Peter Franklin: Frost is wrong. Conservatives should be pro first-time buyers, not buy-to-let landlords.

20 Jun

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

I’d like to express my gratitude to Lord Frost. Specifically, I’m thankful for his op-ed in Friday’s Daily Telegraph — in which he lays into the Government’s proposed reforms to the private rented sector.

It’s not that I agree with him. Quite the opposite, in fact. But this is an argument that the Conservative Party needs to have with itself — so I’m glad it’s out in the open. Indeed, it should form part of a wider debate as to who it is we exist to represent.

“Everyone” is the easy answer, but that’s a cop-out. In the real world, interests come into conflict — sometimes irreconcilably. Therefore we have to pick sides — just as we did over Brexit. In respect to rental reform the choice is this: do we prioritise the rights of landlords or do we uphold the right to have a home — even if it’s rented?

The reforms introduced by Michael Gove last week come down on the side of the many not the few. In the associated white paper, the Government pledges to abolish no fault evictions, curb unjustified rent increases, end blanket bans on renting to families with children and to make it easier for renters to have pets. The aim is make tenancies more secure and to allow tenants to feel less like guests in their own homes.

It should be said this falls short of the rent controls that some campaigners are calling for — but, nevertheless, Lord Frost is outraged. Gove’s white paper is an “anti-market measure” he insists. And while he admits there are bad landlords, he rejects any regulatory solution as another step “down the collectivist road.”

The first thing to say in response to this that the market-versus-regulation framing is misleading. The reality is that markets wouldn’t exist without regulation — they are the products of an ordered and civilised society. Over the decades and centuries, we’ve come to take a more exacting view of what a civilised society looks like, which is the main reason why we’ve also become a more regulated society. Or are we to regard every social and environmental reform — from the child labour laws to the Clean Air Acts — as another step towards socialism? Surely stopping landlords from evicting their tenants for no good reason falls under the heading of “civilised” not “collectivised”?

But what about the unintended consequences of these reforms? Frost complains that the white paper would leave landlords with less control over their property. And he’s right, the balance of power is undoubtedly shifted towards the tenant. Wouldn’t this therefore mean that landlords compensate themselves by putting up rents? No — and that’s because tenants are already being charged what the market can bear. After all, it’s not as if profit-maximising landlords have been charging less than the going rate.

OK, but what if a heavier burden of regulation causes some landlords to exit the sector? Wouldn’t that reduce supply to the housing market? Again, the answer is no — not if they sell to another landlord or to an owner occupier. The only problem would be if investors decide to sit on their assets instead of renting-out or selling-up.

Lord Frost predicts that the “next step, sooner than you think, will be a ban on leaving houses vacant for more than a few months.” This conjures up a nightmare scenario for ordinary home owners who need to live elsewhere for work or family reasons, but it side-steps a real problem that government does need to tackle — which is when professional property investors leave homes needlessly empty or building plots endlessly undeveloped.

It may even be the case that companies can pump up their balance sheets by restricting supply to the market and inflating asset prices. However, there’s an obvious solution: taxation. If left unused, land-based assets should be heavily taxed and the proceeds used to build houses elsewhere.

No doubt such a policy would be condemned as another “anti-market measure”. Yet taxing land makes much more sense that taxing labour or productive investment. Nothing useful would be disincentivised, only idle speculation. The land itself would continue to exist — and because it can’t be offshored, it wouldn’t be lost to the country.

Of course, I’m not claiming that tighter regulation and heavier taxation would have no impact on the rental and property markets. It would undoubtedly act to disincentivise inward investment — but, in this case, that would be a good thing.

Though we need to build more houses, property prices are a function of both supply and demand. We therefore need to get building while also freezing-out the speculators. The rightful purpose for every new dwelling is to provide a family with a home, not an investor with a sure bet. Perhaps the latter should man-up and learn how to invest in real enterprises instead?

Reducing the pressure on property prices — and therefore rents – is also just what the economy needs right now. Most urgently, there’s the cost-of-living crisis, to which escalating housing costs have made a major contribution. In the not-so-longer-term there’s the looming threat of recession. Unless we can restore consumer confidence, not to mention business investment, then it’s hard to see how we avoid a protracted downturn. All the more reason to stop greedy landlords from bleeding the economy dry.

Lord Frost upholds the principle of property rights, by which he means the freedom to “use your property as you wish.” I too believe that the right to own is the foundation of a free society — but only if home ownership is widespread.

And that’s why we must make a choice. The Conservative Party must stand for the first-time buyer not the buy-to-let landlord, for family formation not property portfolios, and for the property-owning democracy not rentier capitalism.

I realise that this is more of a conservative agenda than a libertarian one, but I don’t apologise for that. Even libertarians should be able to see that a future in which young people are elbowed off the housing ladder by cash-rich investors spells trouble for the centre-right. Either there’ll be a backlash from the Left or the rentiers will win — solidifying their advantage over a dispossessed majority.

These are the new roads to serfdom, and we must avoid them.

The post Peter Franklin: Frost is wrong. Conservatives should be pro first-time buyers, not buy-to-let landlords. first appeared on Conservative Home.

Interview: Frost on Johnson’s future, tax cuts, admiring Cummings, Net Zero – and the abuse he has faced as he mulls his political future

14 Jun

If anything stops Lord Frost from carrying on in politics, it will be the “shocking” degree of personal hostility he has encountered, which he describes, unbidden, at the end of this interview:

“The degree of aggression, hostility on social media and beyond, has been quite striking to me. I’ve had people spit at me in the street, push me, shout at me on trains, this sort of thing.

“So I’m now a bit edgy about any kind of public interaction. That has been a real surprise and disappointment to me.”

He observes that because he became a minister without having first been an MP, he had not become accustomed to some of the rigours of life in the public eye.

Frost resigned as a minister in December last year, in protest at the Government’s “direction of travel”, but is now considering seeking election to the Commons, in order to press Boris Johnson and his team to adopt more Conservative policies, including tax cuts:

“The trouble is in many ways the damage is done in the sense that we’ve now shown to the world we’re willing to raise taxes. You can’t put that genie back into the bottle, other than through a recantation: ‘We got this wrong, it was the wrong thing to do, we’re a low-tax Conservative Party.'”

In this interview he describes how, while serving as a career diplomat, he became a Eurosceptic, and how later he became a “big admirer” of Dominic Cummings.

He deplores the restrictions on freedom of expression during the lockdowns of recent years, and opposes the target of reaching Net Zero by 2050:

“I think we’re going at it too fast with technology that can’t yet do the job, and the risk is that we end up with rationing and demand management rather than achieving the goal.”

But he began by discussing the Northern Ireland Protocol. This interview was conducted at teatime yesterday afternoon, before the Government had published its Bill, but Frost explained the principles which should inform policy, and why it was right in the first place to sign the Protocol, and is right now to insist on changes.

ConHome: “You tweeted this morning: ‘Many are asking for my view of today’s NI Protocol Bill…The Govt is right to act but must get the detail right.’

“You say in between those quotes that you need to read and study it. You won’t have been able to do that yet, but what would getting the details wrong look like, and what are the dangers inherent in the Bill?”

Frost: “We know there’s been a back and forth over the past week internally between groups with different views on this subject, and I suppose what might be a risk would be if they found compromises that tried to keep everybody happy, tried to find middle ways that don’t complete the logic of the direction that’s established.

“Are you going to take the [European] Court out completely, or is there going to be some residual role? Is dual regulation done in a simple way, or in a complicated way?”

ConHome: “You mean they mustn’t muddle it in such a way that all the people who think it isn’t being done properly are on their back, and all the people who complain about breaking international law are on their back, all at the same time? They’ve got to make up their mind what they’re doing?”

Frost: “Yeah, I think that’s fair. This is going to cause a lot of alarms and excursions, obviously. If we’re going to go through this we need to make sure we deliver the result that’s worth having at the end of it.”

ConHome: “What do you think of the objection that this is clearly in breach of international law, the Attorney General is there because she’s a Spartan, they’ve dragged in the Treasury devil but he’s not allowed to pronounce on the legality of the proceedings…”

Frost: “So who knows what’s happened internally on all of that. I think the Attorney General, she’s the legal adviser to the Government and what she says goes, and there’s always debate around things, but I think that is decisive.

“We’ll have to wait and see what the summary of the legal position is when it’s published. It sounds as if the Attorney is convinced there’s an international law support for this course of action.”

