We are pleased to invite you to join us – in-person or online – for ConservativeHome’s programme of fringe eventsConservativeHome’s programme of fringe events at the Conservative Party Spring Conference in Blackpool on Friday 18th and Saturday 19th March.
We’ll be welcoming guests including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Ben Houchen and Liam FoxJacob Rees-Mogg, Ben Houchen and Liam Fox to the stage for discussions exploring trade, Brexit opportunities, levelling the economy and devolving political power down.
As with our successful Party Conference fringe in Manchester, all of our events will be streamed live and free of charge online for readers who cannot attend the conference in-person.
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Over the last few weeks, and in the months preceding, there’s been a huge amount of media coverage about the NHS’s “looming winter crisis”. “The NHS staffing crisis is killing people – and this winter it will be even worse”, reads one paper, and you can expect fears to increase as we head towards January, when demand for health services normally peaks.
Clearly there are reasons to be worried about what lies ahead, due to multiple pressures on the NHS, which has been put on its level of emergency preparedness due to the Omicron variant. There’s the strain caused by the “twindemic” of flu and Coronavirus, both of which flourish in winter; the fact that millions of non-Covid procedures, including operations, have been scrapped to ensure that GPs and otherwise can focus on urgent needs and vaccinations; and there are staff shortages too. It’s estimated that the NHS has a shortfall of up to 100,000 employees in total, with vacancies for medical practitioners rising 15 per cent in the last year and seven per cent for nurses.
Are we about to head into one of the worst crises on record? When I ask Dr Raghib Ali, Senior Clinical Research Associate at the University of Cambridge and a consultant at Oxford University Hospitals, where we are on a timeline of events, he replies “If you mean [by a crisis] ‘will the NHS not be able to deliver all services, as was the case in both the first and second waves, then that is likely – in fact, it’s already happening to an extent because some elective services are being cancelled in some places.” He explains that “the NHS is under a lot of pressure now because of non-Covid… we’re much, much busier than we were certainly in the first wave and, to an extent, even the second wave.”
Ali believes that there are a number of variables that will influence what January looks like. One is how big the backlog is of a) the people who avoid coming into hospital around Christmas and b) those currently staying away, in their own “voluntary lockdown”.
The crucial factor, though, is how effective vaccines are against hospitalisations for the Omicron variant. In short, the less effective, the more hospital beds will start to fill up. Ali says that we should have the hospitalisation data in around one to two weeks, which will mean SAGE – and the Government – is far more able to predict what kind of winter the NHS is in for, and whether it should take preventative measures.
Should the worst outcome prove true (that hospitalisations increase rapidly as a result of Omicron), expect Keir Starmer to use this to argue that the Government did “too little, too late”, even though he knows Boris Johnson would have an extremely challenging time trying to get any more restrictions through (judging by Tuesday’s vote). Were the Labour leader to be granted a vote on the measures, which he’d probably vote through, he could still take the view that they were introduced too late or not enough, as a means to knock the PM.
When I ask Liam Fox, also a doctor, about where we are in the “crisis” timeline, he says we have a chronic problem of under capacity. “I think the question we have to ask is why is it that the NHS seems at almost all times of the year now to be in what we used to call a winter crisis, and what does this tell us about the capacity of the system and the way it’s being run?”
Fox cites two major factors that are destabilising the system. One is that “the NHS runs at a bed occupancy rate that is too high” which “leaves it lacking resilience” if demand changes suddenly (e.g. Covid patients increasing).
The other is medical practitioners’ “lack of ability to discharge patients who don’t need to be in hospitals” partly due to the closures of community hospitals and respite care – particularly in the 90s. He says that “we’ve been obsessed with increasing high-tech medicine, without considering convalescence as a concept”, which is – in turn – leading to imbalances in healthcare.
Similarly, Ali believes that part of dealing with NHS pressures means working out how to physically discharge patients (who have been medically discharged), who don’t have support afterwards. He believes that key to solving this is better funding for social care; and that this would be economically wise, too, as the cost of hospital beds being taken up by medically discharged people is probably more than the cost of paying social care workers more (who can look after them).
The Government has made a start on tackling this area. Hotels have been transformed into temporary care facilities, for one, and workers from Spain and Greece have been flown in to take care of patients. It seems ministers are well aware of some of the main ways to relieve the strain on the NHS, but they will come under pressure to create reforms for the long-term.
