Andrew Gimson’s leadership sketch: Badenoch is gone, and Frost accuses the Establishment of pretending to be asleep

19 Jul

“Nearly there,” Sir Graham Brady said, more than ever the old-fashioned teacher in charge of an unruly school trip.

Tory MPs chattered excitedly to each other in Committee Room 14, liberated from their usual routine. For as long as this phase of the contest lasts, each of them matters, for each of them has a vote.

Sir Graham read out the marks. Kemi Badenoch had been eliminated. This came as a shock to those of us who have come to regard her as the rising hope of the stern, unbending Tories.

Above Sir Graham, in magnificent profile, could be descried William Gladstone. He was the original rising hope of the stern, unbending Tories, but by the time this picture of him was painted, along with his Cabinet of 1868, he had travelled a long way from his original faith, while losing none of his moral seriousness.

Across the road, a panel assembled by Policy Exchange in an air-conditioned room addressed the question, “Conservatism: What Do We Want From The Next Prime Minister?”

Lord Frost, perhaps better known as David Frost, Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, reminded us that he had “come out as a supporter of Liz Truss”, and quoted a remark by the late Alfred Sherman, one of those who helped Margaret Thatcher to develop her programme: “You can wake someone who is asleep, but you can’t wake someone who is pretending to be asleep.”

According to Lord Frost, much of the Establishment “is pretending to be asleep”.

Lady Cavendish, who as Camilla Cavendish served as David Cameron’s Head of Policy, wondered: “Who is the Establishment?”

In our experience, few members of the Establishment think of themselves as members of the Establishment. They pretend not only to be asleep, but to be independent.

“The Conservative Party has changed fundamentally,” Lady Cavendish remarked. She warned that it is “going to lose a lot of moderates like me”, and said she thought conservatism was about “pragmatism and sound economics”.

Lord Moore, who as Charles Moore wrote the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher, remarked that before becoming Prime Minister she had the “massive advantage” of five years in Opposition to work out what was wrong, how to put it right and in what language to explain this.

Even between 1979 and 1982, when things were very difficult, “you sort of knew what she wanted, what she was working towards”.

He compared her to politicians who are “very good at winning elections” – Tony Blair, Barack Obama, Boris Johnson – but “not so good at the next bit”, i.e. answering the question: “What do we do next?”

The candidates in the current Conservative leadership race have at most a few weeks to work out what has gone wrong, and what to do next. In Moore’s view, the basic problem is that “the West is losing”.

Michael Gove spoke last. He reminded us that “I am a declared supporter of Kemi Badenoch”, and went on: “One of the reasons I’m backing Kemi is that she disagrees with me on lots of stuff and has told me so.”

“You can’t get an ambulance at the moment,” Lady Cavendish protested. “You can’t get a driving licence.” We need, she said, an efficient state, and Gove and Lord Frost have been in government and have failed to provide it.

“David has done everything he was asked to do,” Gove replied. “So it’s my fault.”

Gove names the guilty man! But meanwhile Badenoch had been knocked out. Westminster sweltered under a pitiless sun, wondering who would be next for the chop.

The post Andrew Gimson’s leadership sketch: Badenoch is gone, and Frost accuses the Establishment of pretending to be asleep appeared first on Conservative Home.

Interview with Kwasi Kwarteng: “My job is to make us not lose sight of the fact that we are Conservatives”

1 Oct

Eloquent, ebullient and frequently bursting into laughter, Kwasi Kwarteng did not look as he gave this interview yesterday morning like a minister in the middle of a crisis.

He is confident the petrol supply situation is “getting better”. Britain, he says, is making the transition from a low-wage economy with high immigration to a high-wage economy, which is what people wanted when they voted for Brexit, and although various business associations are resisting this change, it will happen quite rapidly.

As Business Secretary, Kwarteng is opposed to tax rises: “I don’t believe we can tax our way to wealth.” He calls himself “a pragmatic Thatcherite”, outlines how that philosophy can meet present-day challenges, and expresses no sympathy for gas suppliers who have got into difficulties: “Why on earth did they enter the market?”

Kwarteng communicated the genial toughness which is evidently intended to characterise the Johnson Government’s approach to business, with those who merely want to preserve the status quo granted no sympathy.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS, pronounced “Bays”) is housed in a dreary modern building at the end of Victoria Street, but from Kwarteng’s office on the eighth floor enjoys a spectacular view of Westminster Abbey.

He said that unlike Angela Rayner, he would never use the word “scum” to describe political opponents, and neither would Boris Johnson. In Kwarteng’s view, it is sometimes best just to stand back and let the Labour Party argue with itself about subjects which are of no interest to most people:

“I think the best approach is for us just to simply allow the Left to have these incredible navel-gazing debates on identity politics, because actually Critical Race Theory is not something that comes up on the doorstep, it’s not something that’s going to put food on anyone’s table.”

