Richard Holden: This week’s spending review must show voters in Red Wall seats like mine that they were right to trust us

23 Nov

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

“I will repay your trust” was the message loud and clear to the people of North East England on December 14 when the Prime Minister came to Sedgefield.

The result of the general election was first landslide Conservative victory that I can remember. The atmosphere was jubilant and newly elected MPs like me from County Durham and Teesside, alongside our local supporters, cheered him to the rafters. Coming to the North East, to the seat of the former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to ram that message home mattered, and showed to everyone how much Boris Johnson meant those words.

There’s a lot of guff written about our Prime Minister, but there are a few things I know from having spent time with him on the leadership campaign. He barely lets other people draft a quote for him, never mind a speech. He meant what he said on those days following the election. And crucially, he also helped define the landscape for the next general election with them.

The twin punches of ‘getting Brexit done’ and the promise to ‘level up’ the country had cut through. Our task was aided by a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes that appeared to the people as desperately divided – amongst other things. With Corbyn, it wasn’t a question of trust that he’d carry out his promises: they believed him. And that scared the bejesus out of a large portion of the electorate.

Living up to that trust started at a pace with the legislation to leave the EU passed within a month, and then we left the EU on January 31st. The big Greenwich speech laid out the path forward on the international stage in early February –  in a speech incandescent with positivity about Britain re-launching herself out into the world.

Events then interceded. The global Coronavirus pandemic has knocked every nation in the world for six. The March budget focused on support during Covid-19, and leant heavily into the key general election promises on our NHS: more nurses, new hospitals, GP appointments.

Since then, the virus and and the response to it has been dominant. Massive support for jobs and businesses has been forthcoming – and welcomed. Rules have been written, changed and re-written, as we’ve learnt more about the virus. Vaccines, thank God, now look to be on their way with roll-out, hopefully, beginning to the most vulnerable in a matter of weeks.

But the Prime Minister’s commitment to repay the trust of the electorate has continued alongside the Covid-19 response. In September, the Government made on one of the biggest announcements around levelling-up to date – the expansion of education and training for post-18.

It was the Prime Minister who made the announcement, not the Education Secretary. When Downing Street take an announcement, it’s something that the Prime Minister personally both cares about and gets the importance of. For levelling up skills and wages, this is a big one. Interestingly and importantly too, the big recent announcements regarding both defence, and the environment and future industries, have included heavy focus on them delivering good jobs in the UK as part of the package.

This week, the Spending Review is a crucial next step on that programme of building trust by delivering. It will cover only a year, rather than the three years that were planned, but it’s vital that, for those long-term promises: on education, policing and infrastructure, as much clarity is given as possible to departments as possible in terms of long-term funding.

Having worked inside ‘domestic delivery’ departments myself in my previous life as a SpAd, if these are going to help deliver, this is very difficult to do overnight, so anything that gives them the ability to plan will really help.

No-one is in any doubt that things will not be as straightforward as they would have been without the pandemic, but Rishi Sunak has sensibly already laid the groundwork for the necessity to level with people: decisions cost money.

He’s also made it clear that the Green Book – that’s to say, how the Government works out the various worth of major projects – needs review: something critical to ‘levelling up.’ On both these points, reality is necessary for trust too – openness on the challenges we face will put our successes, when they come, in the right context. And, post-Coronavirus, is a difficult context.

As strategists look towards the next election, we need to remember that the twin sledgehammers in voters’ minds of Corbyn and Brexit will have fallen away by 2024.

But Keir Starmer will have an issue on trust on both which lasts longer than the individual issues themselves. He sat in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, worked to make him Prime Minister and, even when Sir Keir had won his party’s leadership poll, he thanked Corbyn for what he’d done as leader.

On Brexit, we all know that it was Starmer who pushed and wrote the policy of a second referendum. It is clear what he wants to do is to hold the Labour Party together at all costs – trying to play both sides on Corbyn with public praise, then denunciation, and then secret half-way house deals fool no-one. As Starmer continues to struggle to tack both ways simultaneously, on both Brexit and Corbyn, he may well come unstuck. But that’s a matter for him, and we can only control our own actions.

Against the context of Starmer and trust, the spending review gives us a golden opportunity to remind the electorate that they can trust us, just as it did in December last year. Yes, we need the realism about the situation that Britain faces and the impact of Coronavirus has had. But we do need to show that we’ll stick to our levelling-up agenda too.

At the last general election, the final three or four days of knocking on doors in North West Durham were surreal. I didn’t need to convince people anymore – they just wanted to know that their vote would matter, that other people were thinking like them, and they knew that it would a close-run thing.

Next time, they’ll already know that it’s going to be close in seats like mine. What they need is the assurance that their trust was well placed in the Prime Minister, in the Conservative Party and in each individual MP last time. Whatever else it does, this spending review must do that.

The Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission pledged in the Conservative Manifesto is being quietly shelved

23 Jul

The page of the Conservative Manifesto which most alarmed supporters of the status quo was page 48.  And the part of this page – which dealt broadly with constitutional matters – that alarmed them most was at its end.  We refer to the long paragraph that promised a “Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission” “in our first year”.

It explained that this commission would examine the Royal Prerogative, the House of Lords, the courts, judicial review, and access to justice for ordinary people. It would also “update the Human Rights Act and administrative law”.

That first matter, the Royal Prerogative, was clearly a reference to “Miller Two” – the Supreme Court judgement that sunk Boris Johnson’s prorogation plan, conflating as it did so the legislature with Parliament as a whole, and thereby arguing, with supreme constitutional illiteracy, that the monarch is not part of Parliament.

Needless to say, our reading of that judgement is controversial – and so therefore was the section about the proposed commission on page 48.  Which has a consequence: namely, that the commission was, from the start, what the Australians call “a tall poppy”.  It was exposed to critics who would want to scythe it down.

There were further complications from the Government side, once the dust had settled on last December’s election victory.  For putting together the commission turned out to present all manner of difficulties which for whatever reason were unforeseen at the time of its invention.

First of all, which items from this rich menu should its members select?  It’s no secret that Dominic Cummings is not exactly a fan of the way in which judicial review works.  Consider his convulsive reaction to the Court of Appeal’s decision in February to suspend the deportation of criminals to the Caribbean.

He was reported to have described this to officials as “a perfect symbol of the British state’s dysfunction”, adding that there must be “urgent action on the farce that judicial review has become”.  But what if the putative commission went haring off first after another quarry – Lords reform, say?

Those expert on Parliamentary reform might not be knowledgeable to the same degree on justice access, say.  People who have studied the Royal Prerogative may not have mastered judicial review.  The commission members might not be able to agree what dishes to select; too many diners spoil the broth.

ConservativeHome cannot be sure which of Cummings, various SpAds, Munira Mirza, different advisers and Robert Buckland came up with the Commission idea.  But we hear that the manifesto commitment is dead and that there will be no such commission – this year or any in other year.

Downing Street and Ministers will resist this take, of course.  They will explain that there will be lots of mini-commissions, ranging across the same constitututional, political and legal turf.  So the commission hasn’t really been scrapped, you see.  Just re-invented in other forms.  Hmmm.

At any rate, the principle is clear.  If you want a commission on judicial reform, “available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays”, then select members whose area of expertise is the law.

Which doesn’t mean only such people.  But there is no reason why intelligent lay members should also be experts on how the Lords or Commons works.  Meanwhile, the UK’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights is the elephant in the constitutional room – one on which not just page 48 but the entire manifesto was silent.

Friends of Cummings: “A hard rain is coming.”

24 Jun

Readouts from Dominic Cummings’ Zoom meeting with other SpAds have a way of becoming public.  One made its way to ConservativeHome yesterday which was then posted as a Twitter thread.

The sum of it is that Cummings is against centralistion, not for it; that his goal is to make the centre smaller, empower departments and change civil service fundamentals; that “anybody who has read what I’ve said about management over the years will know it’s ludicrous to suggest the solution to Whitehall’s problems is a bigger centre and more centralisation”, and that the centre is already too big, incoherent and adds to the problems with departments.

A smaller and more elite centre is needed; big changes are coming to Number Ten and the Cabinet Office, and many officials now accepted the need for radical changes. Anything to the contrary is “more media inventions”.

The briefing ended with the words: “a hard rain is coming”.

Cue a mass of protests to this site claiming that the readout was simply friends of Cummings throwing up chaff, and that none of it should be believed for a moment.

SpAds were told last July that they are to report to Cummings; their contracts were changed to ensure so formally; SpAds that he didn’t care for have been removed; big decisions go through him, and so can’t always be taken quickly – hence the foul-up over Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free meals for children over the summer; Sonia Khan was removed; so were Sajid Javid’s main SpAds, hence the former Chancellor’s resignation; Number Ten and the Treasury have been joined at the top, and so on.

Who’s right?

For what it’s worth, here’s a view from people inside government who work with him, admire him – but also maintain a critical detachment.

“Dom is a decentraliser,” we were told.  “But he’s resistant to decentralising to people who he thinks aren’t up to the job.  And there are departments of which he’s institutionally suspicious, such as Justice.”

“If he thinks you know your stuff and are capable then he’ll leave you alone – one topical example being Munira Mirza, who he rates.”

What can certainly be said is that so far, for better or worse, institutional change in Whitehall has been less sweeping than originally briefed: DfId has been swallowed up by the Foreign Office, and that’s about it.

Clearly, changes to the sprawling Cabinet Office, which is not held to have performed well during Coronavirus, are coming, as we wrote recently.

If there were more Ministers that Cummings rated, perhaps there would be more decentralistion.  But he’s on record as taking a low view of most of them: “PJ Masks will do a greater job than all of them put together.”  Which gives us the chance to republish our illustration of Cummings as the Splat Monster.