ConHome: “Is there not a case for publishing the whole legal advice?”

Frost: “Well it’s not normally done. I don’t think it’s necessary as long as you make clear what the Attorney’s view is.”

ConHome: “One view is that the main problem for the Government is that the Bill won’t persuade the DUP to go back into government in Northern Ireland before it is passed.

“If it doesn’t achieve this end, it will simply help create further ill-will for nothing, won’t it?”

Frost: “Every course of action on the Protocol now has some risk that it won’t bring along somebody, that it won’t bring along one group or another, somebody won’t like it.

“In the end you’ve got to act and invite everybody else to react to that action. So I hope the DUP do what’s necessary and begin to come back in to the Executive after this is tabled, if it is what we think.

“But if they don’t it doesn’t make it any less valid that we should be acting as we are.”

ConHome: “Does anyone ever change their mind about the Protocol? Such a high percentage of the debate is just experts, or supposed experts, repeating their previous positions.”

Frost: “It’s such a complicated and delicately balanced document in the first place that it’s capable of accommodating various interpretations.

“I thought it was carefully balanced, I thought it would last longer than it did, I thought the EU would run it in a more sensitive way than they have done.

“So the fact that they haven’t means I’ve changed my view slightly.

“But the text itself says what is says. It was a response to events.

“And those who say ‘I wish we’d not signed this’ or ‘You shouldn’t have signed it’ have got to face up to the reality at the time.

“It’s very easy for commentators to say ‘I wish it hadn’t been like this’. But they have to say what would they have done faced with the choice of signing an improved but still imperfect Protocol, and getting Brexit to happen, or endless prolongation of the constitutional war and possibly Brexit never happening.

“Those were the actual choices, and to pretend there was some other way through is just trying to have it all ways.”

ConHome: “The objection then becomes that having signed it, you’re in no position now to try to drive a coach and horses through the very vehicle that you signed in this Bill.”

Frost: “I mean I wish it didn’t have to be like this, is the simple answer. It wouldn’t have taken much to run it in a more sensitive way. It is of course not being fully implemented even now. It can only work because of the grace periods and so on.

“I wish it had been possible to do it differently but it isn’t.”

ConHome: “At the other end there are people who say, ‘We could deal rationally with Michael Gove. Indeed we reached a settlement with Michael Gove. But we found David Frost to be a complete monster, who stuck obdurately to a UK position and is responsible for some of this trouble.”

Frost: “So I think what’s happened since I left sort of disproves that. There are two answers to that question. One we came in, I came in in 2019-20 after three years in which the UK had not been saying clearly what it wanted and had been making a terrible hash of the negotiations.

“There was a need to be clear and a need to be forceful in what we said if we were going to get anything to happen.

“Second, this year Liz Truss initially started with a completely different approach and there was a month or so when everyone said this brutish, nationalist Frost has disappeared and we’ve now got somebody who can work.

“And where are we? We’re in exactly the same position. How negotiators are to each other is only a minor element in it. The question is what is the national interest involved.

“There hasn’t been any movement on the national interest involved and that’s why we are where we are.”

ConHome: “When did you become a Brexiteer? One looks at your C.V., Foreign Office, Ambassador to Denmark, you had this key strategy role in the Foreign Office. This is not a C.V. that’s automatically associated with support for Brexit.

“So when did it happen? Did you have to keep it quiet?”

Frost: “I regarded myself as a Eurosceptic pretty soon after I went to Brussels in the Nineties. I went to Brussels with quite conventional opinions and they changed through seeing the way it worked, to be honest.

“And this was the Major Government era and all the drama of that. I think I began to think leaving might be necessary, because one forgets now leaving was really quite a far-out opinion until quite late in this process, I began thinking it might be necessary around the time I left the civil service, around then, 2013.

“I think many of us, it was only when the renegotiation failed, indeed was never seriously tried in the first place, that it seemed like OK there’s no real option left other than leave now.

“It was probably known that my opinions were, within the Foreign Office, quite sceptic. There are people like Charles Grant for example who will say that ‘I never realised he was a Eurosceptic, he never seemed to show any sign of it when I met him’.

“Well good, I was supposed to be representing the Government, that was the job. It doesn’t mean one can’t have internal convictions on things.”

ConHome: “When you did the Scotch Whisky Association job [Frost was Chief Executive 2014-16] your line in the referendum was pro-Remain. Presumably that came with the job?”

Frost: “Again, I represented the views of the members on that. Actually, I was on the Council of Open Europe at the time, and Dom Cummings, who I didn’t know, did a bit of a hit job on me in May during the referendum campaign.

“So if you look on Guido round about that time you will find some of my internal emailing leaked to him, which shows that my private opinion was different.

“That was actually quite awkward for me at the time.”

ConHome: “Is Cummings a loss to the Government, or had the position become completely impossible?”

Frost: “I think he is a loss. I’m a big admirer of Dom. I haven’t agreed with him on everything, in particular on aspects of lockdown, Covid policy, we’ve had a different view, but I think his focus and ability to look through the day to day noise, focus on the goal, work out what’s important to it, what isn’t, you know that’s quite a rare skill in government, and it’s even rarer to be given a chance to act on it.

“So I think you need somebody like that, you need people who are able to do that. Otherwise you become overwhelmed by the day-to-day noise.”

ConHome: “Do they have that in the team now?”

Frost: “Well I don’t know the current team as well as I know the predecessor. It’s not obvious from events that they have that at the moment. But if they haven’t, they ought to try to get it.”

ConHome: “Are you enjoying being a columnist? You can say whatever you like, you’re not constrained by collective responsibility. Do you enjoy it?”

Frost: “I do quite. I might get a bit weary of saying, at some point, and want to do doing again. Who knows? But at the moment I’m enjoying it.”

ConHome: “You have become a kind of right-wing poster boy. You’re writing in favour of a small state, lower taxes, you’re sceptical about lockdowns, sceptical about Net Zero, you want less regulation.

“To the members, this is a dream, and you do recognise what’s going on. There’s a lot of conversation about ‘If only they’d do what Lord Frost tells them to do, and if only Lord Frost were there to do it’.”

Frost: “Yeah, I mean it’s been a bit of a surprise to me to be honest. I’ve been a party member, off and on, for some time, obviously you can’t do much more when you’re in government, but you’re allowed to have convictions about things.

“What I say now I just regard as normal conservatism. You know, let’s get the state back down to the size it was when Gordon Brown was in power, that’s good.

“That doesn’t make you in favour of a night watchman state. It just makes you in favour of trying to shrink it when you can.

“I think lockdowns were extremely damaging and liberated some extremely worrying forces and currents of opinion that we need to do our best to put back in their box.”

ConHome: “Which are what?”

Frost: “The authoritarian state. Vaccine passports and wherever that may lead. Some of the constraints on the free expression of opinion that happened from time to time during lockdown.”

ConHome: “Anything in particular?”

Frost: “The most obvious thing is where did all this start, was it a lab leak or not, the ability to debate that. I thought it was also suggestive they took quite some time before they acknowledged the vaccines don’t prevent transmission, they only prevent symptoms.

“There was a kind of month or two where that was obvious but it was not acknowledged in official statements, and then became too obvious not to.

“I think one of the most worrying things was the inability to look objectively at the evidence, weigh it up, come to reasoned conclusions. There was much too much doubling down on ‘we did this so we must stick to doing it, even if the evidence points in a different direction’.”

ConHome: “You said last month, ‘I don’t think the Lords is a particularly brilliant place to do real politics from. I think you need to be in the Commons to do real politics, that’s obvious…if in future the opportunity comes up and the party wants me to do it, obviously I would be ready to stand down from the seat and do proper politics again.’

“Do you want to be in the House of Commons?”

Frost: “It was a new thing to me. I left out of concern about the direction of travel and the plan B. I hadn’t really intended to continue political life in a different way.

“But then there’s been this speculation about would I do it. What you’ve just quoted says what I think. The House of Lords is a great institution and I don’t want to undermine Conservative colleagues who do a good job and are very necessary to getting the business through.

“But the fact is it’s an unelected house. You can’t take controversial positions in it, you can’t easily advocate cases, and in the end you can’t and shouldn’t I think really block and change things in the Lords.

“If you aspire to shape opinion and make things happen I think it’s right that you should be in the Commons. Whether I want and will do that I’ll see.”

ConHome: “To be clear, you’re mulling the possibility.”