Kwarteng, profiled on ConHome after his appointment in January, said his department is not there to act as “a cash dispenser”, but to enable private investment. He is heartened to have confounded the head of Goldman Sachs, who predicted that after Brexit no one would invest in Britain.

The Business Secretary began by discussing what should happen in the coming days in Manchester:

ConHome: “What’s the conference all about?”

Kwarteng: “The conference is about focussing us to win the next election. It’s only two and a half years, tops, until May ’24, and we’ve got to focus obviously on trying to consolidate our coalition, and that’s all about economic opportunity, that’s all about the Prime Minister’s phrase talent is everywhere but opportunity is still focussed in a few areas.

“And that’s the intuition behind the levelling up, that phrase, if you like.

“My job is to make us not lose sight of the fact that we are Conservatives. We believe in markets, we believe in individual responsibility, we believe in the ingenuity of the individual to come up with ideas that can transform society.

“It’s very difficult sometimes to make that voice heard, when we’ve had all the interventions that we’ve seen with respect to the Covid response.

“And just to illustrate that, I was elected in 2010 and the deficit then was £160 billion, something like that, and it seemed like a huge amount of money, we were talking about Greece, we were talking about bankruptcy.

“We’ve just spent in one year, ’20-’21, £350 billion on Covid support, well over twice what the deficit was. And no one batted an eyelid.

“And there’s that great phrase in one of my favourite books, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes, and he says that before the war we spent millions, after the war we spent hundreds of millions, and we discovered we were all so much richer, so [laughing] it was a completely different order of spending and nothing bad happened.

“And our job I think is to try to get back to some kind of – and I know the Chancellor’s very much on this – to try to get back to some sort of fiscal discipline.

“But it’s hard. There are lots of competing pressures. You saw David Davis say with the foreign aid cuts, their argument was we’ve spent hundreds of billions, what’s a few more million?

“The way I see BEIS, and I’ve talked about this a lot, we can’t see BEIS as a cash dispenser. Officials think of BEIS sometimes as if it’s DWP, or as if it’s the Health Service.

“But it’s an enabler. We should think about the money we spend as enabling private capital investment. If you speak to Michael Heseltine, he’s quite good on this stuff, he talks about his career and he says he was never in a big spending department, he always saw himself in departments which were driving private economic growth and investment.

“So he was Defence Secretary, he was sort of equivalent to Michael Gove, I mean he wouldn’t want me to say…”

ConHome: “Is it too late for you to bring Michael Heseltine back in some form, by the way?”

Kwarteng: “Look, I mean, we have differences over Brexit, I’m not going to bring him back in tomorrow. But he was a great minister, and I enjoy talking to him.”

ConHome: “Brexit was a vote for many things. It was in part a vote for lower migration of a sort, higher wages, a different economic model.

“Isn’t what’s going on with this difficulty with the petrol fundamentally about the sort of economy we want. The road haulage people, like some of the fruit pickers, like some meat processors, basically want to go back to the old ways.

“They want Government to issue hundreds of thousands of visas, and they’re trying to use public pressure to get you to change course.”

Kwarteng: “That’s absolutely right, and I’ve said this a number of times, certainly privately. The reason why constituencies like mine [Spelthorne] voted decisively for Brexit, 60 per cent to 40 per cent, was precisely this issue.

“I remember three weeks before the referendum in 2016, I came out of Staines station and someone came up to me and said ‘I’m voting for Brexit.’

“And I said, ‘Oh, why are you doing that?’

“And he said, ‘Well I haven’t had a wage increase in 15 years,’ and he was someone who worked in the building trade, lots of people do work, certainly in my constituency, in that kind of self-employed, small business, logistics, construction world.

“And that was in his mind what this was all about. And so, having rejected the low-wage, high-immigration model, we were always going to try to transition to something else.

“What we’re seeing now is part of that transition. You’re quite right to say people are resisting that, particularly employers that were benefiting from an influx of labour that could keep wages low.”

ConHome: “Aren’t you therefore in a very difficult political position, because they have a kind of weapon, which is the queue, the shortage.

“All you can do, other than take various emergency measures, is tough it out.”

Kwarteng: “I think this is a transition period. As economists would describe, between Equilibrium A and Equilibrium B there’s always going to be a transition period.

“I think it could be quite short. I think what we’re seeing already is quite a lot of investment in the UK. I’ve got a list on my board of lots of things we’ve announced, of investments.

“The head of Goldman Sachs said to me three years ago, ‘No one’s going to invest in the UK because of Brexit.’

“And then about three months ago I said to him, ‘Look at all the investment.’

“He said, ‘Ah, that’s because your assets are cheap [laughter].’ They can hop on the left foot and then hop on the right.

