Stewart Jackson: A reshuffle that moved some of the Prime Minister’s critics into the Cabinet would be prudent

10 Jan

Stewart Jackson is a former Conservative MP and Special Adviser, and is the Founder and Director of UK Political Insight.

The precipitous recent decline in the poll ratings of the Prime Minister and predictions of electoral doom are indicative of two enduring phenomena: that Boris Johnson is unique and, like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair before him, dominates the political landscape.

Conservative MPs will largely sink or swim as a result of the electorate’s judgement of him. But there’s nothing new in these setbacks, and many Conservatives have little institutional memory, and perhaps little understanding, of the vicissitudes of modern politics.

The bien pensant liberal media classes and their cheerleaders such as Matthew Parris are loathe to concede it, but the Prime Minister is a historically significant figure. He not only led the movement (or at least the last throes of it) which resulted in the UK’s exit from the European Union but, more fundamentally, built a mighty vote-winning electoral coalition founded on culture and community rather than class and capital.

What Johnson has had in spades is not just celebrity and chutzpah, but luck: inheriting a safe Commons seat in 2001 when the Tories had detoxifying work in progress; coming to power in London during a Conservative renaissance in the capital when the voters were sick of Ken Livingstone, and quitting the Cabinet after the Chequers plan in 2018 – to usurp the pitiful May interregnum and break the Brexit impasse.

The Prime Minister’s greatest weakness is that he loves to be loved but, ironically, the more hysterical and cacophonous the shrieks of his critics, the stronger he becomes politically. To many Tory voters, all the usual suspects hate the Prime Minister – not least bcause they believe that he was and should be one of them.

However, he lacks a Praetorian Guard in Parliament who will walk through fire for him (even John Major had one) and the relationship that many Tory MPs have with the First Lord of the Treasury is cynical and transactional.

Covid restrictions, tax rises, self-inflicted wounds such as the Paterson affair, ethical issues, the fall out from reshuffles and recurring problems of miscommunication between Number Ten and Conservative MPs have all soured the glad confident morning of December 2019.

Johnson still has the power to forgive – and a reshuffle that pulled some hitherto irreconcilables and malcontents back into the tent would be prudent politics.

My erstwhile colleague at Crosby Textor and electoral wunderkind, Isaac Levido, has compared the post Covid scenario as like when the tide is at its lowest: all the Prime Minister’s problems lie like broken boats on the harbour floor.

Brexit and future relations with the EU, the cost of living crisis and soaring energy prices, social care and the demographic timebomb, delivering the levelling up agenda and regional and national infrastructure, the busted local government funding and planning systems respectively, fighting the “Blob” in the delivery and reform of publc services and the endemic problem of uncontrolled immigration – all are moving up the list of voter salience.

But there’s nothing new under the sun. In 1979, Thatcher wrestled with an inflation rate of 13 per cent and interest rates of 17 per cent. Even John Major, barely a year before besting Neil Kinnock in the 1992 General Election struggled with a jobless figure in the millions, 10 per cent interest rates and annual price rises of seven per cent – none of which Johnson will experience next year or, most likely, before the next general election.

The last two months will have actually helped Johnson and his most devoted supporters to shake free the contagion of complacency and “BoJo is teflon” exceptionalism: the Cabinet revolt against further Covid restrictions was  timely and good for efficient government. It means that in future, controversial policies are likely to be more routinely challenged, and will be improved upon by robust critique.  The Iraq War showed that Cabinet government by fan club very rarely ends well.

The Prime Minister’s most urgent strategic challenge is the same as that for Thatcher, Blair, Major and David Cameron – namely, how to reinvent his Government. For Brown and May – similar personalities – it was already too late. But such reworking was done in 1986 after Westland and in 1991 before the ERM catastrophe.

Most recently, David Cameron offers hope and inspiration. (Yes, I did write that sentence!) His clever decision to back a Private Members’ Bill to give effect to an EU Referendum in 2014 soothed the Eurosceptic fever in the Commons, and allowed the Conservatives to focus on their retail offering to voters at the 2015 election.

What also helped teamwork and discipline then was a narrow but consistent poll lead for Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, and the prospect of a re-energised Opposition and a possible SNP-Labour colation government.

