Profile: Ben Elliot, Co-Chairman of the Party, under fire for the seating plan which put Jenrick next to Desmond

3 Jul

Ben Elliot is a more significant figure than his title, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, might suggest. Just as Andrew Feldman was David Cameron’s man in CCHQ, so Elliot controls the party organisation for Johnson.

The Conservative Party Board is chaired by Elliot, not by his Co-Chairman, Amanda Milling. The new Chief Executive, Darren Mott, a long-term servant of the party, reports to Elliot, not Milling, and Elliot is regularly in Number Ten, conferring with Johnson.

Elliot’s success as a fundraiser for the party is generally recognised. He not only raised the money for last December’s election, but ensured there was a surplus to carry the party through the leaner period after the election – a particularly welcome precaution once the pandemic struck.

The question troubling some Tories is whether, while charming the donors, he is sufficiently careful to avoid unfortunate juxtapositions.

He would not have arranged the seating plan for the now notorious dinner last November at which Robert Jenrick found himself sitting next to Richard Desmond. Nor can he be held to answer for Jenrick’s subsequent conduct, which included sending a friendly text message to Desmond and then ruling in his favour on a major planning application.

The seating plan would have been in the hands of the Treasurer’s Department, which appears to have tried to inform Jenrick’s special advisers about it by way of departmental emails which could not be opened because the general election campaign was already under way.

But because Elliot is in overall charge of CCHQ, he still incurs criticism when things go wrong. The buck stops with him.

“He clearly hasn’t understood the politics,” a senior Tory backbencher complained. “It smells wrong.”

“I’ve never met him,” a second senior Tory backbencher said. “He’s invisible. Maybe that’s a good thing.”

“There are mutterings that he’s a disaster waiting to happen,” an activist who knows the party well comments.

But none of those three knows Elliot. Zac Goldsmith – now as Lord Goldsmith Minister of State for the Pacific, International Environment, Climate and Forests, and Animal Welfare (is there a longer title in the Government?) – has known Elliot “pretty much all my life”, has the highest opinion of him, and calls him “without doubt the most effective person I know in terms of getting things done – he is the go-to person, he has an amazing ability to get people onside, to get people together”.

Goldsmith says it is Elliot’s job “to make sure the party can operate”, by raising the necessary funds: “How politicians behave around party donors is for politicians to figure out.”

This is right: the responsibility for behaving with complete propriety rests with the politicians. On the other hand, they ought not to be placed in situations which might lead to unnecessary embarrassment.

And the donors themselves can be tricky. “Donors put up stuff on Instagram – you despair,” one Conservative remarks. “Desmond is a particularly difficult man,” another observes.

Elliot himself possesses such a tremendous, gung-ho ability to carry off awkward social situations that he may underestimate the difficulties these could pose for less self-assured figures.

His insouciant manner suggests to those around him a refusal to contemplate the danger of scandal.

The élan with which his grandfather, Major Bruce Shand, commanded a squadron of armoured cars in the Western Desert during the Second World War, is displayed by Elliot in the less heroic roles offered by peacetime.

One of Shand’s daughters is now Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, while the other, Annabel, married Simon Elliot, a landowner in Dorset.

Ben Elliot, born in 1975, is almost invariably described, in articles about him, as Camilla’s nephew rather than Annabel’s son.

He does not appear to repine at this branding. After a conventional education at Eton and at Bristol University, where he read politics and economics, he set out to make his way as an entrepreneur.

When he was 24, he and two partners set up a firm called Quintessentially, a “lifestyle management” service for people with more money than sense. It from time to time attracts adverse comment in the press, but Elliot has also shown a flair for promoting it by giving interviews about his own lifestyle.

Here is a piece from The Daily Telegraph in 2011 about his perfect weekend:

“In my heart and soul I am a West Country man and ideally my weekends are spent there. I was born and bred in Dorset and I missed it massively when I was setting up Quintessentially, my lifestyle company, in New York during my twenties and early thirties. On my bedroom wall I had a photograph of Hod Hill, the Iron Age fort behind my parents’ home near Blandford Forum. But these days I also spend weekends in Northleach in Gloucestershire, where my wife Mary-Clare’s family live and where we own a home. I was nervous about emigrating north to Gloucestershire but you’ve got to compromise sometimes…

“We met at an Eric Clapton concert in Madison Square Gardens in New York about three and a half years ago. Her father, Steve Winwood, is a songwriter and musician who formed Blind Faith with Eric Clapton in 1969, and he was also performing in the concert. The Winwoods are half British and half American; they have a second home in Nashville, Tennessee, where Mary-Clare and I spent some time last summer.”

At the end of the interview he was asked, “What are you most ashamed about?” and replied with characteristic boldness: “I don’t have much shame. I don’t really regret anything.”

He also said: “I’d love to represent a West Country seat in the House of Commons.” It would be surprising if he did not still harbour a desire to become an MP, conceivably for The Cotswolds, the seat where Northleach lies.

Politics has been an interest from his earliest years. Goldsmith can remember Elliot at the age of nine or ten at Hawtreys, their preparatory school, getting people to sign petitions.

Recent years have seen an accumulation of offices: in 2015 he was appointed to the development board of the Royal Albert Hall, in 2016 he was deeply involved on the fundraising side of Goldsmith’s unsuccessful campaign for Mayor of London and became a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in 2017 he joined the board of the Centre for Policy Studies, and in December 2018 Michael Gove made him the Government’s Food Surplus and Waste Champion.

