Andrew Mitchell’s entertaining memoir shows the British Establishment riven by dissent

23 Oct

Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey by Andrew Mitchell

A distinguishing feature of present-day members of the Establishment is their insistence, usually quite sincere, that they do not belong to it.

Andrew Mitchell says in his Preface that he “resigned” from the Establishment in 2013. He makes it sound like the Garrick Club, from which it is indeed possible to resign.

Leaving the Establishment is more complicated. Mitchell was born into it: his father, Sir David Mitchell, was a Conservative MP for 33 years.

And Mitchell himself has passed, as he writes, “through most British Establishment institutions”, including prep and public school, the Army, Cambridge, the City of London, the House of Commons and the Cabinet.

His account of his experiences is often highly entertaining, though there are moments, oddly enough, when one could have wished for more detail, as in this scene from 2007 after David Cameron had addressed the Rwandan Parliament:

“Inevitably tempers frayed and later in the day David had to intervene physically to stop a fight breaking out between me and Steve Hilton, who has a ferocious temper. In spite of being nearly a foot shorter than me, he was poised to spring into a violent attack.”

In this vignette, we begin to see that the Establishment, which may seem from the outside, or in lazy journalistic usage, to be a monolithic organisation with a single Establishment view, is actually riven by dissent.

Hilton wants to beat up Mitchell. No doubt from Hilton’s point of view, Mitchell had been unbelievably annoying, probably by insisting on some point with which Hilton disagreed.

All three men were under severe strain, for there were floods in Witney, Cameron’s constituency, and the press was attacking him for instead being in Africa, advertising the Conservative Party’s new approach to international aid.

The Establishment engages in continual argument. Its greatest institution, the House of Commons, is set up for argument, so too are the law courts and so is the press.

The Conservative Party has survived, indeed flourished, by having the necessary arguments, including the argument about Europe.

This is something which people who see disagreement as a sign of failure – who presume, in their innocence, that politics can be reduced to an ideology, a set of immutable principles – will never understand. To them, Boris Johnson will remain incomprehensible, and so will the Conservative Party.

Mitchell has an amusing chapter entitled “Boris: My Part in his Ascent”. In 1992, John Major had made Mitchell the Vice-Chairman in charge of the Candidates’ Department at Conservative Central Office.

In June 1993, Johnson applied to become a Conservative candidate. He wanted at that point to be an MEP, not an MP.

Richard Simmonds, the senior MEP on the selection board, said Johnson would be admitted to the candidates’ list “over my dead body”. At the crucial meeting of the assessors, the merits of the 47 other applicants were quite quickly decided, but a tremendous argument developed over Johnson:

“Ned Dawnay was firm: Boris was a most impressive applicant; he was clearly a proper Conservative; his intellect, knowledge and energy marked him out; he must be admitted. Richard Simmonds, supported by the other five MEPs, was adamant: Boris was a cynical journalist, a chancer, a brand not a politician, a less than honest political thorn in Prime Minister Major’s side; taking him into the party’s candidates list would be embarrassing for the Conservative group in the European Parliament. Were he to be elected as an MEP it would be a nightmare.”

Mitchell gets Johnson on the list by one vote; tells the Party Chairman, Norman Fowler, that he, Mitchell, will resign if the decision is overturned; but is summoned to see John Major in the Prime Minister’s office behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons:

“The meeting did not start well. As I entered his office, he was standing by the fireplace. ‘Ah, Andrew, thanks for coming: what the fuck do you mean by putting Boris Johnson on the candidates’ list?'”

As part of his explanation to Major, Mitchell says he has extracted an agreement from Johnson not to stand in a winnable European seat. Johnson scrapes through onto the list, soon afterwards tries to stand in a winnable European seat, is dissuaded by Mitchell from doing so, but in 1997 stands instead for the then unwinnable Commons seat of Clwyd South.

We see the Conservative Party having the necessary argument about whether or not Johnson is a fit and proper person to become one of its candidates, and perhaps, in due course, a senior member of the Establishment.

Anyone thinking of embarking on a political career could with profit read Mitchell’s memoir, and so could anyone who wants to know how Conservative policy on international aid was revolutionised after 2005, with the author serving first as Shadow International Development Secretary and then from 2010 in the actual job.

