By Matthew Barrett
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The Daily Mail this morning reports on the 118 Conservative MPs who have written to constituents indicating their opposition to gay marriage proposals. The Mail says "Their opposition has been expressed in letters and emails sent to constituents who have contacted them with their own concerns", and points out that if these MPs voted against proposals, it would constitute the biggest Tory rebellion in modern times. However, Equalities Minister (and Secretary of State for Culture) Maria Miller pointed out on Twitter that since any vote on the issue would be a free vote, it would not technically be counted as a rebellion.
I have listed the MPs from the Mail's story below.
By Matthew Barrett
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On Friday, 50 MPs, including 34 Conservatives, wrote a letter to the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, expressing their "serious concerns" with the Department of Health’s proposal to introduce plain packaging for tobacco products.
The letter stated that:
"There is no reliable evidence that plain packaging will have any public health benefit; no country in the world has yet to introduce it. However, such a measure could have extremely negative consequences elsewhere. The proposal will be a smuggler’s charter. ... this policy threatens more than 5,500 jobs directly employed by the UK tobacco sector, and over 65,000 valued jobs in the associated supply chain. ... Given the continued difficult economic climate, businesses should not be subjected to further red tape and regulation"
The signatories of the letter also expressed concern about the freedom aspect of blocking any branding of tobacco products:
"...we believe products must be afforded certain basic commercial freedoms. The forcible removal of branding would infringe fundamental legal rights, severely damage principles around intellectual property and set a dangerous precedent for the future of commercial free speech. Indeed, if the Department of Health were to introduce standardised packaging for tobacco products, would it also do the same for alcohol, fast food, chocolate and all other products deemed unhealthy for us?"
By Matthew Barrett
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The 301 group is perhaps the most active and important group of backbench Tory MPs. Tim Montgomerie reported last week that three MPs - Charlie Elphicke, George Hollingbery and Priti Patel - want to organise a candidate to be elected to the 1922 Committee's executive who will give the '22 a focus on policy and campaigning. The Spectator's James Forsyth blogged that "The vote for their candidate, and his opponent, will give us the best idea yet of where the backbenches are at the moment politically. Indeed, I expect that the machinery of the 301 group, the most pro-Cameron of all the backbench groups, will be thrown behind the Elphicke-Hollingbery-Patel slate."
To organise or endorse candidates for the '22 is certainly the most power a backbench group has yet wielded in this Parliament. In this profile, I'll be looking at the origins, members, aims and plans of the group to get a sense of what the group wants to campaign for.
Origins of the group
The 301 was first organised by Kris Hopkins (Keighley), a former soldier and leader of Bradford Council, and Jessica Lee (Erewash), a former barrister, and now Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. The group began with small meetings of a handful of MPs who were "concerned that the narrative in Parliament was not representative of the conversation" that MPs had had with the electorate while campaigning during the 2010 general election, and also dissatisfied with the fact that the mechanisms of debate amongst backbenchers, and between the back and front benches, were not conducive to trying to correct that narrative. Each of those attending brought a friend, and so on, until after three meetings the group reached 60 members.
By Matthew Barrett
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I recently profiled the 2020 and Free Enterprise groups of Tory MPs. Those two groups are formed by ideology: MPs are attracted to the groups because, in the case of the Free Enterprise Group, members wish to open up markets and make Britain business-friendly enough to compete with other world class economies. The 2020's members want to renew and refresh Project Cameron, while considering how the country should look after a majority Conservative government.
The 40 is rather different as it is a group of MPs brought together solely by necessity - the members are those MPs who were elected in 2010 with the narrowest majorities in the Party.
Origins of the group and key members
The group was founded early last year by Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood), Graham Evans (Weaver Vale), and David Mowat (Warrington South). There is no rigid structure to the group as such, given its non-ideological purpose, but when it meets, the convener is usually David Mowat. Other key "executive" members of the group include Evans and Ollerenshaw, as well as Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye), James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) and Ben Gummer (Ipswich).