Publicity for the last role offered scope, in an interview with The Times, for one of the self-deprecating anecdotes of which Elliot is a master, used as the intro to the piece by its author, Damian Whitworth:

“Ben Elliot arrives for our breakfast meeting having already been into battle. ‘I had a row with my youngest son today because he wouldn’t eat all his porridge. It’s bloody difficult. Negotiating with him on anything is a nightmare.’

“When Britain’s new food waste tsar was growing up he was not allowed to leave the table until he had finished everything on his plate. His father once made him sit, picking away at the last scrap of lunch, until 5 p.m. Modern parenting trends are less hardcore. Caught between an intransigent 21st-century four-year-old and the horror of throwing food away, what did he do? ‘I ended up eating most of it.'”

Here is a rhetoric which creates a feeling of complicity between Elliot and anyone who has ever had trouble getting a child to eat.

But behind the genuine charm lies something else. Someone who has worked for Elliot said he has two modes, charming and angry.

One day he will walk in smiling, the next day like a storm cloud. He is no mere boulevardier, a tall, relaxed, handsome man who networks for his own amusement, content to look good in his grandfather’s old suits as he moves among fashionable and well-connected people.

He is a serious person who for most the time conceals his seriousness, as Englishmen of a certain type do, behind a screen of affability, but who gets immensely frustrated when he cannot achieve what he has set out to achieve.

In this he is like the Prime Minister, another man often written off as not serious, because his manner seems to indicate  incorrigible frivolity.

The two of them are more ambitious, incisive and energetic than their critics are willing to admit. Both of them want to make dramatic changes to the organisations they are running, not conduct themselves as caretakers.

Last summer, when Johnson became Prime Minister and put Elliot into CCHQ, preparations began for an early general election campaign, to be run by Isaac Levido, protégé of Lynton Crosby, who himself got Johnson elected as Mayor of London in 2008, and ran David Cameron’s successful general campaign in 2015.

Most of the recommendations of the Pickles Review, set up to work out what went wrong in Theresa May’s disastrous campaign in 2017, had already been implemented.

Elliot raised the money for the 2019 campaign, frightening donors with the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn government. He also ensured that Levido had the space to get on with running the show. No turf wars disrupted what was a highly successful operation.

Johnson since his Oxford days, when the workers, peasants and intellectuals of Balliol were given no glimpse of his upper-class friends, has had a talent for belonging to several different circles which are for most of the time unaware of each other’s existence. Elliot, close to Gove, great friends with the Goldsmith brothers, and a member at 5 Hertford Street, a club owned by Robin Birley, belongs to one such circle.

The press has striven, quite rightly, to find out all it can about Jenrick and Desmond, and to investigate Elliot’s other enterprises, including the Government work obtained some years ago by Quintessentially, and the lobbying firm, Hawthorn Advisors, which he and others founded in 2013.

That sort of journalism is an indispensable check on the abuse of power. But it may also lead, paradoxically, to an underestimate of the abilities of those against whom it is directed; a cutting down to size which misses significant aspects of someone’s character.

Elliot is described, by one who has seen him at close quarters, as an invigorating boss, a genuine believer in entrepreneurship who sees the good in people, and takes it personally when people criticise Johnson, in whose leadership campaign he played a important role.

If Elliot lacked self-confidence, he would be useless as a fundraiser. To ask people for large sums of money in return for the opportunity to eat an over-priced dinner with Jenrick, and bid for an absurdly expensive game of tennis against Johnson and Elliot, requires a degree of impudence.

Rob Sutton: Introducing the top 50 Conservative MPs on Twitter

29 Jun

Conservative MP Twitter power rankings: the top 50

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Amongst the social media giants, Twitter is the primary battleground for political discourse. It’s also one of the key avenues by which MPs convey their message, and has near-universal uptake by members in the current House of Commons.

The effectiveness with which Twitter is utilised varies considerably between MPs, but it is difficult to compare like-for-like. How does one take into account the differences between, for instance, a freshman MP and a veteran Cabinet member? Length of service in Parliament and ministerial rank give a considerable advantage when building a following.

In this article, I have compiled a power ranking of MPs in the current Parliament, with the top 50 shown in the chart above. The MP’s follower count was adjusted by factoring in their previous experience, to better reflect the strength of their following and their success at engagement on the platform.

Being Twitter-savvy is about more than just a high follower count: any Secretary of State can achieve this just by virtue of the media exposure their office brings. Building a Twitter following based on thoughtful commentary and authentic engagement requires skill ,and can be achieved by members across all Parliamentary intakes and ranks of Government.

Though the top 10 is still dominated by MPs holding senior ministerial offices, the composition of the list beyond it is far more variable. A number of prominent backbenchers are in the top 20, and four members from the 2019 intake make the top 50, beating longer-serving and higher-ranked colleagues.

I hope that this list serves as recognition of the skill and contribution by Conservative members to public debate and engagement, beyond ministerial duties which so often dominate any mention in the media.

Building a model of Twitter power rankings

Success is judged by number of followers, with higher follower counts indicating greater influence on Twitter. The follower count was adjusted using three key parameters:

  • The number of years since an MP was first elected to Parliament.
  • The number of years the MP’s Twitter account has been active.
  • Their highest rank within Government achieved since 2010.

Higher values for each of these would be expected to contribute to a higher follower count. I built a model using the open-source Scikit-Learn package, and fitted it to data from the current Parliament.

