Ben Roback: Trump’s facing an uphill battle to convince voters he’s the man to bring the US out of the pandemic

29 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

There are now fewer than 100 days to go until the November 3rd election. Donald Trump and Joe Biden will invariably describe it as the most important election in a generation, in the same way that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton did in 2016. This time around, the candidates might be right. The challenges facing the next leader of the free world are stark.

A global health pandemic that continues to ravage the United States; a rampant China and a resurgent Russia; domestic social and racial unrest that is bubbling over now after decades of suppression; an increasingly angry population split more than ever by political anger and culture wars over age-old issues like abortion and LGBT rights and newer dividing lines like monuments and masks.

In that respect, whilst the job for the next President of the United States is daunting, the opportunities are vast. To try and bring the country together is the immediate task for the victor come November. To rally the nation behind a domestic and international strategy for the four years that follow is the great challenge.

With under 100 days until the election, there are three major trends to look out for:

A ‘new Trump’ or the same old ways?

The President is facing an uphill battle to convince voters that he is the man to bring the United States out of the Coronavirus pandemic – evidenced by the firing of Brad Parscale, the President’s election campaign manager. In simpler terms, you don’t sack Jurgen Klopp if his side are top of the Premier League. It was the first major recognition from the White House that their re-election campaign was stuttering. Instead, Bill Stepien, a field director for the 2016 Trump campaign, is tasked with plotting a path to re-election.

Since Stepien’s tenure began, we have seen hints of a different side to the President on COVID-19. Political commentators have flocked to describe the President’s ‘new tone’. They have evidence. Trump has described wearing masks as “patriotic” having previously refrained from doing so in public resolutely. On the resumption of the daily White House COVID-19 press briefings, the President warned the virus may “get worse before it gets better”. His message discipline at the Presidential podium has seemed tighter, with fewer musings seemingly offered at random.

But will it last?

Only yesterday, the President returned to the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a way to prevent Coronavirus, contradicting the consistent advice of his own public health officials. Social media posts shared by the President and his son advocating the drug were removed by Facebook and Twitter on the grounds of misinformation. After a period of détente, Dr Anthony Fauci, a lead member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has returned as the subject of the President’s indignation. A presidential retweet criticising Fauci for having “misled the public on many issues” remains visible for his 84 million followers. Trump yesterday raged that his approval rating did not match Fauci’s. That ‘new tone’? It might be short-lived.

This is not a president who likes to be controlled or shaped by dictatorial advisers. Sean Spicer learned that the hard way when he was despatched to lie to the press about the size of the Presidential inauguration crowd. Push back against the President and you will be fired. If the polling picture does not improve for the President – and fast – then Stepien might be the next former Trump 2020 campaign manager.

What appears evident is that, unless the White House can be seen to get a tighter grip of case numbers in the United States, the President’s chances of re-election will falter.

Why the Democratic VP pick matters more than normal

What motivates the choice of a running mate? Age. Diversity. Experience. Geographical balance. Popularity. It differs in each election. Although the lack of journalistic rigour at the time makes it hard to verify, VP John Nance Garner is reported to have once famously said that the office of the vice president “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” This time around it matters more.

The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has confirmed that he will announce his running mate in the first week in August before the Democratic convention (August 17-20). Biden has pledged to name a woman as his running mate and his team has been vetting four African American women understood to be Senator Kamala Harris, former national security adviser Susan Rice, and Reps. Val Demings and Karen Bass.

At 77 years old and – 78 by the time he might assume office – Joe Biden is, respectfully, no spring chicken. For the Biden campaign, his choice of running mate matters more because voters could well be choosing an imminent successor to the President at any given moment. When Barack Obama became president at age 47, voters were not concerned that his age could become a hindrance to his tenure. On that basis, he selected Joe Biden, a political veteran with decades of experience.

Further, mental acuity has become a wedge issue this election. The President has bragged in an interview of his stellar performance in a cognitive test, recalling ‘person, woman, man, camera, TV’ in the correct order. Similarly, the Trump campaign has spent advertising money portraying Joe Biden as forgetful and in poor control of the facts. For these reasons, Biden’s choice of running mate is a hugely significant moment in the election campaign.

Keep one eye on the polls and the other on the map

The polling industry has taken a battering ever since it got – for the majority – Brexit and the 2016 presidential election wrong. But just as night follows day, we all return to the polls as the most reliable reference point for how elections might pan out. There is no proven better alternative.

As such, with fewer than 100 days to go, one eye should be kept on the polls. The Real Clear Politics average (Biden +9) paints a useful national picture, but swing state polling is more important in the electoral college system that operates on a state-by-state basis. What becomes crucial is swing states moving from ‘toss up’ to likely Trump/Biden, as was the case with Florida this week when the Cook Political Report moved it to ‘lean Democrat’.

With one eye on the polls, the other should be focussed on planes, trains and automobiles. Look closely where the Trump and Biden campaigns are going to rally and fundraise (within the current limitations of COVID-19). A defensive strategy by the President suggests he will seek to only defend his 2016 map and not expand on it by focussing on the 2016 swing states that went to Hillary Clinton by five points or fewer. An offensive strategy by the Biden campaign will be visible if he focusses on the traditionally red states that are now in play – like Texas (Trump +0.2) and Georgia (Trump +2.7).

Both men will be desperate to avoid the mistake made by the Clinton campaign in 2016. Wisconsin has been such a reliably Democratic state that Hillary Clinton failed to visit it entirely, the fist major-party nominee since 1972 to do so. Polls put Clinton ahead by over 6 points as election day neared. Then Trump won the state and its 10 electoral college votes. The running joke was that instead of calling her post-election book ‘What Happened’, Hillary Clinton might have called it “Should have Gone to Wisconsin”.

The lesson? Don’t take anything, anywhere for granted. Even the most solidly red or blue states will require attention and the promise of a new injection of political and financial capital. It means both candidates will have to balance shoring up their reliable support with the temptation to campaign in purple states that could possibly tip either way.

