Profile: George Eustice, negotiating agriculture’s future between farmers, free traders, protectionionists and rewilders

7 Apr

George Eustice recently expressed the hope that a decade from now, the rest of the world will come to Britain to see how to run a successful, independent farm policy.

As Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he is in charge of the seven-year transition, begun at the end of 2020, from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy to new British policies for agriculture and the environment.

The invasion of Ukraine has prompted renewed fears about security of supply, and whether British farmers are now being paid to concentrate too much on rewilding and too little on food production.

Rewilding is not just fashionable, promoted by such figures as Isabella Tree and the Goldsmith brothers. It is official Government policy, as Eustice recently outlined at the Oxford Farming Conference:

“If we are to deliver the targets we’ve set ourselves for woodland creation in England – around 10,000 hectares of trees per year – and if we’re to deliver our objective of getting 300,000 hectares of land where habitat is restored, there is inevitably going to be a degree of land use change. I know that that causes some people some concern. But you have to look at the numbers we’re looking at in the overall context. Of the fact that we have some 9.3 million hectares of farmland in England, and so we are only looking at change taking place on a relatively small area of that land.”

The Government will pay subsidies in order to persuade landowners to enable it to reach its environmental targets. Eustice seeks with his usual tact to persuade sceptics that this is not just a way to hand out public money to the rich so they can pursue frivolous and faddish hobbies for which they should be happy to pay out of their own pockets.

Meanwhile the cost of living crisis has encouraged some Brexiteers to proclaim the virtues of free trade, as a way of cutting food prices, and to fulminate against agricultural protectionism.

Eustice himself is not much given to fulminating. He prefers to deliver careful, detailed speeches, stronger on pragmatism than on ideology, so in that respect profoundly conservative.

His recent addresses to the CLA  Conference and to the Conservative Spring Forum offer further examples of his style.

At the latter event, which occurred three weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine had raised worries about food supplies, he was at pains to deliver the reassuring message that “domestic food production gives us national resilience”.

He pointed out that while in the late 19th century Britain produced only 30 per cent of food consumed here, the figure now, for foods that can be produced in this country, is over 75 per cent:

“We are 86 per cent self sufficient in beef, fully self sufficient in liquid milk and produce more lamb than we consume. We are close to 100 per cent self-sufficient in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes. Sectors like soft fruit have seen a trend towards greater self sufficiency in recent years with an extended UK season displacing imports.”

And he denied that there was any contradiction between food production and environmental protection: these “must go hand in hand” and “are two sides of the same coin”.

As for the free trade argument, Eustice has at least advocated opening new markets to British produce, looking at the topic from the point of view of farmers rather than consumers:

“For the livestock sector, maximising value can depend on carcass balance and on being able to get access to a higher price for some cuts in overseas markets. There are opportunities for British agriculture in many Asian markets including Japan and India; opportunities for the Dairy industry in Canada and the US; and opportunities for the sheep sector in both the US and the Middle East. We have been working with the AHDB [the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board] on opening access to these markets…”

In 2017 Policy Exchange brought out a report, Farming Tomorrow, which contended that this was a once in a lifetime chance to achieve cheaper food for consumers, by abolishing tariffs on food imports while scrapping agricultural subsidies, with any remaining subsidies instead devoted to protecting the environment.

One of the authors of that report, Warwick Lightfoot, who has advised three Chancellors of the Exchequer but speaks here in a personal capacity, told ConHome that while Michael Gove, Environment Secretary from 2017-19, had indeed switched subsidies in that way, this could be a means of “keeping protection via the back door”.

When ConHome pointed out that Eustice has a farming background, and has spoken with approval of his ruggedly independent forebears who refused to do what the man from the Ministry of Agriculture told them, Lightfoot retorted: “You’ve got to think about people who’ve got an eating background.”

He remarked that he does his shopping in Lidl and would like to be able to buy cheap meat from abroad. The Government must put consumers’ interests first, and not accept propaganda from the National Farmers’ Union about the dangers of, for example, chlorinated chicken from America:

“I’ve just spent a month in America. Do you think I was taking a risk when I had a chicken caesar salad?”

Daniel Hannan, ConHome columnist, reckons “there is a massive problem with DEFRA”, which is “prone to capture from every passing Green lobby group”.

Eustice plays the deadest of dead bats to attacks on either himself or DEFRA. He talks in a lucid, ungimmicky, commonsensical way, and was presumably appointed partly in order to avoid picking fights. His ministerial career has been spent entirely in his present department, where he started as Parliamentary Undersecretary in 2013 and became Secretary of State in February 2020.

His family have farmed for six generations near Camborne, in Cornwall, and as he told the CLA:

“Advice was passed down the generations. My great grandfather, George Henry Eustice, had an outlook forged during the difficult inter-war years. It led him to embrace an ethos very much rooted in self-reliance. He used to say, ‘When the man from the Ministry tells you he is going to pay you to produce something, it’s time to get out!'”

As Eustice went on to remark, now that he himself is “the man from the Ministry, the scepticism of my forefathers does weigh on me”. He is not, by either upbringing or instinct, a man who favours central control.