“And we’re seeing investment, we’re seeing success. You speak to investors around the world, they’re all very interested in Britain.

“Not just because of the success they saw with things like the vaccine rollout, great science base, great intellectual capital, but also they see us as a less highly regulated, if you can believe it, jurisdiction than many others around the world.”

ConHome: “How long will this transition take? Because a counter-argument would be it would take a few years to scale up…”

Kwarteng: “No, no, the whole issue of immigration into the UK was something that happened, this particular issue of immigration from the EU, was something that started in 2004, and completely transformed the way we did our economy.

“In fact, the Romanian extension was in 2013, I remember Mark Reckless and Keith Vaz, they were on the Home Affairs Select Committee, they went down to Luton and welcomed these people.

“And that was only eight years ago, and then three years after that we voted for Brexit. I think in terms of the global economy, I think you can see very rapid shifts.

“I think in a year we could be in a totally different place to where we are today.

“I’ve just been speaking to people in the steel industry and they’re saying there are high steel prices, they think they are going to sell lots of product, Liberty are going to do a financing deal that I’ve read about in the newspaper.

“Three months ago, these people were saying this is a disastrous situation.

“So in terms of the economy, I think things can turn round very very quickly, and in five years’ time I don’t think we’ll be talking about this. We’ll be talking about other things.”

ConHome: “Will petrol stations be back to normal by the…”

Kwarteng: “Yes, they are. I’ve got some data here.” [Cameron Brown, Kwarteng’s special adviser, quickly removed two sheets of paper bearing what look like coloured graphs.]

ConHome: “Is that the hand-out? Is that for us?”

Kwarteng: “I think things are stabilising, is the word we use. And I think it’s getting better. There’s been an intense period of anxiety and a lot of pressure.

“That was an extraordinary thing about the power of the media. If I look back on Monday 20th September, my two issues there were carbon dioxide, and the shortage of it, and the gap with the energy suppliers.

“Those were the two issues. This petrol forecourt thing literally flared up I think on the Thursday, there was a leaked conversation, the thing was splashed in the paper on the Thursday.

“There was a full-blown crisis by the weekend, which is now stabilising, and I am hopeful that it will recede, but let’s see.”

ConHome: “Are there any circumstances in which you could conceivably imagine referring to your political opponents as ‘scum’?”

Kwarteng: “No, never. I don’t know whether she was as they say under the influence, or tired and emotional. I don’t know what that was all about.

“Famously it was Aneurin Bevan who said ‘they are lower than vermin’, but he was sober and that was a deliberate piece of insult.

“I don’t think it’s helpful, talking about scum. I think she’s trying to speak to that visceral tribal anti-Tory thing, to shore up the base, but in terms of the wider electorate, I think that doesn’t really work in Britain, that kind of name-calling.

“I don’t think it’s very prime ministerial. The funny thing is, she tried to say the Prime Minister says these things.

“Boris never says things in anger. All of those phrases, they’re either dressed up in the fancy-dress costume of metaphor, or there’s an ironic thing.

“I can’t remember him at any time in 30 years saying ‘So and so is scum’. There’s no venom in the way he uses words. So I think equating that with the Prime Minister is completely inaccurate. He never abuses people in the way that Angela Rayner did.”

ConHome: “No, he doesn’t. Nor does he say, as you quote Margaret Thatcher saying on page four of your book, Thatcher’s Trial: ‘Moral qualities were the secret of our economic success.’ That’s another thing you can’t imagine Boris Johnson saying.”

Kwarteng: “The whole first part of that book is rooting her philosophy in a kind of Manichean Methodism. That’s intellectual history.”

ConHome: “So what are you? Are you a Thatcherite or a pragmatist?”

Kwarteng: “I’m a pragmatic Thatcherite.”

ConHome: “She was a pragmatic Thatcherite, actually.”

Kwarteng: “She sort of was. The thing that fascinated me about doing research about her is she did have this Manichean, you’re either with us or against us, good/bad, black/white, very binary way of thinking.

“But within that, you’re right, she was pragmatic, and she picked her battles when she could. I’m struck by the way in her first term, everyone says they only got going in the second term, in the first term they did some pretty radical things, like get rid of price controls, get rid of exchange controls – I mean, that was a big deal – and some of the privatisations.

“I think to be a Thatcherite in 1985, and to be a Thatcherite in 2021, are always going to be slightly different things. The context – and this is what I love about history – there’s always a context to these things.

“In 1985, you’re trying, essentially, to denationalise, because you’ve had 40 years of quite sclerotic, unimpressive growth, and a huge expansion of the public sector, that can’t respond to innovation.

