Daniel Hannan: It’s time to recork the Gauke

18 Aug

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

I still do a double take whenever I remember that David Gauke is no longer in the Conservative Party. If you read his fortnightly column on ConHome, you’ll know that the former Justice Secretary is a Tory to his backbone.

I don’t just mean in the sense of being suspicious of big government, a supporter of open competition and so on. I mean that he has, for want of a better phrase, a conservative temperament. He is pragmatic, ironic, self-aware; clever but sceptical of intellectuals; a handy cricketer and a lifelong Ipswich Town supporter; an authentic champion of the quietly patriotic suburban communities he used to represent.

True, Gauke has a low opinion of the PM, and that prejudice sometimes leads him to put a needlessly negative construction on whatever the Government is doing. But what makes his column so readable is the tension between his dislike of our present leadership and his essential fair-mindedness.

I suppose I should declare an interest. Gauke and I were Conservative students together and, after we graduated, we both worked for Eurosceptic MPs – I for Michael Spicer, he for Barry Legg. We were later involved together in the European Research Group. Indeed, the Gawkster became our treasurer, a position to which he brought the same flinty fiscal conservatism that was to characterise his time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I consider him a friend – though I should add that he has no idea I am writing this column. (Had I mentioned it, he’d have modestly told me not to bother and perhaps secretly hoped that I’d ignore him. He is, as I say, very English.)

That Gauke should now be outside the Conservative Party is a reminder that the fevered and phantasmagorical events of 2018 and 2019 really happened. Already, it takes an effort of will to recall those days: the court challenges; the pretence that a referendum that everyone had promised to respect was meaningless; the horrible sight of a Commons Speaker bending the rules with partisan intent; the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations; the Supreme Court’s glib dismissal of the 1689 Bill of Rights; the spectacle of a government being kept in office by MPs who would not let carry through its business but would not agree to fresh elections either; and, in the end, what looked like a breakdown of the party system.

A number of Labour and Conservative MPs left their parties, to the delirious excitement of the broadcast media. But it turned out that years of soft questioning on Newsnight and the Today Programme did not translate into electoral support. Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, Luciana Berger, Sarah Wollaston, Dominic Grieve – all sank without trace.

Europhile MPs repeatedly sought to disable Brexit by ensuring that the pro-EU Commons majority would get to decide whether or not to accept the deal. The effect of their antics was to destroy the Government’s negotiating position and ensure that Britain got the worst possible terms. The punitive Northern Ireland Protocol was perhaps their supreme achievement.

In September 2019, 21 Conservative MPs lost the Whip after voting to switch control of the legislative process from the Government to the Commons. They had varying motives. Some were die-in-the-ditch Remainers; some didn’t like Boris Johnson; some (Anne Milton in Guildford, Steve Brine in Winchester) had peculiarly Europhile constituencies; some simply fell in with the wrong crowd.

When the election was called three months later, they scattered in all directions. Ten of the 21 had the Whip restored, of whom six stood down and four (Brine, Greg Clark, Stephen Hammond and Caroline Nokes) won their seats again as Conservatives. Of the 11 who remained outside the fold, six retired, two (Sam Gyimah and Antoinette Sandbach) stood unsuccessfully as Lib Dems and three (Milton, Dominic Grieve and Gauke himself) stood unsuccessfully as independents.

Johnson is temperamentally unable to bear grudges, and cheerfully put four of the 21 – Ken Clarke, Philip Hammond, Ed Vaizey and Richard Benyon – into the House of Lords. Indeed, I’m happy to say that Benyon, one of the most accomplished countrymen at Westminster, is back on the front bench as a DEFRA minister.

But not Gauke. If we can liken the événements of 2019 to a tectonic upheaval – and I think we can – then the Gawkster is a volcanic rock that has been hurled miles away by the blast. There he sits, a geological anomaly, reminding us that violent forces once altered the landscape.

At least, I hope he is an anomaly. Gawkie himself likes to write about the big-government turn that the Conservatives had taken even before the epidemic struck. A general realignment, he thinks, has left the party speaking to and for relatively protectionist, interventionist and dirigiste communities.

Such a party, runs the subtext, has less space for people like him: fiscal conservatives who are mildly Europhile. (I say “mildly” because Gauke never voted to block Brexit. He quit the party because he was convinced – quite wrongly, as it turned out – that the PM was planning to leave the EU without any trade deal.)

Such liberal-minded MPs dominated the pre-2015 party. We hear a lot less from them these days. Perhaps they have changed their minds. Perhaps they are keeping quiet, sensing that public opinion is going through an authoritarian spasm. Perhaps there has simply been a turnover in personnel.