Frost: “Yes, I think that’s fair.”

ConHome: “The obvious critique of all this is look, here’s Lord Frost, he was quite a senior minister, which means you’ve got to knuckle down and accept things you don’t like, on Net Zero, Covid, the direction of tax and spend and all that.

“And if Lord Frost didn’t want to do that within the Cabinet, in the Lords, why would he be any good at doing it collectively with colleagues in the Commons?”

Frost: “Well I think it’s a fair question. Obviously there are quite a lot of Tory colleagues in the Commons who have the same opinions as me on quite a lot of things, and that’s not a contradiction for them.

“What we need to do is get the Government onto an agenda that more Conservatives feel they can support.”

ConHome: “Do you think that Rishi Sunak has succumbed to the institutional grip of the Treasury and isn’t bold enough about income tax cuts?”

Frost: “Well I don’t know about him personally, and I’m always a bit cautious – lots of people attributed to me thought processes and beliefs that weren’t in fact the case.

“But obviously I think that the economic situation requires loosening of fiscal policy and tightening of monetary policy, and I think that means personal tax cuts, not rises. If we could reverse out what we’ve done that would be a start.

“I do think the Treasury orthodoxy is very strong, and I wouldn’t like to say he’s been captured by it, I don’t think that’s fair, but I do think the Treasury Finance Ministry view of the world is all about getting in money, it isn’t about structural reform to increase the productive capacity of the economy.

“The trouble is in many ways the damage is done in the sense that we’ve now shown to the world we’re willing to raise taxes. You can’t put that genie back into the bottle, other than through a recantation, ‘We got this wrong, it was the wrong thing to do, we’re a low-tax Conservative Party.’

“And that should be the direction of travel. I’m not sure how likely that is, mind you.”

ConHome: “On Net Zero, what’s your view? That the target is too severe?”

Frost: “I think the way I would look at it is not to get into ‘Is it the right target?’ or ‘Is global warming scientifically justified?’ or whatever. From the political point of view, my view is that with the technology we’ve got I don’t see how we deliver the target by 2050 unless we are rescued by fusion power or some massive advance in battery power.

“But at the moment those things don’t seem likely. And I don’t see how we are going to decarbonise the grid by 2035. I don’t see how the technologies exist.

“And everybody is ignoring the fact that the intermittency of renewables (a) is a problem in itself (b) imposes huge costs elsewhere on the grid by the way of backup and inefficiency.

“I think we need more focus on security. We need a more realistic focus on the speed of the transition. I think we’re going at it too fast with technology that can’t yet do the job, and the risk is that we end up with rationing and demand management rather than achieving the goal.”

ConHome: “Lots of our readers will think all that is simple common sense, and will therefore ask, ‘What did other people say in government when you put this view to them?'”

Frost: “One other consequence before I answer the question. Net Zero affects huge parts of the economy, not just in energy prices but in systems, the way it works.

“And if you want serious post-Brexit reform that produces greater efficiency, lower costs, simpler ways of doing things, the existence of the Net Zero target is a big inhibition on that.

“You’re essentially saying large parts of the economy are off-limits for the purposes of reform.

“So that’s the context that I used to have those discussions in. Without going into detail, I think many people would acknowledge that.

“I think people reasonably point out Net Zero was in the manifesto, it was something that was campaigned on, it was one of the pledges, it should be taken seriously.

“I don’t want to speak for others. But many people have a degree of uncertainty and unease about it that is not always dealt with.”

ConHome: “What were your feelings at 9 p.m. last Monday when you heard that 148 Conservative MPs had voted against the Prime Minister?”

Frost: “Well, I was happy the PM had survived, I wasn’t that surprised to be honest the vote against was so high, reading the runes.

“I think the Prime Minister, I’ve said it, I think he’s a remarkable guy, he’s done a lot for this country, he deserves a chance to deliver and to continue with the agenda, so I’m glad he’s survived from that point of view.

“But I do think he’s got to deliver the agenda. That’s the question mark now. And I’ve worked as closely with him as anyone over the last five years, and I feel for him, the agonies of this very, very difficult politics.

“But equally, we’ve got a majority of 80, we must do something with this majority of 80 to keep improving the country.

“Can I say one other thing I meant to say, just about coming into politics?

“Most people become ministers and do controversial things in politics after they’ve been an MP. For me it all came suddenly out of the blue, and having to get used to the public exposure suddenly, without any kind of prep, has been quite shocking in some ways to me.

“The degree of aggression, hostility on social media and beyond, has been quite striking to me. I’ve had people spit at me in the street, push me, shout at me on trains, this sort of thing.

“So I’m now a bit edgy about any kind of public interaction. That has been a real surprise and disappointment to me.

“I mean it shows the passions that have been unleashed.”

ConHome: “Is it one of these things that you might rationally have anticipated, but you can’t emotionally until it actually happens? The reason you might rationally have anticipated it is you were Boris Johnson’s special adviser, so you’ll have seen the antipathy, hatred and venom that he was the target of. But until it happens to you, you can’t quite believe it’s happening.”

Frost: “Exactly, exactly. And I think if you’ve had time to get used to the idea it’s one thing. All of a sudden to find it there has been shocking.

“I mean I’m not saying I should be protected from hostile comment on social media. Don’t get me wrong. I definitely don’t think that. There are plenty of block and mute tools. I certainly don’t think we need an Online Harms Bill to protect me from comment.

“But the degree of personal hostility, and sometimes as I say face to face, has been striking. If anything stops me carrying on it’s more likely to be that and the knock-on than anything else. Which is a pity, really.”

The post Interview: Frost on Johnson’s future, tax cuts, admiring Cummings, Net Zero – and the abuse he has faced as he mulls his political future first appeared on Conservative Home.

Interview: Braverman says that what may emerge from Russia “is a basis for charges of genocide”

20 May

There is “emerging evidence now of genocide” in Ukraine, Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, says in this interview. She recently visited Ukraine, only the second British minister to do so, and describes how Britain is helping the Ukrainians to bring prosecutions for war crimes.

At home, Braverman says the Conservative Party needs to “stamp out this long tail of Blairism”, including “creations like the Human Rights Act and the equalities agenda, which has built up a whole industry of people who make their living from rights-based claims”, and has led to “a feeble approach to common sense, decency, British values”.

She is a passionate defender of British values:

“My background is one that is ferociously proud of Britain, Britain’s history, Britain’s welcome. My parents were born under the British Empire. They came to this country with a huge fondness for the British Empire. 

“What Britain brought to their countries, Mauritius and Kenya and India where we have our origins, was remarkable. And I get very saddened by this apology and shame, promulgated by the Left and commenced by the collective guilt that started under Tony Blair, that is pervading our society.”

In Braverman’s view Sir Keir Starmer  is “a child of Blairism in many ways, and that’s what’s very dangerous”  about the Labour Party under his leadership.

She wants the Conservative Party to replace its tree logo with the torch of liberty which was used in Margaret Thatcher’s day, opposes a windfall profits tax and would be happy to have her friend Lord Frost as “a colleague in the Commons”.

Braverman began by defending herself against attacks from the Left, and by insisting that the Government, and she in particular as Attorney General, are staunch upholders of the rule of law.

ConHome: “This hostility from the Left towards you: Nick Cohen has attacked you in The Observer for something you wrote on ConHome in 2019: ‘I was the shy Tory in my Chambers of ‘right-on’ human rights lawyers.’

“According to Cohen, your Chambers was actually full of ‘regular barristers fighting disputes about the licensing of pubs and betting shops, not human rights law’. What’s your response to all this?”

Braverman: “I’m not going to get into an argument about my old set of Chambers. What I will say is that in the late Nineties, when I was at university, when Blair had just won his landslide, it was unpopular to be a Conservative amongst under-30s.

“And I definitely felt that at university, although I was Chairman of Cambridge University Conservative Association, and I had my little close tribe of people.

“But the post-Blair years, in that immediate aftermath of 1997 to 2005 and even onwards, definitely I felt in professional circles in London among the university-educated, liberal arts community, there was definitely a Blairite bias.

“And actually that’s one of the challenges for us, as a 21st-century Conservative Party, we’re actually still dealing with the long tail of Blairism.

“And the legacy issues of that Blair era are what still motivate me to get into politics. I did stand for Parliament in 2005 [she was eventually elected for Fareham in 2015] so maybe I wasn’t that shy. I was able to put my head above the parapet.”

