Moralists like Starmer who call on Johnson to resign over partygate repel “Live and let live Britain”

1 Apr

It never seems to occur to Boris Johnson’s critics that they might damage him more if they toned things down a bit and sounded slightly less pious, moralistic and vindictive.

This is particularly true of partygate. In order to justify going on and on about it, both his political opponents and the feral beasts of the media reckon it is incumbent on them to take a high moral tone, and to demand that Johnson himself resign.

They give us to understand that they are talking about a dereliction of duty which could not be more serious. The Prime Minister made the rules, and then he allowed people in Downing Street to break the rules, after which he misled the House of Commons.

The man is a liar and a criminal, and he must go. That is the general tenor of a lot of Opposition comment, and of many a denunciation by some of our finest columnists.

It can be enjoyable to write this stuff, and also to read it. A warm feeling of self-righteousness courses through one’s veins. How superior one is to the contemptible person in Downing Street who has brought such shame on his country.

These critics look forward to resuming normal service once they can get away from the invasion of Ukraine, an event which demonstrated that in Vladimir Putin, the world beholds a leader who has inflicted unspeakable cruelties on the freedom-loving Ukrainians, and on many other people too.

So long as the invasion of Ukraine leads the news, it is difficult to train the full weight of one’s moral artillery on those responsible for partygate.

But at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Sir Keir Starmer did devote the last two of his six questions to that topic:

“Talking of parties, the Prime Minister told the House that no rules were broken in Downing Street during lockdown. The police have now concluded that there was widespread criminality. The Ministerial Code says that Ministers who “knowingly” mislead the House should resign. Why is he still here?

Resign! It is the duty of an Opposition to oppose, so one can see why Sir Keir – having for a few weeks stopped calling for Johnson to resign – has now reverted to doing so.

And there is of course a considerable part of the public which is so appalled by the Downing Street parties that it agrees with Sir Keir. To this can be added many who are so angry with Johnson about other things that they will seize any opportunity to try to get rid of him.

But there is also a large part of the public, less reported because its views are less defined and more difficult to turn into a news story, which Sir Keir should bear in mind as he seeks to win hearts and minds, and to build a winning coalition.

“Merry England” is not quite the right term for this more tolerant part of the nation. “Live and let live Britain” would perhaps be a more accurate term for it, though not, I admit, a very catchy one.

Some of us invariably demand harsh penalties for malefactors, and especially for politicians who have erred. But some of us are more easy-going.

“Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?” as Hamlet put it.

Such tolerance may seem, to sterner spirits, disgracefully lax. But the sterner spirits can, in their turn, sound horribly hypocritical.

Have they themselves never broken any rules? Are they so perfect that they are entitled to sit in judgment? Do we not all sometimes stand in need of mercy, tolerance, latitude?

This is not just an argument about morality. It is also a question of political prudence. If Sir Keir and the rest sound too partisan, intolerant, moralistic and punitive, they will repel as well as attract.

The most successful of Sir Keir’s predecessors understood this very well. Tony Blair relates, in his memoir, A Journey, how he used carefully crafted understatement to defeat a succession of Conservative opponents:

“With each successive Tory leader, I would develop a line of attack, but I only did so after a lot of thought. Usually I did it based on close observation at PMQs. I never made it overly harsh. I always tried to make it telling. The aim was to get the non-politician nodding. I would wonder not what appealed to a Labour Party Conference at full throttle, but what would appeal to my old mates at the Bar, who wanted a reasonable case to be made; and who, if it were made, would rally.

“So I defined Major as weak; Hague as better at jokes than judgment; Howard as an opportunist; Cameron as a flip-flop, not knowing where he wanted to go. (The Tories did my work for me in undermining Iain Duncan Smith.) Expressed like that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring – but that’s their appeal. Any one of those charges, if it comes to be believed, is actually fatal. Yes, it’s not like calling your opponent a liar, or a fraud, or a villain or a hypocrite, but the middle-ground floating voter kind of shrugs their shoulders at those claims. They don’t chime. They’re too over the top, too heavy, and they represent an insult, not an argument. Whereas the lesser charge, because it’s more accurate and precisely because it’s more low-key, can stick. And if it does, that’s that. Because in each case it means they’re not a good leader. So game over.”

There is a great temptation, over partygate, to go for what Blair calls “an insult, not an argument”. The Twitter mob will applaud Sir Keir to the rafters if he shouts insults at Johnson.

But in Live and let live Britain, people will think, maybe without saying anything, “that sounds a bit over the top”.

They may also have a degree of sympathy with those who had to take life-or-death decisions during the pandemic, and who did not have much time left over to think about the rights and wrongs of prosecco or birthday cake.

The pressure inside Downing Street during the pandemic was immense. Dr Carter Mecher, an American doctor who gave early warning to the White House and other parts of the US administration of how grave the crisis was likely to become, has pointed out that dealing with an emergency of this kind is like dealing with a bush fire.

“You cannot wait for the smoke to clear,” he has said, because “once you can see things clearly it’s already too late.”

You have to act before the fire is raging, which means you have to be prepared to be wrong. When hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake, that is a fearful responsibility.

