Alliance for Unity, the new movement which could give Galloway his next political life

26 Sep

Next year’s Holyrood elections are shaping up to potentially make-or-break clash between unionists and separatists. If the SNP (plus their pro-independence foederati, the Greens) win a majority, the Government will come under increasing pressure to grant a second referendum on Scottish independence.

This fact has produced not one but two new parties, one on each side of the debate, which aim to skew the next Scottish Parliament towards their chosen position.

First out of the traps was the Alliance for Independence. Their plan is quite straightforward: to run candidates only in the regional list constituencies at the election, and encourage as many pro-independence voters as possible to back them after voting SNP at the constituency level. Whilst list SNP votes might get discounted if the Nationalists win a lot of FPTP constituencies, this new party would get the full entitlement and thus maximise the separatist caucus.

There are questions to be asked about this plan. Will the A4I really contribute much that the Scottish Greens (whose MPs are all elected on the lists already) don’t? Is it legitimate to so obviously game what is meant to be a proportional system? Is it all just a front for a controversial far-left politician?

In fact, that last point is one that might also be asked of the pro-UK counter to A4I: the Alliance4Unity, a new non-partisan unionist initiative being headed up by none other than George Galloway.

Galloway has form on this. He represents a quite old-school strain of left-wing unionism which backs Irish republicanism but is sternly opposed to separatism on the British mainland, which was traditionally viewed as antithetical to solidarity or, for the true believers, a distraction from the class struggle. (And after two decades of devocrats hiding behind the flag rather than defend their poor records, maybe they have a point?) During the 2014 referendum, Galloway conducted an independent town-hall speaking tour which offered many people who are usually bitterly opposed to his politics an opportunity to see how electrifying his oratory can be when he’s on your side.

Nonetheless, A4U represents a sharp break in his career. Whilst he has not previously been shy about falling in with the religious right when seeking sectarian votes for Respect, this looks like the first time he has openly collaborated with Tories. Their initial tranche of candidates includes not only Gorgeous George himself but Alan Sked, the founder of UKIP, as well as a GP, an ex-soldier, and a barrister, and the group is calling for a broader pact between the unionist parties.

Whether or not explicitly modelled on A4I, the A4U has adopted a very similar strategy of standing only in the regional lists in an effort to maximise the pro-UK vote. According to their website, any MSPs elected under the Alliance’s banner will sit as Independents and support any anti-independence administration. This will not only make it easier to run an ideologically heterogeneous slate, but may help to remove any barriers to cooperation between them and the mainstream pro-UK parties, who might balk (quite understandably) at collaborating with an organised party commanded by Galloway.

Yet its road to Holyrood won’t be easy. Some of its output on social media has been crank-ish, and there will inevitably be tension between the loose ‘alliance’ model and the professionalism expected of a modern political campaign. It also faces the task of trying to woo list votes from people who have voted for three different parties at the constituency level, a much tougher ask than the A4I’s bid for SNP switches, and it is harder to argue to the most committed unionist voters that a list vote for the Tories is a wasted vote.

For all that it at aspires to breadth and an electoral pact, the A4U’s future in Scottish politics will probably hinge on whether Galloway himself can identify and energise a section of the pro-UK electorate that is left cold by the major parties – perhaps in the left-unionist space vacated by a moribund and swithering Labour Party.

Sunak said yesterday that “our lives can no longer be put on hold”. But that’s just what Johnson’s ready to do if he thinks it necessary.

25 Sep

The Government’s new Coronavirus plan seeks at once to help move the economy forward, through measures to open it up, while simultaneously moving society backward, through measures to close it down – at least by comparison with the status quo before the new restrictions were announced this week.

This strategy is more sensible than it may sound.  The effect of the virus worldwide, social distancing and our lockdown earlier this year was to put the economy into deep freeze.  Ministers want to protect the mild thaw that has taken place more recently.  This means that home and leisure, rather than work and schools, bear the brunt of the latest measures.

The problem for Boris Johnson, and for all of us, is that these may not work.  To cut a long story short, it will be very hard to build a firewall between work and leisure (because retail, cultural activity and the hospitality sector, for example, contain elements of both), and between schools and home (because if children get the virus, they will be sent home, which will keep many parents there – thus affecting work).

