Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Starmer decides to stick with what he knows, and attacks Johnson

18 Jul

Sir Keir Starmer is a difficult man to advise. He rejected this morning’s suggestion from Paul Goodman, editor of ConHome, that he begin his speech in today’s debate with the words:

“I was going to explain why we have no confidence in the Government, Mr Speaker. But I’ve no need to – since it’s clear that its Ministers have no confidence in their colleagues, and this Government has no confidence in itself.”

This theme would have been illustrated by quoting the attacks made on each other by the Tory leadership candidates on live TV on Sunday evening.

But no. Sir Keir decided to stick with what he knows. He attacked Boris Johnson:

“This is not the summer for Downing Street to be occupied by a vengeful squatter, mired in scandal.”

It was curious to see the Labour Leader concentrating his fire on a Prime Minister who is already on the way out, while ignoring the in-fighting between the various candidates to succeed him.

There were Labour people who felt an overwhelming urge, many years after the fall of Margaret Thatcher, to demonstrate to their own complete satisfaction that she was a bad person.

No hint of magnanimity was allowed to mar these bitter denunciations. Nor did it occur to those wanted to dig Thatcher up and throw stones at her that it might have been more telling, as well as more generous, to point out what a tremendous figure she was compared to those who came after her.

Perhaps for years to come we shall perhaps hear Sir Keir demonstrating that Johnson is a bad person.

But if the Leader of the Opposition does play things that way, he will sound even more than he usually does that he is saying what he himself finds comfortable.

Johnson in his speech offered a compilation album of his greatest hits, declared that “this Government is undefeated at the polls”, and insisted “we will find a new leader and we will coalesce in loyalty round him or her”.

On the front bench, he was supported by Liz Truss, Nadine Dorries, Ben Wallace, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Alister Jack among others.

From the back benches, Michael Fabricant suggested that “our party is making the same mistake that the Labour Party made when it knifed Tony Blair”.

“Already they ask themselves what they have done,” Sir Keir might have taunted them. That would have made for uncomfortable listening.

The post Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Starmer decides to stick with what he knows, and attacks Johnson appeared first on Conservative Home.

Victory in Harrow demonstrates a willingness among British Indians to vote Conservative

13 May

Victory! This word was not often needed by Conservatives in London as last week’s election results came in.

But in the London Borough of Harrow it was required, for here the Conservatives took control of the council from Labour, with the party winning 31 of the 55 seats.

How was this victory won? Why did Harrow prove more favourable territory than Wandsworth or Westminster?

A great part of the answer lies in the growing propensity of British Indians, who make up about a third of the population in Harrow, to vote Conservative.

This is not a phenomenon which can be conveyed in purely statistical terms, however impressive the statistics may be (and for this phenomenon they are still for the most part deficient).

At lunchtime yesterday I took a Metropolitan Line train from Finchley Road to Northwick Park, the stop before Harrow-on-the-Hill, a journey which still breathes the last enchantments of John Betjeman.

But one does not engage on this line only, or even mainly, with the past. One also sees something of the future.

A short walk from the station between well-maintained, 1930s pebble-dashed houses, often with expensive cars parked outside, brought me to Kenton Road, one of the borough’s principal thoroughfares, lined with mainly Indian businesses.

For no particular reason, other than hunger, I entered Ram’s Pure Vegetarian Restaurant, and ate a delicious lunch before engaging one of the proprietors, Prashant Upadhyay, in conversation.

He is 41, came to London from Gujarat in 2004 on a student visa, worked for five years without a holiday, acquired British citizenship and took over Ram’s, which he had observed to be a popular establishment.

In 2015 he was one of 60,000 British Indians who gathered in Wembley Stadium to cheer Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India and previously Chief Minister of Gujarat, who was on a visit to the United Kingdom.

Upadhyay did not pretend that all British Indians admire Modi. He put the split at 60 per cent who are in favour, and 40 per cent who are against.

He said Modi was a bit like Boris Johnson: people could tell you straight away whether or not they liked him.

David Cameron, then British Prime Minister, acted in 2015 as Modi’s warm-up act in Wembley Stadium. I confess that at the time, this event passed me by.

Having now watched a recording of Cameron’s speech, I can attest that the whole occasion is extraordinary. With what ebullient enthusiasm the Prime Minister is over and over again cheered to the echo as he declares that British Indians are “putting the great into Great Britain”, and that many of them are from Gujarat, information which elicits a particularly ecstatic cheer.