Salim Chowdhury: Integration not division offers the best future for British Bangladeshis

29 Jul

Salim Chowdhury is the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association. He is a former Police officer and a former Conservative Councillor.

Public Health England’s  COVID-19 report showed that Bangladeshi’s had the highest risk of death, a risk twice as high as those from White backgrounds. The challenged plight of the community was echoed in the Race Disparity Audit too, which has British Bangladeshis at the low end of almost all measures of performance in society – from the lowest average wage to the lowest school grades.

Bengalis came to the UK as early as the 17th Century as lascar seamen. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the bulk of the community arrived. I was one of these people, coming from Syhlet like most of the diaspora. This economic migration saw all Bengalis get to work, or at least try to. Many initially found progress in the restaurant industry, creating a British staple in communities in the curry house.

Integration was everything. It was what led me to join the police and serve as a councillor, despite almost nobody from my background following these paths at the time. It is one of the reasons why any Minister engaging with the diaspora goes viral in Bangladesh – because the nation is impressed that its sons and daughters have made the journey to the UK, and in effect, made it. So for all the difficult readings of the RDA, there is actually a huge amount of pride in the community – and we need to tap into that in this recovery.

As the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association representing thousands of members across the country, I requested that all members running restaurants prioritised free meals for the elderly, vulnerable, NHS staff and care workers. This started on March 18th with the Food for the Most Vulnerable campaign. This has involved all restaurants providing over 9,000 free meals to these groups including special delivery options. Meals were provided to NHS staff across four different hospitals. This included Northwick Park Hospital which was one of the first to be hit hard and is home to a disproportionately high number of ethnic minority patients and staff in servicing Brent and Harrow.

We have seen Britons from all backgrounds come together. We have learned from each other. Tom Moore was the reason for Bangladeshi, Dabirul Choudhury, to also walk for charity – receiving huge coverage across major broadcasters in the UK and Bangladesh. Charity has reflected the best of us. The British Asian Trust’s ‘Big Curry Night In’ was an idea which worked and helped me to sign up 101 restaurants to raise money for those most in need of food and essentials throughout the crisis – and now there are British Bangladeshis participating in and with charities that they might not have done otherwise.

For all the pain caused by the crisis, British Bangladeshis are emerging with pride intact and with immense hope for the future of this country, our home. We are British first. It is up to all of us to deliver a social and economic recovery so that no ethnicity must look at statistics and see large gaps between them and another group, in turn confirming their notion of difference. All lives lost are tragic and won’t be forgotten, but we must look at all the positives, or else we’ll never have a chance to come out of the dangers to public health and the economy.

Our communities are one more than ever. It is an economic recovery, from levelling up to industries like my own in curry houses, that will deliver for our families and in turn provide them with conditions and choice which will not make them so vulnerable to other winds and storms in their lives. We must remember who and what we have got as well as who and what we have lost. My ancestors once navigated rough seas in a more challenging age. If they could, we can.

Newslinks for Wednesday 29th July 2020

29 Jul

Coronavirus 1) Johnson “fears a second wave” in the UK in a fortnight

“Boris Johnson fears a second wave of coronavirus could start within a fortnight. A senior government source told the Mail the Prime Minister was ‘extremely concerned’ by outbreaks ‘bubbling up’, both at home and abroad. Although the number of UK cases is relatively low, rises were recorded each day last week for the first time since the April peak. The seven-day average stands at almost 700 – 28 per cent up on three weeks ago. Ministers have been warning of a potential second wave of the pandemic this winter but now fear it could come sooner. On a visit to Nottingham yesterday, Mr Johnson said Britons must not drop their guard.” – Daily Mail

Coronavirus 2) Ministers split on travel restrictions

“Boris Johnson is facing government splits over his travel quarantine policy after a transport minister suggested that a regionalised approach could be adopted. All non-essential travel to the Canary Islands and the Balearics was barred on Monday, bringing the destinations into line with the restrictions for mainland Spain… Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, pushed strongly for a blanket country-by-country approach rather than allowing travel to specific regions. There were suggestions that the Department for Transport and the Foreign Office pushed for a regionalised approach, but there was unanimous agreement between cabinet ministers at a meeting of the Covid-19 operations committee on Saturday. However, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, a transport minister, said yesterday that the government could adopt a regionalised approach in future.” – The Times

  • Smart tests for Covid ‘poised to halve quarantine within days’ – The Times
  • France introduces beach-side testing – The Sun
  • Government must reconsider its blanket quarantine on arrivals back from Spain – Leader, The Sun
  • Island breaks – Leader, The Times
  • An alternative approach must be found – Leader, Daily Telegraph

>Yesterday: ToryDiary: The Government’s speedy response to Spain reflects what happened in the initial stages of the Coronavirus outbreak

Coronavirus 3) Heathrow boss calls for airport tests

“The chief executive of Heathrow Airport has urged the Government to allow passengers to be tested for Covid-19 on arrival in a trial to rescue the summer tourism season. John Holland-Kaye told The Telegraph that Heathrow could have a test “up and running” in two weeks, meaning holidaymakers who have just set off for Spain could be checked – at a cost of £150 – when they arrived home. They would be tested on arrival and, if the result was negative, would be tested again five or eight days later. A second negative test would allow them to come out of quarantine up to six or nine days early, depending on how quickly tests are processed. France and Germany are among at least 20 countries already using such tests to cut quarantine for arrivals from countries with high levels of coronavirus, and there is growing pressure on Boris Johnson to follow suit.” – Daily Telegraph

  • UK facing ‘K-shaped’ economic recovery as the gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ widens – Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 4) MPs condemn “appalling error” of patients discharged to care homes untested

“The decision to allow hospital patients in England to be discharged to care homes without Covid-19 tests at the start of the pandemic has been described as “reckless” by MPs. The Public Accounts Committee said there had clearly been an “emerging problem” with official advice before it was “belatedly” changed in April. It accused ministers of being slow to support social care during the crisis. The government said it had been “working closely” with the sector. The committee said around 25,000 patients were discharged into care homes in England between mid-March and mid-April to free up hospital beds. After initially saying a negative result was not required before discharging patients, the government later said on 15 April all patients would be tested. In a highly critical report, the cross-party committee said the initial decision to allow untested patients into care homes was an “appalling error”.” – BBC

