Peel increased the burden of taxation on the rich – perhaps Sunak and Johnson will too

8 Jan

The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History edited by Iain Dale

The brief life can be one of the most delightful of all literary forms. While putting off the awkward task of writing this review, I turned for purposes of comparison to Alan Watkins’ volume, Brief Lives, a book it is impossible to open without within a few paragraphs bursting out laughing.

Here is Watkins on Anthony Crosland, who died in 1977 while serving as Foreign Secretary:

“He could also be very rude indeed. Tony Benn once publicly announced that he was concerned to lose the stigma of the intellectual. Crosland replied that, in order to lose a stigma, it was first necessary to acquire one. For some reason – maybe sexual, but it is profitless to speculate – he could be very rude to young and attractive women who intended no harm but were merely trying to make serious conversation to the best of their ability.”

We feel at once that we begin to know what Crosland was like. This is something a brief life can do better than a long one.

A pencil sketch often conveys a likeness, character, personality, better than the massive official portrait in oils. What a relief for the writer, and for the reader too, not to try to say everything.

Winston Churchill wrote brilliant brief lives in Great Contemporaries, as did Roy Jenkins in The Chancellors and elsewhere. Here is Jenkins on Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, but a crucial political figure from 1911, when he became Tory leader:

“he was the first leader to exhibit some aspect of the ‘poor white’ mentality which has been a growing and marked feature of the Conservative Party in much more recent times. He was a partisan, sometimes a bitter leader, with a stronger sense of ‘we was cheated’ than of the natural (and sometimes tolerant) authority of an assured right to govern…

“On the long march back to the Commons after listening to the King’s Speech which opened his first session as leader, Law was reported as saying: ‘I am afraid I shall have to show myself very vicious, Mr Asquith, this session, I hope you will understand.’ Whether or not Asquith ‘understood’, Law certainly succeeded in being ‘vicious’…”

Again, one begins to get an idea of Law, and indeed of Jenkins.

But to write a brief life can be even harder work than to write a long one. I know this from personal experience, having written brief lives of the 40 Kings and Queens since 1066, the 55 Prime Ministers since 1721, and the 44 American Presidents from George Washington, inaugurated in 1789, to Donald Trump (known as the 45th President, but the Americans double-count Grover Cleveland, President in 1885-89 and 1893-97, as both the 22nd and the 24th President).

Iain Dale had the bright idea, on the 300th anniverary of Sir Robert Walpole becoming Prime Minister, of getting 55 writers to take one Prime Minister each.

He has recruited an eclectic mixture of academics, historians, politicians and journalists. Looking down his list, one thinks repeatedly, “I’d like to see what he makes of him”.

Each entry begins with a drawing of the Prime Minister in question by Zoom Rockman, which should have been printed larger, for they are generally more accomplished than the words that follow.

Few of the 55 authors have given much thought to the art of writing a brief life, or appear to have devoted much time to the task of doing so. It is one thing to recruit good people, quite another to get them to do their best work.

The liberation of being able to throw away 99 per cent of what one knows, keeping only the most vivid and characteristic material, has itself been thrown away by those writers who conceived it their duty to provide a digest of every not very exciting transaction in which their Prime Minister was involved.

Many of the authors suffer from a tendency to exaggerate the importance, or lament the obscurity, of whichever Prime Minister they have agreed to cover. Nor could the entanglement of these careers – for many PMs have done more remarkable things during the ascent than when they reached Downing Street – have been sorted out except by a prodigal application of editorial time.

But there are wonderful things in the book. Robert Saunders brings the stiff figure of Sir Robert Peel to life:

“Peel grew up under the shadow of the French Revolution, and was perhaps the last British statesman to hear the whirr of the guillotine in his dreams… For Peel, the ‘Dantons, and the Marats, and the Robespierres’ of revolutionary history were not ‘monsters peculiar to France’. They were ‘the foul, but legitimate spawn of circumstances’, born of the same volcanic passions that boiled beneath British society too. At any moment, a breakdown of political authority could produce ‘the same consequences, the same men, and the same crimes, here as in France’.

This strikes home in part because it uses Peel’s own words. He is allowed to speak directly to us, without, as happens in so many of the entries, the writer substituting a banal paraphrase of the original. We are given the story of how this Prime Minister strove to avert revolution:

“Peel took office in the summer of 1841, amid some of the worst economic conditions of the century. A prolonged industrial depression was producing horrifying levels of suffering: in just one Scottish town, Paisley, 17,000 workers were at risk of starvation. Chartism was resurgent, and in 1842 an attempted general strike swept across the north. A year later, Peel’s secretary was shot dead by an assassin, who had mistaken him for the Prime Minister…

“Peel began with a daring financial stroke: the reintroduction of the income tax. This had previously been thought of as a wartime measure, and its introduction in time of peace was hugely controversial. Since it was only levied on the highest earners, it marked a significant shift in the burden of taxation towards the Government’s own supporters. Yet Peel insisted it was ‘for the interest of property that property should bear the burden’. The goal was not simply to close the deficit, but to send a signal about the willingness of the propertied elite to make sacrifices for the public good. Accepted ‘voluntarily and with a good grace’, the tax would be ‘a cheap purchase of future security’.

This is interesting both for its own sake, and for the light it throws on what Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson might decide to do about the burden of taxation on the rich. I hazard a guess that they will decide to increase it, while at the same time bringing in, as Peel did, measures to promote growth, and to relieve the burdens on the poor, so that, as Peel put it, “thoughts of the dissolution of our institutions should be forgotten in the midst of physical enjoyment”.

The one thing most Conservatives remember about Peel is that he split the party by repealing the Corn Laws. Saunders conveys the mentality which estranged the Prime Minister from his followers:

“As relations with his party deteriorated, Peel became increasingly contemptuous of his own backbenchers: ‘men with great possessions and little foresight…whose only chance of safety is that their counsels shall not be followed’. After a collision with his party in 1845, he boasted privately that ‘people like a certain degree of obstinacy and presumption in a minister. They abuse him for dictation and arrogance, but they like being governed.’ It was an approach that would soon bring the destruction of his government.”

