Tory leadership elections. A brief history.

6 Jun

A confidence ballot in Boris Johnson may or may not be triggered this week.  While we wait to find out, here is a potted history of Conservative leadership elections

  • Nine Conservative MPs have been returned as Party leader since elections have been introduced – Edward Heath in 1965, Margaret Thatcher in 1975, John Major in 1990 and 1995, William Hague in 1997, Iain Duncan Smith in 2001, Michael Howard in 2003, David Cameron in 2005, Theresa May in 2016 and Boris Johnson in 2019.
  • Five of these nine were elected by MPs only (Heath, Thatcher, Major, Hague and Howard) and four by MPs and party members (Duncan Smith, Cameron, May, Johnson).
  • Six of the nine became Prime Minister: Heath, Thatcher, Major, Cameron, May and Johnson.
  • Four of the nine became Prime Minister after being elected Conservative leader (Major, Howard, May, Johnson). Three of the nine became Prime Minister having formed a government after a general election (Heath in 1970, Thatcher in 1979, Cameron in 2010).
  • One of the nine was elected unopposed – Michael Howard.
  • Two were backbenchers when elected – Howard and Johnson.
  • Four were subject to leadership challenges: Heath, Thatcher (twice), Duncan Smith and May.
  • Three of these took place before the rules governing challenges were changed in 1998 (Heath and Thatcher, twice) and two after (Duncan Smith and May).
  • Two were Leader of the Opposition when challenged: Heath and Duncan Smith. Both lost. Heath was challenged by Thatcher in 1975. Duncan Smith contested a ballot of Conservative MPs in 2003 that had been triggered by the required percentage of Tory MPs.
  • Two were Prime Minister when challenged: Thatcher and May.  Both won (Thatcher twice).  Thatcher was challenged by Anthony Meyer in 1989 and by Michael Heseltine in 1990.  May contested a ballot of Conservative MPs that had been triggered by the required percentage of Conservative MPs.
  • Thatcher resigned shortly after winning the first ballot of the 1990 contest; May resigned in June 2019 having won a ballot of Conservative MPs in December 2018.
  • John Major resigned as Conservative leader in 1995, stood for re-election, and was returned by Tory MPs.

The only point I would stress is that no Conservative leader challenged when Prime Minister has either a) lost a confidence ballot and b) survived winning one by even a year (the Meyer challenge to Thatcher took place in December 1989, the Heseltine one in November 1990).

Moralists like Starmer who call on Johnson to resign over partygate repel “Live and let live Britain”

1 Apr

It never seems to occur to Boris Johnson’s critics that they might damage him more if they toned things down a bit and sounded slightly less pious, moralistic and vindictive.

This is particularly true of partygate. In order to justify going on and on about it, both his political opponents and the feral beasts of the media reckon it is incumbent on them to take a high moral tone, and to demand that Johnson himself resign.

They give us to understand that they are talking about a dereliction of duty which could not be more serious. The Prime Minister made the rules, and then he allowed people in Downing Street to break the rules, after which he misled the House of Commons.

The man is a liar and a criminal, and he must go. That is the general tenor of a lot of Opposition comment, and of many a denunciation by some of our finest columnists.

It can be enjoyable to write this stuff, and also to read it. A warm feeling of self-righteousness courses through one’s veins. How superior one is to the contemptible person in Downing Street who has brought such shame on his country.

These critics look forward to resuming normal service once they can get away from the invasion of Ukraine, an event which demonstrated that in Vladimir Putin, the world beholds a leader who has inflicted unspeakable cruelties on the freedom-loving Ukrainians, and on many other people too.

So long as the invasion of Ukraine leads the news, it is difficult to train the full weight of one’s moral artillery on those responsible for partygate.

But at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Sir Keir Starmer did devote the last two of his six questions to that topic:

“Talking of parties, the Prime Minister told the House that no rules were broken in Downing Street during lockdown. The police have now concluded that there was widespread criminality. The Ministerial Code says that Ministers who “knowingly” mislead the House should resign. Why is he still here?

Resign! It is the duty of an Opposition to oppose, so one can see why Sir Keir – having for a few weeks stopped calling for Johnson to resign – has now reverted to doing so.

And there is of course a considerable part of the public which is so appalled by the Downing Street parties that it agrees with Sir Keir. To this can be added many who are so angry with Johnson about other things that they will seize any opportunity to try to get rid of him.

But there is also a large part of the public, less reported because its views are less defined and more difficult to turn into a news story, which Sir Keir should bear in mind as he seeks to win hearts and minds, and to build a winning coalition.

“Merry England” is not quite the right term for this more tolerant part of the nation. “Live and let live Britain” would perhaps be a more accurate term for it, though not, I admit, a very catchy one.

