What can and should the Government do about the unions?

22 Jun

Before last week, who had heard of Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, and the new bogeyman of commuters everywhere? Who has heard of Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, the joint General Secretaries of the National Education Union, or Mark Sewotka, the General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union? All are threatening to strike this summer.

You may remember Len McCluskey, the former General Secretary of Unite, for his closeness to Jeremy Corbyn. Or you may know Frances O’Grady, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, for her performance during the big BBC Brexit debate back in 2016. But asides from their predilection for posturing or trashing Tories as TV talking heads, neither pricks the consciousness of most of us particularly often.

Despite Kate Bush being at number one, this is not the seventies or the eighties. Trade union leaders do not habitually play a huge part in our national political debate, or in setting government policy. The Red Robbos or Arthur Scargills of the twenty-first century are not seen lecturing gnarled-faced and donkey-jacketed men on the evening news. The modern equivalents of Jack Jones and Len Murray are not often in Number 10 for beer and sandwiches.

Working out why is not hard. According to the annual Statistical Bulletin for Trade Union Membership, the proportion of UK workers in a trade union was just 23.1 percent last year – the lowest number on record. It was over half when Margaret Thatcher came to power. 60 percent of union members are in the public sector, and only 12.8 in the private. Even then, membership is largely in formerly nationalised industries like water, gas, or the Royal Mail.

Since the trade unions had their wings clipped by Mrs Thatcher’s reforms (largely through giving more power to their own members), and since the denationalisation of most major industries has ended the situation where unions were continually negotiating with the Government, their power and influence has faded. Union membership has ceased to be attractive outside of the public sector. Negligible inflation has also suppressed wage demands.

Then Covid, lockdowns, supply-chain bottlenecks, and the war in Ukraine happened – and the Bank of England, our government, and most of the commentariat were caught napping. Now, as inflation surges past 9 percent (well done, Andrew Bailey), dealing with union wage demands has returned to the centre stage of our politics. And not only because everyone in Westminster is frustrated about having to work at home for a day or two.

Whilst the Government may have been somewhat surprised by this ‘Summer of Discontent’, the Conservative Party’s muscle memory has ensured it has leapt into action. The Transport Secretary has sworn to stay out of negotiations between the rail companies and the RMT. Instead, the Government has focused on making the easy political points that leading trade unionists are Marxists, that the Labour party is clueless, and that a wage-price spiral would not be much fun.

Of course, on all these it is right – and especially later. As Simon Clark, the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, has told Sky News, if we don’t want the inflation problem “to either intensify or prolong itself, then we need to be sensible around pay awards.” Inflation is a consequence of energy price spikes, post-Covid disruption, and governmental money-printing. That suggests it is transient.

But giving in to demands for pay rises of 9 percent or more will bake in the expectation of inflation as it did in the seventies, and the problem of inflation will go from being transient to permanent. So the Government needs to hold the line on pay in the short term. But it also needs a plan for dealing with the unions in the long-term. Doing a Mrs Thatcher impression may have been good for Liz Truss’ leadership prospects. But it is not a political strategy.

When Mrs Thatcher took the fight to the unions, it was after a decade of governmental failure to rein in their immunities and obstreperousness. In Place of Strife, the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, the Social Contract – all had to be tried, and either be broken by the unions or evaporate in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ before voters were willing to accept that something difficult must be done.

The Government has no patience for such long-term strategy – it lives day-to-day and headline-by-headline. Nevertheless, it has obvious policy options to pursue if it wants to harness this outburst of union disagreeableness to its advantage. Shapps committed, back in 2019, to introducing legislation to guarantee minimum levels of service during rail strikes. A similar pledge was made during and after the 2015 election.

Yet nothing has happened. Back then, one supposes it was meant to please Tory activists – but now the case for it has been made. Introducing such a measure would bring England into line, as the IEA’s Len Shackleton has pointed out, with the notoriously anti-worker governments of, erm, Belgium, France, and Italy. Such a measure would reduce disruption of this week’s type in future – and would reduce calls for a quick but costly settlement for a quiet life.

The Government is also right to float the idea of allowing rail companies to use agency workers. A world city like London should not be partially shutdown due to the intransigence of a small number of railway workers – especially as driving the Tube is not overly difficult, and those who do are very well renumerated. And whilst we wait for driverless trains to finally be forced in, agency staff are the next best thing.

