Howard Flight: The Government is right to push civil servants into returning to the office.

2 May

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The Covid pandemic accelerated the trend of Civil Servants working from home. Tens of thousands are still doing so. The EU has recently told its citizens to work from home three days per week to reduce EU reliance on Russian energy resources.

Meanwhile, the UK has Jacob Rees- Mogg, the Minister for Government Efficiency, Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Nadhim Zahawi , the Education Secretary, seeking to reduce working from home “by firm persuasion”. When Jacob Rees-Mogg’s survey was undertaken at the beginning of April, it showed the Department of Education as having the largest proportion – 80 percent- of Civil Servants working from home. It was clear Zahawi had to get his senior Civil Servants back to their offices.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has made the important point that where Civil Servants work predominately from home, they lose out on the by-products of working in an office atmosphere. This covers monitoring, evaluation, supervision of staff, transmission of skills, development of younger colleagues and innovative thinking.

Minsters must back up their officials and be prepared to face down the trade unions. Part of the reason for Civil Servants continuing to wish to work from home is the financial benefits – train fares that are saved can be as much as £500 per month. Female Civil Servants especially can save on childcare, which constitutes a large incentive to remaining out of the office.

The Department of Education was followed by the Department of Work and Pensions at 27 percent and the Foreign Office at 31 percent. Compare that with with International Trade at 73 percent and the Department of Health and Social Care at percent. An average of only 44 percent of Civil Servants were working from their Departmental office.

Prior to Covid, average staff occupancy was around 80 percent but with the silent majority of officials “not pulling their weight”. The Civil Service is still out of step with the rest of the county getting back to ‘normal’. The attempt has been to make the pandemic phase of working from home a new norm.

Civil Service Departments have also each issued how much time staff are expected to work in government buildings. This is two days per week. By far the most strident attack on the Civil Service regime has come from Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee. “It is time for the managers of the Civil Service to get a grip and do their job by forcing staff to return to their offices in greater numbers,” he has said. “It is simply unacceptable for so many of our public servants to continue sitting at home”.

The problem with the Foreign Office’s handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan was proof of the damage working from home can do. Hybrid working has also been to blame for the problems with lorry licences backlog at the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency, which had a Covid outbreak in 2020.

Not all jobs need to be done in the office, but it is undeniable that those people working in the office and interacting with different contacts are the more efficient. Working from a shed or spare room is harder and reduces productivity.

Being a Civil Servant means taking on a commitment to the public good. The very term Civil Service denotes a body of officials whose job is to serve the state and general public. By long tradition in Britain, Civil Servants work anonymously, with the reward coming at the end of a career with a generous pension and sometimes an honour. During Covid, by necessity, much of the Civil Service work has been done by people working from home. But now the restrictions have been lifted, office-workers should be returning to their offices.

Working from home has a significant additional productivity cost. New young recruits need to experience the office atmosphere, interacting directly with their managers and not marooned at home with only a Zoom contact. Some Departments haven’t even got their canteen facilities operating and some still insist on masks. Staff wanting to come into the office are discouraged from doing so by others who fear this will make it harder for them to stay at home!

It is time for the managers of the Civil Service to get to grips and to do their jobs. Steve Barclay has apparently given an unambiguous instruction to this effect, but it is not being properly followed. We need regime change. Wherever possible Civil Servants must be required to be in the office at least a majority of days per week and to be told they will be in breach of their contracts if they are not. If people are paid a London weighting but never actually go to London then they must lose and repay this.

There is also no longer a pay differential in favour of Private Sector employment. And at an average pay of £28,600 p.a. this will produce a Public Sector Pension of £17,563 but a Private Sector Pension of only £6,412. The number of Civil Servants earning £100,000 and more has increased considerably more than the increases for support staff. Criticism is made of one rule for the professional class and another, less generous one for workers and teachers.

Up to three quarters of staff are still working from home. Jacob Rees Mogg has written to all Secretaries of State advising that they must send a clear message to civil servants about ending the work from home culture. To do so is necessary for the British state to function as it should.