ConHome: “Peter Golds had schooled you, hadn’t he.”

Braverman: “Peter Golds is an old friend of my family and of mine, absolutely, yes. The force of nature that is Peter Golds. But yes, the long tail of Blairism, the creations like the Human Rights Act and the equalities agenda, which has built up a whole industry of people who make their living from rights-based claims, didn’t exist prior to Blair.”

ConHome: “This was also true of your Chambers then?”

Braverman: “I felt they were an excellent Chambers, and I was in the company of excellent lawyers. But I wasn’t out and proud as a flag-waving Tory at work, definitely.

“But I think they all knew I was a Conservative and they tolerated me. But there was no animosity or hostility and I’m not going to throw mud at them. They’re brilliant lawyers.”

ConHome: “Is Sir Keir Starmer a sort of continuation of this whole thing? He’s steeped in it, isn’t he?”

Braverman: “Yes, exactly, he is a child of Blairism in many ways, and that’s what’s very dangerous about a Labour Party under Keir Starmer.

“For the legacy of Blairism we will get quite a feeble approach to common sense, decency, British values.

“And the reasons why I’m a Conservative, my background is one that is ferociously proud of Britain, Britain’s history, Britain’s welcome. My parents were born under the British Empire. They came to this country with a huge fondness for the British Empire.

“What Britain brought to their countries, Mauritius and Kenya and India where we have our origins, was remarkable. And I get very saddened by this apology and shame, promulgated by the Left and commenced by the collective guilt that started under Tony Blair, that is pervading our society.”

ConHome: “The critique of you on the Left is that somehow you are a very political Attorney General, who’s sort of bending the law. So there’s this report in The Financial Times last week which suggested you were casting your net wider for advice on the Northern Ireland Protocol than you really should be.

“The accusation was that you’re going opinion shopping. What’s your response to that claim?”

Braverman: “Well I’m afraid I can’t talk about legal advice or how I’ve reached it, or indeed whether I’ve given it. That’s one of the frustrations of being in this role. I am gagged to a large degree.

“However what is completely normal practice is to consult specialists in their fields. We have gone to outside lawyers because they bring expertise and specialism.

“I think aspersions being cast on lawyers are actually very serious attacks on their professional reputations, when lawyers actually in private practice, they wouldn’t necessarily have a right to reply, and somehow trying to malign them is actually quite dangerous.

“Because lawyers take a case on the merits of the law, and they fight them for legal reasons, not because of political agendas. That’s what good lawyers do anyway.”

ConHome: “Pretty plainly this charge of opinion shopping you reject.”

Braverman: “Yes.”

ConHome: “And your reasoning on the Protocol, this is based on the idea that the Belfast Agreement trumps the Protocol because of something called “primordial significance”?

Braverman: “Again, I can’t get into the legal reasoning of any advice that may or may not have been given. What I can say is that the Foreign Secretary has said there is a lawful basis. We’re going to be issuing a statement in very high-level terms.

“But what we do know, in political terms, is very clear. There is a clear problem in Northern Ireland. I would say there’s an economic problem, the costs being imposed by the application of the Protocol on the trade of goods across the Irish Sea, the diversion of trade is another consequence of that.

“There are problems with the administration and the political institutions, the collapse of Stormont. And I would say there is a more profound challenge to the Good Friday Agreement that has been presented squarely by the Protocol.

“The Good Friday Agreement is premised clearly on the consent of both communities, and depends on a delicate balance and harmony between those two communities.

“The application of the Protocol has put that balance out of kilter and undermined the East-West balance in favour of the North-South balance.

“And therefore the Good Friday Agreement, the foundation of peace, is seriously affected by the operation of the Protocol.”

ConHome: “Without asking you to comment on the particular case, because you can’t, is ‘primordial significance’ a familiar concept in constitutional law?”

Braverman: “I don’t know where you’ve got that term from.”

ConHome: “Well it was quoted in the Financial Times story.”

Braverman: “Well there’s definitely a term in customary international law about the conflicts of treaties.  What’s been very interesting about the rule of law generally, and suggestions that this administration is undermining the rule of law – I take issue with what my friend David Gauke has written about extensively on ConHome – I actually think that these days there is a very high level of reverence for the rule of law.

“I would quote Sumption here. He talks about the empire of law defining our society. You see that by the prolific statutes that Parliament puts out, and regulation, and regulators. You don’t have to look very far in any sector before you come across rules, and checks and balances, and people who make their living trying to sniff out incidents where those rules are broken.

“From a governmental point of view, and on my watch, the government’s got a very good record in court. So it’s actively challenged, in judicial review, and a side issue is the expansion of judicial review that we’ve seen over recent decades, but we are challenged every day in hundreds of instances on all manner of decisions, and on the whole, and in the majority of cases, we win.

“The Good Law Project is one such example. They’ve taken it upon themselves as their raison d’être to challenge us regularly and actually in the majority of cases we’ve won, and they’ve been ordered to pay, at the last count it was £300,000 in our legal costs, and I think that was set to increase actually.

“So they are proving the point that the Government is adhering to the rule of law very very carefully on the whole in terms of our decision-making.

“And lastly I would say when it comes to the rule of law, and this expansion of judicial review, the debate, or the tension you could say between the rule of law and parliamentary supremacy.

“And I think that is an interesting debate, and jurists in the past have taken the view as to which one should prevail. Dicey is the founding father of our constitutional law and sets out how he defines the rule of law but also says that parliamentary supremacy is the foundation.

“He’s echoed by Thomas Bingham, former Lord Chief Justice, in his book, and I would say our modern-day leading mind on this is Richard Ekins.

“And they all say that parliamentary supremacy is the kernel, the founding element of our constitution. And that’s not a creation of the Common Law, that’s not made up by judges, that’s not something that statute can amend.

“I’ve got a quote from Thomas Bingham which I really love, which sums it up very well:

“The British people have not expelled the extraneous power of the papacy in spiritual matters and the pretensions of royal power in temporal in order to subject themselves to the unchallengeable rulings of unelected judges. The constitution should reflect the will of a clear majority of the people.”

“And I think that is where my heart and my legal mind lies. Of course there are many eminent jurists who disagree. Lord Steyn in particular in his decision on Jackson, Lord Hope and Brenda Hale. They are eminent lawyers who have taken another view, and would say that the rule of law acts as a curb and a limit on parliamentary supremacy.”

ConHome: “So you don’t feel the rule of law is undermined if members of the academy, as it’s known, argue that Parliament isn’t sovereign ultimately, and that the last word is with the judges?”

Braverman: “I actually think that partly because of our membership of the European Union, and Brexit, and this is the whole argument of sovereignty, actually, and taking back control – partly because of the Human Rights Act, which has acted, to some degree, as a check on parliamentary supremacy – Parliament, and our legislators, and therefore those representing the will of the people, have assumed a lesser position in our constitution.

“I think it’s now, post-Brexit, reclaiming our sovereignty and writing the next chapter in our history of democratic politics, it’s really up to Parliament and MPs to grasp the nettle of their new-found power.

“A reflection of that is the vibrant debate we have on some of these issues to do with trade deals. The fact that we can have those debates is a reflection of an empowered legislature, a renewed supremacy and sovereignty to Parliament, thanks to Brexit.

“The Rwanda deal, and immigration policy generally, we wouldn’t have been able to debate the substance of our migration policy were we still in the EU.

“The vaccine roll-out and how we were able to do that outside the auspices of the EU. That’s an argument of how our Parliament and our Government has been empowered to take decisions in its own right which have really paid off.”

ConHome: “You think it’s perfectly fine from the point of view of a consensus about the rule of law if some judges and members of the academy take the view that Parliament isn’t really sovereign, and there are certain human rights fundamentals that judges in the last resort must pronounce on?”

Braverman: “I actually think that most judges today don’t want to be dragged into the arena of making these decisions…”

ConHome: “It’s well known you were a Brexiteer. You weren’t just a Brexiteer. You were a Spartan. You voted against Theresa May’s deal three times. You were there with Steve Baker and Mark Francois and the rest of the resistance.

“So tell us a bit about your thinking on that.”

Braverman: “I’m very proud to have been a Spartan, and I think that what’s remarkable about what the Spartans did is that at the time it was incredibly hard. I’d go so far as to say the vote on MV3 was the hardest decision I made in my professional life, because I felt so torn.

