Andrew Gimson’s Spring Statement sketch: the Chancellor plays leader in waiting

23 Mar

Vladimir Putin has made “a dangerous calculation that democracies are divided, politically weak and economically insecure”.

For “what the authoritarian mind perceives as division we know as the passionate disagreements at the heart of our living, breathing democracy”.

These reflections were offered by Rishi Sunak at the start of his Spring Statement. Here was the Chancellor demonstrating that he is no mere bookkeeper, who can be trusted to look after the nation’s accounts, but a statesman capable of taking wider views, ready and willing to range over the great questions of war and peace and penetrate the authoritarian mind of the free world’s most bloodthirsty opponent.

As Sunak rose to speak, Boris Johnson, sitting beside him, was grinning like a schoolboy, having just breezed through Prime Minister’s Questions, looking more at ease than he had done for months, well able to dominate the House.

As the Chancellor began talking about the conflict in Ukraine, a harrowed look stole over the Prime Minister’s face, as it does when he contemplates the atrocious sufferings visited by Putin’s armies on that unhappy land.

But did one perceive also a twinge of pain that his colleague should with such facility adopt such a sovereign manner? That, surely, is the task of the leader.

Sunak is no longer the child prodigy. His hair has started to turn grey in the nation’s service, and he took the chance to remind us that if the Prime Minister should at some point be obliged to retire, he, Sunak, is the leader in waiting.

An unwelcome intimation of mortality for Johnson. The Chancellor did then have the decency to give us some figures, before declaring that he proposed to take “a principled approach to cutting taxes”.

A man of principle! Is that not just what the country needs? And here was a rise of £3,000 in the National Insurance threshold, which will benefit 30 million people.

In 2024 Sunak will also take a penny off the income tax, just in time for the general election, which he will then proceed to win.

“Cutting taxes is not easy,” he said with a sigh. It is, however, easier than putting them up.

Rachel Reeves, replying for Labour, called Sunak “Ted Heath with an Instagram account” – an enjoyable line, but one which shows that having been born in 1979, she is blissfully ignorant of how bad our economic troubles were in the 1970s.

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.”

Enver Solomon and Sunder Katwala: Refugees mark 70 years of UK sanctuary

28 Jul

Enver Solomon is chief executive of the Refugee Council and Sunder Katwala is director of British Future.

Seventy years ago today, after the horrors of World War Two, the UK signed the Refugee Convention. We gave our commitment to protect people fleeing war and persecution.

For the refugees from those seven decades who gathered in London this week to mark the anniversary, that history was very personal. This Treaty was the reason that they had been able to rebuild their lives in our country.

Having arrived across each of the last seven decades the refugees had many different stories of why they had made the journey to Britain – fleeing Hungary in the 1950s, apartheid South Africa in the 1960s, being expelled from Uganda in the 1970s.

Whether escaping Vietnam on a fishing boat, finding sanctuary from the collapse of Yugoslavia or the Syrian civil war, their experiences captured the story of the last century. Each had their experiences of arriving in a new country, and of learning how to settle. What the refugees shared was gratitude for the opportunity to rebuild their lives in Britain – and a desire to mark the anniversary by speaking up for why this should now be considered an important national tradition to protect in the future too.

So, what lessons might we take from hearing of the human meaning of this 70th anniversary?

The anniversary should remind us of the importance of protecting an asylum system that is humane, fair and effective so Britain can uphold our responsibility to offer refugee protection to those who need it. For Gillian Slovo, who arrived in the UK in the 1960s on her 12th birthday, after her parents were persecuted over their leading role in opposing apartheid, “The best thing about starting a new life in Britain was that I didn’t have to worry when there was a knock at the door. In South Africa, there had been the constant fear that my parents could disappear at any time”.

