‘The Tories will never change’, UnHerd, 27 October 2021.

To watch Rishi Sunak deliver his Budget, one could be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is a very different beast from its ‘age of austerity’ predecessor led by David Cameron and George Osborne. But, in reality, is the contrast so sharp? Isn’t what we’re seeing par for the course when it comes to a party which has always adapted to the spirit of the age?

The Conservatives can lay claim to be the world’s oldest and most successful political party precisely because, in order to hang on to power and prevent (or at least limit) any truly significant redistribution of power and wealth, they have always been prepared to mix and match policies in way that both appeals to a wide electorate and also makes pinning them down ideologically feel like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

Admittedly, at first glance, the impression of a party totally transformed is easy to run away with. After all, Cameron and Osborne, as well as insisting on balancing the books no matter what the cost to the nation’s deteriorating public services and rising poverty levels, were often portrayed as modernisers hell-bent on dragging the Tories kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Johnson on the other hand, whatever the cosmopolitan image he worked hard to create as Mayor of London, seems happy to cosplay the authoritarian populist — the leader of a party determined to engage in a ‘war on woke’, to defend the interests of businesses big and small, and to allow nationalism to trump his party’s traditional commitment to economic rationality.

But let’s look, first, a little closer at the Conservative Party under Cameron. Sure, it brought in equal marriage after it made it into government in 2010. But it had to rely on the votes of the opposition Labour Party to do so, since so many of its own MPs rejected the change. Similarly, while Cameron in opposition began by hugging huskies, he ended his time in Number Ten by demanding his colleagues “get rid of all the green crap” — meaning it was left to his unfortunate successor Theresa May to commit the country to net zero. Meanwhile, Cameron’s Conservatives also spent a great deal of time and effort both bringing in draconian policies (accompanied by equally draconian rhetoric) to try and crack down on immigration and badmouthing the European Union — all of which helped fuel the rise of UKIP and ultimately led to Cameron’s fateful decision to call the 2016 referendum.

As for austerity, there is no doubt that it was a reality after 2010 — but far more so for some parts of the state, and some people, than others. The NHS, as it may do now, escaped the bulk of the cuts foisted on so many other public services, while folk on pensions — unlike younger people and the poor — actually did relatively well, presumably because they constituted (and continue to constitute) such an important part of the Conservatives’ voter coalition. Admittedly, policing did suffer cuts, but that didn’t stop the party under Cameron continuing to call its main opponent ‘soft on crime’, as well as framing Labour as the party of immigrants, Europhiles, students, the chattering classes and supposedly work-shy welfare claimants.

So what about the party under Johnson? True, Sunak has raised rather than cut taxes, including corporation tax — a move which, notwithstanding reliefs on R&D and temporary cuts to high-street business rates, some pearl-clutching neoliberals will doubtless still insist on seeing as the very incarnation of Johnson’s characteristically unguarded (but also characteristically pretty meaningless) “Fuck Business!” remark. But few if any of those tax rises is remotely progressive, not least the increase in National Insurance which the party pretends will ‘fix social care’ (it won’t). Nor is there any serious suggestion of moving to tax wealth or property to anything like the extent that a serious rebalancing of the economy would require. The hike in the National Living Wage is, of course, welcome, although let’s not forget that it was George ‘austerity’ Osborne who invented the concept in the first place!

Meanwhile, Sunak rescinded his boost to welfare benefits prompted by the pandemic as soon as decently possible — a decision which, for those not in work, will not be compensated for by his eye-catching (and indeed welcome) reduction in Universal Credit’s taper rate. Nor is the Government providing anywhere near enough funding to help poorer pupils who missed so much school catch-up. The same arguably goes for climate change policy, where, especially after the Government’s policy announcements in the run up to COP26, it’s getting harder and harder to escape the feeling that the Tories under Johnson, not for the first time, seem happy to will the ends but not the means.

As for spending more generally, while capital spending and infrastructure projects have received an expected boost, day-to-day government spending (much of which filters down, or rather doesn’t filter down to local authorities) is going to be as tight as ever, making the Government’s endlessly repeated talk about ‘levelling up’ a little hard to credit — unless, of course, we’re talking about money funnelled not to those most in need but to those constituencies in the Midlands and the North which flipped to the Conservatives in 2019 and which Johnson and his colleagues are understandably desperate to hold onto.

For all that, barring an economic meltdown in which the cost-of-living crunch really does become a crisis and the various trading frictions associated with Brexit get worse rather than better, they stand a pretty good chance of doing so.

The voter coalition that Brexit enabled Johnson to build is made up of older voters, of sometimes ethnocentric, not particularly well-educated, intensely patriotic voters living in small towns, and of more affluent voters in already well-served parts of the country who (if they are better-educated and so socially more liberal) are prepared to set aside their discomfort with the Brussels-bashing and the culture wars so long as their taxes are kept reasonably low and their precious house prices kept high. And, like Brexit — indeed precisely because Brexit continues to simmer even if it no longer boils — that voter coalition, whose geographical distribution is nicely suited to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, doesn’t seem done yet.

Certainly I wouldn’t bet on those voters taking seriously against the Budget even if it doesn’t fall hook, line and sinker for Sunak’s ‘new age of optimism’ line as much as his adoring fandom in the Tory-supporting press. They know, we know, that this is the British Conservative Party — doing whatever it takes, two-and-a-half centuries and counting. Rishi or no Rishi, there is nothing new under the sun.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2021/10/the-tories-will-never-change/

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‘What has happened to western Europe’s centre right?’ (with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser), The Conversation, 13 October 2021.