Our Cabinet League Table. Wallace top again, Patel up, Johnson down – and Sunak in the red

25 Apr
  • This is Ben Wallace’s third table-topping month (with 85 points his rating has barely moved), and a pattern is beginning to form below him – as Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi and Anne-Marie Trevelyan come in variously at second, third and fourth (with scores in the mid to low sixties).  Both the first of those and now the second are being written up as potential leadership candidates.
  • Priti Patel was bottom of the table last month on -17 points, having languished at the lower end of it for some time – not least because of the small boats issue.  The Government now has a policy to deal with it, and her rating consequently jumps to 31 points, near the middle of the table.
  • Boris Johnson was in the same zone last month, having been in negative ratings for the previous three, and is now back down again – third from bottom.  Ukraine will have pushed him up last month; partygate will have pulled him down this. But the driver of his low scores is that the Government is too left-wing, at least in the view of many activists.
  • Rishi Sunak plunged last month to third from bottom in the wake of the Spring Statement (on plus eight points).  He drops to last place this month, coming in at minus five points, in the wake of the furore about his wife’s tax affairs and former non-dom status.  It is perhaps surprising that his fall isn’t larger; it may even be that the worst is behind him – in this table at least.

Welby, small boats and asylum. What’s his alternative?

18 Apr

Let’s start by agreeing that both the gangmaster trade in people trafficking – which makes a mockery of those refugees seeking legal asylum routes – and the deportation of trafficked people to Rwanda are undesirable.

The question that follows is whether the first can be stopped without resort to the second (or a policy very like it).  So move on to mull the only alternative for control on offer that I know of.

Which would be to allow asylum applications from abroad: this is the “safe and legal” route of which we have all read during recent days.

It could be that instead of taking small boats to Britain, asylum seekers would queue up patiently in Paris, Bordeaux and Marseilles to apply for entry.

Which would mean presenting their papers to the authorities abroad rather than tearing them up before arrival here, as is often the case, in order to further their claims.

Some might do so but others wouldn’t: there is really no way of estimating the proportions.  But even were the majority to do so, the number of people seeking asylum in Britain and elsewhere isn’t a fixed number.

And there is no limit on the number of refugees that we and other countries are obliged to take, due to international agreements on refugees drawn up three quarters of a century ago.

In other words, the most likely consequence of such a policy would be higher refugee and migration numbers, as more people entered by both legal and illegal routes.

For once a new means of travel has been hit upon, people are willing to pay to use it, and their number is large, the only direction numbers are likely to go in is up.

So it is with the discovery that a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, dinghy or kayak can profitably be packed with people and sailed from the beaches of Normandy to the coastline of Kent.

A French government better disposed to ours than Emmanuel Macron’s could help reduce the numbers, but by how much, given the length of the coastline, is debatable

And remember: there is no good reason, were the Government to open up “safe and legal” routes from France, for it not to do so automatically for those applying from other countries.

Which suggests taking a much larger number of refugees than the combined total of up to three million Hong Kongers, 20,000 Syrians, and 20,000 or so Afghans that this pro-migration Government has committed to taking.

Plus, of course, Ukrainians.  There were 84 million refugees worldwide in 2020.  Obviously, that total, a larger one than the population of the UK, wouldn’t all want to come here were the prospect on offer.

But it is only a fraction of the total eligible to apply.  How many are the supporters of “safe and legal routes” willing to take, since given our international commitments there is no cap on numbers?

If it is now the teaching of the Church of England that Britain is morally obliged to take as many asylum seekers as wish to come here, Justin Welby should say so.

It just could be that the only alternative on offer is the Government’s Rwandan scheme, which itself is not unprecedented: consider the EU’s deal with Turkey over migration in 2016.

Unless, that is, the Archbishop would prefer Ministers collectively to shrug their shoulders and let the small boats cross – endangering their passengers, enriching criminals and making a mockery of law-abiding asylum seekers.

If so, the view of the Church would presumably be not only that we should take an unlimited number of asylum seekers, but that we should abandon all control of our borders while we’re at it.

A conventional take on the Rwanda policy is that Boris Johnson, down on his luck at the polls, has hit on the cynical wheeze of waging a culture war against migrants.

If so, dropping the annual limit on semi-skilled work permits; easing the salary threshold and allowing an unlimited number of foreign students can stay on for up to two years – all of which he has done – is an odd way of showing it.

As it happens, closing down openings for a British Marine Le Pen would strike me and perhaps others as no bad thing in itself.

For when mainstream parties don’t control migration, opportunities open up for extremist ones.  First past the post and the good sense of voters have kept them at bay.  The cost of living crisis presents them with new opportunities.

At any rate, the events of the last year suggest that the Prime Minister is a wobbly trolley rather than a focused strategist, at least as far as small boats are concerned.

I’ve watched the argument sway back and forth among Ministers, civil servants and SpAds as the small boat numbers climbed from 2,012 in 2020 to 23,000 by November last year.

Some have been unwilling to countenance the Rwanda policy because they don’t like it. And because they fear what must follow if the Government first talks big and then climbs down.