He instead believes in the ability of farmers, through hard work and attention to detail, and often in defiance of what the state is telling them, to work out what is best.

This Cornish sense of self-reliance is a cardinal point. Eustice was born in 1971, educated at Truro School, studied horticulture at Cornwall College and ran for Cornwall’s cross country team.

For nine years he worked in the family business, a fruit farm which today has a restaurant, a farm shop, a herd of South Devon cattle and the country’s oldest herd of a rare breed of pig, the British Lop, which is not as well known as it might be because it does not look strikingly old-fashioned.

In the European elections of 1999, Eustice stood unsuccessfully as a UKIP candidate in South West England. He afterwards got a job working for the campaign set up by Business for Sterling to stop Britain joining the Euro.

When ConHome asked one of his colleagues in this campaign about him she replied: “Can’t really remember. Sorry. Strawberry farmer.”

Eustice served from 2003 as Head of Press to two Conservative leaders, Michael Howard and David Cameron. Day after day, he toured the Commons press gallery, unfazed by the tough questions put to him, but unimpressed by some of Fleet Street’s behaviour – he was to back Lord Leveson’s proposals.

In 2010 he stood as the Conservative candidate for his local seat, Camborne and Redruth, and won it, after a recount, by 66 votes from Julia Goldsworthy, who had been, on different boundaries, the Liberal Democrat MP for Falmouth and Camborne.

When the European Referendum came, Eustice was, as might be expected, a Leaver. But even here, he was studiously moderate in tone: he recommended the Norway route to leaving the EU.

In February 2019 he resigned from his post as Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, having lost faith in Theresa May’s negotiating strategy, and in July of that year he was reappointed to his old post by Boris Johnson.

Eustice has laboured mightily to draw up the legislation needed to replace European governance of farming and fisheries. He was regarded as a safe pair of hands during the pandemic, during which the following dialogue took place between him and Nick Ferrari on LBC:

 Ferrari: “You can only serve alcohol with a substantial meal…what constitutes a substantial meal? Scotch egg?”

Eustice: “Um, I think this is a term that is understood very much by the restaurant trade.”

Ferrari: “Would a Scotch egg count as a substantial meal?”

Eustice: “I think a Scotch egg probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service.”

A much mocked ruling, but even here, Eustice himself was not remembered. He is now in charge of regulating an industry of great importance:

“There is a food manufacturer in every parliamentary constituency in the UK – except Westminster. The food industry is bigger than the automotive and aerospace industries combined and more evenly dispersed across our country.”

He does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, when farmers were told what to do. His inclination is not to order either rewilding or maximum food production.

Eustice contends that environmental measures, for example to protect the health of the soil, are also, in the long term, good for productivity, and make farming more resilient.

He recently warned that rises in the price of wheat and of energy are bound to lead to rises in the price of other foodstuffs. What he did not say is that higher prices will be good for farmers, with the most resourceful and enterprising of them doing best.

Higher prices are of no concern to the prosperous middle-class consumer who frequents farmers’ markets, buying delicious but amazingly expensive local produce. Higher prices will, on the other hand, be a body blow to the poor, who will soon notice whose side the Government is on.

In his maiden speech in the Commons, Eustice quoted some words from a letter written by Richard Trevithick, the famous inventor from Cornwall, who did not become rich from the steam engines he designed – rather the reverse – but who had no regrets:

“I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities, and even from the great engineer, the late Mr James Watt, who said to an eminent scientific character still living, that I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine. This so far has been my reward from the public; but should this be all, I shall be satisfied by the great secret pleasure and laudable pride that I feel in my own breast from having been the instrument of bringing forward and maturing new principles and new arrangements of boundless value to my country. However much I may be straitened in pecuniary circumstances, the great honour of being a useful subject can never be taken from me, which to me far exceeds riches.”

Eustice observed that the Government could not have all the answers: when one wants to attempt “what the world calls impossibilities”, brilliant individuals like Trevithick are indispensable.

Crick shows how Farage forced the Conservative Party to pull itself together and get Brexit done

4 Mar

One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage by Michael Crick

There is a marvellous insolence about Michael Crick. Nobody questions the fleeing politician better than he does – see this highly enjoyable compilation of some of his greatest moments as a television reporter.

Crick adds insult to injury by sounding polite. He conveys an innocent desire to get the answer to some inquiry about which the politician, hastening along the pavement or through the conference centre, is too embarrassed to speak.

The vain attempt by Crick’s quarry to look at ease, the unconvincing pretence of deafness, the search for some lavatory in which to hide, gratify our desire to see our politicians taken down a peg or two.

And that is something which Nigel Farage, the subject of Michael Crick’s latest biography, is very good at too. Brexit felt so satisfying to its supporters because it was a way of confounding the prosy, prating liberals who thought they could tell everyone else what to think and how to vote.

Crick begins with high drama:

“Sweating heavily, the pilot put out a Mayday call. His passenger awaited his fate, having decided there was nothing he could do, or say, to help. He considered calling or texting his ‘nearest and dearest’, but didn’t see how that would assist much either. He thought about lighting a cigarette, but then remembered how a lot of fuel might be spilt if the aircraft had to crash-land.