The model was then used to predict how many followers a given MP might expect to have based on these three factors. The steps taken to produce a final “Twitter power score” were thus as follows:

  • Using these three factors, multiple linear regression was used to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers an MP might have.
  • Their true follower count was divided by the expected follower count to produce a single number which represented the MP’s performance at building a following.
  • Finally, a logarithm was taken of this ratio to make the number more manageable and to produce a final Twitter power score.

The final step of taking a logarithm means it is easier to compare between MPs without those who have very high follower counts (such as Boris Johnson) making the data difficult to compare, but it does not affect the order of the ranking.

Compiling the data

Having decided which factors to correct the model for, I collected the required information. All three factors were easy to find reliable sources for. The Twitter page for each MP displays the date the account was created, and the Parliamentary website provides the date of their first election to Parliament and previous government posts.

Members who are newly returned to the backbenches following governmental duties (such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt) are scored at their highest government rank since 2010 to recognise this. I was able to find the Twitter accounts and required information for 319 Conservative MPs who were included in this ranking.

To build a model based on this data required incorporating the highest government rank numerically. To do this, I assigned scores according to their rank. These grades recognised their relative seniority and media exposure associated with the office, with higher scores assigned to more senior positions:

  • Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State, Speakers, Leaders of the House and Chief Whips are scored 3.
  • Ministers of State, Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chief Whips are scored 1.
    Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Whips are scored 0.5.
  • Backbenchers score 0.

When assigning these values, I considered the typical sizes of follower counts of MPs in each category. When comparing Secretaries of States to Ministers of State, the median follower count is around twice the size, but the mean follower count is around eight times the size, as a handful of very large follower count skews the results upwards.

Deciding on weightings requires a (somewhat arbitrary) decision as to which measures to use when comparing between groups, and the scores I decided on were ultimately chosen as a compromise across these different measures, which produced stable results when used in the model.

It is also worth explaining why Prime Ministers are grouped with Secretaries of State, despite the far higher media exposure and seniority of their post. When deciding on the respective weighting for different levels of government post, a sufficiently large pool of MPs was needed to produce a meaningful comparison. The only data points for comparison of Prime Ministers are Boris Johnson and Theresa May, so it is difficult to give them their own weighting without it being either unreliable or arbitrary.

While grouping them with Secretaries of State and other senior positions might be perceived as giving them an unfair advantage in the weighting, I felt it justified given these challenges in determining the “fair” weight to assign them. With this done, I had three parameters for each MP on which to build a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers.

Calculating the number of expected Twitter followers

I built a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers using the Scikit-Learn, a popular machine learning package in the Python programming language. The model used multiple linear regression to fit the input parameters to the known follower count.

The input data was prepared by removing extreme high outliers in the data which skewed the fit toward high numbers and away from the vast majority of MPs before fitting. Once fitted, an “expected value” of Twitter followers could be calculated for each MP, based on the year of their first election to parliament, the number of years on Twitter and their highest government rank since 2010.

Including more parameters increases the ability of the model to describe the difference between MPs’ follower counts (the variability). By increasing the number of input variables included in the model, more of the variability is captured:

  • One variable captures between 20.3 per cent and 36.1 per cent of the variability.
  • Two variables capture between 39.1 per cent and 43.1 per cent of the variability.
  • All three variables capture 48.7 per cent of the variability.

These three variables are therefore responsible for almost half of the variation between MPs in their follower counts. The remainder of the variability is likely due to a range of factors which the model does not include, of which the MP’s Twitter-savviness is of particular interest to us. I discuss these factors further below.

Limitations in the model

There are multiple other parameters which could be included in future iterations which I did not include in this model. In particular:

  • Membership or Chairmanship of Select Committees.
  • Previous election to a council, assembly, devolved legislature or the European Parliament.
  • Membership of the Privy Council.
  • Government positions prior to 2010.
  • Prominent positions within the Conservative Party, such as the 1922 Committee or European Research Group.
  • Twitter-savviness and effectiveness of their comms team.

Another limitation was not accounting for the perceived relative importance of various governmental departments: a Great Office of State or Prime Minister is scored the same as any other Secretary of State. The difficulties involved in ranking governmental departments were beyond this first model. The length of service in a given government post was also not considered.

Finally, the choice of model to fit the data may not be the optimal choice. Multiple linear regression assumes, per the name, that the distribution is linear. But the large outliers might be better described by a power law or Pareto distribution, or the non-linearities of a neural network.

During next week, ConservativeHome will produce profiles of six individual MPs who have performed notably well in the power rankings, and who reflect the contributions brought by members beyond their ministerial duties, if they have any.

Our survey. By a wafer-thin margin, a plurality of our Party member panel says that Jenrick should resign

28 Jun

As far as we know, no Conservative MP has called for Robert Jenrick to quit.  And he has no gang of internal, ideological foes waiting to pounce.  Furthermore, the signal from Downing Street has been that Boris Johnson does not want to hand his media foes and others a scalp.

So we are surprised by this finding, which shows that, admittedly by a margin of only a point, our panel of Party members believes that he should go.  (At the best part of 20 per cent, the don’t knows are high.)

Whether because they believe he should walk because he’s acted wrongly, or simply think that the planning controversy in which he’s become embroiled is bad for the Government isn’t clear.

