Sam Hall: Brexit is bringing benefits to the environment. As will regulatory reform – if done well.

26 May

Sam Hall is Director of the Conservative Environment Network.

With inflation rising steeply, the Government is urgently seeking ways to ease the soaring cost of living. Increasing direct financial support for households struggling with rising energy bills will be essential. Another component of the Government’s response will be regulatory reform, which could cut costs for businesses, lowering consumer prices without adding to the deficit.

Regulatory reform needn’t come at the expense of the government’s environmental goals. In fact, outside the EU, there are numerous opportunities to improve regulation while delivering better outcomes for the environment. In particular, there is potential to simplify complex and prescriptive EU environmental regulations, moving from a rules-based approach towards a more outcome-based approach.

Supporters of EU membership wrongly assumed that Brexit would be harmful to the environment. On the contrary, we must not be afraid of reforming EU laws, nor insist on preserving them in aspic.

The phaseout of the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy – now underway – will reduce wasteful, regressive, and environmentally harmful public spending that was forced upon us by the EU. The new farm payments system in England will instead spend taxpayers’ money on buying things the public values, but which the market doesn’t currently deliver, namely environmental benefits like cleaner rivers, while investing in the natural assets that guarantee our food security, such as healthy soils.

The Genetic Technology Bill, also announced in the Queen’s Speech, is another example of environmentally beneficial post-Brexit regulatory reform. Enabling gene-edited crops will help farmers produce more food with fewer biodiversity-harming, climate-warming, and expensive inputs. It’s a win-win for food security and the environment.

A similar approach should be taken with regards to protections for our most significant habitats. Having developed incrementally over decades, the current national and EU-derived habitat designations are confusing and incoherent. This partly explains why a mere 38 per cent of protected habitat is in good condition, alongside poor enforcement.

In a Green Paper published a few months ago, Defra proposed to modernise this system of designations to deliver their target to halt species decline by 2030. Streamlining could have a number of benefits, such as greater understanding among the public and clarity about land management objectives for landowners. But it’s vital the net effect of these reforms is positive for the natural environment.

And to continue confounding the Brexit pessimists, ministers must make sure regulatory reform promised in the Brexit Opportunities Bill enhances rather than damages the environment. Concerningly, a Government source quoted in the Times suggested that this Bill could include a weakening of environmental rules for infrastructure projects.

Without a clear green direction of travel across all these policies, there could be negative political consequences. The local election results were particularly bad for the Conservatives in so-called ‘blue wall’ seats in the South of England. Some recent polling for Unchecked UK shows that there is no majority support for weakening environmental protections in these Conservative heartland areas. Just 18 per cent of voters in the blue wall feel that reducing environmental and animal welfare standards is acceptable in order to secure post-Brexit trade deals, for example.

The polling suggests that environmental policies generally could be a good way to appeal to these voters. Environment is a top three concern in the blue wall and the third most important issue for voters when selecting which party to support, ahead of housing, immigration, and tax. Similarly, half of these voters say they are more likely to vote for the party with the most ambitious environmental plans.

These findings are reinforced by the prominence of green issues during the local election campaign and the impressive performance of the Green Party, which won 35 council seats off the Conservatives.

This dynamic is likely to be repeated in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election on 23rd June. The Liberal Democrats have been campaigning hard on sewage pollution in rivers and exploiting fears among rural communities about high UK environmental standards for food production being undermined by trade deals. They will make the environment central to their attempt to win back parliamentary seats in the South West in 2024.

Retaining blue wall seats in the South of England while consolidating progress in the red wall will be critical to keeping the Conservatives in power beyond 2024. The environment can help in both cases. By marrying strong environmental protections with a big focus on job creation and investment in new clean industries, the party can set itself up for electoral success in 2024.

Peter Franklin: Don’t turn the Conservative Party into a cargo cult

23 May

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

In the 1930s and 40s, the US military established military bases across the south Pacific. As a result remote island cultures, with little or no contact with the outside world, suddenly found themselves face-to-face with the might of twentieth century America. Though the islanders were in no position to understand the outsiders’ technology, for a brief moment they were able to share in its benefits. But then something terrible happened: the visitors went away again.

It may be that some of the islanders were happy to see the back of the Americans, but others were desperate for the visitors — and their hitherto unimaginable wealth — to return. Indeed, in some places that longing took on a religious aspect.