By Matthew Barrett
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As the Feltham and Heston by-election reaches its later stages - it is set to take place next Thursday - senior Conservative MPs have been paying visits to the constituency. In the last few days, the Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, the Minister of State for Immigration, Damian Green, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, and the Prime Minister, have all been campaigning in the seat, to try and help Cllr Mark Bowen.
We have some pictures (see right, click to expand), and Bob Blackman MP has another frontline report:
"One week out from polling day in Feltham and Heston the campaign is shifting up a gear. We have run a strong campaign from the off and with the Prime Minister, the International Development Secretary and the Immigration Minister in the constituency today, as well as dozens of MPs, councillors and activists, today has been a high visibility day. The PM got a great reception at a Cameron Direct at the local DHL depot. It’s clear from feedback on the ground that our local candidate is well respected as a hard-working councillor. We are listening to local people’s concerns. Our key messages of controlling immigration, taking the necessary action to reduce the deficit and reforming welfare to end Labour’s something for nothing culture are really resonating with people on the doorstep. As we enter the final week we will be fighting hard for every vote."
Update 2.15pm: Dr Andrew Murrison MP has sent us this account of his experience campaigning in the seat:
"I’ve just been canvassing in Feltham and Heston with the candidate Cllr Mark Bowen and was there all day last Thursday. I have rarely met a candidate who is so well plugged in to the local community. In such a complex and diverse seat, being comprehensively tuned in is a challenge and one that the other candidates do not appear to have mastered. Being able to get by in a number of languages relevant to the area is a distinct advantage and a real plus on the doorstep. Mark definitely deserves to win."
By Jonathan Isaby
Last month the Government published its ambitious Welfare Reform Bill and I wrote about it at the time here.
Yesterday the Bill had its Second Reading debate in the Commons and here is a flavour of the warm welcome it got from the Tory backbenches.
Several MPs took the opportunity to expand on the problems of the status quo.
Chris Skidmore (Kingswood)
"I welcome the Bill, which marks a point at which we can send out this message: we cannot continue to spend on welfare as we have previously. Instead, we need to understand that there is no such thing as Government money, free to be given out; there is only hard-earned taxpayers' money, which in these difficult times needs to be spent with caution and care. Over the past 13 years, we saw no evidence of that caution, as the total annual expenditure on benefits mushroomed to £152 billion. Every year, £5.2 billion was lost in overpayments, of which £1.5 billion was lost to fraud. Some £3.5 billion was spent annually on administration costs and paperwork alone. As we have heard from the Minister, other benefits rose, with the cost of housing benefit having increased from £11 billion to £20 billion since 1997. That is simply unsustainable and we must act."
George Hollingbery (Meon Valley)
"There are more than 30 different benefits out there that can be claimed. There are 14 manuals in the Department for Work and Pensions, with 8,690 pages of instructions for officials. There is a separate set of four volumes for local government, with 1,200 pages covering housing and council tax benefits alone. That is an astonishingly byzantine system. One of my constituents, Nigel Oakland, wrote to me: "Nobody at the Jobcentre Plus can explain if it is beneficial if I continue to sign on. The last advice I was given is that I should Google the question." In such a situation, where even the experts at Jobcentre Plus cannot answer the questions that arise, we are clearly in difficulty.
"It is confusing for clients. There is a 30-page form for housing and council tax benefit, including three pages of declarations. Employment and support allowance requires a 52-page form; jobseeker's allowance, 12 online sections, each of five to 10 pages long; and disability living allowance, a 60-page form. Is it any wonder that people become confused and fill in the forms incorrectly and make mistakes? The system is extraordinarily expensive to administer. The DWP spent £2 billion last year administering working-age benefits, and local authorities a further £l billion administering housing benefit and council tax benefit. Even the tiny citizens advice bureau in Bishop's Waltham, a town of 5,000 people in a rural and relatively affluent part of Hampshire, processed 2,176 queries about benefits in 2009-10, advising people how to claim them."