Interestingly, while a plurality concludes that he should resign it don’t also find that Boris Johnson should dismiss him.  By 45 per cent to 32 per cent, they conclude that the Prime Minister shouldn’t.  Though that 32 per cent is roughly a third of respondents.

Rightly or wrongly, we read the panel as saying:  “Jenrick should quit, but if he won’t the Prime Minister shouldn’t have to go through all the bother of sacking him.”

Johnson, Starmer – and their strategies in firing people

26 Jun

After years of Jeremy Corbyn doing nothing to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, many were astonished yesterday by Keir Starmer’s decision to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey as Shadow Education Secretary

He took action after she Retweeted an article by actress Maxine Peake, containing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory; namely that Israel was linked to the killing of George Floyd in the US.

According to The Huff Post, Starmer gave Long-Bailey four hours to delete the post and apologise, but she did not do this – also refusing to take calls from his office, culminating in her prompt dismissal.

Many marvelled at Starmer’s decisiveness, using this as evidence for the increasingly fashionable assumption that Conservatives should be worried about him at future elections (one that this writer does not agree with, incidentally; the “taking the knee” photo will haunt him for years).

The move challenged stereotypes of Starmer – that he’s “forensic” and lawyerly in manner – as it was combative, as well as making him look straightforward (certainly something of an achievement after Labour’s past calculations to thwart Brexit).

Starmer’s decision to remove Long-Bailey from his Shadow Cabinet first and foremost reflects his commitment to eradicating anti-Semitism – and thank goodness for that. 

But it may also demonstrate two other things. First, that he is sceptical about Long-Bailey’s overall popularity with the electorate – and wanted to get rid of her anyway. One suspects outside the Twitter bubble, voters overwhelmingly associate her with Corbyn’s dire tenure, and haven’t been won over with her tendency to use phrases such as “democratising the economy” and “progressive patriotism”, as well as her obsession with the “Green Industrial Revolution”.

Second, it arguably gives Starmer more leverage to demand Boris Johnson sacks members of his own team. The Prime Minister has already been under enormous pressure to do this, following the saga with Dominic Cummings, as well as recent attacks on Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary. 

He is accused of trying to force through permission for a development by Richard Desmond – a billionaire donor he “inadvertently” sat next to at a dinner – who then paid £12,000 to the Tories soon after he got the green light.

Newspapers appear to have given up on getting rid of Cummings, and have now turned their sights on Jenrick, perhaps viewing the mild-mannered MP as an easier target. 

Take The Daily Mail (Desmond is the former owner of the Express newspapers, as Iain Dale points out here, incidentally), which accused the Prime Minister of not being decisive enough over his Housing Minister. “It’s also another instance of Boris Johnson failing to act decisively when one of his ministers or senior advisers falls short of the standards the public expect”, read its leader, which praised Starmer’s “non-nonsense approach” and suggested Johnson “should learn from” it.

Anyone reading The Daily Mail over the last few months will know that it’s been consistently against (pro-Brexit) Johnson, so the attack is no surprise – but does the paper have a point? Has he been weak over the Covid-19 crisis when it comes to sacking people? 

The events over the last few months have arguably softened Johnson’s image, with his u-turn on free school meals, and the enormous sums being spent on Covid-19 protections. He comes across as something of a yes man.

With all this, it’s easy to forget that he can be ruthless when it comes to his team. This was clear in his first reshuffle as Prime Minister, in which he sacked Jeremy Hunt as Foreign Secretary, replacing him with Dominic Raab, as well as asking Hunt’s supporters Liam Fox and Penny Mordaunt to go. It was “the biggest government clearout since Harold Macmillan’s infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in 1962”, wrote PoliticsHome.

Later on, in what was referred to as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, Johnson fired five Cabinet ministers, including Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Sajid Javid resigned after the Prime Minister demanded he lose his team of advisers. Clearly Johnson is ready to strike if he sees fit to – so his critics will demand why Cummings and Jenrick don’t fit the bill.

This, one suspects, is not part of some grandiose plot, but down to the simple principle of belief: the Prime Minister does not think that either man is in the wrong.

A lot has been said about Cummings, but my own view is that his explanation made sense – and furthermore that No 10 could have gone on the offence in reminding people how unusual his circumstances are. A chief adviser in a nationwide pandemic, living in a house that receives death threats, who’s had the press (seemingly permanently) camped outside, and Covid-19, will have one of the most challenging lockdowns.

Jenricks’ case, on the other hand, is ambiguous and will come increasingly under scrutiny, with Labour now reporting him to parliament’s watchdog.

Text messages between him and Desmond demonstrate the latter to be a pushy character, repeatedly trying to get his housing scheme through. Jenrick seems uncomfortable in response, reminding Desmond that he’s Secretary of State and that he cannot have contact with him “whilst he was making” a “decision with respect to the planning application”.

As Andrew Gimson sets out in his recent profile of Jenrick, one Tory backbencher has described him as “a decent man”; one is less flattering, suggesting that he’s “a suit” – who simply takes orders. He has released 129 pages of emails, texts and letters in total – to clear his name. From reading some of the exchanges, one suspects, if anything, his main issue is being too polite.

Either way there is a false equivalence between what may be a mistake, and Long-Bailey’s disgraceful post. Especially after Starmer cautioned her, it would have been unacceptable for her to stay in her position.

What was especially poignant about yesterday, on a semi-related note, is how shocked members of the Left were with what happened, not used to being on the receiving end of such swift justice.

