Jacob Young: Conservatives must ensure their climate change goals are affordable for the consumer

1 Jul

Jacob Young is the Conservative MP for Redcar.

As Conservatives, we should be proud of the action we have taken in Government to combat climate change.

We have an unrivalled track record of success in protecting our environment, dating back to Margaret Thatcher being the first world leader to put climate change at the top of the agenda. It was also a Conservative government that led the world in being the first major economy to enshrine its net zero emissions target into law in 2019. When it comes to tackling climate change, Conservatives get things done.

Fast forward to the present day and the challenge of meeting net zero can be encapsulated by the task we have to decarbonise heat in our homes. The decarbonisation of heat is an area where net zero and levelling up are one and the same. Hydrogen for example, has the potential to create 75,000 new jobs by 2035 and should be part of the mosaic of heating solutions we need to meet our legally binding net zero commitments.

As the Government prepares to publish the Heat and Buildings Strategy, we must ensure that customers who are unable to switch away from their gas boilers straight away are not penalised. We currently have 23 million households across the country that rely upon a safe and affordable supply of gas to their homes and by punishing these customers, we would be failing to deliver a just energy transition.

Finding a cost-effective solution that is tailored to their needs and expectations will be one of the biggest challenges we face as a country over the next decade. As well as accelerating heat pump deployment, for many customers a potential solution could be a repurposed gas network that supplies hydrogen to heat their homes and plans are now gathering pace to make this a reality.

Inside the home, hydrogen will require no major home modifications with customers upgrading to a hydrogen ready boiler when their boiler reaches the end of its natural life. Installation could neatly dovetail into the yearly replacement of 1.6 million gas boilers that takes place in the UK.

Hydrogen ready boilers are already being developed by British manufacturers, with early estimates suggesting they will be £50 more expensive that gas boilers. The Government can stimulate demand for the market by mandating manufacturers to develop hydrogen ready boilers only by 2025, paving the way for full conversion away from gas.

Outside of the home, Britain’s gas networks are already two thirds of the way through a programme to replace old metal pipes with hydrogen-ready plastic piping. By 2032, the gas network will be fully hydrogen ready. Networks and appliance manufacturers have also been undertaking a series of projects to test how hydrogen behaves in a variety of different settings and environments.

From testing the blending up to 20 per cent of hydrogen into the existing gas grid to how we will transport 100 per cent renewable hydrogen from offshore wind turbines all the way to people’s living rooms with projects like HyDeploy, H21 and H100. These projects have shown that using our gas grid to deliver hydrogen for households to use for heating, hot water and cooking is fundamentally safe.

A trial beginning next year will bring hydrogen to the home of 300 customers in Fife, another trial in Redcar & Cleveland will demonstrate hydrogen in an existing gas network, and in Gateshead we have built the UK’s first houses with appliances fuelled entirely by hydrogen through the Government’s Hy4Heat program; all offering a glimpse at how our homes can be heated in the future.

We all recognise that achieving net zero is the right thing to do to make us cleaner, safer and healthier. It is also a tangible part of our levelling up agenda, as the right investment framework can enable the shoots of a green recovery to spearhead economic prosperity after Covid-19.

But this should not come at the expense of customers. We cannot punish those who have been reliant on their gas boilers for generations to be left with unaffordable costs to heat their homes in the future. Our policy decisions need to reflect the types of properties and needs customers have right across the country.

We are going to need both heat pumps and hydrogen to heat our homes in the future and following the publication of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, the Government should kick-start investment in the supply chain for low carbon technologies, to drive down costs and accelerate the conversion to net zero solutions.

To truly deliver a fair and just transition for customers, we need to level with them about the types of changes that will be required in all of our homes if we are to achieve net zero. The type of technology used to heat our homes isn’t as important as informing the public, building support for net zero and offering real choice about the solution that best suits each customer’s home.

We are the party of net zero and we now have an opportunity to follow through on our rich history of action by delivering a policy framework that enables all technologies to flourish.

Profile of an ex-Prime Minister: Theresa May becomes the voice of Conservative conscience

24 Jun

“I think she has enhanced her reputation since leaving Downing Street, where she never looked comfortable.”

So said Andrew Mitchell, former International Development Secretary, of Theresa May, former Prime Minister.

Mitchell observed that as the only former PM in either the Commons or the Lords, she is “an important parliamentarian”:

“The first point is that she’s stayed in the House. Her interventions are incredibly telling. She speaks with enormous authority, she speaks up for her constituents, and she basically tries to keep the Government straight.”

Another former minister, an old friend of May, remarked on her “morality”, and added “there is a difference”.

He meant there is a difference between her and the present Prime Minister. Her contributions in the Commons, presented in easily accessible form by Hansard, display several qualities not always evinced by Boris Johnson.

She offers almost nothing in the way of entertainment, but concentrates on the matter in hand, to which she applies her prosaic but furiously logical mind, her mastery of detail and an icy Anglican conscientiousness.

These qualities did not suffice to make her a successful Prime Minister, but help fit her to hold the present incumbent to account.

When in her view he is behaving badly, she is on hand to tell him so. And because she is generally the first backbencher on the Conservative side to be called, he can quite often enjoy the pleasure of listening to her, and had to send her a note of apology after a recent occasion when he fled the Chamber just as she rose to speak.

The causes which command her attention include the Government’s handling of the pandemic; the proposed relaxation of planning laws; the abandonment of the 0.7 per cent manifesto commitment on international aid (no doubt one reason for Mitchell’s approval); sentences for causing death by dangerous driving (she wants life); modern slavery; mental health; domestic abuse; and various other tough, complicated, unfashionable matters on which she got a grip as Home Secretary.

As MP since 1997 for Maidenhead, she has always, as one long-term observer says, “been allergic to more houses in Maidenhead”, and can be relied on to demand: “Why can’t they put them somewhere else?”

Her majority at the general election of 2019 was 18,846, but in 2001 fell as low as 3,284. Nobody had to tell her the Lib Dems posed a danger in Chesham and Amersham.

May as PM found it impossible to assemble a sufficient coalition of parliamentary or popular support, but loss of office has liberated her to become the voice of a certain kind of Tory conscience.

She expresses a dutiful, deeply felt, traditional conservatism, and strives to expose the various ways in which, to some Conservatives, the present government is scandalously disreputable and unprofessional.

Here she is last September on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill:

“I cannot emphasise enough how concerned I am that a Conservative Government are willing to go back on their word, to break an international agreement signed in good faith and to break international law.”

And here she is in the debate on 10th June on the aviation, travel and tourism industries, when Robert Courts, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Transport, was on the receiving end of this reproof:

“This is a disappointing debate, because one year and one week ago this very issue was raised in this House… One year on, we are no further forward. Indeed, we have a devastated industry, jobs lost and global Britain shut for business.

More than not being any further forward, we have gone backwards. We now have more than 50 per cent of the adult population vaccinated—it is a wonderful programme—yet we are more restricted on travel than we were last year. In 2020, I went to Switzerland in August and South Korea in September. There was no vaccine but travel was possible. This year, there is a vaccine but travel is not possible. I really do not understand the Government’s stance.

Of course, it is permissible for a person to travel to countries on the amber list, provided that it is practicable for them to quarantine when they come back, but Government Ministers tell people that they must not travel and cannot go on holiday to places on the amber list. The messaging is mixed and the system is chaotic. Portugal was put on the green list, people went to the football, then Portugal was put on the amber list, leaving holidaymakers scrabbling for flights and devastated families having to cancel their plans… 

Business travel is practically impossible: global Britain has shut its doors to business and investors. In a normal pre-pandemic year, passengers travelling through Heathrow spent £16 billion throughout the country, including at places such as Legoland Windsor, which is partly in my constituency. That has been lost…

If the Government’s position is that we cannot open up travel until there are no new variants elsewhere in the world, we will never be able to travel abroad ever again…The Government may say all they have, as the Minister has, about the importance of the aviation industry, but they need to decide whether they want an airline industry and aviation sector in the UK or not, because at the rate they are going, they will not have one.”

“What’s her game?” people ask, but her style of debating is effective because there is no sign of any game being played. She is in deadly earnest.

“Most of the time I think she’s right and therefore effective,” the old friend and former minister quoted above said. “She shifts the dial.

“But one warning: don’t do too much of it.”

The obvious danger, he added, was that she would “turn into Ted Heath”.

It would be impossible for May to reach the stratospheric level of grumpiness maintained for a quarter of a century by Heath after he was overthrown by Margaret Thatcher, but one guesses she finds little to admire in her successor.

Heath – in the words of Douglas Hurd, who worked for him – struck, when attacking Harold Wilson’s style of government in the introduction to the 1970 Conservative manifesto,

“a note of genuine puritan protest, which is familiar in British history, sometimes in one party, sometimes in the other… It is the outraged assertion of a strict view of what public life is about, after a period in which its rules have been perverted and its atmosphere corrupted.”

Sir Keir Starmer hesitates to sound unrelentingly high-minded. May has no such qualms. At the time of the 1970 general election she was 13, and had already started working for the local Conservatives as a volunteer.