Some of us invariably demand harsh penalties for malefactors, and especially for politicians who have erred. But some of us are more easy-going.

“Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?” as Hamlet put it.

Such tolerance may seem, to sterner spirits, disgracefully lax. But the sterner spirits can, in their turn, sound horribly hypocritical.

Have they themselves never broken any rules? Are they so perfect that they are entitled to sit in judgment? Do we not all sometimes stand in need of mercy, tolerance, latitude?

This is not just an argument about morality. It is also a question of political prudence. If Sir Keir and the rest sound too partisan, intolerant, moralistic and punitive, they will repel as well as attract.

The most successful of Sir Keir’s predecessors understood this very well. Tony Blair relates, in his memoir, A Journey, how he used carefully crafted understatement to defeat a succession of Conservative opponents:

“With each successive Tory leader, I would develop a line of attack, but I only did so after a lot of thought. Usually I did it based on close observation at PMQs. I never made it overly harsh. I always tried to make it telling. The aim was to get the non-politician nodding. I would wonder not what appealed to a Labour Party Conference at full throttle, but what would appeal to my old mates at the Bar, who wanted a reasonable case to be made; and who, if it were made, would rally.

“So I defined Major as weak; Hague as better at jokes than judgment; Howard as an opportunist; Cameron as a flip-flop, not knowing where he wanted to go. (The Tories did my work for me in undermining Iain Duncan Smith.) Expressed like that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring – but that’s their appeal. Any one of those charges, if it comes to be believed, is actually fatal. Yes, it’s not like calling your opponent a liar, or a fraud, or a villain or a hypocrite, but the middle-ground floating voter kind of shrugs their shoulders at those claims. They don’t chime. They’re too over the top, too heavy, and they represent an insult, not an argument. Whereas the lesser charge, because it’s more accurate and precisely because it’s more low-key, can stick. And if it does, that’s that. Because in each case it means they’re not a good leader. So game over.”

There is a great temptation, over partygate, to go for what Blair calls “an insult, not an argument”. The Twitter mob will applaud Sir Keir to the rafters if he shouts insults at Johnson.

But in Live and let live Britain, people will think, maybe without saying anything, “that sounds a bit over the top”.

They may also have a degree of sympathy with those who had to take life-or-death decisions during the pandemic, and who did not have much time left over to think about the rights and wrongs of prosecco or birthday cake.

The pressure inside Downing Street during the pandemic was immense. Dr Carter Mecher, an American doctor who gave early warning to the White House and other parts of the US administration of how grave the crisis was likely to become, has pointed out that dealing with an emergency of this kind is like dealing with a bush fire.

“You cannot wait for the smoke to clear,” he has said, because “once you can see things clearly it’s already too late.”

You have to act before the fire is raging, which means you have to be prepared to be wrong. When hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake, that is a fearful responsibility.

While partygate dominated the news, reporters competed with each other to find the next piece of supposedly damning evidence, the next photograph of Downing Street staff with a bottle on a desk or whatever it might be.

And moralists competed with each other to say how unforgiveable this was.

We shall probably get some sort of repeat performance in the near future. Moralists will say all this is unforgiveable. Live and let live Britain will perhaps think they are getting things a bit out of proportion.

Many Conservative MPs have no local elections in their constituencies this year

20 Jan

What do Buckinghamshire, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, East Riding, Herefordshire, Northumberland, Shropshire, and Wiltshire have in common? They all have unitary local authorities that are not having elections this year. They are also areas which have a high representation of Conservative MPs. Cornwall, for example, has six MPs – all of them Conservative. In some other parts of the country, where district councils still survive, the pattern is more complicated. Six districts in Surrey go to the polls, five other districts miss out. Where district councils are up for election this year, only a third of seats are being contested in most cases.

By contrast, we have full council elections in London, Birmingham, Wales and Scotland. These are areas where Conservative MPs found themselves very much in the minority after the last General Election, despite the overall result being such a success.

It just so happens that the electoral cycle this year means that voting will not tend to be in natural Conservative territory. That should give a slight note of caution to the prevailing narrative about the prospect of leadership challenges to the Prime Minister. It has been suggested that if Conservative MPs see severe losses in council seats in their areas they will conclude a change is needed. The human element will kick in. Rather than reading about opinion polls or focus groups, it is something they will have seen for themselves – anger while canvassing on the doorstep; councillors they have fought alongside suffering defeat. But in Wiltshire – where all seven MPs are Conservatives – that will not happen. As there are no elections.

Of course, the more politically astute Conservative MPs would still be concerned by a real drubbing in the council elections elsewhere. I’m afraid it is true that often the opportunity is used to send a message about national issues. So it would be naive for a Conservative MP to imagine their own patch would have been different.