Whatever the explanation, we need to remember that our party contains multitudes. We have had space, down the centuries, for protectionists and free-traders, for interventionists and privatisers, for Heathites and Thatcherites, for Europhiles and Eurosceptics (though this last division is, I hope, now as redundant as the arguments over Catholic emancipation or Rhodesian independence).

We are slipping in Gauke’s former constituency – and, indeed, across my old Home Counties patch. Yet our former voters – self-reliant, affluent, sceptical of state capacity and with little time for populism – are an indispensable part of our coalition. We need, not just their faute-de-mieux support, but their active enthusiasm. Finding a way to recork the Gauke might be a good start

Steve Brine: Ministers have seized the chance to finally end the HIV epidemic

4 Dec

Steve Brine is the MP for Winchester, was Public Health Minister 2016-2019 and the Conservative MP on the HIV Commission

The campaign against AIDS, as it then was, was etched in my mind from childhood. I did not need this new pandemic to recall that chilling yet effective tombstone advert from the 1980s.

Norman Fowler is something of a hero of mine. As  Andrew Gimson of the parish reported on earlier this week, when Health Secretary he followed the science when others wanted something far worse. The more I learn about the decisions of those times, the more my respect for him grows.

From 2016-19 I was lucky to serve the party and country as public health minister. I was suddenly in a position to do something to change the modern HIV epidemic. To follow in Fowler’s footsteps.

I engaged, as all good ministers do, with the sector organisations. The Terrence Higgins Trust, National AIDS Trust, and the Elton John AIDS Foundation all lobbied me hard. But not just for retail policies. They had a vision: a country with no new HIV transmissions. They were united in presenting a new scientific possibility: this end to transmissions by 2030. I wanted this for England and took the proposal to my boss, Matt Hancock.

As I told the House of Commons on Tuesday, I was ‘pushing at an open door’. In January 2019, Hancock and I committed England to this ambitious but achievable goal.

On the 32nd World AIDS Day this week, the HIV Commission – on which I subsequently served – issued its final report and recommendations. What followed, for all to see, was the commitment of this Government to that very vision. Conservative minister after Conservative minister reinforced how we wish to see this policy become a practical reality.

Boris Johnson set the tone, becoming the first Prime Minister to pledge to end new transmissions before the end of the decade. Rishi Sunak made the same commitment at the launch of the commission’s recommendations from the floor of the House of Commons putting it in the record in Hansard for perpetuity. At the launch with Elton John, Michael Gove gave a commitment to report annually on progress – one of our key demands.

As if that wasn’t enough, Hancock pledged to work together with the Commission on its ambitious targets – cutting the numbers of people living with undiagnosed HIV by 80 per cent by 2025 – and to increase HIV testing. Lord Bethell, his deputy, told the House of Lords the department would investigate normalising HIV testing. That was all before lunchtime.

Our report had barely been launched for 90 minutes and already recommendation after recommendation was being committed to by my Conservative colleagues. It was a sight to behold. But it turned out the Government was not yet done.

The Speaker kindly granted myself and Wes Streeting, my Labour co-commissioner, an adjournment debate on the HIV Commission’s launch. To everyone’s surprise, the Secretary of State himself took his place at the Despatch Box. He had returned to make yet another commitment: that the HIV Commission would be the basis of a HIV Action Plan, available: “as early next year as is feasible to ensure that the work is high-quality, can be delivered and can set us fair on a credible path to zero new transmissions in 2030.”

He said this was a promise he wanted ‘to make in person’. I was shocked, humbled and filled with pride.

There are many that are cynical about politicians and what we can achieve. Tuesday was not one of those days. A Conservative Government is acting decisively to end an outstanding issue of social injustice in less than a decade is not something to be dismissed.

The work to make it happen starts now. Get this right, my fellow Conservatives, and we could end the five-decade long HIV epidemic ‘on our watch’. Nothing short will now suffice.

What Thatcher’s response to the AIDS crisis teaches us about tackling the present pandemic

1 Dec

“There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,” the soundtrack begins. “It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure…”

A volcano erupts, a hail of boulders rains down a cliff, and to the sound of wild, funereal music a pneumatic drill and a chisel carve from the solid rock a tombstone bearing the single word AIDS, on which a bunch of lilies is thrown.

This must be one of the most frightening public information films ever made, directed by Nic Roeg, voiced by John Hurt, and intended to strike fear into viewers and get them to read the “Don’t Die Of Ignorance” leaflet which was distributed to 23 million households.

On World AIDS Day, it is worth recalling that in the 1980s another pandemic struck: a lethal and mysterious illness for which there was no cure.