Today, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is off life support, is winning the right to debate, is more credible than during the last six years, and sp tighter polls will concentrate the minds of fractious Conservative MPs. For all that, though, Labour is miles from looking like a government in waiting and, frankly, if Wes Streeting is the answer, it’s a very silly question.

Specifically, the Government must rebuild its demoralised electoral coalition, keep the Right broadly united and it develop a positive case for the continuance of a Conservative Government – a compelling narrative and a legacy.

Support amongst Leave voters has slumped from 72 per cent to 56 per cent during the last six months, and Red Wall voters are disilusioned and impatient.

Currently, many Tory supporters in the South and South West, ABs and C1s who voted Remain, but were terrified of a Corbyn government, are angry about tax rises, general incompetence, planning, Tory Sleaze 2.0 (sic) and are shopping around for a protest vote.

Ironically, Theresa May’s entrance speech on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street in July 2016 provides the Prime Minister’s own template for rejuvenation.

There’s more than enough time to deliver on a commitment to localism – a repeat of the successes in Tees Valley and the West Midlands. Michael Gove has the acumen and strategic nous to understand that building enough houses for young voters is now existential for the Conservative Party – after all, you can’t create capitalists who don’t and can’t own capital. And deregulation, tax cuts and demonstrable Brexit wins, such as freeports, must be front and centre in the Conservative story.

The voters don’t care for Singapore on the Thames, but they generally favour traditional Tory values.The Cabinet, for all the media criticism, still has condident and pesuasive voices, such as Steve Barclay, Grant Shapps and Ben Wallace.

Johnson still has aces to play: by historic standards, he’s still polling reasonably well, even if the May local elections will be brutal. And as public opinion in the wake of the Colston statue trial has shown, the War on Woke energises his base, and is a cultural wedge issue which drives many newer Conservative voters.

But such action will be hobbled without firm and radical action on immigration.Similarly, “barnacles must be scraped off the boat” – such as socially liberal tokenism in new legislation, tax rises to fund green initiatives and appointing political opponents to public bodies.

It surely isn’t too much to ask for a Conservative Government to be, well, fundamentally Conservative? Competent, compassionate and communitarian. Johnson has limited time to deliver but at least he now knows and comprehends more than ever, as a classical scholar, the immortal words of the Roman slave to his Emperor: “respice post te, mortalem esse memento” – “look around you, remember you are mortal.”

Robert Halfon: Beware the bear traps. The Conservatives’ biggest threat is complacency.

2 Jun

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

I remember the 1992 election. I was at Exeter University at the time completing a Masters degree, and can recall some events like the back of my hand. Neil Kinnock’s infamous Sheffield Rally being a special highlight.

On the Saturday after the poll, I was in a pub where I used to go every week for lunch and catch up with the newspapers and a very good chilli con-carne. The papers were full of commentary discussing the death of Labour and the new Tory Century.

The Guardian had a bitter cartoon by Steve Bell, about the Conservative success, which said “we rule you, we fool you… but you still vote for us”. John Major had not only achieved an election victory against the odds – and many predictions – but the Tories had gained the highest popular vote since the Second World War.

Five years later, Labour was in power under Tony Blair, with a massive victory. Conservatives were reduced to a small rump of MPs from only the heartiest of blue heartlands. The Tories were not to win a proper healthy majority until Boris Johnson’s extraordinary victory in December 2019. There was even a book published (in 2005) during the long opposition years called The Strange Death of Tory England’.

After the 2019 General Election success, and the remarkable local elections last month, history is repeating itself. The newspapers on May 8 May 2021, were almost word for word of what was said on May 3 1997. It is the Tory Century, Labour is finished etc etc.

Well, I like to think of myself as an optimist, and I definitely believe that Johnson has proved himself again and again, to be an election winner. But, for a number of reasons, I really worry when so many in our party and in the media think that is all over for the centre-left.

First: Events. Who can tell what will happen by Christmas, let alone by 2024?  Who could have ever imagined the last 16 months? Before the vaccine programme, Tory poll projectory last year was on a downer. As Donald Rumsfeld once said, there are so many unknown unknowns, that the idea all will be plain sailing for Tories is for the birds.

Second: The Labour Party. Ok – so Keir Starmer, can’t see the wood from the trees, and as yet has not laid a real glove on Johnson. But Labour remains a hugely motivated historical movement that has at its core a powerful message of helping the underdog. The moderate left are not just going to sit by forever and become extinct like political dodos. At some point – whether it comes before 2024 or after – they will reinvent themselves and renew. It happened under Blair and will happen again under a new Leader.

