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.”

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.”

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).

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.

A retreat on the Northern Irish Protocol shows Johnson’s flight reflex in action

18 Dec

Has the Government sold out to Brussels? That’s certainly been the tone of some of the coverage yesterday when it emerged that the UK has decided to “change tack” in the ongoing negotiations over the Northern Irish Protocol.

According to the Guardian, David Frost is now seeking an ‘interim’ deal built on a “staged solution”. This means sorting out checks and other issues with an obvious on-the-ground impact, whilst leaving thorny issues such as the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice to resolve at a later date – and less thoroughly than previously demanded.

Instead of removing its authority altogether, the Government apparently wants to use an arbitration proposals as first resort, with the ECJ only giving its opinion if the dispute were not resolved politically.

Perhaps there is some nuance to this proposal that isn’t obvious from the initial reports. But from here, it looks like quite the retreat. European judges would still have final say, and nationalist politicians keen on increasing the EU’s role in the Province need only refuse to deliver solutions in the “political arena”.And give n the way politics in Northern Ireland tends to work, who’d bet on finding much compromise in that arena anyway?

Apparently this move is to create space to find solutions on the things causing the day-to-day problems which are driving loyalist anger and pushing all the Unionist parties towards a hard-line position. Perhaps that will work, perhaps it won’t. But ministers must be aware that if it did work, it might end up diminishing what leverage they have to push for changes on the more abstract, but still extremely important, constitutional questions.

It’s certainly a long way from the position of a few months ago, when London was talking up the odds of triggering Article 16 and senior sources in Whitehall were suggesting they would have to do it if a major breakthrough hadn’t been made by the end of November. So what happened?

We can’t know for sure, yet. But the answer proffered by Dominic Cummings seems plausible: that Frost and his team do have an aggressive strategy that involves using Article 16, but it wouldn’t work without the Prime Minister’s complete commitment, and they don’t have it.

It is also the case that the fracturing of Boris Johnson’s original Vote Leave-based team, including the end of Oliver Lewis’s abortive stint at the Union Unit, leaves them rather out on a limb. It probably doesn’t help that Michael Gove, the man who negotiated some of the things Frost has been trying to change, is formally in charge of overall Union policy.

Also interesting is the timing. One can easily imagine that an aggressive push on the Protocol might have provided a means for the Prime Minister to cut across the press coverage of the abysmal result in North Shropshire. Instead, we see the opposite. Johnson’s ‘fight or flight’ response seems keyed very heavily towards ‘flight’.

This bodes very badly for the Government’s prospects of getting other important-but-difficult reform projects through in the remainder of this Parliament. As I noted previously, Johnson seems inclined to stick such missions out only where it serves a personal interest. The odds of major overhauls to the Civil Service, the planning system, or the constitution seem more remote than ever.

Shanker Singham: Today’s signing of the UK-Australia deal symbolises a new economic era for Global Britain

17 Dec

Shanker Singham is CEO of Competere. He is a former adviser to Liam Fox when he was Secretary of State for International Trade, and to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

We have often taken the special relationship for granted on this side of the Atlantic. While we rest on our laurels, often the US’s other allies and trading partners steal a march on the UK.

What is needed is a comprehensive re-engagement with the US at multiple levels – Prime Minister, Cabinet, ministerial and parliamentary. There is already a lot of private sector to private sector dialogue but these need to be accelerated with ministerial sponsorship.

It is clear that on matters as diverse as the Northern Ireland Protocol, to our interest in a comprehensive free trade agreement, the UK has not been able to land forensic, knock-out blows, whereas others, notably the Irish and the EU have been more successful in prosecuting their interests with the new administration.

There are signs of improvement however. We have seen a significant uptick in the frequency of UK ministerial engagements in Washington recently. There were at least five UK ministers in the US, the week of the December 6 for example. Importantly, UK engagement is not limited to Washington DC and New York. Penny Mordaunt, the trade policy minister has just returned from the longest ministerial visit to the US in recent history – a tour of five US states lasting over 10 days, a lifetime for a minister.

