Henry Hill: Davies touts ‘devolution revolution’ as the Welsh Tories try to shield their unionist flank

23 Jul

Davies says Wales needs a ‘devolution revolution’

The leader of the Welsh Conservatives has pledged a ‘devolution revolution’ and to give Cardiff Bay a ‘dose of Dom’ in his latest bid to avoid being outflanked by organised devoscepticism.

ITV Wales reports that Paul Davies made the remarks in a ‘virtual speech’ – available on YouTube – to Conservative activists ahead of next year’s elections to the Welsh Parliament.

Other sources report that the Welsh Tories’ new election strategy aims at tackling the long-standing problem this column has covered previously: mobilising Conservative voters who only vote at Westminster and in local elections to turn out for the Senedd. As I wrote two years ago:

“Secondly, both candidates would do well to address the severe disadvantage their Party suffers because hundreds of thousands of its voters do not vote in devolved elections. In 2016 the Tories polled just 215,000 votes, compared to over 400,000 in 2015 and almost 530,000 in 2017.”

Tory strategists have now set themselves the target of mobilising 75 per cent of their general election vote (557,234 in 2019) for the devolved contest, which if successful would almost double their 2016 vote to just under 418,000. For comparison, Labour’s majority-winning Senedd vote in 2016 was just under 354,000.

All this is the latest evidence that the advent of organised opposition to the Welsh Parliament is already shifting the balance of power inside the Conservative Party. The leadership remains firmly in the hands of the ‘devophiles’, but their new slogan – ‘Abolish Labour, not devolution’ – suggests they fear they’re on borrowed time.

Johnson funds research for the ‘Boris Bridge’ as he steps up campaigning in Scotland

News that the Prime Minister intends to embark on a tour of Scotland has probably not brought unconfined joy to unionists north of the border, but it remains infinitely preferable that he fights the good fight than not.

Following a week in which the Government squared up to the devolved administrations over the future of post-Brexit market regulations (with very good reason, and as we covered last week), this morning’s papers carry several stories on Boris Johnson’s pro-UK fightback, with the role of the Treasury in supporting the Scottish economy through the pandemic front and centre.

He has also apparently approved funds for a feasibility study into his proposal for the ‘Boris Bridge’ between Scotland and Northern Ireland. It still seems extremely unlikely it will be built, however, especially once the Government has to start making cuts to pay for all the Covid-19 spending.

MPs set up new ‘Union Research Group’

More evidence that the Tories are marshalling their forces in the Times this week, which covered the emergence of the new Conservative Union Research Group.

This new body is chaired by Robin Millar, the MP for Aberconwy, and aims to bring together backbench MPs to help support the Government as it prepares to take on Nicola Sturgeon and the devocrats. It reportedly already has the backing of around 40 backbenchers.

Although modelled on the European Research Group’s template, which has the virtue of being approved by IPSA, CURG sources emphasise that it is not intended to be a ‘party within a party’ or agitate against the Government. Defending the Union was in the Conservative manifesto in 2019, so it expects to be working with the grain of the leadership.

It isn’t yet clear whether or not the group will have any relationships with other parties – ERG membership is open to the Democratic Unionists – or how precisely it will operate. Watch this space.

Trouble at Stormont as ruling parties try to push through changes

There has been a new fight in Northern Ireland over proposed changes to the Assembly being pushed by Sinn Fein and the DUP, according to the News Letter.

On Tuesday the Assembly took just ten minutes to vote through the crucial stage of legislation which will increase the powers of ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. Arlene Foster, the First Minister and DUP leader, has been accused of making a “massive error” based on a mistaken understanding of the law in question by a senior adviser who has now left the party.

Experts also warn that the changes are likely to lead to more legal challenges against Stormont decisions, contrary to the assertions of both Foster and Michelle O’Neill, her Sinn Fein counterpart.

Meanwhile, Ulster and the Republic have also revived joint ministerial talks, the FT reports, as the new Taoiseach tries to build bridges following the departure of Leo Varadkar.

Newslinks for Thursday 23rd July 2020

23 Jul

Union ‘vital to recovery’, Johnson tells Scots

“The Union is more than a “marriage of convenience” and will prove vital in protecting its four nations from the “alarmingly choppy” economic waters caused by coronavirus, Boris Johnson argues today. In a trip to the north of Scotland the prime minister will highlight the Treasury’s financial assistance during the pandemic as he tries to stem the tide of support for Scottish independence. He will make a case for the Union that focuses on investment and infrastructure projects. This will include £50 million as part of a growth deal for Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, which will be topped up by £50 million from the Scottish government. The UK is expected to have huge job losses in October when the furlough scheme, which has supported 900,000 Scottish workers, comes to an end.” – The Times

  • Prime Minister says ‘sheer might of the Union’ has saved it 900,000 jobs – Daily Telegraph
  • Johnson stresses measures for north of border – FT
  • He will use Scotland visit ‘to talk up plan for bridge to Northern Ireland’… – Daily Record
  • …as he ‘confirms funds for a study’ – The Sun
  • Data suggests SNP are on course for a Holyrood majority – Daily Express

One year on: Tories reflect on the Prime Minister’s leadership

“When Boris Johnson sailed into a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers on the wave of a seismic election victory, he joked that he was looking forward to seeing how long it would take for letters of no confidence to start pouring in from his parliamentary colleagues. A year after he became leader, the Conservative backbenches are already restless. One former cabinet minister said they thought the “clouds had gathered” – and not just because of the pandemic, but owing to a feeling that a “good-time” prime minister was not what was needed for the massive economic challenges ahead. Even Johnson’s critics concede he has had, as one put it, “a hell of a year”.” – The Guardian

