Polling snapshot. How Johnson reinvented the Conservatives after they had recently formed governments three times

12 Jul

Source: Politico

Begin by looking at the Politico poll of polls graph above, which we like to use on ConservativeHome from time and time, and which today we present in its two year-version.

The Conservative Party begins two summers ago on the 40 per cent or so that represents its floor, following the EU referendum of 2016 and Theresa May’s election as the Tory leader.  Even the disaster of the 2017 general election does nothing to push support below this total.

The slide in the Tory rating from it begins on March 2 last year, shortly before Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement is defeated for a second time, and as the prospect of a Brexit extension begins to loom.

Down, down, down it falls through the Withdrawal Agreement’s third defeat and a second Brexit extension, reaching a low of 20 per cent on May 30, after the European elections on May 24, which saw the Conservatives reduced to nine per cent of the vote, coming fifth behind the Green Party, and returning only four MEPs.

Now look at that blue line rise up, up, up as the Tory leadership contest gathers pace, Boris Johnson wins it, and survives defeats in the Supreme Court, resignations, and more defeats in Commons before winning last year’s election.

It begins to drop, with Coronavirus fatigue, economic hardship, Keir Starmer’s election and Government errors doubtless the main reasons, hitting 43 per cent on June 2.  Since then, it has held steady, rising on June 9 to 44 per cent.  YouGov on Friday found it at 46 per cent.

Last time round, we wrote that the Black Lives Matter fracas may have played well for Labour’s core constituency in the belt of seats that runs south from Enfield to the Thames, but badly in England’s provinces and the Red Wall.

We stick to that view.  Johnson may also have been helped by the impact of Government error over the virus petering out; by Rishi Sunak’s activity; and by policies likely to go down well outside that Labour London base, such as the amalgamation of the Foreign Office and Dfid (insofar as they have cut through).

We expect Labour to take the poll lead at some point within the next year.  And next year’s local elections look to be very messy, assuming they happen.

But it’s worth chewing over the Prime Minister’s achievement in first putting the Conservative pro-Brexit electoral coalition together again, and then presenting it to voters last December as a new force – after no fewer than three elections since 2010 in which the Tories had led the government, winning one of them outright.  It endures still.

Fay Jones: A ban on the rough sex defence – and other benefits of this Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill

10 Jul

Fay Jones is MP for Brecon & Radnorshire.

Lockdown has provided many with the chance to spend some rare family time together – learning a new Tik Tok dance or doing a Joe Wicks workout.  But for an alarming number of people, Covid 19 has not been their biggest threat.  For those suffering from domestic abuse, enduring lockdown with an abuser will only have increased the daily fear and anguish.

Consequently, I am enormously proud that this Government made the Domestic Abuse Bill one of its biggest priorities during the pandemic.  It could have chosen to drop the legislation; it stalled during Brexit and then fell again at the general election – but such is this Government’s commitment to victims that Ministers were given license to push it through.  From my spot on the Domestic Abuse committee, I saw just how much this Government wants to champion the rights of those who have been abused, and how good a track record the Conservative Party has on this issue.

While the Labour Party has always tried to argue it sits on the side of ‘the many and not the few’ – history does not support this, particularly in the field of criminal justice.  It was a Conservative Government that brought forward The Children Act 1989.  One of the last achievements of the Major Government was the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which created the offence of harassment.  Making stalking an offence came from the Coalition Government’s Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.  Indeed, during Monday night’s debate, Theresa May rightly accepted plaudits from across the House for pushing through both the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and the early stages of last night’s Domestic Abuse Bill.

The Domestic Abuse Bill will deliver meaningful change; creating a Domestic Abuse commissioner designed to map the availability of services, establishing Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Orders to provide victims with extra protection, prohibiting perpetrators of abuse from cross-examining their victims in family courts and legally recognising children as victims of abuse for the first time.  For many the biggest achievement of the bill is banning the ‘Rough Sex Defence’.  An enormous step in itself, this is evidence that Parliament works best when it acts cross party.  The combined campaigning strength of Mark Garnier and Harriet Harman have delivered a change in the law which will forever prevent murderers from arguing ‘they were asking for it.’

From my perspective, the Bill is also a good example of the strength of the Union.  In 2015, the Welsh Government passed its Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Act.  However in November last year, the Auditor General for Wales reported a ‘fragmentation’ in service availability as there was no single agency to coordinate the system.  This is something that the Domestic Abuse Commissioner can look into – demonstrating that the ‘jagged edge of devolution’ can be overcome with tenacious, pro-Union Ministers.

The Domestic Abuse Bill is landmark legislation which will go a significant way to protecting the estimated 2.4 million victims of domestic abuse each year and it is by no means the stand-alone example of this Government putting victims first. It is the latest in a long track record of legislative milestones.  Conservatives should never shy away from this record – it is a record of leadership and collaboration which is what the public wants to see from its Government.  Above all, it is a record of standing alongside those who truly need our help.

