Johnson prepares for his new Prime Minister’s department

19 Jul

In Boris Johnson’s interview with the Sunday Telegraph this morning, he yearns for a civil service that will “work faster” – and thinks that “sometimes it’s a question of confidence and belief”.

“Maybe there are ways in which we can all learn together to do things faster, to have a real spirit of ‘can do’. I’m not saying that people don’t have that, but there’s an opportunity to learn from the crisis and to work faster.”

Two main criticisms of the civil service are levelled by Number Ten.  (The Prime Minister is careful to say: “Please don’t think that I in any way underestimate the brilliance of the UK civil service, they are absolutely fantastic.”)

The first is that it needs to “focus on results; decentralise its operations; use data more rigorously; understand mathematical reasoning; rotate staff less often; produce more experts and, startlingly, risk failure by innovating”.

That was our summary of Michael Gove’s recent speech on the subject.  A classic example of where it fails to act in this way, as identified by Dominic Cummings in his blogs, is defence procurement.

The second is that parts of the service have a worldview that isn’t impartial; that this was so over Brexit, to which there was opposition; that this is so over human rights norms, which are believed to trump our national sovereignty.

Downing Street’s objection to these isn’t to human rights themselves, which are a way of describing justice, but about the way they’re sometimes interpreted by the courts – see the Court of Appeal’s Shamima Begum decision.

At any rate, a slew of top civil servants have recently left their posts: beside Mark Sedwill, Simon McDonald at the Foreign Office and Richard Heaton at Justice have gone.  Philip Rutnam resigned from the Home Office.

A questionmark also hovers next to the name of Richard Slater at Education.  But Number Ten is thinking about much more than the future of individual officials.

As this site reported recently, the Cabinet Office, which is believed, like Public Health England, to have performed poorly over the Coronavirus, is marked for reform.

Friends of Dominic Cummings have signalled big changes coming both to it and to Number Ten – “a smaller, more focused and more elite centre is needed”, he recently told a SpAd zoom meeting.

He also said that the Coronavirus has exposed fundamental problems in the Whitehall machine and that many officials now accept the need for radical change.

Downing Street would resist a label reading “Prime Minister’s Department” being stuck to the coming changes, but they will clearly involve more control from Number Ten.

ConservativeHome is told that one option is moving Johnson out of his current office in Number Ten, in which Prime Ministers have been accommodated during recent years.

His is the room to which Theresa May famously restored a desk after David Cameron had done without one during his “chillaxing” years.

Under this plan, Johnson would shuffle over to 70 Whitehall, where the bulk of the Cabinet Office is accommodated, and would settle there with his Policy Unit, which is headed by Munira Mirza.

Number Ten would resist the claim that “a more elite centre” equals “a much bigger centre” – or that centralisation itself works.

Cummings’ briefing to the Zoom meeting was that “it’s ludicrous to suggest the solution to Whitehall’s problems is a bigger centre and more centralisation – it’s already far too big and incoherent”.

One idea that has been doing the rounds is that the Government needs Michael Gove as the Prime Minister’s formal deputy in order to get a grip on the pullulating Downing Street operation.

There is no knowing what the Prime Minister would do in a reshuffle, since he keeps his cards not so much close to his chest as stuffed down his vest.

However, a view put to this site by several sources is that a more efficient Number Ten wouldn’t need a powerful number two politician to run it.

Gove would instead “be promoted elsewhere” – perhaps to the Home Office if Patel runs into trouble in the courts, where Rutnam is bringing his case against her.

Rob Sutton: When a Coronavirus death isn’t a Coronavirus death

19 Jul

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

The official Covid-19 death figures produced by Public Health England (PHE) may have been inflated. The revelation that their daily count included all fatalities following a positive test, regardless of the time interval since the result or whether it was the most likely cause of death, risks undermining one of the key metrics steering the Government’s response.

Judgement has been swift, severe and bipartisan. The Government has been trapped in a pincer movement of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Some on the right argue inflated statistics have led to economic disruption and the restriction of individual freedoms. Leftists point to it as another indication of a disorganised government response. Publication of daily figures has been halted and Matt Hancock has ordered an urgent review.

The criticism might seem fair. Why should there be any difficulty in counting deaths from the Coronavirus? The political fault lines exposed by the pandemic have brought scepticism to every aspect of the scientific community’s role in policymaking. Every figure and calculation, from test accuracies to the danger of asymptomatic patients to the effectiveness of masks, has been questioned. We might hope the death toll is one thing which can be agreed upon.

Yet the calculation is not trivial. Difficulties arise from numerous technical, clinical and political considerations, and these considerations have shifted during the pandemic. Deaths can be counted based on the confirmation of a positive test result or the judgement of a medical professional in cases where testing has not been performed.

Different types of tests might have different interpretations. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the gold standard and is more likely to indicate a current infection, but it requires expensive equipment and technical expertise. Antibody tests are relatively cheap and easy to perform, but a positive result might indicate infection weeks or months prior. Their accuracy also varies.