  • Britons could have to wear facemasks in sandwich shops under new legislation – Daily Mail

Chancellor ‘turns his back’ on millions excluded from coronavirus support

“The Chancellor has turned his back on millions of struggling workers excluded from coronavirus support schemes, despite his pledge that no one would be left behind, an influential group of MPs has said. The Treasury Select Committee, which scrutinises the Chancellor, made a series of recommendations in a recent report aimed at bringing those still suffering financial hardship within the scope of the protection measures. More than a million people have been unfairly left without help, the report found, including those moving between jobs who missed the cut-off for furlough, the newly self-employed, directors who pay themselves in dividends and PAYE freelancers. Campaigners have said as many as three million people have fallen through the cracks, left without an income now for four months.” – Daily Telegraph

  • MPs ‘astonished’ at Government’s failure to plan for economic impact of pandemic – The Sun
  • We’ll get economy back on an ‘even keel’ before 2024 election, says Johnson… – Daily Telegraph
  • …as he tells army to prepare for ‘quadruple winter whammy’ – Daily Mail

Comment:

  • This is the final proof HMRC hates Britain’s self-employed – Janet Daley, Daily Telegraph

Conservative Party ministers ‘bankrolled by donors linked to Russia’

“The Conservative Party’s finances came under renewed scrutiny last night as it emerged that two of its MPs on the intelligence watchdog committee and 14 ministers had accepted donations linked to Russia. Electoral Commission records show that six members of the cabinet and eight junior ministers received tens of thousands of pounds from individuals or businesses with links to Russia. The donations were made either to them or their constituency parties. The disclosures came 24 hours after the intelligence and security committee (ISC) published its long-delayed Russia report and questioned whether the government “took its eye off the ball” by allowing oligarchs to invest billions of pounds in Britain and make high-level political connections.” – The Times

  • Big spenders who made friends of Prime Minister and his MPs – The Times
  • Calls for overhaul of ‘largely ineffective’ Official Secrets Act – Daily Telegraph

More:

  • Starmer calls for Kremlin network Russia Today to lose licence… – The Times
  • …as Johnson blasts him for trying to blame Brexit on Russia… – The Sun
  • …and rules out inquiry into referendum interference – Daily Express
  • Royal Navy ships shepherd Russian sub through English Channel – The Times

David Aaronovitch: Complacent Britain is a soft touch for Moscow

“Then let’s consider what is not in the report. US intelligence helped Mueller to uncover a network of Russian agents, directed from Moscow and often using social media to intervene against Hillary Clinton in 2016. When the original ISC requested to understand from British intelligence whether anything similar had happened in British votes, such as the referendums of 2014 and 2016, they were essentially told that these services hadn’t looked and therefore didn’t know. MI5 supplied six lines of text on the subject, most of it from academic sources. This absence was parlayed by the prime minister in PMQs into the fraudulent suggestion that British intelligence had looked and had found nothing. Well, it worked for his backbenchers.” – The Times

  • Report points to wilful negligence by the British government – Dominic Grieve, The Guardian
  • Idea that Moscow had a decisive effect in our Brexit referendum is an insult – Rod Liddle, The Sun
  • First an intimate relationship with China, now Russia… – Stephen Glover, Daily Mail
  • See off the bad guys to save the good ones – Roger Boyes, The Times

Lewis: ‘Keep Dominic Cummings away from security committee’

“Dominic Cummings and other special advisers must be blocked from politicising the intelligence and security committee, its new chairman has warned. Julian Lewis called yesterday for a commitment from the government that no party political aide would be allowed “anywhere near” the ISC. He said he had been warned by a source that people within government had tried to sack the committee’s civil service secretariat and replace it with “political appointments” instead. James Brokenshire, the security minister, refused three times to give a firm assurance on the matter in the Commons… The debate follows a row over the government’s failed attempt to parachute in its preferred candidate as chairman of the committee.” – The Times

  • Downing Street takes back control of all government data – The Times

Comment:

  • Are Cummings’ visions anything more than just policy tourism? – Glen O’Hara, The Guardian

UK to offer emergency Brexit talks with ‘EU to blame’ if trade deal collapses

“Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator will offer to hold an emergency round of talks next week as the UK tries to avoid blame for any failure to agree a trade deal. Formal talks between David Frost and the EU’s Michel Barnier in London will end on Thursday with neither side believing the current deadlock will be broken this week. The Telegraph has revealed that the Government’s working assumption is now that Britain will have no trade deal in place when the transition period ends on December 31, but Downing Street said on Wednesday that the talks were not yet at “breakdown”. Boris Johnson had set a deadline of the end of July for an outline agreement to be reached, and Mr Frost is expected to make himself available to continue one-to-one talks with Mr Barnier next week to ensure everything has been done to meet the target.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Brussels to warn time is running out for Brexit deal – FT
  • Johnson ‘refuses negotiation on fishing’ – Daily Express

America:

  • US senators warn UK digital services tax could derail trade talks – FT
  • UK trade department to tackle ‘fake news’ with new rebuttal role – The Guardian

Comment:

  • Trade bill means the NHS is now unquestionably up for sale – Emily Thornberry, The Guardian