In recent years, it’s the Right that has been accustomed to its figures being “cancelled” – be it Toby Young’s resignation as Theresa May’s university adviser, or Roger Scruton’s firing after being misquoted.

A big feature of May’s tenure was her inability to stick up to the mob on such matters, as well as the endless departures under her leadership, ranging from misconduct (Gavin Williamson’s dismissal after he leaked highly classified information about 5G) to those leaving on behalf of Brexit strategy.

With his massive majority, Johnson has not faced such a chaos – his team is far more loyal, but it will still remain a priority of the Government to stand strong against the cancel culture fostered by members of the Left.

Yes the Government should dismiss MPs on legitimate grounds – if any investigation shows Jenrick to have deliberately been in the wrong than he has to go – but the Tories no longer need to cave to media pressure and concocted outrage. Voters will respect them for this, too.

Starmer has a totally different goal, however; restoring a sense of moral order to Labour. As aforementioned, I believe his actions this week will only take him so far. Long-Bailey was an easy win for a party that knows Corbynism was a major, defeating factor at the last election.

Showing bravery in other contexts – how about condemning statue-toppling, for starters? – is a much different enterprise. On these less crowd-pleasing matters, Starmer’s “non-nonsense approach” is fairly non-existent. 

Iain Dale: The Jenrick row. What would the Daily Mail have against the former owner of the Daily Express?

26 Jun

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

One of the grubbier aspects of Robert Jenrick’s woes at the moment is the position of the Daily Mail.

Yesterday, it printed four pages of bile against the Communities Secretary, with articles headlined as follows: “He sweated under the glare like a saveloy in a chip shop” – “Riddle of his £830k home makeover planners refused” – “This haughty and reckless Minister is now a drag on the Tories”.

And it’s been like that for days. It’s quite clear that it has little to do with the rights and wrongs of the case. It’s all bound up with the fact that their arch enemy and rival, Richard Desmond, is the one who stands to gain from the housing development on the Isle of Dogs.

He is, of course, the owner of the Daily Express until 2018. Now, given that the Express is hardly the paper it used to be, and the Mail’s circulation is now many times that of the Express, you might think the Mail would ignore it, in the way that Waitrose wouldn’t worry about the competition from the local independent Minimart. But newspaper owners have long memories and carry grudges longer than elephants do.

The original accusation of “cash for favours” has quietly been dropped. I wrote in this column last week that no politician is likely to be bought for £12,000, especially when the money wasn’t even a donation in the conventional sense – it bought tickets at a fundraising dinner.

The trouble is that there has been a drip of information ever since, culminating in Robert Jenrick publishing 129 pages worth of emails, texts and letters between him and Desmond, or his department and Desmond.

And on Wednesday, The Times published what it thought was a massive new angle whereby Conservative councillors in Westminster were alleged to have overturned a planning decision on Jenrick’s Westminster home in 2014. He only became an MP in June 2014, so it’s not clear what the accusation is here.

Downing Street are standing by their man, just as they did with Dominic Cummings. The letter from the Cabinet Secretary to Steve Reed seeks to close the matter down, but the fact that it was sent only hours after Jenrick released all the different communications with Desmond probably didn’t help, and it certainly hasn’t ‘drawn a line’ under it all.

Jenrick expended a lot of political capital with his parliamentary colleagues over this three home lockdown situation back in April. He’s expended a lot more over the last few weeks. He must hope that Number Ten remains staunch and that there is nothing else for the Mail to latch on to. But the warning to other ministers is clear. And, frankly, it should always have been clear to Jenrick. When it comes to Desmond, sup with a very long spoon.

– – – – – – – – – –

The fourth anniversary of the Brexit referendum passed this week with comparatively little comment.

On the actually Brexitversary on Monday night, I made the mistake of doing a phone-in on it. I started off by saying that I didn’t want to refight the referendum, but I might as well have saved my breath.

Remainer after Remainer phoned in, all seemingly having been to the same debating school, where they had been taught not to engage in a debate and instead just barge their way through without any recognition that there might just possibly be another viewpoint. It was like going back in a time machine.

By the end of the hour I had almost lost the will to live. In real life, my experience is that most moderate Remainers have long ago come to terms with the fact that we have left, and it’s up to the whole country to make the best of it.

I’m far more optimistic than that. It’s not a case of tolerating the new post-Brexit world, it should be a matter of embracing it. And after Coronavirus is over (assuming it ever is), I think there will be new spirit of entrepreneurialism in this country, which will able us to do great things, both domestically and internationally.

I can’t prove it, and there always will be those who attribute any bad bit of economic bad news to Brexit, but I am genuinely excited about the future.

– – – – – – – – – –

The end is in sight. The Government has advised those of us in vulnerable groups that we can emerge from isolation from the beginning of August.

This means I can leave the comfy confines of my bedroom and resume broadcasting from a proper studio at last. It will have been 137 days since I last did that.

I’ve rather enjoyed broadcasting from home and recording lots of podcasts on Zoom, taking part in video conferences on Teams or BlueJeans, but I am relishing some degree of normality returning.

The one thing I am certainly not looking forward to is wearing a facemask from the moment I step on to the train at Tonbridge each day. But I guess I’ll get used to it. Because it will be part of what we now have to refer to as the ‘new normal’.

Andrew Carter: A zoning system is needed to build the homes we need

26 Jun

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities.

You can almost guarantee that, however mad British politics gets, solving the housing crisis is never far from policy makers’ minds.

