The terrible truth about Banks and Cadwalladr. They need each other.

13 Jun

Paul Goodman writes: Arron Banks, the former UKIP donor, has lost his libel case against Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer journalist.  The definitive article on the relationship between these best of enemies was written by Mark Wallace on ConservativeHome.

Mark wrote in the wake of a Cadwalladr interview with Banks for the Observer.  The piece was called “Arron Banks and The Observer have a shared interest in making Brexit all about him.” Here it is below.

Consider the following paragraph:

‘Though Nigel Farage is the face of Brexit, Arron Banks is the man who made it possible. He bought Brexit. Or at least paid for it. Until 2014 he was an unknown Bristol businessman. Now he’s the biggest political donor in British political history. The most powerful. He put more money into funding the Leave campaign than anyone else – more than £7m. He donated his office space, his computer equipment, his senior staff. He’s the co-founder of Leave.EU, the so-called “provisional wing” of the Leave campaign.’

Sounds impressive. Indeed, it’s meant to – Carole Cadwalladr was interviewing Banks for The Observer, and had every interest in talking up the towering importance of her interviewee. Unfortunately, while she carefully selected her facts and wording, the account doesn’t quite match reality.

Sounds impressive. Indeed, it’s meant to – Carole Cadwalladr was interviewing Banks for The Observer, and had every interest in talking up the towering importance of her interviewee. Unfortunately, while she carefully selected her facts and wording, the account doesn’t quite match reality.

Banks spent several million pounds on Leave.EU, the campaign that he set up in the hope of leading the push for Brexit. The amounts involved aren’t entirely clear – sometimes people assume the totals cited by Leave.EU to all have come from him alone, when in fact the campaign also received £3.2 million from Peter Hargreaves and various other donations. If the £7 million figure is accurate, then Banks would indeed have been the biggest individual donor in the multiplicity of pro-Leave groups. But it still wouldn’t be the case that he was “funding the Leave campaign” – he was funding his personal Leave campaign, not the actual, official Leave campaign. Indeed, a decent portion of his time and effort was spent attacking the real campaign, Vote Leave.

That blurring of Leave.EU with “the Leave campaign” isn’t the only somewhat misleading claim in Cadwalladr’s gushing introduction. Is Banks really “the man who made [Brexit] possible”? Is it true to say “he bought Brexit”? No.

For a start, the very reason Banks was so keen to secure designation of Leave.EU as the official Leave campaign was that the official campaign had massively higher spending limits than other registered participants – ten times higher, at £7 million, compared to £700,000. He was not allowed, during the campaign itself, to spend anywhere near as much as he would have liked – making “buying Brexit” rather difficult to do.

To leap to these conclusions, Cadwalladr appears to have totted up the amounts of money and concluded that spending a lot equals victory. But that, too, is untrue. If it was the case, then Remain would have won – overall, pro-EU campaigners spent £19,070,566 to Leave campaigners’ £13,436,241, and the Government spent an additional £9 million on promoting EU membership. It’s self-evidently not the case that how much you spend matters more than how you spend it. And Leave.EU’s work left plenty to be desired: the repeated but abortive attempts to organise a strange pop concert, teaming up with George Galloway, putting out graphics joking about rape, targeting adverts at National Front supporters, and so on.

At the same time, Vote Leave deployed more people and more material on the ground, set the national debate in the media, and led all but one of the televised referendum debates. Even more importantly, it was using these channels to deliver messages that actually worked to convince people to support leaving the EU, communicating the effective triple offer of taking back control of our laws, our money and our borders, while Leave.EU clumsily tried to link the Orlando terrorist attack to the referendum.

At its best, Leave.EU worked to increase turnout among already convinced Leave supporters. At its worst, it blundered about, saying things which made its base feel good but confirming the darkest fears about Leave in the minds of undecided voters. Neither equates to making Brexit happen. Had Leave.EU been the officially designated campaign, it would likely have lost the referendum – and even from its more limited platform as a registered participant it came close, at times, to costing us the chance to escape the EU.

Given that it’s meant to be the job of newspapers to inform their readers, one would be entitled to wonder why Cadwalladr presents a version of events which do not match reality. As I’ve already mentioned, The Observer is understandably interested in hyping up its interviewee – “he spent a lot of money, but not very effectively” would be a less exciting introduction. But it also has a political interest in establishing an alliance of convenience with Banks.

Both the multi-millionaire Leave supporter and the Remain-backing newspaper want Brexit to be all about Banks.

He wants this because it fulfils his desire to make the establishment “know who I am”, a wish stirred when William Hague dismissed news of his donation to UKIP in 2014, and to give some weight to his attempts to found a new political movement to “clear out” Westminster.

The Observer wants this because Banks embodies all of what it would like Brexit to represent – namely, a British version of Trumpism –  but also because his habit of implying he managed to secure victory by pushing “the boundary of everything, right to the edge” plays into its wishful thinking that the Leave vote was somehow unfairly achieved and therefore doesn’t really count, as Tim Mongtomerie has noted.

adwalladr’s previous interview with Andy Wigmore, Banks’s sidekick, has already generated an attempt by those who want the Leave vote overturned to spark a new Electoral Commission investigation into campaign spending (in response, Leave.EU denies any wrongdoing).

If this odd couple succeed in promoting their preferred narrative, then Banks gets to claim he made Brexit happen, and The Observer gets to imply that Brexit is, at its heart, illegitimate. Both appear happy to make that bargain, but everybody else should see it for what it is and reject it.

The post The terrible truth about Banks and Cadwalladr. They need each other. first appeared on Conservative Home.

The Coronavirus inquiry. I’m an outlier – but I believe that following public opinion was a problem.

15 Mar

Coronavirus has disappeared from the headlines recently. The lifting of restrictions, the horrifying news from Ukraine, and our instinctive desire to quickly forget the dreadful means there is now a collective effort to never mention the dreaded C-word again.

But March 26th will mark the unhappy second anniversary of Britain entering lockdown: the biggest state-mandated change to our lives since the Second World War. With the terms of the Government’s inquiry into its handling of the pandemic announced last week, this is an opportunity to ask the fundamental question: was it all worth it?

The inquiry hopes to do this. The proposed terms of reference suggest that it shall assess all aspects of the government’s response: preparedness, the efficacy of interventions, the management of hospitals and care homes, the provision of essential equipment, and economic support. Under Baroness Hallett, the Chairwoman – a former High Court judge – it is hoped the inquiry will “reflect the importance of understanding the experiences of those most affected by the pandemic” and identify where the government got it wrong.