There is the slight concern that any action by the Government against the unions looks like over-kill, a reflex response to the return of an old Tory bugbear. Making the case for pay restraint is also more difficult whilst the triple lock ensures pensioners see an uprating of their income in line with inflation – on top of the National Insurance-funded asset-protection scheme the Government blessed them with last year.

But we must also remember that the unions are, in many parts, still Harold Wilson’s “tightly-knit group of politically motivated men” – or, as Dominic Sandbrook put it last week, “the worst of Britain”. Germany bans civil servants, lecturers, and some teachers from striking. Our government can go just as far. Though as my girlfriend is a teacher, and I’d rather like to keep her on side, it could perhaps still consider a pay rise for the latter.

The post What can and should the Government do about the unions? first appeared on Conservative Home.

David Willetts: Jobs and living standards – thinking for the long term

7 Jun

David Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He was Minister for Universities and Science 2010-2014. His book A University Education is published by OUP.

The challenge to Boris Johnson’s leadership is of course the immediate political issue grabbing all the headlines. But behind the adrenalin rush of the day’s political crisis, there are still the long term issues which responsible parties of government have to think about and try to address. And behind today’s living standards crisis are still the deeper issues of how well the British labour market is doing and what it means for jobs and wages.

First, the good news. Britain is a high employment economy with a flexible labour market. We are still benefitting from Margaret Thatcher’s labour market reforms of the 1980s. Ironically, it was the threat to these from Jacques Delors in his notorious speech to the TUC which led to her Bruges speech starting the movement which led to Brexit.

But the EU did not actually impose substantially more regulations after that. Instead, the main interventions have been domestic – notably the minimum wage. And contrary to the fears that many of us had, including myself, it did not lead to a surge in unemployment.

There is however still the problem of the NEETS – people who are Not in Education, Employment or Training. It peaked in the 1990s at over a million young people aged 16-24. Now it is down to about 800,000.

Research we will shortly be publishing at Resolution Foundation suggests the fall is almost entirely amongst young women who are less likely to be having kids when they are young and, even if they do so, are more likely to carry on working. There has however been no real improvement among young men.

There has also been a shift in job satisfaction, especially amongst the low paid. In the past the low paid used to be more satisfied with their work than they are now. The minimum wage might have boosted their pay, but it also increased the pressures on them from managers and employers, especially if they are insecure contract workers.

Moreover there are still abuses of the labour protections which successive political parties have brought in – that is why the 2019 Conservative Manifesto promised a single effective body to enforce legal rights instead of the mish-mash of weak and under-resourced agencies we have at the moment. We should have a simpler, stronger system. It would be great if that pledge were now implemented.

Our employment rate for 16-64 year olds reached an all time peak of over 76 per cent before Covid struck. Although our employment rate is high, it is not yet back to its pre-Covid peak. The problem is that a swathe of older workers haven’t gone back to work. They appear to have opted for a quiet life and early retirement.

If they are still of working age and claiming unemployment benefits we should be expecting them to engage actively in job search, and they should be accessing the same range of back to work initiatives as younger unemployed people.

The biggest problem is that we are a low pay economy and that is above all because we are a low productivity economy. The living standards crisis has been building for years as our economy has underperformed. It is hard to boost living standards by tax cuts when Government borrowing is so high and productivity is so low. Instead, we boost living standards by a work force with more education and trainingm together with more business investment behind them.

We had a vivid example of this problem in the Chancellor’s package to help people with the rising cost of living. It was big and bold and widely welcomed. But it was all about transferring money to help people with these costs. There was nothing about actually investing in the home insulation and the innovative domestic heating systems which bring household costs down in the long run.

One reason for that omission is that the Treasury is scarred by the failure of successive green deals. The biggest single reason why they fail is that we are short of the trained workers to insulate the houses or install the new boilers. There is a lot of rhetoric about boosting vocational training, but we need to do more to deliver it in practice.

These jobs can’t all be created straightaway, but we need a plan of gradually increased funding to lower home heating costs by investment and innovation with a proportion of the budget going specifically on the vocational qualifications linked to those programmes. That would show we meant business about boosting living standards in the only way that makes those gains solid and sustainable.