There will still be plenty of Tory MPs that will be seeing elections in their areas. 21 of the 73 constituencies in London have a Tory MP – a minority, but hardly a trivial number. Wales has 14 Conservative MPs out of 40. Scotland has six out of 59. Elsewhere voting (for a third of the seats) will take place in some metropolitan boroughs that are Conservative-run – Dudley, Solihull, and Walsall. Other Conservative unitary authorities electing in thirds include North East Lincolnshire, Southampton, Swindon, Thurrock, and Wokingham.

Then we have the Conservative district councils. Gosport, Harrogate, Huntingdonshire and Newcastle-under-Lyme have all their seats up for election. Adur, Fareham and Nuneaton and Bedworth have half the seats up. Many more have a third of seats up – across assorted Conservative heartlands in Kent, Essex, Surrey, Hampshire, Staffordshire and elsewhere.

We also have county council elections in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset. These were due to take place last year but were held over as those authorities are in the process of becoming unitaries.

Constituency boundaries do not tend to neatly fit in with local authority ones. So that complicates matters. But it should be noted that most of the 181 district councils in England have no elections at all this year.

Another consideration: in the event of the results being as dire as foretold, who was making the commensurate gains? Will Conservative retreat equate to Labour advance? Perhaps not. Conservative MPs might be consoled if the victors are a hodge podge of independents and residents’ protest groups.

Then what of historical comparisons? Most of the seats coming up for election in England were last fought in 2018. Those were a rather dull set of elections. There were some modest Labour and Lib Dem gains, very modest Conservative losses, and a wipeout for UKIP. They were consistent with the opinion polling at the time which had Labour and the Conservatives roughly level pegging. It was the following year, 2019, that saw really substantial Conservative losses – with the Lib Dems being the beneficiaries.

Generally, the Conservatives have had an astonishingly long run of electoral success in local government. William Hague’s leadership is sometimes looked back on as a fruitless period, as the 2001 General Election was essentially a repeat of the Labour landslide that took place in 1997. But the Hague era saw Conservatives advance in council elections and that pattern has generally continued. That might increase the shock factor this year if there are a large number of Tory losses.

With the council elections over three months away, it is a bit soon to make predictions with much confidence. Though Labour’s poll lead is in double figures at present it may well slip back. The Conservatives may also do rather better at the ballot box than the polling suggests. That has happened before. I have spoken to several leaders of Conservative Groups on local authorities who are bullish about their prospects – in private as well as in public. But even if the current anger persists and the Conservatives do take a battering, the timing could have been much worse. Most Conservative MPs either have no elections in their constituencies or only for a minority of their councillors, often in a minority of the wards.

Omicron. How Starmer is swelling the number of today’s Conservative rebels.

14 Dec

When a revolt of Government backbenchers swells, the Leader of the Opposition must choose: is he to be a John Smith or a William Hague?

First, Smith

In 1993, John Major’s administration was attempting to steer its Bill to enshrine the Maastricht Treaty into domestic law through the Commons.

John Smith sought tactical opportunities to vote down its provisions (forcing a vote on confidence on one occasion in the wake of having done so).

This had the plus, for Labour, of defeating the Government and weakening its standing, but the minus of disincentivising Conservative backbenchers to oppose Major.

For after all, one doesn’t like voting with the Labour Party if one is a Tory backbencher.

Next, Hague.

In 1997, Tony Blair’s newly-elected Labour administration to proposed a cut in the payments of some benefits to lone parents who were new claimants.

Hague decided to vote with the Government – a decision presumably informed by not having the numbers to defeat it were the Conservatives to join with Labour rebels.

But his decision had the effect of maximising the Labour revolt, as horror at the prospect of voting with the Tories swelled the ranks of the rebels.

Furthermore, a Minister and four junior members of the Government resigned in protest.

Which takes us to Starmer.

As I write, the Labour leader is set to be a Hague rather than a Smith.  He seems willing to shun the tactical gain of defeating the Government in order to win the strategic one of maximising Tory rebellion.

This would cover Starmer’s bases.  He is unwilling to alientate pro-lockdown voters, who comprise much of Labour’s base: public sector workers who are relatively insulated against the effect of restrictions.

Furthermore, he is offering the Conservative rebels a risk-free option.  Since there is no prospect of today’s measures being defeated, they are insulated against consequences that might follow their defeat.

For in the event of the NHS being unable to cope with Omicron, the Government will get the blame – not the rebels.

The latter now also appear to have strength in numbers.

Once a critical mass of backbenchers revolt, as Theresa May kept finding out when she put her Withdrawal Agreement to the Commons, revolt gathers its own momentum.

Emily Carver: The war on drugs has failed. Will this government have the guts to change tack?

