Nobody comes out of the Rayner story looking good

1 May

If this morning’s Mail on Sunday marks the denouement of the Angela Rayner/Sharon Stone story, it’s fair to say that nobody comes out of it looking good.

First, the paper reports multiple Conservative MPs confirming that the originator of the idea that Labour’s deputy leader was employing tactics out of Basic Instinct against the Prime Minister was Rayner herself. Tory whips apparently uncovered this whilst trying to fulfil Boris Johnson’s promise to unleash the “terrors of the earth” on the MP responsible.

But it also notes that the remarks had been made as part of a “lighthearted and good-natured” exchange between the colleagues in a Commons smoking area. There’s no indication that they were meant seriously.

So why leak it to the press? And why, as a national newspaper, choose to run what we might call for want of a better phrase a bit of office banter as if it were an actual story?

As Dan Hodges notes in his account of what happened, Rayner’s initial reflex to deny the story is understandable enough; there are surely few people who’d be happy to have their off-colour jokes written up in the Mail on Sunday.

Nonetheless, the result was that Glen Owen, the author of the offending piece, was subject to a torrent of online abuse – not to mention official censure from Sir Lindsay Hoyle – for reporting on a “desperate, perverted smear” which originated with Rayner herself.

And the Labour deputy’s lies and evasions will overshadow her in other ways very measured response to the latest round of scandals, emphasising that misbehaving MPs need to take individual responsibility and can’t blame some miasmic ‘culture’ for their conduct.

This whole affairs is also unfortunate, not just because there is more than enough sexism at Westminster without fabricating instances of it, but because it may also heighten distrust between MPs and discourage what was in truth a good and healthy thing: MPs of different parties socialising and cracking jokes together.

Toby Young: Free speech includes the right to be offensive, Mr Speaker

27 Apr

Toby Young is the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union.

When telling MPs on Monday that he had summoned the editor of the Mail on Sunday to his office for a dressing down, the Speaker of the House of Commons prefaced his announcement by saying he took the issue of press freedom ‘very seriously’.

But he said the paper’s story about Angela Rayner, which alleged she crossed and uncrossed her legs at the dispatch box to put Boris off his stride, was ‘demeaning’ and ‘offensive to women’.

The implication was that this article had crossed a line, thereby necessitating an official reprimand.

Today, the Daily Mail announced on its front page that neither the editor of the MoS, David Dillon, nor the author of the article, Glen Owen, would be keeping their appointment with Lindsay Hoyle – and the paper published a robust defence of the controversial story.

As the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, I stand squarely behind this decision.

So what if some female MPs and their male ‘allies’ – including the Prime Minister, according to the Speaker – found the article offensive? Someone should draw Hoyle’s attention to the words of Lord Justice Sedley in Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999):

“Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

Owen’s article about the deputy Labour leader was certainly contentious and, to Mrs Raynor, possibly unwelcome – although the reaction to it won’t have done her political career any harm.

But it is so obviously within the bounds of protected speech, as set out in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, that Hoyle shouldn’t need reminding that free speech includes the right to demean and offend.

Amidst all the pearl-clutching and moral outrage the story provoked, it appears to have been forgotten that Owen cited multiple Tory MPs as sources, one of whom claimed that Raynor admitted she’d used the Basic Instinct ploy while enjoying drinks with him and his colleagues on the Commons Terrace. He also included Raynor’s categorical denial, as he should have done.

IPSO, the independent press regulator, says it has received ‘a high volume of complaints’ about the story, but I doubt any will be upheld. As a piece of reporting, there was nothing wrong with it.

Today’s Daily Mail adds further corroborating evidence. In addition to the Conservative MPs Owen spoke to, three more MPs, including a woman, have come forward to back up the claim that Raynor was the original source of the story, having joked about it over drinks.

To add credibility to this testimony, the Mail has dug up a podcast interview she did with the comedian Matt Forde in January in which she brought up the fact that her appearance at PMQs that month had prompted people to compare her to Sharon Stone in Basic instinct, and joked that it had spawned an internet meme of her crossing and uncrossing her legs.

Moreover, if the reference to Basic Instinct was ‘misogynistic’ and ‘sexist’, as Raynor claimed in an interview on Lorraine yesterday, why did she bring it up herself three months earlier?

The Speaker may be aware that he over-reacted because he backpedalled a bit yesterday, stressing that he is a “staunch believer and protector of press freedom” and pointing out that when Barry Sherman, a Labour MP, asked him to remove the lobby pass of the Times sketch writer Quentin Letts for something he had written about a female Labour MP last week, he refused.

But he stopped short of withdrawing his summons, which I believe was a mistake. Even if he had no intention of removing Owen’s lobby pass on this occasion, he must be aware that that was the veiled threat he was making by demanding he and his editor come to his office.