Coronavirus 5) Ending furlough scheme “will increase unemployment to ten per cent”

“UK unemployment will rise to 10 per cent of the workforce by the end of the year because of the government’s decision to bring a premature end to its furlough scheme, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research has warned. Publishing its latest quarterly forecasts, the think-tank said on Tuesday that its main scenario was for UK output to fall by 10 per cent in 2020, and to remain 6 per cent below its pre-coronavirus trajectory in 2024. In this scenario, unemployment would rise above 3m to almost 10 per cent, its highest rate since the early 1990s — and although the jobless rate would recede after that, it would not return to pre-Covid lows by 2024.” – Financial Times

  • Labour highlghts loss of jobs in tourism sector – The Guardian
  • Here comes a 1920s-style, post-pandemic boom – Jeremy Warner, Daily Telegraph

>Today: Simon Kaye on Local Government: The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic was a wake up

Coronavirus 6) Government agrees to £500 million emergency funding for film industry

“Ministers have pledged £500 million to get the cameras rolling on Britain’s crisis-hit film sets. The money will cover the insurance of productions hammered by the Covid lockdown. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said: “The UK’s film and TV industry is the envy of the world. He added: “It’s vital that productions get the help they need to restart as part of our plan to kickstart jobs following the lockdown. “This targeted scheme, which will help fill the gap created by the lack of available insurance, will help protect tens of thousands of jobs, from actors and directors through to camera operators, costume designers, and runners. The sector is worth over £12billion to the UK’s economy, so it’s right that we do what we can to help them reopen and get back to making the films and shows that we all love.” – The Sun

Coronavirus 7) Sturgeon: I wouldn’t book a foreign holiday at the moment

“The First Minister has said she would not personally book a foreign holiday given the “inherent unpredictability” of the spread of coronavirus, as she poured cold water on demands for compensation for those affected by the sudden reintroduction of quarantine on travellers from Spain. Speaking at the Scottish Government’s coronavirus briefing, Nicola Sturgeon was asked about potential compensation for Scots who booked holidays in Spain only to find they would now have to spend 14 days in quarantine on their return, with the potential loss of earnings it could cause.” – The Scotsman

>Today: ToryDiary: The Union with Scotland is neither as weak nor as strong as it looks

First Brexit trade deal “will be with Japan”

“Britain will sign the first post-Brexit trade deal within weeks after talks with Japan. The discussions, in the wake of 40-plus years of being tied to the European Union, were carried out at breakneck speed. Negotiations opened on June 8 and have been conducted daily until today’s “significant breakthrough”. The top-level dialogue is at an “advanced stage” and ministers believe they could wrap it up by September. The accord will reduce the cost of Japanese tech devices, such as PlayStations, and allow the UK to sell more luxury cars there. The arrangement will be implemented on January 1, 2021 — as soon as the UK’s transition period out of the EU expires. The outline of the agreement is based on the EU-Japan deal from last year.” – The Sun

  • £50 million for new customs officers “not enough” – Peter Foster, Financial Times
  • David Frost has warned his counterpart Michel Barnier to rethink his position or the UK would proceed with no deal – Daily Express

>Today: Andrew Bowie on Comment: Evidence today that Ministers won’t negotiate trade deals that expose British farmers to unfair competition

Downing Street searches for a spokesman for televised press conferences

“Boris Johnson has launched a search for a new £100,000-a-year spokesman to become the face of the Government in regular televised press conferences from this autumn. A job advertisement for a new spokesman to “communicate with the nation on behalf of the Prime Minister” will be posted online by Conservative Central Office on Wednesday morning. Mr Johnson wants to build on the success of the Government’s coronavirus press briefings which, until late last month, were broadcast to millions of Britons from Number 10 each day.” – Daily Telegraph

Call to widen eligibility for free school meals

“Free school meals should be extended to another 1.5 million children in England, says a government-commissioned review into food and healthy eating. The National Food Strategy warns that the country’s eating habits are a “slow-motion disaster”. The review warns of the toxic connection between poor diet and child poverty. Report author Henry Dimbleby said a nutritious diet was the “foundation of equality of opportunity”. “Unless action is taken to improve our food system, many thousands will continue to suffer,” said Mr Dimbleby, co-founder of the Leon food chain.” – BBC

  • ‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity for more sustainable food – BBC
  • Ban on checkout treats would be a ‘shoplifters’ charter’ – The Sun
  • Contradictory measures show the government is making it up as it goes along – Julia Hartley-Brewer, Daily Telegraph

Facebook bans anti-semitic grime musician

“The Facebook and Instagram accounts of grime star Wiley were finally removed today after he launched another inflammatory rant which appeared to contain anti-Semitic remarks. The musician – real name Richard Cowie – had previously been suspended from Facebook and Instagram for seven days over the posts, which were made over the past 48 hours. He had already been banned from Twitter over the weekend over anti-Semitic comments which are currently being probed by police. However, his Twitter account has not yet been taken down.” – Daily Mail

>Today: Columnist Robert Halfon: Do Twitter’s bosses believe that anti-semitism is worth indulging for profit?

Vans could be banned in city centres

“HGVs and delivery vans could be banned from city centres under government plans to create more road space for cyclists. The transport department is proposing to introduce compulsory “freight consolidation schemes” where all deliveries are made to out-of-town depots. The goods would then be transported to their final destination in the city centre by a “far smaller number of vehicles”, with a focus on environmentally friendly cargo bikes and electric-powered vans. Pilot schemes are being proposed in one or two small older cities with “narrow and crowded streets”.” – The Times

Balls: Tory split over online sales tax

“Johnson’s first instinct is to go for growth but even these measures have so far proved controversial. A plan to temporarily relax Sunday trading laws to stimulate the economy was pulled when the old Christian right of the Tory party began to rally MPs to their cause. Some form of tax rise is viewed as likely – with an online sales tax the latest to be under discussion. This immediately divided opinion with Telford MP Lucy Allan voicing her opposition after West Midlands mayor Andy Street suggested it was a good idea. But Johnson has said recently that the government will not raise income tax, national insurance or VAT for five years and will protect the state pension triple lock. This is where it all becomes rather dicey. The new Tory coalition all have different views on who should carry the burden.” – Katy Balls, The Guardian

  • Tories can’t put off new property tax forever – James Kirkup, The Times
  • We must have an online tax to save our high streets – Tim Newark, Daily Express

>Today: Columnist Darren Grimes: “Hey folks, eat out and spend more – no, not you, fatty. And here’s a new tax for you, consumer-friendly online retailer.”