Julian Sturdy (York Outer)
"Over the past 10 years the welfare budget has grown disproportionately, by more than £56 billion. Despite that huge increase, almost 1.5 million people have been on out-of-work benefit for nine of those 10 years. Despite years of economic growth, job creation and increases in the welfare budget, a whole group of people have never worked at all. It is therefore time to review this broken system. After all, the simple truth is that Britain's welfare arteries are clogged up. Too little support is reaching those truly in need and too much is being lost in bureaucratic incompetence-even more worryingly, it is being lost on people who should not be in receipt of such support at all. In essence, the whole culture of our welfare system is wrong; the cost of maintaining it is out of control and the decision-making processes within it are woefully inefficient. The Bill is therefore right to focus on incentivising pathways back to work by ensuring that employment always pays more than benefits. That is fundamental to the Bill and, as a simple Yorkshire man, I feel that it is basic common sense."
"It is a sad but well-known fact that the current system discourages those in low-paid jobs from increasing their hours, as rates of tax and benefit reductions often leave them worse off. This ridiculous situation helps only to dampen aspiration while increasing dependency in the benefits system as a whole. In addition, hard-working, taxpaying families, who are feeling the squeeze in these difficult economic times, should not subsidise the small but still significant number of people in our society who see the welfare system as a career choice. That must stop. By annually capping benefits, withdrawing support from those who refuse to work and increasing the financial incentives for those who do work, the Bill includes specific measures that will make work pay."
Two maiden speeches were delivered in the Commons yesterday by new West Midlands Conservative MPs.
“Not only am I proud of my constituency and my area, I am proud of my country. I am fortunate to have travelled extensively, but no matter how exotic or cosmopolitan the destination I have always yearned for England. Part of that is the people. The people of my borough are decent people who strive to do the right thing by society and, most importantly, by their families. As they told me during the general election, they get frustrated when they see others ahead of them who have not “done the right thing”. Their sense of fairness was seriously challenged by the last Government. I am pleased to see this coalition Government restoring that sense of fairness and balance while addressing the scale of the deficit and debts bequeathed to us. That sense of fairness has been severely tested over the last 13 years as we have seen neighbouring Sandwell metropolitan borough council receiving far more per head from Whitehall than Dudley metropolitan borough council. That massive disparity cannot be fair, and my constituents have also expressed their unhappiness in large numbers about many of the local government funded quangos with questionable track records of productivity and efficiency, and a democratic deficit, when my constituents struggle to make ends meet and pay their council and personal tax bills.”
He also took time to pay tribute to Baroness Thatcher:
“I was born in 1978 under James Callaghan, but I am a child of Thatcher. I was honoured to receive letters from the former Prime Minister both during and after the election, and they now hang proudly on my wall. Baroness Thatcher truly is a guiding inspiration. She comprehensively proved that one person can make a positive difference."
He made the connection with one of his predecessors as Tory MP for Wolverhampton South West):
“I have not traditionally been an individual who has subscribed to a fatalistic view of life, but I have found my scepticism tested by the fact that my majority of 691 that has bought me to this great House is exactly the same as that of another young Conservative Member of Parliament who won the seat of Wolverhampton South West for the first time in 1950—one Enoch Powell. I make that statement with my tongue firmly pressed against the inside of my cheek and an ironic smile on my face. I also appeal to all Members of the House to take me to one side and proofread any of my speeches should I feel compelled in 18 years’ time to make a controversial speech at the Midland hotel. That is unlikely to happen, primarily because the hotel is no longer there, but I have lived enough of a life to know that one should never say never—I ask the Hansard reporters to note that my tongue is now firmly affixed to the other side of my cheek.”
He went on to raise the issue of postal voting fraud:
“Forgive me if I have strayed on to controversial ground, but as I suggested earlier, straight talking and a no-nonsense approach is the Wolverhampton way. In that vein, I would make a plea for all Members to revisit the issue of postal voting fraud, which, I am sad to say, appears to be alive and well in many of our metropolitan areas. Since I was elected, I have been approached by numerous individuals in my own constituency who have spoken to me about the issue. In my case, it worked against me; I would say to Opposition Members that there might be cases where it will have worked against them. In any event, we are all very much at a crossroads. I can envisage a time soon when very easily and quickly we will all face an escalation of a fraudulent race here, as either side endeavours to outdo the other. I hope that Opposition Members will trust my motives for wading into this area, as it damages us all in this House and damages our reputation as a country.’