And that’s an example of a state official using his power to interfere in the freedom of the press. Not a very egregious one, perhaps, but an example nevertheless.

Hoyle may not like the fact that House of Commons tittle-tattle is reported in the tabloid press, and he is perfectly entitled to express his disapproval, particularly if he thinks it is likely to put women off going into politics.

But he has no business going further and using the powers of his office to try to influence how the press covers female politicians. It is him who has crossed a line, not the Mail on Sunday.

In nearly every respect, Hoyle is a vast improvement on John Bercow. He is a bluff, convivial presence who radiates calm authority.

However, when there was a similar clamour two years ago after the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell depicted Priti Patel with horns on her head and a ring through her nose – which was condemned as racist as well as misogynist – the ex-Speaker did not order the cartoonist or his editor to come to his office.

No doubt the fact that the victim was a Tory Home Secretary, rather than the deputy Labour leader, helped steer Mr Bercow towards the correct decision – but right it was.

For once, the Speaker should take a leaf out of his predecessor’s book. He should withdraw his summons, admit his error, and never try to interfere in the freedom of the press again.

Has the Mail on Sunday misread its readers?

25 Apr

So, what were they? Casually sexist? Very drunk? Or just not very bright? The ‘they’ in question, before readers ask, is whichever anonymous Tory MP gave the story to the Mail on Sunday about Angela Rayner crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract the Prime Minister at PMQs. I only ask since the story is so patently absurd, so utterly wrong-headed, and so completely self-destructive that it can’t possibly have been done by any Conservative parliamentarian who was completely compos mentis.

Leaving aside whether the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was consciously recreating the infamous scene with Sharon Stone from 1992’s Basic Instinct, and the story is really revealed as a load of tosh by the claim that Rayner “knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training”. Anyone who has ever had to sit through a Union debate would know they are rather unedifying spectacles, that no training is required, and that they have little resemblance to PMQs. So Rayner not having had to endure one might be quite an asset.

Nevertheless, there is an even bigger question raised from this piece than those about the lack of sanity or experience of the Oxford Union of a nameless MP. That is: what on Earth were the Mail on Sunday thinking by running it? As the above graph from 2020 shows, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday are the most popular titles amongst women, being the paper of choice of 40% of the fairer sex. Although both titles pick up more than a third of 16–24-year-old readers, we can assume the Mail’s female readers tend to be slightly older, since almost half of all newspaper-takers over 65 have it as their paper.

I point this out since I am wondering both what the Mail on Sunday expected its readers to make of the story, and what they did make of it. Were they outraged at the misogyny of the anonymous politician? Were they quietly entertained by Rayner’s alleged methods? After all, she has been the subject of tabloid gossip before. Or was the response of readers the same across both sexes – that this is an obvious piece of Sunday paper nonsense, and not to be taken seriously? One prays for the latter, since I desperately hope that Conservative MPs are a bit better than this.

Andrew Haldenby: GP shortages won’t be fixed any time soon. So Johnson must embrace doctors’ move to digital.

1 Oct

Andrew Haldenby is Director of Aiming for Health Success, a new health research body.

Speaking last week, Boris Johnson said that it is “only reasonable” that people can have a face-to-face appointment and that some patients will “suffer” otherwise.

The Prime Minister was responding to campaigns run by both The Mail and The Mail on Sunday. The Mail’s five-point manifesto calls for face-for-face appointments to be the default. Going further, The Mail on Sunday has demanded that “all patients are once again seen face-to-face by their GPs”.

Two days previously, Sajid Javid took a very different line. In a speech on the “power of technology”, the new Health Secretary said that while not everyone wants a virtual appointment, “some people do”. The benefits of this and other technologies are “enormous”. He concluded that “we need to give people choice, and take the opportunities that these new technologies provide”.

Javid followed the line taken by his predecessor. Last November Matt Hancock, the then Health Secretary praised GPs for updating their ways of working and allowing more telephone consultations which were convenient for many people. At that time 45 per cent of appointments were by telephone or video which, he said, “feels about right to me”.

The question has political interest because governments need consistent positions, especially on the most sensitive issues such as health. But more importantly than that, the Government’s support or opposition to change in the NHS will determine whether it can make any real progress on the backlog, without further tax rises, in the next few years.

The facts favour the Health Secretary over the Prime Minister. As the graph shows, face-to-face appointments have been the most common mode of consultation throughout the pandemic.

They have also been the most common mode in every month except for April, May and June last year, at the height of the first wave, when face-to-face and telephone appointments were equal. The Mail can call off its campaign – face-to-face remains the default mode of consultation.

Another key fact is the Government’s success or failure in recruiting new GPs. The Mail wants Ministers to honour the 2019 manifesto commitment to employ “6,000 more doctors in general practice”. It won’t happen.