While partygate dominated the news, reporters competed with each other to find the next piece of supposedly damning evidence, the next photograph of Downing Street staff with a bottle on a desk or whatever it might be.

And moralists competed with each other to say how unforgiveable this was.

We shall probably get some sort of repeat performance in the near future. Moralists will say all this is unforgiveable. Live and let live Britain will perhaps think they are getting things a bit out of proportion.

How the Prime Minister and the Chancellor could do a deal on spending

24 Oct

David Cameron notoriously styled himself as “the heir to Blair”. Watching a recent BBC series on the New Labour era, it struck me that, in one respect at least, our Prime Minister is more the heir to Gordon Brown than to Tony Blair.

There was plenty of personal rivalry between Blair and Brown. But there was also a difference in approach to policy. In episode three of the series, Douglas Alexander states:

“Tony believed that choice and reform within our public services was a route to excellence.”

Lord Mandelson then added that Brown thought that Blair’s reform agenda was “floundering around.” Brown felt schools just needed more books, teachers, more equipment. The NHS just needed more hospitals, more doctors, more nurses, more operating theatres.

Brwon’s approach was ineffective as well as expensive – especially with the Enron accounting dodge of the Private Finance Initiative used to pay for much of it. Council tenants would have new PVC windows – even if they might have preferred to keep the old glass sash ones. Building Schools for the Future would provide gleaming new buildings that would win awards – even if they weren’t much use for teaching children in.

Boris Johnson is on the same path. Chanting about 40 new hospitals. 50,000 more nurses and so forth. All very Soviet five year plan. For Brown and Johnson, if the state is failing the answer is obvious…a bigger state! Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron all presided over increases in public spending in real terms – that is over and above inflation. But they would also, at least, consider if the problems might be more fundamental – something wrong with the system.

In any case, the Big Staters risk running out of road. So complete has been their triumph that it is doubtful how much further it is viable to go. Tax is already pretty high and set to rise sharply. At what point does the burden become so high that economic growth is squashed to the extent that tax revenues start to fall? The National Debt is already at a frightening level.

Rishi Sunak is a technocrat rather than an ideologue. He likes to check the data, crunch the numbers. So he may judge that even if the sole purpose in life is to have the maximum possible public spending, we are already at, or nearly at, or even beyond the point, at which pushing up tax and borrowing is able to achieve that. Some economists put public spending at 45 per cent of GDP as the upper limit – we are at 46.5 per cent.

Thus we have a clash with Johnson – who is always brimming with bright ideas for spending our money. Some of these may actually be relatively modest. The Conservative Party Conference saw an announcement that £22 million would be spent on repairing public tennis courts. Public spending this year is due to be £1,053.3 billion. That’s nearly £3 billion a day. £120 million an hour. A new Royal Yacht costing £200 million would come out at a bit more than an hour and a half’s public spending.

There are two ways of looking at that. The Prime Minister might feel he should be able to press ahead with a few of these innovative, high profile wheezes, to have a bit of fun. He might puzzle as to why there was such a lot of fuss over his proposal, when Mayor of London, for a Garden Bridge – with a claim on public funds of £60 million.

The Chancellor might respond that it is precisely because spending has got so high with so much more already scheduled – HS2, net zero and so forth – that rigorous discipline must now be applied and any new claims resisted. That the public finances, though in a less dire state than forecast, are still on the brink – highly vulnerable to an increase in interest rates.

So we are facing a rather sullen impasse in the coming years. A crash is averted. But economic growth is held back by heavy taxation. We shuffle along in the slow lane making a modest but unexciting recovery. We have been told to expect a dull Budget on Wednesday and can look forward to more dull Budgets to come.

Where does that leave the Johnson legacy? He might well win another General Election or two. It is true that having the state at its maximum viable size leaves Labour in a bit of a fix. They can only call for the state to be even bigger and will struggle to make such a demand feel credible.

But if there is no spare cash for his pet projects, what monuments will Johnson be able to point to? PMs do sometimes ponder the matter. Those that achieve true greatness – such as Churchill or Thatcher – don’t need to worry too much about it. I suppose the Channel Tunnel is a Thatcher legacy but it seems almost trivial alongside everything else she did.

Harold Wilson would mutter about the Open University between puffs on his pipe. Ted Heath took us into the European Economic Community. (How’s that working out?) John Major’s Citizen’s Charter proved a damp squib but the National Lottery is going strong. Michael Heseltine was really responsible for the Dome – but somehow Blair got blamed for it. The vacuousness of the project just so neatly encapsulated New Labour.

Theresa May didn’t have much of a legacy – due to Philip Hammond, her misery guts Eeyore of a Chancellor. Struggling to identify something in her resignation speech on the steps of Downing Street she mentioned the Race Disparity Audit. Then burst into tears.

How can a repetition be averted? A deal should be made. The PM can have his fun. A few billion a year will be found for some eye-catching intiatiatives. Even with the hit and miss nature of things there should be the odd triumph and thus a decent legacy. But in return there must be agreement for far more substantial spending cuts elsewhere.