Another of May’s old friends says of her and Johnson: “She must despise him, and she must look at him and think how can he be there and I was dumped so humiliatingly.

“But honestly, I have no idea what goes on in her brain – nobody does.”

Yet in this week’s Spectator, James Forsyth offers a hint of what is going on there:

“I’m told that when May was canvassing at the Chesham and Amersham by-election, she took a certain pleasure in telling the campaign team about voters who said they weren’t voting Conservative because of Johnson.”

Lord Lexden, official historian to the Conservative Party, places the change in May’s demeanour in perspective:

“One might almost feel that it was worth the agony of the premiership to get this serene and rather impressive elder stateswoman. She is a powerful rebuke to Blair, Brown and Cameron who scuttled off indecorously after leaving Number 10. She is demonstrating again that ex-premiers can find a useful role in the Commons, which Heath’s unseemly behaviour had rather suggested might be impossible in modern politics.

“She remains at the political service of the nation, as no ex-premier since Douglas-Home has realistically been. Arthur Balfour left No 10 in 1905 after a disastrous three-year premiership with the party divided and in deep disarray. Rehabilitation followed quite quickly, and he held major offices in later governments, finally retiring at the age of eighty.  Here is an example for Mrs May to keep in mind.”

Interview with Dominic Raab: The EU’s approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol is “pretty analogue in a digital age”

18 Jun

Brexit has resulted in “a massive empowering of the Foreign Office to go out and have a genuine global foreign policy”. So says Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary since July 2019.

There has not, he suggests, been any comparable change in the attitude of the European Commission, particularly with regard to the Northern Ireland Protocol, where “the approach that Brussels seems to be wedded to is pretty analogue in a digital age”.

Raab questions the idea that the conflicts in Kashmir, and in Israel/Palestine, risk spilling over into British politics.

He denies he is better at chairing meetings than Boris Johnson, admits he is “still not wild” about taking the knee, and contends that the Conservative Party’s new appeal to voters in the North need not be gained at the expense of support in seats such as his own, in the home counties:

“What we’re trying to do is forge that crucial alliance between aspirational working and middle class voters. That’s the elixir of Conservative strategy I think.”

The interview was carried out on Wednesday evening, and ConHome began by asking about the material released that morning by Dominic Cummings, and the period when Johnson was at death’s door and Raab was “covering for the boss”.

ConHome: “Do you agree with today’s report that you are better than the Prime Minister at chairing meetings?”

Raab: “No [laughter].”

ConHome: “Here’s the full quote: ‘Unlike the Prime Minister Raab can chair meetings properly instead of telling rambling stories and jokes. He lets good officials actually question people, so we started to get to the truth.'”

Raab: “What is the question?”

ConHome: “Is this an accurate account?”

Raab: “No, no. I try to do things professionally, and I think the Prime Minister deploys me for that. But actually I think to the extent we’re talking about the period when I was covering for the boss, we were all focussed on doing what he wanted.

“There was a good team effort, in order to get ourselves into good shape for when we hoped he would be back at the helm.”

ConHome: “And what do you think of Cummings himself?”

Raab: “I can’t see any value added from me commenting on the commentary.”

ConHome: “Was there ever actually a moment when the Prime Minister was ill when you thought, ‘I’m going to have to take over’?”

Raab: “When you say ‘take over’, you mean beyond…”

ConHome: “Beyond what you were doing anyway.”

Raab: “I was conscious that he was not well, but also I think I had the pretty firm conviction he’d pull through. But I didn’t know.

“The truth is I thought he was in good hands with the doctors, which he was, exceptional care, and what I knew he’d want, when he came to, and was able to engage, was to know we hadn’t been sitting there, fretting so much over him, but that we’d been getting on doing what needed to be done for the country.

“That was the rationale. And the truth is the Cabinet were brilliant, because it’s a team effort, very disciplined, very professional, and I suppose that sense of worry and concern for someone who’s a colleague, not just our boss, kicked in.”

ConHome: “You never felt a moment of absolute terror, thinking ‘I’m going to have to be a kind of interim figure who…'”

Raab: “Well not really. There was never any news that gave me credible cause for concern. The truth is, people ask me this a lot, I didn’t have a lot of time for my mind to wander. It was pretty hectic.

“The Foreign Office was very busy at the time, and then there was obviously trying to make sure that we steered things through.

“I think I’m right in saying it was around the point at which we were edging towards the five tests of how we would come through lockdown.

“So there was a huge amount of substantive work, the Prime Minister had given us our steer, so there was a load to get on with, and I was just focussed on that really.”

ConHome: “Only a few weeks ago, a convoy went down the Finchley Road with someone shouting ‘F*** the Jews, rape their daughters’.

“Do you think the effect of foreign affairs, and of Israel/Palestine, is intensifying in a malign way here in the UK?”

Raab: “That was a deeply worrying incident and we jumped on it very quick, both in terms of condemning it, but also making sure the Met were aware, and satisfying ourselves that they were on the case, to give the Jewish community the reassurance they needed.

“But this cross-fertilisation of the international realm into domestic policy actually is much more prevalent than that. You can see it on a whole range of issues.

“Because we’ve got such a wonderful international mix in the UK. I am very, very sensitive to the impact on the British Chinese community of what we’re doing.

“When you think about that community, one of the most entrepreneurial, I sat on the Education Select Committee for two years, the British Chinese standards, the parenting, the engagement, from every class level, was exceptional. The contribution they make to cultural life, in lots of different ways.

“You can think of it from both sides in relations to Kashmir.

“If global Britain is going to mean what it says, which we do, of course we’re going to have to be sensitive to and take into account the feelings of those who have immigrated or settled here, or second, third, fourth generation communities.

“The same is true the other way as well. One of the big things that happened, which didn’t get a huge amount of attention, is the Prime Minister’s meeting – it had to be virtual in the end – with Prime Minister Modi, where we set out a road map for ten years, the 2030 road map, including the road map to an FTA.

“Some great stuff on migration and mobility, and young people, young professionals from here and from India being able to come and take advantage of everything the UK and India has to offer.

“Some stuff on cyber and other things, climate change.

“India deemed the UK a Comprehensive Strategic Partner. We’re only the fourth country India’s done that with. Now Prime Minister Modi himself has talked about the living bridge between the UK and India.

“He’s quite a lyrical leader, but actually it’s quite a good way of looking at it.

“And we have quite a few countries, because of our Commonwealth links, because of the travelling nature of Brits, where that’s true.

“But the truth is, if your foreign policy is a combination of pursuing a principled approach, but also delivering the national interest for the people of your country, you ought to be able to navigate that.”

ConHome: “Do you feel, in relation to Israel/Palestine and Kashmir, that the skies are darkening?”

Raab: “Well I don’t think you can combine them together.

“But let me take Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve been out there twice. I was out there recently. I met Yair Lapid as well as Prime Minister, as then was, Netanyahu, and a range of other leading figures.

“There is still going to be a measure of instability. I think the coalition may be fragile, it may be ground-breaking, we don’t know.

“But I think there seems to be a consensus that they need to firm up the ceasefire, and we need to try to avoid a vacuum taking hold, and there’s all sorts of ways we can do that.

“On the Palestinian side, there is an urgent need to shore up and support the moderate Palestinian leadership, and isolate and marginalise Hamas.

“I’m not expecting final status peace talks round the corner by Christmas. On the other hand, if you allow a vacuum to take hold then Hamas will take advantage.

“It’s in the moral and strategic interests of both sides to avoid that.”

ConHome: “In relation to antisemitism here, the effect of Israel/Palestine here, you don’t feel it’s getting worse?”

Raab: “Well I talked to the Chief Rabbi recently, I talked to the Board of Deputies, obviously I’ve got some history of my own.

“I think off the back of Corbyn, and with some of the radicalised elements of the Left articulating themselves, I think there has been a heightened sense of nervousness.

“But I also feel that we can provide the reassurance and that there is enough community cohesion here, not just among the Jewish community, but among British society as a whole, to stand up very vigorously and robustly against that.

“You look back in the Seventies, and you had radicalised groups seeking to take advantage of what was going on in the Middle East, and making their point here at home.

“I think we need to watch it very carefully, but I don’t think there’s a ground shift or a gear change in that happening.”

ConHome: “On India, Labour have put out a leaflet in the Batley and Spen byelection that is almost entirely about foreign affairs. There’s a section about Israel/Palestine, there’s a section about Kashmir where it says, ‘The Conservatives’ links to the BJP must not stand in the way of justice for Kashmir.’

“Are you worried at all that the Kashmir issue is dividing up on party political lines?

“Labour look at the Conservative Party and they say, ‘There are three ministers of Indian heritage in the Cabinet – the Conservatives are taking up a pro-Indian position,’ and you end up with that kind of division, which would be a very bad thing.”

Raab: “Well I don’t think the Labour Party could credibly do that, a) because of the British Indian communities in their constituencies, so from a pure or political interest, or b) given their historic approach to Kashmir, which is that it is for the two sides to resolve this long-standing dispute.