“Which it soon did.”

That was Farage on election day in 2010, when he was standing against John Bercow in Buckingham, and went up in a small plane towing a banner which bore the words:

VOTE FOR YOUR COUNTRY – VOTE UKIP

The banner got wrapped round the rudder, the plane crashed, and Farage and the pilot, Justin Adams, were extremely lucky to survive.

Adams did not remain lucky. His mental health deteriorated, his business and marriage collapsed, and he threatened to kill Farage, whom he blamed for ruining his life.

In 2013, Adams committed suicide. It is characteristic of Crick that he relates these unhappy events in some detail.

Crick writes of Farage:

“This is the extraordinary story of one of the most important politicians of modern British history; he’s been a more significant player than most leaders of the traditional political parties, more influential than quite a few prime ministers. Nigel Farage is the only man ever to have won a nationwide election as leader of an insurgent party. And he managed that astonishing feat twice, five years apart, leading two different parties. Yet Farage has never been elected to the House of Commons, never served as a government minister and will almost certainly never achieve either role. He will go down as one of the great political communicators of our age, a man with a rare instinctive feel for public opinion, yet someone who managed to fall out with many of those, in his parties and beyond, who were committed to the very same cause.”

All this is true. I am well aware that Farage is still alive, still communicating via GB News, and that politics is full of surprises. But for the purposes of this review I shall follow Crick and assume that Farage’s political career is probably over.

Why was Farage such a success, and such a failure? The success sprang from his ability to attack the Establishment prigs from the opposite direction to the one they expected.

They assumed that any young firebrand would be even more progressive, even more pro-European, even more susceptible to every bit of fashionable claptrap than they were themselves.

Instead of which, Farage came before the British public as a City trader, a man in a pin-striped suit and a covert coat, with an unconcealed love of golf, cricket, fishing and military history, and at the end of a hard morning on the London Metal Exchange utterly delighted to go for a proper, old-fashioned lunch with any amount to drink. According to Crick,

“The favourite venue was the eighteenth-century Simpson’s Tavern, in Ball Court, a narrow alleyway off Cornhill, which served traditional steaks and chops, and spotted dick for pudding, and which boasts of being ‘the oldest chophouse in London’.”

Crick reminds us that the City in the 1980s was a mixture of public-school types such as Farage and barrow-boys from Essex. Farage himself has written:

“I liked the mix in the City – nobody cared how posh or how rough you were; you were rated on how much money you could make.”

Huge energy, high-stakes risk-taking, the go-for-it spirit and a complete absence of cant: these were useful qualities if you wanted to go into politics, where many of the established figures suffered from low energy, risk aversion, the safety-first spirit and an incurable addiction to spouting high-minded platitudes, usually in order to conceal even from themselves their reluctance to get to grips with things.

Just as he had plunged straight into the City without first having his head filled with nonsense at university, so Farage plunged straight into politics, and discovered what worked, and what didn’t, by actually having a go, indeed by having many goes, during none of which did he manage to gain election to the House of Commons, for he provoked enmity as well as adulation.

There is far too much in Crick’s book – far too much for this reader, at least – about the details of UKIP’s internal intrigues. David Cameron sought, as Conservative leader from 2005 and Prime Minister from 2010, to finesse the European issue, and to get his MPs to stop banging on about it.

Farage at the head of UKIP prospered in this empty space; forced Cameron to concede, in the Bloomberg speech of January 2013, a referendum on EU membership; and continued ten weeks later to advance in the local elections.

Here’s what a certain newspaper columnist wrote just before those elections in The Daily Telegraph:

“Take Nigel Farage, whom I met years ago and who has always struck me as a rather engaging geezer. He’s anti-pomposity, he’s anti-political correctness, he’s anti-loony Brussels regulation. He’s in favour of low tax, and sticking up for small business, and sticking up for Britain.

“We Tories look at him – with his pint and cigar and sense of humour – and we instinctively recognise someone who is fundamentally indistinguishable from us. He’s a blooming Conservative, for heaven’s sake; and yet he’s in our constituencies, wooing our audiences, nicking our votes, and threatening to put our councillors out of office. We feel the panic of a man confronted by his Doppelgänger…

“Rather than bashing UKIP, I reckon Tories should be comforted by their rise – because the real story is surely that these voters are not turning to the one party that is meant to be providing the official opposition. The rise of UKIP confirms a) that a Tory approach is broadly popular and b) that in the middle of a parliament, after long years of recession, and with growth more or less flat, the Labour Party is going precisely nowhere.”

Crick quotes part of this, which impelled me to reread the whole piece, in which one finds Boris Johnson – at this time Mayor of London – indicating how under a new leader – who will need to be a showman and a risk-taker as unabashedly old-fashioned in manner as Farage – the Conservatives can win back those UKIP voters.

The second to last chapter in this 550-page book is called Nigel versus Boris. We have reached the showdown between the showmen.

Farage, who has an unfortunate tendency to fall out with his allies, is by now leading a specially created vehicle, the Brexit Party, which in the European elections of May 2019 took 30.5 per cent of the vote, while the Conservatives fell to fifth place (the Greens were fourth) with a derisory 8.8 per cent.