Like all inquiries, this will be a welcome opportunity for acts of confession and self-justification on the parts of ministers. That at least one Cabinet member has been keeping a diary for the last two years is unsurprising. This is a chance for ministers to show public contrition for any shortcomings, whilst aiming to guarantee that the eventual narrative presents them in the best possible light. Plus, Anthony Seldon and Tim Shipman must work from something.

The direct relationship between the size of an inquiry’s remit and the time it takes to conclude means it will be a while before we see Hallett’s final report. Moreover, inquiries tend largely to confirm lessons we have already learnt, providing only slaps on the wrist for politicians who have long since left office. By 2016, for example, we didn’t really need Lord Chilcot to tell us that invading the Middle East on a spurious pre-text was poor form, and that Tony Blair might have a slight messiah complex.

Nevertheless, we can get on with lesson-learning whilst the Baroness finishes dotting her Is and crossing her Ts. A report in the Lancet last week suggested the UK had a lower death toll than Italy, Portugal, and Spain – with no significant differences from those of France and Germany.

By looking at age-standardised avoidable mortality rates, the UK emerged as having the 29th worst mortality rate in Western Europe – largely, commentary suggested, due to our successful vaccine rollout. With cases currently hitting their highest numbers since early February alongside no drastic spike in hospitalisations, we really do appear to have triumphed over Covid.

140 million jabs and no restrictions is an achievement, even if returning to normality took longer than the “three weeks to flatten the curve” we were first promised. But if the vaccine rollout showed the British state at its best, the pandemic has also shown it at its worst. Billions chucked after a largely useless test-and-trace system, arrogant officials who genuinely believed Britain had a world-leading pandemic preparedness plan, and a health service as creaking as it is beloved: all hampered the fight. That tackling the virus was so expensive reflects the British state’s habitual cluelessness.

But surely that’s ancient history – who quibbles about timescales and costs when the pubs are open again? Nevertheless, there are real questions to ask about the fundamental problems of the government’s pandemic response. As a recovering student who spent his last year at university railing against restrictions, I almost respect those in Number 10 who dabbled in cakes and champers: they stuck two fingers up at rules so obviously grotesque even their very authors deemed them unreasonable. Saying such a thing makes me an outlier – but the trouble of following public opinion has been a problem of these last two years.

Think back to that mad, miserable March. The accepted narrative of events follows a government that began by nonchalantly dismissing the approaching threat being bounced by sensible scientists like Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty, and Saint Ferguson of Lockdown into following the rest of the civilised world (basically European countries with skiing resorts, and those bits of America that like Hillary) into necessary restrictions. Ferguson famously claimed that locking down a weak earlier would have saved 20,000 lives. The allegation that nasty Tories pursued chimeric ‘herd immunity’ at the expense of innocent lives was potent.

The reality was rather different. Rather than rejecting ‘the science’ for political ends, the government studiously followed scientific advice. The crucial point was that that advice changed. Vallance, Whitty et al was began March claiming they wanted to squash the sombrero, that cancelling mass events and mandating face masks was pointless. They may have initially believed the virus was more like the flu, but, even so, the government hardly ignored them. Ferguson was the outlier in calling for restrictions.

What changed? Remember, officials initially openly scoffed at the concept of lockdown. They believed such an authoritarian measure was unworkable in as freedom-loving country such as Britain. Their minds were changed by a force that has done more to shape the government’s handling of this pandemic than any other: the almost-sadomasochistic partiality for restrictions on the part of the British public.

Professor Ferguson’s infamous model certainly had an impact on ministers, primarily because it showed the NHS being overwhelmed. A new Tory government, driven by Vote Leave’s obsession with polls and the health service, could never be seen to let our national religion buckle. As horrific scenes poured onto our television screens from Lombardy night after night, and as country after country entered a lockdown hitherto thought only possible under the CCP, the public mood changed.

Already by March 26th, travel by tube, rail, or bus was down by more than 80 per cent. Outcry at allowing events like the Cheltenham festival and St Patrick’s Day celebrations helped convince the government that Something Must Be DoneTM. We were bounced into lockdown.

And as the weeks drew on, and the public remained overwhelmingly in favour of being paid to sit at home and watch Netflix, removing restrictions became even harder. Not until jabs could be put in arms, providing levels of reassurance acceptable to even the most zealous mask-wearer, could the government finally turn the corner: it had to win against public opinion as much as the virus. We remained stuck under restrictions for so long not only because of the SAGE’s caution, but because the public’s instincts were usually more draconian than the government’s.

We have known since Public Heath England first reported on it in July 2020 that the measures imposed that March may have caused more deaths in the long-term than they saved. From domestic abuse and mental illness, to missed cancer screenings and two years of disrupted learning, the consequences of our national experiment in authoritarianism will still be being counted far beyond the end of even the most leisurely of inquiry timescales.

And as we have all chosen to conveniently forget just how popular the war in Iraq initially was, I suspect that, in years to come, as hospital backlogs and educational problems stack up and mountains of debt must be paid off by continuous tax rises, the British people will similarly choose to forget just how enthusiastic we were for lockdown. March 2020 was the cruellest month – and one day, in the not-too-distant future, none of us will be able to say why.

Daniel Hannan: The Government’s new Brexit vision looks like thin, watery, tasteless gruel

2 Feb

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

On Monday, I picked up the Government’s new paper, The Benefits of Brexit: How the UK is taking advantage of leaving the EU, hoping to be cheered up. The point of leaving the EU, after all, was to remove constraints, allowing us to make different and better choices. Two years after Brexit, and a year after the end of the transition, how are we doing?

Overall, I’m afraid, the document is thin, watery, tasteless gruel. Yes, there are tasty lumps here and there. Replacing the Common Agricultural Policy with a subsidy regime that rewards rural stewardship rather than food production is in the interests of farmers, consumers and the countryside.

Taking back control over our fishing grounds is likewise in the interests of both fishermen and fish. We’ve tapped some irritating pebbles from our shoes – the tampon tax, EU passports, restrictions on Imperial measures.

But most of the gains listed here are aspirational. Yes, we could have a better alternative to the GDPR rules. Yes, we could lead the world in AI. Yes, we could be more open to trade. Yes, we could scrap the most burdensome aspects Solvency II, MiFID II and the rest of the EU’s financial services apparatus. But, so far, we haven’t.

Here are 100 pages of civil servantese. I don’t just mean that the document was literally written by officials; I mean its worldview is that of Whitehall. Again and again, we see listed as “gains” such things as a new regulatory regime, a new agency or a new subsidy mechanism. The idea that leaving the EU might mean fewer regulations – a major theme of Vote Leave, which went into granular detail in its million-word manifesto Change or Go, has been forgotten.