“I’ve never ducked raising the issue of Kashmir and human rights with the Indian government. I did it when I was in Delhi.

“The Labour Party would look incredibly hypocritical, and they would get a backlash from the other community, if they were to try to create this as a wedge issue.”

ConHome: “The Conservatives are now widely perceived as having shifted North both electorally and emotionally. Now you sit for a Surrey seat, Walton and Esher, a commuter seat, a traditionally Tory seat.

“Is there now a danger of your constituents believing the Conservatives are no longer quite so behind them?”

Raab: “The strategy, in political terms, is always to forge an alliance between the aspirational working and middle classes of this country.

“And that’s not new. Look at how successful Thatcher was, albeit in a different time and place, and a different context.

“What we’re doing as global Britain, as a force for good in the world, far from alienating Conservative voters, small-l liberal Conservative voters, I think goes down very well.

“The fact that we put Magnitsky sanctions on everyone from those persecuting the Rohingya to those persecuting the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

“The fact that Brexit is no longer a live issue for most of our constituents, they’re not being asked to vote on it.

“What we’re trying to do is forge that crucial alliance between aspirational working and middle class voters. That’s the elixir of Conservative strategy I think.

“There’s a ceiling on the Lib Dem vote if they only rely on the negative. Can anyone remember a single positive Lib Dem policy, now Brexit’s done?

“They’re campaigning in Chesham and Amersham on HS2, but they voted for it.”

ConHome: “Was Biden right in saying the G7 is in ‘a contest with autocracies’?”

Raab: “I think there’s definitely a sense that democracies are in retreat, if you just look at the numbers. And that the battle for the hearts and minds of the centre ground of the international community is there to be won but needs to be fought with a great vigour and energy.

“It’s great having the US return to the Paris Agreement on climate change. We cannot as a cluster of like-minded countries leave that vacuum in those multilateral institutions, because China and Russia or whoever else will fill it.”

ConHome: “Our ambassadors in say Paris or Berlin, who do they report to? Is it you, as Foreign Secretary? Or is it Lord Frost?”

Raab: “David [Frost] deals with the stuff that takes place under the EU formal mechanisms. He’s responsible for the EU business in relation to the Free Trade Agreement and the Withdrawal Agreement.

“I’m responsible for the stuff in relation to the foreign affairs co-operation that we have, and I lead on the bilateral relationships, but obviously the two dovetail quite closely together.

“I don’t feel desperately proprietorial about it for two reasons. One, David’s a brilliant colleague.

“Secondly we are engaged it a process now where we look at our foreign policy in a much more integrated way.

“The truth is the Foreign Office is now much more central. We have a Prime Minister who really believes in the Foreign Office.

“With the merger [with the Department for International Development] I think we can all see that.”

ConHome: “So Brexit has actually worked out to the advantage of the Foreign Office? Because our foreign policy isn’t delegated in any way to Brussels any more. It’s our foreign policy.”

Raab: “I think there’s a massive empowering of the Foreign Office to go out and have a genuine global foreign policy. I’ve been out to the Nordics, I’m very keen on building up the N5 relationship, and the same with the Baltic Three, the Visegrad Four.

“Obviously with the Indo-Pacific stuff that we’re doing, I’m going out to Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore next week, there is just a real chance for us to be more energetic, more activist.”

ConHome: “Do you still think that taking the knee is ‘a symbol of subjugation and subordination’?”

Raab: “I think we all ought to be united in the fight against racism, and we also, if tolerance is to mean anything, should be able to find our own way to express it.

“I’m personally not wild about taking the knee, but if the England team want to do it, it shouldn’t just be respected, it should be supported.”

ConHome: “And should not be booed?”

Raab: “I’m one of those people who don’t believe in booing your own team. Certainly not the England team as they’re embarking on the European championships.”

ConHome: “On the Northern Ireland Protocol, is there any intrinsic greater difficulty in dealing with a Democrat administration, because of the pressure that comes on an American President from an Irish diaspora who are not necessarily familiar with all the intricacies and nuances of policy in Northern Ireland?”

Raab: “So first of all there’s always a slightly different constellation of opportunities and risks depending on who’s in the White House.

“Also, the make-up of Congress. And that’s true regardless of who’s in the White House. I was going and talking to the likes of Richie Neal and the Irish caucus when I was Foreign Secretary before and after the recent US election.

“The Irish lobby on the Hill, which is not just Democrats, it also includes Republicans, feels like it’s got a stake, and does have a stake, in the Good Friday Agreement, I think we respect that, I remember the work that George Mitchell and other Americans did.

“But there’s certainly a job for us to do to make sure first of all that a full, comprehensive picture of what’s going on on the ground is understood, and the impact the Northern Ireland Protocol has for communities on all sides in Northern Ireland.

“And frankly just the bare facts of what’s been going on in terms of the application of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“If you look at the perimeter of the EU, and you think about the challenges they’ve got from the Central and Eastern European border, right down to the Mediterranean border, and you think of the sliver of the border in Northern Ireland, it is rather striking that one in five of controls and checks for the whole of the EU to police the single market takes place in Northern Ireland.

“I think talking in reasonable terms about the lack of proportionality in that is important. And having a sensible conversation with our US partners is really important. We can’t shrink from that.”

ConHome: “Do you feel you made any progress on that issue at the G7, given what happened before it with the demarche?”

Raab: “I think we’ve made steady progress right the way through, I didn’t read too much into the leaking of what happened, I think we make steady progress when we explain our position in sober terms.”

ConHome: “On the Protocol, you can’t rule out having to implement Article 16. If we do, we would need presumably to protect ourselves from the effects of Article 16 in domestic law and pass a Bill to that effect, would we not?”

Raab: “Look I’m not going to speculate on the decision or the things that would need to accompany the decision. The over-riding message we get across is we want a pragmatic, flexible approach from the EU, and if we don’t get it we’ll do whatever it takes to protect the economic and the constitutional integrity of the Union.

“Ideally, the ball is in the EU’s court, David Frost has sent a range of proposals over.

“What we just cannot have is a situation where Northern Ireland is receiving three times the volume of checks that you see in Rotterdam, double the number of checks that you see in France, to police the EU single market. That cannot be right.”

ConHome: “Did Martin Selmayr say that “losing Northern Ireland was the price the UK would pay for Brexit?”

Raab: “So as I said at the time, when I was asked about this, when I was Brexit Secretary I would get, not from political hacks or spin doctors, I would get constantly fed back to me that there was a political dimension to this.

“And so from officials I had fed back to me that Selmayr had made this point.

“All the officials fed back that for the EU this is existential, and therefore they’re going to want to deter leaving the EU.

“My relationship with Michel Barnier was perfectly cordial and constructive, I respect the guy, but I remember him losing his temper with me when I said we ought to be trying to forge something that is win-win.

“And I think there is a mindset in the Commission, and probably in some other parts of the EU, but I still think it was a fairly narrow mindset, but it was a controlling one, that there was no win-win to be found.

“I look at the thing, my father was Czech, I feel a very strong sense of European identity, we’re not leaving Europe, we’re leaving the EU, let’s try and forge win-win.

“As people might say after the divorce, you can understand why one side of it or the other don’t feel that way. But I still think that’s what we should be aiming for. And that’s our foreign policy. That’s what the Prime Minister believes.”

ConHome: “Do you believe this ethos of punishment is still there in relation to the Protocol?”

Raab: “I don’t want to impute bad intentions, but put it this way, what I do deal with are the facts, and the facts do not justify the fact that one in five controls or checks for the whole of the EU’s external border are now taking place in Northern Ireland.

“That just cannot be right. And that’s not born of protecting the equities of the single market, so there must be some more to it.

“I go and look at borders all around the world. Frankly the approach that Brussels seems to be wedded to is pretty analogue in a digital age.”

Iain Dale: Cummings. Why bother giving seven hours of testimony – only to not provide supporting evidence?

11 Jun

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

This is nothing new, I suppose, but the last 48 hours have not been pleasant in the Twittersphere. In fact, it’s become so unpleasant I am seriously considering stepping back from this increasingly ugly form of social media.

Trouble is, it’s very difficult for me to do that given it’s my prime marketing medium for all the things I do, whether it’s advertising what’s on my radio show, promoting my writing, books and other activities. Sometimes it can be a wonderful thing, but oftentimes it is just a sewer, where vicious, nasty people spew their bile and vitriol no doubt getting a hard on along the way. They’re virtually all men.

On Tuesday I had the temerity to tweet praise for Gareth Southgate’s “Dear England” letter. In my opinion he articulated better than anyone has for a long time what it means to be English and how we demonstrate our patriotism.

And then the abuse started. Apparently it was all a justification for the England players supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Utter rubbish. He and they have made clear that they support equality and fairness for everyone, and that they support the slogan Black Lives Matter, not the political organisation. Surely everyone can support that? Apparently not.