There are many other good things in the book. Julia Langdon describes what it was like travelling as a journalist with Margaret Thatcher:

“In the course of her years in office, she attended 32 European summits, 12 Group of Seven (G7) summits of the leading economic nations, seven Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) – ‘This place Choggum,’ said one of my colleagues, arriving in the Bahamas, ‘is it the capital?'”

That is worthy of Evelyn Waugh. The parliamentary lobby “once went round the world backwards in six days” with Thatcher. Before another extraordinary expedition, with no more than one night anywhere for about ten days, Langdon asked the Prime Minister what she thought of the schedule that lay ahead. Thatcher replied: “We can’t do any laundry until Bangkok!”

Such small touches bring the stateswomen closer to us. She too thought about laundry, and about the difficulties that not being able to wash clothes would inflict on her staff, and even on the accompanying journalists.

Dale himself has dashed off a life of Johnson, whom he describes as “the most intellectually capable Prime Minister Britain has seen”. That sounds unfair to Peel, Derby, Gladstone, Salisbury and quite a few others.

Peel increased the burden of taxation on the rich – perhaps Sunak and Johnson will too

8 Jan

The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History edited by Iain Dale

The brief life can be one of the most delightful of all literary forms. While putting off the awkward task of writing this review, I turned for purposes of comparison to Alan Watkins’ volume, Brief Lives, a book it is impossible to open without within a few paragraphs bursting out laughing.

Here is Watkins on Anthony Crosland, who died in 1977 while serving as Foreign Secretary:

“He could also be very rude indeed. Tony Benn once publicly announced that he was concerned to lose the stigma of the intellectual. Crosland replied that, in order to lose a stigma, it was first necessary to acquire one. For some reason – maybe sexual, but it is profitless to speculate – he could be very rude to young and attractive women who intended no harm but were merely trying to make serious conversation to the best of their ability.”

We feel at once that we begin to know what Crosland was like. This is something a brief life can do better than a long one.

A pencil sketch often conveys a likeness, character, personality, better than the massive official portrait in oils. What a relief for the writer, and for the reader too, not to try to say everything.

Winston Churchill wrote brilliant brief lives in Great Contemporaries, as did Roy Jenkins in The Chancellors and elsewhere. Here is Jenkins on Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, but a crucial political figure from 1911, when he became Tory leader:

“he was the first leader to exhibit some aspect of the ‘poor white’ mentality which has been a growing and marked feature of the Conservative Party in much more recent times. He was a partisan, sometimes a bitter leader, with a stronger sense of ‘we was cheated’ than of the natural (and sometimes tolerant) authority of an assured right to govern…

“On the long march back to the Commons after listening to the King’s Speech which opened his first session as leader, Law was reported as saying: ‘I am afraid I shall have to show myself very vicious, Mr Asquith, this session, I hope you will understand.’ Whether or not Asquith ‘understood’, Law certainly succeeded in being ‘vicious’…”

Again, one begins to get an idea of Law, and indeed of Jenkins.

But to write a brief life can be even harder work than to write a long one. I know this from personal experience, having written brief lives of the 40 Kings and Queens since 1066, the 55 Prime Ministers since 1721, and the 44 American Presidents from George Washington, inaugurated in 1789, to Donald Trump (known as the 45th President, but the Americans double-count Grover Cleveland, President in 1885-89 and 1893-97, as both the 22nd and the 24th President).

Iain Dale had the bright idea, on the 300th anniverary of Sir Robert Walpole becoming Prime Minister, of getting 55 writers to take one Prime Minister each.

He has recruited an eclectic mixture of academics, historians, politicians and journalists. Looking down his list, one thinks repeatedly, “I’d like to see what he makes of him”.

Each entry begins with a drawing of the Prime Minister in question by Zoom Rockman, which should have been printed larger, for they are generally more accomplished than the words that follow.

Few of the 55 authors have given much thought to the art of writing a brief life, or appear to have devoted much time to the task of doing so. It is one thing to recruit good people, quite another to get them to do their best work.

The liberation of being able to throw away 99 per cent of what one knows, keeping only the most vivid and characteristic material, has itself been thrown away by those writers who conceived it their duty to provide a digest of every not very exciting transaction in which their Prime Minister was involved.

Many of the authors suffer from a tendency to exaggerate the importance, or lament the obscurity, of whichever Prime Minister they have agreed to cover. Nor could the entanglement of these careers – for many PMs have done more remarkable things during the ascent than when they reached Downing Street – have been sorted out except by a prodigal application of editorial time.

But there are wonderful things in the book. Robert Saunders brings the stiff figure of Sir Robert Peel to life:

“Peel grew up under the shadow of the French Revolution, and was perhaps the last British statesman to hear the whirr of the guillotine in his dreams… For Peel, the ‘Dantons, and the Marats, and the Robespierres’ of revolutionary history were not ‘monsters peculiar to France’. They were ‘the foul, but legitimate spawn of circumstances’, born of the same volcanic passions that boiled beneath British society too. At any moment, a breakdown of political authority could produce ‘the same consequences, the same men, and the same crimes, here as in France’.

This strikes home in part because it uses Peel’s own words. He is allowed to speak directly to us, without, as happens in so many of the entries, the writer substituting a banal paraphrase of the original. We are given the story of how this Prime Minister strove to avert revolution:

“Peel took office in the summer of 1841, amid some of the worst economic conditions of the century. A prolonged industrial depression was producing horrifying levels of suffering: in just one Scottish town, Paisley, 17,000 workers were at risk of starvation. Chartism was resurgent, and in 1842 an attempted general strike swept across the north. A year later, Peel’s secretary was shot dead by an assassin, who had mistaken him for the Prime Minister…

“Peel began with a daring financial stroke: the reintroduction of the income tax. This had previously been thought of as a wartime measure, and its introduction in time of peace was hugely controversial. Since it was only levied on the highest earners, it marked a significant shift in the burden of taxation towards the Government’s own supporters. Yet Peel insisted it was ‘for the interest of property that property should bear the burden’. The goal was not simply to close the deficit, but to send a signal about the willingness of the propertied elite to make sacrifices for the public good. Accepted ‘voluntarily and with a good grace’, the tax would be ‘a cheap purchase of future security’.