Third: A “Progressive Alliance”. It is not beyond the wit of the soft left, to form an alliance with the other left-of-centre parties.  This does not necessarily have to mean a “progressive” coalition in Government, but for Labour to stand down in parliamentary constituencies where another left party is in a good place to win – and vice versa. Such things are not implausible. After all, it happened on the centre right in 2019, when the Brexit Party stood down in most Tory seats to ensure a clear Conservative majority parliament for Brexit.

Fourth: The economy and jobs. So far, the economy appears to be bouncing back from lockdown. But what happens if there is a severe recession, or unemployment doesn’t ratchet down fast enough. At some point the £400 billion plus of taxpayers monies, spent by the Government during the pandemic, is going to have to be paid back. There will be tough decision after tough decision, which will dent Tory popularity in the polls.

Fifth: The thing that I perhaps fear the most is Tory complacency. We have many strengths, but when things are going well for us politically, our party has a tendency to put our foot in it – to say unsayable things, to be perceived as harsh and uncaring and appear to be on the side of the well-heeled rather than the just-about-managing – both in language and policy. The drip, drip, drip of these things can be corrosive. It has happened before and is one of the reasons why it took the Tory Party until the 2019 election to be properly trusted again by the public.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a misery-guts or as the Prime Minister calls “a gloomster”. Far from it. I am excited by the election victories we have had (after the local elections, my own Harlow constituency now has a majority Conservative Council for only the second time in the town’s history). Our Red Wall victories are enormous and the MPs who represent those seats are very impressive campaigners. Moreover, the levelling-up agenda – especially on skills – gladdens every Conservative. I just hope we remember there are enormous bear traps ahead, some of which will not even be of our making.

Norcott tells us why Radio Four is no longer funny

29 May

Where Did I Go Right? How The Left Lost Me by Geoff Norcott

When did comedy on BBC Radio Four become no laughing matter? And why has Labour lost the working class?

If Geoff Norcott were writing this review, he would now drop in a deadpan joke, just to reassure the reader, or readers, that he is not about to go all portentous on us.

He sounds nervous about not being funny enough often enough. For a comedian, this is a good fear to have, though at a personal level it must also get wearing.

There are laughs on almost every page of Norcott’s memoir. “I laughed out loud – Andrew Gimson, ConservativeHome” will not shift a single extra copy, could indeed reduce sales by suggesting that no decent, left-wing member of society would want to be seen dead reading this book.

All the same, I laughed out loud. And since I never quite believe recommendations of this kind – for it is more than possible that the reviewer is given to over-statement, or is trading favours with the author, or else has absolutely no sense of humour – here is a passage by Norcott himself.

His father, a one-armed trade unionist, has become seriously ill, and the family have gathered at the hospital, braced for bad news:

The consultant breezed in. You might think “breezed'” is already a verb loading the bases for bias but there’s no other way of describing it. She was in her early forties, seemed to be sporting a recent suntan and bore no hallmarks of someone about to deliver the kind of sombre news she was there to impart. As she checked the notes she seemed to remember the context and did a tilted head sad-face which reminded me of Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous when she feigned melancholy with her daughter Saffie. 

She started with a decent level of gravitas, “So I’m afraid to say it is late-stage pancreatic cancer.”

We all stopped, breathed in and looked at one another.

Then, after a brief pause, the consultant added, “It’s the same cancer Patrick Swayze died of.”

I stared straight at her. It was such a bizarre thing to say. I didn’t know what she was getting at, whether she’d said that to shed light on the condition or if she was suggesting we, as a family, should be proud that our dad was going out with a relatively high-profile cancer twin. Meanwhile, Dad was staring so hard at the woman I was convinced he was about to turn the air blue.

“Who the fuck is Patrick Swayze?” he eventually asked, never especially up on pop culture.

“He’s the one from Big Trouble in Little China,” my sister explained.

“No,” I interrupted, “that’s Kurt Russell, he just looks like Patrick Swayze.”

If you enjoyed that passage, you will enjoy Norcott’s book. If not, not.

But this book is not just enjoyable. It also explains, without portentousness, why comedy on Radio 4 has stopped being funny, and why Labour lost the workers.