I have repeatedly made clear that I would never take the knee to support a Marxist organisation which supports the destruction of the police, closing prisons and dismantling capitalism. But I am quite happy to make clear that I support equality for all people, whether they are white, black or anything else. Surely any reasonable person would?

Oh no, not on Twitter. I’m a shill, a sellout, obeying my paymasters, not a proper conservative, woke and worse. Far worse. Did I support the England players giving the Nazi salute to Hitler in 1936? Do I think England should make a political statement and withdraw from the Qatar world cup in 2022 because of Qatar’s policy on homosexuality? Yes, I’m sure these trolls care deeply about gay equality. Not.

Over 24 hours I lost 200 Twitter followers and had to block around 50 others, many of them racist. Not all, but many. And this is the level of public discourse we are supposed to get used to, is it? Where people comment on a letter they most probably haven’t even read. Where they just believe what other people say it says. And then they launch violent attacks on those who support the sentiments in the letter without even attempting to understand any nuance. Well, I’ve had enough.

The trouble is, until I retire from political commentary and broadcasting, I’m tied into it and have to suck it up. Boo hoo, many of you will think. You’ve made your bed, you lie in it… Fair enough. No one forces me to do the jobs I do, and most of the time I love it. I’ve never experienced problems with my mental health, but I have a real sense that my mental health is now being affected by it all. I don’t expect any sympathy at all, and I know the solution is in my own hands. It doesn’t make it any easier, though.

– – – – – – – – –

I suppose we have always known that Dominic Cummings is a strange cove. Why would anyone spend seven hours giving evidence to a select committee, make all sorts of serious allegations, say he had the paperwork to back them up and he would provide it to the committee, and then fail to do so. The only conclusion to draw from that is that much of his evidence was fantasy and he can’t back it up with documentary evidence. It’s a very good way to undermine your own credibility and reputation, isn’t it?

– – – – – – – – –

Michael McManus has become a bit of a polymath. I first knew him in the late 1990s when he was working for Sir Edward Heath, and they came to Politico’s to do a book signing.

I was nervous as a kitten as I had heard that the former PM could be rather difficult. In fact, he was charm personified and the conversation flowed very well. Michael then wrote a rather good biography of Jo Grimond, the former Liberal leader, and contributed to the Blue Book series I published on future Conservative policy, which Ed Vaizey was editing.

Michael stood for Parliament in 2001 in Watford but was unsuccessful and since then he has come close to getting a number of safe seats, but never quite got the lucky break. He told me in an episode of my All Talk podcast which will be published next Wednesday that he’s now come off the candidates list. It’s a shame as he would have made a good MP.

Over the last few years he has turned his hand to being a playwright. His latest play is called MAGGIE AND TED and has a two night run at the Garrick Theatre in London on June 28 and 29. It’s all about the relationship between the two former Prime Ministers, and from what he told me on the podcast, it is going to be well worth going to.

Putting on a play in a London theatre is a costly business, especially in the pandemic, and I’d encourage anyone who’s got one of those evenings spare to book a ticket and support an up and coming political playwright, and a thoroughly nice man. And a fellow Hammer. Book tickets here.

Neil Stock: The planning system is a socialist construct. It desperately needs updating for the modern age.

31 May

Neil Stock OBE is Leader of Tendring District Council and Chairman of the Essex Leaders and Chief Executives Group. He is a peer mentor for the Local Government Association (LGA).

The planning system, as it currently exists in this country, is a socialist construct, borne of a different time when the government of the day sought to own or control every aspect of life, right down to what a landowner could do with their own property.

History records that in the aftermath of the Second World War, a new Labour government swept into power and delivered a radical agenda of nationalisation and state control. The Bank of England, the railways and aviation, coal, gas and electricity, the steel industry, the car industry, even Thomas Cook the travel firm, were all nationalised. Healthcare was nationalised. And so was the right of a landowner to develop their land.

Planning as an ideology was very on-trend in post-war politics; socialist republics and Soviet-style planned economies were popping up all over the place. What planning aimed to achieve was to ensure that the state dictated and controlled every aspect of its citizens’ lives. Not just the type and style of housing and where it was built but also the infrastructure such as roads and transport, healthcare and education, and the mix of retail and commercial premises.

But Britain has changed fundamentally and profoundly since the war ended almost 80 years ago; the past almost literally is a foreign country. Margaret Thatcher famously swept away most of the remaining vestiges of socialism back in the 1980s. Industries were re-privatised; nationalisation was reversed, and no serious political party is advocating its return. It is not even controversial to assert that socialism has been proven to be a failure in every single administration that has ever tried it.

But state control of what can be built and where development is allowed is still with us, and the legislation introduced by the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 is still remarkably unchanged to this day.

Planning policy, what can be built and where, is determined by local plans drawn up by local planning authorities (the local council). The process of creating a new local plan takes many years and involves endless and repeated consultation exercises. This is supposedly a democratic exercise, since local councillors have the final say on the draft plan that is submitted to one of Her Majesty’s planning inspectors. They will then carry out an exhaustive public enquiry before dictating the final wording of the plan, which may or may not bear any resemblance to what the councillors had previously agreed.

With the local plan now in place a developer lucky enough to be in possession of a piece of land deemed suitable for development then submits a planning application. Again, this is ultimately supposed to be a democratic decision, as although typically 90 – 95 per cent of all applications are determined by council planning officers, the big ones and the controversial ones will go to the planning committee where elected councillors will make the decision.

But if the applicant does not like the decision they can appeal, and another of HM planning inspectors will make another independent but wholly undemocratic decision. The right of appeal, it should be noted, is reserved only for applicants who have been refused. Objectors who are opposing an application have no such right of appeal, which all helps to undermine the credibility of the system.

The artificial nature of the planning system means that distorted market forces take effect. House prices in the UK are among the highest anywhere in the world as the amount of land that can be built on is dictated entirely by the planning system. That restriction of supply has naturally led to a gross over-inflation of land values, and the exclusion from the dream of home ownership for large swathes of society.

The restricted supply of land has also led to developers trying to squeeze as many dwellings as they can onto the only available plots with results that, to be frank, have not always been pretty.

Ask anyone to identify buildings that inspire them or houses they would love to own, and the chances are the overwhelming majority of the properties they name will have been built pre 1948 and hence before planning laws were introduced. This country has one of the proudest histories of architectural design, constructional heritage and truly outstanding buildings, but it all seemed to come to a crashing halt with the introduction of planning permission.

Planning, to be blunt about it, has simply not worked; it has not facilitated good design, nor has it created vibrant, prosperous communities. Planning inspectors routinely overturn the decisions of democratically-mandated councillors, objectors have no right of appeal, and developers have to scratch around trying to develop the tiny amount of land that does eventually get permission. And of course, the end user, those many people seeking decent affordable housing have been let down most of all.

Before the 1947 act developers could pretty much build anything they wanted on any piece of land they owned. But they did not; they built, on the whole, thoughtfully and with great care. Mindful of the asset they were hoping to create and the end-user they wanted to want it. They certainly did not concrete over every field and green open space; it would have been economically suicidal to do so and entirely counter-productive. Too much development is just as bad for the market as too little.

Almost 80 years on we are long overdue for a radical new approach, and that is why one sentence in this year’s Queen’s Speech shone out like a beacon of hope and salvation: “Laws to modernise the planning system, so that more homes can be built, will be brought forward.” Upon that one short set of words rest the hopes of anyone who really cares about decent homes and about building a better Britain, fit for the future.

It is interesting to note that only 1.1 per cent of England is currently residential; we often think that this country is hugely overcrowded but that is only because the planning system has led to intensive urbanisation and forced the concentration of housing into tiny bits of land within or adjacent to existing development. All the land identified in local plans for new development is a miniscule amount of the actual undeveloped land in this country.

Of course, we do not want all our rolling fields and wide-open spaces to be built on, but we all recognise the need for new homes, and we want them to be decent homes, well designed and well built, that fit nicely into their environment, and supported by appropriate infrastructure. Housing will always be expensive, but it should not be unattainable. We want people to be motivated to strive to work hard and succeed in pursuit of their dream of owning their own home.

We need a new planning system. We need to clearly identify areas that are wholly inappropriate for new development; national parks, flood risk areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty, and so on. We need to identify areas where any new development would need to be subject to extremely sensitive design criteria such as conservation areas or historic town centres.

And we also need to identify broad areas where the presumption is that development will happen. Local design codes should be drawn up to ensure that the new buildings fit appropriately into the environment. And we also need a meaningful system whereby local objectors – yes, even the NIMBYs – can make their case and be properly heard.

I am very much looking forward to the publication of the new white paper!

Labour voters make Kim Leadbeater, sister of Jo Cox, early favourite in the Batley and Spen by-election

20 May

Kim Leadbeater, sister of the murdered MP Jo Cox, will win the Batley and Spen by-election for Labour. That at least is the firm belief of a number of drinkers in The Union Rooms pub in Hick Lane, Batley.