All talk of cheaper energy is gone. It is now clear that, outside the EU, Britain will go beyond what it was obliged to do as a member. So has any notion of a less rigid labour market: BEIS has halted even the moderate plans to apply the Working Time Directive in the more flexible way that several EU members do.

Regulations that ran into universal opposition when they were imposed are being left in place because existing producers, having assimilated the compliance costs, don’t want new entrants to avoid them. The idea that the Government should act in the interest of the nation as a whole, making things cheaper for consumers and thus boosting growth, has been sacrificed to the civil service obsession with favoured client groups – or, as they are known in the jargon, “stakeholders”.

Why is a government elected to deliver Brexit being so timid? Is it Boris Johnson’s fault? Should we blame his ministers? Or the Blob? Let’s consider the options.

A charge commonly levelled at the PM is that he lacks staying power, that he tosses out dazzling ideas only to back away when he realises that they involve short-term unpopularity. Even when they are popular, runs the argument, he often loses interest, allowing them to sink into the quicksand of Whitehall inertia.

Plainly some of that has been going on here. For example, the Trade Remedies Authority, created to assess whether existing tariffs or other barriers could be justified, gave its first judgment on the steel duties that Brussels had imposed in retaliation against Donald Trump. It called for most of them to be repealed.

The PM overruled it, seemingly at the behest of some MPs in steel-producing constituencies. Having made the finest defence of free trade by any major leader as recently as February 2020, he thus now has a 100 per cent record of intervening from a protectionist direction. Indeed, protectionism is suddenly being presented as a benefit of Brexit: “We created the Trade Remedies Authority to help defend UK economic interests by investigating complaints from UK industries.”

Britain’s approach to trade has been almost as prone to producer capture as the EU’s. Even when dealing with countries as well-disposed as Australia and New Zealand, we have dragged our feet (almost all the delays were on the British side). How much more mercantilist will we be when it comes to India or Mexico?

Then again, the more specific the problems, the harder it is to blame them all on Number 10. The Government is crowing about freeports, for example – and it is certainly true that freeports can create growth in ways that were illegal in the EU. But only if they have meaningful powers, especially when it comes to lowering or scrapping taxes – something that Treasury officials appear to have blocked.

Brexit gave us the chance to set aside some of the EU’s more Luddite rules on gene editing. Again, the intentions seemed to be there. Ministers fought the Blob to get Matt Ridley appointed to the relevant advisory committee, which duly proposed sensible ways in which we could seize the economic and environmental opportunities. Nothing happened. After trying several times to turn his recommendations into policy, Ridley quit politics – a real loss to the nation.

Most disappointing of all has been the failure to deregulate financial services. While we were in the EU, we voted against several pointless new rules, some of which seemed expressly designed to drive business from London to Paris and Frankfurt. Often, we lost. But, now that we are free to repeal these laws, we seem reluctant to do so – even though, by denying us equivalence, the EU has removed any incentive to stick to its standards.

Whenever you push them, Treasury ministers say that it’s all in hand, that they’re conducting a review and something or other and mimblewimble. But, more than two years after winning an 80-seat majority, the Government has done nothing. Indeed, there is a real prospect that the EU will remove the more burdensome aspects of the Solvency II regime before Britain does.

I’m afraid ministers must accept collective responsibility here. In theory, they want deregulation. In practice, they don’t want it in their own departments. And they don’t want it because change – especially change that pits them against their officials – is hard work and leads to bad short-term headlines.

Which brings us to the real problem. The only way to deliver an economically liberal agenda is to take on the Blob – not just civil servants and quangos, but all the associated corporatists and rent-seekers and CBI bureaucrats who have attached themselves to the status quo. That requires not just courage but time, patience and single-mindedness.

Dominic Cummings was supposedly brought in to get on top of the Blob. He failed. Perhaps he was better at stating the problem than at tackling it. Perhaps he lacked support. Perhaps he was overtaken by the coronavirus. Whatever the explanation, I fear the moment has passed.

How telling that this administration – this supposedly Brexit-focused, anti-nanny-state, freedom-loving administration – has dropped the one-in-one-out rule on regulations that David Cameron and Theresa May followed. Apparently it was deemed to be incompatible with the net zero agenda.

We paid a high price during the exit negotiations for the right to diverge from EU standards. I was one of those who argued for moderation – for accepting a Swiss-type deal so as to avoid many of the rows we went on to face over Northern Ireland.

I lost that argument and we went for absolute regulatory freedom. OK, fine: I’m happy to get with the programme. But it is idiotic to pay that price and then not use the freedoms it bought. There was recently a time when almost every Conservative MP understood that. Where have they all gone?

Daniel Hannan: We should thank, not demonise, the patriots who donate to political parties

4 Aug

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

The Financial Times is becoming slightly unhinged in its dislike of Tories. The paper’s loyalties have always been mercurial: over my lifetime, it has endorsed all three parties. Having enthusiastically backed Tony Blair, it gave some support to the Coalition and then to Theresa May. But Brexit seems to have tipped it over the edge. Even when the alternative was Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, it could not bring itself to back Boris.

Now it has taken to insinuating that donations to political parties are somehow dodgy – an odd stance for a newspaper that still sees itself as a defender of the private sector. For several days, the FT has been running news articles, features and comment pieces that vaguely suggest – without actually alleging any impropriety – that there is something suspect about the Conservative Party’s receipt of private money.

Property donors provide one-quarter of funds given to Tory party,” was Friday’s headline. Oh dear, we’re meant to think, not property donors! Not those johnnies who put roofs over our heads! It is a curious feature of our present discourse that, despite an acute housing shortage, developers can be presented as being almost on a level with arms dealers or pornographers.

The following day, it fired its second barrel: “Elite Tory donors club holds secret meetings with Johnson and Sunak,” was its lead story, followed up by pages of analysis inside.

Gosh. Secretive, eh? Bad enough that they’re property developers. But these, we learn, are furtive property developers. How did the FT find out about the donations of this sinister cabal? It turns out that they’re all registered with the Electoral Commission. Anyone can look them up. The organisation that happened to do so is an outfit called Transparency International whose Director of Policy (and evidently the driving force behind this report) is Duncan Hames, who is married to the former Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson and was himself the Lib Dem MP for Chippenham from 2010 to 2015.

Nothing wrong with any of that, obviously. Indeed, I have always had a soft spot for Swinson, who served her party with diligence and good humour, and whose dignified reaction when the SNP took her seat was a model of how to do it. But this was hardly a disinterested piece of research, as the FT must have known.