“In 2021 we’ve got a triple whammy of Brexit, where we have to think about how we’re going to reorder our legal subsidy control, that sort of stuff; you’ve got Covid, which was an unprecedented situation in which the whole world reacted to a global pandemic in a way it never has done; and then you’ve got the whole Net Zero agenda, which whether I like or not, whether you like it or not, is part of the law of the land, we have a legal obligation to try to decarbonise our economy by 2050.

“So these three things frankly didn’t exist in 1985, and we’ve got to navigate them, and we’ve got to use our ideas, our brains, our philosophy if you like to deal with that situation.”

ConHome: “One of the issues that keeps coming back is tax. In the run-up to the Health and Care package you said ‘I don’t see how we could increase National Insurance’, though to be fair you then made some qualifying remarks after that, to suggest it might be possible.

“The point is, very plainly you really didn’t like it very much.”

“Do you think we’re near the point, with a pretty high tax burden as a percentage of GDP, that we’re basically running out of room to raise taxes?”

Kwarteng: “I will frame my answer to your question, or your thoughts, very broadly.

“I’ve never understood how we incentivise economic activity by increasing tax. I always come back to that. We can talk about raising taxes in the short term to deal with a short-term crisis.

“But broadly, higher tax is basically a tax on economic activity.”

ConHome: “What’s the first thought that comes into your mind when you hear the Chancellor say, ‘We’re going to put up corporation tax?”

Kwarteng: “He is I think doing a fantastic job. It was only just a little bit more than a year ago that people were saying there’s going to be massive unemployment, there’s going to be a huge kind of catastrophe.

“And I think he’s navigated that really nimbly. And that’s all I would say on that.

“But broadly, do I believe in higher taxes? No. I don’t believe we can tax our way to wealth.”

ConHome: “And you don’t think we’re near a point where having put up a number of taxes…”

Kwarteng: “You’re doing a really good job of getting me to stray outside my portfolio [laughter]. But I’m not going to go there. I am a low-tax, small-state, what’s the Gladstonian phrase, let…”

ConHome: “…money fructify in the pockets of the people.”

Kwarteng: “That was very clumsy.”

ConHome: “It’s memorable.”

Kwarteng: “Fructify in the pockets of the people. I’m a great believer in all of that. But you know, he didn’t have to deal with Covid. And actually he probably wouldn’t have bothered. I mean he would just have let the thing rip.”

ConHome: “The present Prime Minister is much more Disraelian, actually.”

Kwarteng: “He’s more like Disraeli arguably on public spending as well.”

ConHome: “Disraeli would have said Gladstone was worse than Covid.”

Kwarteng: “Absolutely.”

ConHome: “The wind sometimes doesn’t blow, though it does today, as we can see from the flag on the top of Westminster Abbey. And sometimes the sun don’t shine. Is there a risk that this drive to Net Zero will compromise security of supply?”

Kwarteng: “I think that’s a perfectly legitimate question, and when I answer these questions I pivot back to the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan, The New Decalogue as he calls it.”

ConHome: “That was a satire.”

Kwarteng: “He said it ironically and I’m saying it ironically. And in that, there’s a clear commitment to nuclear power.

“Now I think our nuclear power story has been a shame, because we had early advantage, we were very good on nuclear power, but we simply haven’t invested in it enough in my view over the last 40 years.

“And I think that’s a key missing piece of the puzzle, in terms of energy security.”

ConHome: “But what about security of supply, is that going to be all right?”

Kwarteng: “I saw Iain Martin today in the paper. This is not a supply issue, OK, it’s a distribution issue.”

ConHome: “At the moment, yes.”

Kwarteng: “It has never been a supply issue.”

ConHome: “And will not become a supply issue?”

Kwarteng: “I do not believe it will become a supply issue. It’s like an old-fashioned bank run. But actually, in terms of security of supply, that has never been an issue.

“The point is getting the supply distributed properly, and of course with the HGV driver issue that’s been more challenging.

“In terms of the energy issue, the gas suppliers essentially came into the market with a price cap and then they failed to see that if wholesale prices were significantly above the price cap they’d be out of pocket, and some of them didn’t even hedge for that.”

ConHome: “The price cap stops it being a proper market, doesn’t it?”

Kwarteng: “Yes, but why did they enter it?”

ConHome: “Why did the Government impose the price cap?”

Kwarteng: “That’s a very good question, but once it’s there, why on earth did they enter the market? They still thought they could make money.

“And then when the wholesale price was much higher than the price cap they complained, but I said, ‘The price cap was there when you entered the market, you should have sold oranges or something, or entered another business.’

“They knew what the situation was, and then some of them expected government bailouts, and thankfully that hasn’t really had any resonance, because people could see that they entered the market, they’ve been caught, the tide has revealed that they were wearing nothing, and I’m afraid some of them are going to have to exit the market.