Johnson recently became the first British Prime Minister to visit Gujarat. “The timing was perfect,” a British Indian councillor in Harrow told ConHome with reference to the local elections.

Cameron pointed out in his Wembley speech that there are more MPs of Indian origin than ever before, named Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma, Suella Fernandes, Shailesh Vara and Priti Patel, and declared: “It won’t be long until there is a British Indian Prime Minister in Downing Street.” Tremendous cheers.

As I left Ram’s, Upadhyay was making his way next door, where he has an estate agency and a logistics business. He has moved to Watford, so his children can go to Parmiter’s School, which happens to be the alma mater of Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party Chairman, recently to be found canvassing in Harrow, where one of his staff commented that the local Conservatives knew all the right doors to knock on.

On the other side of Kenton Road, I entered Sazz Jewellery & Beyond, which was founded and is run by Shumyla Khan, a Muslim from Kashmir.

Labour’s pro-Muslim, pro-Pakistani line on Kashmir has in recent years helped drive many British Indians towards the Conservatives.

Khan said: “Because it’s so beautiful, one of the most beautiful places on earth, everybody wants it.”

She goes there every year to visit her parents, who worked in Reading but retired to Kashmir. She and her family voted Conservative in the recent elections and she refused to take a sectarian view of her local community: “We are Londoners. We are people of Harrow. Everybody lives together. That’s the most important thing in Harrow, respecting each other’s views and faiths and beliefs.”

She lives in Harrow, but her children go by cab each day with some other children to the Royal Grammar Scbool and to Wycombe High School in High Wycombe.

On my way back to the station, as I passed Churchill Parade, erected in AD 1929, I entered on impulse a convenience store, small and clean and neat, where 18-year-old Paras Masand was at the till, reading an A-level economics textbook.

He was born and lives in Brent, goes to Park High School in Stanwell, and thought Labour had done badly in the local elections because they had not been good at filling in potholes and clearing away rubbish.

I asked him whose shop it was. He said he and his sister, who is 22, set it up in November 2020, because a convenience store was then, because of the pandemic, pretty much the only kind of shop they could set up.

They are doing quite well, selling drinks and snacks to school children. She is reading law, but has been able to follow a lot of her lectures online while minding the shop. He intends to study accountancy and finance.

It never occurred to me, when I was Masand’s age, to found a business, but here in Harrow a new generation of entrepreneurs, natural Thatcherites, is getting going. They are helped by the still relatively modest level of rents, which in Westminster or Wandsworth might prove prohibitive.

I rang an opinion pollster. He did not want to be quoted by name, but said of the turn in recent years of British Indians towards the Conservatives, Jains and Sikhs as well as Hindus: “Everyone is afraid of this subject. It is emotive and difficult and complex. It has basically been ignored.”

There is a danger of stirring up anti-Muslim feeling in order to appeal to British Hindus.

As an example of the complexity of what is actually happening, the pollster said that although in Leicester there is clear evidence that British Indians are turning, as in Harrow, towards the Conservatives, in Sparkbrook, in Birmingham, it is another story, and Labour are doing well.

Local factors matter, and so does long-term engagement. In 2015 Paul Goodman wrote a piece on this site called The Conservatives’ Indian Spring?

He alluded to research by Michael Ashcroft and Andrew Cooper which showed that Britons of Indian origin were more receptive to the possibility of voting Conservative.

Last week’s result in Harrow has helped to demonstrate the truth of this contention. A question mark no longer needs to be used in the headline.

But this phenomenon has to some extent been concealed by the growing tendency of well-educated white Britons to vote Labour. When, as often happens, they live in the same area as British Indians, they obscure the tendency of the latter, no matter how well-educated (and they take education very seriously), to vote Conservative in increasing numbers.

Rishi Sunak was often mentioned with pride by Hindus in Harrow. But so far as I know, my plea when I reviewed Ashcroft’s life of Sunak has not yet been answered.

I therefore reiterate the hope that just as Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, so some scholar is even now hard at work on The Hindu Ethic and the Spirit of Conservatism.

Profile: Kate Bingham, leader of the scientific cavalry who came to the rescue in the pandemic

17 Feb

The scientific cavalry, as Boris Johnson dubbed them, galloped to the rescue at the end of 2020, with Kate Bingham in the vanguard.

In May 2020 the Prime Minister had asked her to lead a taskforce in order to identify, procure and roll out as yet non-existent vaccines in order to combat the pandemic.