Profile: Olive, sorry, Oliver Dowden, saviour of the arts, bedrock insider – and unknown to the public

9 Jul

By far the greatest power of a Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she decides who to appoint to ministerial posts, and the Government prospers or fails largely as a result of whether these people prove able to rise to the level of events.

In February, Boris Johnson made Oliver Dowden Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Dowden is unknown to the wider public, and in ConservativeHome’s latest Cabinet league table is buried two-thirds of the way down the list, among a cluster of other ministers who have yet to become household names.

Leading figures in the arts had little faith he would be able to rescue their sector from the disastrous impact of Covid-19, and were getting ready to go mad at him with rage.

Instead of which he and Rishi Sunak astonished the world of the arts, at the start of this week, with a package of support for the arts which the leading figures queued up to praise.

As Charlotte Gill pointed out on ConHome, Dowden had been underestimated.

Here is a minister who knows how to get things done, including the tricky art of persuading the Treasury to part with the necessary funds.

Dowden is a professional politician, indeed a professional man of government: the kind of person at whom it is easy to sneer, but without whom nothing in Whitehall would move.

He succeeds partly because he does not seek to hog the limelight. There was no sense, as he announced the £1.57 billion support package for the arts, that this was being treated as something that would above all redound to the greater glory of the Secretary of State.

In photographs, it never seems this tall, friendly, fair-haired, respectable figure wants to outshine the other people in the picture.

In the words he uses, there is likewise a complete absence of any discernible urge to shine. “He is not an aphorist,” as one of his colleagues conceded, after ConHome remarked on the absence of a single memorable phrase in the Dowden record.

And yet those who know him well insist he is delightful company. One of them warned:

“I am sure you will not depict him as resembling in any way the dreary apparatchik that he might at first glance appear, having spent so much time behind the scenes at the Conservative Research Department and in the Cameron entourage before landing the safe seat that Cecil Parkinson once represented. He has a lightness of touch and charm that resemble Parkinson.

“His Canadian parents-in-law were at first reluctant to see their clever daughter married to an English politician; he soon won them round.

“He greets comments made to him with an infectious little laugh; I think this a most useful habit to have acquired or to be blessed with since birth: it creates an immediate impression of amiability and allows time to consider how best to reply.

“He is interested in bohemian ways without being drawn to participation in them. His best friend in the Research Department at the 2005 election was much given to cycling round London, drunk and naked, during the night.”

The safe seat in question, won by him in 2015 after he had defeated Sunak and others in the final of the contest to select the Conservative candidate, is Hertsmere, on the southern border of Hertfordshire.

In his maiden speech, he spoke with emotion of “the last unspoiled rolling hills of England before the home counties give way to London”, and said he is “absolutely determined to preserve them from soulless urban sprawl so that my children and grandchildren may enjoy them as I have done.”

He touched also on his constituency’s position “at the heart of the British film industry”, thanks to Elstree film studios in Borehamwood. But he went on:

“What characterises Hertsmere, far more than its landscape or its industry, is the character of its people. They get up very early every morning and from Bushey, Potters Bar, Radlett and Borehamwood they cram on to commuter trains or set off along the M25 and the A1. They are hard-working men and women who make sacrifices to provide for themselves, their families and their community. They know that in this life, we do not get something for nothing; we have to work in order to get something out.

“Growing up locally, I was very much imbued with those values. My dad worked in a factory in Watford, my mum at a chemist’s in St Albans. They worked hard and were determined to give me the very best start in life. That started with the excellent education that I received at my local comprehensive school.”

He was born in 1978 and went to Parmiter’s School, founded in 1681 in Bethnal Green and now at Garston, near Watford. Its motto is “Nemo sibi nascitur”, “No one is born unto himself alone”, and from here he won a place to read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Dowden played no part in student politics, and decided not to be a lawyer. He taught English in Japan, had a stint at LLM, a lobbying firm set up by Labour figures close to Gordon Brown, and in 2004 became head of the Political Section in the Conservative Research Department.

Soon after his arrival, one of his colleagues recalls,

“He became known as Olive through a typographical error which he embraced with characteristic good humour. It almost sounds wrong to call him Oliver if you’ve known him of old.”

Another friend from that period said this week:

“I will call him Olive or I will call him Secretary of State, but I will not call him Oliver.”

Dowden, as he will continue to be called here, displayed an early flair for understanding how a story would play out in the press. He could see the weaknesses in both the Labour and the Conservative position, so could operate in an attacking role – spotting, for example, the potential of the cash for honours story to embarrass the Labour Government – and also defensively, briefing ministers on the line to take when they went on programmes such as Any Questions and Question Time.

He is an enormously experienced insider, who has helped prepare four successive leaders – Michael Howard, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson – for Prime Minister’s Questions.

Cameron relates in his memoirs that in 2009, during the MPs’ expenses scandal,

“I set up an internal scrutiny panel, a so-called Star Chamber, including my aide Oliver Dowden, known as ‘Olive’, who I also called ‘the undertaker’, since he so frequently brought me the bad news.”