Where testing is not available or has not been performed, the clinical challenges of defining a Covid-19 death are more pronounced. It must be decided on a balance of probabilities whether a given patient was infected. Many who die from the Coronavirus have comorbidities, and it can be difficult to decide whether the virus was the main cause of death or a contributing factor.

Public health officials, policymakers and statisticians must consider these factors. Should they only record those who have tested positive or should they include cases where there was clinical suspicion? Should we include positive results from PCR, antibody tests, or both? Should recorded deaths be those where it was the main cause, a contributing factor, or (as in the case of PHE) in all cases where there is a positive test result on file?

Deepening the problem is a lack of international consensus on best practices for different countries. Different countries have different levels of healthcare infrastructure and testing capacity, a one-size-fits-all approach is unpractical and would risk distorting true figures. This should have been established early on in the pandemic.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been busy fighting its own battles. There has been little opportunity to develop an international consensus on how to count deaths while battling on multiple controversies. Its ability to provide global leadership has thus been compromised.

In the vacuum of international medical leadership, political considerations have been added to the technical and clinical difficulties of counting deaths. The focus of our government should be simple: to obtain the best available data and the knowledge to effectively use it to save lives while protecting the economy.

Instead, perverse incentives have made an already challenging technical exercise into a political minefield. No government wants to look bad when compared to international peers, and overcounting risks inflating the statistics and leading to embarrassment on the world stage. Having the most comprehensive testing program sounds less appealing when it also means counting the most deaths.

Our policymakers are therefore pulled in different directions. We now face a situation in which the limited resources of PHE are being further stretched to run a recount in the hope that we might deflate our disturbingly high death toll. One can imagine better ways to invest these resources.

Feigning shock and pointing fingers is profoundly unhelpful at this point. There are clear actions that should be taken promptly. Amended figures should be released and anonymised data provided for scrutiny. Methodology for calculation should be explained unambiguously and a consensus formed as to how to record data moving forward.

If a major discrepancy is found in the new figures, policies which were based on those numbers should be reviewed and changed accordingly. Instead of bouncing the blame between PHE, SAGE, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Cabinet, we need to acknowledge the difficulties inherent to the problem and act to ensure our decisions are guided by the best available data.

Virginia Crosbie: Nuclear power will be absolutely critical to hitting our Net Zero targets

18 Jul

Virginia Crosbie is the Member of Parliament for Ynys Môn.

Last December I was honoured to become Ynys Môn’s first Conservative MP for more than 30 years. The last woman to hold the post was the great Megan Lloyd-George, the country’s first-ever female MP.

National issues do not always have a direct impact on elections. On Anglesey, it is a collection of island people with island concerns. Yet, being on the periphery by no means justifies such a beautiful place being treated as such.

In recent times, key to winning the seat for any prospective candidate is unequivocal, unwavering support for Wylfa Newydd Nuclear Power Plant, and this was a core part of my promise to the electorate.

New nuclear projects can help to deliver so many of our current national priorities: a Net Zero electricity supply; deep decarbonisation in other key parts of the energy system; driving economic growth outside of the south east of England; and renewal of our national critical infrastructure.

However, in January 2019, Hitachi decided to suspend activities, and since then the project has been hanging in the balance.

Wylfa Newydd is to be the catalyst for a massive levelling up of the whole of North Wales, something which the region has not experienced since the first power station was built in the 1960s. Put simply, it would be a monumental blow both locally and nationally if this project does not go ahead.

Beyond Ynys Môn, Wylfa Newydd is of national critical importance in order to stand any chance of meeting Net Zero by 2050. During this decade, all but one of our current nuclear power plants, which provide 40 per cent of our low carbon electricity, are due to come offline. Without clear alternatives, and with a need to meet demand, nuclear must be replaced with nuclear.

Complicating matters is the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) forecast that demand for clean electricity is to quadruple over the next thirty years. Meeting this will require a massive expansion of our already world-leading offshore wind capability, developing more onshore wind, and enabling solar farm development.

Likewise, while much has been made by critics of the so-called end of baseload, the CCC has affirmed we will still need ‘firm’ power on the Grid to complement variable renewables. The same conclusion has been reached by many organisations central to this issue including the International Energy Agency, the OECD, National Grid, the Energy Systems Catapult, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Therefore, maintaining a 40 per cent share for nuclear is the key to success. The question is, how do we achieve it?

Recently the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) published ‘Forty by ’50: The Nuclear Roadmap’. The report not only details how much nuclear power will be required to decarbonise electricity, but also for our entire energy system.

As a scientist myself, I know what complex a task this will be. That is why I was the first MP to raise the significant potential role of nuclear in hydrogen production in the Commons last week.

It is expected of politicians that we pursue the pathway which has the highest probability of success at the lowest cost. The best way to achieve our climate change targets without unnecessarily spending billions of taxpayer’s money, is to ensure projects such as Wylfa Newydd go ahead.