This was the death zone for the Tories. May announced she was stepping down, and Johnson won the leadership race because he was the only candidate who could be relied on to beat Farage.

“The moment Boris was elected our support started to slip away,” the then Chairman of the Brexit Party, Richard Tice, told Crick.

Johnson had reunited the Tory tribe, an achievement overlooked by those who focus on his ability to woo Labour voters.

By November 2019 the Brexit Party was pitifully weak, and as a source at the centre of the party told Crick at the time:

“Now the whole house is coming down; now the recriminations begin; now it’s an absolute bloodbath. It is like in Downfall where Hitler is dismissing his generals…It’s total chaos.The Tories have absolutely outmanoeuvred Tice and Farage. It’s over.”

On 11 November 2019 Farage was forced to announce the withdrawal of the Brexit Party’s candidates in all 317 seats won by the Conservatives in 2017. In the general election held on 12 December Farage’s party got a derisory two per cent of the vote.

What a reversal of fortune! Crick’s admirable account shows us a man who was brilliant at disrupting, but no good at co-operating, and whose greatest achievement may well have been to force the Conservative Party to pull itself together and get Brexit done.

Michelle Lowe: Johnson has secured the Conservatives’ right flank – now we need to secure our left one

11 Feb

Michelle Lowe contested Coventry South at the General Election last year and is the former Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing & Health at Sevenoaks District Council.

The Southend West by-election result does not tell us very much except that UKIP is no longer much of a threat to the Conservatives. They not only lost their deposit but came after “spoilt ballot papers” and the Psychedelic Movement. Locally they have very few if any local councillors left after being spectacularly driven out in 2017. On top of that Reform UK only just about managed to keep their deposit in the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election.

It seems that no matter how unhappy voters are with the Conservative Party, apart from in the opinion polls, there does not seem to be much evidence of them actually switching to Labour in elections. The Lib Dems and Greens are, however, a different story. Not only did the Lib Dems win both the Chesham and Amersham by-election as well as North Shropshire, both parties are capturing more and more council seats in the South East. They will no doubt use their growing local government base to start attempting to capture Westminster seats at the next General Election.

Knowing that they are unlikely to form a Government any time soon, both the Lib Dems and Greens are shamelessly disingenuous in their promises. They claim there is no need for any more house building or large infrastructure projects such as HS2, but somehow they will also manage to find homes for young people and provide greener travel. For a party of government this is the impossible circle that Michael Gove is trying to square. How can he close the generation divide and make sure there are enough homes for young people to buy, while protecting the countryside?

To win in the affluent South East the party not only has to find a solution to the development problem, but it will have to be strong on social justice issues all round. Andrew Mitchell told the House of Commons last July that Chesham and Amersham has the biggest Christian Aid group in the country. The cut in foreign aid spending that is popular in some places probably helped to elect Sarah Green as the MP in Chesham and Amersham.

The Government’s new Levelling Up White Paper is attempting to address some of the social injustices that exist and were no doubt exacerbated by the pandemic. Focusing on infrastructure, schools, the NHS and low income households while empowering local government to deliver for its communities – the white paper is moving in the right direction.

In 2019 we suffered a terrible set of local government election results losing control of 44 councils and 1,330 councillors. In the South East the Lib Dems and Greens built on these results during the county council elections last year, and the Lib Dems and Greens now have a firmer foundation on which to try and win Westminster seats. They are very good at targeting specific seats where they are strong and not competing against each other. Once elected they blame the Government for not being able to deliver on its election pledges. They are leaving a patchwork quilt of rainbow coalitions that often include independents as well – and the glue that holds them together is their hatred of us!

In Sevenoaks, where I was Deputy Leader until I stood down in 2019, we held back the anti-Tory tide that year with a strong local brand that combined fiscal responsibility and efficiency, with compassion. Voters were not going to risk their weekly bin collection and low council tax by voting Green or Lib Dem – especially when their local Conservatives were also building Dementia friendly towns and villages and rolling out social prescribing to help with their wellbeing. So their consciences were clear. Unfortunately, the Town Council and County council brands were not so strong – losing the town council in 2019 and the County seat in 2021. Sevenoaks was by no means the only place where success was achieved – nationally we can learn a lot from these places.

So with local elections this year and next, and a General Election taking place sometime before December 2024 we can relax a bit from UKIP and Reform UK – but we need to prepare to defend our traditional heartlands from the Lib Dems and Greens by making clear they are not up for grabs. We have to find a way to protect our countryside while still building homes for young people, and we have to actively promote social justice and equality of opportunity. We must be seen as fiscally responsible and efficient but we must also make sure people know we care.

Geidt clears Johnson – and so offers him a glimpse of recovery

31 Dec

The Financial Times has the scoop: Christopher Geidt is set to clear Boris Johnson over the Downing Street flat redecoration – though his report will criticise Prime Minister’s conduct.

Downing Street’s nightmare was that Geidt would say that Johnson had misled him, if not actually lied, during the course of his investigation – and then quit as the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests.