Ministers 1) Foreign aid budget ‘slashed by £2.9 billion’ by Raab

“Britain is to slash its international aid budget by £2.9billion, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has confirmed. The cut to the foreign aid budget comes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, as the UK’s economy is expected to contract. Despite the revision to the budget, the Government will retain its commitment to spending at least 0.7 percent of Gross National Income (GNI) on international aid. At present, the UK is the only G7 country to meet the spending target which was set as a goal by the United Nations in the 1970s. The announcement of the cut comes after the Government committed last month to merging the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office.” – Daily Express

  • Patel: crime commissioners ‘too cosy’ with police chiefs they oversee – The Times

Ministers 2) ISIS remains the ‘most significant’ threat to the UK, warns Defence Secretary

“ISIS remains the ‘most significant’ threat to the UK, the Defence Secretary has warned today. Ben Wallace said an estimated 360 people from the UK who travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the terror group, also referred to as Daesh, remain in the region either at large or in detention. RAF aircraft have struck 40 terrorist targets as part of operations against ISIS in the last 12 months. But he said the ‘hard fight’ is ‘by no means done’ despite the group having lost control of territory it once held in Syria and Iraq… Mr Wallace also said the UK remains ‘determined’ to ensure those who have fought for or supported IS should ‘pay for their crimes’, adding it should occur under the ‘most appropriate jurisdiction, often in the region where the crimes were committed’.” – Daily Mail

Ministers 3) Sharma ‘ignored official’ who feared OneWeb satellite deal was a waste of £400m

“The business secretary forced through the £400 million purchase of a bankrupt satellite company even though his top civil servant said that all the money could be lost. Alok Sharma pointed to “wider, less quantifiable benefits of signalling UK ambition and influence on the global stage” as he told officials to go ahead. The business committee has now opened an inquiry into the “troubling and concerning” deal. Britain agreed to buy 45 per cent of OneWeb for $500 million to rescue a company that aims to provide ultra-fast broadband from low-orbit satellites. The deal was pushed through with little scrutiny earlier this month and Mr Sharma said that it would boost space and manufacturing industries.” – The Times

  • Jenrick ‘regrets’ close contact with tycoon whose £1bn development he approved – The Sun

Labour to pay antisemitism whistleblowers in libel case

“The Labour Party has apologised to antisemitism whistleblowers and agreed to pay damages to settle a libel case in a decision that is expected to cost it nearly £1 million. The move has caused a row with Jeremy Corbyn, the former party leader, and Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, its biggest donor. Labour announced yesterday that it would pay hundreds of thousands of pounds and apologise to former staff and a journalist it defamed after a BBC Panorama investigation into its handling of antisemitism complaints last year. The party issued “unreserved” apologies to seven former party officials and John Ware, 72, the broadcaster who led the documentary, at the High Court.” – The Times

  • Starmer ‘locked in row with Corbyn’ over £370k payout – Daily Telegraph
  • McCluskey hits out at anti-Semitism damages – Daily Express
  • Settlement plunges Labour Party ‘into civil war’ – The Guardian

Comment:

  • Why I had to go to war with Labour’s vile attack dogs – John Ware, Daily Mail

Young Hong Kongers ‘will need to prove dependency on parents’

“Young Hong Kongers born after 1997 will have to prove they are dependent on migrating parents or risk losing out on the Government’s fast-track  immigration lifeboat. Children of British National (Overseas) (BNO) citizens who are aged between 18 and 23 will only be granted a UK visa if they are still dependent on their parents and the Government decides they have compelling and compassionate grounds. There are concerns that this could leave young people who have been most active in the protests against China vulnerable to the draconian security laws introduced by Beijing. The new law gives Beijing powers to crack down on dissent with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for a range of crimes, in effect outlawing public protest.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Hong Kongers eye UK property as they weigh escape routes – FT

Comment:

  • Brexit Britain is more welcoming than feared – Jemima Kelly, FT

The Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission pledged in the Conservative Manifesto is being quietly shelved

23 Jul

The page of the Conservative Manifesto which most alarmed supporters of the status quo was page 48.  And the part of this page – which dealt broadly with constitutional matters – that alarmed them most was at its end.  We refer to the long paragraph that promised a “Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission” “in our first year”.

It explained that this commission would examine the Royal Prerogative, the House of Lords, the courts, judicial review, and access to justice for ordinary people. It would also “update the Human Rights Act and administrative law”.

That first matter, the Royal Prerogative, was clearly a reference to “Miller Two” – the Supreme Court judgement that sunk Boris Johnson’s prorogation plan, conflating as it did so the legislature with Parliament as a whole, and thereby arguing, with supreme constitutional illiteracy, that the monarch is not part of Parliament.

Needless to say, our reading of that judgement is controversial – and so therefore was the section about the proposed commission on page 48.  Which has a consequence: namely, that the commission was, from the start, what the Australians call “a tall poppy”.  It was exposed to critics who would want to scythe it down.

There were further complications from the Government side, once the dust had settled on last December’s election victory.  For putting together the commission turned out to present all manner of difficulties which for whatever reason were unforeseen at the time of its invention.

First of all, which items from this rich menu should its members select?  It’s no secret that Dominic Cummings is not exactly a fan of the way in which judicial review works.  Consider his convulsive reaction to the Court of Appeal’s decision in February to suspend the deportation of criminals to the Caribbean.

He was reported to have described this to officials as “a perfect symbol of the British state’s dysfunction”, adding that there must be “urgent action on the farce that judicial review has become”.  But what if the putative commission went haring off first after another quarry – Lords reform, say?