18 Aug

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

One feature of the media’s coverage of the pandemic that many of us will be pleased to see the back of were the daily reminders of the Covid death count. For many months, switching on the television or picking up a newspaper meant being barraged with distressing figures of those who had sadly passed away from the virus.

While the presentation of this data may have been understandable at the peak, the tallies gave little context to the thousands of people who sadly die every year from other causes, and contributed to our obsession with this one disease over all else.

Now, with the worst of the pandemic behind us, the scale and breadth of the nation’s broader health crisis is becoming apparent. Besides the millions waiting for routine and life-saving NHS treatment, one crisis that is becoming ever more acute is the scale of drug-related hospital admissions and deaths in this country.

The ONS revealed last week that there were 4,651 drug-related deaths in England and Wales last year alone – the highest tally since records began in 1993 and 3.8 per cent higher than in 2019. The number of deaths may have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but they are by no means an anomaly; drug deaths have risen year on year for the past eight years, each leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

The data make for a sobering read; it is a tragedy that thousands of people are dying prematurely in this way. But what is a true national scandal, is the stubborn unwillingness of successive governments to change tack.

That the war on drugs has failed is indisputable. By nearly every conceivable metric it has been an unmitigated disaster. Despite decades of “cracking down”, drug use continues to rise, drug-related crimes account for a third of the prison population, county lines gangs remain rampant and drug-related violence shows no signs of abating.

A new strategy is set to be announced in the autumn, with the aim of once again cracking down on illegal drug use, this time among the middle classes. In a new PR campaign, users will be told that they are helping fuel Britain’s epidemic of violent crime and gang warfare – as well as exploitation and corruption around the world – all in a bid to change the “perceived acceptability” of taking drugs.

Of course, it is true that too few recreational users give a second thought to the violent reality of the drugs trade, and it would be no bad thing if more of us refrained from drug use, not least for the sake of our own health.

But this latest PR drive looks to be characteristic of a government paralysed by a lack of policy direction. This may be a relatively cheap intervention, but it will likely be a waste of money nonetheless, that will sadly do little, if anything, to prevent a black market that is fuelling organised crime and misery in this country.

What’s more, Boris Johnson and his Cabinet’s involvement in the campaign will only serve to bring fresh media attention to their own personal experiences of drugs – of course, Johnson is known to have dabbled in a little cocaine and marijuana in his younger years. Again, opening himself up to accusations of hypocrisy and “one rule for them, another for us”.

In terms of law enforcement, the drive will be supported by a fresh crackdown on recreational use. Priti Patel has reportedly told senior police officers to “name and shame” middle-class drug users and to make examples of business owners and wealthy users.

There have been numerous political interventions over the years, consultations, papers published, and debates held in parliament, attempting to change the way we handle this problem. But these have been largely fruitless.

William Hague made his own change of heart clear in The Times this week. After years of backing a “tough” law and order approach, he is now advocating that we take lessons from Portugal, a country which has gone down the decriminalisation route, choosing to treat drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal issue.

It is curious how on this issue there is such a lack of will at the heart of government to debate the potential for change, despite growing evidence that the war on drugs is failing. As with so many areas, the Government is ostensibly trapped by status quo bias, unable to look beyond the same type of interventions that have clearly failed to resolve the problem, and arguably exacerbated the problem.

Interestingly, the mood among the public is shifting on drugs. Earlier this year, 52 per cent of Britons said they would support the legalisation of cannabis, compared to 32 per cent who opposed it. Whether this translates to support for decriminalisation of other drugs is less certain – indeed cannabis has been all but decriminalised by stealth – but it may encourage a more open-minded discussion of the way we currently do things.

When it comes to different areas of policy, we must not shy away from learning from international best practice – whether it be our health service or education system. Continuing a tried and failed strategy would be a mistake. And one which will ultimately cost lives.

Adrian Lee: Nord Stream 2. How Russia could turn off half Germany’s gas supply – and so threaten our collective security.

21 Jun

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Some political issues – such as Climate Change, female circumcision and African debt relief – become truly internationalised over the passage of time. Gatherings of world leaders see these subjects set high on the agenda for discussion and the press released closing statements at such events are dominated by worthy platitudes calling for greater global action.

By contrast, other matters with the potential to change the world order draw far less attention. One issue that has largely failed to focus the comment of the media pack is the imminent opening of the Nord Steam 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

On the Friday 11th June – ironically, the very day that the G7 leaders arrived in Cornwall – commissioning works to fill the pipeline with gas began. Whilst many have vaguely heard of the controversy, few realise the possible impact of Nord Stream 2 upon the defence of the United Kingdom.

Nord Steam 2 starts at Vyborg in Russia, threads its way through the Baltic Sea, passing Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and terminates in Griefswald, Germany.