This is interesting both for its own sake, and for the light it throws on what Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson might decide to do about the burden of taxation on the rich. I hazard a guess that they will decide to increase it, while at the same time bringing in, as Peel did, measures to promote growth, and to relieve the burdens on the poor, so that, as Peel put it, “thoughts of the dissolution of our institutions should be forgotten in the midst of physical enjoyment”.

The one thing most Conservatives remember about Peel is that he split the party by repealing the Corn Laws. Saunders conveys the mentality which estranged the Prime Minister from his followers:

“As relations with his party deteriorated, Peel became increasingly contemptuous of his own backbenchers: ‘men with great possessions and little foresight…whose only chance of safety is that their counsels shall not be followed’. After a collision with his party in 1845, he boasted privately that ‘people like a certain degree of obstinacy and presumption in a minister. They abuse him for dictation and arrogance, but they like being governed.’ It was an approach that would soon bring the destruction of his government.”

There are many other good things in the book. Julia Langdon describes what it was like travelling as a journalist with Margaret Thatcher:

“In the course of her years in office, she attended 32 European summits, 12 Group of Seven (G7) summits of the leading economic nations, seven Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) – ‘This place Choggum,’ said one of my colleagues, arriving in the Bahamas, ‘is it the capital?'”

That is worthy of Evelyn Waugh. The parliamentary lobby “once went round the world backwards in six days” with Thatcher. Before another extraordinary expedition, with no more than one night anywhere for about ten days, Langdon asked the Prime Minister what she thought of the schedule that lay ahead. Thatcher replied: “We can’t do any laundry until Bangkok!”

Such small touches bring the stateswomen closer to us. She too thought about laundry, and about the difficulties that not being able to wash clothes would inflict on her staff, and even on the accompanying journalists.

Dale himself has dashed off a life of Johnson, whom he describes as “the most intellectually capable Prime Minister Britain has seen”. That sounds unfair to Peel, Derby, Gladstone, Salisbury and quite a few others.

Normal relations between the Conservative leader and Conservative MPs are breaking down

28 Oct

The poor bloody infantry are fed up. As Paul Waugh reports, Conservative backbenchers complain that on the question of free school meals during half term they were sent into action without either a clear objective or a proper plan.

The high command should have foreseen there would be a problem and worked out what to do about it.

Instead of which, those Tory MPs who were bold enough to go over the top, generally the younger and less experienced recruits, found themselves exposed to a hail of criticism.

The moral high ground is firmly in the hands of Marcus Rashford, who has 3.7 million followers on Twitter, to whom he declares in his Pinned Tweet: “It’s time we put party politics aside and worked together to find a long-term sustainable solution to child food poverty in the UK.”

The only practical response to such a statement is to agree with it. Rashford must be treated as an ally, not an adversary, and any accidental exchanges of fire with Rashford’s supporters must be replaced by whole-hearted co-operation in the great cause of feeding the nation’s children.

Instead of which, Downing Street failed to see there was a problem, let alone to grip it, and the Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, expressed the hope that Conservative MPs would have a great half term.

Backbenchers feel Downing Street does not take them seriously, and does not realise they can act as a valuable early warning system, exposed as they are to public opinion in their constituencies.

The letter to the Prime Minister on Monday from over 50 Conservative MPs in northern seats, expressing the fear that the Government’s levelling up agenda is being abandoned, is a further sign that normal methods of communication with Downing Street are reckoned to have broken down.

All Prime Ministers find themselves accused, from time to time, of failing to listen to their own backbenchers. One should not imagine that it is unusual for the leader to seem, especially to his or her own troops, to have become cut off in Downing Street, isolated from normal human emotions, unable any more to see how the poll tax will strike ordinary, sensible voters.

But it is a bit early for Boris Johnson to start suffering from this condition. Part of the trouble is that as long as the pandemic rages, he cannot play his natural game, which is to get out and meet people.

A second problem is that he has never taken the House of Commons seriously. He is by no means the only Tory leader of whom this could be said: neither Theresa May nor David Cameron was really a House of Commons person.

But it is still a pity that Johnson has never had the time or the inclination to get to know his fellow parliamentarians better.

Nor, so far as one can see, does anyone else in Downing Street really know them, or possess that awareness of shifts in parliamentary opinion which is the fruit of long experience.

This is, in fact, an inexperienced administration, containing few ministers or advisers who have been around for more than a few years.

Johnson himself, as I noted when writing my account of his early life, likes to learn how to do things by actually doing them. This was how he approached being Mayor of London, and it began to work once he had found immensely knowledgeable people like Sir Simon Milton who could do the bits he was never going to learn how to do.

There is a kind of high-minded commentator who implies that in the right hands, i.e. those of someone as gifted as the commentator, government can be an exact science. This rhetorical device serves to show in an even worse light the errors made by the present incumbent. We could have had perfection, and instead we have to put up with this.

The public is generally more charitable. It recognises that in coping with a crisis like the pandemic, an element of trial and error is unavoidable.

But there comes a point where it expects that lessons will have been learned from the errors. And it is on this capacity to learn from mistakes that the success of Johnson’s prime ministership will depend.

Gary Sambrook: The Government is delivering on its promises to reform Britain’s broken immigration system

22 Oct

Gary Sambrook is the Conservative MP for Birmingham Northfield.

For many years, members of the public have repeatedly asked politicians to reform our broken immigration system and introduce an Australian-style points based one. In constituencies like mine people were tired of MPs talking tough, and delivering little change. But from January 1 we will have that new points-based system, which will be firm but fair. Today the Home Secretary has set out new measures which will introduce new tougher rules for EU citizens at the border, in line with existing rules for non-EU citizens.

This parity will send a clear message to British people that this Home Secretary means business.

When I talk to people in my constituency, which returned a Conservative MP last year for the first time in 27 years, they are concerned about crime and safety in their communities. That’s why replacing these softer EU rules with stronger border controls will make the UK a safer place and fulfil our pledge to deliver on the people’s priorities.

