – Oxfordshire and Nottinghamshire – are Conservative-led coalitions with the backing of independents. One would normally expect the Conservatives to be easily winning in Oxfordshire. We shall see if the little local difficulties of four years ago can be overcome this time. The difficulty might be that even if some independents are seen off, the Lib Dems pose an increased risk.

So far as the more general political barometer is concerned, Nottinghamshire is of greater relevance. Along with Derbyshire and Lancashire, it is traditional Labour territory. For Labour to be doing well they ought to be winning these counties outright. It should not be enough for the Conservatives to be doing badly and some hodge-podge coalitions. Yet even for Labour to become the largest party in these counties would require a significant number of gains on four years ago. In Nottinghamshire, we have 31 Conservative councillors with Labour on 23. Derbyshire has 36 Conservatives, Labour on 25. Lancashire saw 46 Conservatives returned last time – only 30 for Labour. If Conservatives managed to win in these counties, even lose a few seats, it will be a good result. Even if they need to come up with a deal with some independents, after negotiations in smoke filled rooms (not that smoking is allowed in council offices these days), they should be relieved. In most of the other counties up for election Labour start with a tally of councillors in single figures.

What of the Lib Dems? They also start from a low base. Even in Devon they only have half a dozen seats. The Conservatives won a huge majority last time. They are denied the chance of a contest in Somerset – which is among the more promising territory for them. If they are guided by their encouraging district council election results in 2017 they will be looking for gains in Cambridgeshire (where they currently have 16 councillors) and Essex (where they are on eight.) It would be surprising if they gained any Council but they might be beneficiaries of some confusing results. If Labour narrow the gap; the Conservatives hold in some places; plus the Green Party and independents pick up some seats; then we could see more hung councils – a situation in which the Lib Dems, with the flexible political approach, would be well placed to adapt to.

But could the Green Party make the electoral challenge for Labour and the Lib Dems harder, by splitting the woke vote? Most county councils do not have a single Green Party councillor. The highest tally is in Suffolk where they have three. Yet some opinion polls have them roughly level with the Lib Dems. April 8th sees the close of nominations so if there are more Green Party candidates than last time, that will give an initial indication that they may be on the up.

Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:

“I would certainly anticipate that Labour will make gains. Derbyshire would be their top target. In the elections in 2013 they won it with a big majority. Staffordshire has moved out of their reach but they will be looking for significant progress in Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. The national swing to them since 2017 may be mitigated by the popularity of Boris Johnson in the Midlands and the North but it would still be a surprise if Labour did not make significant gains. For the Lib Dems seeking a breakthrough, the coronavirus restrictions over the last year will have been a particular problem. They still have an edge on other parties when it comes to their local campaigning machine. But the lockdown has prevented them from exploiting that.”

It would be unrealistic for Conservatives not to brace themselves for some setbacks in the county council elections. But there is a good chance that a drubbing can be averted.

What the Red Wall really is. But why it’s also a mindset – not just geography

24 Mar

Since the Conservative Party won its huge majority in 2019, newspapers have devoted a huge amount of coverage to “Red Wall” voters, who were widely credited for delivering the decisive election result. The phrase has become synonymous with traditional/working-class Labour heartlands, particularly in the North, where people somehow decided Etonian Boris Johnson was the man for them two years ago.

How could this be? It seemed remarkable that voters that had historically rejected, even despised, the Conservatives had such a change of heart. Many Tories have spoken about the need to repay these voters; that they lent them their vote and so forth, hence the endless promises of “levelling up” in the North and other parts of the country. Labour, too, has been trying to win back “foundation seats”, a new term for the Red Wall, through a strategy that recommends “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”.

At the same time, increasing numbers of political pundits have pointed out that there’s been a tendency to generalise Red Wall voters, in terms of who they are and what sort of politics they go for. The Red Wall actually covers quite a large part of the UK, yet the term often treats voters across it as a homogeneous entity, all wanting the same things. Writing for The Critic, Lewis Baston says the “mythical wall was a way of making a patronising generalisation about a huge swathe of England (and a corner of Wales)”.

What’s interesting is how much the Red Wall definition evolved from when it was first coined by pollster James Kanagasooriam in August of 2019. He used it to describe a geographical stretch running from “N Wales into Merseyside, Warrington, Wigan, Manchester, Oldham, Barnsley, Nottingham and Doncaster”, whose constituents, based on education and economic factors, might be expected to vote Conservative but tended to go for the Labour Party.