As a species, we humans are inveterate pattern makers. We’re also plagued by recency bias – the tendency to give more weight to things that have only just happened. Hardly surprising, then, that when analysing party politics, we tend to take the results of the latest elections and try to fit them into a trend.

That’s why the results of the recent election in Germany have caused a tailspin. The country looks set to have its first social democratic chancellor since 2005 after Olaf Scholz’s party emerged as the biggest in the Bundestag. That, in turn, has led at some point to the fact that the centre-left now governs a whole bunch of countries we’re very familiar with – and to wonder whether conservatives everywhere are in trouble.

It’s a good question. But to answer it, we need to first qualify what we mean by “conservative”. All too often it’s used to describe parties who would reject the label themselves. That’s certainly the case for the CDU/CSU – the big losers in the German election.

Christian democracy, in Germany and elsewhere, such as the Netherlands, Spain and Ireland, is a very different beast to conservatism and liberalism. It is as concerned with the “social” as it is with the “market” side of the social market. It is profoundly internationalist and with a view of society ultimately rooted in notions of community and family rather than the sovereign individual.

That’s why, when we’re trying to analyse trends, it’s arguably more helpful to talk about the mainstream right. This portmanteau term allows us to pick out those parties which (unlike parties of the left) have tended to govern in the interests of more comfortably off and/or socially traditional voters, but which (in contrast to the far-right parties on their flanks) regard the norms of both liberal democracy and the liberal international order as givens.

Looking at the trends for western Europe over the last four decades with this in mind, it’s clear that parties on the far right have become more popular over time, although not perhaps as much as some scare-story headlines are prone to suggest. Liberal parties have held fairly steady but it is the Christian democrats who’ve fared worst of all. As the chart shows, their performance across western Europe has declined more steadily than other conservatives since the 1980s.

The reasons for the trajectories of mainstream conservatives of all kinds are complex and obviously each country has its own story to tell. One cannot hope to appreciate the difficulties experienced by the mainstream right in Italy, for instance, without taking account of the post-cold war implosion of the country’s entire party system and the rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s hyper-personalist political outfits. Nor is it possible to understand the problems encountered by the Partido Popular in Spain without realising how big as issues that corruption and Catalan and Basque nationalism have each become.

However, as the research included in our new book shows, a useful way to frame the difficulties faced by the mainstream right more generally is to think of its members as facing two ongoing challenges.

One is the so-called silent revolution which, since the 1970s, has seen more and more people in Europe adopt what we might term cosmopolitan, progressive-individualist values. Their move away from the more traditional, and sometimes nationalistic and authoritarian, values associated (rightly or wrongly) with the right of the political spectrum has helped kickstart green and new left parties.

The other challenge is the so-called silent counter revolution: a backlash against that value-shift gathered pace in the 1990s and helped to fuel the rise of populist radical-right parties. Ever since, these have threatened to eat into the support of their more conventional counterparts on the right.

In fact, as the contributors to our book make clear, the mainstream right has indeed sometimes struggled to adapt – although some parties have coped better than others. But since their response has often involved adopting, over time, more socially liberal policies on issues like gender and sexuality while taking an increasingly nationalistic and restrictive stance on immigration, it is perhaps predictable that it is Europe’s Christian democratic parties (already coping with the decline of religious observance in a more secular world) which have struggled more than most.

Survival at what price?

But if liberal and conservative parties haven’t generally run into quite so much trouble, might that have come at a heavy cost, both to their reputations and to the longer-term health of liberal democracy? To take just one example, the British Conservative party, in its desperation to see off Nigel Farage’s various vehicles, has adopted europhobic and anti-immigration stances and seems determined to undermine the role of the judiciary and the independence of the Electoral Commission. Little wonder that some warn that it is going the way of Hungary and Poland.

That said, we need to be careful, as humans, not to over-interpret. And, recency bias aside, what’s just happened can sometimes still provide a useful reminder not to do so. In Austria, Sebastian Kurz – in some ways the poster-boy for the idea that mainstream right parties can win by hugging the far right close – seems to have come unstuck, undone by allegations of corruption. Over the border in the Czech Republic, the mainstream right seems to have performed better than expected in their elections.

Finally, in Germany, as a flow-of-the-vote analysis shows, although the CDU/CSU did suffer net losses to the Greens, it may well have lost more voters to the grim reaper than it did to the far-right AfD, given that an estimated 7% of its voters have died since the last election. At least this time anyway, it was the good old fashioned SPD, rather than the products of the silent revolution and counter revolution, that did it by far the most damage.

Radical right-wing populism and social liberalism, then, remain a significant dual threat to Europe’s mainstream right, but they should still keep a weather eye on their traditional rivals too.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/what-has-happened-to-western-europes-centre-right-169849

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‘Identity politics are a risky strategy for both Labour and the Tories’, Financial Times, 2 October 2021.

Corbynites soundly squashed. New policies floated. And voters encouraged to take another look at the party leader. Labour’s annual conference in Brighton finished on a high. So should the Conservatives be worried as they get together this weekend in Manchester? Probably not. But there’s no room for complacency.

To be brutally honest, whatever it does between now and then, Labour has probably already lost the next general election — primarily because it lost the last one so very badly.