The German Energiewende model shows the danger of taking an ‘either/or’ approach to low carbon technologies. This system has seen hundreds of billions of euros ploughed into an energy system which is no cleaner than it was ten years ago. Why? Because they have shut down the vast majority of their nuclear power plants, with the rest not far behind. Replacing it when intermittency inevitably kicks in is lignite coal from open cast mines, pretty much the dirtiest way to make electricity.

The Net Zero target is so great that we need a combination of renewables and nuclear – which, as the IPCC themselves have set out, has a carbon footprint the same or lower than wind and solar – to be working together in order to successfully meet it.

This is about international credibility and leadership, and setting a blueprint for the rest of the world in how to successfully decarbonise an economy. That is why I will be pushing the Government to consider the recommendations set out in the NIA’s report – because without their implementation, we are making the Net Zero target a much greater mountain to climb.

Newslinks for Saturday 18th July 2020

18 Jul

Britain can aim for ‘significant return’ to normality ‘in time for Christmas’, says Johnson

“The UK can get back to normal in time for Christmas, Boris Johnson said as he unveiled the Government’s road map out of the coronavirus pandemic. The Prime Minister said the public should start “looking ahead with optimism” and “hope for the best”, even though the Government will continue “planning for the worst”. He urged people to go back to work from the start of August and scrapped the guidance to avoid using public transport… However, just hours later the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, struck a more pessimistic tone as he warned that Britain could need another national lockdown in the winter, when the challenge of tackling coronavirus will be “very much greater”.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Sporting crowds, theatre and hugs: the roadmap out of lockdown – The Times
  • Prime Minister accused of ‘making policy on a wing and a prayer’ – Daily Telegraph
  • Plan for ‘return to normality’ met with scepticism – The Guardian
  • Social distancing will ‘continue for a long period of time’ warns Whitty – Daily Mail

Matthew Parris: Shameless PM is losing the respect of his colleagues

“The point about the Mafia is that people must be scared. As Boris Johnson approaches his first anniversary as prime minister next week, he could do worse than remind himself of the 1972 blockbuster, The Godfather. The film brings it home. The important thing is not to be disregarded. You can do some seriously crazy stuff with horses’ heads in victims’ beds but only so long as people can see there’s method in your madness. Only a year into Mr Johnson’s tenure at Downing Street the outside world has noticed the madness but begins to doubt the method. And once people start deriding you, you’ve lost it.” – The Times

Hancock orders urgent review into daily coronavirus death figures in England

“Matt Hancock has opened an urgent review of England’s coronavirus death toll after realising that anyone who has ever tested positive is included in the tally, regardless of their cause of death. In contrast with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where daily deaths are now often zero, Covid-19 deaths in England have stayed stubbornly high and are falling only slowly. Yesterday 114 deaths were recorded and the seven-day average is 83. Statisticians have analysed the methodology used by Public Health England (PHE) and found that at least some of the difference in England is due to a method by which even someone who dies in a road accident is included in the coronavirus statistics if they had ever tested positive.” – The Times

  • ‘Game-changing’ coronavirus antibody test passes first major trials – Daily Telegraph
  • Lansley accuses Johnson of blaming NHS for government’s Covid-19 failings – The Guardian

Juliet Samuel: No wonder this committee thinks it runs the country

“Sir Patrick, as we can infer from this statement, neither runs a chain of city-centre hair salons or restaurants, nor works in one, nor runs a Government that relies on tax revenue from such establishments. If he did, he might admit there are some reasons – conceivable, imaginable reasons – why getting a bit more foot traffic into town centres is a good idea. Still, if Sir Patrick has somehow picked up the idea that he does, in fact, run the Government, it is surely not his fault. Ever since our senior-most ministers began to claim that they were merely “following the science”, the country has logically concluded that the people really in charge are the scientists, by which we mean the particular scientific committees convened by our bureaucracy to interpret the epidemiological runes.” – Daily Telegraph

  • PHE’s exaggerated death statistics are a scandal that has fed fear – Matthew Lesh, Daily Telegraph
  • We must not let the government seize back control from doctors – Andrew Lansley, The Guardian
  • Inexplicable advice has led Britain into a crisis of confidence – Ben Habib, Daily Telegraph
  • A chance to reshape UK public health strategy and target obesity – Camilla Cavendish, FT

Begum ruling brings call to make ‘moral support’ a terrorist crime

“The government has been urged to close a legal loophole so that people who provide “moral support” to jihadists can be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws. Jonathan Hall, QC, who has been appointed by ministers to be the independent reviewer of terrorism, has told The Times that yesterday’s landmark court ruling on Shamima Begum highlighted a “lacuna in our current law”. Three Court of Appeal judges said that Ms Begum, who as a 15-year-old became an Islamic State bride and lived in Isis territory for three years, should be allowed to return to the UK to challenge the government’s decision to strip her of British citizenship.” – The Times

  • Predictable return shows how feeble our authorities have become – Leo McKinstry, Daily Telegraph
  • The jihadi bride is a traitor but is still British and Britain’s problem – Janice Turner, The Times