Those expert on Parliamentary reform might not be knowledgeable to the same degree on justice access, say.  People who have studied the Royal Prerogative may not have mastered judicial review.  The commission members might not be able to agree what dishes to select; too many diners spoil the broth.

ConservativeHome cannot be sure which of Cummings, various SpAds, Munira Mirza, different advisers and Robert Buckland came up with the Commission idea.  But we hear that the manifesto commitment is dead and that there will be no such commission – this year or any in other year.

Downing Street and Ministers will resist this take, of course.  They will explain that there will be lots of mini-commissions, ranging across the same constitututional, political and legal turf.  So the commission hasn’t really been scrapped, you see.  Just re-invented in other forms.  Hmmm.

At any rate, the principle is clear.  If you want a commission on judicial reform, “available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays”, then select members whose area of expertise is the law.

Which doesn’t mean only such people.  But there is no reason why intelligent lay members should also be experts on how the Lords or Commons works.  Meanwhile, the UK’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights is the elephant in the constitutional room – one on which not just page 48 but the entire manifesto was silent.

Grant Shapps: Why I’m in Manchester today to help kick-start better, greener and more modern transport for the North

23 Jul

Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.

Forgive a Conservative Cabinet Minister for citing a Labour Prime Minister in approving terms, but one of my favourite quotations on railways comes from the opposite side of the House. Not a real Prime Minister, to be accurate, but a fictional one. Harry Perkins, the Sheffield steelworker’s son who takes on the Establishment and loses in A Very British Coup.

Asked by a reporter if he intends to abolish first class rail travel now that he is in power, at the head of a radical Left-wing government, our Harry replies: ‘No, I’m going to abolish second class rail travel. I think we’re all first class. Don’t you?’

Perkins may have had the wrong Idea about many things, but he was right on this. For years now, the successful South East, and particularly London, has sucked in rail investment. The argument in Whitehall goes something like this. London is the cash cow; the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Spend on infrastructure there, and in the prosperous hinterland supplying its commuters, and you will get bang for your taxpayers’ buck. The “business case” is overwhelming. Why risk spending in the North or other supposedly far-flung places, when you can be sure of a good return on your investment by shipping white-collar workers into the City?

This is one of those circular arguments that ensures nothing changes. Reinforce economic strength and punish relative weakness, and you get what I call the transport deficit, resulting in a lopsided rail network that impedes the spread of prosperity.

While commuters into London enjoy new trains, their counterparts in Manchester and elsewhere have in many cases put up with old or second-hand rolling stock. And the routes these trains run on are more likely to be narrower, more congested and more prone to delay.

For far too long, the North, cradle of the Industrial Revolution, has had to put up with rail infrastructure bequeathed from that time. Take the Trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds. This corridor through rolling moorland is completely inadequate as a link between two great cities and the other cities – Liverpool, York and Newcastle – that connect through it. Much of it is two-track, meaning that fast trains must jumble up with local stopping services, slowing everything down. It is badly in need of electrification to speed services and make them greener.

I’ll let a regular user of this line describe her experience of this route, using it to reach Manchester from her home in Marsden before she gave up in frustration.

‘Standing room only at peak times is a given. Home time is worst – trains regularly cancelled, so it means platforms are crammed with two or three trainloads of stressed-out people, and when the train eventually arrives it is every man and woman for themselves. People just surging forward knowing that if you don’t you will be left on the platform. Then the poor conductor comes round to throw people off who’d otherwise be hanging out of the doors.

There are fights – not surprisingly. People just want to get home after a hard day. Most people are amazingly restrained, though, given the appalling service and the huge sums of money they pay to use it. A sort of “What do you expect? It’s the North”. A hellish commute, which is why I started to drive in.’

Many people in the North took a chance on the Conservatives at the last election. They put aside old loyalties, not only because of Brexit, but because they saw a glimmer of opportunity – a Prime Minister prepared to tear up the rulebook of North-South politics. Go on,they said, prove us right.

Which is why I’m in Manchester today, surveying the view from Piccadilly Station with Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester. Politically, we are the odd couple – hardly natural allies.

But we share a desire to rectify this transport deficit, and get things moving. This is practical politics, getting together to solve problems that do not discriminate when it comes to party affiliation. But this emphasis on delivery will work for Conservative MPs across the North, too. Particularly those who helped to demolish the Red Wall ,and who now occupy marginals in which expectations are high.

There will be more of this with the Northern Transport Acceleration Council, which I formally announce today. This will bring together ministers from the Department for Transport – junior ministers or me – and mayors and council leaders, Tory and Labour, to thrash out ways to cut through red tape and build new transport infrastructure quickly, in the life of this parliament. NTAC is about doing.

We are “doing” already. Today, this Government committed some £600 million to kickstart the upgrading of the Trans-Pennine Route and begin the process of ending commuter misery. Four tracks will replace two on key stretches initially, easing congestion. And there are plans for full electrification, digital signalling and more four-tracking in future.

We know projects like this must proceed, despite the blow delivered by Covid-19 to the economy. Growth is the key to our recovery, and that means infrastructure: green infrastructure that future-proofs our transport system as we face the challenge of climate change.

Burnham was generous in his praise for these initial steps, describing them as a gear change. The best aspect of this Government is it willingness to experiment, not only with solutions to problems that affect us all but in relationships with others who may not fully share our beliefs.

Pragmatism must be our ideology. Conservatives are best when they tackle problems in a rational, practical way. It’s what people expect of us.

