Was last week good for the Conservative Party because it proved that only the Tories were committed to an EU referendum? Or bad, because we seemed obsessed with the subject and excessively fond of arguing amongst ourselves? Either way, we were surely all glad when the weekend arrived.
At least, that is, until we woke on Saturday to read of swivel-eyed-loon-gate, the latest in a seemingly unending series of ploys we seem to devise for tripping ourselves over. This sort of thing - the habit of distracting ourselves from what matters - has got to stop. The Conservatives were elected, albeit in insufficient numbers, to do a job. We hope to be elected in two years' time in rather greater numbers to implement a Tory manifesto in full. But we don't look as if either of those things is our priority. We need to pull ourselves out of what threatens to become a spiral of irrelevance. Here are some observations about our predicament.
Conservative Party members are decent, patriotic, industrious, generous, tolerant, charitable, open-minded, good-humoured, public-spirited and - if you discount their willingness to deliver leaflets and knock on doors in all weathers - sane. If someone at the top of the party suggested otherwise it would be worse than regrettable. At the same time, the outrage of some other senior Conservatives at what someone close to David Cameron may or may not have said about Tory activists would be more persuasive were it not for the things they themselves say to journalists about their own leader. I've often argued that it's counter-productive in politics to insult your opponent; it is disappointing to have to point out that the same applies to our own side. Let's all be a bit more civil.
Leaving aside the language, the row over the weekend exposes again a problem the party has not yet got the measure of. For all its virtues, the Conservative membership does not look the same as the rest of Britain. This is an observation, and a pretty inescapable one, not a criticism. Tory members are, by and large, older and better off than voters as a whole, and their political priorities do not always match those of the people we need to convince if we are to win. Political enthusiasm is itself a pretty unusual trait. To what extent, then, should a party be a vehicle for the views of its members, and how far should those members grin and bear some policies designed to broaden the party's overall appeal? It is a question Tories still grapple with.
It is time to remind the country, and ourselves, that our agenda extends beyond Europe and even beyond clearing up our predecessors' mess. I hope the leadership will return to the promising aspirational themes that fitfully emerge from Downing Street. As attention moves to the spending review, I hope the Government will find a way of explaining the end to which it is the means - that, to adapt Mr Brown, this is austerity with a purpose.
For this to have any effect, others need to show a willingness to get behind the Government. David Cameron must feel he can't win. Until recently, some Tory commentators were complaining that he paid too little heed to his backbenchers; now they complain that bending to their will shows a lack of leadership. Of course, going into politics for the praise would be as daft as going into it for the money.
The tragedy of the past fortnight is that we have a better story to tell on all sorts of fronts than you would ever guess. The Conservatives in government are doing good work on welfare reform, immigration, public services and the economy. It is time for all Tories to say so. After last week, voters will have heard that we want to give them a referendum on the EU. "OK," they say, "good. And what else?"
It would be self-indulgent to run through the multifarious arguments against this highly un-conservative piece of social engineering, and the long list of concerns have been expressed inside the Commons Chamber and outside via the media. As Conservative Grassroots, our great concern is that the Conservative Party membership is engaged and involved in the direction of the organisation to which we give our time, money and support. The Party is not only reliant on the many hard-working individuals who stuff envelopes, knock on doors and, indeed, cast votes - those people are the Party. However, in the presentation and execution of this Bill, our leadership has demonstrated no interest in the views of its members or the core Conservative vote. We will not be alone in our experience of angry activists rescinding their membership or the dismay of voters expressed during conversations on the doorstep.
People who have supported the party for decades have pledged never to vote Tory again as a result of this policy and its management. Whilst you can find polling to suit whichever position you favour, there have been a number that one might think would even worry those operating from Number 10. For examples see here and here.
These polls have clearly been ignored, but the figures that cannot be ignored are those that show UKIP trailing the Conservative Party by just ten points, following cataclysmic results in Eastleigh and the local elections. The response to this from David Cameron and Grant Shapps was to say that the message had been heard and understood - and changes would be made.
If Britain sends weapons to the Syrian opposition, we will take on risks that far outweigh whatever interest we have in seeing them triumph. The conflict is horrific, but it simply isn’t important enough to us for us to take on these risks. Britain should help topple brutal regimes only where it is in our interests to help and our help ought to be proportionate to those interests. We must do all we can to soften the humanitarian crisis, but otherwise, Syria should be kept at arm’s length.
This ‘realist’ prescription will seem coldblooded to many readers, even inhumane. How can someone be so selfishly detached in the face of such appalling crimes committed by the Assad regime; when tens-of-thousands of people are already dead? Something must be done and arming the rebels is something, therefore we must do it. And according to the Prime Minister, spreading our values is the same thing as pursuing our interests, thus it would be a perfectly proportional policy.
Whenever great tragedies occur in places like Libya or Syria, there are calls for Western intervention, and the debate over whether or not we should intervene is typically reduced to a matter of interests vs. values. Some, like Mr. Cameron, try to end the argument by claiming the two are synonymous. It is much more complicated, of course. We don’t have a mutually reinforcing set of values. ‘Spreading’ one can undermine others and governments must often make trade-offs between them. If Britain arms the Syrian opposition in order to ‘stop atrocities’ or ‘advance freedom’, then we will be forced to make trade-offs elsewhere – trade-offs that could undermine our moral credibility just as surely as Bosnia-esque inaction.