Namely, the mother of all ding-dongs with the courts, and perhaps with parts of the civil service too, followed by the revisiting of obligations from another age that leave us with no limit on numbers and which are decades out of date.

At any rate, the Government now seems to have made up its mind – due perhaps to the arrival of Steve Barclay et al – and now that it has made a decision it must see it through.

In the meantime, the opponents of the policy will warn of the coming of an anti-Christ: Johnson and all his works.  Some are bad faith actors, willing to abandon all control of our borders, but unwilling to say so.

More are good faith ones: believers in a policy of “safe and legal” routes which implies a larger number of asylum seekers than I believe most voters would be willing to take.

Even so, I would sympathise with Welby’s point of view were the small boats making the long journey to Britain from Gwadar in Pakistan or Bushehr in the Persian Gulf or Tartus on the Syrian coast.

But they are coming from France.  From France, for goodness sake – a neighbour that sees itself, not without reason, as the country that gifted civilisation to the world.

Does the Archbishop really think that France is a country from which asylum seekers are compelled to flee to these shores? If so, his sense of Christianity may trump that of his critics, but not his sense of proportion.

Our Cabinet League Table. Sunak plunges to third from bottom.

4 Apr
  • Last September, I reported that Dominic Raab had plummeted third from top in July to fourth from bottom in our Cabinet League Table.  Today, he is back to sixth from top, having worked his way out of the relegation zone.
  • I write this to offer comfort to enthusiasts for Rishi Sunak, who was eleventh last month, but now finds himself plunged to third from bottom, in the wake of a Spring Statement with which the majority of our panel is dissatisfied.
  • Having managed the table for a long time, I know that what goes down can come up again – and vice-versa.  Our respondents are very knowing, and many use the table as a form of running commentary rather than a means of permanent judgement.
  • At the top, the changes are very marginal, with Steve Barclay’s fall of nine points from 64 to 55, and drop from second to fifth, being the largest movement in the top ten – and it’s not a very large one in the great scheme of events.
  • At the bottom, Priti Patel falls into negative ratings after a month’s bad headlines over Ukrainian refugees.  The Home Office is so permanently troubled that it’s hard to see her moving up towards the comfort of mid-table in the near future.
  • Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is out of negative ratings, where he had been for three months running, and into the middle of the table.  This is at once an impressive recovery from where he was and a lacklustre rating given his position as Prime Minister.
  • Johnson will undoubtedly have gained from his handling of the Ukraine, which received an overwhelming thumbs up from our panel.  Ninety-three per cent took a positive view of it and 58 per cent a negative one of Sunak’s Spring Statement.

Rhetoric from Ministers on a smaller state and curbing woke absurdities is welcome. When will policies match?

20 Feb

PJ O’Rourke, the American satirist who died this week, reflected that there are four ways to spend money:

“If you spend your own money on yourself, you are concerned about both value for money and quality. If you spend your own money on someone else, you are concerned about value for money, but less about whether it is suitable. This is why children get socks for Christmas. If you spend other people’s money on yourself, you are still concerned to get good stuff, but the price no longer matters. And if you spend other people’s money on other people…that’s the Government.”

Next year the state is due to spend £4.18p for each £10 that we earn. We can do what we like with the other £5.82. The Government’s current plans have the state share of spending going up a notch to 41.9 per cent of GDP the following year. Yet a week ago, Steve Barclay MP,  the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Chief of Staff at No 10 Downing Street, wrote that “it is a priority to restore a smaller state.”

Oliver Dowden, the Conservative Party Chairman, gave a speech this week to the Heritage Foundation, denouncing woke ideology as a “dangerous form of decadence”:

“This ideology is now everywhere. It’s in our universities but also, in our schools. In government bodies…”

Perceptive readers will have spotted the flaw. It is under a Conservative Government that we are seeing our liberty diminished by the state spending more of our money, while our freedom of expression is eroded by the imposition of groupthink.

So while statements from Ministers endorsing Conservative principles are a welcome start, the clamour is growing for the reality to match such aspirations.  Let us consider, for instance, an NHS Quango called Health Education England. The Mail on Sunday reports:

“Andrew Scarborough, 36, who is mixed race, fears the obsession of his employer NHS Health Education England (HEE) with politically correct causes such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘toxic positivity’ distracts workers from doing their jobs. The project support administrator – who is still being asked to work from home along with his colleagues, despite the Government urging people to return to their desks – said he found it increasingly difficult to carry out his duties due to the barrage of woke emails and bulletins received almost daily from his bosses. When he queried the quango’s ‘political’ messaging, he claims he was reprimanded and called a racist. He decided to speak out when HEE, which gets £4 billion of taxpayer cash each year to support NHS training and skills development, invited staff to a virtual ‘white privilege’ course to address ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘white fragility’.”

