Jonathan Djanogly: Parliament should be able to scrutinise new trade deals properly. But the current arrangements are simply unfit for purpose.

29 Jun

Jonathan Djanogly is a former Minister, and is MP for Huntingdon.

Did we come through the Brexit process only for the UK Parliament to have less scrutiny over new free trade agreements than we had during our membership of the European Union?

This is the question that Parliament is going to have to address through the Trade Bill, currently making its way to report stage in the House of Commons.

In fact, it seems to be surprising most people that, seemingly contrary to what was proposed in the Queen’s Speech, the Trade Bill does not actually address future trade agreements at all.

Rather, it provides a low scrutiny mechanism, using Statutory Instruments (SIs), for existing EU free trade agreements (FTAs) to be ‘rolled over’ to the U.K. However, given that we have left the EU, it can be questioned as to whether any EU deals with such third countries should now be dealt with as new trade agreements.

For instance, the U.K /Japan proposed FTA is now being treated as a new agreement, and will not replicate the FTA that the EU agreed with it. Likewise, countries such as Canada seem to be waiting to see what the EU agrees with the UK, before agreeing their own new deals with the UK.

In effect, it is arguable that the Bill, which was perfectly rational when its second reading was initially heard in January 2018, may now simply have missed the boat, in terms of the future relevancy of EU trade deals that we have thus far failed to adopt.

It is also somewhat annoying, to those of us that have been following the generation of this bill for the last three or more years, that most of the sensible amendments offered by the then Secretary of State, Liam Fox, have not been re-incorporated into the current bill now before the House.

Agreement that the SI regime should only last for three years rather than five, and that the Government should have to produce reports for Parliament to explain their proposals at least 10 days before the SIs are heard, are surely not contentious. Accordingly, I have re-tabled the last Government’s own amendments for debate.

There then arises the question as to how we are going to deal with future FTAs with countries and organisations, such as the US, China and the EU. On this the Bill is quiet, despite Fox agreeing to consult on a new scrutiny process in 2018.

For the last 40 odd years, the EU has been negotiating our trade deals. As part of the EU scrutiny process, a vote needs to be taken by the EU Parliament on the draft FTA prior to its signature.

Most other countries have similar approval arrangements. In fact, some go further and allow the legislators to get involved in the provisions of the deal. So, for instance, the U.S. Senate can amend draft trade agreements.

In practice, a parliament holding the threat of a veto means that it is very rarely used. This is because the executive will have good reason to look for consensus on its negotiating mandate, as well as carrying legislators along during negotiations through regular disclosure and discussion.

A wise executive would naturally wish to avoid an unnecessary parliamentary bust up just before signing an FTA. Of course, this is where it all went wrong with the TTIP negotiations between the US – EU. Here, both the US Congress and the EU Parliament were disclosing information to their respective elected representatives, that was not being provided to UK parliamentarians.

As a result, and with the inevitable leaks, the whole debate surrounding thousands of lines of deal negotiations got reduced to accusations of selling the NHS and Brits being forced to eat American chlorinated chicken. One might have thought that the UK government had learnt its lesson from the TTIP experience.

The point to be addressed in the Trade Bill is not whether individual issues, such as food standards, environmental regulations, public services or digital services provision or consultation with the devolved authorities are good or bad things in themselves.

Rather, it is the need for the Bill to provide a statutory framework that requires government to take early stage consultation and ongoing soundings through the course of FTA negotiations. This is in order that business and citizens feel they are being listened to with similar rights to their counterparts in the country with whom we are negotiating. Then, before signing, MPs should get to vote on the deal, as will be the case with the counter-party.

In effect, I would argue that current UK practice on scrutinising trade deals is neither democratic nor practically fit for purpose. Moreover, I would go further to point out that our poor scrutiny process is going to be undermined, in any event, by other countries’ more modern scrutiny practices.

The Government suggest that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (CRAG) process, allowing a short delay mechanism before ratification (ie after the signing) of FTAs, is adequate. This is the same CRAG process that was implemented by Labour in 2010 at a time when the U.K. benefited from the EU Parliament veto. By the way it’s also the same process that was described in 2019 by the Lords Constitution Committee as ‘anachronistic and inadequate’.

Secondly, the Government suggests that the Trade Select Committee could be utilised to provide scrutiny for proposed new FTAs. Let us here, firstly, assume that the Trade department and therefore its committee is going to survive a rumoured merger with the Foreign Office. Even so, and despite negotiations with the US and now Japan having already started, no such arrangements with the trade committee have yet been agreed. We know this from an on the record June letter sent from the chair of the committee to Truss.

Of course, the Trade Committee will not have jurisdiction to look at the proposed EU FTA and, following the post- Brexit demise of Bill Cash’s European Standing Committee B, it has not yet been made clear who or how any proposed EU deal will be scrutinised.

I am not suggesting that MPs should be able to impede Government negotiations on FTA’s, and nor am I saying that MPs should be able to amend draft FTAs. However, we need legislation that provides for Parliament to approve FTAs, on a yes or no basis, before they are signed. I have tabled an amendment to the Trade Bill to that effect, and I look forward to the debate.

Rob Sutton: Introducing the top 50 Conservative MPs on Twitter

29 Jun

Conservative MP Twitter power rankings: the top 50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a model of Twitter power rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compiling the data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calculating the number of expected Twitter followers

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

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

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

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

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

Limitations in the model

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

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

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

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

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

Johnson, Starmer – and their strategies in firing people

26 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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