A paradox of elective systems is that one needs, generally speaking, to possess more than normal push in order to put oneself forward. A reluctant sense of public duty is not generally speaking enough.

Mitchell is a gung-ho character: he goes for things; at an early stage runs for and gets the Presidency of the Cambridge Union, a school of argument.

The question in politics, perhaps in life generally, is when, having gone for something, to settle, as the lawyers put it. And this is what goes wrong in Plebgate, the wretched altercation in 2012 between Mitchell and the police officers guarding the Downing Street gates.

Some of the officers behaved abominably: that was established by, among others, the journalist Michael Crick. There was a public interest in having the necessary argument about this: almost a decade later and after much worse failings have come to light, the condition of the Metropolitan Police continues to be a cause of grave concern.

But Mitchell overplayed his hand: as he himself says, instead of walking away with his reputation “largely restored”, he made the “fatal mistake” of suing The Sun for libel, and lost. The ordeal is set out here.

Part of the delight and terror of politics is the sheer unexpectedness with which one can rise and fall, the snakes and ladders aspect to it. Perhaps that unpredictability is one of the things people like about Johnson.

In 2019 Mitchell obtains various assurances from Johnson – the preservation of the 0.7 per cent aid target, DfID to remain an independent department, Mitchell himself to play some key though not quite specified role – and backs him for the leadership:

“I was genuinely surprised and dismayed at the incredibly strong and angry reaction of many of my closest friends who regarded my support for Boris as simply unconscionable. The reaction of my children was unprintable. At a Robert Harris book launch attended by many of my old friends from Cambridge days I was literally put up against a wall, interrogated and denounced.”

The Establishment was divided against itself. In the 1990s Mitchell served as a Whip, and one evening was told to go and give Sir Peter Tapsell “a bollocking” for voting against the Government. This Mitchell could not do: Tapsell was far too senior and dignified a figure to be bollocked.

So Mitchell instead walked silently at Tapsell’s side, in the early hours of the morning, down the stairs through the Members’ Lobby and out through the cloakroom at the Members’ Entrance, hoping “he would feel the reproach of a younger colleague through my silence”.

As they left the Members’ Entrance, Tapsell turned to him and said:

“You see, Andrew, there is nothing I want from your office. I am rich – very rich – I advise central bankers around the world; I am already a knight and I certainly have no wish whatsoever to be a member of this benighted government. The only thing I want is to have my dead son back, and there is nothing you can do about that.”

David Gauke: Who should be the next Education Secretary?

16 Aug

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.

Last week saw the fulfilment of a now routine August tradition. After months of nervous anticipation, large numbers of people could finally speculate about the future of the Education Secretary. Some students learnt of their qualification grades, too.

Gavin Williamson’s tenure as Secretary of State for Education will, surely, come to an end at the next reshuffle. He consistently ranks as the least popular member of the Cabinet according to the ratings on this website, he is not well-regarded by Parliamentary colleagues and it is clear that he has been excluded by the Prime Minister from key decisions affecting his brief. He is unpopular with teachers and parents and it is unclear that he has his own agenda in the department, other than a desire to attract headlines about questioning the value of so many people going to university and opposing cancel culture.

Within the media, it is hard to find anyone to say a good word about his performance as Secretary of State. So I will make three points in mitigation.

First, the consequences of the pandemic meant that there were no satisfactory responses to the question of qualifications. Students missed large parts of their education but the extent of this varied considerably. To award fair qualifications, one has to be able to compare across schools and colleges which means one cannot rely solely on teacher assessments. But trying to do that when different schools and colleges had very different experiences creates many injustices, plus problems arise when moderating by past results (as we saw with the 2020 algorithm).

Second, decisions appear to have been taken out of his hands. The decision not to put in place a contingency plan in September 2020 in the event of a serious winter wave of Covid was apparently made in Downing Street. Some responsibility lies there.

Third, Williamson does have some significant political skills. David Cameron found him invaluable as Parliamentary Private Secretary; he skilfully ran Theresa May’s leadership campaign and was an effective Chief Whip in difficult circumstances. As a colleague, I found his understanding of Parliamentary tactics astute. He returned to the role of organising a leadership campaign for Boris Johnson with success.

None of these points, however, should be sufficient to keep him in place.

