David Gauke: Sue Gray’s report. Yes, the Met should have been more robust earlier. But there’s no evidence of a stitch-up.

31 Jan

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

The decision of the Metropolitan Police to request that Sue Gray make only minimal reference to those events that may result in a criminal prosecution has provoked great anger. Frustrating though the intervention is for all who want to see this matter resolved one way or the other (well, one way in particular, for many of us) and inept though the Met’s communications have been, a lot of the criticism is over the top.

There is no evidence of a ‘stitch-up’, as Ed Davey has suggested, between the Government and Number 10. Could the Met have taken a more robust approach earlier in this process? Yes, but their experience of investigating politicians and then getting drawn into political controversy (see Tony Blair and cash for peerages or the arrest of Damien Green) has made them cautious.

Could their communications have been much clearer in the last few days? Absolutely. Cressida Dick set out the criteria by which it was decided to launch an investigation, which was very helpful, but the Met appears to have been all over the place as to whether it wanted to limit what Sue Gray should say.

Is it clear why the police have now requested ‘minimal’ references? Not from what the police have said, and their reference to ‘prejudicing’ investigations is curious given that these matters are not going to end up in front of a jury.

But none of this suggests that the police are doing the bidding of Number 10. And there is an explanation for why the police would not want Sue Gray to set out all the facts she has uncovered, best set out by the Secret Barrister.

If the police are undertaking an investigation, they do not want all the evidence known to them to be available to a suspect who can then alter their story to take into account any inconvenient facts. When put this way, if this is the explanation, one can see why the police are not being explicit as to their reasons.

Does any of this matter for the fate of the Prime Minister?

He must have a hope that the longer this goes on, the public gets bored, new stories and issues emerge (Russia and Ukraine being the obvious example), momentum for a change is lost and he survives.

At the moment, this appears to be the predominant view and the intervention by the police appears to have helped him in that sense. But, to step back from this for a moment, the fact that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has concluded that there is evidence of a “flagrant and serious breach” of the lockdown restrictions by people who knew or should have known that this was the case is not encouraging for the Prime Minister. So no, the Met Police have not saved him. His fate is still in the balance.

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There was always something odd about the evacuation of animals cared for by the Nowzad charity in Kabul. A great deal of political pressure was placed on the Government to intervene and, no doubt, MPs were receiving plenty of representations from the public on the matter.

At the time, I got the impression that Ben Wallace was resisting prioritising Nowzad (much to his credit, in my view) but was overruled. I tweeted accordingly. (It has to be said that Wallace (who has impressed as Defence Secretary), has recently denied that this is what happened.)

In December, Raphael Marshal, the whistleblowing former Foreign Office official, alleged that resources that could have been used to assist deserving cases were diverted towards the Nowzad staff and animals.

At this point the Prime Minister denied any involvement, even though there was evidence that Trudy Harrison, Johnson’s Parliamentary Private Secretary was heavily involved in communicating with Nowzad, and Dominic Dyer, a colleague of Pen Farthing, had said that that the Prime Minister intervened. Since then, we have had evidence of numerous Foreign Office e-mails stating that the Prime Minister had made the decision.

What is going on? There is the obvious answer – but maybe the Prime Minister is telling the truth, and he did not issue an instruction. What is beyond dispute is that plenty of people in Whitehall thought that he had.

I am not sure what is more concerning – that the Prime Minister made a terrible decision and then lied about it, or that Johnson is telling the truth, someone else made the terrible decision, and persuaded Whitehall that it was the Prime Minister who had done so.

As Alex Thomas of the Institute of Government has pointed out, neither explanation is reassuring. Of course, if it is the latter, the one person who should be most furious and most determined to get to the bottom of this is Boris Johnson. He, after all, is the one who has had his authority usurped. What is he doing to find out?

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As with any issue, there will always be some people who will link it to Brexit – and “Partygate” is no exception. On one side of the debate there is Michael Heseltine and Andrew Adonis suggesting that the removal of Johnson will mean it is possible to reverse Brexit.

On the other side, there are those who argue that those calling for Johnson to go are unrepentant remainers seeking revenge. Speaking as an unrepentant remainer who thinks that Johnson should go, I do not think either position is true.