From December 2020, the first vaccinations were administered, Britons taking part with pride and joy in a programme developed at such astonishing speed that this country found itself ahead of almost all others.

Even Dominic Cummings could not forbear to cheer. In May 2021, while denouncing the Prime Minister, the Health Secretary and the greater part of Whitehall for limitless incompetence and mendacity, Cummings said of Bingham:

“She built a team of people that actually understood what they were doing, and she had the kind of strength of character not to be pushed around.”

Bingham herself has since said that when asked by Johnson to head the Vaccine Taskforce, “I absolutely fell off the chair.” She told the Prime Minister, “I’m not a vaccines expert.”

She knew about therapeutics, ways of treating diseases rather than averting them, and “started off with a classic imposter syndrome as a woman – my first reaction was that I’m not qualified to do the job.”

Bingham “got told off by my daughter”, recipient in the past of maternal pep talks on the theme of “don’t do yourself down”, and consulted a number of experts in order to satisfy herself that she would in fact be able to do the job well; and then accepted, without pay, a role in which she would find herself working harder than she ever had in her life.

She is by training a biochemist, has 30 years’ experience working for SV Health Investors, a venture capital firm which turns new science into new treatments, and proceeded to put together a taskforce which was capable of commissioning all the different stages of developing a new vaccine simultaneously.

The six most promising out of hundreds of possible vaccines were selected, many millions of doses were ordered before it was known whether these six would work, hundreds of thousands of volunteers were recruited on whom the new vaccines would be tested, and manufacturing capacity in Britain was built.

Throughout the pandemic, the media searched for things the Government was getting wrong: an attitude which helps keep Britain relatively free of corruption.

But was the Vaccine Taskforce getting things wrong? Nobody could at first be sure. Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Cummings were confident this was the way to go about things, bypassing the bureaucratic delays which were bound to arise if vaccine procurement were run from within the Department of Health.

Sir Patrick already knew Bingham: in his previous job he had been head of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, and she was acquainted with everyone of any significance in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as herself sitting on a couple of Government scientific bodies.

He had urged her recruitment to this vital vaccines role because he knew of her high abilities and phenomenal energy. She had been appointed on merit.

Journalists in the Westminster lobby knew nothing about all that. They did, however, know that Bingham was married to Jesse Norman MP, a Treasury minister, Etonian and friend of the Prime Minister.

Bingham herself had been at St Paul’s Girls’ School with the PM’s sister, Rachel Johnson, and at Oxford with both the Johnsons.

She is the daughter of the late Tom Bingham, who served as Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord and was widely regarded as the greatest lawyer of his generation.

So she could accurately be described as a member of the Establishment, which is not, in journalistic terms, a fashionable thing to be.

In every generation, the Establishment faces the question of how to guard against the danger that its sons and daughters will become decadent; will enjoy the privileges without accepting the obligations of their position; will lead lives of selfish and arrogant hedonism, and shun public service.

One traditional way of trying to avoid this was to consign children to boarding schools run on deliberately spartan lines, with cold baths, early morning runs, bad food and barbaric punishments all helping to instil a cheerful disregard for luxury; a sense that life was not about personal comfort, but entailed striving for higher ideals.

This programme has in recent years been pretty much abandoned, but elements of it survived into the 1990s at the Bingham family’s holiday cottage in Wales:

“There was no internal plumbing, no heating, no hot or cold water and no sanitation. Instead of a lavatory, both family and guests made do with the El-San, a chemical loo in a stone privy surrounded by lilacs in the back garden, and for any lesser call of nature the ha-ha, which Tom had dug himself many years before. A Council inspection had concluded that the house was in fact unfit for human habitation on every count. It was still so when Tom was made Master of the Rolls in 1992.”

This is from an account written after his death in 2013 by his son-in-law, Jesse Norman.

Kate, born in 1965, was from her earliest years exceptionally energetic. “She could always bicycle a bit faster than the rest of us,” Rachel Kelly, a childhood friend, recalled during a Radio 4 Profile broadcast last year.

To this day, Bingham engages in vigorous sports including running, riding, mountain biking and bog snorkelling. Rachel Johnson, another friend since school, yesterday told ConHome:

“My children refuse to go on holiday with her. It means carrying your mountain bike up a sheer rock face before cycling down a crevasse. And early-morning music practice from 6.00 a.m.”