£4 billion? Surely the journalist must have made a mistake and this ludicrous and obscure outfit gets £4 million? But no. Though the latest HEE annual report does have plenty of impenetrable jargon. But the figure for the money it gets from us is pretty clear. £4.3 billion. It has 2,432 staff. 15 of them are paid to be full time trade union officials. The Chief Executive was reported to be on £225,000 a year. The Chief Operating Officer did even better on £235,000. The Director of Corporate Accountability and Engagement earned £150,000. The Director of Innovation and Transformation got by on £135,000.

But what do they all do? That’s when it gets a bit fuzzy:

“Our vision is to help improve the quality of life and health and care services for the people of England by ensuring the workforce of today and tomorrow has the right skills, values and behaviours, in the right numbers, at the right time and in the right place.”

The money goes on training. But is it of practical benefit? An initial medical degree takes four years. But the medical schools get most of the funds for that from tuition fees and from the Office of Students. (The OfS distributes £1.4 billion a year to help with “high cost” courses.) The HEE swings into action for the later stage. An apprenticeship for trainee doctors and nurses to be embedded with experienced professionals in hospitals is, of course, of great importance. Some of that £4.3 billion goes to hospitals willing to take the time to show the ropes to these keen new recruits.

But how much goes on taking doctors and nurses, young and old, away from the wards and off to hotels for conferences on “toxic positivity”?

Even when the funding is for something worthwhile there are concerns about the lack of accountability. A report from the Reform think tank highlighted a lack of transparency. But it also suggests a wide variation in the spending per placements. There have been complaints that NHS Trusts have not been clear about what training they provide for the money.

Probably the HEE should be abolished. The training funds could be devolved to the NHS Trusts to make an offer to student doctors and nurses; perhaps that if they worked once fully qualified for a number of years their cost would be written off but otherwise would need to be reimbursed. Or the medical student could be issued with a voucher to provide a reward for hospitals offering an internship. Some kind of internal market of that kind would surely be an improvement on the current arrangements. It would also offer a financial constraint on all the extraneous woke absurdities.

Perhaps the HEE should continue, but be scaled back so that its only spending was of practical benefit to patient care.

But it is obvious that the £4.3 billion of our money currently being spent by the HEE is not justified. It represents over a third of the planned £12 billion increase in National Insurance. Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, is fond of repeating the mantra that “every penny spent on the NHS must be spent wisely and in the very best interests of taxpayers.” Now he and his colleagues need to do some work on giving these claims credibility.

 

Profile: Steve Barclay, the scrum-half who could win the game for the Prime Minister or else end up buried under a pile of bodies

9 Feb

Steve Barclay, Boris Johnson and Guto Harri all love rugby. Here is a connection which casts light on the recent changes in Downing Street, and which younger and fitter colleagues may care to explore further.

Barclay’s career at Fylde, a famous Lancashire club, began years before he had anything to do with politics:

“I got into rugby because my father was – and still is – one of the club’s stalwarts and I played my first game aged five for the Under 9s.
“They were short so I got thrown on with my older brothers Ian and Nick and I was so small I had to wear two rugby shirts to make me look bigger!
“My dad was chairman and then president of the club and coached the junior section for 39 years on a Sunday morning. My mum, Janice, was on the Ladies’ committee for 20-odd years and Ian captained and played for the First XV for years.”

This long-term commitment entailed regular practice. Steve played at scrum-half, a position in which he too reached the first team, making his debut when he was in his second year at Cambridge, “travelling back on a Thursday night for training and then playing the match on Saturday”.

In conversation in June 2019 with Nick Robinson, Barclay explained what he liked about this position:

“the thing with a scrum-half is you’re in the middle of the action, because you get the ball out and you’re that interlink between the pack and the backs, and for me whatever role you’re doing, and I’m sure it’s the same in media, you want to be where the story is.”

That is not a bad description of the role he has taken on as Boris Johnson’s Chief of Staff. Barclay is where the story is, and like any scrum-half will be trying, under acute pressure and with no time to make mistakes, to connect one part of the team with the other.

Previous Chiefs of Staff – Jonathan Powell, Nick Timothy, Gavin Barwell – responded to Barclay’s appointment by doubting whether it would be possible for him to do the job well.