That feeling of personal safety was felt as powerfully across the decades later by Aloysius Ssali, who had studied in Britain before being imprisoned and tortured back in Uganda because of his sexuality. He recalled the help and solidarity he had from LGBT people in the UK when securing his refugee status in 2010: “They told me ‘you can stay here. It is safe. Nobody can scare you anymore.’ That was so important.”

That we have had seven decades of refugee protection in the UK shows that this international treaty commitment has been upheld by governments across party lines. Adopted at the UN in the final months of the Attlee post-war Labour government, the Convention went on to be ratified in the UK during Winston Churchill’s final term as premier. Conservative and Labour governments were responsible for giving sanctuary to those fleeing the Soviet crackdowns in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s, refugees fleeing the wars arising from the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and those fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in this century.

Across those decades, refugee protection has often been contested and controversial. Ted Heath’s courageous decision to give sanctuary to the Ugandan Asians in 1972 came at the height of the fierce arguments about immigration in the wake of the Powellite ‘Rivers of Blood’ argument.

Mukund Nathwani, who had been a 23-year-old teacher in Uganda when Idi Amin expelled the Asian population, is certain that decision saved his life. Arriving at Stansted airport, he says “What we thought was ‘we’ve got a new life’. People were welcoming to us – and we thought, well, we’ve come to the right place”.

Today, as in the 1970s and the 1990s, political arguments rage over asylum and refugee protection, with government proposals for asylum reform that rewrite and resile from some of the key obligations for convention signatories.

So, it is worth recalling that there have been many occasions when there has been public pressure on governments for Britain to do more – as with the Vietnamese boat people, or the Syrian resettlement scheme which arose from public dismay at the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi in 2015.

Yet the principle of refugee protection does command broad public consent – new polling from ICM for the anniversary shows that six out of 10 people believe Britain’s tradition of refugee protection is something to be proud of.

Arguments about asylum can often see the ideas of control and compassion presented as polar opposites in political and media debates. But that is not how the public see it. The idea that we need an asylum system that is effective, fair and humane, so the UK can uphold our responsibility to offer refugee protection to those who need it, secures an overwhelmingly broad public consensus – with 70% in support and just 11% opposed.

The refugees who gathered this week told the story not only of their contributions to British society, and also of the importance of the relationships between the welcomers and the welcomed, between those coming to Britain and the people who helped them to make a new life as they settled here.

Hong Dam, a child when her family fled Vietnam for Hong Kong in an overcrowded fishing boat, is grateful to be among 10,000 Vietnamese boat people resettled in in Britain. It later transpired that there had been a considerable argument inside government over whether Britain would accept its UN resettlement quota.

Now living in Brighton, her abiding memory is of how much her teachers helped her. “I came to England knowing no more than a few words in English – just ‘apple’, ‘pear’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They were very patient and there was no judgment. My teachers really shaped me into who I am today.”

This personal testimony reminds us of the lives that could be rebuilt even as the political arguments over immigration and asylum have raged.

Saad Maida, a 37-year-old doctor from Syria, now living in Leamington Spa and working for the NHS, secured his refugee status in 2014. “I’ve felt pride in being able to serve the public by working for the NHS. That has been accentuated by the pandemic – being able to be on the frontline. By being able to work and pay back to society, I feel I can complete my cycle of integration”.

George Szirtes, given sanctuary from Hungary as an eight-year-old after Soviet tanks rolled in to quash the 1956 revolution, makes a clear case: “Refugees are people without a home who need help. If you have the ability to help, I do think it’s a moral obligation to do so,” he says. Seven decades of refugee protection is something that we should take pride in. To do so, it is a principle we must uphold in the future too.

Iain Dale: Cummings. Why bother giving seven hours of testimony – only to not provide supporting evidence?

11 Jun

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

This is nothing new, I suppose, but the last 48 hours have not been pleasant in the Twittersphere. In fact, it’s become so unpleasant I am seriously considering stepping back from this increasingly ugly form of social media.