Johnson ‘is set to reward three Remainers with life peerages’

The Prime Minister is set to announce 30 new peers later this month to mark his first year in Downing Street. The list is said to include arch-Remainers Philip Hammond, Ken Clarke and Ed Vaizey in a bid to heal divisions in the Conservative Party. Former chancellors Mr Hammond and Mr Clarke and ex-culture minister Mr Vaizey had the Tory whip withdrawn after attempting to block Mr Johnson’s efforts to reach an agreement with the EU… And it was reported that there will be peerages for ex—Labour MPs Frank Field and Gisela Stuart who both supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Former Labour MPs Ian Austin and John Woodcock, who backed Remain but supported Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal and urged Labour voters not to support Jeremy Corbyn, are also said to be on the list.” – Daily Express

  • Botham given peerage ‘as reward for Brexit loyalty’ – The Times
  • Peers set to get full allowance for virtual Lords attendance – Daily Telegraph

One year on:

  • World sees ‘clown prince or a Donald Trump for the British’ – The Times
  • Downing Street vs the Conservative Party – FT
  • Series of photographs revealed to mark one year as Prime Minister – Daily Mail

Government plans £200million boost for houses of 5,000 military personnel

“A £200 million funding boost announced for armed forces personnel’s homes will give military families ‘the standard of living they deserve’, according to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. More than 5,000 military personnel and their families will have their homes modernised as part of the plan, Mr Wallace announced during a visit to Catterick Garrison, in North Yorkshire, on Friday with Chancellor Rishi Sunak. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said the investment will fund new kitchens, bathrooms and furnishings, as well as re-roofing, plus measures to reduce the risk of mould and damp. It said that the funding injection will mean that 3,500 service homes will be upgraded as well as single living quarters.” – Daily Mail

  • Sunak urged to grant pubs and restaurants a year-long rent holiday – The Sun

China-UK conflict fears ‘explode’ as Beijing condemns ‘very dangerous’ carrier move

“China has reacted with fury to reports the UK is considering basing one of its new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, in the far-east in response to Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance in the region. Relations between Britain and China have soured over the past few months over Hong Kong, Huawei and China’s handing of the original coronavirus outbreak. Speaking to The Times Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to London, warned it would be a “very dangerous move” for Britain to station a carrier in the far-east. He said Beijing would interpret such a move as Britain deciding to “gang up with the United States on the Chinese”… Beijing is in dispute with a number of its neighbours over control of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.” – Daily Express

  • Don’t threaten us, warns China envoy Liu Xiaoming – The Times
  • Huawei reveals plans to open three stores on UK high streets – Daily Mail


  • Downing Street warns Russia there may be retaliation over its cyber attacks – The Sun

Pressure on Starmer as McCluskey confirms early exit

“The leader of the Unite trade union is to stand down early, triggering an election for his successor next year, The Times can reveal. Len McCluskey, who was a leading ally of Jeremy Corbyn, will hand over to a new general secretary a year before his term in office was due to end. The move will trigger a pitched battle for control of Labour’s second largest union affiliate and biggest donor. It poses a challenge to Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, who faces increasing criticism from Unite figures. In an interview yesterday Mr McCluskey accused members of Sir Keir’s team of “timidity” over their approach to the economy and warned against any return to the centre ground.” – The Times

  • The British equivalent of the NYT’s weakness masquerading as liberal virtue is the BBC – Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph

EU leaders deadlocked on recovery fund as summit falters

“European leaders’ attempt to agree a €750bn economic recovery package to overcome the damage wrought by Covid-19 was in disarray in the early hours of Saturday morning after a summit in Brussels was suspended in acrimony. Prime ministers and presidents ventured to their hotel rooms without comment following 13 hours of talks that laid bare splits over the rules for doling out hundreds of billions of euros that the EU would borrow on the capitals markets. Negotiations at the summit — leaders’ first physical meeting since February — are set to resume at 11am Brussels time on Saturday. Diplomats said that much of the ire at the summit table was directed at Mark Rutte. The Dutch prime minister’s insistence on a national veto over the spending of recovery money led to tensions with other capitals that boiled over during an ill-tempered late-evening dinner.” – FT

  • If only Gove heeded ‘Captain Foresight’ on Brexit – Henry Mance, FT

Sturgeon’s own advisor mocks plan to hand Scots £11k a year

“Nicola Sturgeon’s economic advisor hit out at plans to pay £11,000 a year to working-age Scots under a new Universal Basic Income (UBI) scheme. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has backed the scheme which would see every citizen provided with guaranteed payments no matter what their circumstances are. Ms Sturgeon said of UBI: “I am a supporter of [UBI], I have long been interested in the concept, I think the case for it has been immeasurably strengthened by the crisis we’re living through.” But Benny Higgins, who helped to produce a recent report on how the Scottish economy should recover from COVID-19, said the scheme would be an “expensive distraction”.” – Daily Express

What the abolition of DfID tells us about the war on Civil Service generalists

18 Jul

Although overtaken by the Covid-19 crisis, this Government remains committed to the Herculean (perhaps Sisyphean) task of reforming the Civil Service.