A vote of confidence in Johnson will take place today

6 Jun

Downing Street will almost certainly have asked the 1922 Committee Executive for the ballot to take place as soon as possible – in order to prevent anti-Boris Johnson sentiment among Conservative MPs from gathering pace.

We may see by the end of the day to what degree that calculation is correct.  At any rate, we will certainly have a result.

There have been three previous leadership challenges to Conservative Prime Ministers: I will be posting about these later this morning.

In all three cases, the Prime Minister in question (Margaret Thatcher twice, Theresa May once) won the ballot in question.  But both were gone within a year of it taking place.

The Institute of Government claims that the present payroll vote is “between 160 and 170 MPs”.  That’s almost half of the total of 359 Conservative MPs.

The supposition is that most of the payroll will vote for the Prime Minister, so he should win today – whatever else may follow.

The figure to watch will be the proportion of those voting against Johnson today.  John Major, who resigned his leadership to re-contest it in 1995, won by 218 votes to 89.

Theresa May won hers in 2018 by 200 to 117.  A question that follows is what the 1922 Committee Executive, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet colleagues and other Ministers make of a Johnson win by a similar margin or less.

Tory leadership elections. A brief history.

6 Jun

A confidence ballot in Boris Johnson may or may not be triggered this week.  While we wait to find out, here is a potted history of Conservative leadership elections

  • Nine Conservative MPs have been returned as Party leader since elections have been introduced – Edward Heath in 1965, Margaret Thatcher in 1975, John Major in 1990 and 1995, William Hague in 1997, Iain Duncan Smith in 2001, Michael Howard in 2003, David Cameron in 2005, Theresa May in 2016 and Boris Johnson in 2019.
  • Five of these nine were elected by MPs only (Heath, Thatcher, Major, Hague and Howard) and four by MPs and party members (Duncan Smith, Cameron, May, Johnson).
  • Six of the nine became Prime Minister: Heath, Thatcher, Major, Cameron, May and Johnson.
  • Four of the nine became Prime Minister after being elected Conservative leader (Major, Howard, May, Johnson). Three of the nine became Prime Minister having formed a government after a general election (Heath in 1970, Thatcher in 1979, Cameron in 2010).
  • One of the nine was elected unopposed – Michael Howard.
  • Two were backbenchers when elected – Howard and Johnson.
  • Four were subject to leadership challenges: Heath, Thatcher (twice), Duncan Smith and May.
  • Three of these took place before the rules governing challenges were changed in 1998 (Heath and Thatcher, twice) and two after (Duncan Smith and May).
  • Two were Leader of the Opposition when challenged: Heath and Duncan Smith. Both lost. Heath was challenged by Thatcher in 1975. Duncan Smith contested a ballot of Conservative MPs in 2003 that had been triggered by the required percentage of Tory MPs.
  • Two were Prime Minister when challenged: Thatcher and May.  Both won (Thatcher twice).  Thatcher was challenged by Anthony Meyer in 1989 and by Michael Heseltine in 1990.  May contested a ballot of Conservative MPs that had been triggered by the required percentage of Conservative MPs.
  • Thatcher resigned shortly after winning the first ballot of the 1990 contest; May resigned in June 2019 having won a ballot of Conservative MPs in December 2018.
  • John Major resigned as Conservative leader in 1995, stood for re-election, and was returned by Tory MPs.

The only point I would stress is that no Conservative leader challenged when Prime Minister has either a) lost a confidence ballot and b) survived winning one by even a year (the Meyer challenge to Thatcher took place in December 1989, the Heseltine one in November 1990).

Peter Franklin: Don’t turn the Conservative Party into a cargo cult

23 May

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

In the 1930s and 40s, the US military established military bases across the south Pacific. As a result remote island cultures, with little or no contact with the outside world, suddenly found themselves face-to-face with the might of twentieth century America. Though the islanders were in no position to understand the outsiders’ technology, for a brief moment they were able to share in its benefits. But then something terrible happened: the visitors went away again.

It may be that some of the islanders were happy to see the back of the Americans, but others were desperate for the visitors — and their hitherto unimaginable wealth — to return. Indeed, in some places that longing took on a religious aspect.

So-called cargo cults sprang up in numerous locations. Cult practices sometimes took the form of ritually re-enacting the mysterious things that the visitors got up to — like clearing landing strips in the jungle. In other cases, mock aircraft were created out of local materials and symbols like the Red Cross reproduced as objects of reverence. The hope was that such rites would somehow bring back what had been lost.