Another witness says:

“During the expenses scandal, CRD had to triage some of the cases, taking what The Telegraph was accusing people of and working out the truth. It was a long, gruelling period, relentless, it went on for weeks and it was bleak work, the team being set against itself.”

He became “a bedrock figure”, as one former minister puts it, “stable, sensible, unflappable, extraordinarily decent”, in the group which saw Cameron into Number Ten and then sustained him there, with Dowden as Ed Llewellyn’s deputy.

Few people understand better than Dowden how the government machine works, or fails to work. He is not an ideologue, or a bold political thinker, or a stirring orator, but he has sound judgement and knows how to get things done. As one colleague puts it,

“He’s one of the most impressive people I’ve ever been in a room with officials with. At the end he will establish what has been agreed and what we are going to do.”

As an MP since 2015, “he commutes in like his constituents – he puts in the long hours”. His website shows him defending their interests with tenacity.

In the 2016 EU Referendum he was a Remainer, but in the immediate aftermath he supported Boris Johnson for the leadership, which infuriated Theresa May’s team.

Not until January 2018 was he permitted to take his first step on the ministerial ladder, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office.

In the summer of 2019, Dowden, Sunak and Robert Jenrick interviewed Johnson for an hour at Jenrick’s house, after which they put their names to a joint piece for The Times Red Box, which appeared under the headline:

“The Tories are in deep peril. Only Boris Johnson can save us.”

This endorsement by three junior ministers, none of whom was suspected of maverick tendencies, helped convince many waverers that Johnson was on course for victory. Collectively they had become significant players, and all three of them are now in the Cabinet.

Dowden is only 41. Will he go higher? Lord Lexden, official historian to the Conservative Party and the Carlton Club, says of him:

“I am rather inclined to the view that he may well establish himself as the Rab Butler of his time, indispensable in any Tory government, but without Butler’s hesitancy if the chance of the premiership should arise.”

David Lidington: Why I profoundly disagree with my friend and former colleague, David Gauke

7 Jul

David Lidington was the MP for Aylesbury from 1992 to 2019, and has held a number of roles including Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.

Last Thursday, in a piece that was characteristically both thoughtful and thought-provoking, my friend and former Cabinet colleague David Gauke came to a pessimistic conclusion. Choices had been made, he argued, which compelled the Conservative Party to pursue “the war on woke and Rooseveltian economics”. Implicit in his analysis was the suggestion that those whom he termed “small state free marketeers and one nation social liberals” had no future in the party and might have to look elsewhere.

I profoundly disagree. Throughout the 45 years that I’ve been a member and for decades before that the Conservative Party has been a coalition. Economic liberals, defenders of traditional values and institutions, social reformers, blue-green environmentalists: all have found a home. Different leaders of the party, at different times have chosen to emphasise different elements of the broad Conservative tradition.

As Paul Goodman pointed out yesterday, human beings tend not to fit neatly into a single, neat political category. Margaret Thatcher was strongly in favour of opening up broadcasting to greater competition and market discipline. Yet she was also passionate about the need for high standards of decency in what was broadcast – which meant intervention and regulation. I have crossed swords with Iain Duncan Smith many times over Europe, but have also admired his efforts to promote a Conservative approach to social justice.

The present government’s commitment to “level up” the opportunities available to people living in towns and estates that have for years felt left-behind and ignored will need to draw on all strands of Conservative thinking if ambition is to be realised: incentives for free enterprise to create wealth and jobs, and government action, both national and local, to provide modern infrastructure, drive urban regeneration and boost expectations and outcomes in education and training.

For years, Conservatives have fretted about our loss of support in old industrial areas and among people on lower incomes. The fact that we now represent seats in County Durham and South Yorkshire as well as Surrey and Sussex is something to be celebrated: it gives our words about standing for One Nation much greater credibility.

If a successful policy of levelling up (and at the same time improving our chances of holding those seats) means a tilt towards the economic and industrial policies of Macmillan, Heath and Heseltine, it should be seen as a pragmatic response to the needs of the times, certainly meriting debate and argument, including within the Conservative family, not some heretical departure from the one true faith.

Nor do I share David’s pessimistic conclusion that there is an inexorable electoral logic which must compel the party to abandon the ideas, policies and perhaps even the support of liberal Conservatives.

By 2024 the Conservative Party will have been in office for 14 years. The coming economic storm, even if, as we all hope, it is short-lived, will have left many people scarred. The Labour Party will be led by someone who is not Jeremy Corbyn. The temptation to vote “for a change”, to “give the other lot a chance” will be strong. It will be as great a challenge to secure re-election then as it was for John Major in 1992. We shall need every vote from as broad a coalition of support as we can.

Of course we shall want to hang on to traditional Labour supporters who lent us their votes last December, which in turn means that in four years time they need to see that we are at least beginning to deliver results for their families and neighbourhoods.