“And I know that several of my fellow Spartans felt the same way. For me I had resigned already, I had resigned in November of 2018 over the terms of the deal, and it had been set in stone by that point, and it was clear the Northern Ireland Backstop was fundamentally undemocratic…

“As it got closer to MV3 many people were changing their minds and it was becoming very hard to sustain that position, particularly in the face of accusations of ruining Brexit, the Spartans are killing Brexit, we’re going to end up with a second referendum and Corbyn’s going to get in.

“Accusations of disloyalty to the party. So that was very heavy social and political pressure… It was a very difficult time.

“But I do believe it was thanks to that rebellion that the deal didn’t go through, that Boris secured an 80-seat majority, and actually was able to get Brexit done. He’s the one who started Brexit, this massive, important, transformative mission for our country of which we are reaping many benefits.

“And I think it’s right that we support him in tidying up this outstanding issue of the Protocol now.”

ConHome: “Clearly Brexit and self-government and all that was very important to you. Can you just say a bit more about how your approach to politics developed as you were growing up.”

Braverman: “Well I think there’s definitely this strand of being very grateful to and having a deep love for this country, born out of my parents’ experience of coming here with nothing from former British colonies, my father was effectively exiled from Kenya as part of the Asian diaspora, my mother was recruited as a nurse and came here [from Mauritius] to work for the NHS.

“And they as I said had a real admiration for what Britain meant to them in their childhoods. Britain brought the rule of law. Britain brought statecraft. Britain brought military traditions. Members of my mother’s family fought in World War Two with the British in Egypt.

“Britain brought the civil service. My grandfather on my father’s side worked for the civil service in Kenya. Britain brought huge amounts of good. I think it was Cambridge University that was the examining board for my mother’s O levels. And of course the English language.

“They came here with huge admiration and a sense of great luck and they instilled that in me. Growing up, I come from Wembley, I went to school in Harrow, again your ConHome piece, I really loved what you wrote about the Asian vote wot won it, and I really relate to that.

“What’s wonderful, and I know I’m harking back to the days of empire and the mother country, but there’s a real visceral connection through my parents, growing up, admiring the Queen, and coming to this country, the country offering them opportunities and security.

“And then myself being brought up in a part of London where many Asians congregated, and this is what the Asian vote in Harrow, Wembley, north-west London is defined as, and this is what you picked up on in your column, why they are in growing numbers supporting the Conservatives.

“They are plucky. They are resilient. They are aspirational, ambitious. I’m very proud of the cliché of the Asian doctor or the Asian pharmacist or the Asian lawyer, and we are all products of plucky, pushy Asian parents who wanted to get their kids into the professions, into med school or law school.

“And you see that in modern Britain today. You see that in the Cabinet. Isn’t it remarkable, a Chancellor, Home Secretary, a Health Secretary, a Business Secretary, an Education Secretary, a COP 26 Secretary, an Attorney General, we all have linkages to Britain’s past, and we are now Britain’s present and Britain’s future.

“And that’s informed my conservative philosophy. That pride in our nation, but also the resilience of the individual against the odds.

“And I think my parents were very, very keen to invest in education. The little they had, they put into my education after starting in a state school, in the 1980s beset by strikes. My mother, a huge admirer of Margaret Thatcher, put me into the independent sector.

“My father had some years unemployed in the recession in the 1990s. We really experienced the pain of unemployment. It’s morally debilitating. As the so-called breadwinner in a family it’s crushing.

“And it was reskilling, and getting back into the workplace, that restored his sense of value in our country, and in our family…

“I get very frustrated with these leftie activists who want to decolonise our curriculum and cancel our culture and pull down statues.”

ConHome: “Is this why Ukraine has been such a big thing? Because people feel instinctively these are people who want to have their own country, have their own sovereignty…”

Braverman: “Yes, this is a battle for western civilisation, western values like the rule of law and democracy and civil liberties. Having visited Ukraine very recently, I’ve been working with the Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova for a few months since the conflict started, and I’ve wanted to help her in her mission to keep justice going and prosecute war criminals.

“The Ukrainians are very keen to move quickly, which is quite remarkable. In all of the instances of war crimes prosecutions in the past, they’ve all pretty much started after the end of the conflict.

“Here the conflict is live and they are already beginning their legal processes, which is amazing. They’ve got 11,000 cases, 5,000 suspects. They’ve got hundreds of detained prisoners of war. And just last week she commenced her first prosecution, against a young commander accused of killing an unarmed civilian.

“This is very powerful as a message that people implicated in this illegal war will face very harsh consequences. So I think it’s brilliant. I want to help her on that mission.

“The first thing I’ve done is appoint an expert, Sir Howard Morrison QC, a former war crimes judge. He is working with her, at my behest, on an almost daily basis, advising and supporting her.

“Howard and I went to Ukraine last week to see more close-up where the gaps are and how we might help.

“We’re seeing some emerging evidence now of genocide. I would not want to say definitively, from a legal point of view, but there’s definitely genocidal talk from political leaders in Russia, like eradicating Ukrainians, and we’ve got some stories of forced deportation.”

ConHome: “We’re following very closely the conversation in Russia about genocide, because it’s possible that what may emerge from that is a basis for charges of genocide.”

Braverman: “It’s possible. It’s possible.”

ConHome: “You said this morning there might be in certain circumstances a legal basis for action from this country on cyber. Could there possibly be a legal basis for supplying the Ukrainians with tactical nuclear weapons?”

Braverman: “In the context of cyber what I’m stating in my speech today is that there’s currently a vacuum in terms of rules and frameworks that govern what’s acceptable and unacceptable.

“There’s a principle of non-intervention. And if you were on the receiving end of a hostile activity in cyber space you would have a legal right of retorsion, or counter-measures, which is to take action, proportionate and necessary to remedy the negative effects.

“Very difficult to say yes or no. It would all depend on whether it’s a proportionate response.”

ConHome: “Do you have a view on a windfall tax?”

Braverman: “I don’t think a windfall tax would be a great idea, if I’m honest. I think that we want to incentivise investment. Profits are not an enemy of Conservatives. Profits mean more investment. Profits mean more research. Profits mean more jobs.”

ConHome: “Would you welcome your former colleague, Lord Frost, in the House of Commons?”

Braverman: “Listen, I worked closely with Frosty, he’s a good friend of mine. Yes, having him as a colleague in the Commons would be brilliant.”

ConHome: “Someone said somewhere, this may be quite wrong, that you’d got a view on the party’s logo?”

Braverman: “Oh yes, absolutely, right. So the old logo, the torch of liberty, wouldn’t it be great to bring that back?

“I’m not saying I don’t like the tree, but if we really want to, as I say, stamp out this long tail of Blairism, and define ourselves as Conservatives who value liberty, who trust individuals, who know that it’s responsibilities and duties that bind us as communities, as a country, as families, which actually bring that collective contentment, that’s why I’m a Conservative, then yes, let’s try the torch of liberty.

“I think one of the challenges for us as Conservatives is to make sure we get back to this more responsibility-focussed approach to our responsibilities and our society.

“So when it comes to human rights, and the Equality Act, for example, and I think that those are Blair creations generally, and we are seeing insidious effects of some of the expansionism of the interpretation of rights, this is some of the work that Dominic Raab is doing, I’ve worked with him on this, and we’ve worked closely on the British Bill of Rights.

“But we’ve also seen on the transgender issue, we’re getting into identity politics, which is very divisive, where people’s personal characteristics as defined in rights documents have now become fragmenting of the fabric of our society, and where you’re getting clashes and a lot of uncertainty.

“And that’s why this instance of the girl being thrown out of the school is outrageous. What’s really worrying is there’s a lot of confusion, and actually the Equality Act, there is no duty on schools – legally if you’re under-18 you can’t change sex – so if you are a male child who is saying I’m a trans girl, legally they are still treated as a male child, as a boy, and schools do not need to go to this extreme position of throwing other children out of schools to accommodate this group.

“I believe in aspiration, and that’s why I helped to cofound Michaela School, with Katharine Birbalsingh and Anthony Seldon, I was Chairman of the Governors for several years until we got our first Ofsted rating which was Outstanding, and that is a great template of what high standards, restoring the authority of the teacher, a traditional curriculum, and a zero tolerance approach to discipline can achieve, because we have turned around children who came to us at 11 with a reading and numeracy age of way below where they should be.”

Henry Hill: Frost’s proposal to unlock the Protocol negotiations. Has London given Brussels reason to bite?