Spending on Quangos is £272 billion. Government Departments could be required to cut this spending by 20 per cent. Sometimes Quangos could be abolished as their work is unnecessary – for instance duplicating the work of others, or enforcing regulations that could be scrapped. Sometimes the Quango could be abolished but some of its work continued by Government Departments. Sometimes the Quango could be retained but its budget cut. Sir John Redwood could be given a sort of backstop role. Any Government Department that couldn’t manage to reach its target would find he would be brought it to do it for them.

Welfare reforms could include changing the rules so those living with their parents are only eligible for Universal Credit after the age of 21 – rather than 18 at present. The Benefits Cap (£20,000 a year outside London, £23,000 a year inside London) could be tightened. Child Benefit could be limited for new claimants to the first two children – as is the case with Child Tax Credit.

Francis Maude could return to shrink the civil service back down to size. Throughout the public sector, the setting of national pay rates could be lifted. Not only should regional variations be allowed but responsibility for setting pay devolved to each school, NHS trust and local authority.

A huge public spending item is debt interest. Here exponentially increasing the sale of surplus public sector land could be a great help. The value would be in securing planning permission for housing development before it is sold. Far more could be achieved than is being done at present – Oliver Letwin has written amusingly about the absurd excuses given. Instead of one or two billion a year it should be cranked up to £20 billion, £50 billion, a £100 billion. Not just providing the space for 10,000 or 20,000 homes a year but several hundred thousand. Of course, development is controversial but state land sales would give some advantages here. It could ensure the proposed design is beautiful and traditional. It could skew it towards the Government stated preference of brownfield sites in the north.

This could also allow the supply of social housing to increase – with developers allocating a proportion of new homes for this as part of the negotiations. The higher the proportion of social housing, the lower the price the Government could expect to get for the land sale. But this arrangement would allow a further saving. At present Homes England spends £6 billion of taxpayer’s money a year subsidising new social housing – last year “enabling 35,000 new homes to be built.” That seems very poor value for money. That spending could be scrapped while the number of new social homes substantially increased.

Relationships are often strained due to squabbles over money. No doubt the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have their own ideas as to where the axe could fall. That’s fine – just so long as they take a bold approach in finding savings. Then they can share the proceeds between funding new programmes that are a personal priority for the Prime Minister, while also allowing the Chancellor to restore stability to the public finances and set the economy on course for lower taxes and higher growth with a Lawsonian flourish.

 

Andrew Mitchell’s entertaining memoir shows the British Establishment riven by dissent

23 Oct

Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey by Andrew Mitchell

A distinguishing feature of present-day members of the Establishment is their insistence, usually quite sincere, that they do not belong to it.

Andrew Mitchell says in his Preface that he “resigned” from the Establishment in 2013. He makes it sound like the Garrick Club, from which it is indeed possible to resign.

Leaving the Establishment is more complicated. Mitchell was born into it: his father, Sir David Mitchell, was a Conservative MP for 33 years.

And Mitchell himself has passed, as he writes, “through most British Establishment institutions”, including prep and public school, the Army, Cambridge, the City of London, the House of Commons and the Cabinet.

His account of his experiences is often highly entertaining, though there are moments, oddly enough, when one could have wished for more detail, as in this scene from 2007 after David Cameron had addressed the Rwandan Parliament:

“Inevitably tempers frayed and later in the day David had to intervene physically to stop a fight breaking out between me and Steve Hilton, who has a ferocious temper. In spite of being nearly a foot shorter than me, he was poised to spring into a violent attack.”

In this vignette, we begin to see that the Establishment, which may seem from the outside, or in lazy journalistic usage, to be a monolithic organisation with a single Establishment view, is actually riven by dissent.

Hilton wants to beat up Mitchell. No doubt from Hilton’s point of view, Mitchell had been unbelievably annoying, probably by insisting on some point with which Hilton disagreed.

All three men were under severe strain, for there were floods in Witney, Cameron’s constituency, and the press was attacking him for instead being in Africa, advertising the Conservative Party’s new approach to international aid.

The Establishment engages in continual argument. Its greatest institution, the House of Commons, is set up for argument, so too are the law courts and so is the press.

The Conservative Party has survived, indeed flourished, by having the necessary arguments, including the argument about Europe.

This is something which people who see disagreement as a sign of failure – who presume, in their innocence, that politics can be reduced to an ideology, a set of immutable principles – will never understand. To them, Boris Johnson will remain incomprehensible, and so will the Conservative Party.

Mitchell has an amusing chapter entitled “Boris: My Part in his Ascent”. In 1992, John Major had made Mitchell the Vice-Chairman in charge of the Candidates’ Department at Conservative Central Office.

In June 1993, Johnson applied to become a Conservative candidate. He wanted at that point to be an MEP, not an MP.

Richard Simmonds, the senior MEP on the selection board, said Johnson would be admitted to the candidates’ list “over my dead body”. At the crucial meeting of the assessors, the merits of the 47 other applicants were quite quickly decided, but a tremendous argument developed over Johnson:

“Ned Dawnay was firm: Boris was a most impressive applicant; he was clearly a proper Conservative; his intellect, knowledge and energy marked him out; he must be admitted. Richard Simmonds, supported by the other five MEPs, was adamant: Boris was a cynical journalist, a chancer, a brand not a politician, a less than honest political thorn in Prime Minister Major’s side; taking him into the party’s candidates list would be embarrassing for the Conservative group in the European Parliament. Were he to be elected as an MEP it would be a nightmare.”