“Having said all that, some of the smaller companies have really driven innovation in the market, so the price cap has allowed for greater competition, has allowed for new entrants, and now, some of those entrants who haven’t been as well-managed are having to leave the market.”

ConHome: “This is probably the moment to sneak in the fracking question. It comes up a lot. People on the Right say look, we have this shortage, why haven’t we fracked?”

Kwarteng: “So I was very pro-fracking. My first summer as Energy Minister, we had Cuadrilla fracking in Lancashire, and I remember speaking to the MP, and he was a pro-fracking person, and the limit I think was 0.5 on the Richter scale.

“This thing came in at about 2.9, and walls were shaking and plates were falling off them.

“And someone said we’d never have had the coal industry if we’d had that approach, which may or may not be true, but the coal industry started in whenever, 1650, and we’re talking about 2020 when we have a full democracy and all the rest of it.

“So we said that we would impose a moratorium and when we had new evidence that this could be done without too much disruption we would look at the moratorium again.

“And I think there were too many communities that were being disrupted. We’re a small country. The fact that it can work in the United States, and it works successfully, it’s what a thousand times bigger than England? Something like that.

“They would frack in a hundred places, and maybe one would be successful. But we don’t have that luxury here.

“There’s also geological questions. I know a firm that Tim Eggar was involved with, they fracked all over Poland and it didn’t work.

“So I get the whole fracking thing, but I don’t think it’s the answer. I think more nuclear is the answer. I think a wider range of renewable technology and things like tidal stream, those sort of things, can help us as well.”

ConHome: “The Government takes Critical Race Theory seriously enough to have a minister go to the Despatch Box and say it shouldn’t be taught in schools.

“Why is it that Kemi Badenoch seems to be the only Conservative among a mass of MPs who takes Critical Race Theory seriously?”

Kwarteng: “No one knows what Critical Race Theory is. If you ask 360 MPs what Critical Race Theory is, how many do you think on our benches would be able to give you a coherent answer?

“To be fair to Kemi Badenoch, that is part of her brief. She was Minister for Equalities even when she was in the Treasury.

“And she’s got a particular approach, I think a very robust approach to a lot of this sort of thing.

“I think the best approach is for us just to simply allow the Left to have these incredible navel-gazing debates on identity politics, because actually Critical Race Theory is not something that comes up on the doorstep, it’s not something that’s going to put food on anyone’s table.”

ConHome: “Are you saying it’s not a problem in any way?”

Kwarteng: “I’m saying I don’t see why we should engage with it. Even your readers, people who subscribe to ConservativeHome, I’d be amazed if more than about five or ten per cent know what Critical Race Theory is.

“I’m trying to run a business department that affects the whole of the UK economy. My views or otherwise on Critical Race Theory are singularly irrelevant to how I do my job.”

ConHome: “Can only women have a cervix?”

Kwarteng: “What did Sajid Javid say? I agree with him.”

ConHome: “I think he said it defies science.”

Kwarteng: “All these things, I know they’re very important to a minority of people, but they’re not really levelling up issues, they’re not about the prosperity of the UK, they don’t deliver jobs.

“It’s the worst kind of rabbit hole which I don’t think sheds any light on anything, it doesn’t improve people’s lives.”

ConHome: “Can you deliver levelling up, Net Zero, industrial strategy, skills, without more localism – without more elected mayors?”

Kwarteng: “Really good question. I think you’ve got to have more local involvement. I think the Prime Minister’s view, which I share, is we shouldn’t get into a theological debate about the structures and what the people are called.

“We’ve got to just deal with what we have. Because if you were very rationalistic and Napoleonic about it, dare I say, you would just spread the combined mayoral authorities across the UK.

“You’d divide the UK up into mayoralties and then you’d have a little mayor with a little badge.”

ConHome: “You’d have a Mairie.”

Kwarteng: “Exactly. We’re not going to do that, so we’ve got to work with the structures, and some of them do work very well, the mayoralties, some county councils work very well, we’ve got to work with the kind of patchwork that we have, we’re not going to rationalise things in a kind of centralised way.”

ConHome: “If Johnson wasn’t Prime Minister he’d be finishing his book about Shakespeare. What book would you be finishing?”

Kwarteng: “I’ve already got one on the stocks about the Congo called Masters of the World, and it’s been there since I’ve been made a minister. I’ve done the research, so it’s simply a question of cleaning up the text.”

From Walpole to Johnson, the rude, original vigour of the Prime Minister and the Commons have survived

3 Apr

The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister by Anthony Seldon

Spoiler alert. Ten pages from the end of his 337-page study, Anthony Seldon concludes that “the undoubted challenges” of being Prime Minister “have not made the job impossible”.

He also concedes that making lists of the best Prime Ministers, though “entertaining”, is also “largely meaningless”, because there are no “agreed criteria on what constitutes ‘success’ for a Prime Minister”.