In his 2020 blog, Anthony Wells, Director of Political Research at YouGov, says the reason many such areas vote the way they do is due to “cultural, historical and social hostility towards the Tories”. In former mining communities, for instance, “the legacy and memory of Thatcherism and the dismantling of industry in the North in the 1980s” has lingered. Merseyside is “still extremely unforgiving territory”, he writes.

But the Conservatives were able to break down many other barriers in 2017 and 2019, in parts of Lancashire, Country Durham and Derbyshire. The most obvious explanation for the Conservatives’ big majority was its message of getting “Brexit done”, which unified voters across the political spectrum. Many were also turned off by Jeremy Corbyn, who projected a lack of patriotism among other things. Clearly the Conservatives’ manifesto and messaging appealed to a lot of new demographics.

But here’s where it gets trickier as the Red Wall was not just about Brexit, or any of the other variables it is sometimes attributed to. As Baston points out there are lots of marginal seats in the Red Wall, such as Bury North, which has “only voted twice since 1955 for the party that has not won the popular vote (1979 and 2017).” So it cannot be taken as evidence of an epic Conservative breakthrough. Others point out that there has been a “long-term structural shift against Labour in these constituencies.”

Of course, the Conservatives should be proud of making headway in new areas, but the Red Wall narrative has become too simplistic. Furthermore, Kenan Malik made an interesting point when he wrote that, “the red wall is deployed less as a demographic description than as a cypher for a certain set of values that working-class people supposedly hold, a social conservatism about issues such as immigration, crime, welfare and patriotism.”

Increasingly it seems to me that people use the Red Wall as a synonym for a worldview. We might say, for instance, that the Red Wall voters like displays of patriotism, such as the union flag. But you could say that for lots of people around the country. Dare I say sometimes the Red Wall is used as a way of getting an “unfashionable” view across (“but I doubt the Red Wall is enjoying the latest BBC programming”), where others might be worried to say it themselves. Perhaps the Red Wall is more mindset than geography.

Profile: Ben Wallace, one of Johnson’s Long Marchers, and a traditional but also irreverent Defence Secretary

26 Jan

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, is not just another cautious career politician who has risen by taking immense pains never to say or do anything interesting.

He might, it is true, be mistaken at first glance for that type. He is capable, when he puts his mind to it, of being as dull as any of his Cabinet colleagues.

The last two Defence Secretaries, Penny Mordaunt (May to July 2019) and Gavin Williamson (November 2017 to May 2019), often courted publicity.

Wallace, on the whole, does not. He might pass, in his Brigade tie, for a quiet clubman, looking somewhat older than his 50 years, a bit of an anachronism and most likely a bore.

His friends insist this is quite wrong: “He’s great company. A good mimic. He sends people up. He sends deeply inappropriate memes on WhatsApp. I could tell you about the time he was serving in Northern Ireland…”

But in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this exploit is like “the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared”.

Wallace’s irreverence is perhaps one of the things that in 2014 led him to conclude, and tell his fellow Lancashire MP Jake Berry, that when there was a vacancy, Boris Johnson should become the next leader of the Conservative Party.

This was not, at the time, a fashionable opinion. Johnson was not even in Parliament, many Conservative MPs distrusted him, and the party machine was firmly in the hands of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Wallace and Berry are Long Marchers, who seemed to have nothing much to hope for under Cameron, and supported Johnson well before victory seemed within the latter’s grasp.

Berry told ConHome:

“Both of us understood as northern MPs what it takes to win the North as Conservatives. We always believed Boris Johnson was the person who could win in the North – who could get under the skin of northern voters in the way that David Cameron couldn’t.”

Irreverence can be a valuable quality, for one way Johnson reaches northern voters is by refusing to take pious London commentators as seriously as those commentators take themselves.

Wallace told Berry he would go and see Johnson, let him know of their support, and offer to help him to find a seat in London for the 2015 general election.

They also began, with others including Nigel Adams and Amanda Milling, to hold curry evenings at Johnson’s house in Islington so he could meet and get to know Conservative MPs.

Johnson came back into the Commons in 2015 as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and took time to find his feet. Early the following year, when the EU Referendum campaign was about to start and Johnson was wavering between Leave and Remain, Wallace urged him in emphatic terms to back Remain, and told him that siding with Leave would mean being allied with such “clowns” as Nigel Farage, and would lead to the loss of 30 parliamentary votes in any future leadership campaign.