Cargo cults might seem ridiculous to us — and in fact the term itself has fallen out of academic favour for that very reason. However, we westerners would be foolish to assume that we’re not susceptible to the same kind of thinking. Instead of working through the challenges that face us in the here-and-now, it is often easier to re-enact scenes from an imagined heyday.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with respecting the past and trying to learn from it. But equally we must be aware that our problems are constantly changing, and the solutions that we apply must change with them.

I’m worried that a discombobulated Conservative Party has forgotten this. Consider, for instance, our response to the return of inflation — and the criticism directed at the Bank of England for not getting on top of it. Clearly, we’ve got a major problem on our hands, but the idea that we can solve it by yanking up interest rates — because that’s what worked before — is pure cargo cultism.

The inflationary monster today is not the same beast that was slain in the 1980s. Nor does its origin lie in the last decade or so of very low interest rates, otherwise it would have shown itself years ago. Rather, the beast was born out of the extraordinary disruption to global supply chains caused by the pandemic and compounded by Putin’s war.

There was a furious reaction when the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, suggested that policymakers were helpless in the face of these inflationary pressures. Bailey could have chosen his words more carefully, but he’s a lot closer to the truth than those who believe that UK interest rates can control global commodity prices.

Other Conservatives see a lack of growth as a bigger problem than rocketing prices. In the long term, they’re probably right — but they’re wrong about the means by which they want to revive the economy: i.e. tax cuts. Again, we see a demand for the ritual re-enactment of policies from the Thatcher era; but the conditions that applied then don’t apply now.

We’re not perpetually on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve. Rather our number one economic problem is the chronic failure of British business to invest in productivity improvements — despite the incentives of lower Corporation Tax, cheap migrant labour and minimal borrowing costs. The Chancellor acknowledged this structural impediment in his Mais Lecture earlier this year, but even he felt the need to appease the tax cut fetishists in his ill-fated Spring Statement.

The ritual re-enactment of past triumphs isn’t limited to economic policy. The Conservative cargo cult is also attempting to resurrect the Right to Buy. To widespread groans, the Government has dusted off a policy to extend the Right so that housing association tenants can buy their homes too.

This is fine in principle, but the offer isn’t attractive without a hefty discount on the market value of the relevant properties— and who is going to pay for that? First proposed in 2015, the Government has already tried, and failed, to make this policy work. There’s no reason to suppose that a second attempt will be any more successful. One has to ask whether a serious effort will be made at all — or whether the announcement was just an excuse to conjure up the past.

However, I don’t want to give the impression that the conservative cargo cult is only about the 1980s. Thatcherite nostalgia is big part of it, but there are more recent triumphs to hark back to — not least, our miraculous escape from the clutches of the EU.

However, the problem with getting Brexit done is that you can’t do it again. Or can you? One fears that the main reason why the government has chosen this moment to unpick the Northern Ireland Protocol is that it needs a Brexity distraction. But if they think they can summon up the spirit of 2019, they’re badly mistaken. Brexit was about getting the EU out of our lives and allowing the UK to forge its own path. That means levelling-up and shaping and economy that works for everyone, not refighting old battles.

That’s why my heart sank when I read about Suella Braverman’s call to bring back the Conservative Party’s torch logo. Digging up this old totem really would be the ultimate cargo cult move. But anyone who thinks that dressing up in Margaret Thatcher’s clothes is going to stop Labour from taking back the Red Wall or the Liberal Democrats from making in-roads down South is deluding themselves.

If the Conservative Party really wants to honour its past, then, like Thatcher, it must fearlessly face-up to and tackle the problems of the present. If that means breaking new ground and attempting the previously impossible, then so be it. After all, our greatest duty to tradition is to take it forward into the future.

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

20 May

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

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

She is a passionate defender of British values:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Braverman: “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Macdonald: It’s unsustaintable for the Tories to offer so little to younger voters

10 May

John Macdonald is the Head of Government Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

It’s not just the cities, or the young and aspirational that the Conservatives are losing. Their very political engine is starting to break down, and to make it worse, they appear to be burying their heads in the sand – whilst simultaneously arguing that Labour’s success in London bodes poorly for the next general election.