Few would dispute that the project represents a triumph of modern engineering. Like its already operational predecessor, Nord Stream 1, this underwater marvel has the capacity to pump approximately 55 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year from Russia directly into Germany.

Even before the fuel starts pumping down the new line, Germany has already attained the status of the world’s largest user of natural gas, 94 per cent of which has to be imported, and 40 per cent of that total is supplied by Putin’s Russia.

Dependency upon this particular source is likely to increase significantly in the near future, as the so-called “Energiewende” policy announced in 2010 has already terminated most of Germany’s nuclear power, with the remaining six reactors scheduled to be phased out by 2022. When this plan was first trumpeted, the German government was confident that “renewables” would make up for the loss of nuclear power, but alas this has yet to transpire and consequently the wheels of German industry are more dependent on natural gas than ever before. No wonder then that Germany has some of the highest energy prices in the world and that the average German consumer has to pay double the cost of the equally average American.

Nord Stream 2 AG is owned by Gazprom, a Russian state-owned company, and its CEO is one Matthias Warnig, a former intelligence officer in the East German Stasi. The main source of the natural gas for the pipeline can be found in the Yuzhno-Russhoye field, located in Krasnoselkupsky, Tyumen Oblast. When one realises that oil and gas are responsible for more than 60 per cent of Russia’s exports and provide over 30% of the country’s GDP, you can understand why the Kremlin is so enthusiastic about this project. Russia certainly intends to make a lot of money out of wealthy Germany and is therefore not planning to suspend supplies, but should she feel the need to do so in the future, she faces no legal obstacle, as Russia is not a signatory to the 1991 Energy Charter Treaty, that provided safeguards to supply.

Why should Britain be concerned about this Russo-German oil deal? Well, mainly because of the military dimension. Sweden and Poland have voiced grave concerns about the Russian Navy using Nord Stream 2’s presence as a pretence for increased military intelligence gathering and intensified patrolling in the Baltic Sea. However, there is a much greater reason for worry.

NATO has been the cornerstone of the West’s defence for seven decades and, until the end of 1991, the main strategic opponent of NATO was the USSR. Following the collapse of Soviet Communism, the organisation changed its emphasis to the broad founding principle of collective security. In other words, an attack on one member is an attack on all – hence the participation of European NATO members in the Afghanistan theatre after 9/11.

The Russian war with Georgia in 2008, the protracted conflict over the Ukraine since 2014 and the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war refocused NATO’s attention on the increasing threat from the east. The 2016 NATO Summit, held in Warsaw, set the conditions for the establishment of an enhanced “Forward Presence” in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to strengthen the line against Russian forces.

There are currently 900 British military personnel in these states, along with allies from France and Denmark. There can be no doubt that Putin’s Russia is today the main threat to NATO on the European continent.

Since the inception of NATO, the involvement of Germany (originally West Germany) has been pivotal. Prior to 1989, Germany formed the frontline and prospective battlefield in any conflict, contributed an effective military force and provided a permanent base for US and British forces.

During recent decades ,it is arguable that Germany’s attention has turned towards the costly projects of re-building the old GDR territories and pushing for a federal Europe but, geographically, the country provides a vital link with the eastern NATO members in terms of supply. An effective NATO without wholehearted German participation remains unthinkable.

Unfortunately, Germany’s armed forces are currently in a pretty parlous state. Despite the pressure from the Trump Administration, Germany is yet to come close to contributing the two per cent of GDP agreed by all NATO countries in 2006. She only spent 1.2 per cent of GDP in 2019.

No surprise, then, that Germany’s arsenal is so decrepit. The main battle tank, the Leopard 2, entered service in 1979 and, of the 183 that the German state possesses, only 101 are estimated to be operational.

In 2014, it was reported that a significant number of German military aircraft were “unserviceable”. In terms of assault aircraft, Germany possesses 60 aging Tornados and 141 Eurofighters. However, it has been claimed that only half of these are airworthy, and one estimate states that just 12 of the Tornados are currently operational. Recently, Germany has ordered another 38 Eurofighters, but they are hardly likely to make the Russians quake in their flying boots.

By contrast, since 2012, Russian ground forces have received more than 15,500 pieces of weapons systems and equipment, twelve missile regiments have been rearmed with Yars ICBM’s and 10 missile brigades with Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems.

Overall, Russian has a million active-duty personnel in its armed forces, 2,300 modern battle tanks, 1,200 new helicopters and assault planes, 50 state of the art surface ships, 28 submarines and a 100 shiny new satellites for communication, command and control. Vladimir Putin spends 4.3 per cent of GDP on the Russian armed forces – in part thanks to the healthy financial contribution made by his trading partner Germany.