17 Mar

In a recent Churchill Lecture to the Europainstitut at Zürich University, David Frost suggested that the UK take it off the table in exchange for the EU committing to renegotiate the Protocol.

He also warned that if this didn’t happen then London might actually end up triggering it, and outlined what this would entail – cue the predictable pearl-clutching in the usual quarters, how dare a British politician take a view on Northern Ireland, etc.

However, his speech comes as the Government backs away yet again from taking any action. The timing is awkward; Frost proposes taking Article 16 off the table just as the Government lets another internal deadline go by without triggering it.

Admittedly the immediate grounds for backing off are much stronger this time, with the Russo-Ukrainian war putting a high premium on a Euro-British détente.

Yet the broader context is that ministers have now more than once talked up some sort of deadline for the negotiations, only to let it sail past, whilst the fundamentals – that London’s red lines and Brussels’ don’t overlap – haven’t changed.

Little wonder either that Unionists in Ulster are losing faith that action will be taken, especially with the Treasury unhelpfully trying (another bit of bad timing) to carve the Province out of old customs legislation.

Regardless, the decision to hold fire once again means the Protocol is likely to dominate the upcoming Stormont elections, which both London and Dublin had been keen to avoid, and is unlikely to help with Stormont’s stability over the next few months. Which brings us back to Frost’s speech, wherein he says:

“On the EU side, it means getting real about a Northern Ireland Protocol that is now unworkable because of the events of last year. If the Protocol isn’t redone then the poison between us will remain. Northern Irish politics is in a downward spiral that is shaking the foundations of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. It’s in everyone’s interests to deal with that, and the EU will not escape its share of the responsibility if things go wrong.”

On the UK side, he suggests several moves the Government could make to try and induce the Europeans to act. First, as mentioned above, would be to take Article 16 off the table “for now”. Second, taking a more generous approach to “mobility issues” facing tourists, musicians, and young people post-Brexit. Third, engage in finding a new way to cooperate on security issues. He then warns:

“If we can’t put something like this together, I can’t see how we will avoid Article 16 to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland, and things will remain fractious. But more importantly we will then come to a difficult moment in 2024 when three things happen – the consent vote on the Protocol, the decision whether to invoke the Article 411 rebalancing clause, and, probably, the UK General Election.”

An optimistic assessment of what’s going on here is that Frost is simply continuing the strategy he pursued when he was in charge of the negotiations: making the British position look as reasonable as possible, in order to maximise the chances of London winning the inevitable arbitration over Article 16. A pessimistic assessment would simply note that the date of reckoning seems to have been pushed all the way back to 2024.

Which brings us back to what seems to be the persistent problem with the Government’s approach to the negotiations: taking Article 16 off the table is only a useful bargaining chip if the other side believe you’ll use it. And London has given Brussels little reason, thus far, to believe it will.

If the Government wants to get on with Brexit de-regulation, it needs to put ministers clearly in charge

1 Feb

Yesterday, exactly two years after the UK left the European Union, the Government announced a “Brexit Freedoms Bill”. Its purpose is to “end the special status of EU law” and “ensure that it can be more easily amended or removed.” 

The Government has estimated that it will cut £1 billion of red tape for UK businesses through the removal of EU regulations, much of which were kept on as a “messy compromise”, as its announcement put it, from hurried negotiations.

Soon after the announcement, Boris Johnson tweeted that “we have taken back control of our money, our borders and laws”. But others haven’t been so sure that Britain has, specifically around legal and regulatory matters.

One newspaper today reports, for instance, that the Government has watered down plans “to ditch Brussels regulations” put together by David Frost, the former Brexit Minister, because they weren’t compatible with its net zero plans.

This has already led to intense criticism of the Government and Prime Minister. At best, they are sending out mixed messages about the extent to which they will light a “bonfire of EU rules”, as media reports have suggested.

It’s long been known that one of the major selling points of leaving the EU was the opportunity to become truly independent, including a divergence from the trade bloc’s regulations, many of which have been blamed for stifling the potential of British businesses. Solvency II, for example, was singled out by Theresa Villiers yesterday in ConservativeHome, which she blamed for forcing “UK-based insurers to hold too much capital back”.

Villiers has been part of a taskforce asked by Johnson to look into how the UK can de-regulate effectively. She, Iain Duncan Smith and George Freeman compiled a 130-page report last year, setting out 100 recommendations for this, based on consultations with businesses, academics, think tanks and colleagues, among other experts, so as to help Britain fulfil its potential.

But today’s news – as well as it being almost a year since the taskforce released its suggestions – hint at wider issues with the Government’s de-regulatory project. First, there are clearly disputes about how far it should go in cutting the red tape. Second, and partly why the Government is sending out contradictory messages, is that there has been no official replacement for Frost since he stepped down in his role last December.

Since his departure, Liz Truss, as recently appointed Foreign Secretary, has been tasked with overseeing the Northern Ireland Protocol; one of the biggest briefs of a Brexit Minister. But government insiders are keen for designated ministers to handle regulatory reform, and hold Whitehall’s feet to the fire.

One contender for having overall oversight of such a project is Steve Barclay, currently serving as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. However, the responsibility could be shared. Freeman, a member of the taskforce and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Research and Innovation is reportedly keen to manage the 10 sectors most in need of reform, having written about them in great detail in the 130-page report, and feeling that these areas fall naturally into his department.

Given that it has been two years since Brexit, as we have been reminded this week, the delay over action on regulations is not what one would call a “good look” for the Government. With the pandemic, as well as the partygate saga hanging over the Prime Minister’s head, it’s no surprise that Number 10 has been slow to appoint a new Brexit Minister/ authority, or even make noises about the need for it.

But the clock is ticking. With Johnson’s enemies keen to ram home that his government, as well as Brexit, has been a disaster, getting a “Reformer in Chief” is the fastest way to “take back control”.

Theresa Villiers: Regulatory reform – and what the Government must now do to win that Brexit Bonus

31 Jan

Theresa Villiers is a former Environment Secretary, and is MP for Chipping Barnet.

Two years on from leaving the EU, it is time the Government made the most of our new-found freedoms and reshaped our approach to regulation, so that we can drive growth, economic investment and competition into every corner of the UK.

The public put their faith in the Conservatives, not only to ‘get Brexit done’ but also to improve their lives and their communities. It is completely understandable that for much of the past two years, the devastating effects of Covid have dominated Government activities and consumed bandwidth that would normally be devoted to different areas of policy and reform.

However, now that we appear to be over the worst of Omicron, and hopefully returning to something approaching normality, we must refocus back on the core issue of driving growth and investment and improving living standards across the country.

If we are to deliver the long-term economic growth that benefits all communities (and opens the way for tax cuts), we must recognise that unleashing productive investment from the financial services sector is crucial. The UK is home to some of the most innovative companies and thoughtful investors in the world. It is up to the Government to create the optimal conditions to allow our business leaders and entrepreneurs to reach their potential. That is a key means to increase prosperity and opportunity, and to raise living standards for all.

However, aspects of our regulatory system can act as a barrier to this potential wave of investment. The complexity of regulations – many of which originated from the EU – and their gold-plating by regulators, means that long term investment can end up being directed more towards very large companies that don’t need the funds than to, for example, urban regeneration in our cities.

A perfect example is Solvency II. This is an EU law designed to provide a one-size-fits-all framework for all EU insurers to bring consistency to the way they hold capital to protect policyholder benefits. The rules, which are extremely risk-averse, continue to force UK-based insurers to hold too much capital back, preventing that funding from flowing into a range of much needed projects that could deliver real change in our communities.

For example, new research by Pension Insurance Corporation describes how £20 billion of additional investment over the next decade through reform of Solvency II could be channelled into the building of new social and affordable homes, improving existing social housing stock, as well as on renewable energy projects and urban regeneration.

This could enable the Government to claim a major Brexit bonus, demonstrating to people how the UK, as a sovereign nation, can re-write an unnecessarily complex and risk-averse EU law to the benefit of communities from Barnet to Bolsover.

Solvency II is just one of many EU laws copied on to the UK statute book after Brexit which we need to assess to see whether they are still fit for purpose. But with Lord Frost’s departure from government, we need urgent clarity on who has responsibility for this vital task. With EU relations now wrapped back into the Foreign Office, no Minister appears to have the lead responsibility for post-Brexit regulatory reform since Lord Frost’s resignation.