Losing both Margaret Thatcher’s favoured Wandsworth Council and Westminster too suggests that the Tories are quite content with sacrificing aspirant prosperity for declinist welfarism.

Perhaps this is because voters have traditionally drifted towards the Conservatives as they got older. But rather than being an iron law, this is more simply a product of circumstance. The boomer generation was buoyed on a current of unprecedented economic growth, rising wages and the prospect of home ownership. Without any of these three factors in place, there is little reason for this phenomenon to be reproduced. In reality, there is no evidence to suggest people under 40 are moving right at all.

This was all well and good in the context of the 2019 election. By promising an end to 2017’s ‘Zombie Parliament’, end the Brexit headache and take the country Corbyn-neutral, the Conservatives could assemble a well distributed coalition of disenfranchised Labour-leavers in the North and Midlands, without worrying about losing their southern, prosperous (but often remain leaning) heartlands – on the basis that a vote for anyone other than the Conservatives would bring Jeremy Corbyn one step closer to occupying Downing Street.

But since Brexit is now more about results than bluster, blunder, and blue skies, and the Government is seen to be doing too little to alleviate the cost of living crisis, there is now space for voters to coalesce around anti-Tory sentiment.

It is looking increasingly uncertain whether the Conservatives will be able to hold on to their old, prosperous heartlands in the south while protecting their 2019 marginal seats in the North and Midlands. If voters become more at ease with a Lib/Lab coalition, the Tories’ thumping majority could end up being very short-lived.

In pursuing a political narrative of redistribution, from young to old, from prosperous south to left behind north, the Conservatives have fundamentally misunderstood the underlying challenges facing the country. Productivity and real wages haven’t recovered since 2008. The average house price is 65 times higher than in 1970. But average wages are only 36 times higher. The Government has announced tax rises worth two per cent of GDP over the last two years, the same that the last Labour Government did in ten.

This might not be so bad for those in or approaching retirement, who will be spared paying for the pandemic and will benefit from the rapidly rising value of their homes. But the young have lost formative years of education, early career opportunities and freedoms to a pandemic that they are paying through the nose for.

As it currently stands, the Government is creating a bloc of young voters that attempt to move from their place of their birth to seek prosperity, only to find themselves in cities being paid low wages, taxed at a high marginal rate of 42.2 per cent (if they’re a graduate) and scant chance of getting anywhere near the housing ladder. Quite often, these graduates then return home to non-graduate jobs, embittered by the stark reality that the economy is more oriented towards extracting revenue from them, rather than giving them the opportunity to live, work and start a family where they so choose.

What can be done? The Government could seriously consider treating Covid debt as war debt, hiving it off to be paid back at a much slower rate, and freeing the Treasury from its current, revenue first, growth second tax mentality, a policy being privately pushed by Liz Truss. Rather than exempting young people from income tax entirely, thresholds could be unfrozen, giving them a significant tax cut in real terms.

Adjusting student loan interest via CPI, the Government’s own standard measure of inflation rather than the higher RPI would also ease the pain on graduates reaching the soon to be lowered repayment threshold. Providing maintenance loans on the same terms to apprentices as students could also extend opportunities to those who don’t go to university.

To suggest that the Conservatives face a long-term existential crisis could be hyperbolic. They have succeeded at re-engineering the party time and time again, and the cohort they are targeting with welfare and subsidy is only just reaching its peak electoral salience.

But the Tories’ electoral strategy is jettisoning the fuel behind the prosperity of older generations, allowing them to coast without firing up the engines of growth. But unless the Party reorients itself around value creation, building houses and in offering young people a genuine shot at prosperity, it risks sliding into decline.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: This Prime Minister has never sounded so contrite, and it seemed to work

19 Apr

Never has Boris Johnson said sorry so often, so publicly and with such a sombre demeanour. Tory MPs repeatedly sought to extenuate the mistake for which he was given a fixed penalty notice by the Metropolitan Police.

“Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice,” was Othello’s last plea. Johnson did not make that argument in his statement, and would not be tempted, by dozens of supportive Conservatives, into making it as he took question after question.

Mark Harper (Con, Forest of Dean) was very far from supportive: “I no longer think he is worthy of the great office he holds.”

The Prime Minister did not rise to this, but instead continued to humble himself: “I bitterly regret the event in Downing Street as I said.”

This was a big day for Sir Keir Starmer. He began with the words: “What a joke!”