In conclusion, it’s impossible to predict whether the NHS was justified to move into its highest level of emergency preparedness, mainly due to the unknowns about the Omicron variant, which – in the best case scenario – could be highly transmissible, but less severe than others. There’s also the booster jab programme, whose success could radically change the situation. But the Government does know what structural remedies can help it avoid, as one paper put it, “the worst winter.”
- What does the Prime Minister do about economic policy? His instinct is for government to spend a lot; Rishi Sunak’s is for it to spend less. Boris Johnson would clearly be reckless to lose his second Chancellor in less than two years, and we don’t believe that he will try to move him. Furthermore, it isn’t at all clear who would play Anthony Barber to the Prime Minister’s Edward Heath. But Sunak’s public pitch for loyalty over social care yesterday only confirmed the tensions between him and the Prime Minister. Johnson will be brooding over the future of the man who is favourite eventually to replace him.
- Who runs Downing Street? The Prime Minister frets about the unresponsiveness of the official machine. He has lost Dominic Cummings. He is installing a Delivery Unit. He is beefing up his own political operation. Does he take the radical option of creating a Prime Minister’s department? Or the established one of relying on the Cabinet Office? Either way, who does he put in charge? Does he keep Michael Gove? Move in Dominic Raab. Or else send for Oliver Dowden – just as David Cameron’s former Deputy Chief of Staff is enjoying his own place in the sun in his own department (and perhaps eyeing Education)?
- What about the Home Office and the Foreign Office? Some in Number Ten share our panel’s lack of confidence in Priti Patel; Raab has been in place for almost two years. Gove has been punted for both posts but, for all his talents, there is only one of him. And if he moves out of the Cabinet Office, who will take the lead on Scotland? Our bet for Foreign Secretary were the shuffle to come late would be Alok Sharma, now that he has globetrotting experience wearing his COP26 hat. Will Johnson really promote the Cabinet League Table-topping Liz Truss, who he is bound to see as a potential rival?
- Who does Johnson bring back and at what level? John Whittingdale was brought back to support Dowden. James Brokenshire was returned to help Patel. When his illness worsened, another former Cabinet member, Damian Hinds, replaced him. The message is: keep your nose clean, and there’s a way back. But is the Prime Minister prepared to do the same at Cabinet level – summoning Liam Fox or Jeremy Hunt or Iain Duncan Smith or Geoffrey Cox or Robert Halfon or other members of the Alternative Cabinet? For given the scale of the foreign and domestic policy challenges, there’s a lack of experience at the top.
- Which women…? The optics will be an inevitable feature of the shuffle, whenever it comes. Johnson will want to increase the number of women at the top table. Anne-Marie Trevelyan must be top of the list to return, but she only recently started her job as Energy Minister. The Prime Minister will be keeping a watchful eye on the ambitious Penny Mordaunt. Kemi Badenoch must be on any list for promotion, but is she ready to run a department? Look out for Lucy Frazer, a potential future Justice Secretary; Chloe Smith if her health allows and, if media deployment is any guide, Helen Whateley. Will Tracey Crouch return?
- …Ethnic minority members?… Nadhim Zahawi is being punted for co-Party Chairman, but he could also slot in at Education, where he has served as a junior Minister, or perhaps at Culture. James Cleverly has been out of the domestic media eye at the Foreign Office and must be due to go back in it again. Kwasi Kwarteng has only recently been appointed and will presumably stay where he is. Lower down the ranks, Claire Courtino will go up sooner rather than later; then there is Ranil Jayawardena and, down in the Whips’ Office, Alan Mak.
- …And Red Wallers…? If promoting ethnic minority members is playing identity politics, so would be favouring white working class people. MPs for the new Conservative northern and midlands seats aren’t necessarily working class – nor Red Wallers, strictly speaking – but they are yet another group that Johnson must consider. Cabinet promotion from the 2019 intake would be drastic, and Johnson is more likely to turn to the trailblazers of 2017. That might mean, say, Lee Rowley, the Tory Deputy Chairman, but the name most frequently raised is that of Simon Clarke, the former Business Minister.
- P.S: what about appointment on merit?… Beware, Prime Minister, of the backlash from your average Conservative MP: male, white, and (in his view) overlooked because of political correctness. “With one exception, those promoted in our intake have been women, ethnic minority members, or gay,” one 2019er complained to ConHome. What about the Kit Malthouses and Edward Argars? (The latter has had much to do as a Health Minister during the pandemic.) Is there a quota on Old Etonians that keeps out Jesse Norman? What about able backbenchers, such as Richard Fuller?