As Rishi Sunak knows only too well, this is the mutable background against which his statement yesterday was set.  In public earlier this week, the Prime Minister hinted heavily at further clampdowns, saying that “we reserve the right to deploy greater fire power, with significantly greater restrictions”.  In private, this site has yet to meet a Minister who isn’t expecting more curbs, and soon.

The Chancellor therefore aimed yesterday to help speed up the thaw, while understanding that Johnson may soon decide that he has no alternative but to slow it down again.  So for example, the Prime Minister may decide to bring forward the closing time for pubs and restaurants from ten o’clock in the evening: Sunak fought this off before the latest package of announcements, but the idea is not dead but sleeping.

Furthermore, Johnson is giving ground to the push by Graham Brady and company to give Parliament more control of Covid-19 policy – promising in the Commons this week, for example, to empower MPs to “question the government’s scientific advisers more regularly”.  How far the Prime Minister will go remains to be seen, but a new uncertainty is being added to the mix, since it’s unclear what the Commons will do with any new powers it gains.

So like his other big financial statements to date, Sunak’s statement had a strikingly provisional air.  Its centrepiece was the replacement of furlough, which paid people not to work, with a German-type scheme (as floated by Charlotte Gill on this site among others), which will pay people to work – or rather will co-pay them with employers.  It’s called the Jobs Support Scheme, and there’s a parallel plan for the self-employed.

The second string to the Chancellor’s bow was essentially an extension of measures that he’s already introduced – longer and looser repayment periods for Bounce Back Loans (“Pay as you Grow”), and similar action for Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans, together with further payment deferrals for VAT and self-assessed income tax returns.

The final element was to roll forward the date for VAT rates to return from five per cent to 20 per cent for the hospitality and tourist sectors.  Inevitably, the specifics have come under fire, with some asking whether firms will want to pay 55 per cent of wages to staff who under the terms of the scheme could work for only 33 per cent of thei r previous hours.

But it should be recognised that the Chancellor is trying to balance no longer paying people for not working under the furlough scheme, and replacing it with alternatives that are both workable and affordable.  If some think the new plan doesn’t go far enough, and that Sunak will return with more money and extensions as unemployment rises further, some believe it goes too far, asking: where will the money come from?

However, what to do if the economy continues to open up is one thing; what to do if Johnson feels he has to close it down again – for example, by shutting non-essential retail again – is another.  “Our lives can no longer be put on hold,” Sunak declared yesterday, signalling to restive Conservative backbenchers that, in the Cabinet debate about what to do, he is the leading champion of opening up.

But as we point out, the Prime Minister has this week signalled something very close to the opposite: that our lives are soon likely to be put on hold again (or for some, kept on hold).  Indeed, the Budget is, so to speak, on hold: it’s been cancelled, and replaced by yesterday’s pared-down package of measures.  There is a questionmark over the Treasury’s plan for a three-to-four year comprehensive spending review (CSR).

That there hasn’t been a new CSR since 2015 is a sign of the scale of challenges that confront the Chancellor.  Minimising tax rises and spending cuts by means of faster growth would be a daunting one for Sunak in normal conditions.  And these are abnornal ones.

The Government and self-ID. Scrapped for now. But the pressure isn’t going away.

24 Sep

Given the enormous amount of news about Coronavirus and Brexit, a contentious matter has gone under the radar in recent months. That is, whether the Government would drop proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004 to allow for “self-ID”; in other words, a person being able to change their legal gender without a doctor’s approval or undertaking other administrative processes.

In 2017, Theresa May announced her government would run a consultation on reforming the GRA, with the expectation that it would allow transgender people to change their birth certificates without a medical diagnosis. Johnson’s Government, on the other hand, has reversed the idea. In April Liz Truss, the Equalities Minister, signalled that the existing checks would stay in place – something she confirmed to Parliament this week, and has received an incredibly polarised response over.

The strength of feeling on GRA is obvious from the fact that 102,000 people responded to the Government’s initial consultation on the subject. It is reported that thirty nine per cent of these came from Stonewall, which advocates for self-ID. 