At the last election, former Labour voters in the North and elsewhere lent us their votes in a gigantic experiment. After decades of barely-managed decline they are hungry for success. They only desire the tools to get on with the job. We must supply them and set the North free.

Neil Shastri-Hurst: Trump is right to criticise the WHO. But it needs reform, not abandonment.

23 Jul

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer, surgeon, barrister, and senior member of the Voluntary Conservative Party in the West Midlands.

“The WHO really blew it…We will be giving that a good look”. President Trump fired a shot across the bows of the World Health Organization (WHO).

In his Tweet on April 7 this year, the President barely concealed his disdain. It had been clear for some time. Going further, he vowed to defund the organisation.

At the time, many questioned whether the president had the authority to shift policy in such a dramatic way. Then, at the beginning of July, Trump’s administration notified both Congress and the UN that a formal notice of withdrawal from the WHO was being submitted.

This week, Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, even accused it accused of being a “political not a science-based organisation”, whose director general is too close to Beijing.

These criticisms of the WHO are as scathing as they are clear. Trump claims that the organisation is submissive to China, complicit in assisting a cover up as to the risk Covid-19 posed, and, as a result, has failed to sound the klaxon sufficiently swiftly to the wider world amid the spread of the virus.

Is there credence to his analysis? In short, yes. There is no doubt that the WHO’s response could have been better. There are genuine concerns as to the credibility and weight given by the WHO to China’s assurances regarding Covid-19; in particular, China’s unsubstantiated declaration that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”.

Given China’s history of misinformation, scepticism is justified. Those defending the WHO will point to the challenge it was faced with. Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, is a self-confessed critic of the WHO.

However, she has acknowledged that “[i]t’s hard to fault a lot of what the WHO has been trying to do, given the difficult balancing act of trying to get countries to address this epidemic and take it seriously, while also trying to keep all countries at the table”.

And that is one of the real sticking points; the WHO has a diplomatic as well as scientific role. There is some strength to the line of argument that publicly confronting China may have proven detrimental in the longer term. After all, the importance of data sharing, with respect to this and future pandemics, will be vital. The retrospectoscope is a dangerous tool. Therefore, it would be unfair to laden the WHO with too many criticisms when faced with a novel and evolving situation.

However, in certain respects the WHO’s response has appeared somewhat leaden footed at times. Optics matter, and presentationally a firmer stance with China was needed.

Not dismissing its shortcomings, the United States’ decision to withdraw from the WHO is of concern for all players. I fear that it will serve to weaken our collective ability to tackle future global health crises.

The challenges and, dare I say, deficiencies of the WHO have been apparent for some time. During the Ebola epidemic that spread across West Africa, questions were being asked about institutional failings and their impact on global health. Arguably, the time for reform was some years ago. As the world takes stock in the shadow of Covid, it is high time that such reform takes place now.

When the WHO first came into existence, in 1948, it was at the vanguard of global health. Made up of the world’s leading minds pioneering the health agenda, it was the epicentre of concentrated knowledge. But times have changed. The field is much more crowded, with multilateral and bilateral agencies competing alongside large non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for space.

With the emergence of new stakeholders, the WHO has, at times, appeared to have lost its sense of mission. Its scope has outgrown its budgetary resources. It is weighed down by bureaucracy. It is, in many ways, a conflicted organisation; independent scientists operating in an overtly political arena.

That said, the WHO still carries cachet; its formal authority can and must be harnessed to mobilise other global health organisations in the pursuit of better health outcomes.

A prime example of that cachet can be seen when one looks at information gathering. Its members are provided with access that would otherwise not exist if nations operated in isolation. It is unimaginable that US scientists would have, albeit belatedly, been permitted to enter Hubei Province, and the city of Wuhan, had they not done so under the auspices of the WHO.

In the midst of a global fight against a deadly pandemic, I would implore the United States, and other nations minded to follow suit, not to retreat from the WHO but to reform it. The WHO is more than a sum of its parts: it is incumbent upon its members to work together and shape it for the better.

Covid-19 cannot be managed by nations acting alone. It needs a global response. This will be just as true of future pandemics. Less economically-developed countries will continue to rely heavily on the WHO in tackling these health crises. It is the only global health organisation that has the reach and infrastructure to do so.

By walking away from the WHO, America will take with them 15 per cent of the WHO’s $4.85 billion two-year budget. This will only mean that the organisation, already cash-strapped, will find fulfilling its mission all the more difficult.

There is another point that must not be overlooked. The sizeable hole left by the US will provide an opportunity for less altruistic countries, such as China, to fill the void. With a greater financial stake, they will have greater power and influence to wield.

The task facing the international community is to preserve the integrity of the WHO, while at the same time acknowledging its faults, and setting about reform. This will not be a simple process but its importance must not be underestimated.

There are a number of different models that will need to be considered. One example would involve leveraging expertise from NGOs and multilateral agencies by outsourcing key activities. In order to achieve such a co-ordinated approach, it would be imperative that the WHO provides strong, global leadership and policy direction from the centre.

Furthermore, there is a strong argument for the WHO beefing up its powers. The first step would be bolstering the International Health Regulations 2005, so that the WHO can impose sanctions on those countries who repeatedly and fragrantly contravene the rules.

History is punctuated with examples of when the world has found itself at a crossroads. The world currently finds itself in such a situation. Rather than turn inwardly, we must hope that nation states look outwards. We must hope that global co-operation continues to grow. We must hope for the reform that is desperately needed.