- …And communicators? The Government is short at the top of people who can get on the front foot on TV, if that’s quite the right way of putting it. There’s Sunak, Gove, the Prime Minister himself, a more relaxed Grant Shapps, and Kwarteng. And that’s about it. Which is why Cleverly is due a return, and perhaps Brandon Lewis too. He would fit in at Housing were Robert Jenrick to be moved, but on balance this is unlikely. Jacob Rees-Mogg has been confined to the Commons as Leader of the House, and were he appointed Chief Secretary, he would be restricted to the Treasury.
- What’s the least bad timing? The infallible rule of reshuffles is that the anger of those sacked outweighs the gratitude of those promoted. A shuffle this week would refresh the Cabinet before the conference season. But one later would ease moving Raab, Ben Wallace or both: besides, it isn’t yet clear that Covid has run its course. We assume when the shuffle comes Gavin Williamson will be moved, and at least two Cabinet members fired. More, and Johnson will risk a “night of the long knives”. Fewer, and what’s the point? P.S: the promotion of the Johnsons’ old mucker Zac Goldsmith is a possibility.
Graham Brady was always likely to win the election, near the start of this Parliament, for the chairmanship of the 1922 Committee’s Executive.
This was because the intake most eligible to vote was that year’s: the brand new intake of 107 Conservative MPs. Flung into a new life, eligible vote as backbenchers, and busy with new duties, most will not have given the contest much thought.
Offered a choice between a candidate who had previously chaired the committee and one who had not, many will reflexively have plumped for the former. It will be different this time round.
In a few weeks, Brady is set to face Robert Goodwill in a ballot for the chairmanship. The distinctions between them are arguably ones of degree: both are men, both experienced Parliamentarians, and both northerners.
Michael Gove, in the mischievous spirit that sometimes possesses him, once floated a Wars of the Roses leadership contest between Damian Hinds (Lancashire) and Gavin Williamson (Yorkshire).
You want such an election? Here is one. Goodwill sits for Scarborough and Brady for Altincham & Sale: both are natives of their counties. Hath not thy rose a canker, Brady? Hath not thy rose a thorn, Goodwill?
Above all, neither are exactly founder members of the Boris Johnson fan club. Brady has not been appointed a Minister by Johnson. Goodwill was actually sacked as one.
For all that, this contest will be an important one for the Conservative Party, given the Prime Minister’s habit of veering from disaster to triumph, or sometimes the other way round, and Tory backbenchers’ one of lurching between complacency and panic.
And despite the distance between both men and Johnson, each would be likely to handle him, and the post itself, differently. Brady is a break from convention. Goodwill would be a return to it (at least, if what his friends say is right).
The former’s recent predecessors were Michael Spicer, Archie Hamilton, Marcus Fox and Cranley Onslow. All were essentially loyalists (though Fox’s patience with the party leadership was tested by the Maastricht row).
The point about Brady is that behind his smooth front are steely views, strongly held – for example, on grammar schools, over which he resigned as Shadow Minister for Europe when David Cameron’s Conservatives were in opposition.
Once they were in government, he rebelled not only over EU policy, but against a badger cull, HS2, tobacco packaging, and various pieces of constitution and parliament-related business.
The change from Cameron to May brought no change: indeed, Brady was instrumental in the stately manoeuvering that forced her out of office.
Nor did that from May to Johnson. If anything, he has become rebel-in-chief, for the simple reason that there’s only been one political game in town during the past year or so: Covid. And Brady has been a public critic of lockdowns.
Goodwill has a different flavour. It would not be quite right to say that he has smooth views behind a steely front. But he is a former Chief Whip (of the party’s former group of MEPs), and iron tends to enter the soul of those who do that job, in any form.
He was also a Jeremy Hunt voter – which may help to explain why he was purged, given the Prime Minister’s long memory for political slights.
Add that to his support for Remain during the EU referendum campaign (Brady was a Leaver), and it is tempting to pigeon-hole him on the centre-left of the party, facing an opponent on its centre-right or, more straightforwardly, its right.
But pause there for a moment. In 2005, Goodwill plumped not for David Cameron, or even Ken Clarke, in that year’s party leadership contest. He supported the most right-wing of the candidates, Liam Fox.