But that on its own won’t be enough. By 2024 there will be about three million new electors on the register who were too young to vote in 2019. According to YouGov, at last year’s election the tipping point – the age at which someone is more likely to have voted Conservative than Labour – was 39.

That is better than 2017, when it was 47, but still leaves no room for complacency. While it is possible that those who were in their teens, twenties and thirties in 2019 will automatically shift into the Conservative column by 2024, we cannot count on it happening.

In any case, we ought to be seriously concerned that so many people in their twenties and thirties – working, paying tax and often holding both professional and family responsibilities – should have preferred Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism to what we had to offer.

To win again in 2024 we shall need to secure support from more younger voters than we did in either of the last two elections and to do that will mean reaching out to people whose values are, in the convenient shorthand, more “socially liberal” than those of their parents and grandparents, and who want to see political parties to take seriously their concerns about issues like the environment.

Next year, the Prime Minister will host a world summit on climate change. The Glasgow conference will be an opportunity for the United Kingdom and its Conservative government both to showcase its own ideas to address the climate emergency and to demonstrate global leadership on the issue.

In recent years, “green” policies have been identified with the liberal wing of the party. David Cameron took a lot of flak early in his leadership for focusing on this agenda.

Again, it’s easy to oversimplify: I’m old enough to have been in the audience at the party conference in 1988 to hear Mrs Thatcher declare that: No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full. The key point is that it will be both right and in our electoral interests to take action on the environment and to be seen to do so.

Another political reality that the party must grapple with is the fact that voters from British people of Caribbean, Asian, African and central European heritage make up a significant proportion of the electorate in a growing number of constituencies.

Yet again, we need to beware of oversimplification. Many of my former constituents from Pakistani, Indian and Polish backgrounds are on the social conservative rather than social liberal end of the spectrum. They are certainly a long way from being “woke”.

But they care passionately about racism – sadly almost always because they and their children have been at the receiving end of abusive or insensitive comments – or worse. They judge politicians in part by how they handle these matters. Community relations and anti-racism are causes that, like the environment, have been championed within the Conservative Party by its liberal wing and, once again, are issues where our electoral interest coincides with what it is right to say and do.

The Conservative Party’s electoral success has rested in large measure on its ability and willingness to adapt to the realities of social and economic change. Far from giving up in despair, liberal, centrist Conservatives should redouble our efforts to influence the party’s thinking about how we can win again in 2024.

James Roberts: Big state spender Roosevelt shouldn’t be Gove’s new role model

1 Jul

James Roberts is Political Director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Our de facto prime minister, Michael Gove, has been a busy man. On Tuesday, he was in the Commons explaining Mark Sedwill’s sudden departure. At the weekend, he delivered a much-vaunted address to the prestigious Ditchley Foundation, joining a long line of luminaries: Mark Carney, David Milliband, John Major, Chris Patten, to name but a few.

Sparing the blushes of the distinguished Ditchley crowd, Gove didn’t mention Brexit much. But what he did deliver was a rare tour de force about the challenges facing Western governments, delivered with daring incisiveness by the Government’s ‘Hand of the King’. If the ever-authoritative media talking heads (and rapidly-departing civil service barons) want to know what ‘hard rain’ that nasty Dominic Cummings has in store for them, Gove’s lecture was a good place to start.

He didn’t pull his punches. For the ‘Forgotten Man’, faith in the system has been broken, “compounded by cultural condescension and insulation from accountability”, with the policy-making elites in political parties and the civil servants in the dock.

Reasonable demands, or taxpayers’ money to be well spent on accessible public services that actually work have been ignored. The top tiers of mandarin management are stuffed with like-minded PPE-ists, dripping in self-reinforcing groupthink, preaching every form of diversity going – except diversity of thought.

Gove described with brutal accuracy the tendency to coalesce around a cosy Westminster consensus, perpetuated by media commentary and pressure group plaudits, with almost non-existent evaluation of real world delivery. But the government eco-system is dying – its credibility eroded away by constant deforestation to feed an insatiable 24 hour media cycle, the whims of easy-choices-only politicians and the childish tantrums of the Twitterati. The spirit of intellectual challenge has been driven out of the forest, with generic generalists climbing high and genuine innovators buried in the undergrowth.

He’s bang on. As Matt Ridley identified back in 2013, policy-making has long been broken: sometimes little more than a string of special interest spending demands; elaborated on by so-called experts; written into submissions by pedantic pen-pushers; approved by malleable ministers; and made into law by preoccupied politicians.

‘Doing something’ is the name of the game. If social media demands it, laws can be changed. If the media suggests it, money can be found. The Forgotten Man – that is, the taxpayers who pay for all this – be damned. Their preferences are secondary or even, as Gove suggests, absent entirely. A quick reference to ‘taxpayers’ money’ seems often enough to settle the consciences of Tory ministers, as they implement evermore expensive government intervention, because a hashtag told them to.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance knows calling this out doesn’t win you many friends: you can count on one hand the number of policy-makers willing to go against the grain. At DEFRA, lest we forget, Michael Gove was quick to join the chorus of environmentalist big spenders, navigating Theresa May towards a non-negotiable £1 trillion net zero commitment (which by our reckoning no government department has any idea of how to achieve). But then, there’s no zealot like a convert.