It is worth stepping back for a moment and reminding ourselves of some basic principles. First, there is nothing wrong with individuals giving money to things they support. I’m sure most ConHome readers give to charity, and I’d be surprised if most of us don’t also pay subs to our local Conservative Associations. If wealthier people make proportionately larger donations, God bless them. It must surely be better for the rich to support whatever causes they favour than to spend their cash on themselves.

We are, of course, rightly suspicious of oligarchy. I wouldn’t want a system where big donations bought policy changes, and neither would you. Such things can happen, even in Britain. Most of us remember the 1997 Bernie Ecclestone affair, in which the Formula One magnate gave Labour a million pounds in exchange for exempting his races from the ban on tobacco advertising. Fewer of us, for some reason, remember the 2009 cash-for-amendments scandal, in which two life peers asked for payments in return for moving legislation.

By any definition, both these were cases of straightforward corruption – that is, of politicians being paid to do things they would not otherwise have done. But such cases are extraordinarily rare in this country. Bad behaviour by our MPs tends to be rather more Pooterish, involving bath plugs or fumbling adulteries.

There is no suggestion that any Conservative donor has tried to buy favours. Indeed, far from seeking advantages for their own firms, these benefactors seem to be pushing for open competition. As the FT reports, with a hint of corporatist distaste, “the top donors are Thatcherite free marketeers, and they have no qualms about giving Boris a piece of their mind.” If so, good for them.

Which brings us to a second basic principle. Private donations are admirable whether or not we happen to agree with the cause being supported. One thing I have learned from social media is that there is an almost total overlap between people’s definition of “corruption” and their definition of “views with which I disagree”.

To see what I mean, consider the way Left and Right respectively treated the Koch brothers and George Soros. Depending on which side you were on, one was an example of high-minded generosity while the other was a conspiracy against the public weal.

ConHome readers should admire donors from all sides – philanthropists like Lord Sainsbury of Turville, for example, who, alongside vast charitable contributions, has given millions to Labour, the Lib Dems and various pro-EU outfits. We should likewise salute Keir Starmer’s ambition to increase the proportion of his party’s spending that comes from private contributions.

It must be better to live in a world in which rich people give their assets away. The alternative is a world in which we are forced to support political parties with our taxes. Quite apart from the tax bill being high enough already, this strikes me as morally repugnant. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”

What applies to donors applies even more to the people who volunteer to fundraise for parties. Here is a truly thankless job. Make the slightest slip and you’ll be treated as a crook. Indeed, the chances are that you’ll be hounded and accused whatever you do. In 2012, the then Conservative treasurer, Peter Cruddas, had to resign following newspaper accusations that he had been peddling cash for access. He sued for libel and won substantial damages, but he was not reinstated and, nearly a decade on, the original story was still being used to keep him out of the House of Lords.

Cruddas comes close to living up to John Wesley’s injunction to “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can”. Brought up in a council house in Hackney, he has set up a £100 million scheme to help kids from deprived backgrounds. Had he not also backed the Conservatives, he’d have been in the Lords years ago.

A similar campaign is now being waged against the party’s current Co-Chairman, Ben Elliot – again, a successful businessman who has given up a great deal of time to take on a role for which the only payment is abuse. He is the real target of the press campaign. The original allegations in the FT prompted a bizarre story in The Sunday Times which seemed to be based around the idea that there was some impropriety in his arranging for a wealthy donor to back one of the Prince of Wales’s charities.

Again, does anyone think it is a bad thing for successful people to volunteer as Elliot is doing? If he raised cash for Prince Charles’s good causes, we should applaud him. If he raises cash for the Conservatives (and he does, with extraordinary effectiveness) we should likewise applaud him.

We are in danger of driving public-spirited individuals out of politics altogether. The assault may come in the form of negative press, as with Cruddas and Elliot. It may come in the form of actual legal harassment, as with Alan Halsall, the big-hearted businessman who was pursued for three years by the electoral authorities after acting as the treasurer of Vote Leave (all the allegations were eventually shown to be nonsense, but the stress and the financial burden of those three years can never be undone).

A combination of partisanship and purse-lipped puritanism threatens to make politics a no-go area for patriots who want to support a cause bigger than themselves – whether on the Left or the Right.

So, just this once, let’s say it. Thanks to everyone who is prepared to act on principle. Thanks to all those who put their money where their mouths are. And thanks, especially, to those who give up their time and risk their reputations to make the system work. Without you, our public life would be colder, meaner and smaller.

James Frayne: Why businesses act woke and what to do about it

22 Jun

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Those that lean right find can’t understand why businesses decide to pull advertising from mainstream news outlets such as GB News or the Daily Mail – nor why they seem so prone to trash conservative attitudes online.

Right-leaning voters wonder why businesses treat ordinary right-leaning people like dangerous lunatics, when many of their own customers must be aligned to such views.

And why they are so easily pressured from outside – particularly by manifestly ideological campaigns who exist to pursue political ends? As someone who spends most of my time in the commercial world, here are a few thoughts to try to bring some sense to these fundamental questions.

1. Marketing teams control firms’ reputations, not the board (and not public affairs teams). The single most important thing for right-leaning outsiders to understand is this: boards don’t control most of a firm’s political comment, even on the most sensitive cultural issues – indeed, particularly not on the most sensitive issues.

While they might reluctantly exert control when it hits the fan, boards generally stay out of politics, preferring to let marketing teams control political comment. Boards devolve in this way because they’re persuaded that political / cultural issues fall under “corporate purpose” or “brand positioning”; they are further persuaded marketing teams know best how to engage with the public, particularly online.

Public Affairs’ teams have a decisive say on day-to-day political or Parliamentary issues – where issues are discussed within a formal framework – but less so on those sensitive cultural conversations that might not have a clear beginning or end (such as identity, the environment, and so on).

2. Most marketing teams aren’t political and don’t know their customers’ politics. Problems for boards arise because marketing teams don’t come from a political background. While recruitment between political campaigns and corporate public affairs teams (who are usually very politically sophisticated) is common, it’s unheard of between political campaigns and marketing teams.

Most marketing teams know little of Governments’ departmental agenda, and very little about how complex political / cultural issues are likely to develop. The prospect of mistakes are therefore high.

Take Net Zero as an example: many businesses have thrown themselves into an outrageously fraught and complex debate with next to no understanding of how the issue is going to play out politically (many, many businesses are going to come a cropper on this issue in the next decade). Many marketing teams know little about their customers’ approach to politics either. They usually know everything about their customers’ finances, lifestyle and shopping habits but their research rarely extends into political values or ideology. Again, this means mistakes can happen.