But Seldon knows which PMs he puts in his top class, worthy of the accolade of being “Agenda Changers”, by which he means they “changed the course of the country, and with it, the way the job of Prime Minister operated”:

“Robert Walpole, William Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel, Viscount Palmerston, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Clement Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher.”

No Winston Churchill, which is rather refreshing, for that endlessly fascinating figure can sometimes obscure everyone who came before him.

But oddly enough, in the piece for The Times which Seldon wrote about his book, the top eight become the top nine, for Churchill is included.

One must register here an immediate protest at the exclusion of Pitt the Elder. For although his titanic parliamentary speeches are lost to history – there was no Hansard in that confident century – the electrifying effect of this pioneering globalist’s performances is amply recorded, and it is a mere quibble to say that in 1759, the Year of Victories, he was not actually Prime Minister, but merely the driving force of the Government and of British arms.

In Seldon’s book, Churchill is relegated to the second division, described as “Major Contributors”, as if they had donated substantial sums to the school appeal, after which we get “Positive Stabilisers”, “Noble Failures”, “Ignoble Failures”, and “Left on the Starting Line”, this last category consisting of PMs who served for too short a time to make much of a difference.

All this has the merit of being highly thought-provoking. Seldon is a Gladstonian technocrat. He admires moral seriousness, and getting things done. Life is real and life is earnest, and so is politics.

Walpole, who took office 300 years ago today, is some ways lucky to make the cut. Seldon begins with an imaginary dialogue between Walpole, generally regarded as the first Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson, who is the 55th holder of the office.

Throughout these three centuries, control of the House of Commons has been a cardinal requirement for any Prime Minister, and loss of control, which Walpole suffered at the start of 1742, meant you were out.

Although Seldon reserves his greatest admiration for Prime Ministers who changed the way the office works, he does not seek to hide the fact that in some ways it has remained unchanged.

He does not, however, have much sympathy with any Prime Minister who might be suspected of frivolity. He has little time for Benjamin Disraeli, and a great deal for Robert Peel.

The enduring impact of the great split of 1846, when Disraeli destroyed Peel and almost destroyed the Conservative Party, is underplayed by Seldon:

“For Conservatives, memories of Peel’s splitting the party caused successive leaders regular anxiety.”

Regular nightmares would be more accurate. Robert Blake, in The Unknown Prime Minister, his life of Andrew Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, puts the matter in its true perspective, when explaining why in 1913 Bonar Law felt obliged, as the still quite new Conservative leader, to abandon his personal support for Imperial Preference, an issue as bitterly divisive as Brexit became a century later:

“Did Bonar Law act rightly in thus reversing his own declared policy for the sake of Party unity? To answer this is to to answer a problem in political ethics which has never yet been satisfactorily solved. But in acting as he did there is no doubt that Bonar Law was following the established tradition of previous Conservative leaders. Ever since the day when Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws had broken the Party and driven it into the wilderness for 20 years, successive Conservative leaders had felt it was their duty, at all costs and at almost any sacrifice, to avoid repeating Peel’s action. Disraeli, Salisbury, Balfour, had all regarded party unity as of paramount importance – and Bonar Law both on this occasion, and at several other critical moments in his life, took the same view.”

Such party considerations are almost entirely ignored by Seldon, who instead focuses on what happens inside Number Ten. Bonar Law, who brought down Lloyd George but then served as Prime Minister for only 212 days before being forced by mortal illness to step down, is put among the Prime Ministers who had too little time to do anything significant while in office.

Lord Salisbury, who spent a total of almost 14 years as Prime Minister, is placed by Seldon in the third division. One looks in vain for any recognition of Salisbury’s ability often to defeat Gladstone, by ensuring that after the widening of the franchise in 1884, an organised appeal was made to the “Villa Toryism” found in the suburbs which were springing up round every prosperous town.

In Seldon’s view, Salisbury “was responsible for few fresh initiatives over his 14 years”, so doesn’t belong at the top table. Novelty is what counts, so Tory leaders who disguise innovation as keeping things the same receive no credit.

Lord Rosebery, who in 1894 succeeded Gladstone but remained in office for only a year and a bit, comes off worse. “We need not linger on Lord Rosebery,” Seldon tells us, later adding that this Prime Minster “lacked gravitas, failed to build on Gladstone’s legacy, to give a clear direction, and led the Liberals into a defeat”.

It is certainly true that despite being a man of wealth, intellect, charm and spell-binding eloquence, and winning the Derby twice while he was Prime Minister, Rosebery was a failure. But reading Seldon’s study reminds us that failure can be good for liberty, and good for Parliament.

The voters, who are almost entirely absent from this account, need someone to blame when things have gone wrong, and in many ways it is more satisfying to blame a brilliant Prime Minister than a second-rate one.