Yes, he was dealt a bad hand but he has played it badly. There is no evidence that he properly anticipated problems, wrestled with the options, appreciated the pros and cons and worked strategically to mitigate the downsides of the choices he made. Yes, he was ignored and over-ridden by Number 10, but that was indicative of a lack of confidence in him that appears justified. And if, as Secretary of State, you are forced to pursue policies which you consider to be against the national interest, you can always resign.

As for his undoubted political and campaigning skills, these also present a problem. There is a suspicion amongst those that know him and the country at large that, for him, politics is principally a game. It is about scheming and plotting and manipulating and advancing and winning. Williamson is probably not unique in this respect, but he is uniquely obvious about it. This does not help him build trust amongst colleagues or respect from the public.

All of this means that the Prime Minister needs a new Education Secretary. What are the qualities that the Prime Minister should be looking for?

There are many factors that the Prime Minister must take into account when choosing a Cabinet. There is usually a need to reflect the balance of opinion in Parliamentary party, although in 2019 Boris Johnson prioritised clarity and unity on his approach to Brexit (which had electoral advantages later that year, it has to be said). There is also a need for a balance in terms of gender and race. But above all else, Cabinet ministers should be appointed on the basis of their ability to be effective Secretaries of State.

A decent Cabinet needs some good communicators, some bruisers to rough up the opposition, some reformers capable of driving important changes through Whitehall, some competent administrators capable of spotting problems early and diffusing them, some strategic policy thinkers and some plausible future leaders (some Prime Ministers might be nervous about this but you would not to be in a position where there is only one, very obvious successor as Boris Johnson is discovering). Of course, these qualities are not mutually exclusive but it is a rare minister who ticks every box.

In deciding his next Education Secretary, the Prime Minister needs to work out what he wants from the Department. Is he pursuing bold educational reform? This would be a surprise because he has not given any indication as to what it might be. There is certainly a need for some strategic thinking on how technology might aid classroom teaching and teacher training; and there are important questions to be answered about examinations at 16 but big structural reforms are likely to be for a future Parliament. In any event, the Gove reforms are relatively recent.

Is he looking to score political points by taking on ‘woke’ culture? We have seen a bit of this from Williamson and maybe another figure would get better cut-through but, given the challenges our education system faces, this would be an odd priority.

The most important quality for the next Secretary of State, I would have thought, is as a problem-solver/fire fighter. This involves some hard thinking about the long term issues and preparing the ground for future reforms but most importantly addressing short term challenges. How do students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, recover the schooling that has been lost in the last 18 months? What can be done to ensure that examination grades in the next couple of years are fair and robust? How will universities cope with the disruption caused by the surge in A* and A grades? Are we prepared in the event (unlikely, I hope) that a further Covid wave disrupts schooling again?

The reality is that education is a political vulnerability for the Government in the next few years. Someone who can quickly get on top of their brief, who is manifestly doing the job for the right reasons and who ca bring good judgement and grip to the role would be invaluable. They don’t have to be flashy – indeed, they should be content to be relatively anonymous – but low profile competence could neutralise a tricky issue. A Norman Fowler at the DHSS figure, if you like.

There is one further point. If a Secretary of State is going to have credibility, they must also have power. This will not work if months of patient work and relationship building gets thrown over because of an ill thought through intervention from Number 10.

The prioritisation of loyalty and subservience to the Prime Minister served its purpose in 2019 but, to get things done, a government needs Secretaries of State with the confidence and competence to devise and pursue their own agenda; consulting and collaborating with the Prime Minister, but not just following orders; someone who has to be taken seriously by their own officials and the outside world. And, whilst we are at it, the case for Cabinet Ministers being selected on the assumption that they should be capable of doing a substantial and responsible job doesn’t just apply to the next Secretary of State for Education.

Steve Brine: Ministers have seized the chance to finally end the HIV epidemic

4 Dec

Steve Brine is the MP for Winchester, was Public Health Minister 2016-2019 and the Conservative MP on the HIV Commission

The campaign against AIDS, as it then was, was etched in my mind from childhood. I did not need this new pandemic to recall that chilling yet effective tombstone advert from the 1980s.