And Brady has some unexpected views. When it comes to the constitution, most Conservatives are, well, conservative. But he wants “radical reform – by removing the Executive from Parliament, freeing Parliament from patronage and control of government”.
Some of Brady’s supporters are painting Goodwill as a Johnson stooge, claiming that Downing Street is waist-deep in plots to find a less critical 1922 Committee Chairman. “Two MPs have already refused the poisoned chalice that Robert has picked up,” one told this site.
Goodwill’s backers counter the charge, pointing out not only that the Prime Minister sacked their man, and that as Transport Minister he dismissed Johnson’s “Boris Island” plan with a flea in its ear, or rather his.
And add that Stanley Johnson was evicted from his Camden home, while Goodwill was in post, in order that HS2 could go through it. Though there is no suggestion that he might seek to remove the Prime Minister from Downing Street.
“Robert believes that the 1922 executive should be loyal in public but speak the truth in private,” says one of the challenger’s friends. That sets the election up nicely.
For all the lefty-righty, Leavy-Remainy stuff is ultimately a distraction, or will be treated as such by most Tory backbenchers, at any rate. At the heart of this election will be their view of Johnson.
Do they think he should be kept under public restraint, like one of those handcuffed suspects one sees hauled off in photos featuring Priti Patel?
Or do they believe he should be allowed to run wild through Alpine-type meadows, in the spirit of Julie Andrews during the opening of The Sound of Music?
If they lean to the former, they will back Brady; if the latter, they will go for Goodwill. One experienced hand says that “Brady will win easily: backbenchers hate the idea of a Downing Street stooge being foisted on them.”
But a well plugged-in member of the 2019 intake isn’t so sure, claiming that Brady is a remote figure to his intake, and that many of its members want someone less ready to ruffle the Prime Minister’s feathers.
The election is due before the summer recess. And there it is – unless a third contender comes along. Or more. The Parliamentary Party’s centre of gravity isn’t 2005, when Goodwill was elected, let alone 1997, when Brady was.
Most Conservative MPs have been elected since. Even 2010, the start of the Cameron era in government, seems a bygone age. Don’t rule out more twists and turns.
Lockdown has been a miserable time for everyone, but dare I say what’s made a lot of people feel even worse is the ongoing culture wars. There doesn’t seem to be a day that goes by without someone being “cancelled”, from Piers Morgan leaving to GMB for questioning Meghan Markle’s account of her time in the Royal Family, to Davina McCall being attacked for defending men, to, yes, the demise of Mr Potato Head. The silent majority has been wanting some leadership here.
Enter Liam Fox. Yesterday, quite unexpectedly, he delivered a brave and much-needed address at the Adam Smith Institute titled The Perpetual Battle for Free Speech. It covered an enormous amount of ground, from setting out the historical and current importance of free speech, to criticising Scotland’s Hate Speech Bill, to Fox confessing his guilt at not defending Jo Brand, who came under fire for a politically incorrect joke. I recommend readers watch it below:
Why did this matter? For lots of people, Fox’s speech will be reassuring as a measure that the Government is paying attention to the culture wars. In recent times, MPs haven’t seemed exactly enthusiastic to get involved. Take Boris Johnson, for instance, who Sam Coates from Sky News asked earlier in the year “is Joe Biden woke?” Yes, it was an awkward question. Yes the PM didn’t want to insult the President of the United States. But his response – “I can’t comment on that” paired with a pained facial expression – emphasised a general tendency to tiptoe around the culture wars/ free speech debate/ whatever we are calling it now.
Part of the reason MPs don’t want to get involved in these matters is, of course, the pandemic. Who wants to defend Piers Morgan when they are sleep deprived or have thousands of emails about Covid-19 restrictions? But it’s also a tricky area to navigate and easy to get “cancelled”. As Fox said in his speech: “The first question that anyone today might ask is ‘Why would any politician in their right mind voluntarily enter into the minefield that is the Free Speech debate’.”
It increasingly seems to me that MPs don’t have much choice in the matter, unless they want to stop watching TV, reading papers and basically tune out of the news. We seem to be going through what I call the “Twitterfication” of society, meaning that any idea and sentiment that looks “popular” on social media now moves into the real world, in a way that’s incredibly out of sync with what most people want (as I have previously written about here).