The Commons matters because it can end any Prime Minister’s career. Here is one of the great checks on tyranny, for MPs in whichever party or coalition of parties has a parliamentary majority are quick to realise when their leader has become such a liability with the wider public that they themselves will be in danger of losing their seats at the next election.

The Commons withdraws its confidence from a Prime Minister who has failed, and a new Prime Minister, who perhaps sees more clearly what the nation requires, is given the chance to show what he or she can do.

Churchill taking over from the previously impregnable Neville Chamberlain in 1940 is the most dramatic example of this brutal process. We have a wonderfully responsive system, which is one reason why it has absorbed three centuries of shocks: plenty of wars, riots, crashes, slumps and strikes, but no revolution.

The Commons is still there, and when it senses that the right moment has come it will – unless pre-empted by some some other means of getting rid of the Prime Minister such as an election defeat – unmake Johnson as it unmade Thatcher.

Seldon makes proposals for lightening the load borne by the Prime Minister, by delegating much of the routine business of government to a Deputy Prime Minister, and many external responsibilities to the Foreign Secretary, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer demoted to become only the fourth most senior member of the Cabinet.

Such reforms may be desirable, and might even lead to greater efficiency, but efficiency is not enough. And Seldon recognises that well-intentioned reforms often prove transitory.

John Major tried to show he was a different kind of leader by consulting the Cabinet more respectfully than his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, was accustomed to do. As Seldon comments, “It didn’t last. It never does.”

Seldon has interviewed a number of insiders, including Gus O’Donnell, a former Cabinet Secretary, who tells him:

“The role of full Cabinet has been over-emphasised. It’s just become too big to be the decision-making body.”

The same point was made, more amusingly, by C. Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s.

There are a number of astonishing errors in Seldon’s book: Lloyd George is said to have sat for 55 years for a “South Wales seat”, while a well-known remark by Horace Walpole about the fourth Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle (“A Secretary of State without intelligence, a Duke without money, a man of infinite intrigue, without secrecy or policy, and a Minister despised and hated by his master, by all parties and Ministers, without being turned out by any”) is attributed to H.T. Dickinson.

But there are also some wonderful things. Here is the Duke of Portland, Prime Minister in 1783 and again in 1807-9, and classified by Seldon as an Ignoble Failure:

“the idea of courting popularity by any means I have always reprobated…the possession or enjoyment of it has always something in it very suspicious, and I know hardly any act or measure vulgarly or commonly called popular which has not originated in a bad cause, and been productive of pernicious effects.”

Many Remainers would agree most devoutly with Portland. Could it be (as I suggested the other day) that we still live in an 18th-century country?

One of the best things about this book is that it makes one think anew about our political tradition, and give thanks that certain features of it, including the office of Prime Minister, still possess, despite all attempts by glorified management consultants at modernisation, some traces of their rude original vigour.

Neil O’Brien: The New Puritans want to tear down our liberal settlement. Here’s who they are, what they think – and why they must be resisted.

29 Jun

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Consider recent news.

JK Rowling criticised the expression “people who menstruate,” leading to accusations of “transphobia”, numerous authors quitting her literary agency, and staff at her publisher refusing to work on her new book.

Various controversies have followed the Black Lives Matter protests. Liverpool University will rename a building named after Gladstone.  UKTV deleted an episode of Fawlty Towers making fun of a racist character. The RFU is reviewing the singing of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

These stories illuminate a new division in our politics. It’s not left vs. right, but is uniting conservatives and liberals against something new, which we need to give a name to.

“Woke” is the most common term, and laughing at its excesses is part of the cure. But we also need to take it seriously. Paul Staines calls it “Neo-puritanism”, which captures the absolutist, quasi-religious nature of it – the urge to “police” others behaviour.

Like puritanism, it’s strongest in America, but powerful here.

So what is Neo-puritanism?

First, Neo-puritans want to change the balance between free speech and censoring offensive speech.

The embodiment of liberalism is the slogan: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Neo-puritans feel a duty to “call people out”, often pressing for people to be sacked or shunned.

Don’t debate JK Rowling – “cancel” her. They see debate not as a chance to test and exchange ideas, but as unwelcome, wearying, maybe impossible.

Neo-puritanism has tightened the boundaries of free speech. Like Amber Rudd being “no platformed” by Oxford students. The NUS trying to block Peter Tatchell from speaking. A school dropping plans to name a house after JK Rowling. A DJ sacked (now reinstated) for denying he has “white privilege.” An Oxford professor given security guards after threats from transgender activists. Sheffield University paying students to police “micro-aggressions”. Hundreds of Guardian employees attacking Suzanne Moore’s “transphobia” for writing: “Female is a biological classification.”

Second, Neo-puritans believe in “hard” quotas and targets.