For Norcott is a comedian who alone among his trade, decided to come out as a Conservative. In this memoir he describes his journey, as Tony Blair would call it, from a dodgy South London council estate to voting Tory.

Looking back, he detects twinges of small-c conservatism even his his childhood. At the age of 11, he goes off to school, leaving his mother in her dressing gown, “smoking and gasbagging” with the other mums, who are sitting on the stairs adjacent to her front door:

“When I got back at 3.30 p.m. she was still sitting there, still in her dressing gown. I was livid.”

He remarks that this experience “has left me with a lifelong distrust of dressing gowns”.

He was certainly not ready to come out as a Conservative, but he does already have a “pathological fear of poverty”. His parents have got divorced, which makes their finances more precarious, but he admires the work ethic of his stepfather.

This, palpably, is the way to escape poverty, as long the state doesn’t take most of your money in taxes and hand it out to the idlers on the estate who sit around all day in their dressing gowns, getting more money from inactivity than they would from an honest day’s toil.

But I have slipped into preaching mode, which Norcott never does. His conservatism is more a matter of intimations than of moral certainties.

Those belong to the Left. His parents took every chance to reinforce the prevailing narrative that the Tories “don’t give a toss about normal people”.

Something about this doesn’t quite fit. Norcott, born in 1976, goes to Rutlish School in Merton Park, and while he is there, a former pupil becomes Prime Minister.

At the 1992 General Election, the Conservatives run a successful ad campaign addressing the charge that they don’t care about normal people:

“What did the Tories do with a working-class boy from Brixton? They made him prime minister.”

Norcott is not exactly a Major fan:

“Like most people in Britain at that time, my view was that I didn’t mind him. He inspired an almost ideological level of ambivalence.”

Yet when Major comes to speak at his old school, it turns out there is more to him than that:

“The staff at Rutlish, like at most teaching faculties, were overwhelmingly left wing. Coming off the back of the Thatcher years, they were quite open in their contempt for the Tories. And yet, on the night Major came, it’s fair to say he surprised everybody by charming their leftie pants right off them. ‘What an honest man,’ they eulogised. It was also noticeable that he had a particular effect on the ladies. Before his affair with Edwina Currie became public knowledge, the last thing you’d have had Major down as would’ve been a ‘playa’, but the female staff were disturbed by how charismatic they found him… As my mate Michael put it, having met him, ‘The bloke’s a fucking unit. He’s got shoulders like a cupboard.'”

Norcott observes that the Labour candidate, Neil Kinnock, “seems a bit of a pillock”, for example by saying “We’re all right!” in “a preposterous American accent” at “a needlessly glitzy and self-congratulatory rally in Sheffield”.

It is also harder, Norcott remarks, to become Prime Minister if you are “bald, ginger or Welsh”, and “Kinnock was all three”:

“I’m not saying those aversions are morally justifiable but part of the Conservative mindset is understanding the public as it is, not as you wish it to be.”

In the mock general election held at his school in 1992, the year Major astonished the pundits by winning, Norcott ran as a Liberal Democrat.

Not long after this, his mother loses the use of her legs, he has to spend a lot of time looking after her, and his predicted grades at A level slump.

Goldsmiths College, whose recent alumni include Damien Hurst, Blur and Tracey Emin, offers him a place to read English if he gets two Bs and a C.

He astonishes everyone, including himself, by getting three As, but goes to Goldsmiths anyhow, where he finds the corridors “full of toytown revolutionaries trying to save Cuba, whales and rainforests”, while “a lot of the people I knew back in Mitcham were still busy trying to save themselves and their families”.

For the first time, he realises that he is “properly working class”. When people look down on him he feels chippy, but when they are supportive he feels patronised.

He has one or two strange jobs in advertising, veers into becoming an English teacher, almost by accident starts a parallel career on the comedy circuit, and gets married to the love of his life, who suggests, when he has gone full-time as a comic and is casting around for new material, that he could make some jokes about becoming a Conservative.

Which he does. The joke is that he is the only Conservative comedian. The entire trade is monolithically left-wing, which is one reason (though he doesn’t bother, or is too tactful, to point this out) why Radio Four has ceased to be in the slightest bit funny (though I admit it may have started to be funny again: I reach with desperate agility for the off button whenever a supposedly comic programme is about to be aired).