Admittedly, Keir Starmer can take some hope from the fact that voters these days are fairly footloose: somewhere between a quarter and a third of people switched parties between each election in 2015, 2017, and 2019. Fewer than 20 per cent think of themselves as very strong supporters of a political party, with the so-called core vote for both the Tories and Labour now not much above 25 per cent each. Voters make up their minds later and later, as well: nearly a third of us these days don’t decide who to vote for until the election campaign proper gets going.

Sadly for Starmer, however, that doesn’t mean that ‘there’s still all to play for’. Most of us who study elections have given up on the idea of ‘uniform swing’ (where all constituencies shift the same way). There are, after all, more parties with support in different parts of the country than there used to be.

But it still bears repeating that Labour would need a swing of over 10 per cent simply to pull off what would pass for a miracle in two or three years’ time, namely an overall majority of just one seat.

That kind of Tory-to-Labour surge has only happened once in the past 75 years, in 1997. And the fact that it gifted Tony Blair a majority not of one solitary seat but 179 of them only heightens the pessimism surrounding his successor’s chances — even his chances of forming some kind of progressive coalition government.

As well as reflecting Labour’s loss of Scotland, it’s a reminder that the Conservative party’s predominantly English support is now so much more efficiently distributed than that of its main rival. While Labour piles up votes in seats where it doesn’t really need them — increasingly in urban Britain, with its younger, better-educated and ethnically diverse electorates — the Tories are winning in the suburbs and in smaller towns where voters are more likely to be white, a little older and to have left school without going on to university.

Those voters are less likely to warm to the identity politics which seem to strike such a chord with the socially liberal members of the Labour party — particularly when it comes to issues like race and immigration, law and order, and Britain’s place in the world, not least its relationship with the EU.

Boris Johnson’s recent decision to appoint Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary, as well his retention of Priti Patel as Home Secretary and David Frost to handle Brexit, suggests that he intends to carry on punching that particular bruise in the hope that it will guarantee him the continued support of voters in the so-called Red Wall of former Labour seats in the Midlands and the North.

But that strategy may be riskier than it looks. For one thing, polling shows that voters — even those political scientists would file under TAN (traditional-authoritarian-nationalist) as opposed to GAL (green, alternative, liberal) — are far less interested in culture wars than Tory politicians and newspapers wailing about ‘wokeness’ seem to think.

For another, a fair few voters are actively turned off by it. And some of them live in the so-called Blue Wall — seats around London and the home counties, some of which are credible opposition targets, especially as it is becoming increasingly obvious which party (Labour or the Lib Dems) people should back if they want to unseat their Tory MP.

In truth, however, Johnson probably doesn’t need to lose much sleep on this score — not for a few years yet anyway. What should worry him and his party far more is that his relationship with many of the voters who switched to the Tories in 2019 is, at root, transactional rather than romantic.

The switchers wanted a government that would ‘Get Brexit Done’ but mainly so it could move on and deal with the bread-and-butter issues they care about most. Indeed, when it comes to their economic values, many of them still have more in common with Labour than the Tories, most of whose MPs (not least Chancellor Rishi Sunak) are still (perhaps awkwardly for the PM) very much Thatcherites at heart.

Any failure, then, to tangibly ‘level up’ and to genuinely end austerity so as to improve public services, along with any loss of confidence in the government’s economic management, could still prove costly, if not fatal, to the Conservatives. Manchester: memento mori.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/28e94b6a-fd64-445f-a258-7ec5c5a6b1cd

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‘The Keir Starmer Strategy’, Unherd, 30 September 2021.

When I was a kid, growing up in a sleepier town just along the south coast, we’d occasionally go over to Brighton and visit the amusement arcades on and around the city’s Palace Pier. I was hardly a pinball wizard, but I absolutely loved playing it.

Those old enough to remember will recall that there were basically two approaches. You could simply bash the bejesus out of the buttons that controlled the flippers, not worrying too much about what the silver ball hit as long as it hit something, randomly clocking up points in the process. Or you could play things more strategically, working out which bits of the table offered the most points and, using the flippers sparingly and with rather more precision, try to ping the ball in the right direction.

On balance, the second approach may have produced less frenetic fun but it was nearly always more effective: ultimately, after all, you got to play longer and you tended to score more points — sometimes even enough to earn a replay.

And so it is with party leader’s conference speeches. Less can often be more. When you’re on the attack, aim for laconic rather than histrionic. And when you’re setting out your own stall, pointing to just a few special offers and hinting at more to come beats trying to leave your listeners spoiled for choice.

The model for me (at least for a Labour leader) will always be John Smith in Blackpool in 1992, making a speech to a party that was demoralised after its fourth defeat in a row yet just beginning to wonder whether, in the light of the chaos and incompetence displayed by the Major government in the days leading up to the Conference, the Tories were really as unbeatable as everyone had assumed.

The prospect facing Keir Starmer, another former lawyer, as he stood up to address the faithful (and the not-so-faithful) was, then, far from unprecedented.

So did he deliver? Well, maybe not totally. But, to be fair, it was far from the kind of epic fail that Boris Johnson and the Corbynite stay-behinds who did their best to heckle “their” leader were no doubt hoping for. And it may even have left some of those with no skin in the game but whose expectations were low (especially after the pasting Starmer’s 14,000-word magnum opus got from the cognoscenti), pleasantly surprised.