So-called cargo cults sprang up in numerous locations. Cult practices sometimes took the form of ritually re-enacting the mysterious things that the visitors got up to — like clearing landing strips in the jungle. In other cases, mock aircraft were created out of local materials and symbols like the Red Cross reproduced as objects of reverence. The hope was that such rites would somehow bring back what had been lost.

Cargo cults might seem ridiculous to us — and in fact the term itself has fallen out of academic favour for that very reason. However, we westerners would be foolish to assume that we’re not susceptible to the same kind of thinking. Instead of working through the challenges that face us in the here-and-now, it is often easier to re-enact scenes from an imagined heyday.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with respecting the past and trying to learn from it. But equally we must be aware that our problems are constantly changing, and the solutions that we apply must change with them.

I’m worried that a discombobulated Conservative Party has forgotten this. Consider, for instance, our response to the return of inflation — and the criticism directed at the Bank of England for not getting on top of it. Clearly, we’ve got a major problem on our hands, but the idea that we can solve it by yanking up interest rates — because that’s what worked before — is pure cargo cultism.

The inflationary monster today is not the same beast that was slain in the 1980s. Nor does its origin lie in the last decade or so of very low interest rates, otherwise it would have shown itself years ago. Rather, the beast was born out of the extraordinary disruption to global supply chains caused by the pandemic and compounded by Putin’s war.

There was a furious reaction when the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, suggested that policymakers were helpless in the face of these inflationary pressures. Bailey could have chosen his words more carefully, but he’s a lot closer to the truth than those who believe that UK interest rates can control global commodity prices.

Other Conservatives see a lack of growth as a bigger problem than rocketing prices. In the long term, they’re probably right — but they’re wrong about the means by which they want to revive the economy: i.e. tax cuts. Again, we see a demand for the ritual re-enactment of policies from the Thatcher era; but the conditions that applied then don’t apply now.

We’re not perpetually on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve. Rather our number one economic problem is the chronic failure of British business to invest in productivity improvements — despite the incentives of lower Corporation Tax, cheap migrant labour and minimal borrowing costs. The Chancellor acknowledged this structural impediment in his Mais Lecture earlier this year, but even he felt the need to appease the tax cut fetishists in his ill-fated Spring Statement.

The ritual re-enactment of past triumphs isn’t limited to economic policy. The Conservative cargo cult is also attempting to resurrect the Right to Buy. To widespread groans, the Government has dusted off a policy to extend the Right so that housing association tenants can buy their homes too.

This is fine in principle, but the offer isn’t attractive without a hefty discount on the market value of the relevant properties— and who is going to pay for that? First proposed in 2015, the Government has already tried, and failed, to make this policy work. There’s no reason to suppose that a second attempt will be any more successful. One has to ask whether a serious effort will be made at all — or whether the announcement was just an excuse to conjure up the past.

However, I don’t want to give the impression that the conservative cargo cult is only about the 1980s. Thatcherite nostalgia is big part of it, but there are more recent triumphs to hark back to — not least, our miraculous escape from the clutches of the EU.

However, the problem with getting Brexit done is that you can’t do it again. Or can you? One fears that the main reason why the government has chosen this moment to unpick the Northern Ireland Protocol is that it needs a Brexity distraction. But if they think they can summon up the spirit of 2019, they’re badly mistaken. Brexit was about getting the EU out of our lives and allowing the UK to forge its own path. That means levelling-up and shaping and economy that works for everyone, not refighting old battles.

That’s why my heart sank when I read about Suella Braverman’s call to bring back the Conservative Party’s torch logo. Digging up this old totem really would be the ultimate cargo cult move. But anyone who thinks that dressing up in Margaret Thatcher’s clothes is going to stop Labour from taking back the Red Wall or the Liberal Democrats from making in-roads down South is deluding themselves.

If the Conservative Party really wants to honour its past, then, like Thatcher, it must fearlessly face-up to and tackle the problems of the present. If that means breaking new ground and attempting the previously impossible, then so be it. After all, our greatest duty to tradition is to take it forward into the future.

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

16 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry Hill: Tories attack other parties for propping up SNP councils as local campaign heats up

14 Apr

Liberal Democrats ‘open’ to pact with Tories to oust Nats in Edinburgh

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has said that his party could support an “alliance” with the Conservatives to take control of Edinburgh Council.