Academic life was not neglected. Bingham took a first in biochemistry from Oxford. Terence Kealey, one of her tutors, described her as “startlingly intelligent”, “exuberant”, “full of the joy of living”, and added:

“She was quite extraordinarily frank. If she wanted to react to something you were saying, she just said it.”

This is an unusual characteristic. With many members of the professional classes, one has to guess what they think, because their reactions are hidden, perhaps even from themselves, behind a veil of good manners.

Bingham is in various respects a natural leader. Towards the end of dinner she can get everyone to start singing Guys and Dolls, even if nobody but her feels like doing so; and can so enthuse everyone that even those who have no idea of the words end up enjoying themselves.

Kealey regretted that Bingham did not go on to do pure research. She instead took an MBA at Harvard and set out to turn scientific discoveries into therapeutic drugs, which entails, as she told Nick Robinson, assessing new data “very quickly”, doing “very detailed due diligence”, being “very careful how we spend money”, and refusing to reinforce failure:

“If something’s not going to work we kill it off quickly.”

These were among the skills needed to run the Vaccine Taskforce.

Within a properly functioning Establishment, it is generally known, in any walk of life, who is highly competent and reliable, and who is hopelessly incompetent and unreliable.

It is then pretty obvious who ought to get some important job which really must be done well, and who must at all costs be kept away from such a post.

But unfortunately, it is only obvious to insiders, who are open to the charge that they favour their chums, the people with whom they were at school and university.

Cumbersome selection processes have therefore been devised in order to show that the whole thing is not a stitch-up, and to give candidates from non-traditional backgrounds a fair chance.

Quite often, at the end of these processes, which take up a great deal of time, the people are appointed who were known at the start to be the outstanding candidates.

In the case of the Vaccines Taskforce, there was no time for an appointments process, and Bingham was persuaded to take the job, having satisfied herself that she could in fact do it.

In November, the Sunday Times published a series of stories which suggested that her appointment was a stitch-up, and that she was behaving in various disgraceful ways, including the appointment of some PR advisers at a cost of £670,000.

There was no truth in these allegations of disgraceful conduct, but she could not respond directly: any response had to be approved by No10 and the Business department, and it became evident that there had been briefing against her from within the Government machine.

“I was incredibly cross, I was incredibly frustrated, I was hurt,” she said later. She was doorstepped by camera crews, and Sir Keir Starmer joined in and said the £670,000 “cannot be justified”.

It proved extremely difficult to get across an accurate account of what had happened. Bingham had never approved any expenditure – that was done by ministers and officials – and the so-called PR advisers were in fact promoting the NHS Registry, which by the end of 2020 had recruited 360,000 volunteers who were willing to take part in vaccine and other studies, an immensely valuable short and long-term resource, and one where Britain, thanks to the NHS and our tradition of volunteering, has a decisive advantage.

In December 2020, the vaccine rollout began, and Bingham began to be acclaimed as one of the heroes who had made it all happen. In the summer of 2021 she was awarded a DBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

In her various public appearances she has taken care to pay tribute to the many other people who played key roles, and who in some cases saw what needed to be done, and started doing it, well before she came on board.

She has also said that with hindsight, she could see “we should have done cross-party briefings”. She has refused to be drawn into any kind of political point-scoring.

Oxford asked her to deliver the 2021 Romanes Lecture, an annual event in the Sheldonian Theatre since Gladstone delivered the inaugural address in 1892, and quite often given by distinguished scientists.

ConHome this week published Bingham’s lecture, which is entitled From wartime to peacetime: Lessons from the Vaccine Taskforce.

Paul Goodman will tomorrow examine some of the themes from that lecture. At the beginning, Bingham has to pause for a moment, overcome by tears, as she says that 19 years earlier her father was honoured to give the Romanes Lecture, and had discussed the vulnerability of personal freedom in times of crisis.

Book review: Francois describes how the unfashionable side won Brexit

8 Jan

Spartan Victory: The Inside Story of the Battle for Brexit by Mark Francois

“Nothing has more retarded the advancement of learning than the disposition of vulgar minds to ridicule and vilify what they cannot comprehend,” Dr Johnson once wrote.

A variant of this problem blighted the furious debates since 23rd June 2016 about how and indeed whether to implement the verdict handed down by voters in the EU Referendum.

People like Mark Francois were ridiculed and vilified. Little attempt was made to understand either him or his Essex constituents, who in the referendum had voted by a margin of 67 to 33 per cent to leave the EU.