Personality — at least with a big P — remains a problem. As a courtroom lawyer, Starmer, unlike Smith, was never the kind of performer who has the jury eating out of his hands and the audience hanging on his every word. As a politician, nothing’s changed. I’ve never seen him on the dance floor but, as an orator, he has no sense of rhythm. Or, indeed, of tone. A party caricatured as preachy and po-faced could really do with a leader who doesn’t always sound quite so plaintive. I’ve no idea if someone on his staff has sat him down and told him he desperately needs to get some voice coaching, but they should do. After all, it never did Margaret Thatcher any harm.

Instead, Team Keir is clearly still convinced that there’s mileage in marketing their man as the antithesis to Boris — the responsible ying to the PM’s frivolous yang, the guy whose approach (as he himself, like some kind of Checkatrade-approved plumber, put it) is “Down to earth. Working out what’s wrong. Fixing it.”

Hence all the stuff about the good deeds Starmer was doing as a civil rights advocate and a prosecutor while Johnson was fannying around phoning in trivial blah, blah, blah for the Telegraph — all of which also served as a useful reminder to a public that he’s had a job that actually means something outside politics.

It sort of works — but even with a few jokes thrown in (of which the early one comparing hecklers with Tory MPs at PMQs was by far the best, and the best-delivered) — I’m still not sure that’s enough. To take an example, “Level up? You can’t even fill up” actually had the potential to be what passes in politics (a low bar, I admit) as a killer put-down. Coming out of Sir Keir’s mouth, however, it sounded a little leaden and contrived. Likewise, the more assertive and pleasingly alliterative “Get a grip or get out of the way.”

That said, to those who complain that we already know what Starmer got up to before going into politics, it’s worth saying (yet again) that the majority of people out there probably don’t. The same goes for him telling us (yet again) that his dad was a toolmaker and his mum was a nurse. How (and why), for instance, does anyone think so many people in London know that Sadiq Khan’s dad was a bus-driver?

Starmer’s family background shtick did tee up a peroration (“Work. Care. Equality. Security. These are the tools of my trade. And with them I will go to work.”) that was beautifully-crafted for television news. And those of us who complained about how long he was talking for as we watched live need to remember that those clips are all that sensible people (who weren’t) will ever hear.

The sheer length of the speech wasn’t entirely accidental, of course. By affording Starmer space to remind activists of his pukka-working class and NHS background, it made it harder for Labour’s Momentumite irreconcilables to lay into him in the hall — as did asking the always admirable Dame Doreen Lawrence to do his intro. They still had a damn good go, startling those in the broadcast media who, for some strange reason, think Starmer’s the first Labour leader to face a tough crowd — and so made it an integral (but totally disproportionate) part of their packages for the evening and morning news programmes.

Still, Starmer’s long address also gave him the chance to kick the Corbynites where it really hurts by promising never to “go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government” and (heresy of heresies) to “offer the Conservative party a lesson in levelling up” by listing (to one of the most genuinely striking standing ovations he received) the achievements of the last Labour government — one run by politicians who, like him, believed in “changing lives” rather than simply “shouting slogans”.

The ninety-minute speech also gave Starmer plenty of time to share some eye-catching (if not always entirely persuasive) policies on crime, state education and climate change — future-facing, focus-grouped to be voter-friendly and a retort to those who would otherwise bound to have banged on about a lack of “substance”.

To those of us watching for whom less is more, there was probably too much in there. But to those for whom “more is more” — those who might have taken the first, more frenetic approach to playing pinball down in Brighton all those years ago — that won’t have been a problem.

I’d be prepared to bet that Starmer (who’s three years older than me and so must occasionally have played when he was younger, too) would naturally prefer the second, more careful approach to the game. But this year he tried both. Whether that means he’s a wizard or whether there has to be a twist, we’ll soon find out.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2021/09/the-wizardry-of-keir-starmer/

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‘Labour Conference: Members aren’t quite tearing chunks out of each other but a distinct air of unease remains’, The Conversation, 28 September, 2021.

Getting off the bus and walking to the Brighton Centre, the main venue for this year’s Labour conference, it was hard – impossible even – not to ponder on the pathetic fallacy.

I’m not referring to a party that won only 202 seats in 2019 fooling itself into thinking it stands any chance of winning an overall majority in 2023/24, but instead to the temptation to use the grey-black skies, truly torrential rain and gale-force winds that greeted delegates on Monday morning to convey the mood that had taken hold over the weekend.

Saturday and Sunday, after all, had seen bitterness and bile all around. Arguments raged up and down the seafront. Leader Keir Starmer’s proposal to change party rules for selecting its leaders and deselecting its MPs was the main topic at hand. But a close second came his deputy, Angela Rayner, labelling Conservative ministers “a bunch of scum”.

But then the clouds gradually parted, the sun poked through, and, in spite of a breeze that remained pretty bracing, the promenade became balmy(ish) once again. Had calm miraculously been restored?

Not quite, it seems. The calm after the storm turned out to be the calm before the storm, too. Citing dissatisfaction with the party’s position on the minimum wage, Andy McDonald, a shadow cabinet minister (albeit one few beyond the cognoscenti will have heard of), quit in what he clearly intended to be spectacular fashion. Until then, at least, Labour members weren’t tearing great lumps out of each other, as they regularly used to during Corbyn-era conferences. But this is clearly not yet a party at ease with itself, let alone with the country it aspires to govern – not by a long chalk.

As ever, of course, much of the infighting by the pier is as personal as it is ideological. Many of Labour’s supposedly star players – the kind of politicians who can be guaranteed to pack out a fringe event (proverbial princes over the water Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan, and Angela Rayner herself, for instance) – seem pretty convinced that Labour’s current leader stands little or no chance of leading it to the promised land. They’re equally convinced, of course, that they could do a darn sight better job. Maybe their criticisms of the leadership and of each other are coded enough to be construed (by an optimist anyway) as constructive, but only just.