Past experience shows that drives to remove unnecessary regulatory red tape soon run into the sand if they are not driven with determination at the most senior level in Government. As things stand, we are in great danger of missing one of the most important opportunities Brexit has given us.

In the first instance, a Secretary of State should be made responsible for the Brexit Opportunities Unit which currently resides in the Cabinet Office and is tasked with identifying our economic and political opportunities post Brexit.

Secondly, and as I and colleagues on the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform recommended to Government in our recent report, UK regulators should have stronger duties to promote innovation, investment and competition – as well as consumer protection – pushing them to play a much more active role in supporting growth. The Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA), which oversees insurance companies, for example, should take a more evenly balanced approach to reforming Solvency II to ensure that there is increased investment in productive assets.

Thirdly, we need to ensure MPs are properly resourced both to scrutinise regulators and hold them to account. Strengthening the select committee system to ensure more effective use of economic impact assessments and metrics will help parliamentarians ensure that regulators really are replacing the EU model with a new, more innovative and proportionate UK regulatory framework.

This would mean that our country really can start to bank that Brexit bonus. At the moment, we face the ironic situation that EU may actually overtake us on Solvency II reform if regulators continue to drag their feet, potentially making us less competitive. As we emerge from the pandemic, long-term investment in our communities across our whole United Kingdom should be at the top of our priority list, and Solvency II reform can give a big boost to our efforts to deliver this. The opportunities are there for us to seize, but we must act now.

Conservatives should be sceptical of claims that Big State policies are popular

31 Jan

Lord Frost of Allenton is a former ambassador, a former cabinet minister, and a resident of the Royal Borough of Greenwich. It was in that latter capacity that he tweeted:

Completing a survey on budget priorities from Labour-run Greenwich Council… I find my only choices are cut services or increase tax / other revenue. How about becoming more efficient, cutting admin costs, or getting rid of non-priorities like the free newspaper?

I’m afraid this sort of loaded consultation is all too typical. Greenwich Council proposes a 4.99 per cent increase in Council Tax. That is the maximum level allowed without a referendum. The fact the Council feel constrained by that mechanism rather gives the game away. The consultation is designed to show popular support for the tax rise; that it is accepted as splendid value for money; and that local inhabitants are most grateful to have their money spent for them in such an effective manner rather than being left to spend it for themselves.

But then why not a bigger Council Tax increase? Ten per cent? 20 per cent? 50 per cent? The Council would love all that extra spending. But they know perfectly well they would fail to win consent for it. Nor would they for even the five per cent increase if it was put to the test.

We are often told that Big State socialist policies of increased tax and increased public spending are popular. A bit more scepticism is needed in response. One of the Labour councillors for the ward I live in is Christabel Cooper. I don’t think I have met her. Perhaps she misses me out when she goes canvassing. But I follow her on Twitter and she seems to be an intelligent and well-informed woman. Last week she tweeted “one of her favourite political charts ever”. Some people have a favourite colour. Or a favourite meal. Cllr Cooper has a favourite political chart. So far, so good. It shows that the “economic values” of voters are well to the Left of Conservatives MPs and broadly in line with Labour MPs:

But how are these “economic values” determined? Further research shows the following questions were used:

Immediately we can see that the questions are absurdly loaded. Few would argue that there should be no redistribution of income by the Government – that all welfare payments including to pensioners, the unemployed, and the disabled should be abolished. A business might well try “to get the better” of its employees by paying them as little as possible or “take advantage of ordinary people” by charging them as high a price as possible. Alternatively, out of a sense of pride or compassion, they might not. But provided a competitive market operates such statements have limited relevance if a business wishes to maximise profit. If twages are too low we will work for someone else. If the prices are too high we shall shop elsewhere. As Adam Smith observed:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”

As for the statement that “ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth”, I would agree. That is why I favour the repeal of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act to allow a big increase in the housing supply, much wider homeownership, and a fall in current property prices which are kept artifically high due to state-imposed scarcity. In other words to have a genuine housing market. To suggest that that answer puts me on the Left is, I would suggest, a misclassification.

None of this is to say that free marketeers have no challenges so far as public opinion is concerned. Profit used to be regarded as a good thing – now it is a dirty word. In the 1970s amidst the strikes, redundancies, and nationalised industries, those working for a profitable concern were pleased to be doing so. There would be bearded students in roller neck jumpers denouncing the profits system. But those working for a loss-making business thought it would be a nice problem to have. While in much of the world, support for free enterprise has increased, in the UK it has become less fashionable (especially when given the baddy label “capitalism”). The Institute of Economic Affairs has done some polling on the sympathy of the young for socialism.

But the tide may have turned. In 2017 polling for the Legatum Institute found that those agreeing “I favour increased taxation, bigger government and more spending” had a 15 point lead over those who said the opposite. But a poll for Deloitte from a few months ago found the Big Staters had lost their lead:

“Throughout the austerity years of the last decade, our State of the State surveys showed that the majority of the public wanted to see higher levels of public spending. They were also prepared – in theory at least – to pay more tax to fund it. This year, our survey finds the public split evenly between 28 per cent who would welcome higher levels of tax and spending, 30 per cent who would like to maintain the same levels as before the pandemic, and 24 per cent who would prefer lower taxes and lower government spending.”

The conclusion for Conservatives locally and nationally should be that the battle for lower taxes can be won. Most people can be persuaded that a lot of state spending is wasted – often they will have personal experience of it. Conservative councillors need to do the preparation by going through Council budget documents in a rigorous and challenging way to identify savings. 14 years ago I listed on this site 100 ways to do so – most of those points still apply.

Charlotte Gill’s Podcast Review 9) Liam Halligan with David Frost, Brendan O’Neill with Carl Heneghan

19 Jan

Every fortnight, ConservativeHome will compile a handful of podcast recommendations – content that has been published in the weeks preceding – for its readers. Although these will mainly focus on podcasts for conservative listeners, we will try to include other options – should they be particularly interesting. Sometimes this feature will contain other types of media.

Title: Planet Normal
Host: Liam Halligan (who co-hosts Planet Normal with Allison Pearson. This segment has been extracted for Youtube)
Episode: ‘Stop this Covid theatre’: Former Cabinet minister Lord Frost speaks to the Planet Normal podcast

Duration: 37:56 minutes
Published: January 13

What’s it about?

What does Lord Frost think about Dominic Cummings, the Government’s Net Zero ambitions and the Northern Ireland Protocol, as well as pretty much every political issue of the day? Wonder no more; Liam Halligan manages to get a huge amount out of the UK’s lead Brexit negotiator, in this interview. Frost doesn’t hold back in his criticisms of government policy, and what it will take to better improve the machinery of Whitehall.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “I think, honestly, people are going to look back at the last couple of years, globally, and see lockdown as a pretty serious public policy mistake.”
  • “The teams managing Covid – not just in Number 10 – the fact that they were in the office and seeing people meant that you tended to forget what life was like for everyone else, because to you it seemed a bit normal. And I do think that meant we were more ready to reach for lockdown and coercive things than we might have been in other circumstances.”
  • “History shows that the best way of producing prosperity is free markets and free individuals pursuing their own lives.”
Verdict:

Refreshing to hear a conservative talk like a conservative.

Title: Desperately Seeking Wisdom
Host: Craig Oliver
Episode: Ruth Davidson

Duration: 54:28 minutes
Published: January 17
Link: Here

What’s it about?

This podcast recently attracted many headlines, due to how many revelations Ruth Davidson makes during the course of it. It is part of a new show, hosted by Craig Oliver, the former Director of Politics and Communications for David Cameron, that explores how people, mainly in media and politics, have achieved a better work/life balance. Davidson opens up about a number of areas, such as her battle with depression and her dismay at being described as a lesbian kickboxer during the 2011 Scottish Conservatives leadership election, while other candidates were referred to by their job titles.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “I’ll tell you why it annoyed me… One, because I’d stopped kickboxing years before, so it wasn’t even true. And two because it was so reductive, and it was reductive to try and make a point.”
  • “I didn’t want a sudden headline screaming that, you know, Tory leader’s a maddy, that should be locked up or something like that.”
  • “I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself more than the period that I had in the Territorial Army. There was something amazing about the physical tiredness that you get after a day of carrying, or however many tonne pack, and you know, yomping around fields and, and feeling like you’re learning and that you’re contributing, and you’re stretching yourself.”
Verdict:

A fun and light-hearted exchange.