In Downing Street, Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick are reportedly working on a plan to ramp up homebuilding numbers as part of our recovery from the economic damage done by lockdown. I understand that very significant reforms are being suggested to Britain’s post-war planning rulebook.

Significant reforms are certainly needed. The shortage of homes, particularly for younger people who need move to our most high-demand cities and towns for work, remains one of the largest domestic challenges that we face as a country. It fuels huge social divisions: while homeownership remains a distant dream for many young people, existing homeowners – mostly older and living in urban south east England – have amassed huge fortunes in housing wealth.

Without a proper plan to fix this problem and help the younger generation, no political party should be confident about its own long-term survival. The Government must come up with a bold solution to get Britain building the homes we need, where we need them.

All too often our analysis of the housing crisis boils down to criticising the people operating around it: greedy developers; box-ticking town planners; selfish NIMBYs or frivolous millennials impulse-buying too many avocados to save for a deposit.

We say that if only these people changed their behaviours – built more, saved more, thought more about the next generation – then we wouldn’t have a housing crisis. This is a flawed view; the problem with our planning system is the system itself.

Most town planners that you speak to will quietly admit that the planning system is designed to prevent development, not permit it. Its discretionary case-by-case nature rations the development of land and chokes off the supply of new homes in the places where we need them most – close to jobs. Instead, it forces councils to build new homes where it is most politically expedient, not where they’re needed.

The consequence of this? Just four per cent of suburban neighbourhoods supplied 45 per cent of new homes in the past decade, while one in five neighbourhoods built no new homes at all. Some places have particularly poor records: in Oxford for example, no neighbourhood has built more than 25 homes a year in the last decade and as a result, many of the people drawn there for work and study struggle to afford decant housing. If this does not change our prosperity will suffer and the inequalities that we see in this country will become even more entrenched.

Clearly the bureaucratic case-by-case nature of the current planning system is a major hurdle to our ability to supply the homes that we need, where we need them. You can see alarming parallels in our own system with the ‘shortage economies’ of the former Eastern Bloc, where production was tightly controlled by the rationing of permits.

Tinkering around the edges is not enough. To solve the housing crisis and build the homes needed we should introduce a brand-new flexible zoning code, designed by the UK and devolved governments, to guide local authorities and city regions in the development of their own local plans.

Under this new code, any proposals that comply with a zone-based local plan and building regulations would automatically be granted planning permission. Areas would be zoned according to density – ranging from light residential up to industrial.

There would still be opportunities for public consultation under this model, but they would be frontloaded into the writing of the plan rather than giving the public effective sign off on every single development.

I appreciate that removing much of the public consultation element of the planning process would be a controversial move for many people, but the current system is simply too bureaucratic and unresponsive to allow for enough new homes to be built.

Many of the most common concerns that people have about development, such as aesthetics and density, could be addressed in the drafting of the local plan. So, for example, if people wanted to ensure that any new developments in their area were medium density mock-Georgian terraces they would still have the opportunity to do this under a zone-based system, but at the very beginning when the plan is developed.

A stable home need not be unaffordable, as it is for many people in Britain today. Our housing crisis is the result of a political choice that results from our tacit commitment to sustain a bureaucracy that deliberately undersupplies new homes. This fuels inequality between prosperous places and struggling one, between homeowners and their children, and between the haves and the have-nots.

We can change this with a more flexible zoned approach to development, but it requires genuine political will to make it happen. With a majority of 80 and no election on the horizon, the time is right for the Government to seize this opportunity to end the housing crisis.

Yet if it balks now and our housing crisis worsens, it will further entrench our economic and social divides and make Britain an even more unequal place.

You can read our new report ‘Planning for the Future: How flexible zoning will end the housing crisis’ here.

Starmer sends several messages by dismissing Long-Bailey

25 Jun

One doesn’t imagine that Sir Keir Starmer will be terribly sorry to have dismissed Rebecca Long-Bailey from her post as Shadow Education Secretary.

He sacked her after the Salford MP, who was the hard-left candidate in the most recent Labour leadership contest, retweeted an article by Maxine Peake which contained, predictably enough, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

By taking prompt action, Starmer has taken another opportunity to draw a sharp distinction between himself and his predecessor on the antisemitism issue, which remains a stain on Labour’s reputation.

It also illustrates the waning strength of the Corbynites. Including Long-Bailey in the Shadow Cabinet might have seemed a deft nod to party unity in the immediate aftermath of the vote, but since then the hard left’s rout through the institutions has continued apace.

Yet the implications aren’t all internal. The Labour Leader probably hopes that observers will contrast his willingness to dismiss senior colleagues with Boris Johnson’s reluctance to do the same, especially with Robert Jenrick still in the headlines.

Profile: Robert Jenrick, who rose without trace until he hit two bumps in the road

24 Jun

Until the age of 38, which he attained on 9th January this year, Robert Jenrick had ascended the political ladder at remarkable speed while remaining unknown to the wider public.

Nor can one yet say that as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government he has become a household name, often though he appeared at the Downing Street press conferences on Covid-19.

For there is nothing distinctive in Jenrick’s manner: he does not lodge himself in the memory.

Labour is trying to change that. It wants people to remember him, if not by name, then as the Tory minister who “auctioned off the planning system to a billionaire donor at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner”, as Steve Reed, Jenrick’s Labour opposite number, recently put it.

And this afternoon in the Commons, Labour will press for the release of all documents to do with that affair.