Mitchell gets Johnson on the list by one vote; tells the Party Chairman, Norman Fowler, that he, Mitchell, will resign if the decision is overturned; but is summoned to see John Major in the Prime Minister’s office behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons:

“The meeting did not start well. As I entered his office, he was standing by the fireplace. ‘Ah, Andrew, thanks for coming: what the fuck do you mean by putting Boris Johnson on the candidates’ list?'”

As part of his explanation to Major, Mitchell says he has extracted an agreement from Johnson not to stand in a winnable European seat. Johnson scrapes through onto the list, soon afterwards tries to stand in a winnable European seat, is dissuaded by Mitchell from doing so, but in 1997 stands instead for the then unwinnable Commons seat of Clwyd South.

We see the Conservative Party having the necessary argument about whether or not Johnson is a fit and proper person to become one of its candidates, and perhaps, in due course, a senior member of the Establishment.

Anyone thinking of embarking on a political career could with profit read Mitchell’s memoir, and so could anyone who wants to know how Conservative policy on international aid was revolutionised after 2005, with the author serving first as Shadow International Development Secretary and then from 2010 in the actual job.

A paradox of elective systems is that one needs, generally speaking, to possess more than normal push in order to put oneself forward. A reluctant sense of public duty is not generally speaking enough.

Mitchell is a gung-ho character: he goes for things; at an early stage runs for and gets the Presidency of the Cambridge Union, a school of argument.

The question in politics, perhaps in life generally, is when, having gone for something, to settle, as the lawyers put it. And this is what goes wrong in Plebgate, the wretched altercation in 2012 between Mitchell and the police officers guarding the Downing Street gates.

Some of the officers behaved abominably: that was established by, among others, the journalist Michael Crick. There was a public interest in having the necessary argument about this: almost a decade later and after much worse failings have come to light, the condition of the Metropolitan Police continues to be a cause of grave concern.

But Mitchell overplayed his hand: as he himself says, instead of walking away with his reputation “largely restored”, he made the “fatal mistake” of suing The Sun for libel, and lost. The ordeal is set out here.

Part of the delight and terror of politics is the sheer unexpectedness with which one can rise and fall, the snakes and ladders aspect to it. Perhaps that unpredictability is one of the things people like about Johnson.

In 2019 Mitchell obtains various assurances from Johnson – the preservation of the 0.7 per cent aid target, DfID to remain an independent department, Mitchell himself to play some key though not quite specified role – and backs him for the leadership:

“I was genuinely surprised and dismayed at the incredibly strong and angry reaction of many of my closest friends who regarded my support for Boris as simply unconscionable. The reaction of my children was unprintable. At a Robert Harris book launch attended by many of my old friends from Cambridge days I was literally put up against a wall, interrogated and denounced.”

The Establishment was divided against itself. In the 1990s Mitchell served as a Whip, and one evening was told to go and give Sir Peter Tapsell “a bollocking” for voting against the Government. This Mitchell could not do: Tapsell was far too senior and dignified a figure to be bollocked.

So Mitchell instead walked silently at Tapsell’s side, in the early hours of the morning, down the stairs through the Members’ Lobby and out through the cloakroom at the Members’ Entrance, hoping “he would feel the reproach of a younger colleague through my silence”.

As they left the Members’ Entrance, Tapsell turned to him and said:

“You see, Andrew, there is nothing I want from your office. I am rich – very rich – I advise central bankers around the world; I am already a knight and I certainly have no wish whatsoever to be a member of this benighted government. The only thing I want is to have my dead son back, and there is nothing you can do about that.”

Dean Russell: I must set the record straight on Camelot – and its work supporting communities

20 Oct

Dean Russell is MP for Watford.

When I was elected the Member of Parliament for Watford in 2019, one of my first calls was to the headquarters of the UK’s National Lottery operator, Camelot.

Camelot employs a considerable number of my constituents and is a great champion for Watford. Given Camelot’s importance to us in Watford, I have always taken a particularly keen interest in the performance of what is – after all – the invention of a Conservative government. The National Lottery etc. Act, spearheaded by then Prime Minister John Major, was passed in 1993, and Camelot launched what has become one of the world’s most successful lotteries in 1994.

Given this fantastic British success story, I have been surprised to read recent articles which have raised questions about Camelot’s performance, which in my view, are very wide of the mark. Of course, everyone is rightly entitled to opinions, and as MPs, we must share ours and those of our constituents. For this reason, as the proud elected representative of many Camelot employees, I felt it incumbent to set the record straight and share my view to balance the discussion.

Firstly, to tackle the biggest misnomer, there has been no decline in National Lottery Good Cause spending. Returns to Good Causes from National Lottery ticket sales last year were actually the highest on record.