The resignation of a second holder of the post – Alex Allen resigned in the wake of his report into Priti Patel – could have brought other actors into the story.

The Electoral Commission could have re-opened its investigation.  The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards might have swooped in (and may perhaps still).  It was not inconceivable for the police to be drawn in.

This combination of events, Number Ten feared, could have helped to spark a ballot of confidence in the Prime Minister’s turbulent leadership.

There may be still be booby traps in the redecoration for Johnson.  But the Financial Times story, backed up by other papers this morning, and indeed by what I was told yesterday, suggests a potential path to recovery.

First, he has to escape being held directly responsible by Sue Gray for the Downing Street “staff gatherings”, as her investigation calls what everyone refers to as the Number Ten parties.

These appear to have done more to dent the Conservatives’ poll ratings than the decoration saga – since they more directly provoke the charge of “one law for them and another for us”.

Such a verdict is likely (though not certain).  Having slipped past these two rocks in the water – Geidt and Gray – the Prime Minister would then have to negotiate an even bigger obstacle from voters’ point of view: Omicron.

If it doesn’t incapacite the NHS through staff shortages, and the service then avoids a January pile-up caused by the variant, Delta, flu, seasonal illnesss and blocked beds, he will claim that his minimal restrictions worked.

The backbench rebels who voted against them will counter that they weren’t needed, and that voluntary action would have contained Omicron anyway.

But the Prime Minister will be able to point to a stupendous surge in vaccinations – the UK is currently second in Our World in Data’s booster league table – and, by a combination of luck and judgement, may yet end up in a better place.

He would then have a chance to regain the political initiative.  This cycle of rebuff and rebound is Johnson’s speciality.  It was last seen before the original deployment of vaccines during the winter.

The difference is that the Conservatives were still narrowly ahead in the polls.  Now they are further behind.  The question that follows is whether the Prime Minister is damaged goods.

I believe that voters are not even beginning to weigh up Labour as a serious electoral proposition, and that the situation remains fluid.

Since recent years have given us David Cameron, UKIP, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn’s near hit in 2017, the Brexit Party and Johnson himself, experience suggests that surprises are now the norm.

Yes, Gray may prang the Prime Minister yet.  Or the NHS plunge into a media-declared crisis next month.  But the Geidt news offers Johnson a tantalising glimpse of better times.

I’ll write more when Parliament re-opens next week about how he might achieve them, during the run-up to local elections in May that are unlikely to be as good for the Conservatives as this year’s were.

For the moment, a single point will do.  Geidt is not a Platonic Guardian in the classic Sir Humphrey mode (or in the modern form, I would argue, of his successors).

He is a former soldier who served later as Private Secretary to the Queen.  And will not have wanted to be put in the position of sparking a chain reaction of events that ended in the defenstration of a Prime Minister.

The Conservative Party and its hinterland spent the best part of a decade debating whether or not a Cabinet conspiracy of “wets” had toppled Margaret Thatcher.

The claim that an Establishment Blob terminated Johnson, in these post-truth times and in the wake of Brexit, would have wider resonance.

This morning, it looks as though that wounding prospect may have been avoided.  But the body of unelected officials with inchoate powers over people we elect is an accident waiting to happen.

These include: the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, and the Director-General of Propriety and Ethics.

Not to mention the Electoral Commission.  Some of these posts are governmental, some electoral, others Parliamentary and others both.

But at least in the first case, and perhaps in the other two, the Prime Minister should start mulling how to slim down this overweight mass into better shape.

Richard Holden: Why Labour’s grip on seats like mine weakened. And how we can strenghten our own everywhere.

24 May

The Lazy Hollow Café & Patisserie, Mason St., Consett

Uma is, I’d guess, in her 50s. She’s buoyant, a good baker, and clearly one of those people who is not just hard-working, but also puts her heart and soul into everything she does.

A teaching assistant at a state comprehensive for the last quarter of a century, in December she took the plunge – “while I’m young enough”, she tells me – and decided to take on a café in Consett town centre. Duringg the final assembly at the school in which she worked, she tells me how she wept ,and speaks with real passion and care for the children she helped over the years.

I don’t know (and doesn’t ask) whether she voted for me or not. She gives me a little tour, and we have a couple of photos. Then we settle down to coffee and (the excellent cake she’s made), and just chat.  About education policy – an area of mutual interest – her new business and the challenges she’s facing, and the prospects of the largest town in my constituency.

She’s so positive and proud about what she and her team have done to this former job centre and amusement arcade, which is now a lovey café. And so they should be: it is fabulous.

Uma doesn’t fit the narrative that has developed of the normal Northern working-class voter that the media has portrayed as the “switch voter” that cost Labour the “Red Wall.” As a recent YouGov poll suggested – to the astonishment of many commentators – they’re pretty much like everyone else in the UK.

But, if that’s the case, three questions remain unanswered: first, why did these towns and villages continue to vote Labour for so long; second, why did they switch to the Conservatives and, third, why did they do so now?