But a form of zealotry is exactly what government reform needs. The so-called ‘Rolls Royce’ civil service has broken down by the roadside. On that front, Gove wasn’t short on bold solutions. As our landmark polling last year with ConservativeHome’s columnist, James Frayne, showed, more than six in 10 working class taxpayers agree with the suggestion that we should move more central government offices and jobs outside of London.

Almost three quarters of them believe that all civil service jobs should be open to applicants without a degree, perhaps hoping to break the hold of the hapless humanities graduates. A hard-nosed look at value for money is vital, too.

Gove namechecked numerous programmes, including his old chum David Cameron’s £1 billion National Citizenship Service, which could benefit from a proper quantitative analysis of success and failure. There should be nothing noteworthy about a politician taking aim at programmes, like the £920 million Troubled Families scheme or (Gove’s own) Pupil Premium, and asking if these really delivered for taxpayers. But in the punch-and-judy pantomime of the current political debate, this feels revolutionary.

The same can be said of some of his other policy proposals. In a speech so wide ranging it would usually have a Prime Minister worried, Gove called for  planning reform to fast track beautiful development, better use of data in the NHS, transparency on court and school results, reviews for failed anti-radicalisation programmes, interrogating defence procurement contracts and accountability on the impact of aid spending. Many of these things should be music to taxpayers’ ears.

But the implications of all this are far from clear. As the punters know, policy outcomes matter more than policy processes. Reviews often come to nothing. Promises aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. The devil’s in the detail. What does Gove actually want to achieve?

Does turning to more data in the NHS mean only allowing for government-made track and trace apps, which inevitably fail? Does it follow that reviewing a failed social programme results in it actually being abolished, and taxpayers getting their money back? Does accountability for aid spending mean cutting back the £15.2 billion cashpoint in the sky, or simply swapping money between dodgy dictators and wasteful NGOs?

he voters we polled wanted foreign aid reduced and reallocated to other priority areas such as the police, the NHS and schools. Very few people care how the sausage is made – they just want aid cut. But that’s an uncomfortable view in SW1, and incidentally not one that Michael Gove shares. It’s the same with the majority (68 per cent of C2DE voters) who backed abolishing the BBC licence fee. When he becomes inconvenient, or wants things that really upset the Westminster village applecart, the Forgotten Man is once again forgotten. Politicians just come up with better ways of ignoring him – the endless reviews and the broken promises.

In that sense, Gove’s speech could easily have been given by a much more fitting figure for the Ditchley Foundation: Tony Blair. Like Gove, he reached for the model of America’s big spending New Deal, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New Labour offered innovation, clever solutions and new public service delivery models, with a pledge and a commission for every occasion. Gove and his Cameronite contemporaries looked on in awe, while most Conservative voters were horrified at the economic paternalism, metropolitan condescension and fiscal vandalism of the Blair years.

Many still believed that reams of government data and endless initiatives can never outgun the free and rational choices of millions of individuals. Their ears still rung with the mocking rebuke of Ronald Reagan: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Endless cash flow means that civil servants, not taxpayers, still made the rules. The TaxPayers’ Alliance itself was founded to take a stand.

Blair paid the price for ignoring his own voters, and taxpayers got sick of the Westminster consensus he created – ‘expert’ policy tsars, expensive PFI, and constant right-on crusades – arguably leading up to the EU referendim result in 2016. For a man so intimately involved in that campaign, Michael Gove may sadly be in danger of starting off down the same path. Replacing Oxford-educated experts with world-beating data whizz kids, or swapping a programme here with a review over there, won’t change the Blairite policy-making consensus – unless there is fundamental change of political intention at the top.

Britain’s forgotten taxpayers need Michael Gove’s intentions to be as bold as his analysis.

Rob Sutton: Top Tories on Twitter. Case Study 2) Johnny Mercer

30 Jun

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Number 11: Johnny Mercer

Mercer narrowly missed a spot in the top 10, and everyone ranked ahead of him is either a current or recent Secretary of State. For a Parliamentary Under-Secretary who has been in his first ministerial role for under a year, that’s an impressive achievement.

Before entering politics, Mercer did three tours of Afghanistan in the Army, retiring at the rank of captain. Unseating Labour’s Alison Seabeck in Plymouth Moor View at the 2015 general election, he has grown his parliamentary majority from just 2.4 per cent to 29.2 per cent.

His posts can be playful and self-effacing. When one of his campaign boards was vandalised with expletives, he took the opportunity to make a light-hearted video about it. His interactions with other members in the House feel more like office banter than the work of a national legislature.

They can also take a more serious tone. He entered Parliament as a man on a mission and is quite happy to ruffle some feathers along the way. He recently shared a scathing attack on Alastair Campbell. A post mocking Jeremy Corbyn received almost 20,000 likes. A fight with local newspaper the Plymouth Herald went viral. And a confrontation with a constituent who had allegedly spat at a young female Conservative campaigner is one of his most popular posts.