That makes for an atmosphere that may not be utterly poisonous but that isn’t particularly positive either – especially, I might add, for those of us who’d naively assumed that the mass ranks of mask-wearing Labour MPs we’d seen in the Commons weren’t simply virtue-signalling for the cameras but, unlike their Tory colleagues, were still taking COVID-19 guidelines seriously.

Fat chance, it seems, and the same is sadly true of nearly everyone else down in Brighton. The first three fringes I attended (in windowless rooms, natch) were not only packed but packed with a vast majority of attendees not wearing a face covering. Who knows, perhaps they think socialism is the answer, not just to capitalism, but to coronavirus too.

The feeling of foreboding probably isn’t helped by the ghost-at-the-feast presence of Corbyn, who is still suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party but fully entitled, as a rank-and-file member, to swan around from one shindig to another soaking up the adoration of his forever-fans.

For all that, however, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that what we might term the “suits-to-sandals ratio” has shifted slightly (if by no means decisively) this year in favour of the former. Although, if truth be told and in keeping with the notion of a “political class”, it’s hard to tell among the suits who’s a lobbyist, who’s a think-tanker, and who’s an apparatchik-cum-adviser.

None of this is to take the whole conference thing lightly. This is, as we are constantly and rightly reminded by journalists, one of the few chances that an opposition party gets to showcase itself to a public that otherwise gives virtually no thought whatsoever to the people who (as they see it) spend most of their time criticising the jokers who are running the country without having a clue as to how they would do things differently, let alone better. And, perhaps more importantly, this is Starmer’s first in-the-flesh conference since being elected leader in the COVID-ravaged spring of 2020. Talk this time of the leader’s speech being “make or break” has more than a ring of truth to it.

Things did not start that well for Starmer at this conference – although those of us paying more attention to these things than is strictly healthy will have noted that he actually won approval for most of the rule changes he was shooting for. And I’m not sure McDonald’s walk-out will inevitably make things worse. Indeed, it was so self-evidently an act of showboating sabotage that it may even engender a degree of sympathy for their leader even among some of those who still carry a torch for Corbyn, giving him “permission to be heard” that he otherwise might not have enjoyed.

Whether, however, Starmer can exploit that permission to deliver a show-stopper of his own in his closing speech on Wednesday should soon become apparent in the inevitable plethora of post-conference polling.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/labour-conference-members-arent-quite-tearing-chunks-out-of-each-other-but-a-distinct-air-of-unease-remains-168803

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‘What’s behind the Boris reshuffle?’, Unherd, 16 September 2021.

“When I hear the word culture”, Josef Goebbels is supposed to have said, “I reach for my gun.” Boris Johnson, on the other hand, merely reaches for whoever he reckons will most rub the so-called metropolitan liberal elite up the wrong way.

One would have thought that Oliver Dowden was doing a fairly good job of pursuing the Government’s forever “war on woke”. But obviously not. The reshuffle saw Olive, as the former Statues (sorry, Culture) Secretary (now party co-Chairman) is known to his friends, summarily replaced by the preternaturally plain-speaking Nadine Dorries. She was known by her enemies as the woman who once suggested equal marriage was something which only “metro elite gay activists” aspired to and called Messrs Cameron and Osborne “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”.

Whether Ms Dorries, before accepting his commission, quizzed Mr Johnson on precisely how much he paid when he last popped out for a pint of semi-skimmed is, sadly, not recorded, although, if precedent is anything to go by, we will eventually find out. Indeed, many of the most delicious moments in contemporary histories of recent premierships are provided by their accounts of the often cack-handed attempts of their hapless heroes to inject fresh blood and get rid of dead wood.

Normally, it’s the sackings that afford the most entertainment: May’s “elder sister” slaying of George Osborne is an absolute classic of the genre — not least because it came back to bite her big time when the former Chancellor became editor of the Evening Standard, from which perch he took great delight in proving that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold (and, in his case, that meant very, very cold indeed).

This time around, however, it’s the appointments that are more intriguing. In part, that’s because the reshuffle’s two most obvious victims were (a) long-destined for the chop and (b) not particularly interesting or heavyweight politicians.

It would be hard, for instance, to find many people sad to see Gavin Williamson depart Education after what teachers, students and pupils (not to mention their parents) have been put through during the pandemic. And the now-former Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick (cruelly dubbed “Robert Generic” by his detractors), was better known for bending lockdown rules, greenlighting a Tory donor’s questionable construction project, bunging big grants to towns with Tory MPs, and going on telly to defend the indefensible than he was for building more houses.

Their replacements, however, are rather more interesting. Nadhim Zahawi will, of course, be criticised for having no direct experience of state schooling, but may well be given the benefit of the doubt, at least initially, as a result of his impressive performance as Vaccines Minister and because he’s that most unusual of top Tories – someone with a BSc (Chemical Engineering, UCL) rather than an Oxford PPE.

Even more interesting, is Michael Gove’s move to MHCLG. This is not a ministry normally given to a big-hitter with a reputation (at least among civil servants) for competence as well as the ability to present a parliamentary and Cabinet case.