Loyalty in Wallace’s book means telling your leader, in private, when you think he is being a damn fool. Johnson rejected the advice, led Leave to an unexpected victory, and became, after Cameron’s breakfast-time resignation, front-runner to be the next Prime Minister.

The referendum victors were exhausted, which is one reason why they were not thinking straight. Michael Gove told Johnson he would support him for the leadership, and Johnson allowed his campaign, run by Wallace and by Lynton Crosby, to be more or less taken over by the Gove team.

A week after the referendum, on the morning of Thursday 30th June 2016, Gove unexpectedly announced that he was running himself for the leadership, whereupon Johnson threw in his hand.

Wallace proceeded, a few days later, to write a piece for The Daily Telegraph, in which he remarked:

“Just like the operational tours I used to deploy on in the Army, you learn a lot during the contest. You learn who to trust, you learn who is honourable and you learn who your friends are. Ultimately what matters in a campaign is not who you vote for, but how you conduct yourself – because we need a functioning party after the event.”

He offered this account of recent developments:

“When on Thursday morning, just before 9am, I got a call from a journalist asking me if it was true Michael Gove was deserting Boris, I denied it. It couldn’t have been true. Only the night before we had confirmed 97 names of supporters, and I knew of three more coming over that day. Michael hadn’t said anything or hinted at any frustrations over the previous four days so I presumed it was just another story from the ‘rumour mill’ that accompanies leadership campaigns.

“I walked round the corner to see Lynton Crosby, ashen white, taking a call from someone who turned out to be Michael Gove. ‘He has done the dirty on us, mate,’ were the words I remember most afterwards.”

In Wallace’s view, this made Gove – married to Sarah Vine, a columnist for The Daily Mail – unfit for Number Ten:

“One of the most privileged parts of my job as a Northern Ireland minister is to work alongside members of MI5 and the police. They work, every day, anonymously, to keep us safe. In their world loose talk costs lives. It does in a prime minister’s world too. UK citizens deserve to know that when they go to sleep at night their secrets and their nation’s secrets aren’t shared in the newspaper column of the prime minister’s wife the next day, or traded away with newspaper proprietors over fine wine.

“I always told Boris we needed to show that we had support from across the political spectrum. Vote Boris was not to be a takeover by Vote Leave, nor was it to be about an inner circle. But Michael thought otherwise.

“He already had Dominic Cummings (his former special adviser, who has the same effect on MPs as arsenic) making plans for who and how to run No 10.

“Whoever leads the Conservative Party needs to be trustworthy. We have a divided country and a divided parliamentary party. An untrustworthy ‘Brexiteer’ is no different from an untrustworthy ‘Remainer’. Governing is a serious business. It is not a game, nor is it a role play of House of Cards.

“Boris is many things, but nasty he is not. I remember when he made his decision to back Brexit I pleaded with him not to. I said it would lose him the leadership. But he said ‘sovereignty mattered more than anything’. At the time David Cameron was negotiating hard in Brussels. Boris agreed it would be dishonourable to pull the rug from under the PM as he sat at dinner with EU leaders trying to get the best for the UK. So he waited till he was back. Gove didn’t. That says it all.”

After the article appeared, Crosby sent Wallace a message: “Mate, you don’t miss.”

The piece is not one that anyone who read PPE at Oxford would be likely to have written. It indicates a different scale of values; a different idea of loyalty.

Wallace is unusual among modern Cabinet ministers, for he did not go to university. On leaving Millfield School, he spent a short time as a ski instructor at the Austrian National Ski School in Alpbach, before proceeding to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

At school, “a very old colonel, a Scotsman, who had been in the Royal Scots Greys” suggested to him and others that they join the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

But at Sandhurst, “all the college adjutants, nearly all the colour sergeants, and all the company sergeant majors were Guardsmen”, and Wallace decided instead to join the Scots Guards, with whom he served from 1991-98, being mentioned in dispatches in 1992 for leading a patrol which captured an IRA active service unit.

He was on duty the night the Princess of Wales died, and was the Guardsman sent over to retrieve her body.

On leaving the Scots Guards with the rank of captain, Wallace entered Conservative politics, and was elected in 1999 as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, where he served a single term.

He has described, somewhat indiscreetly, how the Queen might have played a part in his selection as a candidate. Scotland on Sunday nicknamed him Captain Fantastic, and convivial Scottish journalists claim in jest to have invented him.