Now Francois has written a book which anyone who is interested in why and how Brexit happened should read. An Essex man speaks, and tells us not only about the parliamentary manoeuvrings of the last few years, but about the character of a part of the British nation which cannot bear being bullied or preached at.

Pugnacious, patriotic, loyal, hard-working, quick-witted, emotional, able to distinguish immediately between friend and foe, unworried by class distinction, uninterested in correct spelling, fond of a good joke and a pint: these are among the characteristics of Essex man which leap out from Francois’s account.

He has an unfashionable love of World War Two analogies, as in this passage when he is standing against Ken Livingstone in Brent East in the 1997 general election, and a message arrives from the Conservative Party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, which informs them that the campaign is going “extremely well” and they just need to make “one last great effort in order to secure John Major a record fifth term in office for the Conservative Party”.

“What do you make of this, Mark?” the Chairman of the Conservative Association in Brent East asks Francois, to which he replies:

“Chairman, of course if you and I were in front of the rest of the Association we would have to maintain morale. However, as I have come to respect you over these last two years and we are alone, I interpret this message to mean three things: One: Berlin will never fall. Two: Our great counterattack across the Oder River begins at 05.30 tomorrow and Three: We will break the will of the enemy to resist with the use of the terror weapons and fight on to ultimate victory.”

No mainstream publisher wanted to bring out this book, so Francois with the help of Amazon has brought it out himself. This in some ways makes it a more authentic expression of his point of view: no editor has smoothed away the rough edges, corrected the grammar, toned down the jokes which might be regarded in metropolitan circles as tasteless.

One could be having a pint with Francois, perhaps in an establishment “which is about to kick off massively in about 15 minutes”, as a friend who can sense such things warned him on one occasion: the riot actually started in 12 minutes.

But this is a deeply serious book. Francois really means what he says. He wants so much to work out what Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement means that he reads it: something very few people could face doing.

One of the many virtues of this book is that he quotes the actual words of speeches and other important documents: he realises that the actual words matter, and in the case of the Withdrawal Agreement he concludes that in Article 174, the superiority of the European Court of Justice in the dispute resolution mechanism means that once ratified, this provision cannot be “over-trumped” even by Act of Parliament.

For a long time the European Reform Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs maintained internal discipline, thanks in part to a secret whipping operation run by Francois which he takes great pleasure in describing.

The ERG split on the question of whether, on 29th March 2019, to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, or to hold out against it. Some, like the Chairman of the ERG, Jacob Rees-Mogg, thought it was better, in this third Meaningful Vote, to accept the only version of Brexit that was on offer, rather than risk losing everything.

Others, such as Francois and Steve Baker (whose fiery speech to the ERG is printed in this book, and was quoted in the recent ConHome profile of him), decided to fight on to the bitter end.

These are the 28 Spartans, who got their name because, as Francois relates, soon after the second Meaningful Vote he was having dinner with Paul Goodman, editor of ConHome, who said how stressful it must be to be holding out so doggedly against unremitting pressure from the media and the Whips.

Francois agreed, and said “we have felt like the 300 Spartans guarding the pass at Thermopylae.” Goodman proceeded to use the term in a piece for ConHome, “Enter – or Rather Exit – The Spartans” (also reprinted in this book), and the word entered general use.

Goodman predicted, correctly, that “this time round, the Spartans may actually win”. May failed to get Brexit done, and Boris Johnson then got it done in a form more acceptable to the ERG.

This history is so recent that it has obscured earlier events. Francois entered the Commons in 2001 as Member for Rayleigh, in Essex, having cut his teeth as a councillor in Basildon, was soon on friendly terms with George Osborne, and served on the front bench under David Cameron both in Opposition and in Government.

He was not, as the more ignorant of his critics may imagine, a crank who refused ever to be satisfied with what the leadership was doing.

During the referendum campaign, he at first thought “the odds were very much against us winning”, but started to change his mind when he heard Osborne on the Today programme “effectively threatening the British people with a ‘punishment Budget’ if we were to vote to Leave the EU”:

“Both George and I had read history at university, and one thing that runs as a golden thread through British history is that you cannot bully us. Many have tried and all have failed. The British are an inherently reasonable people, often far more patient than many of their counterparts, but there is a point beyond which they simply will not go. And what sounded like a blatant attempt to bully or frighten the British people to vote to Remain in the EU, seemed to me a fundamental error…”

A free people cannot be coerced: Francois at this point showed a better grasp of the temper of the British people than Osborne did.