EU rules currently require the Home Office to demonstrate that EU criminals present a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat affecting one of the fundamental interests of society (these include social harm, maintaining public order, and extremism) in order to restrict their free movement rights. This decision cannot be based solely on the criminal conviction, even if it was for murder or rape.

These new rules will mean:

  • Foreign criminals sentenced to at least a year in jail will be banned from entering the UK.
  • Foreign criminals sentenced to less than a year in jail could still be banned, with the Home Office considering on a case-by-case basis their full criminal history and whether they have ties to the UK such as family members.
  • Foreign criminals who haven’t received a prison sentence could also be banned from entering the UK if they have committed persistent sexual offences, or committed a crime and want to enter the UK for the first time

It is absolutely right that we take these tough measures to help keep our streets safe, reduce crime and bring trust back into the immigration system.

EU rules have forced us to allow dangerous foreign criminals, who abuse our values and threaten our way of life, onto our streets for far too long, and people have had enough.

Regardless of nationality these rules will mean the UK is safer thanks to firmer and fairer border controls where foreign criminals will be treated the same, no matter what country they originate from.

An example of where these tough new rules will help keep the UK safe. Person A is a non-resident EU citizen with a conviction for rape in 2010 where they were sentenced to eight years in prison. Today, they could be admitted to the UK because they have not offended since and it can’t be demonstrated that they currently pose a present and sufficiently serious threat to society as required under EU law. However, next year, they can be refused entry to the UK because they have had a custodial sentence of at least a year.

Or another example: Person B is a non-EU citizen with numerous convictions for low-level offending over a period of years. Under the current rules, discretion can be exercised to grant them entry, but under the new rules, as a persistent offender, they would be refused entry to from the UK.

Not only is the Government making the UK border safer and more secure, it is providing the police with more powers to protect the public in new powers granted by the Extradition Act. It gives them the power to detain international criminals without having to apply for a UK arrest warrant first.

As Parliament nears the end of its scrutiny of the Immigration Bill, it is crucial that we remember why we are introducing this new system. Last year the people of the United Kingdom gave us a clear, and substantial, mandate for change. Leaving the European Union, as many of us have made the case before, will give us an opportunity to do things differently and there is no clearer example than immigration.

The British public can be assured that this Prime Minister, and Home Secretary, get it. And are delivering on those promises.

This hatchet man in a hurry casts no new light on Johnson, except to show him as a vulnerable child

17 Oct

Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower

In his Acknowledgements, buried on page 527 of his book, Tom Bower remarks, in the manner of an author broaching a humorous topic: “Readers should be aware that Boris Johnson is not a stranger in my home.”

He adds that “Veronica Wadley, my wife, has known him as a journalist since he joined The Daily Telegraph in 1988.”

Readers are not, however, made aware that during Johnson’s second term as Mayor of London, from 2012-16, Wadley worked for him as a well-paid adviser at City Hall, and now that Johnson is Prime Minister, he has made her a Conservative peer.

These interests really ought to be declared, if only in order for Bower to declare that he has not allowed himself to be swayed by so much as a syllable from what he would have written anyhow.

The peerage is recent news, but not so recent that it could not have been mentioned here. A few pages earlier, Bower has referred to “the government’s mismanagement of the A level and GCSE examinations in mid-August”. His wife’s elevation was announced on 31st July.

Bower is billed on the cover of this book as “Britain’s top investigative author”, yet says of Wadley: “She played no part in researching or writing this book.”

For a top investigative author, that seems a strange omission. Only a third-rate investigative author would have failed to ask the woman he lives with for help in explaining Johnson, whom she has known for 32 years.

And she has in fact given some rather unrevealing help with the question of why Johnson ran for mayor: “At a summer party in Carlton Gardens, she cornered Boris and suggested that he run for mayor. Although surprised, he agreed to consider it.”

Wadley was at this point editor of The Evening Standard, which threw its full support behind Johnson in his closely contested battle with the incumbent mayor, Ken Livingstone.

The chief power possessed by any Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she has hundreds of jobs and honours with which to reward his or her followers. Johnson understands this as well as any previous holder of the post.

The chief power possessed by a writer is the power to tell the truth, or at least to try to tell it. But in order for readers to trust a writer, they have to feel he or she is taking them into his or her confidence.

James Boswell possessed that quality in superabundance. He really wanted to tell us what he thought about Samuel Johnson, and about those round Johnson.

Bower doesn’t have that quality. He doesn’t want to take us into his confidence, and gives us no real sense of what the people round his Johnson are like. For most of the time, he doesn’t sound in the slightest bit interested in them himself.

Anyone can make mistakes, but Bower’s mistakes have the curious effect of rendering vivid material less vivid, funny stories less funny.

So he has James Landale, then of The Times, saying of Johnson as a correspondent in Brussels: “Boris told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp.”

No mention that Landale was adapting “Matilda”, by Hilaire Belloc, for use at a farewell party.

Sonia Purnell, who wrote a generally unfavourable biography of Johnson, has taken to Twitter to dismiss what Bower says about her as “so inaccurate it’s risible”.

My own regret is that while Bower has paid me the compliment of borrowing extensively from my own life of Johnson, the comic element is almost always lost, and with it an essential part of the explanation for Johnson’s ability to reach the wider public.

One can, of course, say that Johnson is beyond a joke. Over the years, many eminent commentators have come round to that view. Bower quotes Max Hastings in The Daily Mail in October 2012:

“If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to be a serious country.”

So far as one knows, Hastings still lives near Hungerford.

Bower’s book serves as a reminder that more journalists have said Johnson could not, and should not, become Prime Minister than has been written of any other figure in recent times.

These denunciations now read like so many predictions of future success. For one does not bother to contend that someone with no hope of getting to the top will not do so.

Johnson’s critics were trying to suppress the awful realisation that he might actually make it. Matthew Parris has been trying to persuade himself.

Bower casts no light on this curious phenomenon. He made his name writing hatchet jobs about various well-known figures: his last book was an account of Jeremy Corbyn which was so unrelievedly hostile – so disinclined to give credit even where credit might be due – that it rendered Corbyn’s ability to win the support of large numbers of voters incomprehensible.