In 2003, he moved to Lancashire, was returned in 2005 as the MP for Lancaster and Wyre, and since 2010 has sat for Wyre and Preston North.

This does not mean he has left his regiment behind. His Senior Parliamentary Assistant in the constituency is Alf Clempson, a former Warrant Officer in the Scots Guards, Wallace’s Platoon Sergeant in F Company, applying “the same Sergeants’ Mess and Household Division discipline to his job” now as he did then, while serving also as a Lancashire County Councillor.

In 2005, at the start of his maiden speech in the Commons, Wallace emitted another flash of feeling which would not probably have occurred to a PPE graduate:

“Yesterday, while I was waiting all day to be called, it struck me that a maiden speech is a bit like a first bungee jump, leap from an aeroplane or chance to walk a girl home—while one is waiting, one does not know whether one will get one’s chance; while one is waiting for the chance, one is not sure whether one has done the right thing.”

From 2010-14 Wallace served a convivial apprenticeship as PPS to Ken Clarke, followed by a year in the Whips’ Office and a year as a junior Northern Ireland minister.

In 2016 Theresa May, who had raised Johnson to the Foreign Office, sent Wallace to be Security Minister in the Home Office, where he spent three onerous years preserving a perfect discretion about the horrible matters with which he had to deal.

In the summer of 2019, Johnson’s second leadership campaign was flooded with ambitious MPs rushing to join the winning side, but Wallace the Long Marcher, though this time rather more backward in coming forward, was rewarded with the post of Defence Secretary.

In February 2020, when the Cabinet was reshuffled, “everyone was adamant,” an insider relates, “that Wallace should be sacked, but Johnson hunched his shoulders and insisted on keeping him.”

In an interview last October with ConservativeHome, Wallace expressed pride in the swift response of the armed forces when called on by the civil power to help deal with the pandemic.

The Defence Secretary demonstrated his ability to be not especially interesting when he chooses, but grew more animated at the end of the interview as he explained that he had criticised Labour for waging “unlawful wars” because those who served in those conflicts had found themselves exposed, long afterwards, to vexatious and unreasonable charges, for which the Government which had sent them to war without taking proper precautions against such proceedings must bear the ultimate responsibility.

Wallace does not bring to his post a capacity for airy theorising. He is a pragmatist, who in his speeches draws lessons from his own experience as a junior officer, which senior officers do not always regard as strictly relevant.

Mark Francois, a member of the Defence Select Committee, reckons Wallace is doing a good job. He says he brings continuity to a role which has had six occupants since 2010; has the ear of the Prime Minister; has the moral courage to give Johnson unwelcome advice (for example to keep the promise to protect Northern Ireland veterans against vexatious claims); and has recently obtained an excellent financial settlement from the Treasury.

Francois added that Wallace will have to make sure the extra money is not frittered away, as can so easily happen when long-term procurement programmes are based on absurdly optimistic assumptions.

Johnson is said to have promised to keep Wallace at the Ministry of Defence, charged with ensuring the money is properly spent, though both of them also hope that by spending considerable amounts of it in Scotland, the Union will be strengthened, and Johnson has high hopes for the future of British shipbuilding.

Conservative Party members think highly of Wallace, who is currently fourth in this site’s Cabinet league table.

Wallace has remarked that the Officer’ Messes of his youth were a mixture of “thrusters, characters, dreamers, and drifters…and in time of war you never know which is the one that pulls you out of trouble and is the great leader”.

In politics, as in war, one can never be sure who is going to come good, and who will turn out to be a dead loss. But Johnson is in some ways a more traditional, and pragmatic, Prime Minister than his critics are willing to recognise.

And in Wallace, he has appointed a traditional, and pragmatic, Defence Secretary, with “strange though quite well hidden qualities of empathy”, as one observer puts it, and deep feelings which only bubble to the surface at rare intervals.

Darren Grimes: Johnson must face down the teaching unions with Thatcher-like resolve

12 Aug

“As Conservatives, we believe absolutely in equality of opportunity – the idea that every child, in every part of the country, should have a fair chance. It is not only the most important thing we can do to unleash the UK’s potential, but is at the heart of creating a fair and just society.”

That’s page 13 of the Conservative Party’s winning manifesto last year; a manifesto that secured Boris Johnson an 80 seat majority, saw seats that had always been red change with chameleon-like ease to boast a shade of blue, banished Jeremy Corbyn to the dustbin of history and ensured we could, finally, heal the divide and Get Brexit Done.