The parallels between AIDS and Covid-19 should not be pushed too far, but are nevertheless illuminating, and in the fulness of time have even become encouraging, for the HIV Commission today publishes its plan for England to become by 2030 the first country in the world to eliminate the transmission of the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

The Commission’s key recommendation is “test, test, test”, and as one of its members, Steve Brine MP (Con, Winchester), yesterday told ConHome, “in the context of the last nine months, you really get what we’re saying”.

Both pandemics struck during periods of Conservative government, and posed enormous troubles for the Prime Minister of the day.

In August 1975, when there had been 206 confirmed cases of AIDS in the United Kingdom, of whom 114 had died, Margaret Thatcher was told by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson, that it was likely AIDS could be transmitted heterosexually as well as homosexually.

What message was to be given to the public? In his brilliant account, beginning on page 71 of Herself Alone, the third volume of his life of Thatcher, Charles Moore quotes David Willetts, then a member of Thatcher’s Policy Unit, who told her, “We have to walk a difficult tightrope between being accused of bureaucratic inertia, and being so active as to whip up public hysteria,” and went on:

“We simply don’t know whether everybody with the virus will eventually go down with the symptoms of the disease. So we would be telling people that they may get the clinical disease, but we don’t know; and if they have got it, we can’t cure it. That’s not a very satisfactory message, but seems to be the best course out of several unattractive alternatives.”

The problem was rendered still more difficult by the close association which emerged between AIDS and homosexuality. Some people seized the chance to express the disgust and hatred they felt for homosexuals: as Willetts warned, there was a danger of fomenting public hysteria.

Some Conservatives, and some religious leaders, urged the Prime Minister to preach the virtues of abstinence.

Thatcher declined to treat AIDS as an opportunity for moralising. For her it was a scientific and medical problem. As Moore writes, she was happiest “when she had a concrete and exact point to advance”.

She was a Tory pragmatist: she wanted to solve the problem, not prate about it. Those who have insisted on understanding her in ideological terms have often overlooked how practical she was.

But part of being practical was framing a public message about the dangers of anal sex, and here she took some persuading, which was done by the Health Secretary, Norman Fowler, who in March 1986 told her that the advice to avoid anal intercourse, “which has been linked with 85 per cent of AIDS cases so far”, must remain in advertisements to be placed in the press, or else these would lose all “medical authority and credibility”.

Lord Fowler, who has worked to this day to reduce and at length eradicate HIV, has recalled how difficult things were in the 1980s, and why at the start of 1987 a yet bigger public health campaign, which included the television advertisements, was warranted:

“We had no knowledge of this disease and no drugs with which to treat it. I was reading a note the other day from the Chief Medical Officer at the time and some of the predictions as to what could happen were terrifying – we were talking millions and millions of people becoming infected. That’s why we launched what is still the biggest public health campaign there’s ever been in this country with leaflets sent out to every home.”

In the 1980s, the predictions of the scientists did not always prove accurate. So too today. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock prefer to present themselves as following the science, than as adherents of a theory of freedom which would allow them to ignore what the scientists were saying.

They too are Tory pragmatists, most interested in what works, even if that has to be discovered by an agonising process of trial and error.

Thatcher was always worried, and with good reason, that although she and her colleagues insisted “the Health Service is safe in our hands”, the voters would not believe them. Johnson can be seen guarding at every turn against that danger.

Caroline Slocock, the first female private secretary at Number Ten, has described a visit Thatcher eventually undertook to an AIDS hospice, without any press in attendance, partly because she did not wish to seem to be competing with the well-known work already done in this field by Diana, Princess of Wales.

The first patient she sees is clearly “very ill and has no hope of recovery”. Slocock goes on:

“I feel out of my depth. I have never been at the bedside of a dying person before and I feel strongly that family and friends should be there at this moment, not us… She [Thatcher] responds by taking a seat by his side, asking questions, expressing sympathy, connecting in a simple and genuine way, to which he responds sweetly. She comes across as more of a mother than a Prime Minister…

“After about ten minutes, we leave him and go into the second room. Inside, sitting in a chair beside his bed, is a young American man, also extremely thin. The virus has attacked his brain too, as it does in the final stages, we are told afterwards, and he is excited and confused. At first he thinks she must be a creation of his own mind, a delusion. But then he begins to believe that she really is Margaret Thatcher, but sent to him miraculously to hear his thoughts and to pass them on to President Bush. He tells her to ring the President. It is imperative that action is taken now to help people like him – that is his message. He is overexcited, it is very difficult to know how to respond, and it is very, very sad.