In this new book, Bower still swings his hatchet, every so often settling scores with various extraneous figures without indicating how in the first place they incurred his displeasure.

He has no understanding of the history, workings and mentality of the Conservative Party, which Johnson saved last year from destruction at the hands of Nigel Farage.

About Johnson himself, Bower is quite often positive, not by appreciating his good qualities, but by sinking the hatchet into others. For example, after relating the unhappy tale of Johnson’s evidence, as Foreign Secretary, about Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, Bower declares:

“The real culprit was the Foreign Office, a failing department.”

Why does he say this? Through his clotted prose, it is impossible to discern his real motives. We are not taken into his confidence. It sounds like pure Johnsonian propaganda.

One wishes Bower would tell us what he is trying to achieve, but the answer may be that even he, a hatchet man in a hurry, does not really know what he is doing, apart from getting the book finished. At the end, he deviates into a appallingly prolonged account of the pandemic which tells us virtually nothing about Johnson.

The one person who speaks truth in this book is Johnson’s mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who says of his father, Stanley Johnson:

“He was always hitting me, and Boris saw it.”

According to Bower, Stanley “feigned ignorance” about the causes of Charlotte’s nervous breakdown in 1974, for which she was treated for eight months at the Maudsley Hospital in south London:

“Charlotte corrects Stanley’s recollection: ‘The doctors at the Maudsley spoke to Stanley about his abuse of me. He had hit me. He hit me many times, over many years.’ On one occasion, Stanley had hit Charlotte especially hard. ‘He beat me up and broke my nose,’ she recalls. After that attack, Charlotte was treated in the St John & St Elizabeth Hospital in north-west London. The children were told that a car door had hit their mother’s face. Boris, however, knew the truth.”

This old, unhappy and not very far-off story is related in the first chapter of the book. Here we see a loving mother’s defence of her son against his enemies. Bower, it may be said, has served her purpose.

An excellent book about Johnson has just been published. Unfortunately it is in German. One hopes it will appear in an English translation, but meanwhile anyone who can read the language of Goethe is urged to get hold of Boris Johnson: Porträt eines Störenfrieds by Jan Ross of Die Zeit.

Ross in his Portrait of a Contentious Man – more literally of a disturber of the peace – recognises that Johnson’s fallibility awakens sympathy and a feeling of togetherness, and that by refraining from idealism, Johnson protects himself against the charge of hypocrisy.

Some of Johnson’s own writings sound better in German. The jokes distract one less from the seriousness, and the debt to classical antiquity is more apparent.

Johnson is serious! A provocative thesis, with which few members of the German political establishment will agree, but argued here with perfect lucidity.

This hatchet man in a hurry casts no new light on Johnson, except to show him as a vulnerable child

17 Oct

Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower

In his Acknowledgements, buried on page 527 of his book, Tom Bower remarks, in the manner of an author broaching a humorous topic: “Readers should be aware that Boris Johnson is not a stranger in my home.”

He adds that “Veronica Wadley, my wife, has known him as a journalist since he joined The Daily Telegraph in 1988.”

Readers are not, however, made aware that during Johnson’s second term as Mayor of London, from 2012-16, Wadley worked for him as a well-paid adviser at City Hall, and now that Johnson is Prime Minister, he has made her a Conservative peer.

These interests really ought to be declared, if only in order for Bower to declare that he has not allowed himself to be swayed by so much as a syllable from what he would have written anyhow.

The peerage is recent news, but not so recent that it could not have been mentioned here. A few pages earlier, Bower has referred to “the government’s mismanagement of the A level and GCSE examinations in mid-August”. His wife’s elevation was announced on 31st July.

Bower is billed on the cover of this book as “Britain’s top investigative author”, yet says of Wadley: “She played no part in researching or writing this book.”

For a top investigative author, that seems a strange omission. Only a third-rate investigative author would have failed to ask the woman he lives with for help in explaining Johnson, whom she has known for 32 years.

And she has in fact given some rather unrevealing help with the question of why Johnson ran for mayor: “At a summer party in Carlton Gardens, she cornered Boris and suggested that he run for mayor. Although surprised, he agreed to consider it.”

Wadley was at this point editor of The Evening Standard, which threw its full support behind Johnson in his closely contested battle with the incumbent mayor, Ken Livingstone.

The chief power possessed by any Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she has hundreds of jobs and honours with which to reward his or her followers. Johnson understands this as well as any previous holder of the post.

The chief power possessed by a writer is the power to tell the truth, or at least to try to tell it. But in order for readers to trust a writer, they have to feel he or she is taking them into his or her confidence.

James Boswell possessed that quality in superabundance. He really wanted to tell us what he thought about Samuel Johnson, and about those round Johnson.

Bower doesn’t have that quality. He doesn’t want to take us into his confidence, and gives us no real sense of what the people round his Johnson are like. For most of the time, he doesn’t sound in the slightest bit interested in them himself.

Anyone can make mistakes, but Bower’s mistakes have the curious effect of rendering vivid material less vivid, funny stories less funny.

So he has James Landale, then of The Times, saying of Johnson as a correspondent in Brussels: “Boris told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp.”

No mention that Landale was adapting “Matilda”, by Hilaire Belloc, for use at a farewell party.

Sonia Purnell, who wrote a generally unfavourable biography of Johnson, has taken to Twitter to dismiss what Bower says about her as “so inaccurate it’s risible”.

My own regret is that while Bower has paid me the compliment of borrowing extensively from my own life of Johnson, the comic element is almost always lost, and with it an essential part of the explanation for Johnson’s ability to reach the wider public.

One can, of course, say that Johnson is beyond a joke. Over the years, many eminent commentators have come round to that view. Bower quotes Max Hastings in The Daily Mail in October 2012:

“If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to be a serious country.”

So far as one knows, Hastings still lives near Hungerford.

Bower’s book serves as a reminder that more journalists have said Johnson could not, and should not, become Prime Minister than has been written of any other figure in recent times.