His appointment suggests – encouragingly – that Johnson realises that he can’t merely give up fundamental planning reform as a bad job and hope the problem goes away. And, while it may be true (Gove’s many fans would even say tragic) that his neo-con worldview and concerns about his reliability (perhaps expressed most shockingly and openly a few years ago by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace) mean Gove is unlikely ever to be awarded one of the great offices of state (Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary), his decision to accept the challenge — which apparently includes converting the PM’s “levelling up” rhetoric into reality – is nonetheless significant.

The test, of course, will be whether he can achieve anything without simultaneously losing friends and alienating people (including voters) – a test he clearly flunked when he was Cameron’s controversial Education Secretary.

But if Gove is something of an ideologue, he has nothing, at least on that score, on Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary — the first Conservative woman (and only the second woman ever) to occupy that post. And in some ways that (plus the fact that the Tory grassroots’ favourite free-market zealot was seen by those who get off on Global Britain as having done well in the International Trade brief) may be half the point.

At the FCDO, Truss has effectively been parked somewhere where her Britannia Unchained, Singapore-on-Thames shtick isn’t going to interfere too much with Boris Johnson’s rather more pragmatic, interventionist, and supposedly One Nation brand of Toryism. Meanwhile, her replacement at DIT, Brexity former International Development Minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, is seen as a reasonably safe pair of hands, although without Truss’s infamous flair for publicity. That said, anyone (can there still be anyone?) dreaming of a trade deal with China on her watch might be well advised invest their hopes elsewhere.

Truss replaces Dominic Raab – surely the most high-profile casualty of this reshuffle, which may seem like an odd thing to say about the new Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor after he was compensated with the formal title of Deputy Prime Minister. But let’s be honest: Franklin Roosevelt’s Veep, “Cactus Jack” Garner famously dismissed the vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”; well, whatever is worth less than warm piss, that’s basically what the office of DPM is worth.

He knows it. Johnson knows it. We all know it. The fact that he was offered it at all is testimony only to the fact that, unlike some of the others who were demoted (Williamson, Jenrik, former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland and the Boris-uber-loyalist, former co-Chairman, Amanda Milling) No 10 couldn’t be entirely sure that Raab would go quietly – or, indeed, remain relatively quiet on the backbenches in the hope of a return to government (or, more likely, a seat in the Lords) in years to come.

Quite what Raab’s fellow lawyers will make of him, however, will be interesting to see. There would seem to be little chance of him going native – he was after all the first Tory during the 2019 leadership contest to promote proroguing parliament as a route out of what was then the Brexit impasse. If anything, they may want to buckle up for a bumpy ride: Raab’s combination of natural aggression and neoliberalism means he may be far more inclined than his predecessor to pick a fight with what he’ll no doubt see as the sector’s “producer groups”.

In the end, however, although we’re bound to be distracted by who’s up and who’s down, perhaps we should pay more attention to three politicians who have stuck around. Priti Patel clearly remains too totemic to shift from the Home Office: even if she can’t stop those migrants coming across the Channel in small boats she can bang on about them like no-one else, helping to ensure no space opens up on the Conservatives’ flank for a post-Farage populist right. David Frost is still what passes for the PM’s brain on Brexit. And Rishi Sunak is not just too popular to move; his reputation as a fiscal hawk (doubtless something he’ll burnish this autumn) also provides some much needed reassurance to the party’s bog-standard backbench Thatcherites that Johnson, for all his strengths as an election-winner, hasn’t led the Tories entirely off the small-state straight and narrow.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2021/09/will-the-reshuffle-save-boris/

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‘Boris Johnson’s Cabinet is more heavyweight than you think. The bootlicking incompetents at today’s top table might look better tomorrow’, Prospect, 27 August 2021.

The idea that the Cabinet is chock-full of brain-dead non-entities is a charge levelled with increasing frequency of late. But it is nothing new—anyone of a certain age can remember a 1980s Spitting Image sketch. Margaret Thatcher is dining out with her colleagues and orders steak, wherein the waitress asks “What about the vegetables?” and she replies, “Oh, they’ll have the same as me.”

Yet, in retrospect, some of those then around the table can hardly be written off as bootlicking political lightweights: Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson were responsible for huge changes to the structure and running of the British economy; Leon Brittan helped see his boss safely through the miners’ strike, as well as steering 1984’s landmark Police and Criminal Evidence Bill onto the statute book; Norman Fowler spearheaded the bill to make seatbelts compulsory, and persuaded Thatcher to take educating the public about Aids seriously—policies that saved many thousands of lives.

True, in the light of Dominic Cummings’s revelations about how government actually works (or doesn’t work) under Boris Johnson, it may be a little difficult to believe that, as the Cabinet Manual puts it, the Cabinet is “the ultimate arbiter of all government policy.” And, as always, there are amateurish ministers like Gavin Williamson and those who seem to blunder from one day to the next.

However, it remains the case that, in their own fiefdoms at least, the barons may well have no less (and, given the prime minister’s notorious lack of interest in the detail, possibly more) authority than the king.

One such is surely Michael Gove, who, by dint of his position in the Cabinet Office, is responsible for the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill that will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, as well as the even more controversial Elections Bill, whose voter ID provisions will, say its critics, effectively disenfranchise millions of voters.

Other barons include, for good or ill, home secretary Priti Patel and communities secretary Robert Jenrick, responsible for bringing in what could be historic changes to this country’s immigration and planning regimes respectively.

