By Tim Montgomerie
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One of Grant Shapps' first acts as the new Tory Chairman has been to ask for the election countdown clock to be put back on the wall of Conservative HQ. Meeting him yesterday afternoon he told me that there were less than 1,000 days until the next general election (969 actually if its 7th May 2015) and the party machine needed to start getting into battle mode.
Yesterday he announced the team that he hopes will help the party deliver victory for David Cameron. He, Lord Feldman and Mr Cameron made five new appointments:
Nicola Blackwood (Social Action), Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (International), Alan Lewis (Business) and Andrew Stephenson (Youth) were reappointed as Vice Chairmen. They are all pictured above.
Grant Shapps told ConservativeHome that one of the jobs facing him, Lord Feldman and the new team was to overcome the cynicism that people feel about the tasks currently facing Britain. He suggested that we were in the phase two or three years before the Olympics when people were suspicious about the cost of the Games and wondered whether all of the effort would be worthwhile. It was the whole Conservative Party's task, he said, to use the rest of the parliament to convince people that the road may be hard but the destination of better schools, a benefits system that rewards work and a paying down on the deficit will all be worth it.
The new Tory Chairman will be writing a regular monthly column for ConservativeHome.
PS Can any reader remember the last time that we had a party chairman who has won a seat from Labour?
By Matthew Barrett
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Robert Halfon, the Member of Parliament for Harlow, and one of the most successful campaigning MPs in Parliament, has organised a motion, backed by 60 MPs from all parties, and including 41 Tories, calling for the Office of Fair Trading to investigate allegations of price-fixing by British oil companies. The full motion is worded as follows:
"That this House urges the OFT to investigate oil firms active in the UK; calls on the Government to consider the emergency actions being taken in other G20 nations to cut fuel prices, for example President Obama strengthening Federal supervision of the U.S. oil market, and increasing penalties for “market manipulation”, and Germany and Austria setting up a new oil regulator, with orders to help stabilise the price of petrol in the country; finally urges the Office of Fair Trading to note that the Federal Cartel Office in Germany is now investigating oil firms active in the UK, after allegations of price-fixing."
By Matthew Barrett
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4pm update: People's Pledge sources tells me that Anne Marie Morris, the MP for Newton Abbot has come out in support of a referendum.
Mike Freer, the MP for Finchley and Golders Green, has also backed a referendum. This is significant because Freer was not one of the 81 rebels, but has now come round to the view that Britain should have an in/out European referendum.
These two new additions to the list of MPs supporting the People's Pledge means 68 MPs - from several parties - back a referendum.
Following on from their successful referendum campaign in Thurrock - turnout was higher than in the recent local elections - The People's Pledge campaign have announced further referendums, to be held in 3 contiguous seats. The campaign has announced a shortlist of 39 seats, grouped in 13 contiguous triples, from different regions, from which one triplet will be chosen in the next few days, with a polling date set for late July.
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 Paul Goodman
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Last year, the Prime Minister flew to Brussels amidst rumour of a leadership challenge if he didn't achieve at least a token repatriation of power.
Today, he faced the Commons not only with no such repatriation realised but with his veto - so rapturously greeted at the time by Conservative MPs - arguably valueless, since it's now clear that he won't challenge the principle of the EU institutions being used to enforce the F.U agreement.
Yet there was no mass revolt from his backbenches, and no revival to date of the leadership challenge rumours. What explains this change in the Tory atmosphere? I hope to explore the question in detail soon, but will for the moment rest with an answer I've cited before.
By Matthew Barrett
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The company Key Business Insight's "Commons Performance Cockpit" ranks MPs by their total cost - that is, staffing costs, travel expenses, office costs, salary, and so on. The majority of the 50 "most efficient" MPs, in terms of total cost, are Conservatives.
The top 50 "most efficient" MPs between 1st April, 2010 and 31st March, 2011 are listed below:
*Took his seat on 3rd March, 2011
**Took her seat on 13th January, 2011
***Resigned his seat on 8th February, 2011
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."
By Jonathan Isaby
Last month Andrew Lansley wrote exclusively for ConHome here about the Government's Health and Social Care Bill.