In 2015 another Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, pledged to recruit 5,000 more GPs by 2020, on top of the then 27,500. Six years on, numbers have actually fallen to 26,800 as GPs have retired earlier or moved to part-time.

If the Prime Minister thinks that a small army of new GPs will soon arrive to take a new wave of face-to-face consultations, he is badly advised. The truth is that general practice is a limited resource that has to be used most effectively.

The very good news for Ministers is that general practice is in the process of taking a historic step forward in its ways of working. Traditional general practice had many strengths but also major weaknesses. GPs offered a ten-minute consultation regardless of patient need. Patients typically reported their medical history in the consultation which took up much of that time. GPs spent time with patients with relatively minor concerns who could have been better seen by nurses or other staff.

These barriers are being overcome. One key change is to use technology to capture a patient’s medical history in advance, over the internet. Patients now send two million of such “e-consults” to GP surgeries every month, up from around 100,000 before the pandemic.

This already makes much better use of GP’s time because they no longer have to spend time in consultations transcribing patient histories. In addition, current trials are using artificial intelligence to read that information and direct the patient to the right place – whether GP, another member of practice staff, pharmacy, A&E or self-care if that is appropriate. The realistic hope is that GPs can make significant clinical decisions on 12 or 15 patients per hour rather than six. This would solve the problems of delayed diagnosis that is a large part of the backlog problem.

Johnson may respond that this is all very well, but in the short term many people have been shocked by a shift in the GP offer that they weren’t expecting. In other circumstances, these new ideas would indeed would have been introduced over a longer time and with more reassurance. But if he lets these concerns become a veto on change, he will make it extremely hard for the Government to make progress on the backlog.

Javid has the right line. By far the best choice for the Government is to work together with GPs to reassure the public that face-to-face consultations are available and, crucially, that they want a different and better NHS to emerge post-pandemic rather than simply turning the clock back to December 2019. Making the case for change in public services is always a political challenge but in this case it is one well worth making.

The case for a new treason offence

27 Jul

The Government is preparing to overhaul Britain’s security laws, utilising work done on them by Sajid Javid when he was Home Secretary, which in turn drew on research by Policy Exchange.

We wait to see what the legislation contains, but the plans seem to fall into three parts.  First, an overhaul of the Official Secrets Act.  Second, an updating of the espionage laws, which will be carried out largely with state actors, such as China and Russia, in mind.  Third, a new treason offence.

Its origins lie in the return to Britain of Islamist terrorists who fought abroad with ISIS.  Ministers believe that the present legal framework isn’t fit for purpose if prosecutions are to be successful.  The recent Court of Appeal judgement on Shamima Begum’s case doubtless explains why we are reading about revised laws now.

At any rate, the original Policy Exchange proposal was supported by a former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd; a former head of MI5, Lord Evans; a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Judge, and former head of counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard, Richard Walton.

Tom Tugendhat, one of the authors of that report, Aiding the Enemy, was out and about in the Sunday Times yesterday, concentrating largely on espionage – and writing as he did so “pinstriped fixers, lawyers and silver-tongued svengalis are pocketing money” are doing the bidding of hostile foreign governments.

Meanwhile, Javid was busy in the Mail on Sunday, covering the same themes, and arguing that we need to repurpose “our ancient treason laws to cover Britons who operate on behalf of a hostile nation or go abroad to fight alongside terrorist groups”.

That would cover Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as ISIS and Al Qaeda.  It will doubtless be argued that Britain shouldn’t be in the business of legislating for loyalty oaths, or giving terror groups the same status as foreign governments.

But if you think about it, the loyalty oath claim is a red herring, since what would be required is not a pledge of allegiance to Britain, but the shunning of terror aimed at our troops or civilians.  (The form of words that Javid used would appear to cover fighting alongside terror groups, period – whether against British citizens or not.)

We expect that it will also be claimed that a new treason offence will be “bad for community relations” – i.e: that British Muslims will be opposed to it, though it will certainly go down well among others in Blue Wall seats, as we must now call them, and elsewhere.

A modernised treason offence would certainly be to the point.  Islamist extremism has no room within it for attachment to nation states – what matters is the worldwide community of Muslims, led from its present ignorance, as the extremists see it, to the politicised and ideological version of Islam which they themselves propagate.

(This use of religion rather than nationality as a catch-all definer explains why they identify Jews with Israel, by the way – despite the fact that not all Jews live there and many aren’t Zionists at all.  Hence the Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege in Paris in 2015, and the 2008 massacre at a Jewish outreach centre in Mumbai.)

We anticipate, too, that forcing lobbyists who work for foreign governments to register; toughening up rules on registering interests in the Lords or work undertaken by former Ministers, and slowing, say, the flow of Chinese money into our universities and civil society will also be resisted.  A sign of how much new measures are needed.