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, made a very important speech at Chatham House on December 8, where she acknowledged that the world had broken down into those countries that supported a vision of capitalism based on competition versus those whose capitalist model is based on distortion and cronyism – and that the countries in the former camp constituted a network of liberty. AUKUS was just a start to bring those countries together to pursue an international economic policy that maximised open trade, competition on the merits and property rights protection.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Secretary of State for Trade, also made a recent intervention at the CPS’ Margaret Thatcher conference on trade, where she specifically addressed the cancer of anti-competitive market distortions which are plaguing global trade. In this the UK and US have very similar concerns and are looking for similar solutions – a mechanism to deal with the problem that does not drive a coach and horses through the international trading system.

On what the UK’s regulatory system will look like in the future, Lord Frost was also crystal clear when he discussed this in the House of Lords, noting that the UK will diverge from EU regulation, not just for the sake of it, or because it can, but because it must do so in order to promote a pro-competitive regulatory agenda that both increases economic growth at home, but will also make it easier (and faster) to do trade deals.

The trade policy minister’s long trip led to substantial progress on Memoranda of Understanding with a number of states, as diverse as Tennessee, Oklahoma, North and South Carolina and Georgia. She made a very important speech to the Carter Centre. In it she was much more forensic about a case that does not get made often enough – why a free trade deal with the UK is in the American interest, not just the British one.

The UK leaving the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union is a massive global event. The UK, to quote Minister Mordaunt, has made itself a piece on the global chessboard, and a powerful one at that. It alone is negotiating or discussing international economic policy issues with all the key players, including the EU with which it is one of the few major players to have an FTA already.

The UK has made it crystal clear to its trading partners which side of the table it is going to be on – to inter-operate with the world on the basis of equivalence and adequacy, as the US and CPTPP countries do, instead of pushing its own regulatory vision on the rest of the world as the EU and China do.

This shift is a seismic one in geo-economic terms. If the Americans fail to capitalise on it, they will have lost a huge opportunity to win the battle for the world’s operating system, and to ensure it is based on voluntary exchange, underpinned by open trade and competition, including regulatory competition based on outcomes. This would unleash wealth creation and economic growth at a time when it is so crucially needed as the world struggles to emerge from Covid-19.

But the UK is not just making speeches. It is delivering. Today’s signing of the UK-Australia deal means that the UK’s entirely de novo trade negotiating agenda is now in full swing. Contrary to the naysayers who said that trade deals take 10 years to do, this was initiated in 2020 and concluded in 2021 – within a year of the UK leaving the EU.

It is anticipated that the NZ deal will quickly follow. Within the year, the UK also concluded a deal with Japan that contains important new elements and departures from the EU’s deal especially in the crucial data area, signed a deal with Australia, established its working group for accession to the CPTPP, and will doubtless conclude a number of MOUs with US states as a down payment on an eventual FTA with the US. This has all been done within a year of concluding the FTA with the EU, the point at which our trading partners knew whether we could do trade deals or not.

The UK and US must now use the recently announced Atlantic Charter to push for the key initiatives such as the reduction of anti-competitive market distortions around the world and the commitment to open trade and competition on the merits.  They must tie other nations into the AUKUS deal which is much more than an agreement about submarines, especially the Japanese.

The geo-economic tectonic plates are shifting as we said they would, but even faster than even we hoped and anticipated. For the first time in a long time, the network of liberty countries look like they might be winning.  We are far from out of the woods, and the world remains a very dangerous place for freedom, but these countries now have line of sight to victory, and the UK is their champion. We may yet lose, but if we do, it will be because this moment of opportunity was wasted.

David Gauke: Truss rises – and Sunak runs towards early tax cuts in order to head her off

6 Dec

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

Tax cuts are back in fashion. Having announced tax increases in his March Budget, and having agreed to the Prime Minister announcing further tax increases to fund higher health and social care expenditure in September, the Chancellor is taking every opportunity to let everyone know that he is in favour of lower taxes and plans to cut taxes before the next general election. All of this before any of the announced tax increases takes effect. What is going on?

Before examining what this tells us about what will happen next with fiscal policy, it is worth recalling how we got here.

At the time of the March Budget this year, it was evident that a fiscal tightening of some description was going to be necessary. Nothing needed to be done straight away, but it is politically easier to announce deficit-reducing measures earlier in a Parliament rather than later.