3. Businesses mistake social media for public opinion. In politics, it’s become a cliche to note that social media opinion isn’t public opinion; in the corporate world, this isn’t even near to becoming a cliche; people treat the two are one and the same.

This means when businesses are exposed to political comment online, they assume it’s an accurate reflection of where their customers and the wider public stand.

This ought to be corrected by reading opinion research but, because most marketing teams aren’t across political numbers, they can’t discern between a fringe campaign and a national movement.

4. Most corporate executives lean left culturally. Most businesspeople aren’t personally very political; this is true of people on boards, as well as in the marketing teams. To the extent they are, as middle class graduates who tend to live or work in and around big cities, they tend to be “liberal” in the American sense of the term.

While most executives wouldn’t seek out a row with conservatives in their business life, their liberal leaning means they’re more likely to think culturally very left-wing opinion as ordinary, mainstream opinion. This again means that their compass can be unreliable when judging external commentary on outlets like GB News, or on various sensitive political and cultural issues.

5. Boards almost always want to avoid combat. During the very early days of the EU referendum campaign, under Dominic Cummings’ encouragement, Vote Leave was eye-wateringly aggressive – to the point of near-embarrassment – towards the CBI. Why? Because Cummings judged that the CBI was ultimately frightened of combat and it was worth Vote Leave looking a bit daft if the CBI got the message they should stay quiet-ish.

Similarly, most leading businesspeople want to avoid combat; they want to sell goods, make money and take a decent salary; they don’t want rows or political attention.

Usually, therefore, if / when boards do actually sign off a political decision that might be driven by the marketing team, they will do so for a quiet life – judging that such a path is the one of least resistance. This is why pushbacks often lead to U-turns – because businesses conclude that their chosen path wasn’t the quiet one at all. It means that pressure works.

6. Businesses aren’t generally enemies of the right, they’re just dysfunctional like everyone else. The hostile commentary on supposedly woke businesses is therefore mostly overdone.

Of course, some businesses generally have gone woke and are led so from the top. Most, however, bump up against the right because of structural and cultural failings internally.

They take anti-conservative positions because they aren’t able to think politics through properly. This is encouraging; it means there is usually a pathway for the centre-right to have a more constructive relationship.

7. Harsh counter-attacks work – but primarily from the mainstream. As we saw this week, harsh counter-attacks in the media and on social media make a big difference quickly. Many businesses correct course when exposed to reputational risk from the other side.

But while assertive online campaign movements to challenge hard-left boycott campaigns can be useful, right-leaning people should not rely on such movements to secure serious long-term change. What makes businesses reverse course is not being attacked from the right, or merely the fact of negative coverage in the media and online.

Rather, it’s being exposed to allegations – by people who are manifestly mainstream and powerful – of being outside the mainstream or being hostile to it. They hate to be considered on the ideological fringes. As such, by far the most persuasive and powerful course corrections are set via criticism from Government Ministers, MPs and activists and others from the “established order”. Aggressive third party campaigns can’t match this power.

8. Conservative MPs must lead the campaign on corporate wokedom. What does all this mean? Ultimately, that Conservative MPs should come together to challenge corporate wokedom where it appears.

They should not necessarily campaign via the official party – and ideally they should do so in conjunction with other MPs and mainstream voices – but they should do so in an organised fashion.

To businesspeople, while Conservative MPs aren’t their cup of tea, they know Conservative MPs manifestly speak for the English majority; they have the stamp of respectability by being elected officials; they are treated seriously and with some respect by the media; and they have reach and influence. Conservative MPs are the only ones that can really, consistently make businesses think.

Reports of Johnson’s political demise are greatly exaggerated

20 Jun

Vote Leave‘s successor was Change Britain – a name that says much about the country’s decision to leave the European Union five years ago.

Brexit was a vote for economic as well as constitutional change: to shift from a model based on financial services, high immigration and London’s hinterland to one more favourable to manufacturing, lower migration and the provinces.  You might call it “levelling up”

If you doubt it, look at this constituency-based map of the results.  West and South of London, you will find a kind of Remain Square.  Its eastern boundary is Hertford and Stortford, more or less.  Its western one is Stroud.

Its northern frontier ends at Milton Keynes and its southern one at Lewes.  Admittedly, this square has a mass of holes punched into it: much of Hampshire, for example, voted Leave.  And some of the Remain majorities within it, like some Leave ones, were narrow.

Levelling up is a term of art.  It can mean enterprise zones, freeports, better schools, improving skills, devolving power – none of which necessarily imply rises in or transfers of public spending.

But to some in that Remain Square, and elsewhere, it is coming to mean taking money in higher taxes from people who live in the south and transferring it to people who live in the north.

This truth would hold had the Chesham and Amersham contest never taken place.   Obviously, it was a lousy result for the Conservatives – for the Party to lose a by-election without seeing it coming, let alone by some eight thousand votes.

There should be a searching post-mortem. But why would any canny voter back the establishment in a by-election?  Isn’t it best to send it a message – namely: “don’t take our votes for granted”?

In the north, that establishment is still Labour.  Hence Hartlepool.  In the south, it’s the pro-levelling up, Red Wall-preoccupied Conservatives.  Hence Chesham and Amersham.  Now on to Batley and Spen.

Come the next general election, the Liberal Democrats won’t be able to concentrate their resources in a single seat, as they did last week.  Nor will they necessarily be the opposition front-runner in the Remain Square, or elsewhere.

Which suggests that last month’s local elections are a better guide to the future than last week’s by-election.  Crudely speaking, they found the right-of-centre vote uniting behind the Tories, and the left-of-centre equivalent divided between Labour, the LibDems and the Greens.

ConservativeHome will take no lectures from anyone about the potential threat to the so-called “Blue Wall” – to the seats within the Remain Square that we identify.  Henry Hill published an analysis of it on this site on May 11, which we re-ran last Friday in the by-election’s wake.

But the good news for Boris Johnson is that the Blue Wall is crumbling more slowly than the red one.  So time is on his side rather than Keir Starmer’s, which is why we still believe that the Prime Minister will be pondering a dash to the polls in 2023.

The bad news for him is that no party can hold a monopoly on much of the country forever.  Tony Blair had one even more extensive than Johnson.  He got three terms out of it (which will encourage the Prime Minister), but Labour eventually ran out of time and votes.

Its backing melted away at both ends.  In the blue corner, their new-won support from 1997 eventually returned to the Tories or went LibDem.  In the red one, their base was eaten away not so much by economics as by immigration and culture.

The medium-term danger to Johnson should start kicking in – unless inflation speeds the process up – in two to three years, when the vultures from post-Brexit and post-Covid spending really start coming home to roost.  He may well be on a second term by then.