So: why did they vote Labour in the first place? I think there are three historic differences in the political culture – the Red Wall ‘Holy Trinity’ that has slowly broken down over decades making these areas more similar to the rest of the country than before. Large unionised industries that re-enforced social class differences had an influence in everything from housing for the retired to the social clubs people went to of an evening; religion, via the non-establishment combination of Methodism and Roman Catholicism (both socially conservative – to varying degrees – but economically left-of-centre); and a traditional Labour Party of the people that was both of and in touch with these communities.

Over the last 60 years, especially since Wilson’s “White Heat of Technology” was accompanied by the pit closures of the late 1960s (people forget that Wilson closed more pits than anyone else) the beginning of the real decline in the traditional religious underpinnings took place.

These continued in the background for decades, but the break with Labour took longer. The party received a brief fillip in the early years of Tony Blair, but the break soon accelerated as ‘New Labour’ seemed to take votes but provide little in return. Many people stopped voting – and the Liberal Democrats made some moderate progressm, though rarely enough to more than dint in large Labour majorities.

Then followed a significant shift to the Britain-hating far left under Jeremy Corbyn – and the betrayal over Brexit further jolted these communities politically, too. On top of this, Labour just took their own voters for granted with too often lazy MPs (or at least MPs more interested in working on their interests rather than those of the communities they were supposed to serve) and that real, final, community orientated link between MP-Labour Party-constituency which had looked wobbly for a long time was broken.

All this can explain the move away from Labour: but why go Conservative – and why now? Well, it’s been a long, long process. The truth can be heard on the doorstep of seats like mine.

Many people barely saw a leaflet at election time, never mind between elections. And if they did get a leaflet or a knock-on-the-door they weren’t getting them from Conservatives. Conservatives were moribund, inactive and weren’t providing that alternative on the ground people were increasingly craving.

Votes spread out to the Liberal Democrats, Independents, UKIP and, sadly, to the “Won’t vote.” It was only in 2017 that the Conservative Party really realised that things could change in these seats, and started putting more effort in. That year saw a marked shift following Brexit towards the party. We must now use those results as a springboard to consolidate current constituencies, and push forward to more areas.

Moreover, there are these sort of former traditional Labour voters in every seat in the country. Ask any Conservative MP who campaigns hard in their patch. Traditional Labour wards in these areas – previously thought difficult to win – are now likely the strongest Conservative areas of these seats. These voters are there if people want to find them.

I read largely anonymous comments from some of my colleagues in other more ‘traditional’ Conservative parts of the country who put forward a variety of factors as to why seats were lost recently. Some put it down to national policy challenges but, given gains across the country from Cheltenham to Plymouth to Harlow to Delves Lane in Consett, and even Shaun Bailey in London trimming Sadiq Khan’s majority in what was meant to be the ‘heart’ of Labour, it’s clear that, actually, campaigning is what counts.

Given the national circumstances almost all seats we held could have remained Conservative if greater efforts had been made. I can see from the results across County Durham that the better the campaign, the better the result. For the first time in over 102 years, Labour may soon no longer run County Durham Council because of campaigning Conservatives.

Perhaps my thoughts are best summed up by one colleague from the South East England, apoplectic upon returning to Westminster having lost a council seat held by the Conservatives for generations. He said that he’d been telling his sitting councillor of ten years to campaign, but they kept brushing him off telling him they had “important meetings at County Hall to attend” – well, that councillor won’t be attending County Hall at all any more.

The Labour activists on the ground may still believe that someone’s so-called “class” defines their politics. That’s absolute nonsense and any Conservative who is idiotic enough to believe it needs their head examined. The “Holy Trinity” of why people voted Labour has broken down in the ‘Red Wall’ and elsewhere.

What counts is campaigning because, as that YouGov poll suggested, voters whether in the North of England of East London are not dissimilar. They want people out there and fighting for them and they’re open to voting Conservative if we’re prepared to put the effort in on the ground.

Profile: Robert Jenrick, who rose without trace until he hit two bumps in the road

24 Jun

Until the age of 38, which he attained on 9th January this year, Robert Jenrick had ascended the political ladder at remarkable speed while remaining unknown to the wider public.

Nor can one yet say that as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government he has become a household name, often though he appeared at the Downing Street press conferences on Covid-19.

For there is nothing distinctive in Jenrick’s manner: he does not lodge himself in the memory.

Labour is trying to change that. It wants people to remember him, if not by name, then as the Tory minister who “auctioned off the planning system to a billionaire donor at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner”, as Steve Reed, Jenrick’s Labour opposite number, recently put it.

And this afternoon in the Commons, Labour will press for the release of all documents to do with that affair.

The fundraising dinner took place last November. Jenrick found himself sitting next to Richard Desmond, former proprietor of The Daily Express, who is seeking permission for a one billion pound redevelopment of that paper’s disused Westferry Printworks in the Isle of Dogs, to include over 1500 flats.

Jenrick had already called in the scheme, and in January this year he approved it, on the day before Desmond would have become liable to pay Tower Hamlets Council a Community Infrastructure Levy of about £40 million on the scheme.

The council opened legal proceedings against Jenrick, who in May conceded that the timing of his decision “would lead the fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility” of bias.