Norman Fowler is something of a hero of mine. As  Andrew Gimson of the parish reported on earlier this week, when Health Secretary he followed the science when others wanted something far worse. The more I learn about the decisions of those times, the more my respect for him grows.

From 2016-19 I was lucky to serve the party and country as public health minister. I was suddenly in a position to do something to change the modern HIV epidemic. To follow in Fowler’s footsteps.

I engaged, as all good ministers do, with the sector organisations. The Terrence Higgins Trust, National AIDS Trust, and the Elton John AIDS Foundation all lobbied me hard. But not just for retail policies. They had a vision: a country with no new HIV transmissions. They were united in presenting a new scientific possibility: this end to transmissions by 2030. I wanted this for England and took the proposal to my boss, Matt Hancock.

As I told the House of Commons on Tuesday, I was ‘pushing at an open door’. In January 2019, Hancock and I committed England to this ambitious but achievable goal.

On the 32nd World AIDS Day this week, the HIV Commission – on which I subsequently served – issued its final report and recommendations. What followed, for all to see, was the commitment of this Government to that very vision. Conservative minister after Conservative minister reinforced how we wish to see this policy become a practical reality.

Boris Johnson set the tone, becoming the first Prime Minister to pledge to end new transmissions before the end of the decade. Rishi Sunak made the same commitment at the launch of the commission’s recommendations from the floor of the House of Commons putting it in the record in Hansard for perpetuity. At the launch with Elton John, Michael Gove gave a commitment to report annually on progress – one of our key demands.

As if that wasn’t enough, Hancock pledged to work together with the Commission on its ambitious targets – cutting the numbers of people living with undiagnosed HIV by 80 per cent by 2025 – and to increase HIV testing. Lord Bethell, his deputy, told the House of Lords the department would investigate normalising HIV testing. That was all before lunchtime.

Our report had barely been launched for 90 minutes and already recommendation after recommendation was being committed to by my Conservative colleagues. It was a sight to behold. But it turned out the Government was not yet done.

The Speaker kindly granted myself and Wes Streeting, my Labour co-commissioner, an adjournment debate on the HIV Commission’s launch. To everyone’s surprise, the Secretary of State himself took his place at the Despatch Box. He had returned to make yet another commitment: that the HIV Commission would be the basis of a HIV Action Plan, available: “as early next year as is feasible to ensure that the work is high-quality, can be delivered and can set us fair on a credible path to zero new transmissions in 2030.”

He said this was a promise he wanted ‘to make in person’. I was shocked, humbled and filled with pride.

There are many that are cynical about politicians and what we can achieve. Tuesday was not one of those days. A Conservative Government is acting decisively to end an outstanding issue of social injustice in less than a decade is not something to be dismissed.

The work to make it happen starts now. Get this right, my fellow Conservatives, and we could end the five-decade long HIV epidemic ‘on our watch’. Nothing short will now suffice.

What Thatcher’s response to the AIDS crisis teaches us about tackling the present pandemic

1 Dec

“There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,” the soundtrack begins. “It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure…”

A volcano erupts, a hail of boulders rains down a cliff, and to the sound of wild, funereal music a pneumatic drill and a chisel carve from the solid rock a tombstone bearing the single word AIDS, on which a bunch of lilies is thrown.

This must be one of the most frightening public information films ever made, directed by Nic Roeg, voiced by John Hurt, and intended to strike fear into viewers and get them to read the “Don’t Die Of Ignorance” leaflet which was distributed to 23 million households.

On World AIDS Day, it is worth recalling that in the 1980s another pandemic struck: a lethal and mysterious illness for which there was no cure.

The parallels between AIDS and Covid-19 should not be pushed too far, but are nevertheless illuminating, and in the fulness of time have even become encouraging, for the HIV Commission today publishes its plan for England to become by 2030 the first country in the world to eliminate the transmission of the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

The Commission’s key recommendation is “test, test, test”, and as one of its members, Steve Brine MP (Con, Winchester), yesterday told ConHome, “in the context of the last nine months, you really get what we’re saying”.

Both pandemics struck during periods of Conservative government, and posed enormous troubles for the Prime Minister of the day.

In August 1975, when there had been 206 confirmed cases of AIDS in the United Kingdom, of whom 114 had died, Margaret Thatcher was told by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson, that it was likely AIDS could be transmitted heterosexually as well as homosexually.