These denunciations now read like so many predictions of future success. For one does not bother to contend that someone with no hope of getting to the top will not do so.

Johnson’s critics were trying to suppress the awful realisation that he might actually make it. Matthew Parris has been trying to persuade himself.

Bower casts no light on this curious phenomenon. He made his name writing hatchet jobs about various well-known figures: his last book was an account of Jeremy Corbyn which was so unrelievedly hostile – so disinclined to give credit even where credit might be due – that it rendered Corbyn’s ability to win the support of large numbers of voters incomprehensible.

In this new book, Bower still swings his hatchet, every so often settling scores with various extraneous figures without indicating how in the first place they incurred his displeasure.

He has no understanding of the history, workings and mentality of the Conservative Party, which Johnson saved last year from destruction at the hands of Nigel Farage.

About Johnson himself, Bower is quite often positive, not by appreciating his good qualities, but by sinking the hatchet into others. For example, after relating the unhappy tale of Johnson’s evidence, as Foreign Secretary, about Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, Bower declares:

“The real culprit was the Foreign Office, a failing department.”

Why does he say this? Through his clotted prose, it is impossible to discern his real motives. We are not taken into his confidence. It sounds like pure Johnsonian propaganda.

One wishes Bower would tell us what he is trying to achieve, but the answer may be that even he, a hatchet man in a hurry, does not really know what he is doing, apart from getting the book finished. At the end, he deviates into a appallingly prolonged account of the pandemic which tells us virtually nothing about Johnson.

The one person who speaks truth in this book is Johnson’s mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who says of his father, Stanley Johnson:

“He was always hitting me, and Boris saw it.”

According to Bower, Stanley “feigned ignorance” about the causes of Charlotte’s nervous breakdown in 1974, for which she was treated for eight months at the Maudsley Hospital in south London:

“Charlotte corrects Stanley’s recollection: ‘The doctors at the Maudsley spoke to Stanley about his abuse of me. He had hit me. He hit me many times, over many years.’ On one occasion, Stanley had hit Charlotte especially hard. ‘He beat me up and broke my nose,’ she recalls. After that attack, Charlotte was treated in the St John & St Elizabeth Hospital in north-west London. The children were told that a car door had hit their mother’s face. Boris, however, knew the truth.”

This old, unhappy and not very far-off story is related in the first chapter of the book. Here we see a loving mother’s defence of her son against his enemies. Bower, it may be said, has served her purpose.

An excellent book about Johnson has just been published. Unfortunately it is in German. One hopes it will appear in an English translation, but meanwhile anyone who can read the language of Goethe is urged to get hold of Boris Johnson: Porträt eines Störenfrieds by Jan Ross of Die Zeit.

Ross in his Portrait of a Contentious Man – more literally of a disturber of the peace – recognises that Johnson’s fallibility awakens sympathy and a feeling of togetherness, and that by refraining from idealism, Johnson protects himself against the charge of hypocrisy.

Some of Johnson’s own writings sound better in German. The jokes distract one less from the seriousness, and the debt to classical antiquity is more apparent.

Johnson is serious! A provocative thesis, with which few members of the German political establishment will agree, but argued here with perfect lucidity.

Ian Howells: Hybrids are the key to delivering the Government’s climate transport goals in the UK

13 Oct

Ian Howells is Honda Europe’s Senior Vice President. This is a sponsored post by Honda.

Honda has committed to achieving carbon neutrality globally by 2050, and we fully support the UK Government’s decarbonisation targets. In fact, throughout Europe, we have an ambitious target for 100 per cent of car sales to feature electrified powertrains (EV, plug-in hybrid, advanced hybrid) by 2022.

But, with our global experience and engineering expertise we know that delivering an affordable, decarbonised future cannot rely on just one technology.

A multi-pathway approach is required, in which a broad range of technologies are used to deliver CO2 reductions quickly and effectively, while ensuring that personal mobility remains affordable and accessible to all. This is vital to the Government’s levelling up agenda and underpinning the fundamental principle of personal choice.

Honda’s approach would see battery electric, advanced hybrid and – in time – hydrogen and decarbonised liquid fuels deployed to provide customers with the right vehicle, for the right use, at the right price.

For Honda, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will play a key role in our proposed approach. BEVs provide a significant number of benefits to consumers, enabling zero emissions driving over short distances and within urban environments.

But BEVs are not a silver bullet. Challenges around affordability, infrastructure and technology limitations mean that the Government cannot rely solely on electric vehicles to completely replace internal combustion engines by 2035, if it does not also intend to restrict consumer choice.

An approach that relies only on expensive electric cars risks turning driving into a privilege only afforded to the wealthy, while pricing those who most need it out of personal mobility.

While prices are coming down, BEVs remain expensive in comparison to advanced hybrid and conventional cars. The UK’s own Advanced Propulsion Centre projects that cost parity between electric and petrol cars will not be reached by 2035 – and will take much longer for larger family cars or popular SUVs. The simple truth is that not everyone will be able to afford an electric car and outlawing advanced hybrid alternatives will price people out of essential mobility for work, school, caring and socialising.

Pursuing a battery electric only strategy will create a new inequality between those who have easy access to charging – and those in the Midlands and the North who do not.

Despite welcome additional investments from Government, the UK’s charging infrastructure is far from ready for a full transition to electric vehicles within 15 years. Public charging is unevenly spread across the country, with London, the South East and Scotland seeing the highest levels of public charging infrastructure, with the Midlands and the North much worse served. Wealthier drivers in the suburbs may be able to install off-street charging at home, but people with no access to off-street parking, such as those in tower blocks or dense urban areas, will struggle to find accessible and convenient ways to charge their car.

Current battery technology is nearing the limits of performance – and resource scarcity means there are not enough raw materials for a full shift to battery electric cars.

The current lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars today are reaching the limits of power and performance. These limits mean that EVs cannot be used to replace ICE vehicles in all cases. Whether towing caravans on the family holiday, pulling tradesperson’s equipment, or powering a sports car – battery electric cannot yet deliver the needed performance on its own.