But at that point the Prime Minister could find himself trapped in what William Hague, referring to potential British membership of the euro, described as “a burning building with no exits”.

The cornerstone of Government economic policy to date is “no return to austerity” – which we crudely interpret to mean questionable control of the country’s public finances.

This being so, the only weapon left for Ministers to deploy is tax rises: and the tax burden is already forecast to hit the highest level since the late 1960s – 35 per cent of GDP by 2025/26.

We all have a way of reading into by-election results whatever we want to read into them.  Undoubtedly, HS2 was a factor in Chesham and Amersham.  So was planning.  Above all, Blue Wall voters were asking for what Red Wall ones are getting: a little bit of love and attention.

Beyond that, anti-lockdown campaigners claim that the result was powered by opposition to shutdowns.  Pro-aid ones assert that Buckinghamshire’s voters stand behind the 0.7 per cent.

Those suffering from Johnson Derangement Syndrome, such as Dominic Grieve, claim that Buckinghamshire’s “sophisticated” voters see through the Prime Minister.  But if so, why did they chuck Grieve out of Beaconsfield less than two years ago?

So we make no special claim about what happened in Chesham & Amersham last week, other than to take some of the more exotic claims with a lorryload of salt.

But we do make a forecast about what will happen there and elsewhere within the Remain Square in future – regardless of whether or not the seat, like Newbury and Christchurch and Eastbourne and other Liberal by-election gains of the past, duly returns to the Tory column.

Namely, that the good voters of Chesham and Amersham won’t tolerate more tax rises for long.  Not that voters in Red Wall or provincial English seats would do so either.

But the private sector in the Remain Square is relatively big; employment in public services relatively smaller; exposure to property and pensions taxes relatively bigger.

Sooner or later, Johnson and Rishi Sunak will have to revisit the other side of the financial sustainability ledger: spending control.  With over a third of it going on pensions and healthcare, that will mean tough choices, in Chesham, Amersham – and everywhere else.

As for the Prime Minister’s prospects, we are where we were before. He can have all the Turkmenbashi statues he wants, and more, for getting Brexit done – and for saving the country from metaphorical if not literal Dreyfus affair-style strife.

ConHome believes that he should have his chance to “Change Britain” (with a majority of 80, he has earned it; anxious backbenchers please take note) while having little confidence that he actually will.

What’s left of this term risks being frittered away in bread, summits, and circuses, Roman-style.  The possibility is frighteningly plausible.  We devoutly hope that we’re proved wrong, as we sometimes are.

Stratton’s departure as Press Secretary. Vote Leave is blamed – and hits back.

21 Apr

When the Prime Minister last appointed a Press Secretary, ConservativeHome was told that Lee Cain’s candidate, Ellie Price, performed better in trial live media conference tests; but that Carrie Symonds’ candidate, Allegra Stratton, got on better during pre-post Boris Johnson interviews.

At any rate, Stratton will not now be exposed to those American-style press conferences as Press Secretary – a very high wire to walk given the unprecedented nature of the events.  Instead, the deal is that she will still speak live for the Government…but only on COP26: with more restriction on the scope of questions, there will be less chance of her being ambushed.

When a plan goes awry in Downing Street, the response now tends to be: blame Vote Leave.  And both Cain, the former Director of Communications, and Dominic Cummings were duly shouldering responsibility this morning for dreaming up an arrangement that would have exposed Stratton to cruelly probing, sadistically-crafted questions.

The one put to Boris Johnson during yesterday’s press conference about his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri was being cited this morning as an example.

Characteristic, narcissistic, media-obssessed, self-regarding Westminster Village trivia, reply friends of Vote Leave.  “It was not about the lobby,” one of them told this site.  “It was about getting a message out to voters beyond the M25, and Johnson knows that he made the wrong appointment.”

At any rate, we are now back to the structure that was in place before Stratton’s appointment.  Jack Doyle steps up to become Director of Communications, replacing James Slack, who has taken on a senior role at the Sun.  Max Blain becomes the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman, and Rosie Bate-Williams is the new Press Secretary.

Much will be made of the £2.6 million spent on a new media suite for those U.S-type briefings.  But this White House theme is a bit of red herring.  Number Ten has grasped from the Coronavirus pandemic that press conferences offer them that direct access to voter’s living rooms – Vote Leave-style, without journalistic filter.

All that will now change is that Downing Street will use the suite for special events of its own timing and choosing – rather than expose itself regularly to sarky questions from the lobby.

Mind you, that wouldn’t have worried Vote Leave at all: Trump-style verbal punch-ups with self-regarding liberal broadcasters would have been grist to their mill.  Stratton wouldn’t have been up for that, and neither now is Johnson himself, if he ever was.

Finally: don’t read too much into this change. There will be speculation about moves to the left and moves to the right and all that.  Forget about all that.  Even the point that Stratton was Symonds’ preferred candidate is a snap summary of a more complex position.

All that’s happened is that Johnson appointed a softer-edged spokesperson to help deliver a Vote Leave idea, which was never going to work.  So under the cover of the distintegration of the Football Superleague, the idea’s own collapse has been quietly slipped out.

A Brexit trade deal that takes back control

30 Dec

Brexit is indeed a film, a developing tale over time, not a photo – a state of affairs that will be the same in year ten as it was on day one.  So a question that arises about the trade deal which the UK and EU have agreed is whether that story is set to be what the 52 per cent voted for and the 48 per cent can live with.

Once in that referendum, a second time during the Conservative leadership election, and a third time in last year’s general election, Boris Johnson grasped that Brexit would happen in name only if Britain did not take back control – thus satisfying neither constituency.  The film would show no real change and the crowd would want its money back.

Or, as the Conservative Manifesto put it, echoing the Vote Leave slogan: “the future relationship will be one that allows us to take back control of our laws”.  It is not yet a week since the 1246-page agreement, plus five supporting documents, was published.  And MPs will have less than a day to consider the Bill that proposes to put the treaty arising from the agreement into domestic law.

So we are cautious about delivering a final verdict.  But it does seem that Boris Johnson, David Frost, Michael Gove, Oliver Lewis and the Government’s team truly have ensured that this deal indeed takes back control, because “the meanings of the provisions are autonomous under international law and do not reference EU law or jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice”.

“Nor does the Agreement provide a role for the ECJ (except for EU programmes which the UK chooses to opt into) and the EU approach of provisions having direct effect is excluded”.  Such is the verdict of the European Research Group’s Legal Advisory Committee.  This is the heart of the matter and also the heart of Brexit.