The Bill had its Second Reading in the Commons yesterday, during which new Oldham East and Saddleworth MP Debbie Abrahams gave her maiden speech and David Miliband gave his first full speech as a backbencher since losing the Labour leadership.
But here a snapshot of the contributions from the Conservative backbenches.
"During the lifetime of this Parliament the national health service faces a genuinely unprecedented challenge, first articulated not by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the present Government, but by the chief executive of the health service before the general election in May 2009, when he drew attention to the fact that demand for health care should be expected to continue to rise at roughly 4% per annum, as it has done throughout the recent history of the national health service. However, because of the budget deficit situation, we will not see the health budget continue to rise to absorb that rise in demand, in the way it has done over the past decade.
"Therefore, during the lifetime of this Parliament, we will have to see, in the national health service, a 4% efficiency gain four years running-something that not merely our health care system, but no other health care system in the world, has ever delivered. The Select Committee has referred to that as the Nicholson challenge, reflecting the fact that it was first articulated by the chief executive and endorsed by the previous Government. Again, this is a case of a shared agenda across the House of Commons.
"Given the Budget deficit, the only way we can continue to meet the demand for high-quality health care, which we all want to see, is by delivering an unprecedented efficiency gain in the NHS for four years running. That is why I support the Bill. I support it because to my mind it is inconceivable that we can deliver such an efficiency gain without delivering more effectively than we have done yet on the ideas, which have been endorsed over the past 20 years, about greater clinical engagement in NHS commissioning, which I have been talking about. Commissioning cannot be successful if it is something that is done to doctors by managers; it must engage the whole clinical community. We must address the democratic deficit, because we cannot bring change on the scale that we need to deliver the efficiency gain without engaging local communities."
Delivering his maiden speech on Wednesday, former soldier and journalist Richard Drax – who gained Dorset South from Labour – said that he had entered public life because he could no longer “sit on my hands and watch our beloved country lose her pride.”
He explained that he is by no means the first Drax to sit in the Commons:
“My foray into politics ends a slight drought of Draxes here in the Commons. In an earlier deluge, six ancestors graced this place between 1679 and 1880—all representing the long-lost seat of Wareham. One, John Sawbridge Erle-Drax MP, spoke only once during the entire 32 years of his parliamentary career, and that was to ask the Speaker of the House to open the window. Unsurprisingly, he was known as the “Silent MP”. After his death, he arranged for The Times to be delivered daily to his mausoleum through a specially built-in letterbox; mine is under construction. In view of his Trappist tendencies, for his descendent to be making his maiden speech a mere eight weeks into the parliamentary Session must seem like indecent haste.”
He went on to speak up for Britain’s prison officers:
“We have two prisons in South Dorset, HMP The Verne and the young offenders institution. I have visited both on several occasions and work closely with the governors and the Prison Officers Association. The POA’s plight has been ignored for too long. As in so many other areas, the pendulum has swung too far in one direction. Today, officers feel powerless to do their job effectively as the prisoners appear to have more rights than they do. With 50% remission as the norm, it is difficult to apply meaningful sanctions to prisoners who do not toe the line. It is important to remember, in my humble opinion, that the Prison Service is just that—a service. Without proper support, officers will continue to feel, as they repeatedly describe themselves, a “forgotten army”.
“I have often heard colleagues in this House refer to Cornwall as part of the Celtic fringe; no doubt that is intended in a humorous way. While I am very proud of the Celtic culture, sports and traditions of Cornwall, there is absolutely nothing “fringe” about Cornwall or its people. Cornwall throughout the ages has been, and will continue to be, at the cutting edge of important national developments, as well as being at the centre of key moments of our history. The industrial revolution started in Cornwall, and Cornwall is leading the new industrial revolution—that of delivering the renewable and sustainable energy that our future economic security and growth will depend upon. Cornwall’s pioneering and inventive people and enterprises are ready to rise to the challenge of delivering a low-carbon economy and secure energy supplies. They need a Government who understand how to create the right market conditions for enterprise to succeed. I believe that this coalition Government have the determination to do this, and so to unlock potential in Cornwall.”