Michael Gove has spoken about the need to tackle ‘group think’, and Dominic Cummings is an avowed enthusiast for cracking down on Whitehall’s reliance on generalists and bringing in outsiders to shake things up.

The practice of shuffling civil servants around Whitehall on a regular basis, which fuels the generalist culture, not only makes it very difficult for them to develop expertise in a given area, but it can also make it hard to hold individuals accountable for failure, and over time this inevitably has an effect on the efficacy of the Civil Service.

In Part V of his excellent essay ‘The Gervais Principle‘, an analysis of organisations through the lens of The Office, Venkatesh Rao describes how individuals in complex organisations conspire to offload blame onto the organisation itself, which instead accrues inside it as a sort of ‘dark matter’.

He then describes the effect this has on the organisation over time, which cumulate in “the organization itself gradually turning into an incomprehensible, byzantine and increasingly error-prone maze, as it pretends to evolve and self-correct”. Critics of the Civil Service probably wouldn’t dissent from that assessment.

Worse, the Civil Service lacks the correction mechanism Rao perceives in modern capitalism: a relatively short institutional life-cycle which allows for regular resets through mergers and take-overs. It thus ends up in the middle-management mire foreseen by William H Whyte in his seminal The Organisation Man, the consequences of which for the end-user were illuminatingly described by George Bathurst in his article yesterday.

But the war on generalists could have perils of its own. Whilst circulating civil servants around Whitehall may contribute to the creation of a broad ‘Civil Service culture’, the alternative could be the emergence of much more powerful departmental cultures.

A department populated by long-serving specialists risks becoming deeply committed to an institutional outlook, one bolstered by the very expertise Cummings et al is out to attract and the ideological preoccupations which attract able people to a career in a single sector. It may thus lack the flexibility to adapt to changes of course under different governments.

(It’s telling that the Department for International Development, which the Prime Minister is abolishing, is one of the those with the biggest reputation for such a culture. The battle between the Government and a deeply pro-EU Foreign Office would be another example of the problem.)

Such a development would only deepen the disadvantage faced by ministers, who do tend to move around, unless accompanied by further reforms to help them get an immediate political grip – further complicating the whole process.

A common assumption of Conservative reformers is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Government to devise an effective way to simulate the dynamics of the private sector. It isn’t obvious that this is any less true for creative destruction than anything else.

The ultimate tragedy of Civil Service reform may ultimately be that no amount of huffing and puffing can replicate Schumpeter’s Gale.

Required next time. A fresh, charistmatic Tory leader who embodies modern, multi-racial Britain. Does that suggest anyone?

18 Jul

‘Don’t be so gloomy, the wheel will turn’. That, in essence, is the counter-argument to my last column.

Two weeks ago, I made the case on this site that the nature of the Conservative Party has changed. It has done so to reflect the fact that the swing voter in the swing seats has a different set of values than was the case before. Compared to the swing voters of the past (and, indeed, the typical Conservative voter of the present), the polling evidence shows that the voters who gave Boris Johnson his electoral triumph in 2019 are economically left wing and socially right wing.

If the Conservatives want to retain those Red Wall seats, I argued, they will need to deliver economic policies that are consistent with these views – high spending and interventionist – and ensure that cultural issues remain salient. It was a depressing conclusion, I argued, if you were a ‘small state free marketeer, or a one nation social liberal’ and that ‘I fear it is too late to turn back’.

One person who took issue with my conclusion was my good friend, David Lidington. As well as being probably the nicest person in politics, he is also one of the wisest. In his response on ConHome, David set out, from the perspective of a liberal Conservative, reasons to be optimistic.

First, he makes the very fair point that, in the 45 years in which he has been a member of the Conservative Party, it has been a home for many different types of Conservative and that ‘different leaders of the party, at different times have chosen to emphasise different elements of the broad Conservative tradition’.

Second, he acknowledges that ‘we shall want to hang on to traditional Labour supporters who lent us their votes last December, which in turn means that in four years’ time they need to see that we are at least beginning to deliver results for their families and neighbourhoods’ but that ‘to win again in 2024 we shall need to secure support from more younger voters than we did in either of the last two elections and to do that will mean reaching out to people whose values are, in the convenient shorthand, more “socially liberal” than those of their parents and grandparents, and who want to see political parties to take seriously their concerns about issues like the environment’.

‘Far from giving up in despair,’ David concludes, ‘liberal, centrist Conservatives should redouble our efforts to influence the party’s thinking about how we can win again in 2024’.

I genuinely wish David and other liberal, centrist Conservatives well in that endeavour. His analysis of the need to appeal to younger more socially liberal voters is one I share for two reasons.

First, I think it would lead to better government and, second, in the longer term, the Conservative Party will need to broaden its base. Relying on the votes of those born before 1960 has obvious long term problems. But in terms of understanding what will happen, there is a tension between what I would like to happen and the Prime Minister’s preferences, as revealed in the events of last year. I suspect those revealed preferences are a more reliable indicator.