The Daily Record reports that whilst he won’t ban local Lib Dem groups from reaching agreements with the SNP, he has ruled out propped up “failing” Nationalist leadership in the capital and in Glasgow.

As the local election campaigns head up, the Tories are trying to highlight examples of other parties collaborating with the Nationalists in order to try and solidify the pro-UK vote behind themselves.

Earlier this week, Ruth Davidson claimed that Labour councillors would “help” their Nationalist counterparts nod through controversial diktats from Bute House, pointing out that the party is in coalition with the SNP on six councils.

This prompted both Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar, Labour’s leader in Scotland, to speak out against formal coalitions with Nicola Sturgeon’s party.

Starmer in particular will be wary of the Conservatives reviving their very effective 2015 campaign against Ed Miliband, which painted a picture of a minority Labour government in the pocket of Alex Salmond.

And speaking of the SNP…

First Minister likened to Trump after barring press from campaign launch

Scottish print media are up in arms after Sturgeon barred them from the launch of the Nationalists’ local election campaign. According to the Scotsman, only broadcasters such as the BBC and STV welcome at what an SNP spokesman branded “not a typical launch event”.

This decision is especially baffling in light of one detail unearthed as part of an excellent recent investigation into the Nationalists’ ‘secret state’ by the Spectator:

“The Scottish government’s 175 communications staff dwarf the BBC’s 34 reporters, meaning that even the publicly funded broadcasters have one person asking questions for every five who answer them. Remarkably, the bill for Holyrood’s press officers and special advisers has increased by 50 per cent since 2018, despite newspaper sales halving since the SNP came to power.”

Nor is Scotland the only part of the kingdom suffering for Westminster’s hands-off approach to the devolved territories – as I noted in the Critic, Northern Ireland is paying a heavy price for successive governments’ refusal to take responsibility for good government in the Province.

In other news, a member of the First Minister’s cabinet has likened opponents of gender self-ID laws to antisemites. Lorna Slater, a member of the Scottish Greens whom Sturgeon brought into government last year, alleged opponents of her plans were funded by “certain right-wing American groups”.

The First Minister is also set to increase Scotland’s constitutional divergence from the rest of the United Kingdom by giving 16-year-olds the right to stand for election to the Scottish Parliament.

Robert Halfon: Without a strong local councillor base, we are nothing as a Party. We forget our councillors at our peril.

22 Feb

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Whatever has gone on in the past few months – and of course we all have our strong views – as Parliamentarians we must, must, must have a huge duty of care and support for our councillors and activists.

It really worries me when the so-called ‘Westminster Village’ discusses the future of the party leadership “depending on the extent of hundreds of councillor losses in the local elections”.

It is as if these councillors are pawns on a chess board, or a digital army in some kind of Westminster ‘Call of Duty’ computer game, rather than hard working local politicians doing the best for their district and our political party. These councillors and active members are the ones who often keep local constituency parties afloat. When they get elected, they usually bring their families and friends to help campaign. If they lose their seats, sometimes their support networks go. So like an unvirtuous circle, the local constituency association gets smaller and weaker too.

Why do I say this?

Because when I was first selected as Parliamentary Candidate in Harlow, it was our local councillors who kept the Harlow Conservative Party show on the road following the 1997 wipeout. They were the ones who worked hard in the darkest days of opposition to keep the Tory flame of freedom alive. These campaigners were there – not just when it was fashionable or easy to do so, but when it was hard. It is exciting to join a political movement when things are going well. Much tougher to become a member and help keeps things afloat when your party almost has pariah status – as it did in the early years of opposition.

One of those such councillors is my longstanding voluntary Agent, Councillor Simon Carter, who works day and night for his local community. After 1997, he moved the local Tory office into his house and just a few councillors kept the Association going. Such support from Conservative councillors has and continues to happen across the country.

Harlow Conservatives now have a proper office, many more members and only the second Tory council majority in Harlow in the Town’s political history. However, anyone with any sense knows that it can quickly disappear, if the public believe that Conservatives are arguing amongst themselves and not focusing on real priorities such as the cost of living, housing and education. My majority of 14,000 (after six elections) would be vaporised without the support and backing from all my councillors for over 20 years.