“I desperately want to get out of the room. I feel responsible for putting them both through this awkward scene. Margaret Thatcher is unfazed and behaves as if she has all the time in the world. She places her hand on his arm, asks him a few questions about his life and listens, in a way that demonstrates that she is real, not a phantom, and is there because she cares and wishes him well. He calms down in response. It is simple, human stuff, but I am in awe of it.

“When we leave them, we ask the staff about their families. It turns out that neither have felt able to tell their parents that they are gay, let alone that they have AIDS, and so they are dying alone.”

For a quite different reason, the need to prevent infection, many sufferers from Covid-19 have lived and died alone.

While reading about the 1980s, it struck me that there was often no correlation between a politician’s views on other questions, and what he or she thought about AIDS.

This elementary point has sometimes been overlooked in coverage of the present pandemic. The urgent need to get things done, in order to avert or relieve suffering, trumps whatever abstract views one may have about the right way to set about this.

In January 2019, when Steve Brine was serving as Public Health Minister, and three charities – The Elton John AIDS Foundation, National AIDS Trust and Terrence Higgins Trust – came to him with proposals for the eradication in England of HIV, he gave the Government’s support and approval to what they wanted to do, as did Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary.

Brine said yesterday:

“We had a policy decision, we had the science that allowed us to approve it. The science of PrEP [Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis], which has been a huge game-changer, now allows us to finish the job.”

A connecting thread of pragmatism links the 1980s to the present day. Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s official historian, traces this tradition of unmoralistic pragmatism further back:

“‘Sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas’: Disraeli’s famous misquotation from the fourth century Vulgate in the course of his great three-hour speech in Manchester in April 1872 defining modern conservatism rings down the years. He understood that moral censoriousness had no more place in health policy than in private life. In this respect, Boris Johnson, like successful Tory leaders before him, follows in the great Disraelian tradition.”

Opposition to new national lockdowns is growing on the Conservative backbenches

22 Sep

Boris Johnson will speak to the Commons this afternoon and to the nation this evening about the Government’s latest Coronavirus measures.  We wait to see exactly what he will announce, but the thrust of his proposals seems clear enough. Essentially, he wants to separate work and home life.

The Prime Minister aims to keep work going in as normal a way as possible – with face covers, hand-washing and social distancing in place to help make this possible.  This is government “putting its arms” around the economy, to borrow a phrase he likes to use.  It is the part of the policy aimed at protecting livelihoods.

Meanwhile, home life and leisure will take the strain of reducing the growth in Covid-19 cases.  There is a rule of six.  Pubs and restaurants will shut at 10pm.  There will be marshalls as well as fines.  Not to mention lockdowns – like those currently now in place in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere. This is the half of the policy intended to save lives.

Whether this scheme will last long is doubtful.  We’ve explained previously on this site why many schools may not stay open fully, or may close altogether.  That will have a knock-on effect on the economy, since parents with younger children will often have no alternative but to stay at home, and provide the childcare themselves.

Furthermore, the division between work, home and leisure isn’t always clear.  The first and third meet in retail: some shopping is leisure; all staffing is work.  As the debate within government over the new 10pm closing time for pubs, restaurants and outlets indicates, non-essential shopping is vulnerable to new closures.  And Ministers are already backing off the push to get workers to return to offices (since they will be more relucant to use public transport).

It looks as though we’re on the way to another national lockdown – in effect, if most cities are locked down; or formally, if the Government eventually declares one.  Tomorrow, in the wake of the Prime Minister’s broadcast, we will return to the big questions.

Such as: what’s the fundamental aim of the policy?  If it is no longer to protect the NHS, is it to suppress the virus?  If so, are the healthcare trade-offs that would arise from such a policy worthwhile – let alone the wider economic ones?  Why isn’t testing and tracing, rather than lockdowns, taking the strain of reducing the disease, as intended?  For today, we want to probe what happened yesterday during Matt Hancock’s Commons statement.

Chris Grayling, Greg Clark, Harriet Baldwin, Simon Fell, Simon Clarke, Alec Shelbrooke, Anthony Browne, Graham Brady, Andrew Percy, Jason McCartney, Shaun Bailey, Marco Longhi, Edward Leigh, Pauline Latham, Bernard Jenkin, Duncan Baker, James Davies, William Wragg, Steve Brine, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan spoke.

Of these, Grayling, Clarke, Brady, Leigh, Latham, Baker, Wragg and Brine were all, to varying degrees, hostile to another national lockdown.  Browne’s question was perhaps in broadly the same camp.  We are beginning to see resistence to new national shutdowns intensify on the Conservative backbenches.