For ConHome this was an unexpected message. We approached Batley by train from Leeds. The station before is Outwood, in the constituency of Outwood and Morley, where during the 2015 general election campaign we detected “a change in the political weather” in favour of the Conservatives, and Ed Balls, the Labour incumbent, was duly defeated by Andrea Jenkyns, by the slender margin of 422 votes. She now has a majority of 11,267.

The station after Batley is Dewsbury, a marginal seat captured for the Conservatives in 2019 by Mark Eastwood.

So there ought to be good chances of a Conservative victory in Batley and Spen, held for Labour in 2019 by Tracy Brabin by 3,525 votes. Only a fortnight ago, in the Hartlepool by-election, a Labour majority of 3,595 was demolished, and became a Conservative majority of 6,940.

At the top of Hick Lane, the visitor to Batley finds a tremendous stone Wesleyan Chapel, now used by Europabeds, whose slogan is “Sleep in Style, Wake in Comfort”.

On the opposite side of the road stands another splendid building, the words “West Riding Union Bank Limited 1877” carved in stone over the gothic porch, now in use as a Wetherspoon pub.

“I vote Labour,” said Mick Carter, a retired painter and decorator, who was having a drink in the garden at the back. “I can’t vote Conservative. They tell too many lies.

“I think they should do a comedy act, those two. Pinocchio and Coco the Clown. I wonder why they won’t answer a straight question.”

He meant Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock.

Carter was pleased recently to have received a letter, posted in Wakefield, from Sir Keir Starmer: “They must know I’m a Labour supporter.

“The only reason I was going to go off Labour was when Corbyn was in. I couldn’t stand that Corbyn. But when Starmer came in, he could stand up to Boris, couldn’t he.

“Boris could run rings round Corbyn. But Starmer, he can actually keep on top of him.

“Really by rights what he [Johnson] should have done is have a lockdown much earlier, I’d say February instead of March.

“Now he’s making more mistakes. He should have kept the border shut, it’s too late now, if this variant [from India] is out, it’s his fault.

“Before he came to Batley [the Prime Minister visited a vaccination centre there on 1st February] he says we can’t go anywhere. But he comes 400 miles with his entourage to Batley.

“But the day before he said you’ve got to stay at home. But they never tell lies. Bloody hell.

“And I’ll tell you another thing I couldn’t stand about the Conservatives. You know they’re that bad, they didn’t even treat the cancer patients.

“They treated them like garbage. ‘We’re too busy,’ they said.

“I’ll tell you someone who doesn’t like that Boris, he doesn’t even treat them right, the Scottish people.

“You know what he is. He’s a dictator. You do as I say. I’m in charge of the country. That’s what he tells them in Scotland. You know why? She’s a woman.

“Him in Manchester sticks up to him. And he’s Labour. You know that Andy Burnham, I think he’ll take over from Starmer. He seems OK that Burnham. He seems to know what he’s talking about.”

Does Carter expect Labour to hold Batley and Spen?

“I think they will. I think, is it Kim, she’ll take over. I think she will. I hope so.

They murdered that other woman, that Jo, in Birstall. You can’t do stuff like that.”

Carter is 63, and works part-time as a gardener, having been forced to give up painting and decorating after falling down a flight of stairs.

“Do you know what he [Johnson] offered the NHS? One per cent.”

A second man: “It’s an insult.”

Carter: “Then he redecorates his flat. How much does it cost? £500,000. She wants gold doorknobs. That’s what it says in the paper the other day.

“I would have done the job for about four grand.”

The second man said: “It used to be a good place, Batley. Everything’s gone now. It used to be buzzing. We’ve had them all here, the top stars, at Batley Variety Club. Shirley Bassey, the Drifters, Tom Jones.

“They couldn’t get Elvis. They offered him £50,000 a night. Louis Armstrong, Neil Sedaka, Showaddywaddy, Gene Pitney.”

At a second table, a woman aged 25, who works as a retail assistant and was drinking a Sex on the Beach cocktail (vodka, peach schnapps, cranberry juice, orange juice), wanted to talk about Tracy Brabin, who has just stood down as MP for Batley and Spen after being elected Mayor of West Yorkshire:

“I can’t stand her. She cares more about how she looks than actually dealing with the issues we’ve got in the community.

“I do normally vote for Labour but since Tracy Brabin took over I haven’t bothered to vote any more.”

Would she vote for Kim Leadbeater?

“Most likely yeah. If she’s got the same views as her sister. She [Jo Cox] actually took an active role within her community.”

What does she think of Boris Johnson?

“He’s a buffoon. I can’t stand him. His priorities have been elsewhere. He cares more about how he looks [laughter].

“This whole pandemic, he could have done more, sooner, like New Zealand.

“My father passed away last year when it peaked, in April. My Dad, he barely went out. He went out to the hospital, we thought he had cancer, unfortunately he contracted coronavirus.

“He did have additional health problems. If only he [Johnson] had done it sooner like New Zealand. He’s a joke, he’s an embarrassment.

“This new type of the virus in India, why didn’t they close the borders?

“My Dad were only 60 when he passed away. Not being able to see him, to be around him, we didn’t even see him in the chapel of rest, apparently his body was contaminated, he was put in a plastic bag, which we didn’t need to know.

“It happened on day eight of the hospital admission. He left behind three children, five grandchildren, his wife.”

She reverted to Johnson: “In five to ten years we’ll be a military-led country. He’s a dictator. He is literally a clone of Donald Trump. He and Donald Trump are the same person.”

A man sitting next to her, pouring himself drinks from a jug of Godfather (whiskey, amaretto, Pepsi), said: “Everyone thinks that.”

The woman did a rather good imitation of Johnson: “I, I, I, I, I’ll be going down to get a drink myself.”

She went on: “I don’t like him but he makes me laugh.”

There was much laughter during these conversations. Nobody seemed to mind an ignorant southerner coming into a pub in West Yorkshire and asking people about their politics. A sort of friendly defiance of the Prime Minister prevailed.

At a third table, a man said: “Well I certainly wouldn’t vote Labour. I don’t think that Labour’s doing a good job.

“I used to vote Labour. I vote Conservative now, and I always will do now, I think. I think Boris has done a marvellous job, the way he’s handled the pandemic, the furlough.

“I work at Tesco. We’ve been very busy at Tesco. Never stopped.”

Another man, a retired dryliner and decorator aged 60, said of politicians generally: “They’re all the same. I’ve never voted in my life. I never will.”

But he said of Johnson: “I think he’s all right. I like him actually. His charisma, his hair style. For crying out loud, put some hair lacquer on.

“I have actually voted once, and that was Conservative, about 30 years ago. I did actually vote for Thatcher a few times.

“I know Thatcher caused a lot of shite, but she argued, ‘You get stuck into your work and that’s what you get paid for.’

“The unions were all going on strike for no toilet paper [a dispute at a local firm at the time].”

A third man: “Margaret Thatcher was bang on.”

The retired dryliner: “You worked for your money.”

The third man: “At the last election I voted for Paul Halloran. He’s helped a lot of people in the community, has Paul. There was a woman in a wheelchair, he helped her get access to her house, the council said it couldn’t be done.”

At the 2019 general election, Halloran stood for the Heavy Woollen District Independents, a local successor to UKIP, and as Paul Goodman last week noted on ConHome, came a strong third, with 6,432 votes.

Phil Taylor, 69, who did “lots of jobs mainly in the building trade”, said at once, when asked for his view: “Oh I’m going to vote for Jo Cox’s sister. Kim is it?

“I’ve seen her many times on telly. I think she’ll stand up for the area. Once she starts she’ll never shut up. She’s the fastest talker. She never comes up for air.

“If she’s got summat to get a point over she won’t half drill it home.

“Jo Cox came in here once, she were having her breakfast, she were a nice lass.

“It were the first time I seen her. She was sat in that room, having her breakfast. Tragic what happened to her. Coming up to her anniversary next month, 16th of June I think it were. Terrible.”

He is correct about the date.

“Mrs Peacock, she were the last Conservative, I remember her. I thought she was all right, to be honest. She spoke good. Elizabeth Peacock [who in 1983 won a narrow victory in the newly created seat of Batley and Spen, holding it by slender majorities until 1997] – they showed her on telly the other night.”

In the EU Referendum, Batley and Spen voted 60 per cent Leave. Taylor was one of those Leavers, and said Batley had deteriorated after Britain joined the Common Market:

“It used to be a lovely town this, at one time. Like everywhere in the country, shops and that started closing down. Batley had a massive Conservative Club, it were being demolished, they’re turning it all into flats.

“But I think it’s starting to pick up now. There’s more properties opening when you walk up town. There’s mainly Asian places and eatery places – Turkish and Indian and Chinese.”

At the centre of Batley, just along Commercial Street from the pub, lies the Market Place, which contains a number of handsome stone buildings, including the Zion Chapel of 1869, still in use as Batley Central Methodist Church; the Town Hall, formerly the Mechanics’ Institute and currently in use as a vaccination centre; the Carnegie Library, which opened in 1907; and the Police Station, which to the anger and regret of local residents closed in 2018.