Conservatives and liberals often support increasing numbers of women or ethnic minorities in certain roles. They favour outreach programmes, mentoring, open days, etc.

Neo-puritans want quotas and sex/racially defined scholarships which other groups can’t enter. For example, Reni Eddo-Lodge argues that “when there are no hard targets for programmes of positive discrimination, they will always run the risk of looking like they’re doing something without achieving much at all.”

Examples include Cambridge University’s scholarship scheme (worth £18,000 a year) solely for black British students and Oxford’s  Arlan Hamilton scholarships for Black undergraduates. UCL has scholarships for BME postgraduate students. The Bank of England has scholarships for African Caribbean students.

Third, Neo-puritans (i) think people are defined by their group, (ii) say people have “false consciousness” about our society and (iii) attack the liberal idea that people can be neutral.

A wave of bestselling books by Neo-puritan authors ramp up the importance of group differences Whether we’re talking about “White supremacy”, “White privilege”, or “White Fragility”, it’s not that some people are racist, but society.

For Neo-puritans, not only are people defined by their race, but race is defined by behaviour in an almost mystical way. The founder of “decolonise the curriculum,” Pran Patel, said: “Priti Patel is the perfect example of whiteness inhabiting a different coloured vessel”.

Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge academic, tweeted: “White lives don’t matter. As white lives” and “Abolish whiteness.” This isn’t just divisive and unhelpful. The concept of “whiteness” – that there are certain ways of behaving that are “white” – is intrinsically racist.

This explains why Neo-puritans think it’s OK to attack Conservative MPs from ethnic minorities as “coconuts” or “bounty bars” Robin DiAngelo argues there is deep false consciousness in our society: “Our racial socializatition sets us up to repeat racist behaviour regardless of our intentions.”

Neo-puritans see the “colour-blind” ideals of liberals as part of this false consciousness.

Reni Eddo-Lodge argues: “Colour-blindness is used to silence talk about structural racism while we continue to fool ourselves with the lie of meritocracy.”

A headteacher in Sheffield agrees, writing to parents: “Our society is built upon white supremacy… the world’s systems and structures are built on this bias, and this therefore creates White Privilege.”

Finally, Neo-puritans have a particular take on history, with the emphasis on criticism.

The self-styled “leader” of the BLM protests says Churchill’s statue is offensive and should be taken down.  A university lecturer argues: “Churchill must fall”, because he was an “imperialist racist,” “hated” by the working class. Maya Goodfellow argues: “The way Churchill is remembered in the UK has always been tied up with ideas of white superiority.”

Nor is it just Churchill.

Take the student union leader who vowed to paint over a First World War memorial: “Mark my words – we’re taking down the mural of white men in the uni Senate room, even if I have to paint over it myself.”

Or the Oxford lecturer who hopes Oxford researchers don’t invent a coronavirus vaccine first because: “it will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence.”

So what’s the problem with Neo-puritanism?

First, I worry hard quotas lead to resentment; undermine those who succeed (am I only here because of my race or gender?); and lead to unfair, arbitrary decisions: can a scholarship for black students be awarded to a mixed-race person?

Second, there’s an abuse of language here. Apartheid South Africa and the Confederacy were states with an ideology of “White Supremacy”. Britain isn’t.

Third, relentless emphasis on group membership plus tighter boundaries on speech will lead to a society not at ease with itself. Instead of the colour-blind world liberals hope for, we’ll end up in a world walking on eggshells, where more and more we’ll see each other primarily as members of groups.

Fourth, I worry about the counter-productive effects of this conversation. If the “core function” of the police is racism, why should anyone non-white join up?

A 13 year old boy recently pleaded guilty to kicking a police officer on the head as he lay on the ground because of protests he’d seen on TV. Ideas have consequences.

If you claim our society is built on “white supremacy”, this will be heard by some people with fragile mental health. I know of a case of a young person who feels oppressed by all around her, seeing offers of friendship and help from white people as disguised attempts to hurt her.

Compared to a world in which you tell kids – ‘you’re all just the same, you just have different coloured skin’ it makes it more difficult to have natural relationships, and friendships without hangups.

Overemphasis of group differences is disempowering. Katharine Birbalsingh, head of one of the country’s top performing state schools says it: “undermines much of the work we do at school in trying to empower our children to take personal responsibility and grab life by the horns.”

Finally, healthy countries need a balance of self-criticism and self-confidence. Self-loathing is unattractive, but might also have bad practical consequences. People are often called on to do things for the greater good of the nation, from paying tax to fighting for their country.  If Britain is basically shameful, why bother?

Neo-puritans sometimes highlight important problems. But though there is more to do, the big picture is one of progress. Sexism is down, racist attitudes are declining and ethnic minorities are steadily getting better off. Neo-puritanism won’t accelerate that, but instead risk a whole set of new divisions.