Last year’s general election result was a triumph for the Prime Minister. It was the product of strategic clarity. Under Boris Johnson’s leadership, there was no real attempt to appeal to both sides of the Brexit debate (although he received the reluctant support of plenty of Remainers who were terrified of Jeremy Corbyn) but that gave him a clear message which appealed to the half of the country that favoured leaving the EU.

Theresa May had sought to seek a resolution to the Brexit issue that satisfied both sides of the argument. Leavers would see us depart from the EU, Remainers would see sufficient continuity to avoid the economic and security downsides that we feared from a hard Brexit. In my view, this was the sensible approach to the referendum result but by the time we got to last year it had little public support. Opinion was polarised into supporting a hard Brexit at any price or no Brexit at all, as the results in the European Parliamentary elections showed.

Johnson’s strategy was to be clearly identified as being on one side of the argument. In everything he did – from the make-up of the Cabinet, the prorogation of Parliament, the withdrawal of the whip for Conservative rebels, the nature of the general election campaign – was designed to win over the support of Leave voters. Forcing the Brexit Party essentially to step-aside in the general election meant that the Conservative Party had a near monopoly on Leave voters against a divided and badly led opposition.

Some will argue that these were the circumstances of 2019, but that does not make them the circumstances for 2024. And this brings me to the key question. Are we living through a fundamental realignment of British politics? Are our politics no longer defined by divisions on the grounds of economic class but on cultural identity? The somewheres versus the anywheres, the provincial and rural versus the metropolitan, non-graduates versus graduates, the socially conservative versus the socially liberal, the nationalist versus internationalist.

My view is that we are in such a period. More to the point, I think that the Prime Minister and the people around him believe that we are and that their view is that the most likely route to electoral success for the Conservative Party (and the route to success last year) is for the Party to embrace that realignment and establish itself as the Party for those on one side of the new dividing line in British politics.

Brexit may have accelerated this transformation but it did not cause it. Throughout the world, centre-right parties are being dragged in a similar direction as the social democratic left loses its grip on its traditional supporters, providing an opportunity for parties who can defend the cultural identity of those voters.

If that analysis is right (and, again, I would rather it is not), the wheel is not going to turn, at least not for a long time. Political realignments do not happen very often and this realignment has worked out very nicely for the Conservatives so far. But it means that the Conservative Party will not be economically or socially liberal (at least in terms of issues of national identity) for some time to come.

There is one other point. If I am wrong and David Lidington is right that the best course of action is for the Conservatives to seek the support of younger, more socially liberal voters there is a significant obstacle. Even though he is in many ways a social liberal himself, Boris Johnson is too battle-scarred, too associated with Brexit, too polarising to reinvent the Conservative Party yet again.

Fresh leadership by 2024 would be necessary. Someone not associated with the turmoil and divisions of 2016-19, someone with the charisma and communication skills to appeal to younger voters, someone who could embody modern, multi-racial Britain. Maybe, just maybe, such a leader could take the Conservative Party in a different direction. But who could fit the bill? Hmm.

We’re “hoping for the best, but planning for the worst”, says the PM, in one of the most optimistic conferences of recent

17 Jul

At today’s press conference, Johnson gave one of his most confident deliveries in recent weeks. As he laid out the next steps for the nation, he managed to be both cautious and hopeful in offering a vision of the future. 

The Prime Minister began by reeling off encouraging statistics about the country’s battle with the Coronavirus. “For three weeks now, the number of cases identified through testing each day has been below 1,000” he announced, adding that SAGE has calculated the R rate to be between 0.7 and 0.9, and that the number of infections was shrinking by five and one per cent every day.

What SAGE hasn’t been as encouraging about, however, is the Government’s plan to reopen workplaces. Yesterday Patrick Vallance, its chief scientific advisor, told MPs at the Commons science committee that there was “absolutely no reason” to change the guidance to stay at home. “A number of companies think it’s not detrimental to productivity and in that situation absolutely no reason I can see to change it”, were his words.

But today Johnson told businesses they have “discretion” over whether they want their employees to return from August 1 – and how they do this safely. Much of this demonstrates, as ConservativeHome has written before, that the Government has never been fully “guided by the science”. Indeed, when Vallance’s absence was remarked upon, the Prime Minister responded “in the end decisions are taken by elected politicians.”

August 1 will also mark the reopening of leisure settings, such as bowling, skating rinks and casinos, as well as allowing close contact services to resume, although nightclubs and soft play areas still need to stay shut.

The Prime Minister explained that some of the approach to Covid-19 has changed in line with new information about its epidemiology and “intelligence on where it is spreading”. Going forward in England, the NHS Test and Trace, alongside the Joint Biosecurity Centre, will be concentrating on “targeted, local action”.