We took a late lunch at SIBU, an Asian Soul Food restaurant which has just opened at the Market Place end of Commercial Street, almost next to Jo Cox House, a charitable venture set up in her memory.

Ismail Achhala, 21, who is studying International Relations at the University of Leeds, with other members of his family set up the restaurant.

He lives in Dewsbury, is a member of Dewsbury Conservative Association, has campaigned there for Mark Eastwood, and has “converted” his younger sister, who is studying dentistry, to the Conservative cause.

He explained that he had joined the party because of David Cameron: “Just the character he had, the policies.

“I could see a Prime Minister and I was proud of him. All I could see with the Labour Party was infighting.”

Achhala’s grandfather came to West Yorkshire from Gujarat in 1967, worked most of his life in a factory, and after ten years could afford to bring his grandmother over.

She is still alive, aged 94, and has 40 grandchildren, of whom the oldest is 43 and the youngest two. At elections she always tells her family to support Labour: “Vote the red box.”

“Thatcher was a villain in her eye,” Achhala said.

What did he think of Thatcher?

“She was much needed,” he replied.

He added that while Tony Blair was in power, there had been a “drainage of services” from the local area:

“Nobody wanted to come and live in Batley. Now there’s high demand. It’s very recent.”

But there is a crime problem: “It doesn’t feel as safe as it used to. They’ve put all the police in one place in Dewsbury – I don’t think that it’s a good idea.

“At night you’ve had stones thrown at the windows. Why should we have to put the shutters up? It spoils the look of the place.

“Before you’d see police patrols at night. Now you feel there’s no support.”

He mentioned the row at Batley Grammar School, where there were demonstrations after the showing of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in a lesson. A teacher has been suspended and gone into hiding pending the outcome of an inquiry.

This bitter clash between free speech and respect for religious belief has had extensive coverage in the national press, but no one in the pub mentioned it.

“I don’t approve of threats of violence,” Akhhala said. “It’s a very tiny traditional community in Batley. You report it to the authorities and you leave it to them.

“I think that working with faith leaders there is a way of sorting these things out.”

It occurred to me that while in Batley, I had met a number of people from Labour backgrounds who now support the Conservatives, but no one who has made the opposite journey. Achhala remarked:

“The direction Boris is taking the party in is very different – he’s opening it up to more voters – the working class who are trusting in him.”

So does he think the Conservatives will win the by-election?

“It’s too tight,” he replied. “I think Labour have got the edge. We need someone to work for the party in Batley. You don’t feel like there’s anything going on.

“There’s a huge Asian working-class community in Batley. There’s also a massive middle-class Asian community that have moved up, but even they’re still Labour.”

With great pride, and infectious optimism, Akhhala showed ConHome the kitchen at SIBU, which has chefs from the Philippines, Malaysia, Nepal, India and Britain. This is globalisation the Batley way.

The Yorkshire Post reports  that Labour will choose its candidate for Batley and Spen on Sunday. Councillor Ryan Stephenson, who represents Harewood ward in Leeds, was yesterday evening selected as the Conservative candidate.

Both parties have enough potential supporters to win this seat, if only they can persuade their people to turn out.

Ben Southwood: Why planning reform may work this time round, delivering us the new homes that we need

14 May

Ben Southwood is Head of Housing, Transport and Urban Space at Policy Exchange

We have been here before. This is not the first time that a Government has, after years of housing troubles, hired advisers who really understand things, appointed a Housing Minister who ‘gets it’, and tried to tackle the planning system. All these previous attempts largely failed, from the late 1980s onwards. But I have a hunch that the latest wave might succeed – because of an appreciation of localism.

We really have been here before. The think tank paper Nimbyism: The disease and the cure is not a 2020 publication, but a 1990 one. It diagnosed our dilemma pretty much the same way as a newspaper column might today: everyone knows the country needs more homes, but no one wants those new homes plonked down next to them.

Indeed my father, who lives in the London suburbs, will tell you that our housing shortage is the country’s biggest problem, immediately before pointing out how the development of his neighbour’s plot killed two of his best mature trees, and caused months of constant vibrations, eight hours a day.

1990 was not even the beginning. Nicholas Ridley, the esolute free-marketeer Northumbrian who popularised the term NIMBY, was responsible for housing policy under the Thatcher government from 1987 to 1989. Ridley believed that planning was the problem, and that liberalisation was the answer. As well as trying to loosen up the rules, he attempted to use his powers as Minister to approve as many developments as possible – getting successful appeals against planning rejections up to their second highest rate ever.

Alas, this turned out to be extremely unpopular. When it was discovered that even Ridley himself opposed housing near his own home, and after a backbench revolt led by SANE Planning, Thatcher moved him over to Trade and Industry.

In the 30 years since, the problems have by and large got worse. Homeownership, accounting for age, peaked in the early 1990s. House price to income ratios have gone up dramatically. Even more people are delaying getting married, settling down, and having children. We have never managed, post war, to add net housing space to our fastest-growing cities at the rate we did in the 1820s or the 1930s. In the medium to long run, this will doom the Conservative party, whose election results seem more and more determined by homeownership in an area.

Many governments over the years have absorbed the same evidence and arguments. The Barker Review in 2004 confirmed them all, and once again Governments took this on board. The Cameron Government also grasped the problem. Like the current Government, it appointed Policy Exchange’s then Head of Housing as the housing special advisor in the Number Ten Policy Unit, and worked to unblock supply. Some things have improved since 2010, but the housing shortages in key places have got even worse.

Why did all of these Governments fail to really make a dent in the problem?

The fundamental reason is that they failed to win the support of existing communities for development near them. New Labour sought to dodge this problem by taking power out of the hands of local authorities and giving it to regional planning bodies, accountable only to the central government.

But in the long run, this doesn’t help. Voters choose their MPs too, and if they hate the housebuilding happening around them, they will eventually force the central government to stop it. This is indeed what has happened, with successive governments scaling back initially ambitious housebuilding targets.

It’s a simple thing for economists to model. The way we currently do things, those who benefit from new homes is everyone who might want to move to an area. Each new development makes it a tiny bit easier for them to move somewhere. But each new development makes things a whole lot worse for people living nearby.

So you have a huge group of people who benefit a tiny amount – so little they don’t even realise it – and a smaller group of people who see themselves as losing out a huge amount. This means an active group of opponents willing to argue and vote, and no strong proponents.

Why do I think the current Government may have seen a way around this?

If you read the Planning White Paper, which is the document summing up this Government’s aims on planning and housing, several themes are obvious. For my purposes, the key theme is local consent. You can see this in their plans to give locals more control over design.  No, design isn’t everything. But their drive to make things ‘provably popular’ is a clear indication that they grasp the fundamental condition of a durable system of housebuilding: they understand that if they deliver a housing reform that local communities hate, it won’t last.

Indeed, at Policy Exchange’s 2018 summer party, Theresa May, now one of the key opponents to planning reform said ‘I’ve long said that design quality is, I think, actually one of the keys to new housing’, referencing the ‘Building Beautiful’ movement.

The most exciting element of the Planning White Paper for me was their suggestion that they might go ‘down’ instead of ‘up’, giving streets more powers to control the sort of development they want to see, as we proposed in Strong Suburbs. This might mean keeping things just as they are, or it might mean turning semi detached houses into a terrace, so everyone has more space for family, or even a lodger. It might just mean neighbours all agreeing to replace uPVC windows with timber.

Robert Conquest said that everyone is conservative about what they know best. The reason people are NIMBYs is that their neighbourhood is one of the things they know best. This instinct is not just reasonable, but inevitable, and governments of the past have inevitably failed when they have attempted to control things from the top, without the consent of the governed. I think this Government might just have found the alternative that works.

How disgusting Cameron’s critics are. He is a decent man – as were Baldwin and Blair.

7 Apr

David Cameron is a loss to public life. This is not just now the received view, but Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s Official Historian, yesterday explained to ConHome why it is the correct one:

“Former prime ministers ought not to be entirely separated from the world of Westminster, which, apart from the benefits of proximity to power, would constantly remind them of the dangers of lucrative enticements which the press and candid friends will always be glad to see exposed in Commons or Lords.

“No ex-PM has wanted to go the Lords for nearly 30 years, the attraction much diminished by the creation of peerages on a massive and unprecedented scale, a process of degradation much assisted by Cameron himself following Blair’s lead. This is a loss to both Parliament and former Prime Ministers.”

Theresa May remains in the Commons, where she continues, when she wishes, to give the House the benefit of her experience.

Blair and Cameron resigned their Commons seats just after ceasing to be PM, while Gordon Brown and John Major each remained in the Commons until the general election after the one at which they had been defeated. All four have declined to go to the Lords.

Margaret Thatcher stayed in the House until the general election after her overthrow, and then accepted a peerage.

Edward Heath remained for over a quarter of a century in the Commons after losing the two elections in 1974 and the Tory leadership contest in February 1975.

Harold Wilson reverted to being Leader of the Opposition after his defeat as PM in 1970, entered Downing Street again in 1974, stepped down as Prime Minister in 1976, but stayed in the House until 1983, when he went to the Lords.