Title: The Brendan O’Neill Show
Host: Brendan O’Neill
Episode: Why I spoke out against lockdown

 

 

Duration: 1 hour, 12 minutes
Published: January 13

What’s it about?

Though Carl Heneghan’s official titles include Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at the Department of Primary Care Services at the University of Oxford and Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Healthcare, among other things, he has become most famous for questioning the Government’s approach to Coronavirus. A modern day heretic, you might say. In this interview with Brendan O’Neill he comprehensively explains why he thinks the UK approach hasn’t been right, and who has been most hurt by it.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “The concept of academic freedom has gone out of the window… People will lose their jobs in the NHS or universities for speaking out…. what does that say about our society?”
  • “We can’t keep having this Doomsday prediction and assuming society can go forward.”
  • “The question is, why has the NHS not grasped this nettle and said we need a flexible health service that increases capacity by about 20 per cent” (around winter peaks).
Verdict:

A fascinating discussion, which will further the argument that lockdowns are a blunt instrument.

Garvan Walshe: The time for fine-tuning Brexit is over. The Government needs to focus on making the most of their own deal.

6 Jan

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

It’s a year since the entry into force of the “Trade and Cooperation Agreement” between the UK and the EU, in which the Government chose one of the most decisive forms of Brexit, with Great Britain leaving the Single Market and Customs Union.  And the UK declining to participate as associates in Europol, the Erasmus programme, and the European Defence Agency.

The Government took the view that the terms offered weren’t good enough to satisfy the grievances of those who votedLleave in 2016, and nor, indeed are the terms of the deal it itself negotiated: that’s why it is trying to revise the Northern Ireland Protocol.

But it is now five and a half years since the referendum vote, and even Leave voters are tiring of this approach, with only 48 per cent endorsing the government’s handling. Its time would be better spent making the most of the situation they have crated, instead oftrying to fine-tune the Brexit deal further. Two areas are in particular need of attention.

First, Brexit entails a restructuring of the British economy: the Government needs to focus on maximising economic advantage, rather than seeking to address the grievances that led to Brexit.

And second, now that the UK has left the EU, it needs to exploit its diplomatic relationship with a still reasonably friendly bloc to its maximum, rather than re-fighting the Brexit negotiations.

Economically, new barriers to trade in goods and services have been erected, and the net loss is projected to amount to four per cent of GDP each year in the long run.

Making good this annual loss requires dramatic improvements to productivity. Long term economic growth depends on equipping people with the skills for tomorrow’s economy. This cannot be achieved by policies to improve the conditions for people who lack those skills and are unlikely to acquire them, or be in parts of the country where they could take advantage of them even if they did. Rather, levelling up will only be affordable if productivity can be enhanced elsewhere.

As Richard Baldwin argues in The Great Convergence, modern industrial goods are manufactured in three main geographically concentrated clusters: south-east Asia, North America, and continental Europe. Leaving the EU’s Customs Union is a decision to uncouple the UK from pan-European supply chains.

Leaving the EU has also made it harder to access customers there, limiting Britain’s access to the high-earning part of the European value chain. This leaves two possibilities for profit, increasing access to other parts of the world, and taking new steps in design and invention.

Trade deals alone cannot make up the loss of leaving the EU, because trade is inversely proportional to distance, and the rest of the world is far further away than Europe, but ways of reducing other aspects of what trade economists call “trade resistance” can.

Having cut itself out of the only manufacturing cluster within reach, the UK has to rely on its dominant service sectors. Differences in regulations impede service sector trade, and this is hard to reduce without the sort of enforceable agreements to harmonise them that this Government considers an infringement of sovereignty.

This leaves travel costs and cultural difference. Travel to Europe apart, costs are largely a matter of airport infrastructure and, in the medium term, decarbonising air travel. Reducing cultural difference means persuading more British people to learn languages and about other cultures.

Another aspect of services is people. If more aviation and languages boost service sales abroad, effective immigration policy can boost their creation at home, with the proceeds (because immigration is in virtually any circumstance economically beneficial) being used to build up domestic human capital too.

As David Willets has argued, we should build more universities in places that lack them, so that more young people can participate in the international service economy. All this will better equip the UK economy to thrive outside the EU’s trade structures.

When it comes to relations with the EU itself, the Government should start with an accurate understanding of the organisation it left. The EU is not merely an association of member states, but has acquired some of the powers and apprutenances of a state. That is why British voters wanted to leave, after all.

Yet the Hovernment persists in focusing on bilateral realtionships at the expense of that with the Commission. Even when it does not descend into the absurdity of Lord Frost refusing to call the EU by its name, this fails to recognise the reality of the Commission’s power in trade and economic policy, let alone the fact that the countries still in the EU have decided to pool their powers in Brussels.

So rather than wishing the Commission away, the government needs to seek out a real, mutually beneficial, relationship with it, in areas like research, and security and defence policy, even if closer trade policy is currently off the agenda.

Anti-Brexit opinion, which is concentrated among the young, has consolidated, rather than faded with time. Though it will take some time to work through, the weight of that opinion will eventually be felt, and take Britain back towards a closer relationship with the EU. If the Government wants its Brexit legacy to stand, it had better start thinking how to make it work.

Johnson hands Truss the poisoned fruit of the Northern Ireland Protocol

19 Dec

At the start of the Theresa May Mark One era – that’s to say, when Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were in charge – the Foreign Office lost charge of Europe policy.

Timothy didn’t trust this institutionally pro-Remain department, for which the European project had been a guiding mission for over half a century, to conduct the Brexit negotiation with the EU.

So David Davis was reinvented as Secretary of State in the new Department for Exiting the European Union, to be followed after his resignation by Dominic Raab, who soon quit himself, and then Stephen Barclay.

The Foreign Office lost out a second time round when David Frost took on responsibility for managing Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU – including the Northern Ireland Protocol.

One way of interpreting the appointment of Liz Truss to take on Frost’s former responsibilities is that the Foreign Office has got lucky third time round, as the legacy of Timothy’s restructuring is finally buried.

The change is certainly a shot in the arm for the boys and girls in King Charles Street – undeservedly, some would add, given Raffy Marshall’s recent discloures about its internal workings during this year’s Afghanistan crisis.

The loss of Europe policy was an existential agony for the Foreign Office, made worse by it getting overseas aid, which it didn’t want, but not gaining international trade, which some of its mandarians do want.

Regaining European policy in full will help raise spirits there, lowered recently not only by the Marshall revelations, but by news of a coming ten per cent cut in its budget.

Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs tend to have a low view of the Foreign Office and a high one of Frost.  They will greet the return of Europe policy to it with suspicion at best, hostility at worst.

Boris Johnson could have appointed a direct successor to Frost and kept Europe policy away from King Charles Street instead.

That he didn’t takes us to another view of the appointment.  That he is now weak, Truss is strong, she wanted European policy back at the Foreign Office…and has duly got her way.

We will find out soon enough how energetically she pushed for this outcome – if at all.  But whatever happened, let me offer a third angle from which to view the change.

The pro-Brexit right of the Parliamentary Party, broadly speaking, wants Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol moved soon.  In particular, they want the role that the Protocol grants to the European Court removed.

This swathe of Tory MPs includes much of the constituency that Truss must woo successfully in any forthcoming leadership election if she is to make it past the parliamentary stage of the contest.

She will therefore face a choice during the next few months, assuming that Johnson himself isn’t the victim of a confidence ballot.

To her right will be supporters of a “clean Brexit”, urging that Article 16 be moved as soon as possible.  To her left will be a band of former Remainers opposed to such a manoeuvre under almost any circumstances.

And while there aren’t necessarily many of them, there is a wider body of Tory MPs, mostly but not exclusively on the centre-left of the party, who will oppose her candidacy.

The future of the Protocol, of the UK’s relationship with the EU, and of Northern Ireland itself thus risk getting tangled up with Truss’s ambitions, and those who support and oppose them.

One further take on this mix is that, since Frost was a known factor in the province and Truss isn’t, the Executive is nearer collapse this evening than it was yesterday.

In particular, the DUP knew where it was with Frost – or thought it did, anyway.  It may not have the same confidence in Truss, however unreasonable that prejudice may be.

(Furthermore, it’s worth bearing in mind Dominic Cummings’ claim that this Government will bungle any attempt to move Article 16 – so it’s better not done now.)

All this is consistent less with a powerful Truss regaining Europe policy for her department than with a resourceful Johnson handing her a poisoned fruit.