If Johnson goes, his successor will spend the leadership election campaign convincing the electorate of their Brexit credentials – the Conservative Party is too far gone in its espousal of Brexit to reverse course for a long time. Nor is the option of rejoining on the table until there is a seismic shift in public opinion, which has not happened yet. As for the campaign to unseat him being a Remainer affair, that is not the impression I get listening to David Davis, William Wragg or Steve Baker.

Nonetheless, those saying that being anti-Johnsom constitutes being anti-Brexit should keep up the argument. This might help in the short term but the longer that Johnson is linked to Brexit – that to be fully onside with Team Brexit you also have to be part of Team Johnson – the easier the task becomes for those of us who think that the 2016 result was a mistake and that the current distant relationship with the EU needs to be changed.

Go on. Make it all about being a Brexit loyalty test.

Archie Hill: Strong devolution must mean giving more counties unitary status

6 Aug

Archie Hill is a researcher at Henham Strategy. He also works in the research team at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Just over a year ago, during his very first week as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson made a speech in Manchester, warming to a familiar theme:

“We are going to give greater powers to council leaders and to communities. We are going to give more communities a greater say over changes to transport, housing, public services, and infrastructure that will benefit their areas and drive local growth.”

Familiar, in the sense that every recent government has promised greater devolution of powers at a local level. A new wave of decentralisation is always on the horizon.

But this Prime Minister’s commitment to devolution rings true. Decentralisation may be a common refrain, but it is a long time since it has assumed so central a role in a government’s platform: the ‘levelling up’ agenda upon which the Conservatives fought and won so handsomely is rooted in local devolution. Not for nothing did the Prime Minister describe himself, grappling when pressed for a definable ideology, as “basically a Brexity Hezza.” As well as a flamboyant hairstyle, he shares with Lord Heseltine a belief that reforming local government, and setting out more coherent efficient structures which work properly, can help unleash growth around the country.

It was Heseltine, after all, whose report No Stone Unturned demonstrated the disjointed state of local government in England, with different tiers of councils operating at different levels and overlapping responsibilities; as wasteful as it is confusing. At a local level, this confusion reaches absurdity: just getting a pothole or a sign fixed can involve negotiating county, district, and parish councils, each with their own separate remit. Small wonder, then, that we found that fewer than one in five of those surveyed in our polling thought it was easy to understand who was responsible for what, across local government. This confusion leads very quickly to apathy.

In recent months, as part of a team at Henham Strategy, I have been working on a report, commissioned by the County Councils Network and published this week, setting out where the current system is failing and how powers can be devolved more effectively at a local level.

A more effective – and accountable – means of local decision-making is vital. Fortunately, the government has an opportunity to make lasting changes, in the form of the upcoming, much-trumpeted Devolution White Paper from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, ours was the most centralised state in the western world. As the Centre for Policy Studies found in their report A Rising Tide, locally determined taxes make up just 1.7 per cent of GDP in the UK, compared to 15.9 per cent in Sweden, or 10.9 per cent in Germany. But during the current crisis, the government has felt compelled to take further control of large segments of the economy and manage it from the commanding heights of Whitehall. This ignores the real lesson of Covid, which is that it is at the local level where the most effective response has occurred.

County authorities have made some of largest contributions to the national effort, ranging from shielding the vulnerable and protecting the NHS, putting in place infection control plans for care homes, sourcing hundreds of thousands of pieces of PPE, and helping secure local businesses’ futures. When previous governments talked about local devolution, too often what they had in mind was the creation of new mayoral bodies covering a large urban area, in London, Greater Manchester, or the West Midlands. This focus on metropolitan areas has been to the cost of counties and those who live in them.

Half of our population is located in England’s counties; half of our overall economic output is created there too. They already provide accountable local leadership – in the form of elected councillors – that is readily recognisable by people who live there. Indeed, our commissioned polling found that only nine per cent of those surveyed thought that mayors should have more powers than county council leaders.

A number of county councils have become unitary authorities, and many other councils we spoke to are keen to follow suit. The opportunities of a single, more streamlined body that can speak with a unified voice for the whole county are enormous, both in terms of cost savings and more effective decision-making at scale. Where district councils too often act as a brake on development and strategic planning, unitary authorities provide a more responsive, joined-up form of local leadership across a larger population. Cornwall Council demonstrates this, bringing together representatives from health, business, transport, and local town/parish councils all round one table: the result is that Cornwall has seen the highest annual average increase in new homes in England since it became a unitary authority, all whilst saving £15.5m per year through reduced running costs. It has also been able to distribute grants during Covid faster than anywhere else.