Francois was born in London in 1965, but when he was only six his parents took him to live in Basildon, a new town in Essex, to a house on an estate which looked like a prison, so was known as Alcatraz. His father did heavy manual labour, such as scrubbing out the inside of large industrial boilers.

His mother was from Italy, where they went on holiday each summer. Mark was sent to the local comprehensive school, and was one of two pupils out of the 226 who arrived that term who went to university.

When he was 13, his father gave him a copy of If, by Rudyard Kipling, and told him that “if ever I was anxious or uncertain and for whatever reason he was not around to offer advice, then I should read the poem again and it would help me decide what to do.”

The following year, his father died of a heart attack, a sudden and terrible blow from which his mother never recovered.

Before the third Meaningful Vote, Francois looked out a copy of If, read it, and found by the time he got to the end that “I was absolutely settled in my mind about what to do”.

The next day, when the ERG met to debate how to vote, Francois quoted the first stanza in his speech:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, 

But make allowance for their doubting too

Kipling is not a fashionable poet, but If still has claims to be the nation’s favourite poem, and one can imagine the emotion with which he would invest Brexit if he were alive now.

The people who take pleasure in mocking Francois will never read his book, but if they did, they might learn something.

Henry Hill will be the new Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome

17 Dec

Henry Hill will become the new Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome early next year.  He is well known to our readers for his prolific and versatile writing, his expertise on constitutional matters, and his weekly Red, White and Blue column on Thursdays.

The quality of his work is attested to by the demand for his work elsewhere – including the Daily Telegraph, Times Red Box, The Spectator, UnHerd, CapX and The Critic.  Henry has also been active at the back of the ConHome shop as a frequent compiler of our daily newslinks, as well as a prominent feature in our front window.

Henry has been with us as an Assistant Editor and then as News Editor since 2013. As ever, we will bring you, our readers, the very best Conservative news, analysis, insight and opinion.  We look forward to the New Year and  whatever it holds.

Mark Wallace, Chief Executive

Paul Goodman, Editor

Jonathan Werran: Levelling up. A radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre.

6 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

Like a wild schoolyard football game, it will be a case of everyone’s eyes on the ball, with their legs enthusiastically following, as we throw our attention into the joyful pile-on of local and devolved election results.

We should certainly enjoy the spectacle of postponed local democracy restored, while voters in their millions flock to polling booths across England to vote in various district, county, unitary, London mayoral and regional mayoral combined authority elections.

But were we to zoom out and survey the whole frame, we’d see a tangled skein of pitches with different games being played out on fields of various sizes, to somewhat different sets of rules.

This is because, for many parts of England, a devolution destiny remains unfixed. This means, in certain cases, it remains doubtful whether there will be repeat polling business four years hence. The baked-in assumption is that in order to secure prized strategic devolution deals, parts of the country will submit themselves to the Whitehall meatgrinder of reorganisation.

The white paper and the problem of “place”

Today Localis has issued a place-based analysis of “Building Back Better” in a report entitled A Plan for Local Growth. The central thrust of our argument is that there should be a strict separation between short-term, community-led decision-making for town centre and high-street renewal – which boosts place prosperity – and long-term, high-value central government infrastructure strategies aimed at raising historic low-levels of productivity.

To this end, central government must get behind community control of high-street regeneration, accelerate devolved skills reforms and define a clear role for local authorities and their economic partners in driving economic development and meeting net zero targets.

On that vexed issue of local government reorganisation, our analysis questions the efficacy of driving economic recovery through changes of machinery to the local state. Localis firmly believes that national recovery through building back better and “levelling up” will only succeed through a grounded approach focused on place – melding the horizontal elements of place with the sector based vertical deals from the ancien regime’s industrial strategy.

However, the problem seemingly is that the definition of “place” can mean literally anything across separate Whitehall departments operating in the same place. This is often to the bewilderment of authorities seeking inward investment and businesses seeking to survive and thrive beyond Brexit and Covid.

This Whitehall disconnect also applies to public services. Anything from dedicated schools grant, migration to criminal justice reform can see individual departments taking on bit parts – research, funding, delivery. Perhaps whether the ambit of the Levelling Up White Paper can solve the perennial problem of un-joined-up government is a moot point. But a way is needed to integrate disparate cross-departmental central government agendas so that there is actual early proof these connect at the level of place, work in practice and inspire confidence to move onwards at speed.

This is where we must pin our hopes upon Neil O’Brien to ride to the rescue.