The WHO must embrace this challenge. In facing emergent health threats, a reformed WHO will unite the global community.

Andrew Boff: The London Assembly needs more power to hold the Mayor to account

23 Jul

Andrew Boff is a member of the London Assembly.

Twenty years on from its formation, the London Assembly desperately needs to be granted greater powers to hold the Mayor of London to account. If the serious power imbalance between the two persists, London’s mayoralty will increasingly become unaccountable to Londoners, undermining the legitimacy of the city’s devolved Government.

Never before has a Mayor been so willing to pass blame, avoid his responsibilities, and play the part of a broke powerless Mayor. It’s a tragedy for Londoners that Sadiq Khan has squandered his opportunity to deliver for the city and chosen instead, to use City Hall as a PR machine to attack the Government. However, the answer to a Mayor like Khan is to strengthen the London Assembly, a body which the Conservatives can maintain a strong foothold in, and hold the Mayor’s feet firmly to the fire.

In the past two decades, the responsibilities of the Mayor of London have expanded rapidly. Since 2000, City Hall is now responsible for adult education, housebuilding, ruling on planning applications with strategic importance, and has the power to establish Mayoral Development Corporations. In comparison, the Assembly’s toolbox has only grown very slightly after being granted the limited power to reject Mayoral strategies with a two-thirds majority in 2011. Despite the vital importance of the London Assembly, it is struggling to keep up with the Mayor’s expansive role.

In Khan’s term alone, City Hall’s budget has increased by about £2 billion with more than 300 extra staff. In comparison, the Assembly’s budget sits at £8.4 million with only two extra staff. The huge expansion of the Mayor’s responsibilities and budget has left the Assembly far behind.

The case for the London Assembly remains strong. It is a unique scrutiny body in the UK and a necessary part of London’s devolved regional Government, comprising 25 elected Assembly Members. Our sole focus is on turning over every stone in City Hall, scrutinising each mayoral decision, and investigating the concerns of Londoners. It also offers London taxpayers good value for money. The Assembly budget is only 0.04 per cent of the Greater London Authority’s budget. The often-discussed alternative is the combined authority model which would bring council leaders together to scrutinise the Mayor. This is an unsuitable scrutiny body for an office as powerful as the Mayor of London. As a sitting London Assembly Member, and an admirer of London’s hard-working council leaders, I cannot see how the two jobs could be done by one individual. Ultimately, it would be a step backwards and result in less scrutiny, not more.

If London is going to have a directly-elected Mayor, it needs to be checked and balanced by a dedicated and powerful Assembly. Without the Assembly, the Mayor would go unchallenged, and inevitably the lack of scrutiny would lead to poorer, lazier decisions from City Hall. But after two decades of the Mayor of London gaining additional responsibilities and an even larger budget, there are five additional powers that the Assembly must be granted to do its job.

Firstly, the London Assembly should be allowed to reject and amend the Mayor’s strategies, plans, and budget by a simple majority. Currently, the Assembly needs a two thirds majority to stop or amend the Mayor’s proposals; in practice, this neuters the Assembly and prevents it from acting. Scrapping the excessively high number of votes needed would make cross-party efforts to intervene more likely, and in turn, make the Mayor of London more likely to listen to any opposition in the Assembly.

Secondly, an independent Budget Office for London should be established. This office, combined with greater budgetary powers for the Assembly, would ensure that City Hall’s budgetary process is more accountable. This reform is vital after Khan’s failed transport policies created a black hole in Transport for London’s budget which in part led to its bailout during this crisis and recent concerns about the Mayor’s plans to fix City Hall’s finances by cutting the Metropolitan Police budget by £109.3 million. Greater transparency and a greater opportunity for the Assembly to amend the Mayor’s budget will help ensure every penny is spent properly.

Thirdly, the Mayor’s planning powers should be transferred to a Planning Decisions Committee. At the moment, the Mayor has the sole responsibility to decide the outcome of planning applications in secret when they referred to him. A committee would provide greater transparency and scrutiny.

Fourthly, the London Assembly should be granted the power to call-in Mayoral decisions. This would allow the Assembly to review, debate, and ultimately send decisions back to the Mayor to reconsider. Granting this power would enable the Assembly to act as a democratic safeguard against the Mayor’s currently unconstrained exercise of executive power.

Finally, Mayor’s Question time should be reformed. This is the main opportunity for the Assembly to question the Mayor directly but it happens too little. In this crisis, the Mayor went two months without facing the Assembly. This allowed him to escape timely questions, for example, about his decision to cut the Tube services, which led to overcrowding. By the time we can hold him to account on these issues, it can be weeks later. MQT should be held twice a month, which will allow each session to be shorter, sharper, and more engaging.

A weak Assembly and a powerful Mayor is an unsustainable democratic disaster. To do its job, the London Assembly needs greater powers to hold the Mayor of London to account. This would not weaken the Mayor, but strengthen London’s regional Government at City Hall. Twenty years on, the Assembly is needed more than ever, but it is in dire need of reform.

Andrew Boff: The London Assembly needs more power to hold the Mayor to account

23 Jul

Andrew Boff is a member of the London Assembly.

Twenty years on from its formation, the London Assembly desperately needs to be granted greater powers to hold the Mayor of London to account. If the serious power imbalance between the two persists, London’s mayoralty will increasingly become unaccountable to Londoners, undermining the legitimacy of the city’s devolved Government.