And then, of course, there’s Sajid Javid and the smooth, sure-footed Rishi Sunak, both of them involved in an increasingly epic love-hate triangle with Johnson. Cummings’s hopes that No 10 could assert control over the Treasury now seem pretty forlorn, and the chancellor’s forthcoming Budget update in October looks likely to set the tone on tax and spend for the rest of the government’s term. Meanwhile his predecessor, newly returned to the top table, is clearly in a good position to demand sufficient resources for a major Health and Care Bill, as well as for the long-awaited reform to social care.

The Cabinet as a collective, then, may not count for much these days. But it still contains a bunch of biggish beasts, with to-do lists to match.

Originally published at https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/boris-johnsons-cabinet-is-more-heavyweight-than-you-think-gove-sunak-patel-government

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‘Give them a future too’, Mirror, 1 August 2021

IT’S been obvious for weeks now that the vaccine take-up rate for younger people hasn’t been what it needs to be to reduce the chances of Covid making a serious comeback after the summer.

So the Government should get some credit for thinking outside the box and coming up with attention-grabbing incentives to get them jabbed. And it’s a win-win for the companies involved – they get some excellent publicity for doing their bit for a really good cause. Let’s hope then that it does the trick.

But let’s also hope this eye-catching initiative isn’t going to be the limit of the Government’s offer to young Brits.

After all, they’ve arguably been hit harder than most of us by the pandemic.

Whether we’re talking about the impact on their education, their jobs, or simply the freedom to go out and enjoy themselves.

As a result, they have a right to expect a whole lot more in the long term than a handful of vouchers for rides and pizza. Young people are literally this country’s future. Gimmicks are great.

But what they really need- and deserve – from the Government is a far-sighted and properly funded post- Covid recovery plan.

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‘The Truth About the Blue Wall’, Unherd, 2 August 2021.

If an American tells you that they’re “Waiting for the other shoe to drop”, they mean that, having had one piece of news, they’re expecting another piece pretty soon. The idiom apparently originated in New York where the residents of the city’s tenements could hear their upstairs neighbour kicking off, first, one shoe and then, inevitably, after a second or two, the other.

Ever since the shock win for the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham back in June, many on the centre-Left have been waiting for something equally arresting to confirm that it wasn’t a one off, and that the Tories might be in as much trouble in some of their southern heartlands as Labour are in the north.

But is YouGov’s eye-catching Blue Wall poll really that other shoe dropping? And even if it is, isn’t it more a faint echo than a darn great thud?

That the Conservatives are losing support in some of their seats which heavily backed Remain in 2016, and where over a quarter of residents hold a university degree, actually shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

After all, the flip side of the electoral analyst James Kanagasooriam’s observation that there were Labour seats where voter demographics (and values) meant they could easily turn Tory was always that the Conservatives should expect to lose a few seats, too. In fact, one could almost argue that it was always going to be a matter of when, not if.

It could even be that Covid is speeding the process up. The Government’s recent responses to both the ping- and pandemic have once again given people the impression that (a) it doesn’t really know what it’s doing, and (b) there’s one rule for it and one for the rest of us. Added to which, the search for space among relatively affluent city dwellers may be leading to the surrounding outer suburbs and small towns welcoming younger, better-educated and more socially liberal voters

Chesham and Amersham may be just the kind of constituency they are moving to. But if that formerly true-blue stronghold is in play, then so are a bunch of home-counties seats, although most of those are rather more vulnerable to the Lib Dems than to Labour.

Labour appears to be doing better, with its support rising four points from 20% to 24%. But if you’re excited about those numbers, then it probably says more about you than it does about them. A score of 20% doesn’t even merit the label “low base”. It wouldn’t even come close to what the party would need to pull off an unlikely victory in a classic three-way marginal. In 2019, there were just 11 English seats which had a vote-share gap between first and third place of less than 20 percentage points, and even among those the lowest winning vote share (Labour’s in Sheffield Hallam) was 34.6%.

To be fair, YouGov reckons that: “If the swings were uniform across all constituencies, Labour would be set to gain a total of nine Blue Wall seats, and the Liberal Democrats three.” However, if you look carefully, four of those Labour wins would be in London (Chipping Barnet, Chingford, Hendon and Kensington) and only one (Wycombe) is in what most analysts would think of as the “real” Blue Wall (the others being Milton Keynes North, Stroud, Truro and Falmouth, and one of the Bristol seats).

And anyway, as YouGov goes on in the next breath, even if Labour were to gain the seats listed, “it would not be anywhere near enough to offset the party’s losses in the so-called Red Wall in 2019”. The fact remains, as Keir Starmer’s new Director of Strategy, Deborah Mattinson (whose book does a great job of helping to explain those losses) has reportedly told Labour MPs: the party still has a long way to go if it is to win over the older, less-educated, and culturally conservative voters it desperately needs to get back in order to stand a chance next time round.

Apparently, she also pointed to polling and to focus group research, in which she specialises, that suggests support for Boris Johnson is waning. It’s also worth remembering that, at the end of last year, before the vaccine roll-out became a reality for most people, the gap between the two parties had narrowed. But even as the nation’s gratitude begins to fade, it remains the case that, nationwide, both the PM and the Conservative Party retain significant leads on the measures that matter — trust on who would best run the economy and who would make the best prime minister.

Sure, there are some worrying numbers for the Tories in the YouGov poll. Some 54% of its Blue Wall respondents disapprove of the Government (the same proportion who say it doesn’t listen to people in their area) – and that’s compared to only 30% who approve. Moreover, 47% think the Government is taking the country in the wrong direction compared to just 32% who reckon it’s taking us in the right direction.