On account of the time, money, political capital and economic potential forever lost to the pandemic, we find ourselves at more of a crucial moment than we perhaps realise. The moment calls for urgently aligning the agenda for devolution and decentralisation with that of growth and recovery.

So it is a hopeful sign that O’Brien has been set the task of pulling together the disparate threads of the levelling up agenda into a forthcoming white paper, resurrecting a cause deflated by last autumn’s failure to launch the English Devolution and Economic Recovery White Paper amid the sudden ministerial departure of Simon Clarke.

The challenge demands a policy mind as sharp and political senses as keen as O’Brien possesses. The levelling up agenda currently risks a fate worse than “Big Society” – as a potentially hugely transformative agenda with popular appeal that dies from lack of rootedness in local daily life and concrete, plainly visible outcomes.

Joining the dots on levelling up

Devolution and growth must be seen as so intrinsically linked as for one to be as impossible to conceive of as existing without the presence of the other. There’s a fancy term from classical rhetoric for the occasion, “hendiadys” or literally “one through two”. In common parlance, think of “bread and butter” or “fish and chips” and try imagining in your mind one of these essential elements without the thought of the other arising.

In an earlier Localis contribution to ConHome on England’s place in the union, and taking our cue from George Orwell, we advocated that “England has got to assume its real shape”. A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome, it was argued. And as Paul Goodman instantly observed of the Plan for Growth in ConHome, “if it really wants to go for sustainable and more even growth, the Government will need to devolve more power”.

So on the basis that levelling up, a radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre, and that we must trust in the new mayors to use their convening powers to get the local political economy around the table, how might we suggest the Levelling Up White Paper create maximum benefit for minimum effort? To build on the foundations laid out in the Plan for Growth, Localis recommends that the Levelling Up White Paper should:

  • Create pathways to community autonomy as a vehicle for hyperlocal, small-scale and patient financing of regeneration;
  • build a framework for devolution to skills advisory panels to facilitate local collaboration between employers, providers and education authorities to further accelerate the push to improve skill levels;
  • create a clear role for the local state in driving towards the skills for net zero; and
  • clarify and codify the role for existing institutions of the local state particularly local authorities in LEPs – in driving economic development.
The political and economic imperative

Many Red Wall Conservative MPs will become if they are not already are acutely alert to the fact that they risk paying the political price for an unreformed, silo-fixated Whitehall’s disjointed and agonisingly slow local delivery at local level.

The test for Levelling Up White Paper will be its ability to work through connective administrative tissue of the “people’s priorities” – clean growth, whatever new badge is thrown over industrial strategy, as well as local skills training. A joined-up and fleshed-out levelling up can achieve a virtuous circle of devolution, leading to growth and recovery that inspires further trust and pride in place and place leadership.

Witness the electoral fortunes of Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the West Midlands. Their likely success is testament to the policy vision laid out for trusting men of “push and go”, charismatic regional leaders with energy and vision to champion their wide economic area. So on the basis that a combination of the vaccination bounce and whatever local political factors ensure a satisfactory set of local and regional results overnight, there should be both confidence and conviction to repay this trust with Whitehall ceding more powers to metro mayors in a deeper devolution settlement.

Otherwise, we risk the continuation of a lop-sided, centrally-led, interventionist growth policy which only serves to hamstring our localities from achieving anything like their fullest inherent economic and place potential.

David Gauke: With a position so exposed, how did Burnham get away with it?

24 Oct

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

Who would have believed that we would see a mainstream, liberal MP turned city mayor taking a bold political risk, build an unlikely coalition of support and win a public relations battle by articulating the resentment of those who feel victims of an out of touch London establishment?

Boris Johnson has had a difficult couple of weeks, but I hope he has enjoyed the irony of being on the wrong side of Andy Burnham’s somewhat populist revolt.

The extended row with the Mayor of Greater Manchester has put the Government on the back foot, looking mean-spirited and out of touch, whilst Burnham has come across as a heroic ‘King of the North’ – personable, passionate and articulate, he has successfully presented himself as a doughty defender of hard-pressed Mancunians.

He has had a political triumph – although the coherence of his position does not withstand a great deal of scrutiny. As Paul Goodman has pointed out, Burnham’s language, attacking an approach that ‘might not work’, was designed to appeal to those who thought that the new restrictions did not go far enough, as well as the likes of Sir Graham Brady, who want to adopt a very different strategy.