I don’t pretend to know whether he will be a success or not. So much of what passes for political commentary consists of categorical predictions about the future, which is by definition unknowable.

The point of this profile is the more modest one of trying to give some idea of what kind of person, and politician, Barclay is.

Even here, there are difficulties. Barclay possesses the art of expressing himself in a lucid but astonishingly unmemorable way.

And yet he does not seem an inconsiderable figure. Although he does not sound original, no one has ever accused him of being incompetent. His demeanour is courteous, unruffled, good humoured.

A minister, a Leaver, remarked to ConHome that Barclay is approachable, and easy to talk to; is not one of those figures who conveys the sense that he or she is too busy, self-important or shy to welcome an overture from an unknown colleague.

At the time of the 2016 Referendum he was the only one of the 17 Whips to come out for Leave; an act of courage in a club devoted to unity.

And yet, the same minister pointed out, Barclay has also been loyal to three successive leaders since entering Parliament in 2010, David Cameron, Theresa May and now Johnson.

In old fashioned terms, Barclay is a team player, which is said to be what Number Ten has lacked.

Johnson used to speak of picking up the ball if it happened to come loose from the base of the scrum. He was for four years a member of the Balliol rugby team, passionately devoted to the game, delighting in his own ability to endure pain, but perhaps more excited by quixotic acts of personal heroism than by regular training sessions so as to raise in small, unglamorous but ultimately decisive instalments the professionalism and co-ordination of the whole team.

Barclay was born in Lytham St Annes in 1972. His mother, originally from Blackpool, was a civil servant, while his father, from Bury, worked in IT, and for several years as a full-time trade union official.

Their youngest son was educated at King Edward VII School, Lytham, a fee-paying establishment, did a short-service commission with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, and read history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

A member of that college, which has been attended by a number of distinguished conservatives, said this week of Barclay:

“The one person I knew who recalled him is now dead. Gerald Meade (our head porter for many years) told me he remembered him.”

How characteristic of Barclay – rising in Lancastrian rugby, not yet involved in politics, never an attender at let alone participant in debates at the Cambridge Union – to have got to know the college porter, a big but local figure, while not seeking to impress scholars of wider renown.

Nor did he go, as Cambridge graduates intent on making their fortune are inclined to do, to London. He went to the College of Law at Chester, where he became involved in politics “at the local level” and found he enjoyed it.

In 1997, he fought Manchester Blackley, a seat unwinnable by a Conservative even in a good year, and got “a good kicking”. In 2001 he stood, aged 29, in Lancaster and Wyre, and lost by 481 votes.

He had meanwhile qualified as a solicitor, but by his own account “found the law quite boring”. In the “Life before politics” section of his website, he records with marvellous lack of brio:

He worked as an insurance company lawyer for Axa Insurance, as a regulator for the Financial Services Authority, and as Director of Regulatory Affairs and then Head of Anti-Money Laundering and Sanctions at Barclays Retail Bank.

He was by now Mr Barclay of Barclays. He also got on the A list of parliamentary candidates and was in 2010 returned with a majority of 16,425 for North East Cambridgeshire, a huge, remote, fenland area with poor transport and much poverty.

Barclay was elected to the Public Accounts Committee, where he became known as a severe interrogator, perhaps too severe for his own good, for he received no preferment.

According to one of his colleagues, he was very ambitious, and very angry not to be brought into government:

“I think he has some quite pungent private views which he only shares with a few people.”

But although an undertone of anger can be detected in his pronouncements, on the surface he remained equable and good-natured.

After the 2015 election he was made a whip, in 2017 he became Economic Secretary to the Treasury, in 2018 he had a spell as Minister of State for Health and Social Care, and on 16 November 2018 he entered the Cabinet as Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab having resigned from that role, and Michael Gove having declined to take it on.

Barclay defended, with good grace, the May Government as it sank beneath the waves. No one blamed him, amid such humiliation and confusion, for on one occasion speaking one way and voting the other.

In the summer of 2019, Barclay backed Johnson for the leadership. Once Johnson was Prime Minister, and needed as resilient a team as possible to pilot Britain out of the EU, he kept Barclay in place as Brexit Secretary until the country left the EU on 31st January 2020,

The following month, Johnson made Barclay Chief Secretary to the Treasury, until September 2021, when Barclay became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office.

In a speech delivered as Chief Secretary in July 2020, Barclay said:

“As a constituency MP, I have on many occasions run up against a system that is slow and siloed.

“In frustration, I’ve found myself asking why there is a seven-year gap between funding being agreed for a road scheme and the first digger arriving.