Indeed, Camelot is delivering record returns to Good Causes from sales, record prize money to players and record payments in Lottery Duty to the Treasury. Most importantly, annual returns to Good Causes are now over £500 million higher than they were at the start of the third National Lottery licence back in 2009.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned so much about the National Lottery and about the success of that simple, Conservative idea, and how that original vision has been delivered under the custodianship of an operator that over a quarter of a century later is still completely on top of its game.

As a Conservative, I also believe wholeheartedly in levelling up. Since being elected, I have been very supportive of efforts to deliver on this. So, I can completely understand that colleagues may be tempted to believe a new operator promising money will flow into their constituencies would be a good thing.

But the fact is the operator of the National Lottery has no say in where Lottery funding is allocated for good causes. In Watford, like many community-minded businesses, Camelot has been incredibly supportive of our community given the role it plays as a significant local employer, but this is very different – and on a completely different scale – from the funding the National Lottery delivers for good causes every day which is allocated wholly separately.

The location of Camelot, or any operator, has no bearing on where good causes are supported via the National Lottery. It is a false expectation to expect otherwise. Camelot runs the operational aspects, which in the simplest terms is selling lottery tickets; the more tickets sold, the more money for good causes. So the focus should always be on ensuring a successful operator to ensure the money keeps flowing through the National Lottery to good causes across the UK. That is what Camelot’s staff have delivered on for decades.

To put this in context, to date, Camelot has helped – through the sale of National Lottery tickets – the public raise over £43 billion for charities, sports, arts, heritage and community projects, and a further £18.5 billion has gone to the Treasury via Lottery Duty. Every constituency, every postcode, pretty much every community in the UK has benefitted from lottery money. It is part of the fabric of our lives, and we must keep it so.

Camelot’s lottery operation is one of the most generous in the world, returning 95p of every pound spent to society through prizes, returns to Good Causes, Lottery Duty and the all-important retailer commission – the latter having been a lifeline for so many struggling, independent retailers on the high street. It achieves all of this with world-beating efficiency, retaining just five per cent of lottery revenues to cover running costs, technology, staff salaries and indeed profit (which comes in at just one per cent).

Under Camelot’s stewardship, the UK National Lottery has become a world leader and is the fifth-largest lottery worldwide by sales. And as the result of Camelot’s strategy of responsible play, The National Lottery is just 60th in the world by per capita spend. And – while this may be a boring point – Camelot runs a seamless operation. That isn’t down to the good luck that National Lottery winners enjoy. That is hard work, dedication and many years of expertise.

It has also adapted to the times, consistently building on their portfolio to keep the lottery relevant and fit for a modern and digital age, while carefully ensuring that all games are safe to play. So, while Camelot has continued to grow its wide range of draw-based games, it has also built a wide range of online instant win games in response to changing consumer appetites and demand. These games offer a digital option to players in addition to traditional draw-based games and scratch cards.

While some commentators have expressed concerns about this development, all of the statistics from organisations, including GamCare – an independent charity – confirm that the National Lottery is very different from mainstream gambling and the risk of problem play associated with National Lottery products remains extremely low.

In short, I struggle to think of a contract that has delivered more for the public good and for the public purse, with Camelot retaining just one penny in the pound for its performance.

Nor do I understand why this most British of success stories should be criticised because it has trusted Canadian shareholders in the form of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan when the rival bidders for the fourth lottery licence reportedly include a Czech billionaire, the second lottery operator of Italy and an Indian lottery operator.

As Conservatives, we want to see consistent value for money to the public purse, delivered through the private sector with wealth distributed across the UK. Camelot delivers on all of these things – in spades.

So to those critics of Camelot or indeed the National Lottery itself, I would urge them to look again at the record of Watford-based Camelot and take it from someone who has seen up-close the operation of Camelot’s hardworking employees as they deliver results with passion, care and dedication. I am in no doubt that the National Lottery is safe in their hands.

Davis says the Conservative Party is going to have to have a big argument about economic policy

4 Oct

For David Davis having the necessary argument is more than a duty: it is a pleasure. “We’re going to have to have a big argument within the Conservative Party about economic policy,” he said as he took questions from an audience which filled the ConHome tent.

Davis pointed out that Margaret Thatcher was often unpopular at this stage in a Parliament: “The question we should ask is whether what we do now is going to deliver a good outcome in two years’ time.”

So we should be asking whether raising National Insurance will deliver more jobs or fewer in two years’ time: “I worry about the National Insurance increase. I worry about the Corporation Tax increase.”

Not that Davis falls for the idea that some perfect policy exists.

When asked whether he himself has made mistakes, he joked for a moment that he had made none, but then went on: “We all make mistakes. I don’t criticise the Government for making mistakes.”

He said that what we need are not great men but great institutions: “Great institutions protect you from big mistakes.”

And later: “Good institutions do not deliver perfection, they deliver correction.”

He instanced the slave trade, For the whole of the seventeenth century “we had a terrible record on slavery”. But in 1807, Parliament changed its mind, and decided to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, which was what over the next 60 years the Royal Navy managed to achieve, displaying “heroism on a grand scale”:

“It’s the greatest ethical foreign policy and the most expensive in the world ever.”

In 1968, when student riots erupted at the Sorbonne in Paris, David Davis was in his first year at Warwick University: “I turned out to be the only person arguing against the riots.”