What message was to be given to the public? In his brilliant account, beginning on page 71 of Herself Alone, the third volume of his life of Thatcher, Charles Moore quotes David Willetts, then a member of Thatcher’s Policy Unit, who told her, “We have to walk a difficult tightrope between being accused of bureaucratic inertia, and being so active as to whip up public hysteria,” and went on:

“We simply don’t know whether everybody with the virus will eventually go down with the symptoms of the disease. So we would be telling people that they may get the clinical disease, but we don’t know; and if they have got it, we can’t cure it. That’s not a very satisfactory message, but seems to be the best course out of several unattractive alternatives.”

The problem was rendered still more difficult by the close association which emerged between AIDS and homosexuality. Some people seized the chance to express the disgust and hatred they felt for homosexuals: as Willetts warned, there was a danger of fomenting public hysteria.

Some Conservatives, and some religious leaders, urged the Prime Minister to preach the virtues of abstinence.

Thatcher declined to treat AIDS as an opportunity for moralising. For her it was a scientific and medical problem. As Moore writes, she was happiest “when she had a concrete and exact point to advance”.

She was a Tory pragmatist: she wanted to solve the problem, not prate about it. Those who have insisted on understanding her in ideological terms have often overlooked how practical she was.

But part of being practical was framing a public message about the dangers of anal sex, and here she took some persuading, which was done by the Health Secretary, Norman Fowler, who in March 1986 told her that the advice to avoid anal intercourse, “which has been linked with 85 per cent of AIDS cases so far”, must remain in advertisements to be placed in the press, or else these would lose all “medical authority and credibility”.

Lord Fowler, who has worked to this day to reduce and at length eradicate HIV, has recalled how difficult things were in the 1980s, and why at the start of 1987 a yet bigger public health campaign, which included the television advertisements, was warranted:

“We had no knowledge of this disease and no drugs with which to treat it. I was reading a note the other day from the Chief Medical Officer at the time and some of the predictions as to what could happen were terrifying – we were talking millions and millions of people becoming infected. That’s why we launched what is still the biggest public health campaign there’s ever been in this country with leaflets sent out to every home.”

In the 1980s, the predictions of the scientists did not always prove accurate. So too today. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock prefer to present themselves as following the science, than as adherents of a theory of freedom which would allow them to ignore what the scientists were saying.

They too are Tory pragmatists, most interested in what works, even if that has to be discovered by an agonising process of trial and error.

Thatcher was always worried, and with good reason, that although she and her colleagues insisted “the Health Service is safe in our hands”, the voters would not believe them. Johnson can be seen guarding at every turn against that danger.

Caroline Slocock, the first female private secretary at Number Ten, has described a visit Thatcher eventually undertook to an AIDS hospice, without any press in attendance, partly because she did not wish to seem to be competing with the well-known work already done in this field by Diana, Princess of Wales.

The first patient she sees is clearly “very ill and has no hope of recovery”. Slocock goes on:

“I feel out of my depth. I have never been at the bedside of a dying person before and I feel strongly that family and friends should be there at this moment, not us… She [Thatcher] responds by taking a seat by his side, asking questions, expressing sympathy, connecting in a simple and genuine way, to which he responds sweetly. She comes across as more of a mother than a Prime Minister…

“After about ten minutes, we leave him and go into the second room. Inside, sitting in a chair beside his bed, is a young American man, also extremely thin. The virus has attacked his brain too, as it does in the final stages, we are told afterwards, and he is excited and confused. At first he thinks she must be a creation of his own mind, a delusion. But then he begins to believe that she really is Margaret Thatcher, but sent to him miraculously to hear his thoughts and to pass them on to President Bush. He tells her to ring the President. It is imperative that action is taken now to help people like him – that is his message. He is overexcited, it is very difficult to know how to respond, and it is very, very sad.

“I desperately want to get out of the room. I feel responsible for putting them both through this awkward scene. Margaret Thatcher is unfazed and behaves as if she has all the time in the world. She places her hand on his arm, asks him a few questions about his life and listens, in a way that demonstrates that she is real, not a phantom, and is there because she cares and wishes him well. He calms down in response. It is simple, human stuff, but I am in awe of it.