That, my friends, will have all been for nothing if the Prime Minister does not face down the teaching unions with Margaret Thatcher-like resolve. With warnings of Covid-19 growing inequalities between our richest kids and our poorest kids, Johnson will be rejected by the aspirational working class that voted for him in large numbers, whose hard slog is made easier in large part by an understanding that they’re ensuring a better lot for their sons and daughters.

The National Education Union, in providing its half a million members with a “checklist” of 200 safety demands for the reopening of our schools, has proven itself to be more concerned with being a thorn in the side of the Conservative Party over being the guardians of children’s interests. One item on the list asks the Government to answer: “Does the timetable include sufficient creative subjects, and space for dialogue and sustained thinking?”. There can be nothing more outrageous than to play politics with the future of our kids.

While Keir Starmer stands idly by as unions attempt to wreck the future of our children, raising questions about just how tough he would be in the top job, the Prime Minister can stand strong knowing that he has the public on his side if he decides to take on the unions. YouGov found that 57 per cent of Brits agree that schools should open after the summer, with only 25 per cent believing they should not.

Evidence from the Public Health Agency of Sweden, in a document titled Covid-19 in schoolchildren: A comparison between Finland and Sweden, compares two similar countries with very different approaches to lockdown: Finland was conventional in its closure of schools, Sweden famously much bolder in its refusal to countenance such an illiberal approach to its economy and society. The report concludes that the closure of schools had no measured effect on the number of cases of Covid-19 among children: “Children are not a major risk group of the Covid-19 disease.”

In a further boost for science-based evidence, on Monday morning, Russel Viner, a member of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and President of the Royal College of Peadiatrics told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “reopening schools is one of the least risky things we can do.” He then told Times Radio that there’s “at least five studies from around the world” that would suggest “there’s very, very little transmission of this virus in schools.”

How many times have you heard this government boast of how heavily it is following the science, they’re absolutely mad for “the science”! If that’s presently the case there will be absolutely no wiggle room for it not to return our schools to normal without a moment’s hesitation and resist following Labour in kowtowing to union pressure.

While our kids have been banished from our schools, I was delighted to learn of the Invicta Academy, that has delivered virtual lessons in English, Maths and Key-Stages 1-4 via Zoom in the likes of London, Surrey, Oxfordshire and Lancashire. The message from the entrepreneurial and community-minded founders of the project to the obstructive teaching unions is clear: if you try and delay the reopening of our schools, we will find a way to ensure our nation’s kids don’t suffer.

The problem is that it isn’t kids in Surrey or Oxfordshire that will suffer the most. According to the UCL Institute of Education, our kids on average understood 2.5 hours of schoolwork per day during lockdown. This, however, varies widely with 28 per cent of children in the South East doing more than four hours of offline schoolwork a day, compared with only nine per cent in the North East. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 31 per cent of private schools were delivering four or more hours of live online lessons a day, with state schools at a paltry six per cent.

The Prime Minister must be the champion of those who suffer disproportionately from our educational divide and disadvantage that his government’s response to Covid-19 has widened further. If, or when, it comes to future lockdowns, which would be utterly ruinous for the British economy, employment and wider society, our schools simply must keep the doors open from next month.

Ged Mirfin: Real identity politics is about a sense of place

15 Jul

Cllr Ged Martin is a councillor on Ribble Valley Borough Council and the Deputy Chairman (Political Campaigning) of Ribble Valley Conservative Association.

Local Government reorganisation by stealth, under the cover of devolution – which is allegedly about the transfer of powers and resources from central government to local people, communities, and businesses, as enshrined in The Localism Act of 2011 – is an administrative sleight of hand. The fallacy of political prestidigitation is that once your audience sees how you carry out the trick, then you will never be able to do it again, and no-one will want to come to the show because they have seen it all before.  If large scale local government reorganisation is carried out under the guise of delivering devolution, this threatens to sully the reputation of the Secretary of State responsible for guiding the White Paper through Parliament, in the same way that has tarred the historical reputation of Peter Walker.

This would be like the Labour Party abandoning its historical relationship with the trade unions. In the Conservatives case, it would be the equivalent of cutting off their right leg.