Proponents of the concept argue that the current processes are intrusive and distressing; these include providing two medical reports (one to show a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria”, and the other to outline details of what treatment has been received), obtaining the consent of a spouse if married, demonstrating that a transgender person has lived in their acquired gender for at least two years, and paying £140. Self-ID would put an end to all this.

Many, particularly women’s rights groups, feel it goes too far, however. While polls routinely show that the public is sympathetic to trans rights, there are concerns about transgender women with male anatomy being able to access female-only facilities, such as prisons and changing rooms. From women’s sport, to census data collection, self-ID would have enormous practical and legal implications.

The Government clearly wants to achieve a compromise on the matter. Although ministers haven’t carried forward self-ID, they want to speed up the process for those wanting to change gender. Truss, for instance, said that the Government would be “opening at least three new gender clinics this year” to reduce waiting lists; that the process would be “kinder and more straightforward”, mainly by moving online, and that the fee would be reduced to a “nominal” amount.

Is the debate closed, though? While it looked that way this week, the Government will still find itself under enormous pressure to reform the GRA – not only from activist groups.

For starters, there’s its own MPs. Crispin Blunt has been one of the most vocal about the decision. He said it had caused “crushing disappointment”, and accused Truss of not proposing legislation – so as to avoid it being voted down. “Does she appreciate that her statement does not command a majority in this House?” Were his words.

There’s also the fact that Scotland is close to implementing self-ID, as Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson recently pointed out in their column for ConHome. This will either exacerbate demands on Johnson’s Government to change direction – or give it evidence of why self-ID is practically untenable.

Lastly, one of the big surprises this year was that Google UK attacked Truss over self-ID. On June 18, the company Tweeted a petition to its followers (which now stand at 190,000), inviting them to sign a petition asking her to reform the GRA. “Don’t roll back on trans dignity”, it read, along with the hashtag: #TRUSSTME.

It emphasised a sinister, broader point, which is the capacity for tech giants to try and influence political policy (something troubling considering the Government’s increasing reliance on them – not least to help get out Britain’s contact tracing app).

With all that being said, Truss was robust in her response to Blunt’s criticisms, and no doubt many people will have been impressed with her actions.

But with Conservatives having u-turned on the matter, it’s a reminder that shifts in leadership can easily change the direction of this battle. The Government has got its way for now, but the debate is far from over.

Dying by numbers

24 Sep

Covid-19 can cast a “long shadow”.  Its aftermath effects include “fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain”.

One study suggests that the proportion of those who first catch the virus and then develop such persistent symptoms is about 15 per cent.  But there’s still much we don’t know about it and evidence is hard to come by.  Nonetheless, it is clearly wrong to claim that the Coronavirus is no worse than flu.

The long shadow effect is also a reminder that one doesn’t either get Covid-19 and end up in hospital, or else not get it at all.  However, the UK, like other countries, would not be responding to the virus with a mix of shutdowns, new laws, voluntary action and testing were the Coronavirus not a killer.

As this site explained yesterday, we believe that a choice between more mass lockdowns and a Swedish option would be the wrong one: the best policy to counter Covid-19 is mass testing.  But successful testing will inevitably be go hand in hand with social distancing and other preventative action.  And the scale, duration and sweep of all anti-virus measures will ultimately be shaped not by the long shadow, but by death numbers.

These are notoriously hard to calculate, both here and abroad.  The NHS in England has changed the way in which they are assessed at least twice: in April and August.  The daily figures “do not include deaths outside hospital, such as those in care homes”, and each daily release is always lagging, since “reporting in central figures can take up to several days”.

Furthermore, there is over-counting, because the figures include cases in which Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, which doesn’t necessary mean that it was the main cause of the death, and under-counting, because the figures can’t catch every single case. Those that follow are therefore heavily caveated.

Two similar peaks are recorded as having being reached: 1,152 deaths on April 9 and 1,172 on April 20.  Were England to suffer, say, eleven hundred Covid deaths a day for a whole year, that would be some 369,600 deaths in all, plus more in the rest of the UK.

But nothing like that, of course, has actually happened.  Writing on ConservativeHome, Raghib Ali says that “we now have good evidence from death certificates that Covid-19 was the underlying cause of death in about 50,000 people”.  Still, that’s about 30,000 more than the 20,000 that Patrick Vallance said would be “a good outcome”.