Performance and power cannot simply be increased by installing bigger batteries, as these vehicles would incur weight and cost penalties. Furthermore, there are limits on global cobalt supply, with the European Commission estimating that by 2030, even with recycling, demand will far outstrip supply.

Honda’s advanced hybrid technology is at the heart of a multi-pathway approach that delivers significant emissions reductions, keeps mobility affordable and accessible – and still has scope for significant improvements. Signalling an end to this technology would be counter-productive.

Hybrid technology is far more affordable to a wide variety of consumers. Our new Jazz Hybrid starts from £19,000, which is much cheaper than a similarly sized BEV from other manufacturers – even when government support is taken into account. The price difference is much starker when looking at larger family-sized vehicles or the ever popular SUV category.

By combining compact, efficient, specially designed petrol engines with battery power, Honda’s advanced hybrid technology provides the power and performance that customers need to meet a wide range of needs, ensuring that customers feel confident in moving into low emissions mobility.

Our advanced hybrid products on the market now, are already making a contribution to CO2 reductions. Our new Jazz Hybrid emits 30 per cent less CO2 than its non-hybrid predecessor. In addition, there remains scope for significant ongoing emission reductions as advanced hybrid technology continues to evolve and move towards zero emission.

Decarbonised liquid fuels are an exciting way to further reduce transport emissions, alongside electrification.

The development of decarbonised liquid fuels – produced from renewable energy sources – have the potential to further reduce the CO2 performance of hybrid vehicles, and are a viable route to decarbonising the existing petrol and diesel fleet, again significantly bringing forward the reduction in carbon emissions.

As the Prime Minister said in his 2020 party conference speech – at some point the State must stand aside, and let the private sector take the lead. The role of Government is to set consistent and realistic targets and provide support, but it must let businesses innovate and invest, while enabling consumers to choose the technology that fits their needs.

The challenge of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 is huge. Honda has also embarked on that journey and will dedicate all its global resources to meeting this vital goal. The UK will be at the forefront as we deploy our technologies, and we support the Government’s ambitions of zero emissions mobility. But our global experience and engineering know-how make it clear that we can’t rely on one technology alone – a multi-pathway approach is required.

As ministers finalise their plans for mobility in a net-zero future, they must ensure that mobility remains accessible and affordable for all. They can achieve this by recognising the important role played by advanced hybrids and ensure these can remain part of the technology mix over the long term, as part of a multi pathway approach to our shared goal of clean, accessible and affordable personal mobility.

To find out more about Honda’s advanced hybrid technology, visit our UK website here.

Paul Bristow: The biggest challenge for our NHS may still lie ahead, but it’s also an opportunity

30 Jun

Paul Bristow is the MP for Peterborough and a member of the Commons’ Health and Social Care Select Committee.

Our NHS has done an excellent job looking after us during the Covid-19 crisis. But the biggest challenge for our NHS may be about to begin as the service deals with the backlog of delayed operations and treatments.

The lockdown began in order to protect our NHS. This was the early central message. The Government was concerned that hospitals would be overwhelmed as we saw in Italy and elsewhere at the start of the pandemic. This didn’t happen. Our NHS ramped up capacity as former NHS workers came back to serve, new hospitals were built, and a deal was struck with the independent sector. This push for increasing capacity within the system needs to continue.

We need a national effort backed by the Government PR machine – supported by the charisma and optimism of the Prime Minister – to back our NHS and clear the backlog. I have heard personal harrowing stories from NHS patients through my role on the Health and Social Care Select Committee.

Rob Martinez from Bracknell, who needed a double knee replacement, had his operation due in April cancelled. He told our committee that he had taken early retirement. I asked him if he would have continued to work if his operation had taken place – he confirmed he felt he could have worked for another 5 years. What was the most bitter blow is that he has been told there is ‘zero chance’ of his procedure taking place this year.

Another patient from Sevenoaks had her chemotherapy stopped. And while it has restarted, there remains huge concern that the number of patients receiving chemotherapy is far fewer than would be expected. Cancer Research UK estimates more than 20,000 patients did not get treatment because of the virus crisis.

Whilst official statistics have been paused, it is estimated almost two-thirds of Britons with common life-threatening conditions have had care cancelled. The NHS Confederation is saying that NHS waiting lists could rise to 10 million in the autumn, and take up to two years to clear. The Royal College of Surgery has called for a five-year strategy to tackle the waiting list situation.

This is now one of the Government’s central challenges.

We can do this. The NHS has shown its remarkable ability to cope, and yet again the British people have shown great resilience through this emergency. But it needs to be framed as a national effort with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State personally leading this.

Those who have re-joined the NHS to help with the Covid-19 crisis need to be persuaded to stay. I appreciate staff will be tired, and those that have returned will need to be properly motivated. The appreciation that the public has shown to our NHS staff should help, but efforts will need to be made to make the NHS a better place to work and should be prioritised.

The Prime Minister had it right with the simple message about workforce at the General Election, promising to recruit and retain 50,000 nurses. We need to look with urgency at long-term recruitment issues. The NHS needs staff in almost every setting, as many begin to reach retirement age. According to the latest annual census from the UK Royal College of Radiologists, in 2020 approximately 200 doctors will qualify as radiology consultants – not enough to fill even half of the estimated 466 vacancies.

The Government needs to be alive to the challenges associated with the safety of NHS staff and patients. The need for PPE and new designed layouts will affect theatre capacity. Diagnostics, which underpin clinical activity in hospitals, and a backlog in MRI/CT scans, endoscopy and laboratory tests are also limiting factors.

Back in March, Matt Hancock was right to sign a deal with the independent sector. In peace time this would have been an incredibly courageous thing to do with those on the left gleefully pointing to proof of Tory privatisation. I hope that the Covid-19 emergency has dismissed the lazy assumption that the independent sector and the NHS cannot work in partnership.

A similar long-term deal agreement with independent providers to retain capacity will be crucial in the years ahead. They can help ramp up elective capacity, power through knee, hip and cataract procedures, and improve lives – and in the case of Mr Martinez may even allow him to return to work and generate more tax revenue to fund public services. It will also allow for cancer treatment and cardiology procedures to resume at pace and scale. With appropriate testing arrangements, these could quickly become a significant proportion of the ‘Covid-light’ units that are being regularly discussed as the means to reduce the elective backlog.