Conservatives have some good ideas for dealing with the culture wars, and some tough fighters (Liz Truss’s speech about the Fight for Fairness, for instance). One of the most interesting ideas for defending free speech comes from the Department of Education, which set out rules for universities to follow on this topic, and has essentially used funding as a bargaining tool in the matter (“if you don’t protect free speech you will not get it”, is the plan).
These are important steps, but we need MPs to share opinions too. Ultimately we’re in a battle of ideas, and the Government needs to talk more than it does legislate. Although crucially, Fox points out that this battle is “everybody’s business. Whether it is online abuse, the bullying mob of the intolerant, the cancel culture, no platforming or unwarranted government intervention, it is up to us all to speak out in defence of those at the receiving end, whether we find the prospect comfortable or not.”
Often the culture wars are framed as a “Conservative” issue; that Tories want one, and so forth, a thesis that seems completely unsupported by how few want to get involved. The truth is that these matters transcend party lines, and require everyone across the political spectrum, MP or otherwise, to stand up for a tolerant society where people can share and debate their worldviews. Furthermore, we cannot allow people who try to “cancel” others or close down debate describe themselves as “liberals”. It is simply not true.
Either way, Fox’s intervention was a great step forward. It brought me back to my time studying social psychology, where I learnt about how people can challenge “the crowd” (ours now on social media). Most of it simply comes down to one person speaking up, and then others follow. Let’s hope Fox’s speech gives many people the impetus to get loud.
This week marked something of a watershed moment, certainly for the Salmond/Sturgeon scandal and perhaps yet for devolution too. After months of watching the Scottish Government hamstring the official Holyrood inquiry into its mishandling of allegations against Alex Salmond, Westminster stepped in.
Liam Fox prepared the way, quizzing the Prime Minister and then the Speaker about Parliament’s responsibility towards civil servants in Scotland. As part of the broader Home Civil Service, it follows that they are accountable to – and should be able to call on the support of – their most senior colleagues in London. And that there is a Minister somewhere answerable to Parliament about them.
Then David Davis stepped up, using parliamentary privilege to put into the public domain what he claimed was fresh evidence he had received from a whistle blower about the conduct of the Scottish Government – evidence his source apparently claims ‘point to collusion, perjury, up to criminal conspiracy’. I wrote up his speech in detail yesterday.
Both interventions reflect a potential new front opening up in the constitutional battle between the Union and its opponents. Where the UK Internal Market Act has seen the Government start to assert itself more in previously devolved spheres, this represents the legislature stepping up to its responsibilities.
Unionists won’t want to rock the boat too much ahead of May’s Scottish elections. But when those are over, there is an interesting debate to be had about procedural or institutional changes that could address the issues these interventions have raised – perhaps bundling privilege for MSPs with stronger lines of accountability for civil servants, or even reviving Fox’s old idea of drawing an upper house for the Scottish Parliament out of the House of Lords. I’ll be looking at this in more detail later.
In the meantime, the polls continue to show a slide in the SNP’s support. They’re still on track to hold on to power in Edinburgh, but it looks as if whatever magic insulated their public standing from the torrent of bad stories their government was generating may finally be running out of steam. When you see Nationalist ministers snarling about ‘rigged polls’, and SNP efforts to put ‘indyref2’ on the ballot paper, you know they’re spooked. The latter play is especially important because it suggests they may be falling back on their (very substantial) core vote.
There have also been a string of polls from different companies putting the Union ahead in a hypothetical second referendum. Obviously this no more represents the ‘settled will’ of the Scots than did the previous string of pro-separation results, but it will all make it easier for the Prime Minister to maintain his opposition towards a granting a re-run of 2014.
One poll, commissioned by campaign group Scotland in Union, used the EU referendums Leave/Remain framing and delivered a pro-UK share of 57 per cent – a remarkable illustration of how high the stakes would be in negotiating the question and how reckless was David Cameron to concede so much to the SNP ahead of the 2014 vote.
The story continues to develop: just two days ago, after pressure from the Conservatives, the Scottish Government have finally published their own review into the Salmond fiasco, which calls for the process to be taken out of the hands of civil servants.There will doubtless be more to come in the weeks ahead.
Unionists will struggle to oust Sturgeon as First Minister. But she has already served in that role for seven years, and is finally showing signs of political mortality. If they can do enough to let Boris Johnson kick independence into the long grass, that might very well be enough.