Those recorded deaths began to fall in late April, and the last figure we can find, yesterday’s, was 37.  Since August 8, they have ranged from 55 to zero.  Those inclined to minimise the severity of Coronavirus will quote those low totals, while those disposed to maximise will quote Vallance’s figure, from his presentation earlier this week, of some 200 deaths a day by November – some 5,600 that month.  Or point out that it could be higher.

Replicated each day for a year, that would suggest about 67,000 deaths.  But that’s based on cases doubling every seven days, as at present – with no change.  Vallance himself conceded that such an assumption is “quite a big if” – which raises the question of whether he should therefore have raised it at all, or at least clearly put it in a more rounded context.

Which would include looking at what’s happening in two other European countries whose increase in numbers we seem to be following: France and Spain.  (As last spring, the figures suggest that the UK is treading in the footsteps of some other European countries.)

If 50,000 cases in mid-October were to be followed by 200 deaths a day by November (“the Vallance model”) 10,000 cases a day (“the French/Spanish model”) would be followed by 40 deaths a day.  If we play the same game of replicated that number each day for a year, we get 13,440 deaths.

That would be lower than annual flu death totals in England during recent years. Public Health England estimates that on average 17,000 people died from flu in England annually between 2014/15 and 2018/19.

But whether the number of deaths each day by November is 200, more than 200, or 40 (or fewer), there is no reason to believe that a rise from present levels would be sustained.

Ali says that “deaths should also be significantly lower due to the lower age profile of cases…better shielding of those at highest risk and possibly a lower viral load  due to social distancing and masks. We are also now much better at managing the disease with more effective treatments.”

Were we to follow Spain and France after all, and if test and trace doesn’t show clear signs of improvement, the mood on the Conservative backbenches is likely to shift away from Government policy, which is ultimately based on state-enforced lockdowns, and towards Sweden’s, and mass voluntary action.

Dying by numbers

24 Sep

Covid-19 can cast a “long shadow”.  Its aftermath effects include “fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain”.

One study suggests that the proportion of those who first catch the virus and then develop such persistent symptoms is about 15 per cent.  But there’s still much we don’t know about it and evidence is hard to come by.  Nonetheless, it is clearly wrong to claim that the Coronavirus is no worse than flu.

The long shadow effect is also a reminder that one doesn’t either get Covid-19 and end up in hospital, or else not get it at all.  However, the UK, like other countries, would not be responding to the virus with a mix of shutdowns, new laws, voluntary action and testing were the Coronavirus not a killer.

As this site explained yesterday, we believe that a choice between more mass lockdowns and a Swedish option would be the wrong one: the best policy to counter Covid-19 is mass testing.  But successful testing will inevitably be go hand in hand with social distancing and other preventative action.  And the scale, duration and sweep of all anti-virus measures will ultimately be shaped not by the long shadow, but by death numbers.

These are notoriously hard to calculate, both here and abroad.  The NHS in England has changed the way in which they are assessed at least twice: in April and August.  The daily figures “do not include deaths outside hospital, such as those in care homes”, and each daily release is always lagging, since “reporting in central figures can take up to several days”.

Furthermore, there is over-counting, because the figures include cases in which Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, which doesn’t necessary mean that it was the main cause of the death, and under-counting, because the figures can’t catch every single case. Those that follow are therefore heavily caveated.

Two similar peaks are recorded as having being reached: 1,152 deaths on April 9 and 1,172 on April 20.  Were England to suffer, say, eleven hundred Covid deaths a day for a whole year, that would be some 369,600 deaths in all, plus more in the rest of the UK.

But nothing like that, of course, has actually happened.  Writing on ConservativeHome, Raghib Ali says that “we now have good evidence from death certificates that Covid-19 was the underlying cause of death in about 50,000 people”.  Still, that’s about 30,000 more than the 20,000 that Patrick Vallance said would be “a good outcome”.