Never before has a Mayor been so willing to pass blame, avoid his responsibilities, and play the part of a broke powerless Mayor. It’s a tragedy for Londoners that Sadiq Khan has squandered his opportunity to deliver for the city and chosen instead, to use City Hall as a PR machine to attack the Government. However, the answer to a Mayor like Khan is to strengthen the London Assembly, a body which the Conservatives can maintain a strong foothold in, and hold the Mayor’s feet firmly to the fire.

In the past two decades, the responsibilities of the Mayor of London have expanded rapidly. Since 2000, City Hall is now responsible for adult education, housebuilding, ruling on planning applications with strategic importance, and has the power to establish Mayoral Development Corporations. In comparison, the Assembly’s toolbox has only grown very slightly after being granted the limited power to reject Mayoral strategies with a two-thirds majority in 2011. Despite the vital importance of the London Assembly, it is struggling to keep up with the Mayor’s expansive role.

In Khan’s term alone, City Hall’s budget has increased by about £2 billion with more than 300 extra staff. In comparison, the Assembly’s budget sits at £8.4 million with only two extra staff. The huge expansion of the Mayor’s responsibilities and budget has left the Assembly far behind.

The case for the London Assembly remains strong. It is a unique scrutiny body in the UK and a necessary part of London’s devolved regional Government, comprising 25 elected Assembly Members. Our sole focus is on turning over every stone in City Hall, scrutinising each mayoral decision, and investigating the concerns of Londoners. It also offers London taxpayers good value for money. The Assembly budget is only 0.04 per cent of the Greater London Authority’s budget. The often-discussed alternative is the combined authority model which would bring council leaders together to scrutinise the Mayor. This is an unsuitable scrutiny body for an office as powerful as the Mayor of London. As a sitting London Assembly Member, and an admirer of London’s hard-working council leaders, I cannot see how the two jobs could be done by one individual. Ultimately, it would be a step backwards and result in less scrutiny, not more.

If London is going to have a directly-elected Mayor, it needs to be checked and balanced by a dedicated and powerful Assembly. Without the Assembly, the Mayor would go unchallenged, and inevitably the lack of scrutiny would lead to poorer, lazier decisions from City Hall. But after two decades of the Mayor of London gaining additional responsibilities and an even larger budget, there are five additional powers that the Assembly must be granted to do its job.

Firstly, the London Assembly should be allowed to reject and amend the Mayor’s strategies, plans, and budget by a simple majority. Currently, the Assembly needs a two thirds majority to stop or amend the Mayor’s proposals; in practice, this neuters the Assembly and prevents it from acting. Scrapping the excessively high number of votes needed would make cross-party efforts to intervene more likely, and in turn, make the Mayor of London more likely to listen to any opposition in the Assembly.

Secondly, an independent Budget Office for London should be established. This office, combined with greater budgetary powers for the Assembly, would ensure that City Hall’s budgetary process is more accountable. This reform is vital after Khan’s failed transport policies created a black hole in Transport for London’s budget which in part led to its bailout during this crisis and recent concerns about the Mayor’s plans to fix City Hall’s finances by cutting the Metropolitan Police budget by £109.3 million. Greater transparency and a greater opportunity for the Assembly to amend the Mayor’s budget will help ensure every penny is spent properly.

Thirdly, the Mayor’s planning powers should be transferred to a Planning Decisions Committee. At the moment, the Mayor has the sole responsibility to decide the outcome of planning applications in secret when they referred to him. A committee would provide greater transparency and scrutiny.

Fourthly, the London Assembly should be granted the power to call-in Mayoral decisions. This would allow the Assembly to review, debate, and ultimately send decisions back to the Mayor to reconsider. Granting this power would enable the Assembly to act as a democratic safeguard against the Mayor’s currently unconstrained exercise of executive power.

Finally, Mayor’s Question time should be reformed. This is the main opportunity for the Assembly to question the Mayor directly but it happens too little. In this crisis, the Mayor went two months without facing the Assembly. This allowed him to escape timely questions, for example, about his decision to cut the Tube services, which led to overcrowding. By the time we can hold him to account on these issues, it can be weeks later. MQT should be held twice a month, which will allow each session to be shorter, sharper, and more engaging.

A weak Assembly and a powerful Mayor is an unsustainable democratic disaster. To do its job, the London Assembly needs greater powers to hold the Mayor of London to account. This would not weaken the Mayor, but strengthen London’s regional Government at City Hall. Twenty years on, the Assembly is needed more than ever, but it is in dire need of reform.

Sarah Ingham: How so many gym-goers escaped Covid-19 is one of the great mysteries of this virus

22 Jul

Dr Sarah Ingham is a member of Kensington, Chelsea & Fulham Conservatives and launched the Gym-Goers’ Covid-19 survey.

On a spectrum of illness that runs from a mild cold to the Black Death, many of us have put Covid-19 at the fatal end of the range.

This is unsurprising. The initial images of the illness would not have been out of place in a disaster movie. People apparently lying dead in the eerily empty streets of Wuhan; the intubated patients in Italian intensive care units reminiscent of autopsy scenes, and the teams in hazmat suits.

That this particular Coronavirus may have been cooked up in a biological warfare lab in China has added to the apocalyptic nature of the threat. With the Steven Soderbergh film Contagion suddenly more like fact than fiction, many didn’t wait for the Government officially to order the lockdown on March 23.