We are being told what to think. Instead of being invited to laugh at the world as it is, we are instructed to hold the right opinions about the world as it ought to be.

The objection to the progressive package deal is not that the opinions are wrong, but that they are compulsory.

Puritans can’t bear the theatre, its frivolity, immorality and unpredictability. They yearn to shut it down, and somehow they have managed to shut it down on Radio Four, crushed beneath a leaden layer of self-censorship.

The subversiveness of comedy – which usually includes the absurdity of the comic, the willingness of him or her to look ridiculous and make jokes at his or her own expense – has been supplanted by a uniform and monumentally dull moral certainty.

Self-righteousness is not funny, but why waste one’s time getting into a row about it, when the only effect is to make one’s opponents more self-righteous.

As the 2015 General Election approaches,

“In the circles I moved in, it seemed it had been universally decided that no one agreed with austerity and unconvincing head of sixth form Ed Miliband would surely become leader of the world’s fifth largest economy.”

Instead of which, the Conservatives under David Cameron win an overall majority of 17. “WHO DID THIS?” Norcott’s right-on colleagues scream.

“11.3 million people,” he wants to reply, but is “hesitant about throwing sarcasm into an already febrile environment”.

The media devote a lot of attention to the “Shy Tory” phenomenon, but in Norcott’s view they overcomplicate the matter, for

“all that really happened was people had seen the increasingly vengeful moral certainty of the Left in full view since 2010 and had wisely decided to keep schtum.”

Norcott is not particularly keen on Boris Johnson, and says almost nothing about him in this book: “He’s not my kind of politician.”

But one cannot help reflecting, as one reads this account of the awakening of a South London Conservative, that one reason for Johnson’s success is his unrivalled ability to mock the solemn rule of virtue which the self-righteous hypocrites of North London are determined to impose on us.

Commissioners are to be sent in to run Liverpool: Where are the Labour protests?

22 Mar

Neil Kinnock, in his Leader’s speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1985, offered the following memorable rebuke to his colleagues who were leading Liverpool City Council:

“I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions; they are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-placed, outdated, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council, a Labour council, hiring taxis to scuttle round the city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers. I tell you – and you’ll listen – you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and people’s homes and people’s services.”

Soon after that, figures in the Militant Tendency who had such dominance in the City – such as Derek Hatton – were expelled from the Labour Party. Their failure to set a legal budget for Liverpool City Council also resulted in legal action by the District Auditor and the councillors responsible being disqualified from office. For a few months, this meant the Liberals running the Council. Once the vacancies were filled it was back under Labour control – but no longer led by supporters of the Militant Tendency.

Municipal turmoil has now returned to the City. The Telegraph reports that “the Government is poised to take over the running of the city of Liverpool this week after a string of corruption allegations.” It adds:

“The expected decision by the Local Government secretary Robert Jenrick to intervene in the running of one of the UK’s biggest cities is unprecedented in modern times. Commissioners could be sent in to run the day-to-day operations of the council for several years, something which has only happened three times in the past 25 years. Commissioners were sent in by the Government to take over the running of councils in Northampton in 2018, Rotherham in 2015 and Towers Hamlets in 2014. None of them was the scale of a city like Liverpool, however. Max Caller, a respected local government inspector who was the commissioner in Tower Hamlets, was appointed by Mr Jenrick to lead the investigation into Liverpool last December. Mr Caller focused his investigation on property management, regeneration, highways, contracts and planning at the council over the past five years.”

The report added that the “city’s accounts have not been signed off by auditors for the past five years because of the continuing police inquiry into financial irregularities.”

Caller has something of a reputation. As Paul noted in December:

“In 2014, Max Caller was sent as a commissioner into Tower Hamlets.  The council did not regain control of the borough until 2017.  In 2018, he was appointed to head an investigation into Northamptonshire.  Next year, that county council will be abolished.  Caller has now been sent to Liverpool.”

I have no idea how Caller votes. But it is interesting that the prospect of him being despatched by a Conservative Government to sort out the City’s affairs has been greeted by Liverpudlians with equanimity. No strikes. No riots. No protests. Where are the furious denunciations from the City’s five Labour MPs? Even Dan Carden, the Corbynista MP for Liverpool Walton, preferred to tweet about green spaces this morning. A spokesman for the Council told the Liverpool Echo that he was “unable to comment.”