Johnston: Scrapping the Lords would not improve democracy

“When it comes to the Lords, though, I doubt that much will change and nor am I convinced that it should. Proponents of reform tend to caricature the Lords as a bloated legislature stuffed with placemen and women claiming money for doing no work. But it contains scores of peers with far greater expertise and wisdom than anyone in the Commons. An elected Upper House would merely replace independent-minded crossbenchers with party hacks. Lord Fowler is right to keep plugging away at reducing the numbers. But as to more sweeping reforms, there is no evidence that members of an elected House would contain members of a higher quality than an appointed body…Two elected chambers would make government more difficult because they would always be confronting one another. So when the new peers are gazetted in the next few days we should take the calls for Lords reform that will inevitably accompany their elevation with a pinch of salt.” – Philip Johnston, Daily Telegraph

News in brief

  • The growing evidence of a V-shaped recovery – Ross Clark, The Spectator
  • The four sins of science – and how to overcome them – Sam Bowman, CapX
  • Where should we build? Harry Phibbs, The Article
  • Defending our nation – John Redwood
  • We must free the millions held as modern slaves – Laura Anne Jones, Conservative Woman

The Union with Scotland is neither as weak nor as strong as it looks

29 Jul

As has been said of Russia, the Union with Scotland is never as strong as it looks; the Union with Scotland is never as weak as it looks.  Here are some parts that may add up to a whole.

  • The union with Scotland is not as weak as it looks.  A poll showing a lead for independence is a single snapshot of a moving picture.  Debate in Scotland has not begun in earnest about the economic restructuring, with its higher taxes and lower spending, that leaving the UK as well as leaving the EU would involve.
  • The union with Scotland is not as strong as it looks.  The unionist side fought the 2014 independence referendum on the economy.  It won – but not overwhelmingly, and the EU referendum two years later proved that short-term economic arguments don’t necessariy prevail over longer-term cultural change.
  • The Government insists that there will be no second independence referendum if the SNP sweeps the board in Scotland’s elections next year.  It would, wouldn’t it?  But there will be no good solution in such an event.  Allowing a referendum would put the Union at risk.  But so would denying one if the SNP can then cast itself as a victim, and ratchet up its support during the run-up to the next general election.
  • It is hard for those of us writing outside Scotland to understand fully the change that devolution has brought over more than 20 years – including a media focus there on Holyrood rather than Westminster, which can therefore feel a very long away away for Scottish voters.
  • This distance is psychological as well as political, doubtless because these two factors are inextricably linked – magnified by the way in which the SNP has succeeded over a long period in projecting itself as a neither-left-nor-right national party.  The effect on the civil service, the press and civil society is pervasive.
  • To give a single graphic and tellling example: Alex Salmond’s private antics would have been public long ago if Scotland’s media had the same oppositional attitude to the SNP that the British media has to UK governments.  Its longstanding silence spoke eloquently.
  • The UK’s political culture as whole is shaped by first-past-the-post, which usually offers winner-takes-all outcomes at Westminster.  Its establishments have consequently not grasped the profound change that devolution has brought with it – for example, the devolved administrations will arguably have a major role in future trade deals and state aid decisions.
  • This casts the question of how Boris Johnson’s Government will deal with them in an exacting light.  It can opt for co-operation – as with most pre-Brexit dealings with the EU, in which the devolved administrations participated, though at one remove, in discussions in the Council of Ministers and the Commission.
  • Or it can opt for confrontation – for example, by seeking to cut the Scottish Government out of post-Brexit UK decisions on trade, state aid, and the powers that will flow back to Britain when the UK leaves transition with or without a deal at the end of this year.  And minimise discussion with it about non-devolved competences and powers.
  • The man leading for the Government as whole is Michael Gove, who chairs its Cabinet committee on Union policy implementation – as well as chairing the committees that deal with Covid-19 operations and EU exit operations.  This is a colossal burden even for the Government’s most dexterous administrator.
  • ConservativeHome wanted Gove to be Secretary of State for the Union – and this role is the next best thing.  To date, he has opted for a more confrontational posture though with continuing co-operative substance – a graphic example of the former being the Government’s decision to badge the new Shared Prosperity Fund in red, white and blue.
  • A long-standing complaint among Unionists is the UK has failed to brand its spending in Scotland in the way that the EU used to brand its spending in the UK.  The Shared Prosperity Fund is a child of Brexit – our replacement for EU social funds.  Gove intends to let Scottish voters know that the money for it coming from Westminster.
  • However, the fight for the Union with Scotland must be lead by Unionists in Scotland.  And no single figure has emerged on the Conservative side to fill the gap that Ruth Davidson has left.  She isn’t standing for Holyrood next year, and though she remains highly politically aware she is not directly politically engaged.
  • Senior Conservatives like to say that this Achilles will re-rampage from her tent in the event of a second referendum.  But her home is one thing and the Lords is another – and she is to go there if reports are correct.  We find it hard to see how it would provide a workable campaigning base in the event of a second referendum.
  • Elsewhere, Allister Jack, the pro-Brexit Scottish Secretary, is relatively new to Westminster.  Jackson Carlow isn’t Davidson (a statement of the obvious).  Douglas Ross resigned as a Minister over Dominic Cummings.  Luke Graham, who lost his Ochil and South Perthshire seat last December, has gone to the Number Ten policy unit.
  • But the Conservative problems in Scotland look fewer than Labour’s – at least in terms of visible leadership at Westminster.  Ian Murray, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State, is an engaged Unionist.  But the most senior pro-Union Labour force in Scotland remains the federalism-obsessed and committedly partisan figure of Gordon Brown.
  • Keir Starmer must confront – or be confronted by – the same question that stumped Ed Miliband and menaced Jeremy Corbyn.  Namely, how to angle for SNP support at the next general election if there is a hung Parliament without seeming to lash himself to Nicola Sturgeon’s coat-tails.
  • Boris Johnson isn’t governing from Scotland and can’t compete with Sturgeon’s access to its voters.  But his recent visit was reported almost as though he were, say, a new govenor of Imperial India arriving to tour of the north-west frontier.  Despite the fearsome burden of the Coronavirus crisis, he and other UK Ministers who have a role there should be there more often: for example, Rishi Sunak could help to showcase UK spending.
  • In the aftermath of the election, we floated 15 ways to Strengthen the Union, parts of which derived from the work of Policy Exchange, Jonathan Caine and David Shiels.  Gove is running with some of them, and the Government seems to understand the key point: that UK Ministers must be actively engaged there.
  • Finally, Unionists, especially pro Brexit-ones, won’t win by arguing that Scotland couldn’t hack it as an independent country.  The question here isn’t whether it could – but whether it is really up for the economic readjustment involved.  Elsewhere, an independent Scotland would have a sting in the tail for English nationalists.
  • Namely that a largely Conservative England would have to find new ways of accomodating its non-Tory voting parts.  That implies confronting the problem of how to devolve power in a centralised country with little political sense of regional identities – plus the additional knock-on issues for Wales and, particularly, Northern Ireland.