He became Chairman of that nursery of talent, the Federation of Conservative Students, in which capacity he saw Ted Heath four times a year, and Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, ten times a year.

Britain seemed condemned to decline, but when Thatcher became leader she said, “Our job is to reverse the decline.” Davis recalled how “incredibly controversial” the 1981 Budget had been.

He entered Parliament in 1987 and soon found himself defending the Maastricht Treaty. This was not the fight he wanted to have: it was a fight that could not be avoided.

He thought the treaty was “terrible”, but that if John Major’s Government fell, Labour would get in and go much further with European integration, so there was “no right answer outcome”.

At this point he quoted David Frost’s observation earlier in the day:

“All history, all experience, shows that democratic countries with free economies, which let people keep the money they have earned, make their own decisions, and manage their own lives, are not just richer but also happier and more admired by others.”

“That’s actually a fantastic paragraph,” Davis said. “I’d stick it on the wall at home. Our history is the history of freedom.”

And that freedom includes the freedom to rebel when you conclude that the Government is getting something wrong. He was interviewed by Ryan Henson, Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition for Global Prosperity, which “brings together political, military, business and faith leaders” to make the case for “an effective development budget”.

Davis was a leading figure in the recent Tory rebellion against cuts in the international development budget, which he believed was heading for success: “We thought we had 50 [MPs] – it evaporated – we probably need 70 next time.”

He added that “you’ve got to move the public as well as the Government,” who can then put pressure on their MPs.

When asked about his back story, as the son of a single mother on a council estate, Davis objected:

“It’s become fashionable to talk about your back story. The press are gullible about it. They believe Angela Rayner to be a normal member of the working class.”

Three cheers for John Major, father of Olympic success

4 Aug

Three cheers for John Major. British success at the Tokyo Olympics is the direct result of decisions he made in the 1990s as Prime Minister.

In the Summer Games held in Atlanta in 1996, Great Britain took only one gold medal (Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent in the coxless pairs) and dropped to 36th in the medal table, by far the worst performance this country has ever recorded.

Major responded by setting up the National Sport Academy, with funding of £100 million from the National Lottery, itself launched a couple of years earlier at his behest.

There could be no question of providing that sort of support out of tax revenues. Many Conservatives, many taxpayers and indeed the Treasury itself would have regarded that as an intolerable use of public funds.

East Germany (which had just been swept away) might engage in that kind of thing, but it wouldn’t do here.

Which was why Major backed the setting up of a National Lottery. Many people found the whole idea a bit vulgar. It would encourage the poor to gamble, and would relieve them of their money in order to support good causes, cultural as well as sporting, selected by the rich.

Major brushed these objections aside and set up the Lottery, which proved immensely popular, and could be drawn on for the funds needed to transform British performance in many Olympic sports.

There was a further large injection of funds by Tony Blair once London had won the 2012 Games, with the taxpayer this time making a substantial contribution.

The financial transformation which began in 1996 meant the best coaches in the world could be hired for the long period of time required to recruit and train champions, often at least ten years:

Dame Katherine Grainger, the gold medal-winning rower who now chairs UK Sport, was among the first cohort of athletes to benefit from the decision in 1996 by the prime minister, John Major, to channel Lottery money to sport.

“Rowing managed to get an early foot in the door thanks to Steve [Redgrave] and Matthew [Pinsent] winning in Atlanta, so when I joined the team in ’97 I was one of those who was helped by the new funding,” Grainger told The Times. “It utterly transformed what was possible. There had never even been a full-time coach of the women’s team before and suddenly we had one — and medical support too.”

Selected athletes such as Grainger also received a grant to allow them to concentrate on their sport — until then her older team-mates “either had jobs or debts, or both”.

The first gold under the new system was won by the track cyclist, Jason Queally, early in the Sydney Games [in 2000]. Grainger’s first Olympic medal followed a few days later — a silver. As with Tom Daley [in Tokyo], her gold did not arrive until her fourth Games.

At the Beijing Games in 2008, the fruits of this approach became conspicuous. Britain finished fourth in the medal table, followed by third place in London in 2012, second in Rio in 2016 and at the time of writing sixth in Tokyo.

These places recall the earliest seven Summer Games, from Athens in 1896 to Paris in 1924, when Britain finished fifth, third, sixth, first (in the London Olympics of 1908), third, third and fourth.

We have become about as competitive now as we were a century ago, after a long intervening period when British amateurism saw some remarkable individual successes, but overall a failure to nurture talent and enable our athletes to take on the world.

Something has been lost. Amateurism in its best sense – doing something for the love of it – is life-enhancing.

Professionalism can become so narrow and utilitarian that it destroys the soul.

But at the highest level, one may say that this distinction breaks down. The best amateurs are determined not to be slipshod. The best professionals love what they are doing.

Major was a sport-loving Prime Minister, which is one reason why he wanted to take practical steps to ensure that Britain would never again finish in 36th place.

Readers uninterested in sport – or indeed repelled by sport, perhaps as a result of unhappy experiences in childhood – may consider the pursuit of Olympic glory to be a frivolous matter.