“Or why it takes a decade to decide to produce a full business case on whether to reopen eight miles of railway track – taking twice the length of time of the Second World War.

“Before becoming a minister, I sat on the Public Accounts Committee for four years, where reports repeatedly showed schemes where the outcomes did not reflect the inputs.

“As an example, nine regional fire control centres were built at a cost of three-quarters of a billion pounds. Not one of them worked.”

He insisted “we can create a smarter and faster culture in Whitehall”. This is what he will be trying to do in No 10. As scrum-half he could soon find himself buried beneath a pile of bodies, or else helping his bloodied and bloody captain to drive for the line and win the game.

If the Government wants to get on with Brexit de-regulation, it needs to put ministers clearly in charge

1 Feb

Yesterday, exactly two years after the UK left the European Union, the Government announced a “Brexit Freedoms Bill”. Its purpose is to “end the special status of EU law” and “ensure that it can be more easily amended or removed.” 

The Government has estimated that it will cut £1 billion of red tape for UK businesses through the removal of EU regulations, much of which were kept on as a “messy compromise”, as its announcement put it, from hurried negotiations.

Soon after the announcement, Boris Johnson tweeted that “we have taken back control of our money, our borders and laws”. But others haven’t been so sure that Britain has, specifically around legal and regulatory matters.

One newspaper today reports, for instance, that the Government has watered down plans “to ditch Brussels regulations” put together by David Frost, the former Brexit Minister, because they weren’t compatible with its net zero plans.

This has already led to intense criticism of the Government and Prime Minister. At best, they are sending out mixed messages about the extent to which they will light a “bonfire of EU rules”, as media reports have suggested.

It’s long been known that one of the major selling points of leaving the EU was the opportunity to become truly independent, including a divergence from the trade bloc’s regulations, many of which have been blamed for stifling the potential of British businesses. Solvency II, for example, was singled out by Theresa Villiers yesterday in ConservativeHome, which she blamed for forcing “UK-based insurers to hold too much capital back”.

Villiers has been part of a taskforce asked by Johnson to look into how the UK can de-regulate effectively. She, Iain Duncan Smith and George Freeman compiled a 130-page report last year, setting out 100 recommendations for this, based on consultations with businesses, academics, think tanks and colleagues, among other experts, so as to help Britain fulfil its potential.

But today’s news – as well as it being almost a year since the taskforce released its suggestions – hint at wider issues with the Government’s de-regulatory project. First, there are clearly disputes about how far it should go in cutting the red tape. Second, and partly why the Government is sending out contradictory messages, is that there has been no official replacement for Frost since he stepped down in his role last December.

Since his departure, Liz Truss, as recently appointed Foreign Secretary, has been tasked with overseeing the Northern Ireland Protocol; one of the biggest briefs of a Brexit Minister. But government insiders are keen for designated ministers to handle regulatory reform, and hold Whitehall’s feet to the fire.

One contender for having overall oversight of such a project is Steve Barclay, currently serving as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. However, the responsibility could be shared. Freeman, a member of the taskforce and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Research and Innovation is reportedly keen to manage the 10 sectors most in need of reform, having written about them in great detail in the 130-page report, and feeling that these areas fall naturally into his department.

Given that it has been two years since Brexit, as we have been reminded this week, the delay over action on regulations is not what one would call a “good look” for the Government. With the pandemic, as well as the partygate saga hanging over the Prime Minister’s head, it’s no surprise that Number 10 has been slow to appoint a new Brexit Minister/ authority, or even make noises about the need for it.

But the clock is ticking. With Johnson’s enemies keen to ram home that his government, as well as Brexit, has been a disaster, getting a “Reformer in Chief” is the fastest way to “take back control”.

Our Cabinet League Table. Truss’s year-long reign is ended as Wallace goes top.

1 Feb

Our monthly panel of Party members has become very knowing.  It seems to me increasingly to use the Cabinet League Table to upscore and downscore Ministers on the basis of the month’s events. And so –