Those recorded deaths began to fall in late April, and the last figure we can find, yesterday’s, was 37.  Since August 8, they have ranged from 55 to zero.  Those inclined to minimise the severity of Coronavirus will quote those low totals, while those disposed to maximise will quote Vallance’s figure, from his presentation earlier this week, of some 200 deaths a day by November – some 5,600 that month.  Or point out that it could be higher.

Replicated each day for a year, that would suggest about 67,000 deaths.  But that’s based on cases doubling every seven days, as at present – with no change.  Vallance himself conceded that such an assumption is “quite a big if” – which raises the question of whether he should therefore have raised it at all, or at least clearly put it in a more rounded context.

Which would include looking at what’s happening in two other European countries whose increase in numbers we seem to be following: France and Spain.  (As last spring, the figures suggest that the UK is treading in the footsteps of some other European countries.)

If 50,000 cases in mid-October were to be followed by 200 deaths a day by November (“the Vallance model”) 10,000 cases a day (“the French/Spanish model”) would be followed by 40 deaths a day.  If we play the same game of replicated that number each day for a year, we get 13,440 deaths.

That would be lower than annual flu death totals in England during recent years. Public Health England estimates that on average 17,000 people died from flu in England annually between 2014/15 and 2018/19.

But whether the number of deaths each day by November is 200, more than 200, or 40 (or fewer), there is no reason to believe that a rise from present levels would be sustained.

Ali says that “deaths should also be significantly lower due to the lower age profile of cases…better shielding of those at highest risk and possibly a lower viral load  due to social distancing and masks. We are also now much better at managing the disease with more effective treatments.”

Were we to follow Spain and France after all, and if test and trace doesn’t show clear signs of improvement, the mood on the Conservative backbenches is likely to shift away from Government policy, which is ultimately based on state-enforced lockdowns, and towards Sweden’s, and mass voluntary action.

With the 10pm curfew starting tomorrow, Sunak’s “imaginative” measures will need to come within days

23 Sep

With the latest new rules imposed by the Government – from 10pm curfews for bars and restaurants, to the stipulation that they can now only offer table service – it’s clear that the economic toll on the hospitality industry is going to be astronomical. And so, the question everyone’s asking is: what will Rishi Sunak do next?

For months Labour has put pressure on the Chancellor to extend his furlough scheme (which is due to end on October 31) – a proposal which he has repeatedly rejected. But the calls have become even louder since Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, called for him to have a “rethink”, despite previously supporting the scheme being brought to a close.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), too, has pleaded with Sunak to take action, warning that there could be millions of job losses coming from firms in city centres and in the hospitality sector. Carolyn Fairbairn, its director-general, said it was “desperately urgent” to have a successor to the furlough scheme”, and that whatever it was “need[ed] to be brought in within days or weeks.” CBI has suggested a subsidy scheme, and by all indications this is what Chancellor is contemplating. 

Indeed, The Guardian reports that Sunak is weighing-up a German-style wage scheme, having previously considered extending the availability of state-backed loans. As I have written for ConservativeHome before, there are several subsidised schemes which he could take inspiration from, another being France’s.

The German system – titled the Kurzabeit job subsidy – is different from the UK’s furlough scheme in that it encourages employees back to the workplace, albeit on reduced hours. Businesses then pay employees for the hours they’re needed, and the government subsidises any wages lost from (around 60 to 80 per cent) their typical hours.

The key advantage of the scheme is its flexibility, as it allows companies to adapt to increases, or decreases, in demand for their business; something that is greatly needed, given how difficult it is to predict the virus, and the subsequent actions the Government takes. It has also been suggested that the Treasury is considering a plan in which workers undertake education or training while they are away from their work – something that could tie in with Sunak’s investment in traineeships.

While the furlough scheme has no doubt been extremely expensive for the taxpayer, it’s clear that the latest set of measures could prove even more financially crippling in the long-term – wiping out large numbers of businesses. Moreover, hospitality closures are only going to exacerbate youth unemployment, which has already been one of the worst impacts of this crisis; a problem that will become even more troublesome given that many of these individuals will be required in the future to pay off the Covid-19 debt.