It is worth remembering that the 1997 general election defeat did not just come about because of the goings-on at Westminster but because in the run-up, we lost thousands of our councillor base from Tory bastions like Essex and Tunbridge Wells. This loss happened not due to the fault of these Tory councils, but because of the shenanigans and Tory civil war in Westminster that started pretty soon after the unexpected Conservative election victory in 1992.

Of course it is right to have debates and disagreements about policy. No one is seeking to close this down. Policy discussion is critical. As regular readers of ConservativeHome will know, I do this myself regularly on these pages. In my role as Chair of the Education Committee, it is also my job to scrutinise education policy and try and suggest ideas for improvement.

But, in the run-up to the local elections, if we continue to give the appearance that we are focused internally on ourselves and are negative about the party leadership publicly and politically, then all the leaflets and campaigning will not amount to a row of beans. The electorate will just give the Conservatives a big fat raspberry in May.

It won’t be us MPs losing their sense of purpose and seats but councillors who have mostly lost because of us, not because of them. Not only will we have helped destroy their political opportunities, but town halls will be overrun with Labour and Liberal Democrats, with the ensuing high tax, high-spend policies this will bring. Don’t be surprised in the marginal seats particularly, that bad election results mean less local Tory campaigners, but also many more Opposition activists as well.

All I care about over the next few weeks is that my remarkable team of councillors and council candidates do well at the May elections. They deserve it. They work hard week-in-week-out campaigning, delivering leaflets whether it is in the midst of Storm Eunice or a Tsunami. Westminster folk have a duty not to be self-indulgent. I owe it to my local constituency party campaigners just as colleagues will owe it to theirs. Let us put our big political disagreements in Westminster aside – at least for now – and just relentlessly focus on helping our councillors win in May.

Michelle Lowe: Johnson has secured the Conservatives’ right flank – now we need to secure our left one

11 Feb

Michelle Lowe contested Coventry South at the General Election last year and is the former Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing & Health at Sevenoaks District Council.

The Southend West by-election result does not tell us very much except that UKIP is no longer much of a threat to the Conservatives. They not only lost their deposit but came after “spoilt ballot papers” and the Psychedelic Movement. Locally they have very few if any local councillors left after being spectacularly driven out in 2017. On top of that Reform UK only just about managed to keep their deposit in the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election.

It seems that no matter how unhappy voters are with the Conservative Party, apart from in the opinion polls, there does not seem to be much evidence of them actually switching to Labour in elections. The Lib Dems and Greens are, however, a different story. Not only did the Lib Dems win both the Chesham and Amersham by-election as well as North Shropshire, both parties are capturing more and more council seats in the South East. They will no doubt use their growing local government base to start attempting to capture Westminster seats at the next General Election.

Knowing that they are unlikely to form a Government any time soon, both the Lib Dems and Greens are shamelessly disingenuous in their promises. They claim there is no need for any more house building or large infrastructure projects such as HS2, but somehow they will also manage to find homes for young people and provide greener travel. For a party of government this is the impossible circle that Michael Gove is trying to square. How can he close the generation divide and make sure there are enough homes for young people to buy, while protecting the countryside?

To win in the affluent South East the party not only has to find a solution to the development problem, but it will have to be strong on social justice issues all round. Andrew Mitchell told the House of Commons last July that Chesham and Amersham has the biggest Christian Aid group in the country. The cut in foreign aid spending that is popular in some places probably helped to elect Sarah Green as the MP in Chesham and Amersham.

The Government’s new Levelling Up White Paper is attempting to address some of the social injustices that exist and were no doubt exacerbated by the pandemic. Focusing on infrastructure, schools, the NHS and low income households while empowering local government to deliver for its communities – the white paper is moving in the right direction.

In 2019 we suffered a terrible set of local government election results losing control of 44 councils and 1,330 councillors. In the South East the Lib Dems and Greens built on these results during the county council elections last year, and the Lib Dems and Greens now have a firmer foundation on which to try and win Westminster seats. They are very good at targeting specific seats where they are strong and not competing against each other. Once elected they blame the Government for not being able to deliver on its election pledges. They are leaving a patchwork quilt of rainbow coalitions that often include independents as well – and the glue that holds them together is their hatred of us!