As for whether the tightening should be tax increases or spending cuts, tax increases were always the likely outcome. Years of spending restraint, pledges of high spending at the last general election and a change in the nature of Conservative support all suggested that the political reality was that taxes would go up. And so they did, with a freeze in thresholds for personal taxes and a substantial increase in corporation tax rates.

In September, the Prime Minister wanted to announce that he had solved the social care issue, the Health Secretary wanted more money for the NHS to cope with post-Covid pressures and the Chancellor – as a good fiscal conservative – wanted to ensure that any additional spending is paid for by higher taxes rather than letting borrowing take the strain.

A deal was done. The Prime Minister got his announcement, the Health Secretary got his money and the Chancellor not only got the tax increase necessary to pay for it, but he also got the Prime Minister to announce the increase in National Insurance Contributions.

We then come to the October Budget. The Chancellor had a bit more money to play with because the economy had grown faster in 2021 than had been expected ,and the damage done to the long term health of the economy by Covid had been downgraded. He had a choice between increasing spending, borrowing less and cutting taxes.

Cutting taxes was always the least likely option, because it would have been very strange to announce tax increases one month and then tax cuts the next. The real choice was between either spending the windfall or reducing borrowing, perhaps with an eye on tax cuts later in the Parliament. When it came down to it, more of the windfall went on spending than many expected.

With little tucked away for a rainy day, the possibility of future tax cuts became heavily dependent on the OBR once again downgrading their COVID scarring estimate (they remain relatively pessimistic on that compared to other forecasters).

There are, however, also significant downside risks for the economy. We do not yet know what will happen with the Omicron variant and there may be other variants in future. Triggering Article 16 in January (still possible although less likely than it was) would likely provoke a trade war and damage business confidence.

But even if there is an improved forecast from the OBR in 2022, it will be a forecast made in a period of uncertainty. The prudent course would not be to use any upside sum to either cut taxes or increase spending.

This suggests that the plan earlier this autumn was that 2022 should be a fiscally boring year. There might be some revenue neutral tax reforms but, in terms of the balance between tax and spend, the big decisions were made in 2021. The plan was to implement the announced tax increases, hold the line on additional spending bids and hope for some good news that will permit some tax cuts in 2023.

Politics has, however, intervened.

The response to the increases in NICs announced in September was relatively muted, but the October Budget landed remarkably badly with the Daily Telegraph and Spectator and a fair few Conservative MPs. Belatedly, there is a recognition that this was not a small state government. Shortly afterwards, in a separate development, Boris Johnson blundered over the Owen Paterson case and the Peppa Pig speech, and his personal ratings tumbled.

All of this has left the Prime Minister with a bigger party management issue than a public opinion issue. The Conservatives remain, at worst, level-pegging with Labour, and the Old Bexley & Sidcup by-election result was reassuringly dull. The public has not reacted strongly against the tax rises, but it looks as if the wider Conservative movement has.

To gauge the mood amongst Conservative activists, it is always instructive to look at the ConservativeHome ratings. The Prime Minister is struggling, and the Paterson affair has contributed to that (as the unfortunate Mark Spencer’s rating demonstrates), but the fall in the Chancellor’s rating suggestions a reaction against the tax increases. He is no longer the heir-apparent.

Meanwhile, Liz Truss – associated with lower taxes – continues to ride high and is on (tank) manoeuvres. It was also striking how Lord Frost – previously seen as something of a political creature of the Prime Minister’s – has asserted his independence by declaring his enthusiasm for lower taxes. He sits in second place in the league table.

Let us fast-forward to some point next year when the Budget is about to be delivered. Imagine the circumstances where Conservative MPs and activists are feeling a bit despondent because “this isn’t a proper Conservative government”; voters are feeling the pinch as living standards fall and theTelegraph (Boris Johnson’s “real boss” according to Dominic Cummings) is campaigning for tax cuts; and the Foreign Secretary lets it be known that she thinks lower taxes would unleash this country’s entrepreneurial spirits. How do we think the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will react?