A difficult opening line. Sir Keir spoke it in the manner of a cook who has handed in his notice.

“They know what he is,” Sir Keir went on, indicating the Conservative benches.

“The Chancellor’s career up in flames,” he continued, as an example of how everything went wrong under Johnson.

But why should Sir Keir mind if the Chancellor’s career has gone up in flames? His aim, after all, was to make sure that Johnson’s career went down in flames, an objective not promoted by making implausible assertions.

“The Prime Minister knows what he is,” Sir Keir continued, still in infuriated cook mode.

He then brought in John Robinson, from Lichfield, who because of Covid rules could not be with his mortally ill wife: “John would have given the world to hold his dying wife’s hand even for nine minutes.”

Johnson nodded, more sombre even than Sir Keir. In July 2019, when he took office, I do not think Johnson would have been capable of this.

A thousand days later, he looks older and sadder, and no sign could be detected of his old habit of lightening a serious moment by making a joke.

By the time Paul Howell (Con, Sedgefield) said of Johnson’s offence, “I certainly do not think it is a resigning matter,” it was clear that most of those on the Tory benches agreed with this remark.

Stephen Kinnock (Lab, Aberavon) referred to the resignations of Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher. Johnson could not say, but many will have reflected, that Chamberlain’s resignation took place when this country was suffering a military catastrophe, and Thatcher’s when her government was split from head to toe on the European issue, and had introduced the perilously unpopular poll tax.

So the question of proportion hovered over all this. Johnson had spoken also of Ukraine, where great and terrible events are unfolding.

He declined to make the connection. Nor would his accusers, for they were intent on maintaining the highest moral tone. They had every right to do this, perhaps it was their duty to do this, but one could not help feeling that there was an element of willed indignation in some of their protestations.

We Zoomers are looking for our Falklands moment – and for our Margaret Thatcher.

6 Apr

At a dinner during the recent Blackpool Spring Conference, members of the ConservativeHome team discussed which major event first sparked their interest in politics.

This lead, unsurprisingly, to a discussion of how old we were and where we had been when we had heard the dreadful news on September 11 2001.

“I was eight, and at school”, came one reply. “I was at university, writing an essay”, came another. It was my turn. I looked a little sheepish. “Erm, I don’t really know where I was. I was 1.” Silence from the assembled team. “I was probably in my nappy.” I helpfully added.

They were incredulous. Various comments went around about my making them feel ancient. But there was also interest and astonishment at that central revelation – that there are people now working in politics who can’t remember a world before 9/11.

In fact, as someone born in 1999, several big political events penetrated my young consciousness. I can remember watching unemployment tick up in 2008, David Cameron and Nick Clegg waving from Downing Street in 2010, and Russian tanks rolling into Crimea in 2014.

I only really got into politics later that year, with the Scottish independence referendum. Since then, things have hardly been quiet: three general elections, Brexit, pandemics, wars, and Love Island. Certainly, all these referendums and elections and moments of historical importance have shaped my outlook and prevented me from junking my political interests for something more worthy.

But as we mark the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands War, it strikes me that that conflict had a similarly crucial affect on the young psyches of my parents as the various events of the last few years have had on mine.

Both were teenagers in 1982. Mum wanted to join the SAS. We still have a letter from Downing Street politely declining her request to enlist on the basis they took neither girls nor 13-year-olds. Dad wanted to be Ian Botham. Or, erm, Gary Numan.

Nevertheless, both were wise enough not to be teenage politicos. Having grown up during the 1970s (“Brown.” according to Dad. “Everything was brown.”), their experience of the news was limited to strikes, inflation, and a scary lady in blue becoming progressively more unpopular. Britain was a miserable country, where the memory of the Second World War acted as an immediate reminder of how far we had fallen.

So when the Argentinian junta – enthusiasts for sunglasses, inflation, and attaching electrodes to dissidents’ unmentionables – occupied those soggy little faraway islands, it was naturally a shock. And quite exciting, for a pair of teenagers still coming down from the highs of the Iranian Embassy siege and Bob Willis taking 8-43 at Headingley.

They both followed the war obsessively. Dad can still remember listening on the radio as Port Stanley was liberated. For both, they understood it as a turning point. This supposedly clapped-out, impoverished, relic of a country actually wasn’t actually any of those things. Britain was still Great, and we had found ourselves in the South Atlantic.