“When we leave them, we ask the staff about their families. It turns out that neither have felt able to tell their parents that they are gay, let alone that they have AIDS, and so they are dying alone.”

For a quite different reason, the need to prevent infection, many sufferers from Covid-19 have lived and died alone.

While reading about the 1980s, it struck me that there was often no correlation between a politician’s views on other questions, and what he or she thought about AIDS.

This elementary point has sometimes been overlooked in coverage of the present pandemic. The urgent need to get things done, in order to avert or relieve suffering, trumps whatever abstract views one may have about the right way to set about this.

In January 2019, when Steve Brine was serving as Public Health Minister, and three charities – The Elton John AIDS Foundation, National AIDS Trust and Terrence Higgins Trust – came to him with proposals for the eradication in England of HIV, he gave the Government’s support and approval to what they wanted to do, as did Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary.

Brine said yesterday:

“We had a policy decision, we had the science that allowed us to approve it. The science of PrEP [Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis], which has been a huge game-changer, now allows us to finish the job.”

A connecting thread of pragmatism links the 1980s to the present day. Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s official historian, traces this tradition of unmoralistic pragmatism further back:

“‘Sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas’: Disraeli’s famous misquotation from the fourth century Vulgate in the course of his great three-hour speech in Manchester in April 1872 defining modern conservatism rings down the years. He understood that moral censoriousness had no more place in health policy than in private life. In this respect, Boris Johnson, like successful Tory leaders before him, follows in the great Disraelian tradition.”

Profile: York – and its potential role as Parliament’s new home, a Johnson joke which could become serious

22 Jul

There are few better ways to infuriate the House of Lords than to propose that it should move to York.

The Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, on Sunday sent an email to his fellow peers, headed “The Ivory Coast Option”, which breathes a spirit of extreme exasperation while arguing against separating the Lords from the Commons:

“It is worth reflecting on this: there are 79 nations with bicameral legislatures (parliaments with two chambers, typically a lower house and a senate). In all but one of these the chambers are located in the same city, often adjoining. The one exception is the Côte d’Ivoire whose lower house, the National Assembly, is located in Abidjan, while its recently established upper house, the Senate, is located in Yamoussoukro, some 235 km away. No disrespect to the Ivory Coast, but it is not immediately clear why the UK should follow their lead.”

It was odd to find Lord Fowler fulminating against the suggestion that the Lords should be sundered from the Commons, for the Prime Minister has now ventured to propose that both Houses should move to York during the renovation of the Palace of Westminster, which is expected to begin in 2025.

The Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, told Times Radio earlier this week that as a Lancashire man, any move to York would “stick in my throat”. He considers his own constituency, Chorley, preferable, and says there could be “no better place than Lancaster Castle”, which is sitting empty and “belongs to the Queen”.

But in any case, Hoyle went on,

“I don’t believe the House of Commons is leaving London. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think, you know, Parliament is rooted within London, it’s our capital city. As much as I can dream about moving north, it isn’t going to happen … it wouldn’t be good for the Commons.”

What is going on here? When Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, was asked last Thursday about their lordships going to York, he replied:

“It occurs to me that when Royal Ascot moved to York their lordships found it great fun to go up to York. So if they could do it for pleasure, I’m sure they might have a jolly time going there for business.”

Peers do not generally find this funny. Lord Singh of Wimbledon – better known to Radio 4 listeners as Indarjit Singh – has asserted that “York is seen as something of an outer Mongolia by the general public”.

Lord Young of Cookham, known as Sir George Young during his long service as MP and minister, has complained that the Government “keeps this hare running”, and wonders who authorised it, and how much public money has been spent.

But Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of the Lancaster and often in the forefront of reform, has indicated his strong support for the idea of taking Parliament, and large parts of the Civil Service, out of London: “I think it is vitally important that decision-makers are close to people.”

Will Parliament move, at least temporarily, to York? Lord Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1990-93, suggested yesterday afternoon to ConHome:

“Well I think it may be a tease or a joke. But a tease or a joke can be a clever way of introducing a very awkward subject. Humour is Boris’s way of communicating and the more awkward the subject the more humorous.

“There’s a serious intention there disguised as a joke. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to be spending a lot of time on this at a time of economic crisis.”