Identity is now at the very core of political debate – but for many people it is local identity. A significant distrust of politicians and institutions has grown up in this country fuelled by a sense among large numbers of the general public that they no longer have a voice in the national and in this case the local conversation. Really big decisions affecting people’s lives like the proposed creation of unitary authorities (this has already been mentioned in east Lancashire which has sparked a petition signed by 14 per cent of the total voting population of the Ribble Valley in days of the petition being launched) require active public consultation, not decisions forced upon them.

A new localism – a new local identity based on a sense of place – citizens’ unique experiences of their place in the particular environments where they live and work has emerged and is growing stronger. This “new localism” has been strengthened by the same economic and cultural forces that brought about the current populist movement, particularly evident during the EU referendum and during the period of Parliamentary stalemate which followed. It is just as powerfully felt in Conservative voting rural areas as it is in the formerly Labour voting urban areas in Red Wall Constituencies.

Place identity concerns the meaning and significance of places for their inhabitants and users, and how these meanings contribute to individuals’ conceptualizations of self. It also relates to the context of history (statues and historical reference points – buildings and monuments) and the politics of representation are important to those who live in particular areas – in some cases most of their adult lives. Being familiar is to approve, to admire, to respect, and in some cases to show love and affection for the place where you reside.

When you meet strangers on holiday and they ask you where you live, likely as not, you will communicate a powerful emotive attachment and not a little pride in where you live.

When that sense of identity is threatened by what appears like arbitrary re-organisation, the likely reaction is a feeling of dislocation and loss of identity. The phenomenon which we call ‘local loss’ – the fear of hyper local change, the challenge to local identity is much stronger amongst the Conservative Voting older generation but also amongst non-university educated workers whose employment has been secured within local networks and who are likely to work for local businesses who presence is familiar to and recognised by members of their peer to peer networks across towns and villages, particularly in rural areas.

Disruption of such networks will not be regarded as a progressive act, likely to shake-up levels of government to overcome perceived decision-making inertia. Instead the loss of local benchmarks and reference points is likely to lead to confused policy-making.

In the short-term, this will lead to kind of the preferencing and privileging of areas thought to be the reason for abandoning the policy in the first place. The public reaction is likely to be marked by extreme electoral dislocation with a public backlash against even more remote and inaccessible power structures than county councils represented in the first place.

We could potentially be looking at the inauguration of an era of populist and unpredictable politics at the local level which will be far more difficult and uncertain to control than the simplification of government structures envisaged. Imagine a raft of councils with Nigel Farage-type populist leaders in the Derek Hatton or Ken Livingstone mode and central Government reaction when such authorities use their independence to implement devolved powers it really doesn’t like.

Forced reorganisation means that some districts will lose out at the expense of others within the new frameworks. Will more deprived areas lose out to more high growth and prosperous areas? Or will the less well performing areas hold back the high growth areas using them as “cash cows” to resolve their problems of social deprivation including burgeoning social care budgets?

The problem with top-down re-organisation including forced re-organisation of district councils is that someone gets excluded paradoxically by being included in a community they don’t want to be part of. In sociological speak, that perpetuate oppression by creating segregated spaces for marginalized communities, in this case marginalised affluent communities being bled dry by deprived communities to solve their long-term social care problems.

Feelings of security and freedom enable community transformation. As soon as this local identity is challenged we are in trouble. This goes beyond emotional bonds between person and place. This is the origins of the psychology of distrust and we all saw the incredibly powerful impact of what happened during Brexit and the election of Trump. Political elites take note.

Re-organise local government boundaries without meaningful public consultation at your peril.

Richard Holden: On Wednesday, Sunak needs to display as much confidence in Britain as local publications are showing in North West Durham

6 Jul

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Dairy Barn Cafe, North Bitchburn

As Saturday approached, you could feel the febrile excitement and demand for “the story” across the media. Television news and radio bulletins boiled over with predictions of carnage on Saturday night. The broadcasters and papers were eagerly anticipating Freshers Week-esque scenes of drunken debauchery as the public decided to get wasted in a post-lockdown bacchanal.

In North West Durham, I spent Saturday evening visiting the: Duke of Wellington, Consett Rugby Club, the Wheatsheaf in Leadgate and finally the Black Lion, my local in Wolsingham. I’m afraid that I must report that calm and friendly were the orders of the evenings – as it appears were the scenes across the rest of the country too.