The government must make it easier for more counties to follow this path, setting out a consistent approach to unitarisation for local leaders rather than relying on a ‘deal-by-deal’ basis. To embrace levelling up, they must start by giving local areas the means to pursue this agenda themselves – from housing and planning to infrastructure, from skills and employment to health and social care. Instead of the current patchwork system, a new, more effective form of local governance is necessary to unlock regional growth and drive our economic recovery. If, where previously there have been only promises, the Prime Minister wants action on local devolution, then it is time to make counties count.

Damian Green: Here are our One Nation ideas for reviving post-Covid, post-Brexit Britain

27 Jul

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

There has been a flurry of comments about One Nation Conservatism, and what it means in the 2020s, over recent weeks. This is very timely, as for many years the One Nation tradition was linked with pro-European views, to the point where views on Europe seemed to become its defining characteristic.

Those times are clearly past, and one of the aims of the One Nation Caucus of Conservative MPs is to set out a new set of policy priorities, both in domestic and international policy, which we want the Government to adopt. We hope that we are pushing at a reasonably open door, as the Prime Minister has always described himself as a One Nation politician, and certainly his levelling up agenda is absolutely in that tradition. His description of himself as a “Brexity Hezza” may have been rejected by, well…..Hezza, but nothing is easy these days.

Getting the country back on the track it voted for last December is the task for the next four years, and One Nation ideas will play a central role in the successful pursuit of that project. The last thing the Conservative Party or the country needs is a continuation of the Brexit divisions. If the only thing that matters is how you voted in 2016, we will never move on. So through the summer and autumn the One Nation Caucus will be publishing a series of policy papers designed to set out a full agenda for government in the post-Covid period.

The first of these papers is Restarting the Economy, which brings together six MPs from various intakes to address the central issue of our times. Stephen Hammond is the lead author, and he emphasises the importance of a relentless focus on levelling up to extend growth beyond London.

Key proposals in the paper include the development of new local economic bodies to drive growth, expanding the number of planned freeports, and creating technology adoption funds to support the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The report also suggests a number of policies to protect people on low incomes, including suggestions for ending consumer rip-offs, and proposals for managing repayments of Covid business loans, recommending an approach similar to the Student Loan scheme.

Each of these is a meaty idea in its own right, and the full paper is available on the One Nation website. But this array of economic ideas is only the start of the wider project to position Conservative ideas at the heart of the national political debate post-Covid.

Labour may be under new management but one of the features of the Starmer era so far has been the avoidance of any policy discussions. This is clearly a conscious tactic, but while Labour pursues it there is a space to fill in shaping the public mind. It is often observed that intellectual regeneration is more difficult inside a governing party, but it is not impossible, and is absolutely necessary if conservatism is to have another successful decade.

The financial crisis, Brexit, and Covid-19 have been three black swans that have swept aside the original plans developed the last time the Conservative Party was in opposition. They have incidentally also swept aside Tony Blair’s fond idea of making the twenty-first century “the progressive century”, by which he meant the New Labour century. How does that look in 2020?

So now is exactly the right time for One Nation Conservatives to think hard and set up debates. After the economic paper our next publication will be on social mobility, how we can bring it back, and why we must not think about it in traditional terms. Following that we will be publishing a paper on the environment, showing how capitalism is not the enemy of achieving carbon New Zero, but the only way of reaching it.

Future papers will look at Britain’s place in the world, covering trade and aid, and specifically what the new configuration of the Foreign Office and DfId offers in the realm of making our aid spending (which One Nation Conservatives strongly support) more effective in the future. We will also be taking a hard look at schools and what they can do better to spread opportunity, and at the new world of work.

It is very pleasing that all cohorts of the Parliamentary party have contributed to these papers. Former Ministers have worked with many members of the 2019 intake on the individual ideas, proving that there is no shortage of new thinking on the back benches, and that One Nation ideas are alive and well in the rising generations within the party.

Whether or not you think of yourself as a One Nation Conservative, I hope you will welcome the fact that those of us who are in that tradition want to contribute publicly to the key debates that will dominate the coming decade. The public will of course judge the Government mainly on its actions. But every political party needs to demonstrate that it can apply its principles to new circumstances. In a world that changes as fast as this one constant intellectual regeneration should be our goal. The One Nation recovery papers are a contribution to that.