By the second week of March they were already shielding themselves and their families. Children were pulled out of schools, essentials were stockpiled and events cancelled. The Government might have been following the science, but the great British public followed its gut instinct and stayed at home. It looked wise in the light of the prediction of 500,000 deaths, which it later transpired was instrumental in locking down the country.

Death at Teatime sounds like a cosy Agatha Christie mystery, but is in fact what the daily Downing Street press briefings became. This statistical ritual, with its rising death toll – first in hundreds, then in thousands, then in tens of thousands – reinforced initial impressions about the infectiousness and lethality of Covid-19.

When gyms and fitness studios reopen on Saturday, four long months will have passed since the lockdown was introduced. And it is surely in the context of the indoor sports sector that we can start questioning our current assumptions about Covid-19 and whether State-induced mortal fear promulgated by Government ministers is justified.

Among the mysteries surrounding Covid-19 – including when it actually arrived in Britain – is how any of the country’s gyms-goers and fitness studio fiends escaped it before the Government imposed the Lockdown.

Anyone who was a regular in one of Britain’s gyms, studios or indoor sports centres before their closure in March can testify that most were hardly operating-theatre sterile, particularly in city centres where space is at a premium.

Machines or mats crammed together, shared equipment, crowded changing rooms… Many working out got up close and personal with the heavy breathing and sweat of their fellow fitness fans whether they wanted to or not, in environments which were often strangers to anti-viral wipes.

Hot yoga fans relished classes in fetid, rammed studios heated to close to 100 degrees. Covid-19 was supposed to be dangerously infectious, justifying the emergency Coronavirus Act of March 25, which enabled the police, immigration and public health officials to detain “potentially infectious persons”.

Civil libertarians across the political spectrum have expressed concerns about the Act: the Institute for Economic Affairs states it imposes the “greatest restrictions on liberty in modern British history” while Liberty says it “strips away our civil liberties”. The enforced closure of gyms and studios follows a record-breaking year.

The 2019 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report by Leisure DB highlights that total UK membership broke the 10 million mark, with one in seven of us now members of a gym, while the number of fitness centres reached an all-time high. The industry is worth more than £5 billion a year.

Regulars to gyms, as well as yoga and pilates studios, are now getting updates about the measures that will be in place ahead of Saturday’s reopening. These might include screens around machines such as cross-trainers, fewer people in classes and more cleaning, making them very different places compared with the pre-lockdown era.

Whether regulars will return to their pre-Covid fitness regimes is the question that must be haunting the industry. With predictions about working from home, is working out at home also going to become the new normal?

And just as privately-owned centres might be soon feeling the financial burn, public fitness facilities, many funded by local authorities, are facing an uncertain future: reports last week from ukactive suggested that Britain is “sleep walking” towards losing many of them.

Like restaurants and cinemas, gyms can create a safe, socially-distanced environment, but it is not automatic that punters will have the confidence to return to them. Since March, the Government’s Project Coronavirus Fear has been relentless, putting Covid-19 at the Black Death end of the illness scale, bolstered by a media which has delighted in drinking the Corona apocalypse Kool-Aid.

But if Covid-19 were lethal and infectious enough to justify a four-month lockdown that was only supposed to last three weeks, then surely our indoor gyms and fitness studios would have been the places to find high rates of transmission?

Although the numbers dropped throughout the month, one boss of a leading high-end gym chain estimates there were at least 20 million gym visits in March, as peak virus was being reached.

Wouldn’t a London-based yoga teacher who was teaching 350 students a week have caught it, along with her colleagues and students?

She didn’t; they didn’t: why not?

Perhaps, as Roosevelt once suggested, most of us have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Starmer and Johnson look like inhabitants of different planets

22 Jul

“The Labour Party is under new management,” Sir Keir Starmer declared. He got his message across rather well at PMQs.

In this endeavour, he had a certain amount of help from Boris Johnson, who was intent on attacking the old Labour Party, which was led by Jeremy Corbyn and parroted the Kremlin line.

The party has changed, Starmer retorted, and in any case, he himself never took orders from Corbyn about giving in to Moscow.

Tony Blair used to persuade middle England that he must be sound, by saying things which produced cries of anguish from the Left of the Labour Party.

Starmer is doing something similar: the more he renounces Corbyn, and is denounced by him, the sounder he expects to appear to normal, patriotic voters.

Johnson today tried to avert any impression that Starmer was sound by accusing the Leader of the Opposition of yielding to “pressure from the Islington Remainers who have seized on” the Russia report in an attempt to suggest that Vladimir Putin is “somehow responsible for Brexit”.

The Prime Minister used to live in Islington, where he was not taken seriously until he led Leave to victory in the EU Referendum, whereupon his neighbours paid him the compliment of starting to hate him.

So Johnson knows about the Islington Remainers and sees advantage in getting Starmer regarded as a paid-up member of that group.

Yet the Prime Minister also wishes to persuade us that Starmer keeps changing his views from week to week, even from day to day: “The Leader of the Opposition has more flip flops than Bournemouth beach.”

The Islington Remainers are reluctant to change their minds about anything, so Johnson may in the end have to decide which of these two lines of attack he proposes to maintain.

Starmer, annoyed to be thought inconstant, struck back at Johnson as “the former columnist who wrote two versions of every article”, a reference to the two articles Johnson wrote, for and against EU membership, as he wondered which side to back in the EU Referendum.

As Parliament breaks up for the summer recess, neither contender has established a clear ascendancy over the other. Each is  good at what he does, which is so different to what the other man does that there are times when they look like inhabitants of different planets.