His successor as Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who was defeated at the general election of 1979, remained in the House until 1987, when he too went to the Lords.

The most graceful example in modern times is afforded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who after leaving the Lords at the start of his brief prime ministership in 1963-64, remained in the Commons and served in 1970-74 as Foreign Secretary, his second term in that office, before going once more to the Lords.

Cameron had originally intended to remain in the Commons as a backbencher, but in September 2016, two months after stepping down as Prime Minister, announced he would also step down as an MP, saying in explanation:

“As a former Prime Minister it is very difficult to sit as a backbencher and not be an enormous distraction and diversion from what the Government is doing.”

To traditionalists, it seemed a great pity that Cameron had so quickly followed Blair’s example, cutting and running from Parliament as soon he was no longer the most important person, as if the only point of being an MP is to hold high office.

But just as Blair’s position was rendered excruciatingly uncomfortable by the opprobrium he continued to attract for having led Britain into the Iraq War of 2003, so Cameron’s position was rendered excruciatingly uncomfortable by the opprobrium he continued to attract from Remainers for calling and losing the EU referendum of June 2016.

All Cameron’s earlier achievements were forgotten. Modernising the Conservative Party, leading it back into power in 2010 in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, restoring the economy and governing the country well enough to win a narrow overall majority in 2015, now counted for nothing.

People find it hard to remember more than one thing about any Prime Minister, and all they now remembered about Cameron was that he had accidentally led Britain out of the EU.

He gracefully recognised at breakfast-time on the morning after the referendum that he must step down. There followed a period of silence from him, and this too seemed graceful.

In 2019 he brought out his memoirs, in which he confessed:

“The latent Leaver gene in the Tory Party was more dominant than I had foreseen.”

But his book was not candid enough to arouse any great interest. He had been only 49 when he stepped down, younger than any Prime Minister at the end of their term in office since Lord Rosebery, Prime Minister from 1894-95.

Rosebery was only 47, and for a long time his admirers hoped he would come back. He was a great orator, who could master huge crowds and who still displayed, at unpredictable intervals, star quality, and shafts of insight which showed an admirable independence of mind.

In 1904, when everyone else was cheering the entente cordiale with France, Rosebery greeted a rising Liberal star, David Lloyd George, with the words: “You are all wrong. It means war with Germany in the end.”

Cameron has less brilliance but a steadier temperament than Rosebery, and seemed to have mastered the awkward art of retiring before the age of 50.

In an interview by Emma Barnett with his wife, Samantha Cameron, in January 2021, we learned:

“Dave has shopped and cooked virtually every meal in the last few months.”

Now the Lex Greensill affair threatens to supplant the EU referendum as the one thing for which Cameron is remembered. The audacity which carried him to the Tory leadership, and into Downing Street, also led him to back an Australian banker who promised to make him rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but has instead gone bust, leaving thousands of jobs in the British steel industry in peril.

Greensill had been granted an unusual degree of access to Downing Street, and even a No 10 business card, while Cameron was Prime Minister, and Cameron has since lobbied Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on Greensill’s behalf, though without managing to extract any funds.

On Sunday, the first signs of a fight-back by Cameron could be detected, in a piece by Dan Hodges for The Mail on Sunday:

“David Cameron has let himself down. And he knows it. ‘He was adviser for a company that went bust in a very public way. And he’s told me he recognises that’s embarrassing,’ says a sympathetic Cabinet Minister who spoke to the former Prime Minister last week.

‘”But he does think all the other stuff is way over the top. This idea he was getting No 10 business cards printed out for all these dodgy people. His attitude is that he had a lot of responsibilities as PM and dealing with the Downing Street stationery wasn’t one of them.'”

It is just possible that by refusing to respond in person to the Greensill story, Cameron will so starve it of oxygen that it dies out.

But the story serves also as a reminder of how hellish it can be to be an ex-Prime Minister. As long as one is in office, one can at least indicate to potential critics that if they start to chuck mud, they can abandon all hope of promotion.

That sanction falls away as soon as one falls from power. From then onwards, anyone who wants to take a crack can do so with impunity.

Consider the case of Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister in 1923-4, 1924-29 and 1935-37, the dominant figure of the inter-war years, who in 1936 with masterly skill united the British and Imperial Establishment behind the policy of replacing the feckless Edward VIII with the dutiful George VI.

The following year, Baldwin at a moment of his own choosing stepped down, became a Knight of the Garter, and was elevated to the Lords as Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, an earldom being the usual reward for a PM.

Three years later, he became one of the guilty men who had left Britain unprepared for the fight for national survival against Nazi Germany. George Orwell wrote of him:

“As for Baldwin, one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air.”

Baldwin was by now so unpopular that he did not care to appear in public, and despite being old and infirm was denied a seat while travelling on a train. Lord Beaverbrook, in an act of spite, had the gates removed from Baldwin’s house, a gift from Worcester Conservative Association when their leader retired, under the pretence that the metal was needed to make Spitfires.

At Baldwin’s final appearance in public, for the unveiling in 1947 of a statue of George V, a feeble cheer was raised in his honour, and he asked whether he was being booed.

What a fearful warning to Cameron. We write about these things as if they were fair, but that is seldom the case.

We find instead an overwhelming desire to blame someone. The most liberal-minded people are particularly liable to yield to this urge to flog some poor wretch, and to feel better about themselves as they inflict the punishment.

It is especially satisfying to flog someone who formerly adopted a high moral tone. Baldwin liked to strike that note, as did Blair and Cameron.

They were very good at it, but their critics saw the discrepancy between the high-sounding rhetoric and the slightly less elevated behaviour, and pounced.

How disgusting those critics are. Cameron is a decent man, and so were Blair and Baldwin. All three did about as well as anyone could do in the circumstances, and all three, so far as one can see, are doomed.

John Bald: How many pupils start secondary school unable to read properly? The truth is we don’t know.

6 Apr

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

The Government’s estimate of an additional 30,000 pupils arriving in secondary school with weak reading skills is worrying, but it is a guess. The national reading test for 11-year-olds (NS6) was abolished by a committee rigged by HMI to obstruct Mrs Thatcher. We had no test at all until the early 1990s. Now we have a new one each year, with grade boundaries moved up or down to suit the convenience, first of Labour governments, now of Ofqual. The scores tell us next to nothing – and secondary schools are right not to trust them.

I trust nothing I can’t check, especially Labour strategies. Their National Literacy Strategy failed because it substituted the “Searchlights” guessing game theory for phonics. As soon as they were elected, Blair’s Labour rushed out a programme of summer schools, to which I was recruited at a late stage as a consultant. Almost all failed because they were staffed by whichever teachers happened to be available rather than those who knew how to teach reading. Labour then decided that all spare resources in schools were to be devoted to teaching reading, with much the same result. An art teacher I observed had as much idea of teaching reading as I have about teaching art, and the exercise was a waste of everyone’s time.

Sir Kevan Collins’ idea of tackling the reading deficit with an army of volunteers will meet the same fate. The Warnock Committee’s decision to replace specialist literacy teachers with special needs co-ordinators deprived secondary schools of a resource that is now badly needed. Most individual reading teaching is now undertaken by assistants, and if Sir Kevan’s army is recruited, there will be no one to train it. All of us who can bring skills to bear on the problem need to do our bit, but this is not a solution to a problem affecting the whole of the school system.

Nicky Morgan, as Education Secretary, was ridiculed by our opponents for her goal of making 11-year-olds “secondary ready”, but the pandemic and this hasty government reaction show that she was right. Pupils who can’t read and write properly can’t do their school work, and this leads to misbehaviour, dropout, and exclusion. If we can agree that literacy – alongside social reconstruction – should be the focus of everyone’s efforts, we cannot waste time and money repeating Labour mistakes.

Fortunately, we can learn from a small number of schools that have bucked the trend. In 2005 I had the honour to lead the inspection of Gateway Primary School, Marylebone, now Gateway Primary Academy. Over ninety per cent of its pupils had English as an additional language. Starting with systematic phonics teaching using Jolly Phonics, with assistants teaching small groups, as in Ruth Miskin’s Kobi Nazrul, they built reading systematically into everything they did throughout the school, so that pupils became used to reading non-fiction in science, history, and art lessons, as well as in English. All pupils, except those who arrived in their final year, met national standards in English and maths, and two-thirds exceeded them. The school won the Evening Standard School of the Year award, using this report as evidence. Its techniques should be studied and adopted.

For secondary schools I make no apology for returning to Michaela, and particularly to the work of Deputy Head, Katie Ashford, who is also the special needs co-ordinator. Grouping pupils according to thelr learning needs and abilities allows teachers to focus closely on the wide range of literacy skills pupils start with. Many are not “secondary ready” in Year 7, and yet the Year 8 work I saw from middle sets on my visit was already at around Grade 6 at GCSE. HMI described the progress thus:

“Pupils develop a love of books and reading. They talk about their favourite authors and the books they enjoy most. Support tailored to pupils’ needs ensures that pupils who struggle with reading, writing and mathematics when they join the school catch up quickly.”

and thus:

“Pupils make exceedingly strong progress across Years 7 to 9 and across subject areas, including English, mathematics, science, humanities, French, art and music. As a result of outstanding teaching, work in pupils’ books shows that, over time, all groups of pupils make consistently accelerated progress from their starting points.”