The NHS does so many things well. But few would claim – especially staff – it cannot become more productive. We have seen the NHS conduct GP appointments and other consultations through digital challenges. This has worked. It is also worth noting that much of this would have been impossible if it wasn’t for the visible presence of the NHS on our streets in the form of community pharmacies offering that face-to-face reassurance for many routine issues.

This obviously needs to continue, but it is only the beginning. Let’s start a conversation about how the NHS can change many care pathways to become more productive. We can accelerate the uptake of already established treatments, which can keep patients out of a secondary care setting or at least not in expensive hospital beds for days at a time, by the adoption of less invasive procedures.

Changing pathways to enable the adoption of technology has often meant local evidence needed to be established – this could take years and was often completely unnecessary. We can expediate the move to integrated care working, especially with regarded to initiatives such as shared waiting lists and flexibility in payment mechanisms. This is a chance to improve existing practice.

We can be optimistic and ambitious for the future of our NHS. So much goodwill has been garnered and our staff are more valued than ever. But it is also an opportunity for change. A national effort led by a transparent and upfront Government is what is required.

Paul Bristow: The biggest challenge for our NHS may still lie ahead, but it’s also an opportunity

30 Jun

Paul Bristow is the MP for Peterborough and a member of the Commons’ Health and Social Care Select Committee.

Our NHS has done an excellent job looking after us during the Covid-19 crisis. But the biggest challenge for our NHS may be about to begin as the service deals with the backlog of delayed operations and treatments.

The lockdown began in order to protect our NHS. This was the early central message. The Government was concerned that hospitals would be overwhelmed as we saw in Italy and elsewhere at the start of the pandemic. This didn’t happen. Our NHS ramped up capacity as former NHS workers came back to serve, new hospitals were built, and a deal was struck with the independent sector. This push for increasing capacity within the system needs to continue.

We need a national effort backed by the Government PR machine – supported by the charisma and optimism of the Prime Minister – to back our NHS and clear the backlog. I have heard personal harrowing stories from NHS patients through my role on the Health and Social Care Select Committee.

Rob Martinez from Bracknell, who needed a double knee replacement, had his operation due in April cancelled. He told our committee that he had taken early retirement. I asked him if he would have continued to work if his operation had taken place – he confirmed he felt he could have worked for another 5 years. What was the most bitter blow is that he has been told there is ‘zero chance’ of his procedure taking place this year.

Another patient from Sevenoaks had her chemotherapy stopped. And while it has restarted, there remains huge concern that the number of patients receiving chemotherapy is far fewer than would be expected. Cancer Research UK estimates more than 20,000 patients did not get treatment because of the virus crisis.

Whilst official statistics have been paused, it is estimated almost two-thirds of Britons with common life-threatening conditions have had care cancelled. The NHS Confederation is saying that NHS waiting lists could rise to 10 million in the autumn, and take up to two years to clear. The Royal College of Surgery has called for a five-year strategy to tackle the waiting list situation.

This is now one of the Government’s central challenges.

We can do this. The NHS has shown its remarkable ability to cope, and yet again the British people have shown great resilience through this emergency. But it needs to be framed as a national effort with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State personally leading this.

Those who have re-joined the NHS to help with the Covid-19 crisis need to be persuaded to stay. I appreciate staff will be tired, and those that have returned will need to be properly motivated. The appreciation that the public has shown to our NHS staff should help, but efforts will need to be made to make the NHS a better place to work and should be prioritised.

The Prime Minister had it right with the simple message about workforce at the General Election, promising to recruit and retain 50,000 nurses. We need to look with urgency at long-term recruitment issues. The NHS needs staff in almost every setting, as many begin to reach retirement age. According to the latest annual census from the UK Royal College of Radiologists, in 2020 approximately 200 doctors will qualify as radiology consultants – not enough to fill even half of the estimated 466 vacancies.

The Government needs to be alive to the challenges associated with the safety of NHS staff and patients. The need for PPE and new designed layouts will affect theatre capacity. Diagnostics, which underpin clinical activity in hospitals, and a backlog in MRI/CT scans, endoscopy and laboratory tests are also limiting factors.

Back in March, Matt Hancock was right to sign a deal with the independent sector. In peace time this would have been an incredibly courageous thing to do with those on the left gleefully pointing to proof of Tory privatisation. I hope that the Covid-19 emergency has dismissed the lazy assumption that the independent sector and the NHS cannot work in partnership.

A similar long-term deal agreement with independent providers to retain capacity will be crucial in the years ahead. They can help ramp up elective capacity, power through knee, hip and cataract procedures, and improve lives – and in the case of Mr Martinez may even allow him to return to work and generate more tax revenue to fund public services. It will also allow for cancer treatment and cardiology procedures to resume at pace and scale. With appropriate testing arrangements, these could quickly become a significant proportion of the ‘Covid-light’ units that are being regularly discussed as the means to reduce the elective backlog.

The NHS does so many things well. But few would claim – especially staff – it cannot become more productive. We have seen the NHS conduct GP appointments and other consultations through digital challenges. This has worked. It is also worth noting that much of this would have been impossible if it wasn’t for the visible presence of the NHS on our streets in the form of community pharmacies offering that face-to-face reassurance for many routine issues.

This obviously needs to continue, but it is only the beginning. Let’s start a conversation about how the NHS can change many care pathways to become more productive. We can accelerate the uptake of already established treatments, which can keep patients out of a secondary care setting or at least not in expensive hospital beds for days at a time, by the adoption of less invasive procedures.

Changing pathways to enable the adoption of technology has often meant local evidence needed to be established – this could take years and was often completely unnecessary. We can expediate the move to integrated care working, especially with regarded to initiatives such as shared waiting lists and flexibility in payment mechanisms. This is a chance to improve existing practice.

We can be optimistic and ambitious for the future of our NHS. So much goodwill has been garnered and our staff are more valued than ever. But it is also an opportunity for change. A national effort led by a transparent and upfront Government is what is required.