The fundraising dinner took place last November. Jenrick found himself sitting next to Richard Desmond, former proprietor of The Daily Express, who is seeking permission for a one billion pound redevelopment of that paper’s disused Westferry Printworks in the Isle of Dogs, to include over 1500 flats.

Jenrick had already called in the scheme, and in January this year he approved it, on the day before Desmond would have become liable to pay Tower Hamlets Council a Community Infrastructure Levy of about £40 million on the scheme.

The council opened legal proceedings against Jenrick, who in May conceded that the timing of his decision “would lead the fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility” of bias.

The Planning Court said the Housing Secretary had accepted the decision “was unlawful by reason of apparent bias and should be quashed”, which it proceeded to do.

Another minister will now decide whether to approve Desmond’s development, and Labour is doing all it can to exploit Jenrick’s embarrassment, as would the Conservatives if the positions were reversed.

When taking the decision to approve Desmond’s plan, Jenrick not only rejected the advice of the local council and planning inspector, which is usual enough, but is reported to have rejected the advice of his own chief planning officer, which is highly unusual.

Desmond paid £12,000 to attend the dinner, of which Jenrick recently said in the Commons:

“My department knew about my attendance at the event before I went to it. It knew about the fact that I had inadvertently sat next to the applicant. I did not know who I was going to be seated by until I sat at the table. I discussed and took advice from my officials within the department at all times.”

There is something hapless about the word “inadvertently”. A Tory MP told ConHome with considerable annoyance that Jenrick “should never have been sitting next to Desmond”, but blamed the organisers of the dinner, not Jenrick, for this, and described the Housing Secretary as “well-respected”.

Another senior Tory backbencher said of Jenrick:

“He is a decent man, a solicitor by training, highly diligent, and I would trust him over Mr Desmond any day.”

But a third backbencher, a former minister, said Jenrick is known as “Generic”

“because there’s nothing there. If he walked across a sieve he’d probably completely disappear. He’s a suit. What does he believe? He’s an example of the new kind of Cabinet Minister who forms up with a pair of shiny shoes, takes his orders from Dominic Cummings and goes and delivers them.

“He’s arrived from nowhere and as for all politicians who do that when he hits a bump he goes off the road.”

Jenrick has actually hit two bumps. In March, he repeatedly emphasised, in his role as one of the Government’s leading spokesmen on the pandemic, that people “should stay at home whenever possible”, but at the start of April he was found to have travelled to his house in Herefordshire:

“Under-fire minister Robert Jenrick has claimed the £1.1 million Grade I listed country mansion he drove 150 miles to during the coronavirus lockdown is his family home – but his official website says the opposite, MailOnline can reveal today.

“The Housing Secretary is also facing calls to quit unless he can offer a ‘very good explanation’ about a 40 mile trip to drop supplies at his parents’ house in Shropshire last weekend when neighbours said they were already delivering essentials.

“Mr Jenrick, a key player in the Government’s response to the pandemic that has claimed 7,978 lives in Britain, has repeatedly told the public to stay at home and not make unnecessary journeys to stop the spread of coronavirus, including travelling to any second homes.”

On the same day that report appeared, 9th April, Boris Johnson came out of intensive care at St Thomas’s Hospital, and three days later he delivered his heartfelt message of thanks to the NHS for saving his life.

Compared to that, the questionable conduct of an unknown Cabinet minister looked unimportant. It made nothing like the impact of the revelation on 22nd May of Dominic Cummings’ family trip during lockdown to County Durham.

Cummings presents a wonderful target. He is blamed by Remainers for steering the Leave campaign to victory, is close to the Prime Minister and loves riling the media. Piers Morgan and Alastair Campbell were among those who led the demands for Cummings to be sacked, and Tory MPs found their inboxes flooded by emails from members of the public who were furious that there seemed to be one rule for the ruling class, represented by Cummings, and another for everyone else.

Nobody regards Jenrick as an evil genius, and he has never intentionally riled the media. He has instead followed the more conventional course of giving the media nothing much to report, and most people have probably already forgotten about his travels during lockdown.

Jenrick was born in Wolverhampton in 1982, grew up in Herefordshire and Shropshire, and was educated at Wolverhampton Grammar School, a fee-paying establishment, followed by St John’s College, Cambridge, where he took a First in History, after which he spent a year studying Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

He proceeded to qualify, in 2008, as a solicitor, to work for two American law firms in Moscow and in London, and on the international business side of Christie’s Auction House.

In the same year, he gained selection as the Conservative candidate for Newcastle-under-Lyme, in Staffordshire, where in the general election of 2010 the Conservative vote rose by almost 5,000, but he was still 1500 votes short of taking the seat, which only went Tory last December.

During one week of the 2010 campaign, he contributed a diary to ConHome which included this passage:

“Unexpectedly this afternoon, a legal contact calls. He’s an environmental lawyer in Washington D.C. who is co-ordinating efforts in the U.S. to develop the first Green Investment Bank with the Obama administration. I put him in touch with the Shadow Environment team, some of whom it turns out will be in D.C. tomorrow and may be able to meet up. This follows on from bringing together the Environment team with Better Place, an Israeli company developing an electric car system that will soon be on the streets of Tel Aviv and San Francisco. Better Place’s CEO, Shai Agassi, is one of the most impressive men I’ve met: he is pragmatic and not a climate crusader and he puts privately-funded technological advancement at the heart of tackling climate change.”