I am going to hazard a guess, and suggest that they will both want tax cuts. Fiscal conservatives will point out that having decided to spend a lot of money (not to mention pursuing a growth-damaging European policy), the country might not be able to afford tax cuts, that there is the small matter of complying with the fiscal rules and that demographic pressures in the 2030s suggest that the long-term trajectory is higher taxes.

I think one could always have been confident that this is the sort of defeatist doom-mongering up with which the Prime Minister would not put. These are certainly not persuasive arguments if they imperil his position in Number 10.

The Chancellor might have been more torn. He is a fiscal conservative, and knows that Chancellors are often judged on how responsibly they act. But he is also naturally sympathetic to lower taxes and conscious of his own place (current and future) in the party, with a Prime Minister willing to be ruthless to get his own way. On the basis of the briefings currently coming out of Number 11, the Chancellor looks like he will be a tax cutter.

Tax cuts as early as 2022 might not be affordable, coherent or wise but there is definitely a scenario in which they happen regardless. If Number 10 and 11 are united in panic, political expediency will trump fiscal responsibility at the next Budget.

Barwell’s memoir. The more conscientious he becomes, the less illuminating this book is

13 Nov

Chief of Staff: Notes from Downing Street  by Gavin Barwell

Advisers, Gavin Barwell says, are too important. That is an admirably un-self-important conclusion for an adviser to reach.

Barwell served as Theresa May’s Chief of Staff from just after the disastrous general election of 2017 until at last she sank beneath the waves in the summer of 2019.

At the end of his 400-page account, he says:

“If I were to do it all again, my first piece of advice to Theresa would be that she should invest more time in her relationships with senior colleagues. The Thatcher ministry was sustained by the support of people like Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit; the Blair ministry by John Prescott and Peter Mandelson; the Cameron ministry by George Osborne and William Hague. Theresa didn’t have key lieutenants of this stature around her. Thirty or forty years ago, the House of Commons sat late most nights, but today it only sits late on Mondays. This has helped to make it more family-friendly, but at the expense of ministers spending more time together. At the same time, there has been an explosion in the number of political advisers. They are the people ministers now spend most of their time with, and that’s a mistake.”

He makes a good point. There has been a growing tendency, when anything goes wrong, to call in new advisers, to replace or supplement those already there.

The deficiencies in the Downing Street machine, its inability to run smoothly under Boris Johnson and the frequency with which faulty decisions have to be reversed, have become a staple of political commentary.

But as Barwell observes, “When the chips are down, politicians depend on the support of their [ministerial] colleagues.”

At Chequers, in the summer of 2018, May’s problem was that she could not carry David Davis and Boris Johnson with her.

It is impossible as Foreign Secretary – the post to which she appointed Johnson in the summer of 2016 – to achieve much unless the Prime Minister of the day takes you into his or her confidence.

This May never did with Johnson. When she was in her pomp – a period hard to recall, but it lasted until she made a hash of the 2017 general election – she made jokes at his expense and shut him out of any serious discussion of how to get Brexit done.

Barwell was not at this stage at her side, but one doubts whether he would have been able to get her to behave in any other way. As Home Secretary, she was notoriously disinclined to confide in colleagues, and this habit served her well.

In Number 10, it did not serve her well. Before Chequers, a row blew up about the Northern Ireland backstop, and she held meetings with several senior ministers in order to try to square them:

“The conversation with Boris was probably the worst meeting of her premiership. He was so rude that I came close to interrupting and asking him to leave. He said we’d made a massive mistake in signing up to the Joint Report. Why had we agreed to all this mumbo jumbo about Northern Ireland? He was normally the person telling us to get a move on, but now he was arguing that we shouldn’t publish anything.”

One begins to see Barwell’s limitations as an historian. He doesn’t give us the actual words spoken by Johnson, which must have been vivid. We are fobbed off with a paraphrase: more scrupulous, but less illuminating and enjoyable.

And this is a problem throughout the book. Barwell was there, but is too well-behaved to tell us what he heard.