But the remarkable changes which have taken place in this field still prompt the question of whether, in other fields of endeavour, it is possible to pick winners, or employ coaches who will pick and nurture winners, with long-term investment rewarded by long-term success.

Several points immediately obtrude themselves in answer to that question.

One is that in the Olympics, we know how to define success. It means winning medals, and investment since 1996 has generally been concentrated in a ruthless way on those sports which offer the best chances of doing so.

A second point is that Olympic sport is inherently elitist. Some people are far better at it than other people.

Schools, clubs and training organisations which take an elitist approach are more likely to produce champions. One may hope that the rest of us will be inspired to have a go too, and will therefore enjoy happier and healthier lives, but there can’t be any of that nonsense about all shall have prizes.

And yet there is also a necessary element of teamwork. A whole family may make sacrifices so that one member of it has the best possible chance of getting to the top.

And so may a whole team of athletes. A competitor who succeeds in Tokyo may benefit from a tradition which has developed over the last hundred years.

But nothing is certain. The element of chance can by careful preparation be reduced, but cannot be eliminated.

Major’s initiative has proved so successful in part because he was working with the grain of human nature. On the whole, we would prefer to win.

Harold Abrahams, a brilliant British sprinter who also set records in the long jump, won the 100 metres in the Paris Games of 1924 in part because he employed at his own expense a professional coach, Sam Mussabini.

Lord Coe, who won four Olympic medals, served as a Conservative MP, chaired the London Games and is now President of World Athletics, said in 2012 that Major’s “greatest achievement was to change the face of sport in this country with the National Lottery”.

For a wonderful account of other parliamentarians who have won Olympic medals, the reader is referred to Stephen Parkinson’s piece for ConHome on Tory Olympians, published in 2012.

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

2 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norcott tells us why Radio Four is no longer funny

29 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norcott is not exactly a Major fan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the 2015 General Election approaches,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labour’s Tory sleaze accusations look hypocritical, and – even more interestingly – aren’t landing any blows

22 Apr

The lobbying scandal surrounding the Government shows no signs of abating, with the latest news being that vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi has shares in a company given more than £1 million in government contracts during the Covid pandemic. Labour has been on the attack, accusing the Tories of “sleaze” as much as possible.

Over the weekend both Rachel Reeves, Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, and Steve Reed, Labour’s Shadow Communities Secretary, were doing the media rounds, apparently in competition with each other as to who could use “sleaze” the most dramatically in a sentence. “Tory sleaze is back and it’s bigger than ever”, was Reeves’ line. “The era of Tory sleaze is well and truly back“, was Reed’s.

And so you can guess what word Keir Starmer used at PMQs yesterday. In fact, he said “sleaze” three times in a row, in a moment reminiscent of when in the 90s Tony Blair accused John Major of being “weak, weak, weak!”

Whatever one thinks of the ongoing lobbying saga (and my own view is that it needs to be thoroughly thrashed out, although voters will be more sympathetic to some events than others –  such as the PM texting James Dyson for emergency ventilators), Labour should be careful, to say the least, when it accuses the Government of cosying up to private enterprise. Its record on this is far from perfect.

In February this year, for instance, it was reported that Starmer has turned to Peter Mandelson for advice on how to better the party’s prospects at a general election. He has reportedly “offered advice on Brexit and how to woo big business” and they have “struck up a close working relationship”. This is the same Mandelson who’s Chairman of Global Counsel, a firm that has worked for clients in the gambling, banking, commodity trading and packaging industries.

Then there’s Starmer’s current team. David Evans, Labour’s General Secretary and one of the Labour leader’s closest allies, is head of The Campaign Consultancy. Over the weekend The Mail on Sunday revealed that it had won a series of taxpayer contracts advertised as being worth nearly £200,000 from Croydon Council, when his ex-lover and the mother of his child was deputy leader.

Lord Falconer, the Shadow Attorney General, is a partner at Gibson Dunn, which has offered advice on “political lobbying” in the UK; and Lord Myners, a peer and former minister in Gordon Brown’s government, is Chair of the PR giant Edelman and according to The Guardian had “secretly explored a potentially lucrative board-level role at Greensill Capital after publicly raising concerns about the now-defunct lender”. John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, also lobbied the Business Secretary, asking him to give Greensill greater access to the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme “without delay“.

In short, we can go on and on in regards to these examples – so Labour needs to be careful about what accusations it levels at the Government. There will also be other things lodged in voters’ minds, such as the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, in which Jacqui Smith claimed 88p for a bath plug on the additional costs allowance, and John Reid claimed £2,387 on a bathroom suite from Homebase with a “black glitter toilet” seat, as well as what was termed “smeargate”.

Perhaps the most sensible line for Labour to take around lobbying is that the whole system needs a clean up. But as usual the party has reverted to playground politics, believing that repeatedly using the word “sleaze” will somehow hypnotise voters into realising they want to vote Labour. Actually it just reminds a lot of people that Labour hasn’t moved on from the Corbyn/ pre-Brexit era in which MPs seemed to think insulting the opposition was the way to succeed.