The Planning Court said the Housing Secretary had accepted the decision “was unlawful by reason of apparent bias and should be quashed”, which it proceeded to do.

Another minister will now decide whether to approve Desmond’s development, and Labour is doing all it can to exploit Jenrick’s embarrassment, as would the Conservatives if the positions were reversed.

When taking the decision to approve Desmond’s plan, Jenrick not only rejected the advice of the local council and planning inspector, which is usual enough, but is reported to have rejected the advice of his own chief planning officer, which is highly unusual.

Desmond paid £12,000 to attend the dinner, of which Jenrick recently said in the Commons:

“My department knew about my attendance at the event before I went to it. It knew about the fact that I had inadvertently sat next to the applicant. I did not know who I was going to be seated by until I sat at the table. I discussed and took advice from my officials within the department at all times.”

There is something hapless about the word “inadvertently”. A Tory MP told ConHome with considerable annoyance that Jenrick “should never have been sitting next to Desmond”, but blamed the organisers of the dinner, not Jenrick, for this, and described the Housing Secretary as “well-respected”.

Another senior Tory backbencher said of Jenrick:

“He is a decent man, a solicitor by training, highly diligent, and I would trust him over Mr Desmond any day.”

But a third backbencher, a former minister, said Jenrick is known as “Generic”

“because there’s nothing there. If he walked across a sieve he’d probably completely disappear. He’s a suit. What does he believe? He’s an example of the new kind of Cabinet Minister who forms up with a pair of shiny shoes, takes his orders from Dominic Cummings and goes and delivers them.

“He’s arrived from nowhere and as for all politicians who do that when he hits a bump he goes off the road.”

Jenrick has actually hit two bumps. In March, he repeatedly emphasised, in his role as one of the Government’s leading spokesmen on the pandemic, that people “should stay at home whenever possible”, but at the start of April he was found to have travelled to his house in Herefordshire:

“Under-fire minister Robert Jenrick has claimed the £1.1 million Grade I listed country mansion he drove 150 miles to during the coronavirus lockdown is his family home – but his official website says the opposite, MailOnline can reveal today.

“The Housing Secretary is also facing calls to quit unless he can offer a ‘very good explanation’ about a 40 mile trip to drop supplies at his parents’ house in Shropshire last weekend when neighbours said they were already delivering essentials.

“Mr Jenrick, a key player in the Government’s response to the pandemic that has claimed 7,978 lives in Britain, has repeatedly told the public to stay at home and not make unnecessary journeys to stop the spread of coronavirus, including travelling to any second homes.”

On the same day that report appeared, 9th April, Boris Johnson came out of intensive care at St Thomas’s Hospital, and three days later he delivered his heartfelt message of thanks to the NHS for saving his life.

Compared to that, the questionable conduct of an unknown Cabinet minister looked unimportant. It made nothing like the impact of the revelation on 22nd May of Dominic Cummings’ family trip during lockdown to County Durham.

Cummings presents a wonderful target. He is blamed by Remainers for steering the Leave campaign to victory, is close to the Prime Minister and loves riling the media. Piers Morgan and Alastair Campbell were among those who led the demands for Cummings to be sacked, and Tory MPs found their inboxes flooded by emails from members of the public who were furious that there seemed to be one rule for the ruling class, represented by Cummings, and another for everyone else.

Nobody regards Jenrick as an evil genius, and he has never intentionally riled the media. He has instead followed the more conventional course of giving the media nothing much to report, and most people have probably already forgotten about his travels during lockdown.

Jenrick was born in Wolverhampton in 1982, grew up in Herefordshire and Shropshire, and was educated at Wolverhampton Grammar School, a fee-paying establishment, followed by St John’s College, Cambridge, where he took a First in History, after which he spent a year studying Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

He proceeded to qualify, in 2008, as a solicitor, to work for two American law firms in Moscow and in London, and on the international business side of Christie’s Auction House.

In the same year, he gained selection as the Conservative candidate for Newcastle-under-Lyme, in Staffordshire, where in the general election of 2010 the Conservative vote rose by almost 5,000, but he was still 1500 votes short of taking the seat, which only went Tory last December.

During one week of the 2010 campaign, he contributed a diary to ConHome which included this passage:

“Unexpectedly this afternoon, a legal contact calls. He’s an environmental lawyer in Washington D.C. who is co-ordinating efforts in the U.S. to develop the first Green Investment Bank with the Obama administration. I put him in touch with the Shadow Environment team, some of whom it turns out will be in D.C. tomorrow and may be able to meet up. This follows on from bringing together the Environment team with Better Place, an Israeli company developing an electric car system that will soon be on the streets of Tel Aviv and San Francisco. Better Place’s CEO, Shai Agassi, is one of the most impressive men I’ve met: he is pragmatic and not a climate crusader and he puts privately-funded technological advancement at the heart of tackling climate change.”

We see Jenrick at the age of 28 proud of his ability to network, and remarkably at ease as he does so.

In 2013, Better Place went bankrupt, and Jenrick was adopted as the Conservative candidate in Newark, where it was expected that the scandal-afflicted Tory MP, Patrick Mercer, would stand down at the general election in 2015.