Today, 40 years on, those few weeks still hold an important place in my parents’ imagination. The Sheffield, Goose Green, Lieutenant Colonel Jones, Exocet, ‘Rejoice!’, and all the rest – words and images that sum up the moment when this country changed.

Yes, there was still more to do with reforming the unions, staring down Scargill, and falling out with Geoffrey Howe. But the impression I have always been left with is that is when you could tell the rot had stopped.

Of course, that afterglow wasn’t permanent. We may be far from the ‘sick man of Europe’ today – indeed, one would make the case we have long been its healthiest member – and the reforms that Thatcher introduced have lasted. But we are once again a country that has lost its pride.

My generation doesn’t really go in for patriotism. We may like a street party, enjoy the Olympics, and fervently believe that “it’s coming home” every time Harry Kane scores on the international stage. But the Falklands is as ancient for us as the Second World War was for my parents. We can’t imagine that world anymore, especially as lives pass and memory becomes myth.

For those of us worldly-wise enough to be young Conservatives there is a natural longing to recreate those halcyon days. The popularity of Liz Truss amongst teen Tories is not just down to her disco-dancing talents. Her aping of Thatcher, upsetting Russians and posing in tanks, appeals to those yearning for a figure of the stature, willpower, and magnificence of Grantham’s greatest daughter.

Having dated a few strong-willed OUCA Presidents and female Oxford chemists in my time, I can certainly understand the appeal. Freud would have a field day. We Zoomers are looking for our Falklands moment and for our Margaret Thatcher. After years of financial crises, Covid, austerity, and war, we are in desperate need of a victory to prove to us there is something to rejoice for.

The Ukraine Crisis and President Zelensky’s slightly scratches this itch. But it is someone else’s war. All the wars Britain has been involved in since the Falklands have been international interventions done in the name of highfalutin causes like human rights, fighting terrorism, and keeping in with the Americans. British lives have not been fighting for British soil.

Similarly, the pandemic saw many comparisons made with the Second World War. Whether through the V-E Day anniversary, Captain Tom’s deification, or the genuine sense of a combined national effort, it was our chance to ape the Home Front that every English schoolchild had studied. And since I was dishonourably discharged from my school RAF section for being rubbish at marching, it is the closest I will likely get to realising my dream of recreating the Battle of Britain.

But still. The pandemic was not a victory. It produced no heroes, however often we may have clapped. It did not prove to us that Britain was still brilliant. Instead, it saw the state rob us of our freedoms for two years whilst racking up a lot of debt, to protect us against a disease that largely affected the old and vulnerable. I want to forget it.

One of the reasons I backed Brexit as a 16-year-old was that I thought it could be a springboard to national revival. Three years of wrangling and the Government’s underwhelming approach to our new freedoms has ended those illusions. Britain may no longer be a nation in retreat, but it is hardly one heading for any sunlit uplands.

Perhaps I am being too gloomy. After all, Thatcher had been a teenager during the Second World War. For her, the task force’s endeavours were an opportunity to recapture the spirit of her beloved ‘Winston’, and prove Britain still was the country it had been. And it must have been the same for millions of others.

So. there might be something permanently nostalgic in the national psyche. I’m a particularly bad offender: with a young fogey wardrobe, passion for Bowie, and well-thumbed copy of Brideshead Revisited, I am as lost in the early 80s as DI Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes. Maybe I’m just pining for my own fantasy of what the Falklands War meant.

And yet I can’t help yearning for proof that Britain still has it in her, and for a Prime Minister willing to make tough but necessary choices. Sometimes, conflict is unavoidable, both in international relations and domestic politics. The Falklands proved the former, and Thatcher’s triumphs at home certainly proved the latter. Re-reading John Hoskyns’ Just in Time recently has reminded me of both the battles she had to fight and just how worthwhile they were.

Whether on Ukraine, housing, the NHS, or a half dozen other topics, we could do with some of her Iron today – and with some of her victories. Unhappy the land that has no heroes? No, unhappy the land that needs a hero.

Or, in this case, heroine.

James Bethell: The Government should drop the ban on asylum seekers working

22 Mar

Lord Bethell was Minister for Innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care during the pandemic.