Of course, for a Government pledged to increase localism, sending in commissioners is a drastic decision contemplated in only the most exceptional of circumstances. The point that Caller is always sent rather makes the point. He could hardly be everywhere at once. Fair-minded people will thus see that it is unreasonable to regard such a safeguard as an attack on democracy. They will see that if allegations of corruption are made, then they are investigated in a just but rigorous manner, and the rule of law upheld.

A more confrontational response to the anticipated intervention from Marsham Street is still possible. But the initial calmness in the Liverpudlian response offers some hope. Whatever failings in local governance in recent times, they surely can’t be as serious as those inflicted on the City in the 1980s. Yet the willingness to deal with problems has much wider acceptance. During the Thatcher Government, though the Militants were defeated, the City was never put under direct rule. The spirit now is to get on with whatever measures are needed. Liverpool has had a prosperous past. Freeport status offers a chance to be a hub of wealth creation once again. Giving investors confidence will be greatly helped by honest and responsible local government. That is what must be established.

Finkelstein shows that moderate, decent, pragmatic, intelligent conservatism is alive and well

5 Sep

Everything in Moderation by Daniel Finkelstein

One of the many merits of Daniel Finkelstein’s collection of his columns from The Times is that it sent me back, for purposes of comparison, to the two other collections by writers for that paper which I happen to possess.

Taking Sides, the first selection of Bernard Levin’s journalism to be published, includes his account of his mother’s troubles with the North Thames Gas Board, written in 1973. Rather to my surprise, it still made me laugh out loud.

Best Seat in the House: The Wit and Parliamentary Chronicles of Frank Johnson, edited by his widow, Virginia Fraser, includes the piece read at his memorial service by David Cameron, which was written in 1981 for Now! Magazine and begins:

“Unsuccessfully, as will now emerge, I had resolved from the outset that there were two subjects which had received sufficient airing on this page and would not be mentioned further: Wagner and Mr Roy Hattersley.

“Concerning the one: nobody in his right mind would deny his capacity for the sublime, his surges of lyricism, his sheer weight and scale, but there is also his torrential prolixity, his essentially outdated nineteenth-century attitude towards his art, his foggy symbolism and an epic tedium which modern audiences should surely not be expected to endure. These are some of the drawbacks of Mr Hattersley.”

Again I laughed out loud. Johnson was an even finer comic writer than Levin. They were among the wittiest figures of their time, gave enormous pleasure to their readers, and are now passing into the obscurity which awaits even the most celebrated journalists.

Finkelstein is not so brilliant a stylist as his two illustrious predecessors, but it is right to place him in this tradition, for since the age of eight, when he started to read The Times for its football coverage, he has been a devoted reader of that paper, and treats it with the high seriousness, one might say the reverence, which is required if one is going to do one’s best work for it.

He is now 58, has contributed to The Times since 2001, and brings to it several qualities which neither Levin nor Johnson possessed. One is a knowledge of politics as conducted on the inside: Finkelstein has worked closely for David Owen, John Major, William Hague, George Osborne and David Cameron.

His columns are informed by his experience of what works, and more importantly, what does not work. On 4th October 2006 he began a piece with the words:

“I am worried about David Cameron. I fear he will have too much policy. I am concerned that there will be too much substance and not enough style.”

Finkelstein proceeds to an exposition of political parties as “identity brands”:

“Voters make choices in order to make statements about themselves, to establish their own identity, as much as they do because of anything the parties offer them.”

I am allergic to the discussion of parties as “brands”, but Finkelstein does it so well that I always read him on the subject. Apart from anything else, he has invariably read some book, on, say, game theory or social psychology, which I know I shall never read myself, and has extracted valuable insights from it, which he proceeds to share with his readers.

The principal task of the social scientist is to establish, by the most laborious research, the truth of propositions which were already known, by anyone with a modicum of common sense, to be true.

Finkelstein gives us the best of this social science, without himself degenerating into a deluded policy wonk. As he goes on to say in his piece about brands:

“Policymaking…is a bit of a con. Manifestos pretend to be an entire programme for government when in reality even the most detailed of them only cover a few items. Voters don’t make judgments based on these programmes and they shouldn’t either.

“What matters is not such bogus ‘substance’, it is the governing style of the prospective rulers. Are they strong or weak? Interferers or liberals? Atlanticists or Europhiles? Moderates or extremists? Localisers or centralisers? Tax cutters or big spenders?”