Even though he has made the valid point that lockdowns cause mental health problems, it does not seem likely that Burnham is a lockdown sceptic himself.

In May, he expressed the view that lockdown restrictions were being relaxed too quickly, appropriate for the position in London but not for Manchester.

More recently, he has expressed support for Keir Starmer’s call for a tighter, national lockdown. It is safe to assume that he believes the mainstream and, to my mind, rather commonsensical view that if you reduce the number of social interactions people have, there will be less chance for the virus to spread.

If that is the case, and given his criticism that the Tier Two restrictions which have been in place in Manchester since August have not stopped the spread of the virus, it is remarkable that he spent ten days resisting the imposition of tougher and more effective restrictions in Greater Manchester, where infection rates were high and, in eight out of ten boroughs, rising.

No doubt his supporters will make the argument that he was not opposing tougher restrictions – just tougher restrictions on the cheap.

But again, one can question whether his position was coherent. It is true to say that the level of support in Tier Three – the focus of his complaints – is not as generous as was available under the original lockdown.

But the real issue for many businesses was not the support available under Tier Two for those businesses forced to close, but the absence of support for businesses in Tier Two, where restrictions meant that hospitality businesses could stay open, but with little prospect of many customers. This was the real problem with Government support, until the Chancellor’s announcement on Thursday.

So a not unfair description of Burnham’s position was that Tier Two was ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus and involved inadequate support for businesses, but that he was determined to keep Greater Manchester within it.

There is also some confusion about his view on whether lockdown restrictions should be determined on a local or national basis.

He has argued that decisions should be made by those close to the ground but, back in the spring, he was opposed to London exiting lockdown before Manchester, because people there would object to seeing Londoners in pubs when they were still banned from going for a pint – suggesting that he favours national uniformity.

Given that he was also opposed to the national exit from lockdown because it did not reflect conditions in Manchester, he presumably favours a national policy based on conditions in Manchester – which is all very well but somewhat hard to justify to the rest of the country.

That he was able to turn such a position into a political triumph is a testament to clumsy handling on the part of the Government (appearing to withdraw the £60 million that had been offered) as well as Burnham’s political skills. He has tapped into northern distrust of the south, articulating the view that the interests of Manchester are treated as a lower priority to those of London.

In doing this, he is taking a leaf from the SNP in Scotland. The politics of national and regional resentment and grievance, the argument that ‘the system’ is designed to support the prosperous South East at the expense of the rest, is one that finds a ready audience in many parts of the UK.

‘If it wasn’t for a distant government in Westminster, taking our resources, we would be doing alright’ is the message of Scottish Nationalists, as well as regional mayors.

In purely fiscal terms this is, of course, nonsense. Contrary to the received wisdom of many parts of the UK, resources are massively redistributed from London and the Greater South East to the rest of the United Kingdom. In the last year for which numbers are available, 2019, London, the South East and the East of England had fiscal surpluses of £39 billion, £22 billion and £4 billion respectively which only partially offset fiscal deficits in the rest of the UK, including a deficit of £20 billion in the North West and £15 billion in Scotland.

This is not an argument that the Government is likely to be making any time soon. After all, the Conservative majority at the last election was heavily dependent upon the narrative that the Government was going to ‘level up’ the country, correcting the perceived London-centric nature of our economy and politics.

Tapping into anger at metropolitan elites proved very helpful to Boris Johnson in both the EU referendum and the 2019 general election; this week, that anger was turned against him as he was made to look like a representative of the establishment, not the insurgency.

The idea of localised restrictions has not been discredited, however painful local negotiations have been. This is the logical approach to a virus where the level of infection varies enormously. But the Government has been slow to recognise that localised restrictions will result in resentment if the level of support is seen as parsimonious. And arguments about fiscal discipline will not persuade those new, Red Wall Conservative voters who delivered the Prime Minister his majority.

The bitterness of the row between the Government and the Greater Manchester Mayor, as well as the continued surge in support for the SNP, has been dispiriting.

At best, it reveals that, as we enter a long winter with rising case numbers and deaths and restrictions on our everyday lives, we are becoming more fractious and distrustful of the Government. At worst, it reveals that the whole cohesion of the United Kingdom is starting to disintegrate – not just amongst the nations of the UK but between the regions of England.

If the approach that Burnham has taken is seen to be the exemplar of how regional politicians should operate, and if the Government cannot nullify those regional grievances, our politics will become yet more bitter and divisive. Ultimately, pitting one region against another would make us ungovernable.