Whatever Sunak does, one thing is for certain: it will have to be in the next few days, as the CBI’s director-general points out. Not least because, along with the introduction of curfews tomorrow, next week many businesses are likely to announce job cuts in accordance with the furlough scheme (employers intending to make fewer than 100 redundancies need to run a 30-day consultation). In PMQs today, Johnson promised Britain would go “forward with further creative and imaginative schemes to keep [the] economy moving.” Let’s hope we see this imagination fast.

With the 10pm curfew starting tomorrow, Sunak’s “imaginative” measures will need to come within days

23 Sep

With the latest new rules imposed by the Government – from 10pm curfews for bars and restaurants, to the stipulation that they can now only offer table service – it’s clear that the economic toll on the hospitality industry is going to be astronomical. And so, the question everyone’s asking is: what will Rishi Sunak do next?

For months Labour has put pressure on the Chancellor to extend his furlough scheme (which is due to end on October 31) – a proposal which he has repeatedly rejected. But the calls have become even louder since Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, called for him to have a “rethink”, despite previously supporting the scheme being brought to a close.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), too, has pleaded with Sunak to take action, warning that there could be millions of job losses coming from firms in city centres and in the hospitality sector. Carolyn Fairbairn, its director-general, said it was “desperately urgent” to have a successor to the furlough scheme”, and that whatever it was “need[ed] to be brought in within days or weeks.” CBI has suggested a subsidy scheme, and by all indications this is what Chancellor is contemplating. 

Indeed, The Guardian reports that Sunak is weighing-up a German-style wage scheme, having previously considered extending the availability of state-backed loans. As I have written for ConservativeHome before, there are several subsidised schemes which he could take inspiration from, another being France’s.

The German system – titled the Kurzabeit job subsidy – is different from the UK’s furlough scheme in that it encourages employees back to the workplace, albeit on reduced hours. Businesses then pay employees for the hours they’re needed, and the government subsidises any wages lost from (around 60 to 80 per cent) their typical hours.

The key advantage of the scheme is its flexibility, as it allows companies to adapt to increases, or decreases, in demand for their business; something that is greatly needed, given how difficult it is to predict the virus, and the subsequent actions the Government takes. It has also been suggested that the Treasury is considering a plan in which workers undertake education or training while they are away from their work – something that could tie in with Sunak’s investment in traineeships.

While the furlough scheme has no doubt been extremely expensive for the taxpayer, it’s clear that the latest set of measures could prove even more financially crippling in the long-term – wiping out large numbers of businesses. Moreover, hospitality closures are only going to exacerbate youth unemployment, which has already been one of the worst impacts of this crisis; a problem that will become even more troublesome given that many of these individuals will be required in the future to pay off the Covid-19 debt.

Whatever Sunak does, one thing is for certain: it will have to be in the next few days, as the CBI’s director-general points out. Not least because, along with the introduction of curfews tomorrow, next week many businesses are likely to announce job cuts in accordance with the furlough scheme (employers intending to make fewer than 100 redundancies need to run a 30-day consultation). In PMQs today, Johnson promised Britain would go “forward with further creative and imaginative schemes to keep [the] economy moving.” Let’s hope we see this imagination fast.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Puritans try to smash Johnson’s images

23 Sep

Planet Fact takes on Planet Freedom. Sir Keir Starmer’s questions are evidence-based, utilitarian, grown-up, serious and underlain by the conviction that this is the only moral way to do politics.

Boris Johnson’s answers are imaginative, irreverent, disdainful of inconvenient facts and underlain by the conviction that this is the only tolerable way to do politics.

Sir Keir gives us the world as it is. Johnson responds with the world as we might wish it to be.

The Leader of the Opposition pointed out a clear contradiction between the Prime Minister’s declaration three months ago that “test and trace can be a real game-changer for us”, and Johnson’s statement yesterday of the “complete opposite”, with test and trace able to contribute “very little or nothing”.

“Which one is it?” the ruler of Planet Fact demanded.

The ruler of Planet Freedom declined to engage with this pedantry.

Sir Keir, in his sternest tone, said that “pretending there isn’t a problem is part of the problem, Prime Minister,” and posed another either/or question: did the PM agree with “the Dido Harding defence” of the problem with track and trace (not enough capacity) or “the Matt Hancock defence” (too many people applying for tests who don’t need them)?