In Yorkshire, the idea of moving Parliament north is greeted as a long overdue corrective to southern ways of thinking. In January, when the idea of taking the Lords there was first floated, York Council offered to help with the move.

As a woman long resident in Yorkshire put it yesterday to ConHome, “Lots of parliamentarians are too hefted to the South”  – hefted being a term used of sheep who are taught to graze a piece of unfenced fell, and in succeeding generations stay there without being told. She went on:

“A meeting of North and South can only be for the good. Some of the southern values might be put to the test. Northerners tell it as they see it.

“People here were so pro-Boris at the election. I hope he realises that. They like his very direct style. You could never get an answer out of Corbyn. Northerners want to know what you think.

“They’re not out for themselves the way people are down South. They do feel there’s an element of being second-class citizens.”

Many Labour voters who in the North of England voted Conservative for the first time last December felt that for generations they had been treated by Westminster and Whitehall as second-class citizens, for whom second-class services were good enough.

But the need for “levelling up”, as ministers now describe it, is by no means an exclusively modern phenomenon. Here is Ranulf Higden, a monk in Chester, writing in the 14th century:

“All the language of the men of Northumberland, and especially of Yorkshire, soundeth so that the men of the South may scarcely understand the language of them, which thing may be caused by the proximity of their language to that spoken by barbarians, and also by the great distance of the kings of England since those kings mostly frequent the South and only enter the North when accompanied by a large number of their retainers. There is also another cause, which is that the South is more abundant in fertility than the North, has more people, and more convenient harbours.”

When one arrives at York, and walks from the station to the Minster, this disparaging tone becomes impossible to sustain. It is a wonderful city, containing within its medieval walls, the most complete in England, a stupendous concentration of wonderful buildings.

The city, founded as Eboracum by the Romans in 71 AD, was visited by three emperors and has served as capital of the Roman province of Britannia Inferior, of the kingdom of Northumbria, and latterly of the northern province of the Church of England.

York has been called, as Robert Tombs reminds us in The English and Their History (2014), the natural capital of Britain.

Like most Roman cities, it benefits from admirable transport links, its roads and river supplemented in 1839 by the coming of the railways, for which it became a major centre.

William the Conqueror had crushed, with his customary brutality, the uprising of 1069, in which the two castles erected by the Normans at York on either side of the River Ouse were taken and the garrison massacred, Earl Waltheof of Northumbria “cutting off their heads one by one”.

William’s revenge, the Harrying of the North, entailed laying waste a great tract of country northwards from York: pacification by starvation.

In later centuries, pacification by the recognition of York’s importance was from time to time attempted. As a contributor to The History of Parliament points out,

“Between 1301 and 1335 the Lords and Commons met no fewer than eleven times at York, three times each at Lincoln and Northampton, and twice at Nottingham, while individual Parliaments were held at Carlisle, Oseney, Salisbury, Stamford, Winchester, and Windsor. Other venues were periodically considered, but abandoned: in the autumn of 1322 Parliament was summoned to meet at Ripon, but subsequently moved to York, while parliaments planned to be held at York in 1310, and Lincoln in 1312 were moved to Westminster before they could assemble.”

In 1472 the Council of the North was established in the capable and efficient hands of the future Richard III. The Council’s headquarters was King’s Manor, York, which looks rather small for the Lords but could do if the House is shrunk.

Henry VIII said  there would be a Parliament in York in 1536 to appease Catholic rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace, but then decided to kill the rebels instead.

According to a recent report in The Times, York is “being lined up by Downing Street as a possible second centre of government”:

“It’s not just the House of Lords. Senior civil servants who are close to decision-making are already looking at Rightmove to see what they can buy for the cost of a terraced house in East Dulwich. And they like it. They are looking at substantial Edwardian villas in Harrogate.”

They will find themselves competing, since Leeds United’s promotion, with Premier League footballers.

Perhaps all this will come to nothing, and York will not have to cope with an influx of politicians. But a site has been found next to the railway station where a temporary Parliament building could be erected, in time for opening in 2025 when the Palace of Westminster closes for repairs.

Johnson has warned that this should be done with “no gold plating”, but how he would love the drama and symbolism of such a move.

And one suspects that many Labour voters in the North of England might start to believe they are no longer being treated as second-class citizens.