  • Ben Wallace’s vigorous response to the crisis in eastern Europe, coming relatively soon after his mature conduct during the Afghanistan debacle, propels him upwards from 62 points to 80 points – and he displaces Liz Truss after her year-long reign at the top of the table.  The Defence Secretary’s name has crept into the margins of future Party leadership speculation. It will now advance further.
  • Truss herself is down from 74 points to 67 points.  That’s a small drop and of almost no significance, but it may indicate that the Foreign Office, with its multilayered challenges, is a tougher proposition for the occupant than International Trade in the wake of Brexit, in which she was able to roll over a series of deals.
  • Boris Johnson is still in negative ratings, but his score must be seen in the context of a positive total on Covid handling, and a change of mood about the toxicity of “partygate”.  Last month, his rating was -34 points, a record low for him.  This month, it is heading in the right direction.
  • Another interesting Johnson indicator is the fall in support for his most vocal critic in this table – Douglas Ross.  Last month, the latter was on 30 points.  This month, he is in the black by a slender margin of six.  The Prime Minister has his supporters as well as his critics. And they have marked the Scottish Tory leader down.
  • Elsewhere, the movements tend to follow publicity, good and bad.  So it is that Mark Spencer plunges even deeper into the red.  That Jacob Rees-Mogg, ninth last month, plunges to fifth from bottom.  That Sajid Javid gets a Covid bounce from twelfth to sixth.   And that Michael Gove, who has had a quieter month, recovers to mid-table.
  • Rishi Sunak’s score at 39 points is his lowest as Chancellor.  One can cite individual reasons for this, such as the coming National Insurance rise.  But it’s the big picture that matters.  Many panel members clearly believe that the Government is taxing and spending too much, and pin at least some of the blame at the Chancellor’s door.

These results came in over the weekend, and so don’t take into account the Sue Gray report and yesterday’s Parliamentary statement.  My best guess is that neither will help to improve the Prime Minister’s rating.

Stewart Jackson: A reshuffle that moved some of the Prime Minister’s critics into the Cabinet would be prudent

10 Jan

Stewart Jackson is a former Conservative MP and Special Adviser, and is the Founder and Director of UK Political Insight.

The precipitous recent decline in the poll ratings of the Prime Minister and predictions of electoral doom are indicative of two enduring phenomena: that Boris Johnson is unique and, like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair before him, dominates the political landscape.

Conservative MPs will largely sink or swim as a result of the electorate’s judgement of him. But there’s nothing new in these setbacks, and many Conservatives have little institutional memory, and perhaps little understanding, of the vicissitudes of modern politics.

The bien pensant liberal media classes and their cheerleaders such as Matthew Parris are loathe to concede it, but the Prime Minister is a historically significant figure. He not only led the movement (or at least the last throes of it) which resulted in the UK’s exit from the European Union but, more fundamentally, built a mighty vote-winning electoral coalition founded on culture and community rather than class and capital.

What Johnson has had in spades is not just celebrity and chutzpah, but luck: inheriting a safe Commons seat in 2001 when the Tories had detoxifying work in progress; coming to power in London during a Conservative renaissance in the capital when the voters were sick of Ken Livingstone, and quitting the Cabinet after the Chequers plan in 2018 – to usurp the pitiful May interregnum and break the Brexit impasse.

The Prime Minister’s greatest weakness is that he loves to be loved but, ironically, the more hysterical and cacophonous the shrieks of his critics, the stronger he becomes politically. To many Tory voters, all the usual suspects hate the Prime Minister – not least bcause they believe that he was and should be one of them.

However, he lacks a Praetorian Guard in Parliament who will walk through fire for him (even John Major had one) and the relationship that many Tory MPs have with the First Lord of the Treasury is cynical and transactional.

Covid restrictions, tax rises, self-inflicted wounds such as the Paterson affair, ethical issues, the fall out from reshuffles and recurring problems of miscommunication between Number Ten and Conservative MPs have all soured the glad confident morning of December 2019.

Johnson still has the power to forgive – and a reshuffle that pulled some hitherto irreconcilables and malcontents back into the tent would be prudent politics.

My erstwhile colleague at Crosby Textor and electoral wunderkind, Isaac Levido, has compared the post Covid scenario as like when the tide is at its lowest: all the Prime Minister’s problems lie like broken boats on the harbour floor.

Brexit and future relations with the EU, the cost of living crisis and soaring energy prices, social care and the demographic timebomb, delivering the levelling up agenda and regional and national infrastructure, the busted local government funding and planning systems respectively, fighting the “Blob” in the delivery and reform of publc services and the endemic problem of uncontrolled immigration – all are moving up the list of voter salience.

But there’s nothing new under the sun. In 1979, Thatcher wrestled with an inflation rate of 13 per cent and interest rates of 17 per cent. Even John Major, barely a year before besting Neil Kinnock in the 1992 General Election struggled with a jobless figure in the millions, 10 per cent interest rates and annual price rises of seven per cent – none of which Johnson will experience next year or, most likely, before the next general election.