This site believes that our nation’s prosperity is not determined by tariff and non-tariff barriers elsewhere, but by the quality of our workforce, the condition of our schools, the competitiveness of our tax system, the quality of business, the state of our infrastructure and, above all, by a culture whose features include strong families, the rule of law, a sense of fairness and a flourishing civil society.

The economic case for Brexit has always been that it potentially allows for “levelling up” – that’s to say, an rebalanced economy based less on the greater South-East, finance, high immigration, an over-valued currency, and parts of the rest of country in near-permanent recession.  Leaving the EU excludes none of the factors that we list above, and which are indispensable to such a programme.

Nonetheless, this Agreement really does seem to recognise the primacy of politics above economics, both for the UK and the EU.  For the UK, that means escaping the ECJ, because without doing so we cannot take back control; for the EU, it means preserving the integrity of its Internal Market, which is part of its wider political framework.

As our columnist Stephen Booth put it on this site yesterday, there is a price to pay for both parties.  For the EU, it is losing one of its biggest contributors, and an important part of its whole.  For the UK, it is less easy access to the markets of EU member states.  The reason why we believed that a deal was on balance likely is that it seemed that this trade-off could be acceptable to both parties.

If a Soft Brexit is EEA membership, and a Hard Brexit is No Deal, this Agreement leans towards the latter end of the scale, whereas Theresa May’s Chequers plan was nearer the former.  As irony would have it, it was May, not Johnson, who in this case wanted to have her cake and eat it – in other words, both to leave the EU and stay close to the Internal Market.

But for all the new non-tariff barriers, there will be no tariff ones – at least, if the two parties can’t settle any future differences through the arbitration mechanisms.  That suits the UK well and the EU better, given its trade surplus in manufactures.  Remainer diehards will go on to say that we are an economic loser under this deal; leaver ones that we are not always political gainers – pointing to the fishing element.

However, those who declare Britain an economic loser are not necessarily right in the long-term, or always in the short.  For example, while the downside of not having a services deal as part of the Agreement will be more complicated access, the upside is not outsourcing regulation of those services to the EU – which that former Remainer, Mark Carney, warned against earlier this year.

Those who say that the fishing settlement will disappoint much of the fishing industry have a point.  Nonetheless, the adjustment period ends after five and a half years, and Britain is now an independent coastal state.  If voters really want a better deal on fish traded off for a worse one on, say, cars, they can always vote for parties who commit themselves to such a programme.

The deal covers co-operation as well as trade but, rather than probe all its strengths and weaknesses, we want instead to make a point not so much about this Agreement as the one that preceded it – the Prime Minister’s “oven-ready deal”: the Withdrawal Agreement.  The political problems with the Brexit settlement overall lie not as far as we can see with this trade deal but its predecessor.

For it was the Withdrawal Agreement which continued the journey which the Anglo-Irish Agreement began – that’s to say, putting a greater distance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.  In a nutshell, Johnson’s version was better for Great Britain than May’s, but worse for Northern Ireland, and so problematic for the Union as a whole.

So while this Trade Agreement takes back control, the Withdrawal Agreement did not entirely do so, and there is the threat of leakage from ECJ jurisdiction in Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom.  But that is done and dusted, for better or worse.  The Withdrawal Agreement was the foundation of the Conservative Manifesto.  An election was won on it.  Tory MPs including the ERG voted for it.

The arrangements for Parliamentary scrutiny are so inadequate – the Commons will have only this morning to consider the Bill – that we can’t encourage anyone to vote for it: there may be gremlins in the text of the Treaty that have evaded even Bill Cash and his colleagues.  But the big picture really does appear to be one of a deal that does what it claims.

A slice of that 48 per cent will fight on for a cause that has lost.  But more of it has moved on.  And most of the 52 will be content, if not profoundly satisfied.  Part Two of Brexit is done and the film is rolling.  The odds seemed to be against Boris Johnson getting a Withdrawal Agreement settled, but he got one.  They were against him gaining a general election.  He did it, and won huge.

Once again, he has pulled it off.  Whatever you think of this new Agreement, that’s a personal coup.  He has managed the politics of the EU issue where Theresa May, David Cameron, John Major and even Margaret Thatcher failed.  Churchill walked with destiny.  Today, the Prime Minister, in his serio-comic way, is winking at it.

Dean Godson: It’s easier for the right to a left on economics than for the left to move right on culture. That’s a plus for Johnson.

21 Nov

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.

Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.

Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.

Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).

But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.

The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.

A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.

This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.

There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.

Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).

This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.

Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.

Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.

That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.

The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.

The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.

The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.

Profile: Carrie Symonds, experienced Tory adviser turned Prime Ministerial consort – loyal to her friends, detested by her enemies

17 Nov

Mary Wilson, Audrey Callaghan, Denis Thatcher, Norma Major, Cherie Blair, Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron, Philip May and Carrie Symonds are the nine people who over the last half century have borne the often heavy burden of being the Prime Minister’s consort.

The world does not yet know what to make of Symonds: which of two competing narratives, one highly favourable, the other almost unbelievably dismissive, to accept.

A minister for whom she worked as a special adviser told ConHome: “She was fantastic – utterly loyal, very sound and great fun.”

He pointed out that long before she met Johnson, she was a dedicated Conservative activist: “Carrie is a Tory through and through – not some arriviste.”

Many Conservatives, including many Conservative MPs, believe Symonds showed excellent political judgment by urging Johnson to sack two of the most senior members of his Downing Street staff, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, at the end of last week.

For although Cummings had masterminded the Vote Leave campaign, and Cain had worked for it, neither of them had any respect for Conservative MPs, and both of them tended to erupt in fury when their orders were questioned.

Last Friday, out the turbulent advisers went, but not quietly. They and their friends briefed most bitterly not against Johnson, or against the many others who wanted them gone, but against Symonds, who in many ways presented a softer target, for she could be accused of getting ideas above her station, harassing the Prime Minister and impeding the proper running of the Government.

“Close pals” of Cummings and Cain told David Wooding of The Sun on Sunday:

“Carrie wants to be a new Princess Di character. She’s already got her own spin doctor and own team of people and seems to think she is the most important person in No 10.

“It’s all about the court of Carrie. She’s not helping Boris at all. Everything she does is about her and not him.”

According to Simon Walters, writing in yesterday’s Daily Mail:

“Insiders said the acrimony between Miss Symonds and Mr Cummings and Mr Cain was obvious as far back as March.

“It was then that she allegedly tried to stop the Prime Minister hosting a Covid crisis meeting to deal instead with a newspaper report claiming she wanted to get rid of their beloved Jack Russell cross Dilyn.