The plight of Ukrainian refugees breaks my heart. There’s a strong feeling that they should be welcomed to Britain and given a safe-haven to rebuild their lives. I applaud the Government for moving quickly to make that happen. I have started the process to welcome my Ukrainian friend and her daughters to our home so she can live safely and restart her business in the UK. I hope we can make a difference to their lives.

The Ukrainian refugee crisis puts a vivid spotlight on the way we treat other asylum-seekers. Very few in the asylum system pass the government’s strict criteria for a work permit, which rules that unless you have been waiting more than 12 months and your profession is on the highly restrictive shortage occupation list, you must remain jobless.

To repeat, we have a Conservative government that effectively bans people from work, that stops them from improving their lot through their own individual hard work and effort.

Nothing could be more deeply un-Conservative. Utterly central to our beliefs is that the right to work is a basic human right. Margaret Thatcher put it very emphatically in her first speech to the Conservative Party Conference (1975),

” A man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the State as servant and not as master; these are the British inheritance. They are the essence of a free economy. And on that freedom all our others depend.”

She was right to see the right to work was a moral question, not an administrative authorisation to be decided by bureaucracies. She saw it on the same level as the unalienable constitutional rights listed in by the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, “life, liberty and the pursuit”. These rights, they argued, have been given to all humans by their Creator, and governments are created to protect.

I agree with Margaret Thatcher.

She is right that one of the unifying beliefs that unites the various traditions of Conservative thinking is that that the role of the state is to help people into work, not to stand in their way.

Around half of asylum-seekers are make successful applications, and we want those people to become integrated members of British society, standing on their own two feet and contributing to the national prosperity.

And for the other half, they will move on, either to return to their homeland or to make a home elsewhere, and we would like to think that their time in the UK had left them with a positive impression. Emasculating both groups by denying them the right to work during their application period will not encourage them to become responsible members of society, quite the opposite.

Instead of following core Conservative principles, the Government seeks to hold on to this ridiculous rule which was introduced by a Labour Government in 2002. Instead of encouraging people to take responsibility for their lives and benefiting from their hard work, we demand that people perfectly capable and willing to work must instead sit on their hands and depend on state benefits, letting their skills go to waste, keeping them isolated from their local communities, and harming their chances of building a successful new life for themselves in which they contribute to the UK.

Whether or not people succeed with their asylum claim, while they are here waiting, they should be working, for the good of themselves and society. We have got the moral imperative the wrong way round. Protecting refugees does not mean locking them up or restricting their right to work.

Change would be popular among voters. YouGov Polling commissioned by the Lift the Ban coalition shows that more than 80 per cent of the public think that asylum seekers should be given the right to work while they wait. It’s not a great surprise that the public, who voted for a Conservative Government, support a policy that follows Conservative values.

Home in on individual constituencies and the results of the polling are more interesting still. Whether it’s a Blue Wall seat, a Red Wall seat, a Cabinet Seat, the Home Secretary’s seat or even the Prime Minister’s seat, most people think asylum seekers should be allowed to work.

And businesses want change as well. In polling carried out by Survation, 60 per cent said they supported asylum seekers working. As Conservatives we are the party of business, and we must make sure that this is loud and clear.

By denying people seeking asylum the right to work we are also depriving businesses of much-needed labour.

It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that the UK has a huge labour shortage problem. According to the ONS figures release in February there were 1.3 million job vacancies in the period November to January, another record.

That’s thousands of businesses up and down the country who are keen to build back better post Covid and see the UK take back control as Brexit allows us to do. Instead, they are being hamstrung by red tape that has somehow become Conservative policy to keep in place rather than consign to the policy bin.

As well as individual prosperity and national prosperity, we must also remind ourselves we are the party of fiscal responsibility and small government.

Stopping asylum seekers from working leaves taxpayers to foot the unnecessary bill, not just for the benefits paid out to people in the asylum system, but for all the lost income from tax and national insurance receipts.

The latest round of Immigration statistics shows the number of people waiting more than six months for a decision on their asylum claim at 62,000 – estimates suggest that this costs the Government more than £200 million a year.

We should not be frittering away that sort of money, especially as we must pay for all the state spending during the pandemic. When people from Ukraine enter our asylum system they, like other refugees who have been waiting months and years for a decision on their claim, will want to work. And we have decided that we will let them.

As Conservatives, we must extend this principle to others who find themselves stuck in limbo through no fault of their own.