This report was written two years before Michaela’s stunning GCSE results. It shows that a sustained focus on literacy in every subject, at levels matched to pupils’ needs, can tackle the literacy deficit that is at the heart of educational underachievement and close the gap for disadvantaged pupils. The school pays close attention to spoken language and social development too, but not as a means of avoiding tackling weak literacy skills. Not for nothing did I argue earlier this year that headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, is the most important person in British education.

Footnote: Alex Quigley, currently national content manager at the Education Endowment Foundation, has written two books. Closing the Reading Gap – and Closing the Vocabulary Gap – that offer invaluable practical advice for secondary schools looking to tackle literacy problems and develop pupils’ skills and understanding in all subjects. I recommend them alongside Michaela’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, and The Power of Culture.

From Walpole to Johnson, the rude, original vigour of the Prime Minister and the Commons have survived

3 Apr

The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister by Anthony Seldon

Spoiler alert. Ten pages from the end of his 337-page study, Anthony Seldon concludes that “the undoubted challenges” of being Prime Minister “have not made the job impossible”.

He also concedes that making lists of the best Prime Ministers, though “entertaining”, is also “largely meaningless”, because there are no “agreed criteria on what constitutes ‘success’ for a Prime Minister”.

But Seldon knows which PMs he puts in his top class, worthy of the accolade of being “Agenda Changers”, by which he means they “changed the course of the country, and with it, the way the job of Prime Minister operated”:

“Robert Walpole, William Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel, Viscount Palmerston, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Clement Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher.”

No Winston Churchill, which is rather refreshing, for that endlessly fascinating figure can sometimes obscure everyone who came before him.

But oddly enough, in the piece for The Times which Seldon wrote about his book, the top eight become the top nine, for Churchill is included.

One must register here an immediate protest at the exclusion of Pitt the Elder. For although his titanic parliamentary speeches are lost to history – there was no Hansard in that confident century – the electrifying effect of this pioneering globalist’s performances is amply recorded, and it is a mere quibble to say that in 1759, the Year of Victories, he was not actually Prime Minister, but merely the driving force of the Government and of British arms.

In Seldon’s book, Churchill is relegated to the second division, described as “Major Contributors”, as if they had donated substantial sums to the school appeal, after which we get “Positive Stabilisers”, “Noble Failures”, “Ignoble Failures”, and “Left on the Starting Line”, this last category consisting of PMs who served for too short a time to make much of a difference.

All this has the merit of being highly thought-provoking. Seldon is a Gladstonian technocrat. He admires moral seriousness, and getting things done. Life is real and life is earnest, and so is politics.

Walpole, who took office 300 years ago today, is some ways lucky to make the cut. Seldon begins with an imaginary dialogue between Walpole, generally regarded as the first Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson, who is the 55th holder of the office.

Throughout these three centuries, control of the House of Commons has been a cardinal requirement for any Prime Minister, and loss of control, which Walpole suffered at the start of 1742, meant you were out.

Although Seldon reserves his greatest admiration for Prime Ministers who changed the way the office works, he does not seek to hide the fact that in some ways it has remained unchanged.

He does not, however, have much sympathy with any Prime Minister who might be suspected of frivolity. He has little time for Benjamin Disraeli, and a great deal for Robert Peel.

The enduring impact of the great split of 1846, when Disraeli destroyed Peel and almost destroyed the Conservative Party, is underplayed by Seldon:

“For Conservatives, memories of Peel’s splitting the party caused successive leaders regular anxiety.”

Regular nightmares would be more accurate. Robert Blake, in The Unknown Prime Minister, his life of Andrew Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, puts the matter in its true perspective, when explaining why in 1913 Bonar Law felt obliged, as the still quite new Conservative leader, to abandon his personal support for Imperial Preference, an issue as bitterly divisive as Brexit became a century later:

“Did Bonar Law act rightly in thus reversing his own declared policy for the sake of Party unity? To answer this is to to answer a problem in political ethics which has never yet been satisfactorily solved. But in acting as he did there is no doubt that Bonar Law was following the established tradition of previous Conservative leaders. Ever since the day when Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws had broken the Party and driven it into the wilderness for 20 years, successive Conservative leaders had felt it was their duty, at all costs and at almost any sacrifice, to avoid repeating Peel’s action. Disraeli, Salisbury, Balfour, had all regarded party unity as of paramount importance – and Bonar Law both on this occasion, and at several other critical moments in his life, took the same view.”

Such party considerations are almost entirely ignored by Seldon, who instead focuses on what happens inside Number Ten. Bonar Law, who brought down Lloyd George but then served as Prime Minister for only 212 days before being forced by mortal illness to step down, is put among the Prime Ministers who had too little time to do anything significant while in office.

Lord Salisbury, who spent a total of almost 14 years as Prime Minister, is placed by Seldon in the third division. One looks in vain for any recognition of Salisbury’s ability often to defeat Gladstone, by ensuring that after the widening of the franchise in 1884, an organised appeal was made to the “Villa Toryism” found in the suburbs which were springing up round every prosperous town.

In Seldon’s view, Salisbury “was responsible for few fresh initiatives over his 14 years”, so doesn’t belong at the top table. Novelty is what counts, so Tory leaders who disguise innovation as keeping things the same receive no credit.

Lord Rosebery, who in 1894 succeeded Gladstone but remained in office for only a year and a bit, comes off worse. “We need not linger on Lord Rosebery,” Seldon tells us, later adding that this Prime Minster “lacked gravitas, failed to build on Gladstone’s legacy, to give a clear direction, and led the Liberals into a defeat”.

It is certainly true that despite being a man of wealth, intellect, charm and spell-binding eloquence, and winning the Derby twice while he was Prime Minister, Rosebery was a failure. But reading Seldon’s study reminds us that failure can be good for liberty, and good for Parliament.

The voters, who are almost entirely absent from this account, need someone to blame when things have gone wrong, and in many ways it is more satisfying to blame a brilliant Prime Minister than a second-rate one.

The Commons matters because it can end any Prime Minister’s career. Here is one of the great checks on tyranny, for MPs in whichever party or coalition of parties has a parliamentary majority are quick to realise when their leader has become such a liability with the wider public that they themselves will be in danger of losing their seats at the next election.

The Commons withdraws its confidence from a Prime Minister who has failed, and a new Prime Minister, who perhaps sees more clearly what the nation requires, is given the chance to show what he or she can do.

Churchill taking over from the previously impregnable Neville Chamberlain in 1940 is the most dramatic example of this brutal process. We have a wonderfully responsive system, which is one reason why it has absorbed three centuries of shocks: plenty of wars, riots, crashes, slumps and strikes, but no revolution.

The Commons is still there, and when it senses that the right moment has come it will – unless pre-empted by some some other means of getting rid of the Prime Minister such as an election defeat – unmake Johnson as it unmade Thatcher.

Seldon makes proposals for lightening the load borne by the Prime Minister, by delegating much of the routine business of government to a Deputy Prime Minister, and many external responsibilities to the Foreign Secretary, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer demoted to become only the fourth most senior member of the Cabinet.

Such reforms may be desirable, and might even lead to greater efficiency, but efficiency is not enough. And Seldon recognises that well-intentioned reforms often prove transitory.

John Major tried to show he was a different kind of leader by consulting the Cabinet more respectfully than his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, was accustomed to do. As Seldon comments, “It didn’t last. It never does.”

Seldon has interviewed a number of insiders, including Gus O’Donnell, a former Cabinet Secretary, who tells him:

“The role of full Cabinet has been over-emphasised. It’s just become too big to be the decision-making body.”

The same point was made, more amusingly, by C. Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s.

There are a number of astonishing errors in Seldon’s book: Lloyd George is said to have sat for 55 years for a “South Wales seat”, while a well-known remark by Horace Walpole about the fourth Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle (“A Secretary of State without intelligence, a Duke without money, a man of infinite intrigue, without secrecy or policy, and a Minister despised and hated by his master, by all parties and Ministers, without being turned out by any”) is attributed to H.T. Dickinson.

But there are also some wonderful things. Here is the Duke of Portland, Prime Minister in 1783 and again in 1807-9, and classified by Seldon as an Ignoble Failure:

“the idea of courting popularity by any means I have always reprobated…the possession or enjoyment of it has always something in it very suspicious, and I know hardly any act or measure vulgarly or commonly called popular which has not originated in a bad cause, and been productive of pernicious effects.”

Many Remainers would agree most devoutly with Portland. Could it be (as I suggested the other day) that we still live in an 18th-century country?

One of the best things about this book is that it makes one think anew about our political tradition, and give thanks that certain features of it, including the office of Prime Minister, still possess, despite all attempts by glorified management consultants at modernisation, some traces of their rude original vigour.