Robert Halfon: Do Twitter’s bosses believe that anti-semitism is worth indulging for profit?

29 Jul

What is the difference between Radio des Mille Collines and Twitter?

Radio des Mille Collines (RDMC) was a radio station that broadcast in Rwanda between 1993 and 1994.  One of its founders (and primary funder) was businessman, Felcien Kabuga, who was recently arrested in France for alleged war crimes against the Rwandan Tutsi population in 1994. One million – predominantly Tutsi – Rwandans were killed over three months in a genocide that shocked the world. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, I spent time teaching in Rwanda, as part of the Andrew Mitchell-led Project Umabano.

What I learnt and saw first-hand in that country will haunt me for the rest of my life. The Tutsi people were, first, systematically demonised, then, marginalised and, finally, murdered. As so often in human history, the Free World stood by and let it happen.

In part, what made the mass-slaughter humanly possible were the activities of the RDMC. Listened to by millions, the station would broadcast regular propaganda against the Tutsis, notably describing them as, “cockroaches”. It helped ‘desensitise’ the Hutu population in terms of the killings they would go on to carry out.

I thought of Radio des Mille Collines on Monday this week as, for the first time since joining Twitter in 2009, I began a 48-hour boycott in solidarity with Jewish groups, Jews in public life, the former Chief Rabbi and supportive friends.

As RDMC showed, the power of broadcasting – whether it be social media, TV or radio – can, at worst, facilitate a genocide. At best, it desensitises those who engage with it, so much so that they no longer see racial hatred as an offence, but merely part of everyday parlance.

Clearly, Jack Dorsey is not Felicien Kabuga. Nor is Twitter as an organisation encouraging genocide.

But was RDMC the early equivalent of Twitter for the Hutu militia? Whilst the Hutus may not have had the internet, they did have access to pocket radio. They were able to switch on and hear ‘ordinary’ folk call in to tell their stories about the so-called horrific actions of the Tutsi “cockroach” population.

Was the ability of the RDMC to spread evil and hatred any different to some of the vile Tweets that anti-Semites write on Twitter, seemingly with both impunity and immunity?

In essence, the question to be asked is whether Twitter has created a safe haven to spread hatred of Jewish people? What I have never understood from some of these social media websites is why the onus is always on the victim to report abuse. Why is it that the advanced algorithms do not pick this up? Moreover, when it is reported, especially when it comes to anti-semitism, rarely is it followed through.

At the time of writing this article for ConservativeHome, despite reporting an anti-semitic tweet a week or so ago, it has still not been removed. This inaction – as exemplified in the case of Wiley, the rapper who wrote anti-semitic tweets last week, which are still up as I write -is why so many good people have decided to stage a 48-hour boycott of Twitter.

Often, Twitter goes after the big high-profile cases in terms of dealing with extremism, yet when it comes to specific and regular instances of anti-Semitism, the social media site appears to turn a blind eye.

Why does all this matter? In February, the Jewish Community Security Trust reported that anti-Semitic incidents were at an all-time high, with 1,805 cases recorded in 2019. Online anti-Semitism made up the greatest proportion of abuse, at 39 per cent, with the vast majority taking place on Twitter.

Perhaps the management of Twitter just don’t care because they are making so much money? Why should a few upset Jews upset its golden applecart?

As far as I am aware, none of us Twitter boycotters have left Twitter for good. I will still use the social media site as, on balance, it is more useful than not. But, I have a very different opinion of Twitter from a few years ago, when I thought the social media site was a genuine benefit to mediakind. There might come a time that this 48-hour boycott – a chip of ice, slipping down the mountain – may become an avalanche. Millions of decent people may decide that Twitter is no longer worth the candle. I think that time could be nearer than we think.

Michael Gove, in the past, described countries that treat their Jewish citizens well, as being the countries in history that were most liberal, enlightened, democratic and having deep respect for the rule of law. In the same way, perhaps, we can judge the enlightenment of social media sites by the way they genuinely – or not, as the case may be – work to combat anti-Semitism.

P.S. Readers may be interested in this article I wrote on the Rwandan genocide in August 2008 for ConservativeHome: “How Bergen Belsen came to the hills of Rwanda”.

Darren Grimes: “Hey folks, eat out and spend more – no, not you, fatty. And here’s a new tax for you, consumer-friendly online retailer.”