No Cavalier could allow such an insult from a Roundhead to a damsel in distress to pass unavenged, and Johnson’s sword leapt from his scabbard: “The continual attacks by the Opposition on Dido Harding are unseemly and unjustified.”

What we want to see, Johnson went on, “is more of the spirit of togetherness that we had yesterday”, instead of this constant knocking from the sidelines.

Starmer was stung. He pointed out that his wife, mother and sister all work or worked for the NHS. He would take no lectures from the PM on the subject.

Ian Blackford, for the SNP, said the Scots did not want Johnson to put his arms round them.

Johnson: “I can imagine that he doesn’t want a hug from me…that was a metaphor.”

On Planet Freedom, the use of imagery is regarded as delightful, while literal fact is ignored.

Puritans are enraged by this, and want to smash Johnson’s images. Their difficulty is that as they do so, they sound a bit self-righteous, and may even find the images are quite widely venerated.

Stephen Lynch: The contest to head the WTO. Fox is through to the next round – and stands a better chance than you may think.

23 Sep

Stephen Lynch is a former press adviser to the Conservative Party

Ladbrokes slashed the odds of Liam Fox becoming the next head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) from 33/1 to 10/1 after he became one of five candidates to make the next round. The next Director-General of the WTO will be decided by all 164 member states reaching consensus, in a process Fox describes as a cross between the Eurovision Song Contest and a Papal conclave.

Before this week, the UK media had been ignoring this election – as the MP for North Somerset continuds clocking up his air miles and Zoom call minutes in pursuit of trade’s top job.

One of two female candidates from the African continent, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, formerly Nigeria’s Finance Minister, and an international development expert, is still thought to be the favourite. The other shortlisted nominees are from nations of Kenya, Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Fox’s candidacy

Speaking to Dr Fox’s supporters and those with unique insight into the process, it is clear he has a much better chance than he has been given credit for so far. The man just loves free trade, and anyone who listens to him speak about it cannot deny his expertise and enthusiasm.

Conceding that there won’t be a consensus on specific reforms, Fox is calling for a recommitment to basic principles of free trade (e.g. Most-Favored-Nation clauses and transparency) He’s pledged to empower women and have proper diversity and seniority in his top team – favouring talented, challenging people around him over compliant, supine yes-men and women. On policy, Fox wants to address dispute resolution and fisheries disputes (sound familiar?)

His candidacy has many strengths. He has strong support from many parts of the world, particularly the Commonwealth. He has a compelling vision for modernising and reaffirming multilateralism.

He is the only candidate nominated by a developed country and, with his connections to US Republicans in Washington, Fox is the only plausible director-general who could persuade a re-elected Trump administration to persevere with multilateralism and recommit to the international, rules-based system.

Except for Hungary breaking ranks, the European Union members reportedly are voting as a bloc to prevent Fox’s appointment (in their latest attempt to sabotage the UK from prospering after leaving its orbit and acquis communautaire).

The EU will not be Fox’s most ardent admirer, but as a trading bloc renowned for ruthlessly pursuing its self-interest the EU, and UK, will lose irrevocably if the United States exits the WTO and continues its disconcerting retreat into isolationism and economic nationalism. The EU has already sided with Beijing in forming a rival, workaround WTO dispute body without the US. This could become a trend which leaves the UK in a foreign policy quandary.

Critics of Fox’s candidacy frequently say he will fail on the launchpad because the EU will never support him – neglecting to mention that the previous Director-General, Roberto Azevêdo, managed to win without their support last time.

Fox is a credible champion of free trade and its benefits for consumers. The WTO’s difficulties call for an experienced, battle-hardened politician, not a technocrat. A reset is required if the organistion is to be held in higher esteem with organisations like the United Nations and International Monetary Fund.

As a founder member of the WTO, member of the UN Security Council and chair of the G7 summit next year, the UK has an important global role to play, as the risk increases of the growing protectionist agenda in Europe and the US.

In an ideal world, Fox would have been able to continue in post at the Department of International Trade (DIT) during this process. He was broadly considered to have done a difficult job extremely well at DIT, and one wonders if his initial sacking from Boris Johnson’s Government may make a difference in subsequent rounds.