Trouble is, it’s very difficult for me to do that given it’s my prime marketing medium for all the things I do, whether it’s advertising what’s on my radio show, promoting my writing, books and other activities. Sometimes it can be a wonderful thing, but oftentimes it is just a sewer, where vicious, nasty people spew their bile and vitriol no doubt getting a hard on along the way. They’re virtually all men.

On Tuesday I had the temerity to tweet praise for Gareth Southgate’s “Dear England” letter. In my opinion he articulated better than anyone has for a long time what it means to be English and how we demonstrate our patriotism.

And then the abuse started. Apparently it was all a justification for the England players supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Utter rubbish. He and they have made clear that they support equality and fairness for everyone, and that they support the slogan Black Lives Matter, not the political organisation. Surely everyone can support that? Apparently not.

I have repeatedly made clear that I would never take the knee to support a Marxist organisation which supports the destruction of the police, closing prisons and dismantling capitalism. But I am quite happy to make clear that I support equality for all people, whether they are white, black or anything else. Surely any reasonable person would?

Oh no, not on Twitter. I’m a shill, a sellout, obeying my paymasters, not a proper conservative, woke and worse. Far worse. Did I support the England players giving the Nazi salute to Hitler in 1936? Do I think England should make a political statement and withdraw from the Qatar world cup in 2022 because of Qatar’s policy on homosexuality? Yes, I’m sure these trolls care deeply about gay equality. Not.

Over 24 hours I lost 200 Twitter followers and had to block around 50 others, many of them racist. Not all, but many. And this is the level of public discourse we are supposed to get used to, is it? Where people comment on a letter they most probably haven’t even read. Where they just believe what other people say it says. And then they launch violent attacks on those who support the sentiments in the letter without even attempting to understand any nuance. Well, I’ve had enough.

The trouble is, until I retire from political commentary and broadcasting, I’m tied into it and have to suck it up. Boo hoo, many of you will think. You’ve made your bed, you lie in it… Fair enough. No one forces me to do the jobs I do, and most of the time I love it. I’ve never experienced problems with my mental health, but I have a real sense that my mental health is now being affected by it all. I don’t expect any sympathy at all, and I know the solution is in my own hands. It doesn’t make it any easier, though.

– – – – – – – – –

I suppose we have always known that Dominic Cummings is a strange cove. Why would anyone spend seven hours giving evidence to a select committee, make all sorts of serious allegations, say he had the paperwork to back them up and he would provide it to the committee, and then fail to do so. The only conclusion to draw from that is that much of his evidence was fantasy and he can’t back it up with documentary evidence. It’s a very good way to undermine your own credibility and reputation, isn’t it?

– – – – – – – – –

Michael McManus has become a bit of a polymath. I first knew him in the late 1990s when he was working for Sir Edward Heath, and they came to Politico’s to do a book signing.

I was nervous as a kitten as I had heard that the former PM could be rather difficult. In fact, he was charm personified and the conversation flowed very well. Michael then wrote a rather good biography of Jo Grimond, the former Liberal leader, and contributed to the Blue Book series I published on future Conservative policy, which Ed Vaizey was editing.

Michael stood for Parliament in 2001 in Watford but was unsuccessful and since then he has come close to getting a number of safe seats, but never quite got the lucky break. He told me in an episode of my All Talk podcast which will be published next Wednesday that he’s now come off the candidates list. It’s a shame as he would have made a good MP.

Over the last few years he has turned his hand to being a playwright. His latest play is called MAGGIE AND TED and has a two night run at the Garrick Theatre in London on June 28 and 29. It’s all about the relationship between the two former Prime Ministers, and from what he told me on the podcast, it is going to be well worth going to.

Putting on a play in a London theatre is a costly business, especially in the pandemic, and I’d encourage anyone who’s got one of those evenings spare to book a ticket and support an up and coming political playwright, and a thoroughly nice man. And a fellow Hammer. Book tickets here.