29 Jul

Darren Grimes is a political commentator and is content creator at Reasoned UK.

“C’mon folks, Dine Out To Help Out at the taxpayer’s expense, feast like a Bourbon King to help Britain’s hospitality sector…!

“…Except you, fatty!”

“C’mon folks, get splashing the cash on retail to get the economy moving again and speed up our economic recovery…!”

“…Online retailer? Not you, I think you’ve caused quite enough trouble on our high streets, ta very much.”

It used to be a source of much hilarity when I worked in the think tank world and would see article after article from left-wing columnists about the so-called influence that think tanks have upon influencing and shaping the Conservative Party and government policy.

They do, of course, achieve way beyond their size and numbers – but with HS2 still going ahead, strict new junk food rules that ban pre-9p, advertisements and a proposed online sales tax, if there is a think tank playing the role of puppet master, it certain;y isn’t one on the side of business and the consumer.

By nature Conservatives, especially the rank and file membership, are wary of taxes, and are therefore unsympathetic to tax rises. They tend to think that people spend their own money more wisely than the Government spends it.

They regard taxes as an unfortunate necessity, because some things, such as defence, law and order, foreign policy, and some parts of care for those needing to be caught by society’s safety net have to be handled collectively.

Polling carried out by Survation for  the Adam Smith Institute reveals this to be the case beyond the Conservative Party’s card carriers. There is popular support for reducing taxes after the lockdown to help boost the economy and jobs – with young people the most supportive of tax cuts after the lockdown. You can understand why: they might not be casualties of Covid-19, but they have disproportionately suffered from the economic response to the disease. Young people who are trying to enter the workforce might well experience long-run lost earnings too.

I have two brothers back home in County Durham, both younger than I am at the ripe old age of 27; both struggling to find employment as many receive their P45; both wondering what their post-COVID future will look like, and both desperate for the experience that only gainful employment can offer.

We should be doing all they can to ensure that young people like them, in those highly-targeted former Red Wall areas and beyond, are offered the best possible chance to get back into work as quickly as possible.

That’s why I find it completely and utterly baffling that the Conservative Party seems to be doing all it can to kick consumers and businesses whilst they’re down. It’s those consumers and employers that we need to be helping to secure precious economic growth, and to regain those record levels of employment that we recently enjoyed and benefited from.

We should have a laser-like focus on reducing the tax burden on enterprises, supporting housing reform, improving accessibility to child care and championing trade over vested interests – instead of waxing lyrical about how fat Britain is and how one extra dose of nannying is all we need to get us off of our bottoms and away from our calorific excesses.

It really is quite something to see the Prime Minister, who once railed against paternalistic Toryism, becoming the champion of it – only days before the Government offers a taxpayer bung to encourage us all to stuff our faces to support British hospitality.

The proposals for taxes on online goods also don’t make any sense. At a time when many had no other choice but to shop online, these are taxes that are likely to get passed on to workers and consumers. They would make it much more difficult to sign a trade agreement with our American allies, are not what we should be doing at this unfrozen Brexit moment and will do nothing to alleviate the burden our consumers and high streets are facing. The solution to solving the issues our brick and mortar stores face will not be solved through clobbering online shoppers.

The question that it’s about time Her Majesty’s Treasury should ask itself would be: “which taxes should we cut to boost growth and jobs?” The answer is the taxes that discourage employment – such as National Insurance. We should reduce Corporation Tax, not by cutting the rate, but by allowing businesses to deduct the full cost of expenses they incur in the year that they incur them. In general, we should reduce or eliminate the taxes that discourage enterprise, employment and expansion – God knows, my younger brothers and millions like them could do with the helping hand.

Andrew Bowie: Evidence today that Ministers won’t negotiate trade deals that expose British farmers to unfair competition

29 Jul

Andrew Bowie is MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

As someone who believes in the levelling-up agenda and vision of a Global Britain, I am excited by our re-emergence as an independent trading nation. For the first time in more than 40 years, we are able to devise our own trade policy and export the best of Britain abroad in ways we haven’t always been able to.

As MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, home of the best beef, lamb and malting barley, I cannot wait to see more of our brilliant food and drink sold abroad. But as we develop our own agricultural trade policy once again, it is absolutely vital that the voice of the industry and the public are heard, and that their interests are advanced and protected.

Alongside many colleagues, that is why I welcome the government’s decision to set up the Trade and Agriculture Commission – which launches formally at an event in Whitehall today. Now is the right moment to step up engagement not just with the farming industry, but also with consumer, animal welfare and environmental groups across the UK.

The Commission includes representation from all these groups, and will be engaging more broadly with stakeholders like the RSPCA, British Veterinary Association, National Sheep Association, Food Standards Agency, and Tesco – all of whom are at today’s launch event.

The Commission will work with these and other organisations across the UK to ensure that the UK agriculture sector remains among the most competitive and innovative in the world. Its work will inform the fundamental principles of the UK’s agricultural trade policy, and provide expert advice to government on areas like increasing export opportunities, and on how Britain can remain a world-leader in animal welfare and environmental standards.

To her credit, Liz Truss has been clear that this government will stand up for British farming as part of any trade deal, and will never sign an agreement that means British farmers face unfair competition. I, for one, am reassured by that, and see this Commission as further evidence that the government is serious about taking expert advice and pursuing trade policy that benefits farmers and consumers.

We should be optimistic out there for some of the fantastic opportunities available to out UK farmers and producers. The US, for example, is the world’s second biggest lamb market – if we take a three per cent market share, it could boost lamb exports by £18 million a year. One in five agri-food and drink companies sell abroad, so there is a real opportunity to increase that number and sell more of our brilliant produce overseas.

We also have the opportunity to lead the global debate around agriculture trade policy and drive higher standards across the world. Our environmental and animal welfare standards are among the highest in the world. Leaving the EU actually gives us the freedom to engage the WTO on this issue and build an international coalition that pushes up standards beyond Britain. This is part of the work of the Commission.