We see Jenrick at the age of 28 proud of his ability to network, and remarkably at ease as he does so.

In 2013, Better Place went bankrupt, and Jenrick was adopted as the Conservative candidate in Newark, where it was expected that the scandal-afflicted Tory MP, Patrick Mercer, would stand down at the general election in 2015.

Mercer instead stood down in April 2014, precipitating a by-election in Newark where the Conservatives needed to beat off a strong challenge from UKIP in order to look like credible contenders for 2015.

Tory MPs were ordered to visit Newark three times during the campaign, Cabinet ministers were expected to put in five appearances, members of the House of Lords could be found delivering leaflets, and the party’s depleted reserves of activists were incentivised by the prospect of fighting alongside the officer class.

Jenrick found himself at the centre of a national campaign. Roger Helmer, the UKIP candidate, accused him of owning three homes, none of them anywhere near Newark.

The formidable Simon Walters, political editor of The Mail on Sunday, arrived to see what he could make of Jenrick:

Mr Jenrick presents himself as a ‘father, local man, son of a secretary and small businessman and state primary school-educated’ candidate.

But that is not quite the whole story.

In fact, he and American wife Michal own not one, but two, £2 million homes in London and a £1 million country pile built by an 18th Century slave-trader.

Their Newark ‘home’ is a rented house obtained when he was picked as a candidate six months ago.

And his Party CV omits to say he went to a £13,000-a-year private secondary school.

Together with his director’s  job at Christie’s auction house, it is just the type of posh Tory boy image Cameron and co can’t shrug off.

Mr Jenrick, who looks even younger than his 32 years, sticks rigidly to his Tory HQ autocue when asked about national issues.

During our interview at a cafeteria in Tuxford, near Newark, he is finally stirred when I ask whether, in his keenness to come across as a regular guy, he has misled voters.

To win the candidacy, he promised he would move his family lock, stock and barrel to Newark. A 250-mile round-trip  to Westminster if he becomes  MP – quite a commute for a  self-proclaimed family man  with two young daughters.

How many nights has the family actually spent in their Newark ‘home?’

‘Er, it has grown over time.’  He won’t say.

His election leaflets are also silent about the couple’s £2 million flat in Marylebone, London. It went up in value by £300,000 last year, more than twice the average price of a home in Newark.

Last October, the couple splashed out an extra £2.5 million on a house in fashionable Vincent Square, Westminster, less than a mile from Parliament, which they plan to move into soon.

On top of that they bought Grade I listed Eye Manor in Herefordshire for £1.1 million  in 2009.

Mr Jenrick says he is ‘almost sure’ they will sell it and move to Newark if he becomes MP.

It is to be hoped this interview is not the first Mrs Jenrick, a top commercial lawyer whose professional name is Michal Berkner, eight years Mr Jenrick’s senior, has heard of that.

The Conservatives won the Newark by-election by 7,403 votes from UKIP, and Jenrick’s majority has since risen to 21,816. Some vexation is nevertheless expressed in Newark that Jenrick has yet to sell Eye Manor, and appears to prefer going there with his wife and their three daughters.

As one constituent said, “It’s perfectly clear who wears the trousers and it isn’t him. She indulges his little hobby of being an MP.”

But if one were fortunate enough to own Eye Manor, parting with it might feel unbearable. Here is Marcus Binney, singing its praises in The Times before the Jenricks bought it:

For its size, Eye Manor, near Leominster in Herefordshire, has the most gorgeous series of Charles II interiors in England. Here is plasterwork as overflowing in richly sculpted fruit and flowers as carvings by the great Grinling Gibbons. It gets better: over the past 20 years the late owner, Margery Montcrieff, laid out an intricate, inventive and enchanting formal garden that almost vies with Sissinghurst in Kent. 

One of the sympathetic things about Jenrick is his love of history. When ConHome spoke to him during the Newark by-election, he “seemed reassuringly dull”, but

When asked who his political hero is, he became more animated, and vouchsafed that he is writing a book about the English Civil War, in which Newark played a prominent role: it was a royalist stronghold which was three times besieged unsuccessfully by the parliamentarians. The first siege was raised by no less a figure than Prince Rupert, the most dashing royalist of them all.

And Prince Rupert turns out to be Mr Jenrick’s hero. Beneath that somewhat impassive exterior perhaps there beats the heart of a true cavalier.

At Westminster, Jenrick remarked in his maiden speech that “there are, after all, no final victories in politics; all achievements, however hard won, can be and are undone.”

After the 2015 general election he became in rapid succession PPS to Esther McVey, Michael Gove, Liz Truss and Amber Rudd, before in January 2018 being appointed Exchequer Secretary by Theresa May.

He was climbing the ladder, and in the summer of 2019 he, Rishi Sunak and Oliver Dowden questioned Johnson for an hour at Jenrick’s house in Vincent Square, and at a well-judged moment put their names to a joint piece for The Times Red Box which appeared under the reasonably clear headline:

“The Tories are in deep trouble. Only Boris Johnson can save us.”

All three authors are now in the Cabinet. Jenrick has been lined up to carry out the radical reform of the planning system on which Johnson and Cummings are intent.

Will he still be in office to carry out this work? Johnson and Cummings have shown they do not like being pushed around by the newspapers, which are crawling over every planning decision in which Jenrick has been involved.

So perhaps he will hang on. He will need, however, to learn the art of sometimes saying no to people, including developers such as Desmond.