This skill in picking battles has carried over into his parliamentary career. He withdrew his support for Theresa May late during her tenure and was an early backer of Boris Johnson’s leadership bid. This loyalty translated into his first ministerial appointment,

Mercer has seen his political clout and parliamentary majority grow steadily in just five years. It seems entirely possible that he’ll be a Secretary of State five years from now.

Robert Sutton: Top Tories on Twitter. Case Study 1) Rishi Sunak

29 Jun

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

It seems unsurprising that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has done well in the rankings. He is behind only Boris Johnson and Theresa May, and given his emergence as a leading figure in the Government’s coronavirus response (Matt Hancock has also done well, ranked five), the ranking seems a fair recognition of his prominence.

He is a long way ahead of his most recent predecessor, Sajid Javid (ranked 8), and despite Jacob Rees-Mogg having almost 60,000 more followers, Sunak ranks a place ahead of him. This is a reflection of the speed of Sunak’s ascent, having only been in Parliament since 2015, half the time as Rees-Mogg.

Highly-respected within the party, Sunak is a stylish figure with a talent for managing the optics of his job. A consistently solid performer during the Covid-19 daily briefings, he laid out the Government’s economic response to the crisis with a confidence and reassurance which has calmed the public and financial markets.

He has worked hard to develop his social media brand, hiring a talented media special adviser, Cass Horowitz, to help craft his image and achieve broader engagement. He balances seriousness with an ease which many of his older and greyer colleagues lack.

He can be light-hearted when necessary and is able to engage in a manner few previous Chancellors have shown. Even when his attempts backfire (see the “Yorkshire tea” fiasco) they generate discussion and media interest.

The challenge for Sunak will be whether he can carry over his current popularity in a post-coronavirus Treasury. His ascent has been so quick that he had relatively little time to make enemies. It remains to be seen whether this will continue as he is inevitably forced to tighten the purse strings.

Rob Sutton: Introducing the top 50 Conservative MPs on Twitter

29 Jun

Conservative MP Twitter power rankings: the top 50

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Amongst the social media giants, Twitter is the primary battleground for political discourse. It’s also one of the key avenues by which MPs convey their message, and has near-universal uptake by members in the current House of Commons.

The effectiveness with which Twitter is utilised varies considerably between MPs, but it is difficult to compare like-for-like. How does one take into account the differences between, for instance, a freshman MP and a veteran Cabinet member? Length of service in Parliament and ministerial rank give a considerable advantage when building a following.

In this article, I have compiled a power ranking of MPs in the current Parliament, with the top 50 shown in the chart above. The MP’s follower count was adjusted by factoring in their previous experience, to better reflect the strength of their following and their success at engagement on the platform.

Being Twitter-savvy is about more than just a high follower count: any Secretary of State can achieve this just by virtue of the media exposure their office brings. Building a Twitter following based on thoughtful commentary and authentic engagement requires skill ,and can be achieved by members across all Parliamentary intakes and ranks of Government.

Though the top 10 is still dominated by MPs holding senior ministerial offices, the composition of the list beyond it is far more variable. A number of prominent backbenchers are in the top 20, and four members from the 2019 intake make the top 50, beating longer-serving and higher-ranked colleagues.

I hope that this list serves as recognition of the skill and contribution by Conservative members to public debate and engagement, beyond ministerial duties which so often dominate any mention in the media.

Building a model of Twitter power rankings

Success is judged by number of followers, with higher follower counts indicating greater influence on Twitter. The follower count was adjusted using three key parameters:

  • The number of years since an MP was first elected to Parliament.
  • The number of years the MP’s Twitter account has been active.
  • Their highest rank within Government achieved since 2010.

Higher values for each of these would be expected to contribute to a higher follower count. I built a model using the open-source Scikit-Learn package, and fitted it to data from the current Parliament.

The model was then used to predict how many followers a given MP might expect to have based on these three factors. The steps taken to produce a final “Twitter power score” were thus as follows:

  • Using these three factors, multiple linear regression was used to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers an MP might have.
  • Their true follower count was divided by the expected follower count to produce a single number which represented the MP’s performance at building a following.
  • Finally, a logarithm was taken of this ratio to make the number more manageable and to produce a final Twitter power score.

The final step of taking a logarithm means it is easier to compare between MPs without those who have very high follower counts (such as Boris Johnson) making the data difficult to compare, but it does not affect the order of the ranking.

Compiling the data

Having decided which factors to correct the model for, I collected the required information. All three factors were easy to find reliable sources for. The Twitter page for each MP displays the date the account was created, and the Parliamentary website provides the date of their first election to Parliament and previous government posts.

Members who are newly returned to the backbenches following governmental duties (such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt) are scored at their highest government rank since 2010 to recognise this. I was able to find the Twitter accounts and required information for 319 Conservative MPs who were included in this ranking.