In Sevenoaks, where I was Deputy Leader until I stood down in 2019, we held back the anti-Tory tide that year with a strong local brand that combined fiscal responsibility and efficiency, with compassion. Voters were not going to risk their weekly bin collection and low council tax by voting Green or Lib Dem – especially when their local Conservatives were also building Dementia friendly towns and villages and rolling out social prescribing to help with their wellbeing. So their consciences were clear. Unfortunately, the Town Council and County council brands were not so strong – losing the town council in 2019 and the County seat in 2021. Sevenoaks was by no means the only place where success was achieved – nationally we can learn a lot from these places.

So with local elections this year and next, and a General Election taking place sometime before December 2024 we can relax a bit from UKIP and Reform UK – but we need to prepare to defend our traditional heartlands from the Lib Dems and Greens by making clear they are not up for grabs. We have to find a way to protect our countryside while still building homes for young people, and we have to actively promote social justice and equality of opportunity. We must be seen as fiscally responsible and efficient but we must also make sure people know we care.

David Gauke: We need real vaccine passports now. The unvaccinated must pay a price for their anti-social behaviour.

20 Dec

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

A hundred Conservative MPs voted against the Government’s policy on Covid-19 last week. Had I still been an MP, I would have voted with the Government, but I can understand why MPs might be sceptical. Its policy to limit access to public events for the unvaccinated does not go far enough.

Within Parliament, there is a cross-party consensus that vaccine passports – as opposed to the Government’s policy of Covid certificates – are unacceptable. The Liberal Democrats voted against Covid passes, and both Sajid Javid and Wes Streeting have declared their opposition. But, as the Omicron variant spreads and the prospect of a further lockdown increases, it is time that the proposal is revisited.

For those who think that is an appalling infringement of individual liberty to be asked to produce their smart phone or a piece of paper when entering a public venue, it is really time to get some perspective, and recognise that we live in a world of trade-offs and least worst options. Comparisons with Nazi Germany are downright offensive.

Ever since March 2020, there has been one immutable political fact. No Government can knowingly allow cases to grow to such a level that it results in the collapse of the NHS. There are times when the Government has been uncertain ,and taken action later than it should have done (as I fear is the case now) but, when approaching the precipice, this Government (and, indeed, any government that cares about maintaining the confidence of the public during a public health crisis) has stepped back and prioritised lives over liberties.

A government that negligently allows the NHS to be overwhelmed will be politically finished. Rather than denying this, or pretending that the risks are not real (as some Conservative MPs appear to be doing), the challenge for those of us who dislike lockdowns is to identify the least disruptive ways in which we can stop the spread of the virus and reduce the pressure on the health service.

If that is the approach, it becomes very obvious that many of our problems stem from a relatively small minority who have failed to become vaccinated. For some, there is a medical reason, and a sympathetic approach is appropriate, but for most it is simply a matter of personal irresponsibility.

A vaccinated person can still spread the virus, but will be less infectious than an unvaccinated person  . Even more significantly, a vaccinated person is much less likely to be a burden on our over-stretched health service than an unvaccinated person.

Given that the unvaccinated make up just 11 per cent of the population over the age of 12 and that they are generally those in relatively low risk groups, it is remarkable how much of a burden these people are to the NHS.

Data from the summer file shows that the unvaccinated made up 73 per cent of intensive care unit admissions and, according to Professor Sir Andrew Hayward, Chair of the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation, the ongoing horror of severe Covid in our ICUs is ‘largely restricted to unvaccinated people’.

Both in terms of their tendency to spread Covid and the medical resources they are consuming, the argument that receiving the vaccine is a purely personal matter is nonsense. Much of the downside of an individual remaining unvaccinated falls on society as a whole, as the virus spreads more easily and taxpayers’ money is spent providing expensive medical care.

There is further indirect burden on the rest of society. If we take the approach that we will impose restrictions when we need to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed, the point at which this is necessary will be reached is much earlier if there are a significant number of people unvaccinated.

Imagine, for a moment, that the UK consisted only of people who have been tripled jabbed. In those circumstances, even were Omicron allowed to run wild, it is possible that the NHS would be able to cope without imposing restrictions. By contrast, in a country that was entirely unvaccinated, we would certainly have needed to be in full lockdown for the last couple of weeks (although the collapse of health care would still look likely).

In other words, all other things being equal, the higher the proportion of the population that is fully vaccinated, the fewer restrictions we need on society as a whole.