We instead find ourselves wading through an official report in which any dramatic moment is deliberately rendered less dramatic. Here is part of his account of how at the end of 2017 the Joint Report came about:

“Then, just a few days before the Prime Minister was due to meet President Juncker, the EU negotiating team presented our team with revised text on Northern Ireland, which went much further than we were expecting. The key section was what would become paragraph 49 of the Joint Report that was published a week later. It said that the UK was committed to protecting north-south co-operation and avoiding a hard border, and that we hoped to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK future relationship, but should this not be possible, we would propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland; in their absence, we would maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which supported north-south co-operation…

“The Prime Minister was hugely frustrated when Olly told her about this text. She was exasperated at being asked to make commitments about what we would do if we couldn’t reach an agreement about our future relationship before we’d even had a chance to talk about it…

“Nevertheless, it was clear that if we rejected the text outright, we would not be able to achieve ‘sufficient progress’. What, then, should we do? We were the ones under time pressure; the EU could stick to its position, safe in the knowledge that a parliamentary majority was opposed to no deal, so the UK would have to compromise sooner or later. The Prime Minister began to think about whether we could live with the text…”

One would not guess, from Barwell’s dreary language, that a fatal concession is being made. This stuff goes on for page after page, and what is particularly infuriating is that the book has no index, which makes it of far less value to historians and other researchers.

If one wishes to check some particular point, or to see whether Barwell has anything illuminating to say about a particular individual, one has to wade one’s way through bureaucratic language which has the effect of obfuscating, unless one is a bureaucrat, what is actually going on.

The whole sorry story is set out in Roderick Crawford’s authoritative account, The Northern Ireland Protocol: The Origins of the Present Crisis, published at the start of this month by Policy Exchange.

Lord Frost’s preface to that account has already appeared on ConHome. Frost was at that point a special adviser to Johnson. It was immediately clear that “a crucial pass had been sold”, but also that if the Foreign Secretary resigned, on what could be made to seem like a horribly dull technicality, it would be impossible to explain to the public what all the fuss was about.

May persuaded herself that “we could live with the text”, even though it failed to take account of relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is easy, of course, to be wise after the event, and to forget how weak her position had already become. At the time, it seemed bizarre that she could stagger on for as long as she did.

Why this life in death? Barwell reminds us that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act “had taken away the Prime Minister’s ability to call an election at a time of their choosing, removing the ultimate threat with which a government could get rebel MPs to back its key policies”.

But May had already fired that weapon without any pressing need to do so: in 2017 she called an election and was then unable to present the public with a convincing reason for asking their opinion, which they reckoned they had made clear in the 2016 referendum.

Barwell came on board after that election, in which he lost his seat, Croydon Central, held since 2010. May evidently felt at ease with him, and it is clear that he possesses many of the same virtues as her: he is honest, conscientious, masters the detail and has a deep knowledge of Conservative politics, in which he has been engaged in various capacities since leaving Trinity College, Cambridge in 1993.

These are valuable qualities, but as May demonstrated, they are not sufficient.

At the start of a chapter entitled Media Relations, Barwell remarks: “Theresa wasn’t very interested in communications.” He adds that “Part of me admires her for this”: he would prefer a Prime Minister “who was focussed on getting the decisions right to one who was more interested in photo opportunities”.

But part of the trouble with putting off the moment of communication is that you can suppress your doubts about whether you are doing something which, when presented to the public, will prove justifiable.

In his memoir, Barwell gives scant sign of being interested in communications. Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, texts him after they have attended the weekly meeting of permanent secretaries to say: “All my colleagues think you would make a great perm sec.”

The compliment is deserved, but is perhaps why this book reads like a civil service training manual, with virtually no attempt to interest the general reader.

Henry Hill: Frost urges ‘calm’ as EU talks up tough response to triggering Article 16

11 Nov

Frost urges ‘calm’ over the Protocol

David Frost has warned that triggering Article 16 will be the UK’s ‘only option’ if talks this week fail to unlock the impasse between London and Brussels, according to the FT.

As this column reported last week, there is a growing feeling in Whitehall that the Government will have to take decisive action within the month if it is to maintain credibility with Unionists and avoid constitutional politicians in Northern Ireland getting potentially outflanked by radical loyalists.

Ministers are apparently already drafting secondary legislation to ‘slash customs checks’ in the event that Article 16 is triggered.