The last two months will have actually helped Johnson and his most devoted supporters to shake free the contagion of complacency and “BoJo is teflon” exceptionalism: the Cabinet revolt against further Covid restrictions was  timely and good for efficient government. It means that in future, controversial policies are likely to be more routinely challenged, and will be improved upon by robust critique.  The Iraq War showed that Cabinet government by fan club very rarely ends well.

The Prime Minister’s most urgent strategic challenge is the same as that for Thatcher, Blair, Major and David Cameron – namely, how to reinvent his Government. For Brown and May – similar personalities – it was already too late. But such reworking was done in 1986 after Westland and in 1991 before the ERM catastrophe.

Most recently, David Cameron offers hope and inspiration. (Yes, I did write that sentence!) His clever decision to back a Private Members’ Bill to give effect to an EU Referendum in 2014 soothed the Eurosceptic fever in the Commons, and allowed the Conservatives to focus on their retail offering to voters at the 2015 election.

What also helped teamwork and discipline then was a narrow but consistent poll lead for Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, and the prospect of a re-energised Opposition and a possible SNP-Labour colation government.

Today, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is off life support, is winning the right to debate, is more credible than during the last six years, and sp tighter polls will concentrate the minds of fractious Conservative MPs. For all that, though, Labour is miles from looking like a government in waiting and, frankly, if Wes Streeting is the answer, it’s a very silly question.

Specifically, the Government must rebuild its demoralised electoral coalition, keep the Right broadly united and it develop a positive case for the continuance of a Conservative Government – a compelling narrative and a legacy.

Support amongst Leave voters has slumped from 72 per cent to 56 per cent during the last six months, and Red Wall voters are disilusioned and impatient.

Currently, many Tory supporters in the South and South West, ABs and C1s who voted Remain, but were terrified of a Corbyn government, are angry about tax rises, general incompetence, planning, Tory Sleaze 2.0 (sic) and are shopping around for a protest vote.

Ironically, Theresa May’s entrance speech on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street in July 2016 provides the Prime Minister’s own template for rejuvenation.

There’s more than enough time to deliver on a commitment to localism – a repeat of the successes in Tees Valley and the West Midlands. Michael Gove has the acumen and strategic nous to understand that building enough houses for young voters is now existential for the Conservative Party – after all, you can’t create capitalists who don’t and can’t own capital. And deregulation, tax cuts and demonstrable Brexit wins, such as freeports, must be front and centre in the Conservative story.

The voters don’t care for Singapore on the Thames, but they generally favour traditional Tory values.The Cabinet, for all the media criticism, still has condident and pesuasive voices, such as Steve Barclay, Grant Shapps and Ben Wallace.

Johnson still has aces to play: by historic standards, he’s still polling reasonably well, even if the May local elections will be brutal. And as public opinion in the wake of the Colston statue trial has shown, the War on Woke energises his base, and is a cultural wedge issue which drives many newer Conservative voters.

But such action will be hobbled without firm and radical action on immigration.Similarly, “barnacles must be scraped off the boat” – such as socially liberal tokenism in new legislation, tax rises to fund green initiatives and appointing political opponents to public bodies.

It surely isn’t too much to ask for a Conservative Government to be, well, fundamentally Conservative? Competent, compassionate and communitarian. Johnson has limited time to deliver but at least he now knows and comprehends more than ever, as a classical scholar, the immortal words of the Roman slave to his Emperor: “respice post te, mortalem esse memento” – “look around you, remember you are mortal.”

Our Cabinet League Table: Johnson falls to his lowest ever negative rating.

28 Dec
  • Perhaps the only good news for Boris Johnson is that his score, woeful as it is, is nowhere near as dire as that of Theresa May in the spring of 2019 – when she broke the survey’s unpopularity record, coming in at a catastophic -75 points.
  • Nonetheless, this is the Prime Minister’s second consecutive month in negative ratings, his third altogether, and his lowest total of the lot.  The explanation? Parties, competence, Covid restrictions, Paterson, taxes and Net Zero, not necessarily in that order.
  • Nadine Dorries is down from fourth (plus 61) to mid-table sixteenth (plus 25), Michael Gove from twelfth to sixth from bottom (plus 43 to plus 16) , and Sajid Javid from eighth to twelfth (plus 54 to plus 29). All are associated with support for Covid restrictions.
  • Mark Spencer stays in the red and Priti Patel inches into it: in her case, the explanation is “small boats”. Liz Truss is top again, Ben Wallace is up from second to fifth, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Nadhim Zahawi are scoring well. Generally, there’s a drift down.