The costs of their anti-social behaviour need to be borne to a greater extent by the unvaccinated. We could, as a matter of policy, refuse to treat them but this would place medical practitioners in an impossible position.

We could charge the unvaccinated for the cost of their medical care, as is happening in Singapore, but this would offend against our national sensitivities over charging for healthcare at the point of delivery.

A policy of compulsory vaccinations (presumably enforced by fines for those who defy) appears to be impractical. This leaves us with vaccine passports.

We are likely to be about to lockdown the entire nation, including those who have done the right thing and got themselves jabbed. It would surely be preferable to have the option to target restrictions on those who, through their own fault, are at greater risk of spreading the virus and ending up requiring intensive care.

This is why the Government’s Covid pass policy does not go far enough. It enables the unvaccinated to produce a negative lateral flow test (which can be easily faked) and which only applies to large venues. The Government should return to the original Plan B proposal, and remove the negative LTF option plus extend the requirement to all hospitality venues.

The evidence from France is that tough measures on the unvaccinated shove the vaccine hesitant into taking action. A gentler, more consensual approach works well for most people but, at this stage, it is hard to see that it will ever work for most of those who remain. And, the first rule of public policy is that people respond to incentives.

Of course, some will say this creates a two tier society that it is inherently discriminatory. Too right it does – but ‘discriminatory’ does not mean the same as ‘unfair’. We should discriminate between those who have acted responsibly and been jabbed with those who have refused.

When it comes to a public health emergency, we discriminate all the time (we rightly discriminated in favour of the elderly and vulnerable when distributing the vaccines) and, in any event, it is a strange ideology (especially for those on the centre-right) that argues that one cannot discriminate between people on the basis of their individual choices. Actions, after all, have consequences.

This is very far from being a perfect solution, but perfect solutions are rarely available. When I listen to some of my former colleagues pontificate on these matters, however, I hear arguments that simply fail to confront the ghastly situation we are in and are just wishing the pandemic away.

It is quite possible that, for Omicron, it is already too late for vaccine passports to make an immediate useful contribution and we will have to have a full lockdown. But if we really want to preserve more of the liberties of the majority of the population and allow businesses to operate (albeit with additional requirements) whilst protecting the NHS, our MPs need to reconsider their opposition to a relatively modest imposition on the responsible majority. If we want to live with Covid safely and efficiently, vaccine passports have a role to play.

Vox Pub in Sidcup: “I think that Boris will get in and Labour will have to have a rethink”.

1 Dec

The traveller who arrives in Sidcup by train and turns up Station Road towards the town centre comes almost at once upon a sign to Orpington, scene of the astonishing Liberal by-election triumph in 1962.

It would be still more astonishing if the Liberal Democrats were to win tomorrow’s by-election in Old Bexley and Sidcup. In the Alma pub, just off Station Road, the Lib Dems were mentioned only once, by a voter still angry with them for supporting the Conservatives in 2010.

Many more people mentioned Labour, but again in tones of anger and disappointment, with Sir Keir Starmer not yet thought to have made the party fit for its former supporters to return to, and a vote for the Conservatives still reckoned by some to be needed in order to make Labour come to its senses.

Several people mentioned Richard Tice, who is standing for Reform UK, successor to the Brexit Party, but no one thought he is as formidable a campaigner as Nigel Farage.

Boris Johnson came in for heavy criticism from Conservative voters for his recent performances, but few could yet name an alternative leader they would rather see in Downing Street.

Hence perhaps the confused state of British politics: Johnson has become less popular, but no clear rival to him has emerged, and even some of his critics said they will still vote Conservative in the by-election, or indeed that they have already done so by post.

A curious dynamic could be detected, whereby Labour might help to prop up the Tory vote by itself being even less convincing.

James Brokenshire, who died on 7th October, held Old Bexley and Sidcup for the Conservatives at the last general election with a majority of 18,952 over Labour, who received 10,834 votes, with the Lib Dems in third place on 3,822.

So Labour ought to be the main challenger here, but Sir Keir has stayed away from the by-election, and may have timed this week’s Shadow Cabinet reshuffle to forestall criticism in the event of a weak performance tomorrow.

The Lib Dems recently showed what can be done in a by-election by turning the Tory majority of 16,223 in Chesham and Amersham into a majority for their candidate of 8,028.