Its establishment is a welcome step at a critical time for UK farmers and food producers, and will help ensure British farming and consumer interests are at the heart of UK trade policy.

Simon Kaye: The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic was a wake up

29 Jul

Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at the New Local Government Network.

We live – as we’re constantly told – in turbulent times.

Even before the arrival of a new viral pandemic and months of self-induced economic coma, changes were clearly on the horizon. Politically polarised culture war, drastic and unpredicted shake-ups of the UK’s constitutional status quo, the slowly-boiling-frog feeling of technological progress, environmental degradation, collapsing faith in democratic institutions, and ever-growing, ever-more-complex demands on public services.

But this turbulence also creates a moment of radical possibility.

The COVID-19 emergency has highlighted a structurally different way of approaching the most serious challenges we face. The thousands of mutual aid groups that have emerged in the last few months – the subject of our new report at NLGN – reflect a general rise in neighbourliness, community cohesion, and attachment to place.

While this is an effect visible almost everywhere affected by the pandemic, there is evidence to suggest that Britain has experienced this effect in a more pronounced way than everywhere else. Perhaps this is because we are measuring from such a low starting-point. The UK is, by many measures, one of the most centralised countries in the world. This was never more visible than in the systematic failure of the centre to respond to the pandemic – with over-centralisation ruining our efforts to set up test-and-trace systems, create useful tracking apps, and work effectively with facilities and resources not under direct government control.

While the current government seems to be alive to the pressing need for modernisation and streamlining at the crowded centre of Whitehall, there had been very little interest in a meaningful devolution and decentralisation agenda which could genuinely ‘level-up’ regional economies and give people a real sense of ‘taking back control’.

Little interest, that is, until now. The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic may have just about served as the wake up call that the centre needs. The Prime Minister has called for new proposals to support and sustain the community response that we have seen as the country turns toward recovery.

There are lessons aplenty in our report on the new mutual aid groups, where thousands of people spontaneously responded to the crisis by supporting their shielding and vulnerable neighbours, sometimes by meeting essential needs for food and medicine, and at other times in a surprisingly sophisticated way that addressed welfare issues too. Our research revealed an extraordinary diversity of approaches and experiences. In many places mutual aid was the only thing that made the government’s ‘shielding’ policy at all workable.

Mutual aid groups show an appetite for self-governance and localism that many thought to be extinct in the UK. They represent a way for people to invest time in the places they live and the people they live near, and improve their lives independently of the state. Many of the groups we spoke to expressed a desire to sustain their newfound local cohesion and spirit of friendly collaboration after the end of the crisis.

Our research shows that the success of these groups often hinged on the special circumstances of the current emergency. This means that, for community action of this sort to continue, ways must be found to create space for the flourishing of flexible, autonomous, and citizen-driven activity at the neighbourhood level.

So how can this be done?

First – embrace the role of local government. In the best cases we observed, councils offered expertise, resources and spaces for mutual aid groups to thrive. They also stood out of the way and allowed these groups the freedom to respond quickly and on their own terms. We suggest that councils work to build up the skills, tools, and culture they need to help facilitate and empower community groups in the future. Of course, it should go without saying that councils will need to be properly resourced if they are to do this important work.

Second, and just as importantly, create the time for people to be better neighbours.

In many places the conditions for these groups’ strength was created by the free time of working-age people who were furloughed or otherwise found they had little work to do. We think it would be appropriate to incentivise employers to allow more free and flexible time for employees – perhaps specifically earmarked for community engagement – so they can spend that time on being good neighbours. Normalising a shorter and more flexible working week, introducing new bank holidays, and increasing statutory holiday time could all help, too.

We don’t long for permanent economic lockdown, of course, but the mutual aid phenomenon does demonstrate that many people will use their free time in extraordinarily productive and pro-social ways. As the economy fires up again, this free time is likely to evaporate – but the needs that the mutual aid groups are meeting will not fade nearly as fast.

Such measures would help begin the work of building up the resilience and fortitude of our communities, and even help replace dependence on top-down systems with meaningful localism and autonomy. We owe it to ourselves to find a very different starting-point before the next big challenge arrives.

The Government’s speedy response to Spain reflects what happened in the initial stages of the Coronavirus outbreak

28 Jul

Over the weekend there was enormous uproar about the Government’s decision to apply a 14-day quarantine rule to tourists returning from Spain. It did this at extremely short notice, throwing into disarray the holiday plans of approximately 1.8 million people, many of whom also had the added complication of worrying about their workplace rights.

The decision to impose the rule was instigated by Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, who warned that rising cases in Spain were “statistically significant”, having risen by 6,355 since Friday. Thus the Government felt compelled to act quickly.

On Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Dominic Raab defended the move, saying that a “real time response” was right, and anything else would “muddy the waters”.

This has, of course, not gone down well in Spain, whose tourism industry is highly contingent upon an influx of Brits. Pedro Sánchez, its prime minister, criticised the restrictions, saying that “64.5 per cent of the new cases registered are in two territories” and that in most of the country the prevalence of Covid-10 was “very much inferior to the numbers registered in the United Kingdom”.

Indeed, it is mainly Catalonia in the north-east and nearby Aragón that have seen spikes in infections. Either way, the rate of the infection for the country now stands at 35.1 cases per 100,000, compared to the UK which stands at 14.7 (according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control), hence the newfound concern.

It’s not only the Spanish prime minister who is unhappy about the news, but the travel industry too, which will struggle immensely as a result of the uncertainty it creates.

It has already been reported that large numbers of trips to France, Italy and Greece have since been cancelled, a trend which is likely to grow after Boris Johnson warned today of a second wave across Europe.

The decision could inadvertently exacerbate social inequalities, which the Coronavirus crisis has already highlighted, as those in low-paid, on-site jobs, will be unable to self-isolate versus, say, bankers working from home.

The Government has said that they will be offered universal credit to those whose income is impacted, but the practical implications of being off work for two weeks is not always something the state can mitigate. Furthermore, it could be said that the Government’s move contradicts its own desire to get people back to work on August 1, given all the risks involved.