To build a model based on this data required incorporating the highest government rank numerically. To do this, I assigned scores according to their rank. These grades recognised their relative seniority and media exposure associated with the office, with higher scores assigned to more senior positions:

  • Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State, Speakers, Leaders of the House and Chief Whips are scored 3.
  • Ministers of State, Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chief Whips are scored 1.
    Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Whips are scored 0.5.
  • Backbenchers score 0.

When assigning these values, I considered the typical sizes of follower counts of MPs in each category. When comparing Secretaries of States to Ministers of State, the median follower count is around twice the size, but the mean follower count is around eight times the size, as a handful of very large follower count skews the results upwards.

Deciding on weightings requires a (somewhat arbitrary) decision as to which measures to use when comparing between groups, and the scores I decided on were ultimately chosen as a compromise across these different measures, which produced stable results when used in the model.

It is also worth explaining why Prime Ministers are grouped with Secretaries of State, despite the far higher media exposure and seniority of their post. When deciding on the respective weighting for different levels of government post, a sufficiently large pool of MPs was needed to produce a meaningful comparison. The only data points for comparison of Prime Ministers are Boris Johnson and Theresa May, so it is difficult to give them their own weighting without it being either unreliable or arbitrary.

While grouping them with Secretaries of State and other senior positions might be perceived as giving them an unfair advantage in the weighting, I felt it justified given these challenges in determining the “fair” weight to assign them. With this done, I had three parameters for each MP on which to build a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers.

Calculating the number of expected Twitter followers

I built a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers using the Scikit-Learn, a popular machine learning package in the Python programming language. The model used multiple linear regression to fit the input parameters to the known follower count.

The input data was prepared by removing extreme high outliers in the data which skewed the fit toward high numbers and away from the vast majority of MPs before fitting. Once fitted, an “expected value” of Twitter followers could be calculated for each MP, based on the year of their first election to parliament, the number of years on Twitter and their highest government rank since 2010.

Including more parameters increases the ability of the model to describe the difference between MPs’ follower counts (the variability). By increasing the number of input variables included in the model, more of the variability is captured:

  • One variable captures between 20.3 per cent and 36.1 per cent of the variability.
  • Two variables capture between 39.1 per cent and 43.1 per cent of the variability.
  • All three variables capture 48.7 per cent of the variability.

These three variables are therefore responsible for almost half of the variation between MPs in their follower counts. The remainder of the variability is likely due to a range of factors which the model does not include, of which the MP’s Twitter-savviness is of particular interest to us. I discuss these factors further below.

Limitations in the model

There are multiple other parameters which could be included in future iterations which I did not include in this model. In particular:

  • Membership or Chairmanship of Select Committees.
  • Previous election to a council, assembly, devolved legislature or the European Parliament.
  • Membership of the Privy Council.
  • Government positions prior to 2010.
  • Prominent positions within the Conservative Party, such as the 1922 Committee or European Research Group.
  • Twitter-savviness and effectiveness of their comms team.

Another limitation was not accounting for the perceived relative importance of various governmental departments: a Great Office of State or Prime Minister is scored the same as any other Secretary of State. The difficulties involved in ranking governmental departments were beyond this first model. The length of service in a given government post was also not considered.

Finally, the choice of model to fit the data may not be the optimal choice. Multiple linear regression assumes, per the name, that the distribution is linear. But the large outliers might be better described by a power law or Pareto distribution, or the non-linearities of a neural network.

During next week, ConservativeHome will produce profiles of six individual MPs who have performed notably well in the power rankings, and who reflect the contributions brought by members beyond their ministerial duties, if they have any.

Johnson, Starmer – and their strategies in firing people

26 Jun

After years of Jeremy Corbyn doing nothing to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, many were astonished yesterday by Keir Starmer’s decision to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey as Shadow Education Secretary

He took action after she Retweeted an article by actress Maxine Peake, containing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory; namely that Israel was linked to the killing of George Floyd in the US.

According to The Huff Post, Starmer gave Long-Bailey four hours to delete the post and apologise, but she did not do this – also refusing to take calls from his office, culminating in her prompt dismissal.

Many marvelled at Starmer’s decisiveness, using this as evidence for the increasingly fashionable assumption that Conservatives should be worried about him at future elections (one that this writer does not agree with, incidentally; the “taking the knee” photo will haunt him for years).

The move challenged stereotypes of Starmer – that he’s “forensic” and lawyerly in manner – as it was combative, as well as making him look straightforward (certainly something of an achievement after Labour’s past calculations to thwart Brexit).

Starmer’s decision to remove Long-Bailey from his Shadow Cabinet first and foremost reflects his commitment to eradicating anti-Semitism – and thank goodness for that. 

But it may also demonstrate two other things. First, that he is sceptical about Long-Bailey’s overall popularity with the electorate – and wanted to get rid of her anyway. One suspects outside the Twitter bubble, voters overwhelmingly associate her with Corbyn’s dire tenure, and haven’t been won over with her tendency to use phrases such as “democratising the economy” and “progressive patriotism”, as well as her obsession with the “Green Industrial Revolution”.