Under the circumstances, we are surely entitled to ask whether Germany’s commitment to NATO is likely to remain as wholehearted in the era of Nord Stream 2. Is Germany really going to go out on a limb for, say, the Baltic States and Poland when, at the turn of a tap Russia could cut off over half of her energy supply? Or is Germany gradually going to slide down the road to a slightly more neutralist position in the years ahead – to paraphrase William Hague “In NATO, but not run by NATO.”

One thing is for certain: in the absence of an effective backup plan for energy supply to Germany in the event of conflict with Russia, Angela Merkel’s government has handed Putin the ability to paralyse her country, and potentially the whole of western defence.

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.

Jonathan Werran: As recent local elections showed, the mayoral revolution has been a success

12 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

The injunction to “live local and prosper” is the order of the day in the aftermath of last week’s local and devolved regional elections. Good quality neighbourhoods, vibrant high streets, decent school provision and abundant high-skilled jobs from a prosperous local economy – everything that instils pride in place should be encouraged.

The Government can go so far in stimulating prosperous communities and productive places through all the funding and policy levers available to the central state. But the role of strong local leadership here cannot be underestimated in galvanizing place prosperity.

For evidence we don’t need to look beyond two of the three goals in the hat trick, starting with Tees Valley and Ben Houchen’s truly astonishing 73 per cent vote share to secure beyond all measure the mayoralty he had narrowly won in 2017. Friday’s success was followed up the next day by Andy Street, who nearly won the West Midlands Combined Authority mayoralty on first round preference alone.

On this basis, where you have mayoral figureheads who combine charisma with pragmatism, and with a sufficient war chest for investment, this is a model eminently capable of setting in motion a virtuous cycle of economic and political success. Seen in isolation, this outcome wholly vindicates George Osborne and Rupert Harrison’s coalition-era hatched devolution revolution plan.

As the former chancellor Tweeted leading up to Super Thursday, what is needed next is for more trust to be placed in metro mayors through further meaningful devolution from Whitehall. Ideally what is called for here are substantive powers over investment and fiscal leeway to inject fuel into to the tank of well-exercised convening powers.

In ConHome’s Saturday reaction, Paul Goodman noted how Houchen’s triumph and ability to deliver from Freeports to Whitehall relocation has unlocked four of Teesside’s six parliamentary constituencies. At local level, Street’s readeption of the West Midlands Mayoral Combined Authority was telegraphed by the gaining of Dudley Council, again pointing to the potency of the mayoral model, when well supported, in delivering political dividends.

However, these Conservative successes must be tempered by the twin failures to retain the combined authorities encompassing Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England as well as the entrenched position of Labour’s metro mayors. Switching the voting method from supplementary vote to first past the post in future mayoral polls would have made the difference for James Palmer at least.

But any inquest must also consider the future and determine how what is working out so well as bold and pioneering in the West Midlands and North East might translate inside the deep blue wall – where the voting intentions of red urban islands such as Cambridge proved capable of commanding the rural blue seas.

Answers there may come, we hope, in the shape of the Levelling Up White Paper. If the expectation is that we revert to the vision Michael Gove offered up last July in his Ditchley Park lecture, this seemed to be pointing to one of central government rationally dealing with 50 principal players, as the US President does in relations with state governors in the federal system.

It’s very conceivable to see Conservative counties, even those shires which have been against the imposition of an urban mayoral governance model, lining up in principle with this out of party loyalty. Such a move would, by reducing the number of significant players to something manageable, align with Gordon Brown’s suggestion – one backed by Lord Hague – for saving the union by establishing some kind of “permanent forum between the regions and the nations, and the centre of government, which Boris Johnson should chair”.

But in what political economy would any new mayoralties emerge into? Going back to the first formal definition of “Levelling Up”, a term mentioned in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, we have: “Levelling up means creating new good jobs, boosting training and growing productivity in places that have seen economic decline and the loss of industry – not through a one-size-fits-all approach, but nurturing different types of economic growth and building on the different strengths that different places have.”

Just over four years ago when a formal and interventionist industrial strategy, Localis published a report in which we made the distinction between the “stuck” and the “stifled”. The stuck referred to the places that are still dealing with the fallout of the industrial trauma of the 1980s and the stifled places that are growing quickly but whose growth is hemmed in by their boundaries. We recognised both typologies as of increasing political importance, but the Levelling Up road just taken seems firmly addressed to meeting the needs of the former – and for the latter may be seen as levelling down.

Unfair as it might be, the perception among local leaders in the South East might be that in exchange for financial and political capital being invested north of the Watford Gap, they will be lumbered with the hospital pass of meeting unpopular local housing targets. To obviate this issue, a more spatial strategy for housing might insulate from some of the uproar – but not all.