Although the guidelines will put a dent in many holiday plans, there is some good news at least. According to The Telegraph, ministers are trying to cut the quarantine time for those coming back from Spain to ten days. This move will presumably be extended to other destinations – all the more important as countries such as France and Germany have also seen rises in Coronavirus cases.

Ministers want to reduce the quarantine time by testing arrivals from high-risk countries eight days after they land (Coronavirus takes five to seven days to incubate). If they test negative they will be allowed to come out of self-isolation two days later. This plan should cut almost a working week off the self-isolation period, and as scientists’ understanding and ability to test Coronavirus, hopefully these testing plans can go even further.

One thing that is also worth pondering is whether the risk of quarantine rules were inevitable, too, given that countries are now much more effective at testing. Fears about a second wave may be exacerbated by the fact that governments can better detect the virus now.

Though there is anger at the Government, Raab was right to say that advanced notice of the Spanish quarantine would have caused confusion in the travel industry (though it has happened as a result of the decision too).

Part of the Government’s fast response to what was happening in Spain reflects what happened at the beginning of the UK’s Coronavirus outbreak. A study by researchers at Oxford and Edinburgh University has found that most cases in the UK could be traced back to Spain (34 per cent), France (29 per cent) and Italy (14 per cent), as opposed to China.

So it could be said that there is a “once bitten twice shy” element to the newly imposed quarantine. And had the Government not done anything, it would no doubt be accused of callousness by the usual armchair epidemiologists.

As for what happens next in travel? Like much of the Coronavirus crisis, it’s anyone’s guess.

Andy Street: One, two, three – it’s a hat-trick of coming Conservative Party conferences for Birmingham

28 Jul

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

For years, the Party conference season was synonymous with the seaside. With the Commons in recess, delegates headed to places like Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton, to shape policy in the midst of seaside rock and ‘kiss me quick’ hats.

All that changed in 2008, with a bold decision that sent an important message about Conservative commitment to urban, modern Britain. The conference came to Brum. Last week, I was delighted when Amanda Milling returned here to announce that we will be hosting three more conferences – in 2022, 2024 and 2026.

It was an announcement that was greeted with real excitement. Birmingham is a hospitality city, with exhibition and conference venues that have made us leaders in “business tourism” in the UK.

Holding the Party Conference brings great benefits, both economic and more symbolic ones.

Firstly, of course, Conference brings income to the host city – estimated to be worth £20 million for each conference. This is great news for the region’s economy and jobs as we attempt to safely restart the economy post lockdown.

Major conference and exhibition venues like the NEC and ICC directly employ many thousands of local people, and the West Midlands’ hospitality sector also supports a region-wide supply chain, from hotels, restaurants, bars, events companies, and marketers. This vital sector was brought to a complete halt by Coronavirus. It is no wonder last week’s announcement was so well received, coming hot on the heels of the Prime Minister’s announcement that exhibitions could reopen from October 1.

Secondly, the return of Conference to Brum gives us an opportunity to underline our region’s relationship with and connection to Government – bringing, since 2010, the whole Government to the region. Much has been said about the need for Government to escape their South East bubble to connect more with communities north of Watford. By relocating to Birmingham for Conference, ministers will see first-hand how their investments, guided by devolved decision-making and local expertise, are helping level-up the economy.

Thirdly it gives us the chance to showcase the City and wider region. While the traditional warm Brummie welcome hasn’t changed, delegates and the media will notice plenty of visible improvements to Birmingham. They highlight the renaissance that has transformed the Second City in recent years and is set to continue.

When delegates arrive in 2022, a better-connected Birmingham will still be buzzing with the afterglow of the summer’s Commonwealth Games. Trams will have once again become a familiar sight, running past the Conference venue, the length of Broad Street and out towards Edgbaston. We will have seen further huge improvements in the City’s transport network – with the complete rebuilding of University Station (winning Government funding last week).

New, first-generation Sprint bus routes, which months before shuttled international spectators between Commonwealth Games venues, will be bringing people to a city centre transformed by the completion of the £700 million Paradise development. By 2022 Birmingham’s bold, bright new future will be firmly here.

Finally, the location of the annual conference reiterates the political importance of the UK’s cities to our party. When David Cameron moved our annual conference from the traditional seaside setting to our great cities it underlined the party’s ambition to win again in urban Britain. After all, until 1997 those cities contributed an important cohort of MPs and Cabinet Ministers to Conservative Government.

However, that drive to win back urban Britain has proved an elusive challenge, despite the election victories of 2010 and 2015. Even when the “red wall” was breached in 2019 Labour bastions in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds proved resistant. Indeed, of these cities, only Leeds has conservative councillors.

For this entire period, the only Conservative MP in any of our great cities was Andrew Mitchell in Sutton Coldfield. But it was in Brum that the break-through came. In 2019, for the first time since 1987, the Party gained a big city seat – Birmingham Northfield. This was a hugely important and symbolic win for the Party, showing we can win in cities again.

More importantly it has given the people of Northfield constituency a dedicated, effective and sincere champion in Gary Sambrook. Gary has already proved tenacious in fighting for his area – and is pushing, for instance, for further regeneration of the former Rover factory site at Longbridge. Much has already been done to reclaim what had been a derelict eyesore for many years – but Northfield’s new MP is determined to create even more jobs and opportunities there.

Birmingham also sets the pace when it comes to Conservative representation on local authorities in urban Britain. Unlike the other big cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, the Conservatives have run the council here in recent memory and retain a strong, influential base of councillors, led by indomitable campaigner Robert Alden.

In the last local elections Labour’s majority across a city of ten parliamentary constituencies comprised just 4483 votes – less than 500 per constituency, a tiny majority. Indeed, when you consider that my own majority averages 135 in each constituency, it shows how closely fought elections are in our area.

There is a real possibility that when delegates arrive in Birmingham for the conference in 2022, they will be visiting a growing city of more than a million people with a Conservative-led Council. If we are serious in our ambition to be a party that reflects a modern and diverse Britain, achieving this outcome must be a reality.