Interestingly, we seem to hear less from the “but you signed it” brigade these days. Perhaps that’s because the UK is in fact only availing itself of a mechanism explicitly negotiated into the deal it signed up to, whilst the EU is having to look beyond the agreement to try and find ways to force Britain to back down.

And the Times reports that there are going to be – wait for it – border checks on solid fuel (which counts as ‘goods’) in order to enforce the Republic’s new anti-pollution measures. Guess it isn’t a threat to the Belfast Agreement when Dublin does it?

Meanwhile Brandon Lewis has welcomed the announcement of £12 million in central government funding for 30 projects across the Province.

Gove accused of ‘moving referendum goal posts’

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up has been accused by Scottish separatists of moving the goalposts on a referendum, the Times reports, after he suggested that there shouldn’t be a re-run of the 2014 independence vote unless every party in Holyrood backed it.

He justified this on the grounds that ahead of the last plebiscite there was a “broad consensus” in the Scottish Parliament that it should be held.

This is the latest effort to try and move on from Alister Jack’s misguided decision to stick a number (60 per cent) on the sort of polling the SNP would need to be seeing to justify another vote. The last thing the Government should be doing is setting hard-and-fast benchmarks that can’t be properly adjusted to changing circumstances.

Meanwhile Anas Sarwar, the leader of Scottish Labour, has compared Scottish independence to Brexit has he sets out his intention to compete with the Nationalists on the “politics of emotion”. According to the Daily Record, He said: “Every single argument that made Brexit chaotic and the wrong decision for the United Kingdom, multiply it by at least three times – that’s the consequences of leaving the United Kingdom.”

Scrap the border! Kilkenny farmer’s ‘no joke’ bid to get Ireland back into the Union

This is fun: a 19-year-old farmer from County Kilkenny has launched the Irish Unionist Party. Whilst conceding that he probably won’t win anything, Tristan Morrow says the idea is to lay the foundations for an all-Ireland pro-Union party in the event of Northern Ireland getting annexed by the Republic at some future date.

Whilst obviously a humorous story, it does raise serious and interesting questions about what sort of posture unionists would adopt in a post-unification scenario. ConHome sends Morrow and his comrades our fraternal good wishes.

Sturgeon’s book publisher probed by fraud cops over award of £295k taxpayers’ cash

Yet another report from the front line of the SNP’ ongoing efforts to suborn Scottish civil society. Sandstone Press, which published an edited collection of Nicola Sturgeon’s speeches and is run by an ardent Nationalist, is being investigated by the Financial Crimes Unit.

The Daily Record reports that Highlands and Islands Enterprise broke its own rules when making financial awards to the company, including grants worth £120,000 and a further £175,000 of loans. When grants from Creative Scotland are also taken into account, Sandstone Press has apparently received £500,000 of public money in the last 15 years.

It also stands accused of wrongdoing itself, specifically “making false statements about the number of people employed”.

John Redwood: The EU has become the biggest threat to the Union of the UK. Lord Frost must move swiftly to protect its integrity.

18 Oct

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

The Government is strongly in favour of the Union of the UK. So is the Official Opposition. Scotland held a referendum and voted to stay in the Union. At the time all parties agreed it would be a vote for a generation, though the SNP now wobble over the desirability and timing of a much earlier re-run of the vote they lost. The rest of the Union has not campaigned for a vote about their membership. So why is there such nervousness about the subject?

The biggest threat today to the Union comes from the EU. There is a strand of EU thinking that has surfaced in press briefings and the odd comment that says there must be a price to Brexit for the UK, and that price should be the detachment of Northern Ireland from the UK.

The official public line is the EU needs to insist on special governance arrangements in Northern Ireland to avoid goods coming across the border into the Republic from the UK that might not be compliant with EU rules and customs.

To make this difficult the EU chooses to interpret the peace Agreement governing the two communities of Northern Ireland as meaning there should be no border controls, though throughout the UK’s time in the EU there were VAT, Excise and currency controls governing trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic. These were largely handled through electronic means, and away from the physical border.