Johnson highlighted that this approach had been used in Weston-Super-Mare and Kirklees, as well as in Bradford and Blackburn with Darwen. He added that restrictions in Leicester would soon be relaxed, based on the fact that “the percentage of people testing positive” fell “from a weekly rate of 12.2 per cent on 29 June to 4.8 per cent yesterday.”

He assured people that he understood that local measures would be “hard going”, but that “there is no point shutting down a city in one part of the country to contain an outbreak in another part of the country.” 

It reinforces Johnson’s point about the Government’s strategy shifting with new data. Some will remember that on April 29, Matt Hancock told reporters: “We did think about moving with London and the Midlands first because they were the more advanced in terms of number of cases, but we decided that we are really in this together”. But all that has changed drastically.

Overall Johnson’s speech emphasised a transition of power from central Government to other bodies – namely, businesses and local councils. From tomorrow the latter will be able to “close specific premises, shut public outdoor spaces, and cancel events” at their will, in the hope that this will speed up how quickly Coronavirus is identified and isolated.

While the Government and scientific bodies will get little credit for this, they have clearly gone to enormous lengths to step up preparedness in case of further Coronavirus outbreaks, particularly a dreaded second wave in winter. Data suggest the country is now carrying out more antigen tests (to identify if someone currently has the virus) than anywhere else in Europe.

Furthermore, it has set up 200 mobile units for testing around the country, hugely increased ventilators (from 9,000 to nearly 30,000) and is rolling out the biggest flu vaccination programme in the history of the NHS, on top of an additional £3 billion of funding for the NHS.

From ConservativeHome’s perspective, this was one of the most reassuring press conferences from the Prime Minister, showing intense preparations that have been going on behind the scenes, while emphasising one of Johnson’s main strengths: optimism. 

Passenger donates proceeds from new album to support food banks during the coronavirus crisis

17 Jul

Singer-songwriter and musician Passenger is supporting the Trussell Trust, a charity that works with a network of more than 1,200 food bank centres across the UK, by donating proceeds from his new album Patchwork to help people struggling due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Food banks have seen a huge surge in need for emergency support during the coronavirus outbreak. The Trussell Trust reports a soaring 89% increase in need for emergency food parcels during April 2020 compared to the same month last year, including a 107% rise in parcels given to children. The number of families with children receiving parcels has almost doubled compared to the same period last year.

Wherever possible, food banks are continuing to provide emergency support to people in their community in the safest way possible. Many have had to make significant changes to the way they work in order to protect the health of everyone at the food bank – whether that’s people who need the food bank, people volunteering, or people donating.

Passenger’s donation will help the Trussell Trust support food banks to continue providing emergency help safely during the crisis, while campaigning for long-term change to the drivers of need for food banks and working towards a future where everyone in the UK has enough money for essentials.

Michael said,

“Patchwork is a collection of songs that I wrote during lockdown (with the exception of the beautiful “someone you loved” by Lewis Capaldi.) It was such a strange and challenging time for me as I’m sure it was for everybody. I was living alone and as a result found myself in a very honest and vulnerable spot which is always a good place to be for writing songs from.

“I had no plan to record them as a stand-alone album but as the weeks went on and the songs kept coming it felt like a really nice thing to be able to do. All of the proceeds from the album will be donated to the Trussell Trust, which is a UK based organisation dedicated to providing food for the people who don’t have enough money for essentials, and working towards a time when such a service might not be needed.”

Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust said,

“We’re really grateful to Passenger for his support. Food banks have seen a huge surge in need as the impact of coronavirus hits people’s incomes – more and more people are struggling to cover the cost of essentials. But it doesn’t have to be like this. This can change. As a country, we can make changes which would protect people from being swept into poverty. This donation from Passenger will help us continue supporting food banks to get emergency help to people safely, while we work towards a future where everyone has enough money for essentials. Thank you so much.”

Patchwork is available from 10th July in digital format globally from all recognised retailers and from the artist website at

The post Passenger donates proceeds from new album to support food banks during the coronavirus crisis appeared first on The Trussell Trust.

George Bathurst: We must prize the dead hand of officialdom from our railway network

17 Jul

George Bathurst is a former Conservative Councillor and lead member at Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. As well as promoting better transport solutions he works in IT infrastructure and cyber security.

As Boris Johnson promises to ‘build build build’ to lead us out of the lockdown, how will we decide which infrastructure projects? Will they be state-led or market-led? Is there even a difference? And what role will competition play?

Stories of great infrastructure competitions are still told hundreds of years later. Isambard Kingdom Brunel lost the competition to build the Bristol suspension bridge but he didn’t give up: when the initial winner foundered, he was invited back.

Unfortunately, like beautiful bridges, competitions have become to be seen as old-fashioned, belonging to a different, less-enlightened age, childish at best and akin to war at worst. Wouldn’t it be better if we could all just agree, get on with it without the drama? Can’t everybody be a winner?

But if you think competitions are not the future, consider the website you are reading right now. Look at the little padlock in your web browser that indicates your connection is encrypted. This is the result of one of the most successful competitions of all time, something I’m familiar with from my work in cyber security.