Mercer instead stood down in April 2014, precipitating a by-election in Newark where the Conservatives needed to beat off a strong challenge from UKIP in order to look like credible contenders for 2015.

Tory MPs were ordered to visit Newark three times during the campaign, Cabinet ministers were expected to put in five appearances, members of the House of Lords could be found delivering leaflets, and the party’s depleted reserves of activists were incentivised by the prospect of fighting alongside the officer class.

Jenrick found himself at the centre of a national campaign. Roger Helmer, the UKIP candidate, accused him of owning three homes, none of them anywhere near Newark.

The formidable Simon Walters, political editor of The Mail on Sunday, arrived to see what he could make of Jenrick:

Mr Jenrick presents himself as a ‘father, local man, son of a secretary and small businessman and state primary school-educated’ candidate.

But that is not quite the whole story.

In fact, he and American wife Michal own not one, but two, £2 million homes in London and a £1 million country pile built by an 18th Century slave-trader.

Their Newark ‘home’ is a rented house obtained when he was picked as a candidate six months ago.

And his Party CV omits to say he went to a £13,000-a-year private secondary school.

Together with his director’s  job at Christie’s auction house, it is just the type of posh Tory boy image Cameron and co can’t shrug off.

Mr Jenrick, who looks even younger than his 32 years, sticks rigidly to his Tory HQ autocue when asked about national issues.

During our interview at a cafeteria in Tuxford, near Newark, he is finally stirred when I ask whether, in his keenness to come across as a regular guy, he has misled voters.

To win the candidacy, he promised he would move his family lock, stock and barrel to Newark. A 250-mile round-trip  to Westminster if he becomes  MP – quite a commute for a  self-proclaimed family man  with two young daughters.

How many nights has the family actually spent in their Newark ‘home?’

‘Er, it has grown over time.’  He won’t say.

His election leaflets are also silent about the couple’s £2 million flat in Marylebone, London. It went up in value by £300,000 last year, more than twice the average price of a home in Newark.

Last October, the couple splashed out an extra £2.5 million on a house in fashionable Vincent Square, Westminster, less than a mile from Parliament, which they plan to move into soon.

On top of that they bought Grade I listed Eye Manor in Herefordshire for £1.1 million  in 2009.

Mr Jenrick says he is ‘almost sure’ they will sell it and move to Newark if he becomes MP.

It is to be hoped this interview is not the first Mrs Jenrick, a top commercial lawyer whose professional name is Michal Berkner, eight years Mr Jenrick’s senior, has heard of that.

The Conservatives won the Newark by-election by 7,403 votes from UKIP, and Jenrick’s majority has since risen to 21,816. Some vexation is nevertheless expressed in Newark that Jenrick has yet to sell Eye Manor, and appears to prefer going there with his wife and their three daughters.

As one constituent said, “It’s perfectly clear who wears the trousers and it isn’t him. She indulges his little hobby of being an MP.”

But if one were fortunate enough to own Eye Manor, parting with it might feel unbearable. Here is Marcus Binney, singing its praises in The Times before the Jenricks bought it:

For its size, Eye Manor, near Leominster in Herefordshire, has the most gorgeous series of Charles II interiors in England. Here is plasterwork as overflowing in richly sculpted fruit and flowers as carvings by the great Grinling Gibbons. It gets better: over the past 20 years the late owner, Margery Montcrieff, laid out an intricate, inventive and enchanting formal garden that almost vies with Sissinghurst in Kent. 

One of the sympathetic things about Jenrick is his love of history. When ConHome spoke to him during the Newark by-election, he “seemed reassuringly dull”, but

When asked who his political hero is, he became more animated, and vouchsafed that he is writing a book about the English Civil War, in which Newark played a prominent role: it was a royalist stronghold which was three times besieged unsuccessfully by the parliamentarians. The first siege was raised by no less a figure than Prince Rupert, the most dashing royalist of them all.

And Prince Rupert turns out to be Mr Jenrick’s hero. Beneath that somewhat impassive exterior perhaps there beats the heart of a true cavalier.

At Westminster, Jenrick remarked in his maiden speech that “there are, after all, no final victories in politics; all achievements, however hard won, can be and are undone.”

After the 2015 general election he became in rapid succession PPS to Esther McVey, Michael Gove, Liz Truss and Amber Rudd, before in January 2018 being appointed Exchequer Secretary by Theresa May.

He was climbing the ladder, and in the summer of 2019 he, Rishi Sunak and Oliver Dowden questioned Johnson for an hour at Jenrick’s house in Vincent Square, and at a well-judged moment put their names to a joint piece for The Times Red Box which appeared under the reasonably clear headline:

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

All three authors are now in the Cabinet. Jenrick has been lined up to carry out the radical reform of the planning system on which Johnson and Cummings are intent.

Will he still be in office to carry out this work? Johnson and Cummings have shown they do not like being pushed around by the newspapers, which are crawling over every planning decision in which Jenrick has been involved.

So perhaps he will hang on. He will need, however, to learn the art of sometimes saying no to people, including developers such as Desmond.