The truth is that Labour isn’t landing any serious blows on the Conservatives, which is particularly interesting given the lobbying story dominating the news. I say “interesting”, but it’s a pitiful indictment on our opposition. Criticism matters, but without vision, it can look weak, weak, weak.

Sarah Ingham: Greensill – not so much “what does Jeremy think?” as “what on earth was Jeremy thinking?”

17 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

The Greensill controversy has come like pennies from heaven – and definitely not in a brown envelope – for the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

After a year as Labour leader, his personal Key Stage 1, SKeir Starmer’s approval ratings are at best tepid. Unsurprisingly at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, he sought to join various dots – ‘dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates’ – to conjure up a picture of the return of Tory sleaze.

The former Director of Public Prosecutions clearly wishes to make the case that this Conservative administration is as tainted by corruption as John Major’s was almost three decades ago.

Sir Keir might have leapt on the Greensill bandwagon a tad hastily, without really knowing where it might end up. Although a former Conservative Prime Minister is ostensibly the star of the saga, it is becoming clear that this is might not be a story about Westminster, but Whitehall; about mandarins, not MPs and ministers.

Photographed with Lex Greensill, David Cameron’s very own Deal in the Desert raises a number of questions, not least whether the Aussie has shares in R.M Williams. But surely the most famous blue-suited bromance since Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper were at Centre Court for the 2013 Wimbledon Men’s Final – however funny-odd the image is – has begun to fade compared with the more recent revelations about civil servants’ moonlighting.

The United Kingdom’s Chief Procurement Officer oversees a budget of £40 billion. The demands of looking after that huge amount of taxpayers’ hard-earned money apparently failed to preclude a side-hustle of working for Greensill for a couple of months. And it seems that Bill Crothers’ ‘one man, two guvnors’ approach might not be an isolated instance in Whitehall.

On Thursday, Lord Pickles, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which guides former ministers and civil servants on outside employment, stated there ‘doesn’t seem to have been any boundaries at all’ between civil servants and the private sector.

The previous day at Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson suggested that it was not clear that those boundaries ‘have been properly understood’, although he thought that ‘it is a good idea in principle that top civil servants should be able to engage with business and should have experience of the private sector.’

As Crothers’ former boss, the late Lord Heywood of Whitehall, found, private sector experience is complicated. What Does Jeremy Think?  written by his widow Suzanne, details his three-year mid-career stint at Morgan Stanley, a job he took up in early 2004 ‘following the three months of unpaid leave required by the Cabinet Office’).

On his return to the civil service, working for Gordon Brown in the Cabinet Office, Heywood’s banking experience and contacts proved invaluable following the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath. Conversely, Morgan Stanley may have benefited from Heywood’s input in its pitch to work for QinetiQ, the former government defence research agency, which the bank hoped it would be able to help float on the Stock Exchange.

Ever since the Greensill story broke, the media has been gripped by an ethical panic, emulated this week by MPs. Sir Keir’s call for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the saga was defeated by 95 votes. This reminder of dismal political reality for the Opposition turns out to have been unnecessary. In a Parliamentary pile-on, no fewer than seven inquiries into lobbying have been set up, including by the Treasury Select Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Such inquiries are pointless – creating as much hot air as the demands this week that Something Must Be Done. Something usually involves political grandstanding, followed by gratuitous legislation.

These inquiries should save themselves their time and our money by examining the existing ethical framework that governs the conduct of MPs, civil servants and others in the public sector. If the 1990s is being revisited by anyone trying to build a case concerning Conservative corruption, they should focus not on cash for questions, but the answers provided by Lord Nolan’s 1995 Report on Standards in Public Life.

This sets out expected ethical standards – including honesty, openness and integrity – because, as Nolan stated more than a generation ago, ‘people in public life are not always as clear as they should be about where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie’.

In a 1993 MORI poll cited by Nolan, only 14 per cent of respondents generally trusted that politicians would tell the truth, opposed to 37 per cent trusting civil servants. MPs planning to involve themselves in Greensill autopsies should perhaps reflect on the finding that 69 per cent thought it wrong to accept free tickets to Wimbledon or other sporting events. Whether the public’s attitude towards freebies has changed since then is surely something to be considered by the Committee on Standards. Its on-going inquiry into the Code of Conduct for MPs is timely.

As Cabinet Secretary to two Prime Ministers and Head of the Home Civil Service, Heywood sought to modernise the mandarinate, while adhering to the overarching principles of public service, first set down in the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report: honesty, integrity and political impartiality.

Westminster and Whitehall are already bound by numerous laws and rules and, overseen by supervisory bodies such as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The thickets of formal regulation that have grown up in the past few decades did not prevent Greensill or the MPs’ expenses’ scandal.

In January, the Standards Committee heard that the plethora of existing guidance can be ‘byzantine’. In his evidence, Graham Brady observed that something is lost if we move to a world where we are expecting absolute, detailed compliance with a detailed set of rules, ‘rather than an overarching expectation that members should behave with integrity and honesty’.

The rush towards Something Must Be Done should be paused. How about dusting off Nolan and Northcote-Trevelyan – and having a fresh look at ethics, values and standards, as well as the concept of trust?

Or, in another echo of the 1990s, going back to basics.