As Secretary of State, Fox ensured that DIT had a presence in over 100 countries with 4000 staff, overseeing a record level of British exports as the UK prepared to implement its independent trade policy for the first time in over 40 years. This was no mean feat ,given the UK’s lack of direct experience in the highly technical field of trade, and with no collective Whitehall memory.

In his tenure, the UK also became the number one country in the EU for foreign direct investment (FDI), and third in the world behind China and the US.

Stephen Bush at the New Statesman saw fit to praise Fox for surprising detractors of Theresa May’s administration by managing to roll over so many of the UK’s existing trade deals with essentially the same terms the EU bloc managed to negotiate.

Issues that the new DG faces

The organisation faces numerous crises, and the new DG will have their hands full with the escalating US-China rivalry and accompanying trade disagreements. For example, China has yet to meet the WTO’s requirements for industrial subsidies.

Dispute resolution is also a key issue as the Appellate Body (the WTO’s court) has not sat since December 2019 due to the United States’ blocking action. For his part, Fox says Washington has done this “out of extreme frustration” over their “absolutely valid” concerns about the WTO taking so long to issue rulings and for becoming too political.

Tariffs continue to rise as the WTO has failed to secure a multilateral agreement despite members agreeing to lower tariffs on information and communication technology goods. Japan and India, major economies both, are currently in dispute on this very issue.

The forthcoming US elections also add to the general uncertainty. If Trump is re-elected, he may withdraw the US from the WTO altogether. Having been paralyzed since the end of 2019, the WTO has had to witness the President run rampant against America’s trading partners – determining tariff rates and sabotaging the WTO’s work.

In a second term, the weight of economic power may in time overthrow the powers of international laws. This result is a return to the “law of the jungle” where investors withdraw, the economy loses momentum and millions of jobs could be lost.

DG disconnect

The Economist said rightly in July the coming months will reveal the “disconnect between the candidates’ ambitions and what the institution can achieve.” The truth is the new Director General will still be bound and limited to the rules and constraints set out by members.

At the Geneva press conference to formally set out his candidacy, Liam Fox’s microphone was muted as he began his persuasive, polished pitch for the role. Let’s hope that isn’t a metaphor for the country now it’s taken an independent seat at the WTO for the first time. The world’s free-trading countries are counting on the UK speaking loudly and clearly as it joins them at the table.

Fox said at this presser that the new DG must not over-promise, that the world was in a even more difficult place on trade than during the financial crisis – and that it was going to get worse before it got better.

The former Tory leadership contender is used to running as an outside bet,  and carries the scars of previous political battles. EURACTIV aptly described the WTO as captainless, and in troubled water with no land in sight. This is not a time for a novice, and with any luck its members will hand the tricky assignment to the tried and tested skipper.

Presenting ConservativeHome’s online Party Conference fringe events

23 Sep

Many ConservativeHome readers will be familiar with our annual programme of fringe events at the Conservative Party Conference. Every year the ConHome marquee is full to bursting with audiences who come to hear a wide range of ministers, MPs, experts and commentators discuss the big issues of the day. People often tell us that they spend more time at our events than in the actual conference hall, which is praise indeed.

I am very pleased to announce that this year we will again be presenting a bustling programme of ConservativeHome fringe events for our readers to enjoy – hosted online, alongside the online Party Conference. 2020 may have disrupted all sorts of events and institutions, but not this one.

Over the course of three days – Saturday 3rd October, Sunday 4th October and Monday 5th October – our team will be hosting no fewer than 18 fringe events.

These include ‘In Conversation With…’ interviews with prominent Cabinet Ministers and parliamentarians, and panel events on a panoply of topics, from the Red Wall seats to the future of transport, and from post-Brexit trade policy to cutting reoffending – all hosted, of course, by the ConservativeHome editorial team.

The full event listings can be found here.

We hope you will join us, and take the opportunity to engage in what promises to be a fascinating and entertaining few days of discussion and debate.

All of our fringe events are completely free to view, and for the first time they will be open to Party members and non-members alike, meaning that this year we hope to reach an even wider audience than at the traditional in-person conference. To take part, simply register for your free Party Member or Observer (member of the public) ticket to access the Conservative Party Conference here.

We’re looking forward to seeing you there.