Second, it arguably gives Starmer more leverage to demand Boris Johnson sacks members of his own team. The Prime Minister has already been under enormous pressure to do this, following the saga with Dominic Cummings, as well as recent attacks on Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary. 

He is accused of trying to force through permission for a development by Richard Desmond – a billionaire donor he “inadvertently” sat next to at a dinner – who then paid £12,000 to the Tories soon after he got the green light.

Newspapers appear to have given up on getting rid of Cummings, and have now turned their sights on Jenrick, perhaps viewing the mild-mannered MP as an easier target. 

Take The Daily Mail (Desmond is the former owner of the Express newspapers, as Iain Dale points out here, incidentally), which accused the Prime Minister of not being decisive enough over his Housing Minister. “It’s also another instance of Boris Johnson failing to act decisively when one of his ministers or senior advisers falls short of the standards the public expect”, read its leader, which praised Starmer’s “non-nonsense approach” and suggested Johnson “should learn from” it.

Anyone reading The Daily Mail over the last few months will know that it’s been consistently against (pro-Brexit) Johnson, so the attack is no surprise – but does the paper have a point? Has he been weak over the Covid-19 crisis when it comes to sacking people? 

The events over the last few months have arguably softened Johnson’s image, with his u-turn on free school meals, and the enormous sums being spent on Covid-19 protections. He comes across as something of a yes man.

With all this, it’s easy to forget that he can be ruthless when it comes to his team. This was clear in his first reshuffle as Prime Minister, in which he sacked Jeremy Hunt as Foreign Secretary, replacing him with Dominic Raab, as well as asking Hunt’s supporters Liam Fox and Penny Mordaunt to go. It was “the biggest government clearout since Harold Macmillan’s infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in 1962”, wrote PoliticsHome.

Later on, in what was referred to as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, Johnson fired five Cabinet ministers, including Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Sajid Javid resigned after the Prime Minister demanded he lose his team of advisers. Clearly Johnson is ready to strike if he sees fit to – so his critics will demand why Cummings and Jenrick don’t fit the bill.

This, one suspects, is not part of some grandiose plot, but down to the simple principle of belief: the Prime Minister does not think that either man is in the wrong.

A lot has been said about Cummings, but my own view is that his explanation made sense – and furthermore that No 10 could have gone on the offence in reminding people how unusual his circumstances are. A chief adviser in a nationwide pandemic, living in a house that receives death threats, who’s had the press (seemingly permanently) camped outside, and Covid-19, will have one of the most challenging lockdowns.

Jenricks’ case, on the other hand, is ambiguous and will come increasingly under scrutiny, with Labour now reporting him to parliament’s watchdog.

Text messages between him and Desmond demonstrate the latter to be a pushy character, repeatedly trying to get his housing scheme through. Jenrick seems uncomfortable in response, reminding Desmond that he’s Secretary of State and that he cannot have contact with him “whilst he was making” a “decision with respect to the planning application”.

As Andrew Gimson sets out in his recent profile of Jenrick, one Tory backbencher has described him as “a decent man”; one is less flattering, suggesting that he’s “a suit” – who simply takes orders. He has released 129 pages of emails, texts and letters in total – to clear his name. From reading some of the exchanges, one suspects, if anything, his main issue is being too polite.

Either way there is a false equivalence between what may be a mistake, and Long-Bailey’s disgraceful post. Especially after Starmer cautioned her, it would have been unacceptable for her to stay in her position.

What was especially poignant about yesterday, on a semi-related note, is how shocked members of the Left were with what happened, not used to being on the receiving end of such swift justice.

In recent years, it’s the Right that has been accustomed to its figures being “cancelled” – be it Toby Young’s resignation as Theresa May’s university adviser, or Roger Scruton’s firing after being misquoted.

A big feature of May’s tenure was her inability to stick up to the mob on such matters, as well as the endless departures under her leadership, ranging from misconduct (Gavin Williamson’s dismissal after he leaked highly classified information about 5G) to those leaving on behalf of Brexit strategy.

With his massive majority, Johnson has not faced such a chaos – his team is far more loyal, but it will still remain a priority of the Government to stand strong against the cancel culture fostered by members of the Left.

Yes the Government should dismiss MPs on legitimate grounds – if any investigation shows Jenrick to have deliberately been in the wrong than he has to go – but the Tories no longer need to cave to media pressure and concocted outrage. Voters will respect them for this, too.

Starmer has a totally different goal, however; restoring a sense of moral order to Labour. As aforementioned, I believe his actions this week will only take him so far. Long-Bailey was an easy win for a party that knows Corbynism was a major, defeating factor at the last election.

Showing bravery in other contexts – how about condemning statue-toppling, for starters? – is a much different enterprise. On these less crowd-pleasing matters, Starmer’s “non-nonsense approach” is fairly non-existent.