And he applies this insight to the then Labour Government:

“Labour has spent much of the past five years undoing stupid things it committed itself to in opposition and then did in its first five years. The problem with politicians, you see, is not that they don’t do what they say they will, but the opposite – they try to do what they said they would do, even after realising it wasn’t a good plan.”

I’m sure Boris Johnson – who barely appears in these pages – would agree with every word of that. So would Lord Salisbury, who said “the commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies”.

Like all good columnists, Finkelstein acknowledges his duty to entertain the reader. For New Year’s Eve 2014 he reflects on how much time he spends writing individual replies to emails, and devises a number of standard replies to the most common emails:

“Thank you for your email. I would be happy to help you with your PhD on ‘Idiots who have given the Conservative Party electorally disastrous advice’. Please thank your supervisor for thinking of me. Since you need only four hours of my time, we must fit in a meeting. It might be difficult in the next twelve months, as it is election year, but I will make every effort to organise it. It would certainly be easier for me if I didn’t need to visit you in Sheffield.”

If Finkelstein had wanted to be a comic writer, he might have been in the Stephen Leacock class. But the charm of his columns lies in their mixture of deeply felt politics with a sense of his own absurdity.

Max Beerbohm said Trollope reminds us that sanity need not be philistine. Something similar might be said of Finkelstein. He reminds us that a devotion to compromise, moderation, loving one’s parents and getting on with one’s neighbours need not be philistine: are among the pillars of our civilisation.

He defends the suburbs, including Brent Cross Shopping Centre, and made me feel a bit snobbish for disliking that place so much.

And although he makes almost no references to English literature, not even to that eminently political playwright, William Shakespeare, Finkelstein knows more about our political history, and our 55 Prime Ministers, than just about any other columnist now writing.

When he suggests that “the British voter never gets it wrong”, and the right party has won every election for the last 80 years, he is not indulging in windy idealism, but has at his fingertips the arguments needed to support his case:

“You see, for all that the Conservatives fell apart in the 1992 Parliament, I still think it was clear that a Kinnock government would have been worse. No one needs to tell me how bad things got by 1997, because I was there (I always insist on the retention of that comma). But I still assert with confidence that the voters did the right thing putting the Conservatives back in power.

“Neil Kinnock was entirely unsuited to being prime minister. His endless whirling speeches showed that. As John Major pricelessly commented, as Kinnock didn’t know what he was saying, he never knew when he had finished saying it.”

A collection of newspaper articles is like a box of chocolates: one fears that if one scoffs the whole lot at a sitting, one will end up feeling sick.

But with Finkelstein, I kept on saying to myself “I’ll have just one more”, and didn’t end up feeling sick at all. I felt that moderate, decent, pragmatic, intelligent conservatism is alive and well.

Tony Devenish: The Greater London Authority is undermining localism

14 Jul

Tony Devenish is a member of the London Assembly for West Central.

Older ConservativeHome readers will remember when Neil Kinnock used his Party Conference speech to attacking the dysfunctional Liverpool City Council. In recent years, a handful of other councils have failed to protect vulnerable children or to manage their budget prudently. On each occasion, the Government of the day “calls in the inspectors”. Usually parachuting in former senior local government officers.

There appears to be less precedent for what to do with failure from a regional devolved administration. As a proud localist I welcomed the reforms from Blair/ Brown to Cameron/Osborne. Long overdue attempts to stop running the entire United Kingdom from one square mile in SW1. I am delighted to see many devolved authorities flourishing under dynamic leadership, regardless of party political label. Supported by their teams of local government staff. Andrew Street in the West Midlands, Ben Houchen in Teesside, and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, are just three positive examples.

It is profoundly painful for me to conclude that the Greater London Authority is in very real danger of undermining localism. More importantly, it is in danger of letting down Londoners at a time of a global health and economic emergency.

The foundation of the problem is the Greater London Authority Act (1999) which, like much of the “soundbite” agenda of Tony Blair, failed to adequately think through the consequences. The GLA which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary has prospered despite “cracks in the foundations”. Papered over by the professionalism of its local government staff; its Assembly Members, most of whom are steeped in London Borough public service. And especially by the “larger than life” personalities of the two senior politicians who each served London for eight years’ as Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, supported by first-rate Deputy Mayors. Most of whom were the calibre of a Cabinet Minister.