In 1997, the American National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) invited proposals for what was to be the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

It was a stunning success, laying the foundation for the explosion of internet commerce that followed. The fact that home working during the present pandemic is even a practical option for so many of us is the result. It’s so good that even twenty years later, government spies have all but given up trying to hack it (which is why we see repeated calls for legislation to break it).

Even the losers in the competition were pleased with it. Bruce Schneier, one of the authors of the Twofish algorithm, said, “I have nothing but good things to say about the NIST and AES process.” He went on to fix some of the criticisms of his own cipher and it’s now included in OpenPGP, widely used for encrypting emails.

Now let’s compare this with competitions run by the UK Department for Transport. Take the southern rail link to Heathrow, for example.

Two years ago Chris Grayling, the then Transport Secretary, felt that surely one of the richest regions in the country could fund this privately. He announced Market-Led Proposals, saying that “the government doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas.”

Five companies worked up serious proposals in response. These included: MTR, the Hong Kong-based Crossrail operator, a proposal for a new high speed railway from Heathrow to Dover via Gatwick, HS4; a light railway from Staines, promoted by Spelthorne Council; the Heathrow Southern Railway, a link from Heathrow to Woking, which they spent over £2 million developing; and my company the Windsor Link, which combined the western and southern links to Heathrow into one holistic solution, saving over £1 billion versus building both with the bonus of improving congestion and air quality in what is a nationally significant strategic pinch point just west of the airport.

All of us were defeated, however. Officials hired consultants, many of whom were former officials, to conduct a secretive ‘market sounding’. The anonymous respondents apparently preferred the status quo, no competition, just to be told what to do. Having pretended to consider the various ideas, officials decided that a sixth idea, their own, was the best. Grayling was forced to explain to Parliament why taxes on some of the poorest communities in London would increase to pay for rich people to get to the airport more quickly.

Market-Led Proposals had become government-led proposals, the government monopoly reaffirmed.

My experience of this was a rare invitation to the Department for a debrief. Sitting opposite my colleagues and me were the officials in charge of the process. We were told that they had looked at competition in Italy but had concluded that all it led to was corruption.

What shocked me (but shouldn’t have) was the attendance of the official in charge of that sixth idea. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the individual; as with all the Civil Servants I have met, he was trying to do his best. It was that it was just that it was like selling BMW cars to the Government and then learning that the government buyer worked for Mercedes.

I felt ashamed that had led my team into a trap. It wasn’t that we hadn’t seen it coming. We had carefully explained that our first phase was complementary to any Heathrow link. We and many others had also responded to the Government’s consultation, called for openness and fairness, and received assurances. It was that, naively, I had believed them. Wiser people than me had stayed out of the competition altogether.

The tragedy is that two years later this Heathrow link is no closer to being built. The same is true of western access to Heathrow: officials have been promising to submit planning permission by Christmas for the last four years.

Much worse is that it is also true of a myriad of other rail schemes across the country. The official list of rail schemes actually being progressed is a sad reflection of our collective failure to meet the needs of the public. The last page of this document, of ideas not-invented-here, what officials call ‘third party schemes’, is blank.

The new Government is promising to increase investment in transport, but haven’t we been here before? Stephen Buyers renationalised Railtrack 20 years ago and abandoned spending restraints. How realistic is it that the same input to the same system will result in different outcomes?

How do we protect schemes like the Brighton Main Line 2 (given the thumbs-up earlier this month) or a new trans-Pennine route where, even amongst those that break through to some encouraging feedback, almost all eventually lose to doing nothing?

In Network Rail’s Hansford Review, contestability was the theme but at the launch event I attended the consultant hired to write it asked plaintively: but if there is competition who would be in control?

This is the key. In an open competition, nobody fully controls it.

In the encryption competition, the American government got a good result when it stopped trying to fix the outcome. (They had previously tried to imprison Phil Zimmerman, the founder of PGP.) They chose the winners at the end of the competition, not before it started.

More importantly, despite it being all about secrecy, the competition was conducted in public, not just open in the sense that anybody, from anywhere could compete, but open all the way through with every decision debated in public. NIST performed the role of Adam Smith’s ‘impartial observer’.

In my previous ConHome article, I gave credit to Grant Shapps, the new Transport Secretary, for the effective renationalisation of the train operating franchises because this gives an opportunity to remove the conflict of interest that has defeated all his predecessors: that officials are both proponents and judges of their own schemes (breaking Burke’s fundamental rule of good government).

The fake competitions that result (the franchises being another example) aren’t just bad for anybody who wants to improve our railways, public or private: they don’t make the government look good either. Grayling left office with his reputation so battered that even his subsequent appointment as an unpaid trustee of the National Portrait Gallery was controversial. Bernadette Kelly, the Permanent Secretary, was excoriated by the Public Accounts Committee’s Spring Report.

I’m imagining a world where our Transport officials and ministers are praised to the sky, like at NIST. All that it requires is for them to let go, stop picking winners, and let genuinely open competition do that for them.