Furthermore, some of the Blue Wall’s decidedly liberal views on cultural questions (for instance, 66% of voters polled by YouGov agree that a wide variety of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures is part of British culture compared to 50% of voters in general and 54% in the Red Wall) might give the Government pause for thought about upping the ante on its ongoing war on woke.

More generally, the fact that 55% think the Conservative Party is out of touch is hardly good news for Boris Johnson — until, that is, you realise that 58% say the same of the Labour Party. And Lib Dems shouldn’t read too much into the fact their score on that metric is 39%: a mere 18% say that they’re in touch.

Ultimately, though, most Conservatives — except perhaps those southern Nimby MPs desperate for ammunition in their battle to prevent their government carrying through meaningful planning reform — won’t (or at least shouldn’t) get too worked up about what the poll purports to tell us about the Blue Wall. This is mid-term: they should expect some serious discontent and dissatisfaction.

In any case, a drop from 52% support in 2019 to 44% support now can be made to sound steep but ultimately, in most of their heartland seats anyway, the worse that’s likely to happen to Tory candidates at the next general election is that they end up having to count the votes rather than simply weigh them.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2021/08/the-truth-about-the-blue-wall/

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‘Why some people switch political parties: new research’, The Conversation, 12 July 2021.

Why do some people switch political parties? After all, if someone is committed enough to a particular vision of politics, wouldn’t they be relatively immune to the charms of its competitors?

It turns out, however, that switching parties at grassroots membership level is by no means uncommon, even giving rise in some quarters to accusations of “entryism”.

The massive increase in Labour’s membership which accompanied Jeremy Corbyn’s elevation to the leadership in 2015 was often anecdotally associated, at least in the minds of his enemies (internal as well as external), with an influx of people who had previously belonged to parties on the far left fringe of the country’s politics.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ adoption of an ever harder position on Brexit was blamed by some not just on Theresa May’s desire to keep Tory Eurosceptics on board, but on pressure put on more moderate MPs by former members of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) joining and even taking over their local associations.

Our new research sheds light on the truth of party-switching politics – how many people really switch, why people are motivated to do so, and whether the claims of entryism are credible.

Patterns of party-switching

We surveyed nearly 7,000 members of British political parties (including registered Brexit Party supporters) within two weeks of the 2019 general election. When we analysed the data, we found a remarkably high proportion of our sample (23%) claimed to have previously been – or, if we allow for registered Brexit Party supporters as well, currently were – members of a different political party than the one to which they were now affiliated.

Some 29% of Tory members who admitted in 2019 to having been members of other parties claim to have been UKIP members. Interestingly, though, virtually as many were former Labour members. As a proportion of all Conservative Party grassroots members, these figures amount to 3% who were former members of UKIP, 4.5% who were simultaneously Brexit Party supporters, and 4% who were ex-Labour members.

This puts into perspective the scale of the entryist phenomenon. At most, 7.5% of all Tory members in 2019 had a history of connections with UKIP or the Brexit Party (probably fewer, given the likely overlap of UKIP and Brexit Party connections).

This is not to say that their impact may not have been significant in certain constituencies when it came to selecting party candidates, nor is it to deny that the Conservative Party grassroots have increasingly come to favour “hard” forms of Brexit over the course of the past few years. But it would appear that, in the vast majority of cases, this will have been down to the changing views of members who had no formal associations with UKIP or the Brexit Party.

As for Labour’s members, two-fifths of those with previous party memberships joined the party after 2015 – surely the Corbyn effect? Those Labour members who had past lives in other organisations came mainly from the Greens or Liberal Democrats – or, intriguingly, from an amorphous “other parties” category, with the latter maybe hinting (but only hinting) at a degree (albeit limited) of entryism from the far left.

It is worth bearing in mind that the smaller parties have generally experienced even higher levels of cross-party flows, proportionately speaking. For instance, three-fifths of Green members were former Labour members, as were around half of SNP and Liberal Democrat members.

Why switch?

But what drives some people to quit one party and join another? Our research suggests that the most telling reasons are connected with ideology and party leaders. If people feel themselves to be in tune with particular a party in terms of its core values and leader, they are naturally attracted to join it. However, they are equally inclined to eventually quit the same party if they feel it or its leadership has changed tack and become more remote.

In particular, we discovered that ideological radicals are especially prone to switching parties. The same goes for Brexiteers -– although this is perhaps a time-sensitive finding relevant to the past few years, given the special power of Brexit to cut across longstanding patterns of partisan alignment.

Ultimately, the traditional breadth of the major parties in Britain partly reflects the nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system, which makes it hard for minor parties to gain parliamentary representation unless – like the Scottish and Welsh nationalists or, more unusually, the Greens in Brighton – they have geographical concentrations of support.

As a result, both Labour and the Conservatives are coalitions of quite diverse types of people. We should not be surprised, then, that their grassroots members often find themselves at odds with their parties’ policies – particularly when there is a change of direction brought about by a change of leadership.

A new leader intent on charting a different course from their predecessor – Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson are both obvious examples – can try to keep as many of their existing members on board as possible. But, ultimately, it may be better for all concerned – and a sign of healthy, pluralist democracy – if those who come to believe another party might represent a better fit for them depart so they can try it for size.

And nowadays, of course, with the emergence of parties that either weren’t around at all (such as populist radical right outfits like UKIP, the Brexit Party and Reform UK) or were less powerful than they are now (like the SNP), there are more alternatives on offer than ever.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/why-some-people-switch-political-parties-new-research-164112

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