“Mr Cummings ‘forced’ Mr Johnson to overrule his fiancée, it was claimed. He told No 10 officials to block any phone calls from Miss Symonds to the Prime Minister about the dog…

“Miss Symonds was said to be livid at a report in The Times which claimed that she no longer liked the animal.

“She went on Twitter to denounce it, saying: ‘Total load of c***. There has never been a happier, healthier and more loved dog than Dilyn.'”

A second source yesterday told ConHome that Symonds would ring Johnson over and over again until he did what she wanted, and insisted that Cummings and Cain had defended the Prime Minister against an unreasonable demand: “It’s pretty bad to be calling the editor of The Times on behalf of your girlfriend’s dog.”

Millions of dog lovers will understand why Symonds was so distressed, and if Auberon Waugh, founder of The Dog Lovers’ Party, were still with us, he would surely contend there could be no better reason to ring the editor of The Times.

H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908-16, remarked in his memoirs:

“The office of the Prime Minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it.”

The same could be said of the role of Prime Minister’s consort. Symonds can make it up as she goes along, is indeed obliged to do so.

She is 24 years younger than Johnson, and the first person to live openly at Downing Street with the Prime Minister without being married, though they are engaged.

In early April, when he went into intensive care, Symonds was terrified he was going to die. At the end of that month, she gave birth to their first child, Wilfred. She hopes to have more children.

Her own parents, Josephine Mcaffee (née Lawrence), a lawyer who did some work for The Independent, and Matthew Symonds, a founder of that paper, were not married to each other.

Anne Symonds, mother of Matthew, and his father John Beavan, later Lord Ardwick, were likewise political journalists of note, and unmarried to each other.

So for Carrie Symonds to feel an affinity with a political journalist of bohemian habits is not entirely surprising.

She was born in London in 1988, and educated at Godolphin and Latymer School and at Warwick University, where she took a First in Art History and Theatre Studies.

Symonds has referred in a tweet to one of her formative early experiences, at the International Fund for Animal Welfare: “It was my internship at IFAW, many moons ago, that first got me hooked on all things animal welfare and wanting to do my bit.”

She is a passionate environmentalist and defender of animal rights. In her first speech after moving into Number Ten, delivered at Birdfair 19, she said:

“Trophy hunting is meant to be a prize… Trophy hunting is the opposite of that… It is cruel, it is sick, is is cowardly, and I will never ever understand the motives behind it.”

That is pretty much her only recorded speech. Last Saturday afternoon, when the PM programme on Radio 4 did a profile of her, it found there are “relatively few recordings” of her.

In another tweet, posted on 2nd December 2016, the day after Zac Goldsmith lost the by-election in Richmond Park where he stood as an Independent, having resigned his seat as a Conservative in protest at the go-ahead being given for the third runway at Heathrow, Symonds declared:

“My first job in politics was working for @ZacGoldsmith & not sure I’d have worked for the Tories if it hadn’t been for him. Owe him a lot”

She worked in 2010-11 as Campaign and Marketing Director for Goldsmith, followed by a series of increasingly senior press jobs at CCHQ, and spells as a special adviser to John Whittingdale and Sajid Javid.

One observer recalled that during the general election of 2015, when she was Head of Broadcasting at CCHQ, Lynton Crosby regarded her as “the best thing since sliced bread”.

In 2016 Symonds demonstrated her independence of mind by becoming one of the handful of SpAds to back Vote Leave, at whose headquarters she appears first to have met Johnson.

During the general election of 2017 she ran Goldsmith’s campaign to regain Richmond Park.

CCHQ believed Goldsmith was going to win easily, so turned off VoteSource in Richmond Park and commanded that resources be redeployed in order to hold off the Lib Dem challenge in Kingston & Surbiton.

Symonds, who worked extremely hard and knew Richmond Park was on a knife-edge, had the wit to defy CCHQ, and had copied VoteSource – a precaution which as Mark Wallace reported for ConHome, other associations were to take before the local elections of 2018, in order to guard against another withdrawal of this essential record of canvass returns.

Goldsmith scraped home in Richmond Park by 45 votes, while Ed Davie recaptured Kingston & Surbiton for the Lib Dems by 4,124 votes. Symonds had made the right call, and was made Director of Communications at CCHQ.

Here she soon fell out with one of Crosby’s protégés, Iain Carter, who was at this time Political Director, and is now Director of Research.

“They both wanted to run the show,” one observer said. “Carrie had very strong views about people. She was unspeakably bad news.”

Symonds resigned in August 2018, after being reprimanded for poor performance. She was also accused of briefing against the Government of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and questions had earlier been raised about her expenses claims.

In January 2018, she had learned that John Worboys, the taxi cab rapist, was due for early release. She had herself been drugged by Worboys in 2007, when she was only 19 years old.

The Ministry of Justice said nothing could be done to challenge the Parole Board’s verdict. Symonds was one of the women who had the courage to launch a crowd-funded bid to overturn the decision, which they succeeded in doing.

Soon after she left CCHQ she joined Oceana, a global marine protection charity funded by Bloomberg.

In September 2018 Johnson and Marina Wheeler, to whom he had been married for 25 years and with whom he has four children, announced that they were to divorce, and Johnson’s new relationship with Symonds became known.

Her entry into Downing Street, and exceptional access to the Prime Minister, will have disconcerted those at CCHQ who had formed a low opinion of her.

A Government source yesterday ridiculed Symonds’ critics for moving from describing her as “a bimbo” to calling her “Lady Macbeth”, and added that both of these descriptions are “absurd”.

The source added that she does not see official papers, cannot block appointments, “is not in the slightest bit regal”, but is instead witty, charming and self-effacing, and has good judgement: “The PM has said the reason he’s PM is that she’s there.”

A former colleague at CCHQ is less impressed: “She’s well versed in making people feel good about themselves, but she’s more obsessed with status than with achieving anything.

“When she was having a very torrid time at CCHQ, she talked round lots of Cabinet ministers to support her.”

The media finds it impossible to reach a just assessment of Johnson’s strengths and weaknesses, because it order to appreciate his virtues, it is necessary to approach him in a spirit of sympathy, whereupon one is immediately open to the charge of sycophancy, and of overlooking his faults.

But if, in order to guard against sycophancy, one begins by enumerating his faults, one is liable never to get round to admitting that he has any virtues.

A version of this problem may apply to Symonds. If you are her friend, and she can trust you, she will be all sweetness and light.

If she sees you as an enemy, or suspects you are going to come between her and the Prime Minister, she will brief against you with a ferocity which may seem unhinged, but which is born, perhaps, from an acute awareness of her vulnerability.