To what extent pain is inevitable and suffering optional will vary. But as a universal governance model, it’s more than likely that mayoralties would necessarily involve restructuring and reorganisation. Bearing in mind the tensions and rupture between the tiers of local government amid the pandemic response last year, then if the White Paper does come out for it, like Macbeth, ‘’If it were done when tis done, twere well it were done quickly”. If not, not at all.

The evidence shows that when resourced and supported, charistmatic and committed leaders of place like Houchen and Street can lead all before them. For the sake of our recovery, we could do with more of them.

The recent example of Ben Bradley, the Mansfield MP, taking on the duty of leadership at Nottinghamshire County Council is an undeniably bold and imaginative coup which bodes well for the authority’s ability to cut through in talks Whitehall. To quote from the catchy campaign song of failed London Mayoral candidate Count Binface, it’s in such terms that you can see it being hip to be a mayor.

WATCH: Hague – After restrictions are lifted, “there has to be a deal” between the Government and citizens for testing measures

21 Feb

The fullest account yet written of Sunak the rising star

14 Nov

Going For Broke: The Rise of Rishi Sunak by Michael Ashcroft

In February, Boris Johnson made him Chancellor of the Exchequer, and nine months later the first biography of him has appeared. Here is the fullest account yet written of Rishi Sunak the rising star.

Tories will read the story of his ascent to high office with enormous pleasure, for it amounts to a vindication of the United Kingdom, and of the Conservative Party.

Sunak, born in Southampton General Hospital on 12th May 1980, is descended on both sides from Hindu Punjabis who moved from India to East Africa and from there to Britain in search of a better life not so much for themselves as for their children.

Usually one member of the family would go on ahead, and the others would follow later. In 1966, Michael Ashcroft relates,

“The future Chancellor’s grandmother sold all her wedding jewellery to buy her a one-way ticket, leaving her husband and children behind in Tanzania in the hope – by no means certain – that they would be able to join her later.”

Sraksha Berry rented a room in Leicester, found a job as a bookkeeper and a year later was able to send for her husband, Raghubir, and their three children, including their daughter, Usha, who in 1972 graduated in pharmacology from Aston University.

Raghubir joined the Inland Revenue, where his many years of service were at length recognised by the award of the MBE.

Meanwhile Yashvir Sunak arrived from Kenya in 1966, joining his elder brother, who had got a place at Liverpool University to study electrical engineering.

The boys’ parents arrived in Britain a few years later. Yashvir read medicine at Liverpool, graduating in 1974, and was introduced by family friends to Usha.

They were married in Leicester in 1977 and settled in Southampton, where he worked as a family doctor and she ran a pharmacy. They are remembered with great affection by their neighbours in Spindlewood Close, the leafy suburban cul-de-sac where they bought a modern brick house with six bedrooms and a double garage.

The Sunaks attached enormous importance to the education of their children. The local state primary school would not do: as one of the neighbours says, it was “dire”.

They sent Rishi, their eldest boy, to a local fee-paying school, Oakmount, and after that had closed, to Stroud, a prep school which prepared its pupils for King Edward VI, an independent school in the middle of Southampton.

Olly Case, who went to Stroud and later taught there, said of Rishi:

“He was someone that was talked about; the teachers would say, ‘He’s going to be a Prime Minister.'”

Rishi was made Captain of Cricket and Head Boy. He was very bright, but would never have dreamed of using his intelligence to humiliate the less gifted. He got on well with everyone.

His parents decided to aim higher than King Edward VI. They wished to send him to Winchester College, one of the great schools of England.

Rishi sat the scholarship exam, and had he gone to a prep school such as Ashdown House, which specialised in preparing its most gifted pupils for that tough competition (in 1977 it won three awards – one to Winchester and two, including the present Prime Minister’s scholarship, to Eton), he too would probably have won an award.

He fell short, but his parents tightened their belts, his father took on an extra job, and they sent him to Winchester anyhow, where he thrived, and was made Senior Commoner Prefect, or head boy, though he was not a good enough cricketer to get into the First Eleven.

He talks with enormous enthusiasm about Winchester, as noted in the ConHome profile of him published in February

Sunak does not suffer from the compulsive desire of many members of the Establishment to conceal or at least downplay any privileges they may have enjoyed in early life.

He went on to Lincoln College, Oxford, took a First in PPE and became a leading light in the Oxford University Investment Society. He also worked at an Indian restaurant in Southampton, where the proprietor said of him:

“He was charming with every single person – it was not just customers but every other member of staff that liked him.”

Similar reports have been made at every stage of his career. From Oxford he joined Goldman Sachs, which took only four per cent of those who applied, and after three years as an analyst he decided to do an MBA at Stanford, funded by a Fulbright Scholarship.

He went on to work for various very successful hedge funds, before obtaining before the 2015 general election the safe seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire, which he took enormous trouble to get to know, informing himself about all sorts of matters, such as agriculture, about which previously he knew nothing.