Tog, the landlord of the Duke, four doors down from my office on Medomsley Road, took me to his beer garden to show me a mural he’d commissioned during lockdown from a local artist. Sarah-Jane, at the Black Lion, had me take a peak at how she’d transformed her beer garden from a flagged smoking area to a lively and welcoming garden of tables, tasteful lighting and colourful plants and flowers.

It was superb to see responsible local businesses at the heart of their communities investing in their businesses, and ensuring a safe and socially distanced experience for their customers. This hope of better things to come from local firms, with small but significant investments in themselves, is really welcome at a time when I know so many people are not only worried by the virus, but also about their jobs and their incomes.

However, in many sectors of the economy the broad economic impact of the global Coronavirus pandemic is coming through hard, and is reflecting just how interconnected demand is across our economy.

To give one example: at first as the crisis broke, I had travel agents and their staff get in touch. Then came had pilots and crew from Easyjet and British Airways based at Newcastle airport, as the airlines cut back. More recently, I’ve been in touch with a local manufacturing firm which makes inner parts for the wings of Airbus planes, and which is having to lay off half its staff (some of their factories across the UK have closed completely and will not re-open).

Very quickly, the lack of ability to – and demand for – travel has led to manufacturing job losses well down the chain. It’s clear that some sectors have been far more badly affected than others, and that base consumer demand is having a rapid knock-on effect.

Looking out of the panoramic window of the just re-opened Dairy Barn Café, I can see right up Weardale, and am reminded of a conversation I had early in the last election campaign. “Remember, we’re the working dale, Richard” a man in late middle-age in local authority housing in Stanhope had said to me.

At the time it made me think of where I grew up on the other side of the Pennines – walking up Pendle Hill in Lancashire 20 years ago, and looking south to the mill towns of East Lancashire nestled in the valleys below. Working towns like Burnley, Colne and Accrington which have since switched to electing Conservative MPs.

As the furlough scheme, which protected so many jobs at the height of the lockdown is wound down, we’ve got to do everything we can to help return demand to the economy – the demand that comes from confidence in the future. Demand that means work for decent working people up and down the seats of the ‘Blue Wall’.

This confidence and positive view to the future is not something anyone’s hearing from the Labour leadership under Keir Starmer. The best thing he could muster last week was to suggest that the Government was giving “mixed messages” by saying, “get out and about, have a drink, but do so safely”.  Which shows that he’s struggling to get cut-through – especially when the man in the village pub in County Durham is by and large is doing exactly what the Government has suggested.

Labour’s shambolic response to getting children back to school, by saying one thing nationally and another in Labour-run local authorities, certainly inspires no-one with confidence – except a growing confidence that Sir Keir is a political opportunist. He was, after all, remarkably quiet on anti-semitism under Jeremy Corbyn, in order to keep hold of Momentum votes for the leadership. And he tried to play both sides with Labour’s disastrous “we’ll accept the result, but negotiate a new deal, and then have a second referendum” policy on Brexit.

Perhaps most interestingly, this weekend marked the first time that any constituent has mentioned the Labour leader to me unprompted. She was a former Labour voter who switched to the Conservatives in 2017 (and had managed to convince her husband to do so in 2019), and it was clear that, after being initially open-minded, the new Labour leader was leaving them increasingly cool.

The Government has done well in giving support to business and jobs – Rishi Sunak has certainly won fans across the country for that. But without wanting to pile too much pressure on the Chancellor ahead of his statement on Wednesday, we’re all only as good as our most recent decisions in politics.

As we move out of the initial stages of lockdown, Rishi’s decision must be to put confidence as much confidence and therefore demand back into the economy – especially in hard hit sectors – as he can. Everyone knows that it’s going to a difficult time and no-one expects the Government to get everything a hundred per cent right, but voters do expect us to really try.

And in doing so over the next few weeks and months, the Government has got to show the confidence in Britain that my local publicans in North West Durham are showing. And, as they press ahead with “levelling up” their pubs, we must also keep that long-term goal in mind too for the North.

Confidence is the thing that underlies every relationship with the state that we have – from policing with consent to the value of the fiat currency in our pocket. Confidence that governments have the people in mind and the ability to deliver is what keeps them in office.

The electorate here in County Durham and in the mill Towns of East Lancashire took us into their confidence and bestowed their votes upon us. Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, the Government has supported people. Now our task is to give our businesses the confidence to look to the future positively, which will in turn give the people who work for them the confidence to invest and spend in a virtuous circle, bouncing forward out of the fear of recent months and towards the hope of a brighter future.