It would be amazing if Labour achieve anything comparable in Old Bexley and Sidcup, especially when one considers the story of this man, who works in insurance and wants to “punish Labour”:

“I’m not from South-East London [Sidcup is on the border with Kent]. I’m from East London. I’ve been here for 20 years.

“I grew up in Cable Street, Stepney. My parents were Irish Catholics, working class, who came over here in the 1950s.

“I first voted in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher got in. I despised her politics – she was a fantastic politician, I respected what she did, but I was never going to be a Tory.

“I voted for a Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson! The only thing I would say is the reason I did that was I was actually trying to punish the Labour Party for being so absolutely stupid.

“I just hated and despised them for finding a winning formula [under Blair], and then moving to the Left. And then Corbyn – are you completely mad?

“He’s like Dennis Skinner and those guys – I admire them for the fact they stick to their principles – Tony Benn, Michael Foot, great men – but Corbyn, I just thought you cannot be serious.

“Tony Blair – he won three elections – two landslides.

“We didn’t win because we didn’t take it far enough to the Left? Are you stupid?

“So what do you do, you put up Boris Johnson who is the antithesis of Jeremy Corbyn and he wins and takes your heartlands away from you.”

ConHome: “What do you think of Keir?”

The insurance worker: “I like him. He is a good guy. I think he’s fighting an internal battle that I’m not sure he’s going to win.”

ConHome: “And what do you think of Boris Johnson?”

The insurance worker: “He might get away with it. He is what he is. He wouldn’t be my choice of PM in a million years. I think he’ll get in and Labour will have to have a rethink.

“In 2019 I voted Tory for the first time ever. I didn’t vote for Boris. I got very annoyed when the Liberals went with the Tories. I got so annoyed with Labour when they went for Corbyn.

“This experiment of going Left didn’t work, so they went further Left! I am Labour, and Tony Blair gave me the Labour Party I wanted.

“I voted Tory in the by-election [by post] because I’m still pissed off with the Labour Party. They need to persuade me.

“I do beat myself up voting Tory. I’m one of those people, I have to vote. I’m just that annoyed. Someone that grew up on Cable Street, in Stepney, Tower Hamlets as it’s now called, I shouldn’t be in this position. Labour need to persuade me to vote for them again.”

A retired man having a drink with two of his friends said: “It’s sad that the incumbent MP has died. I’ve not met the new MP. I’m a traditional Conservative voter and I will vote Conservative, I have already [by post].

“But my comment would be it’s time Boris went and we got someone more competent in the job. We call him the buffoon.”

Second man: “I think he did well with Covid.”

The first man: “I support the Conservative Party but I’m not a member of the Conservative Party. I’m not quite sure who there is who I’d like to take over.

“He falls over his tongue so often it’s embarrassing. And now he’s upset Macron again, not that that’s difficult to do. He’s texted him a letter. What’s he doing behaving like a teenager?”

Third man: “I’ve been Conservative most of my life. I’m not sure about Boris lately. Just lately he’s been a bit of an idiot.”

First man: “At the back of my road there’s the playing fields. The Round Table on Guy Fawkes Night would always have a fireworks display to raise money for charity. I was waiting with some of my friends and we saw Ted Heath rushing down the road with some policemen.”

Heath, who died in 2001, served as MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup until 2001, having first won the seat of Bexley (which had different boundaries) by 133 votes from Labour in 1950.

“I said, ‘Mr Heath, would you like to come for a short cut through here?’ He said ‘Thank you very much’ and his shoulders shook.”

So he showed Heath through his own house and back garden onto the playing fields. He remembered the former Prime Minister with respect:

“He was a good constituency MP. I had cause to write to him on a couple of occasions and I always got a reply. I think he was a nice chap and he suffered a lot at the hands of the press. I guess if you put yourself in that position you have to put up with it.”

Not all Conservative voters will stick with the party tomorrow. Richard Payne, aged 72, who until the age of 44 was a foreign exchange dealer but later worked as a milkman and a plumber, said he could be called “pissed off from Sidcup”, and will “definitely” be voting for Reform UK:

“Well I think the Government’s in a state. The Tories are letting everyone down. Boris is letting everyone down. Immigration, people coming over willy-nilly, it’s ridiculous.

“They’re kowtowing to the French all the time. We didn’t vote for that. And believe it or not, I’m a lifelong Tory supporter. I’ve always voted Conservative in the past.