At Westminster, his high ability was soon spotted by good judges such as Oliver Dowden and Sajid Javid. During the Conservative leadership contest of last summer, Dowden, Sunak and Robert Jenrick issued, at a well-chosen moment, a joint declaration of support for Johnson.

All three of them are now in the Cabinet. Javid, whom Johnson made Chancellor, requested and was given Sunak as Chief Secretary.

Sunak made such a good impression on the Tory high command that during the general election at the end of 2019, he was asked to stand in for Johnson during two of the television debates, and acquitted himself well.

In February of this year, when Javid refused, as a condition of remaining Chancellor, the loss of his team of advisers, Johnson replaced him with Sunak.

How has Sunak risen so swiftly and become so popular? The almost unbelievable speed with which he grasps things, the indefatigable industry with which he sets about the “flawless execution” of any given task, and the imperturbable resourcefulness with which since March he has doled out the vast sums needed to avert economic collapse, though all highly impressive, do not constitute a sufficient explanation.

There is something else. While studying at Stanford, he met, on the same course, Akshata Murthy, to whom he is now married. When she was one year old, her father, Narayana, founded a softwear company, Infosys, which in due course was to make him a billionaire.

Ashcroft recounts how Narayana and his wife Sudha, who served for 20 years as CEO of Infosys, handled the change in their circumstances:

“As the couple became richer, they went to great lengths to keep their children grounded. Narayana has said that his lifestyle ‘continues to be simple’ and that when he returns home from work every night, he still cleans his own lavatory.

“‘We have a caste system in India where the so-called lowest class…is a set of people who clean the toilets,’ he has explained. ‘My father believed that the caste system is a wrong one and therefore he made all of us clean our toilets…and that habit has continued, and I want my children to do that. And the best way to make them do it is if you did it yourself.'”

At the end of the book, Ashcroft lists some of the ways in which Sunak has been described by people who dealt with him:

“authentic, humble, approachable, gentle, modest, friendly, empathetic, thoughtful, respectful, sensitive, a listener. These are not the kind of words you hear about politicians every day, to put it at its most charitable. They help to explain not only his success but the lack of resentment it seems to have inspired in the ruthlessly competitive precincts of Westminster.”

Where does this behaviour come from? It must have been inculcated by Sunak’s parents, and before them by their parents. They arrived in England almost penniless, but with a rich store of moral capital.

And this must have something to do with their Hinduism. There are fleeting references to their faith:

“His grandmother’s funeral was a traditional Hindu affair, involving a colourful procession that blocked traffic in that part of Southampton. It was very well attended, on account of the role Suhag’s late husband had played setting up the Vedic Society Hindu temple in Southampton.”

The admirable rapidity with which this account has been produced meant there was no time to look into Sunak’s Hinduism. We learn that he does not drink alcohol, but he says this is because he does not like the taste or the effect of it.

During the pandemic, his advisers became worried that he was not eating:

“‘The day before he announced the furlough scheme, one of our economic advisers put a sandwich on his desk and said, “You must eat,” because he just wasn’t eating,’ says a Treasury source. ‘He was looking thin and faint.’ Another adviser says, ‘He has to be told almost every day to eat. Otherwise he’ll just work and work.’ An insider later revealed that Sunak sometimes goes without food deliberately, fasting on selected days from sunrise to sunset – not for religious reasons, but to ‘re-set after the weekend’.”

Sunak’s brilliant career shows a society whose institutions are open to talent: Winchester, Oxford, the City and the Conservative Party in Yorkshire and Westminster all welcomed him with open arms, perceiving what an asset he would be.

But another attraction of this country is its high regard for privacy. We do not seek to make windows into men’s souls. In the privacy of one’s own home or place of worship, one may practice whatever religion one may have brought with one to the UK.

I nevertheless hope that just as Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, some scholar will in due course offer us The Hindu Ethic and the Spirit of Conservatism.

What next for Sunak? He will in a few months’ time have the opportunity radically to recast the tax system, so that we do not find we have been have been bankrupted by the pandemic.

He will need to raise more revenue while stimulating the entrepreneurship which he so admires, and doing so in the areas adjacent to Richmond which have been neglected for so long.

William Hague, his predecessor in that seat, is given the last words about Sunak in this book:

“From his house, or very nearby, you can see the Tees Valley. You can see the east coast and all that Teesside area that’s been so depressed and has in the last couple of elections gone Conservative. And I think he’s really got clearly in his head that that’s a big litmus test of what he’s doing. Is that area revived in a few years’ time or not? He can literally physically see what he appears to feel very passionately about. So I think that that levelling-up agenda might become whatever Sunakism is. But it’s probably too early to say, isn’t it?”