The UK has offered several ways in which it can make sure non compliant goods do not wander from NI to the Republic without imposing new border posts. Mutual enforcement of the rules would do it, with the UK authorities ensuring there is no passage of non compliant goods.

Electronic manifests for each consignment, to be inspected before arrival by EU officials, would do it. Trusted trader schemes where most firms were trusted to enforce the EU rules and avoid non compliant deliveries would do it. There has always been smuggling across the NI/Republic border, and there has been a long history of co-operation by the authorities on both sides to avoid it becoming excessive and to punish those who still try it. That will continue after the new arrangements.

The fact that the EU has rejected all these sensible proposals implies it does not want to solve the narrow issue of trade. It may be that the immediate objective is to divert large amounts of trade from GB/NI into Republic to NI trade. That is what is happening.

Faced with the EU blockage of simple GB/NI movement of goods in the way we used to enjoy, consumers in NI are being forced to buy from the EU via the Republic instead to get their deliveries on time. The EU is assisting a large diversion of GB/NI trade. This is expressly against the Protocol which rules out such a diversion in Article 16. The UK for that reason alone can legally change things unilaterally to stop this happening.

It may be that it is part of a wider EU plan to ensure more common governance of Northern Ireland with the Republic under EU control. The wish is to impose every regulation and directive on NI that the EU regards as important to its single market.

The remit of the single market is now very large, encompassing everything from environment policy to labour policy, from transport policy to energy policy, alongside the more normal definition concentrating on product standards and trade terms. The EU wishes NI to accept large amounts of EU law with no voice and vote in its making and no right to repeal or amend.

The NI Protocol rightly expresses strong support for the peace process, which is based on the mutual consent of both parties. The EU claims to champion this, yet fails to grasp the fundamental problem with its approach.

Its demand that it can legislate for NI and control many things in NI in the name of preserving the integrity of its single market does not have the consent of the Unionist population. Indeed the EU has united Unionists against its Protocol because they see the EU seeking to split NI off from UK law and NI consumers from GB suppliers, going well beyond its legitimate needs to police its trade.

The Protocol stresses at the beginning “the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the UK’s internal market”. The EU is doing the opposite. It says “This Protocol respects the essential state functions and territorial integration of the UK”. It does not feel like that to many in NI.

When the UK challenges the EU over its wish to govern Northern Ireland in a different way to the rest of the UK, the EU asks why the UK keeps on going on about sovereignty. If it wishes to show sympathy for Northern Ireland and wish to understand the nature of the problem it needs to grasp that sovereignty as at the heart of the issues long dividing the two communities. The EU’s view of it does not work for the Unionists.

The UK government needs to see off this needless threat to the Union by insisting on UK control of GB/NI trade as is required under the Protocol. People in NI have to be free to have easy access to products available elsewhere in the UK within our internal market.

The EU should take up one of the many generous schemes the UK has put forward to ensure full co-operation to avoid non compliant products passing on from NI to the Republic. Lord Frost needs to move swiftly now, as much damage is being done to the view of the EU amongst the Unionists and much trade is being diverted against the wishes of the public and against the words of the protocol.

Meanwhile in Scotland the SNP say they want an early referendum, but not one yet. Doubtless they are watching opinion polls which still do not show a clear window for majority support to reverse the last referendum result. Many Scottish voters want to get on with their lives without further uncertainty over this issue, and many want to see the SNP make devolution work to deliver a better outcome.

The UK government should not fall for the Gordon Brown line again that a bit more devolution will solve this problem. Brown’s passion for devolution gave the SNP a bigger platform and gave them the opportunity of a referendum on the Union.

Devolution did not end the matter as Brown promised. UK Ministers who are keen to buttress the Union need to show by their deeds and words why the Union is good for all its parts, and need to govern wisely so people join in with their support.

Suggesting more powers for just one part of the UK in response to the campaigns of those who wish to split the UK is a bad idea. Voters wanting Scottish independence will not be won over. They will see it as a weakness by the Union government, and propose a further push to secure full independence.

If it is right for the Scottish Parliament to have more powers, what is the stopping point in powers before you reach independence? How would you draw a stable and defensible line? The way to defend the Union is to stand up for it, and to show how the Union powers are benefitting all its parts.