“At the end of the day you need strong leadership. And the only person in my time who’s had strong leadership is Maggie. She’s my hero.

“To begin with, Boris was all right. All right, he’s had a tough time with the pandemic, it’s not easy to walk into something that’s never been known.”

ConHome: “He got Brexit done?”

Payne: “Well yeah, but he wouldn’t have got back in otherwise. His trade agreement with the EU wasn’t much better than Theresa May came out with, and that was rubbish.

“As far as I’m concerned you can forget Labour. Blair was bad. Corbyn was even worse. Starmer reminds me of John Major. Faceless. Grey man.

“Excuse me. We’ve got to look after the British people. You’ve got to look after your own. The duty of a government is to protect its people. If Nigel Farage was standing I’d vote for him. He seems to be the only one who’s got the courage of his convictions.”

ConHome: “What’s the name of the guy who’s taken over from Farage?”

“Richard Tice. He hasn’t got his persona. I can’t believe that Farage would not be there in the background. This really came out in the Brexit vote. He was saying stop all the immigrants coming over. He was accused of being racist. We do need immigrants obviously, but not uncontrolled. It has to be controlled.

“The NHS is a – forget the NHS – I’ve been waiting for a knee operation for goodness knows how long. I can’t get to see my doctor. They said you need a new knee three years ago.

“He’s done a good job in rolling out the vaccinations. I’m not anti-vax. I’ve had them all. Booster. Flu jab. If they had another booster I’d have that.

“Boris has got to follow through with it. It’s no good promising the world and you end up with nothing, or very little. You can’t keep deceiving the British public. If Labour had a stronger leader he might well get kicked out.

“There’s too many bleeding heart liberals in the country. There are. I’m not racist. Racism is a two-way street, but it doesn’t seem to work that way in reality. We can’t call these people coming over in boats illegal immigrants, we’ve got to call them migrants.

“He’s trying to appease everybody and you can’t do that. You’ve got to say this is where we stand and that’s it. But he doesn’t do it.

“If he doesn’t pull his finger out he’s going to be out.

“Though without the help of Macron we can’t do anything, and Macron is a little shit, all five foot three inches of him. Him, Sarkozy, Napoleon. At the end of the day, I don’t think the French people hate the English. It’s just him.”

Before going to the Alma, I spoke to a group of six ladies, friends from Holy Trinity Church, who had just had lunch in the Pascal Bistro, Station Road, and were drinking coffee.

“Jeremy Brokenshire will be a very, very hard act to follow,” one of them said.

“We miss Jeremy terribly,” a second agreed.

“The young man who’s being put forward [by the Conservatives, Louie French], I’m glad he’s local, but otherwise we don’t know anything about him,” the first woman remarked.

“He sounds all right to me,” a third said.

“We haven’t really heard anything about him,” a fourth said.

“We’ve had lots of literature. But then I’ve had a bit from Reform UK and from Labour,” the first woman said.

“I think the Conservatives will get in because of the area.” the second woman declared. “I will vote Conservative – I can’t imagine voting for anyone else. But just recently there’ve been a number of gaffes and I don’t think that’s going to help.”

“He’s making silly mistakes,” the first woman said. “For example the open letter to the French president. What’s that all about, stupid man?”

“Whoever happened to come in just at the beginning of the pandemic was going to have a difficult time,” the second woman said.

“But there was nothing wrong with that letter,” a fifth woman put in. “Apparently it was read out on the radio to a French MP and he agreed with every item on it.”

“So why did they cancel the invitation to Priti Patel?” the first woman asked.

“We don’t like him to make mistakes,” the second woman said.

“We like Boris,” the first woman said. “For a few years I voted for the Green Party.”

“Bring back Margaret Thatcher, that’s what I say,” the fifth woman said.

Gales of laughter, and cries of “No! No!” from some of her friends.

“I voted for Margaret Thatcher but I’ve completely changed my views since,” the first woman said.

“I would be surprised if they weren’t voted in again,” the second said. “The Reform guy has been round door to door,” she added.

“He’s certainly put in the hours of work,” the first agreed.

It did not sound to me as if Reform is going to peel off a very large chunk of the Tory vote. But I may have been misled by the sheer friendliness with which I was received by almost everyone in Sidcup.