Success, let us be clear must have clear outcomes: Livingstone, Mayor from 2000 to 2008, successfully improved the bus services, built council homes, clamped down on pigeons (this may appear a niche point but these “flying rats” were a real health and tourism nuisance). He trod the “fine line” of opposing the Government when necessary and working in a grown-up partnership to win the 2012 Olympics.

Johnson, Mayor from 2008 to 2012, successfully cracked down on violent crime, helped make London the global epicentre for housing; delivered the Olympics, and championed business and wealth creation. This was when London faced the health, economic, and social consequences of potential increased unemployment. Like Livingstone, Johnson “batted for London” with No 11 Downing Street. Both Mayor’s began the task of placing our Environment at the centre of successive national Government’s priorities. So today it is very clear that the GLA is responsible for four key areas of public policy in London: crime, housing, transport, and our environment. Much of grassroots delivery remains with the London Boroughs.

Since 2016, something serious has gone wrong. Khan’s major culpability is his failure to build a collegiate team in over four years. City Hall is not a happy place. In fact, many call it “toxic”. Many people loathe Khan’s attitude that he simply is never wrong. That is the private view of many London borough leaders – Labour as much as Conservative and Lib Dem. It’s a view shared widely across local government staff and across a wide spectrum of other public and private stakeholders.

I have worked with the public sector for 31 years. I have been an elected London Borough councillor for 15 years. Many public sector staff do tend to change jobs with alarming frequency. But I have never seen the “revolving door” spin so fast as it has done since 2016 at the GLA. Khan has lost numerous Deputy Mayors and advisers, including his first Deputy Mayors for both Housing and Transport plus his Commissioner for Transport. The loss of dozens of senior staff is telling.

Khan’s outcomes can also be measured.

  • Violent crime : before the lockdown crime figure dip – major crimes were at a ten year peak. Khan is all but invisible when it comes to keeping Londoners safe.
  • House building has collapsed in London pre-Coronavirus. One of the most transparent outcomes of the revolving door of GLA staff is over half of the nearly £5 billion of taxpayers money allocated to the GLA over three years’ ago to build affordable housing has not been spent. Rob Jenrick’s Ministerial letter on the London Plan, 13 March 2020 was so damning on Khan’s performance that for once even Khan was nearly apologetic in his response.
  • Transport is beyond doubt Khan’s biggest failure. Khan blames Coronavirus for Transport for London requiring a £1.6 billion bailout. More will probably be required in October. The reality is the four year record of mismanagement. Crossrail is two years’ behind schedule or is it three? Khan cannot say. Our economy is the loser.
  • On the Environment, the third Mayor of London has prioritised expensive tax-raising anti-car projects over fast tracking electric buses. The latter is one of the few imaginative policies to come out of City Hall since 2016, thanks to Shaun Bailey AM , the Conservative Mayor of London candidate.

During our current health crisis, Khan as Mayor failed to show the leadership that Londoners took for granted under Livingstone or Johnson. Khan avoided the London Assembly for six weeks earning the label “the missing Mayor”. To quote one London Borough Leader (not a Tory) “Sadiq Khan added little at the Gold Command London Emergency meetings. He sat there, mostly silently, like a work placement intern”.

London Councils in partnership with Government have performed well since 23rd March. My thanks to London NHS and all our public services and our key workers. But this shows why the failures of the GLA can no longer be tolerated.

Khan calls for social distancing yet rams through increases to the Congestion Charge which will make the tube and bus network crowded as people return to work. He appeases the transport unions – which adds to the cost of running the oldest and most expensive underground rail network in the world. Few believe Transport for London is an economic going concern. Union “absenteeism” during Coronavirus has been proportionately three times greater than any other public sector workforce just like their pre-Christmas near annual strikes. Never a squeak out of Khan.

London needs a fully functioning transport network (the arteries of our economy) as we ease our way out of coronavirus so London remains the engine of the UK and global economy as we all get back to work. Jobs, jobs, jobs has to be our mantra. Faith groups, pensioners, residents, and businesses are contacting me in record numbers because City Hall simply does not “get it”. If the Mayor and the Greater London Authority cannot do their job, the Government and London Councils will have to call in the inspectors and wave goodbye to a superfluous City Hall.