Adam Afriyie is the Member of Parliament for Windsor and Co-Chair of the 2020 Conservatives Economic Commission. He was Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation from 2007 to 2010.
I’m proud of our country and proud to be British. I am patriotic and I don’t mind who knows it. I love our country; I love our energy, invention, resilience and character and value our vibrant cities and bustling towns and villages. For me, Britain is the best place on earth.
Our leaders and people have shaped the world we know today. Our great inventors and scientists, architects and builders, educators and explorers, poets, writers, artists and musicians have contributed to the evolution of industry, global trade, technology, engineering, finance, healthcare, culture, politics, law and the arts. From Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope and Swan’s electric light bulb to Brunel’s bridges, Aspdin’s cement and Frank Whittle’s jet engine; from Fox Talbot’s photography, the telephone and television right up to the invention of the World Wide Web, Britons have always been pioneers; contributors to all that is best in the field of human development.
Stephen Barclay is the Member of Parliament for North East Cambridgeshire and a member of the Public Accounts Committee. Follow Stephen on Twitter.
Historic buildings and period architecture form the backbone of Britain’s thriving tourist industry. Quaint market towns and grand cityscapes have defined our built environment and shared national identity for centuries. Yet up and down the country, an estimated 730,000 homes and commercial buildings stand derelict and abandoned.
Neglected and dilapidated buildings blight the overall impression of a town centre, and have a damaging knock-on effect on local businesses and the value of neighbouring properties, as well as attracting vandalism, vermin, fly posting and problems of anti-social behaviour.
Walking around Wisbech in my North-East Cambridgeshire Constituency, it is clear that derelict properties left to decay without council intervention. and empty shop fronts where business rates have priced out entrepreneurs, pose a real threat to the safety and the survival of our town centres.
Bringing rundown buildings and commercial properties back to life should be right at the heart of plans to regenerate our towns and boost local economic development. Instead, residents and tourists are confronted with buildings which have been neglected for decades.
Greg Barker MP is Minister of State for Energy & Climate Change. Follow Greg on Twitter.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister moved another step closer to delivering his promise of real help for hardworking people on their energy bills. Following a consultation, the Government has decided to strengthen the Energy Bill further to deliver the Prime Minister's pledge.
People cannot go without gas and electricity ,and the cost of keeping warm puts a strain on many people. In Labour's last five years, the number of people in fuel poverty rose by 2.25 million. That is why last winter we gave two million low income and vulnerable households, including a million of the poorest pensioners, £130 off their energy bills through the Warm Homes Discount. We also helped over 12 million pensioners with winter fuel payments, and made cold weather payments open to over four million people. A modest fall in the number of households living in fuel poverty was confirmed on Wednesday, and while there is still far more to do the Coalition is making progress where Labour failed.
Yet everyone understands the need to go further. For hardworking people more needs to be done to make sure that, once their bills are paid, there's something left for them to spend on the things they want to.
When Parliamentary arithmetic forced the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to govern together in May 2010, many had cause to be concerned. First past the post had done its job of delivering Commons majorities for decades; the UK was more used to party leaders insulting each other from their dispatch boxes than sitting around a table thrashing out compromise.
More concerning still, the junior party in the arrangement had never seen power. Not a single Liberal Democrat MP had had the privilege of carrying a red box. How, wondered the civil servants whose job it is to be concerned about such things, would the party cope, putting aside the easy indiscipline of opposition to actually make decisions at a time of national economic crisis?
Three years in and those fears look to have been misplaced, in the true sense of the word. For it is not the the junior party that is cracking under the strain of government, but the Conservatives. The party of Winston Churchill, governing at a time of challenges not equalled since that leader, has been thrown into a tailspin by a mustard-trousered maverick who has taken to touring the country doling out shallow populism to apathetic voters.
That many Conservatives themselves had not seen power for over a decade is no doubt part of the explanation, with MPs forgetting some of the basic rules of politics: governing is tough, mid-term results are always bad, when living standards suffer expect your party to suffer too. So the (actually relatively small) Basil Fawlty contingent of the Parliamentary Conservative Party has seized the moment, hijacking an agenda with potentially wide electoral appeal to clog up Parliament and the airwaves with interminable discussions about their favourite subject of Europe.
Mark Prisk MP is Minister for Housing. Follow Mark on Twitter.
In the 80s, under Right to Buy, Magaret Thatcher helped millions of people living in council housing achieve their aspiration of owning a home - and I'm proud to be continuing that work today. However, it has not been easy. The Labour Party has continually shown that they are not on the side of aspiration, or of those who want to work hard and get on. When in power, they made a succession of cuts to Right to Buy, slashing the level of discounts and eligibility criteria for council housing tenants. They also failed to increase those discounts to reflect rising property prices, and as a result this vital rung on the property ladder was all but removed.
Fast forward to today - when the latest figures show that in the last year sales under the Right to Buy scheme have more than doubled to 5,942: the highest level for six years. And this hasn't happened accidentally. Unlike Labour, we've been determined to make it easier for those who've paid their rent and now want to buy their own home to do so.
Our reason for doing this? Because, as Conservatives, we don't believe that home ownership should be just for some: we want many to achieve that dream, and the Right to Buy allows people to do just that. It gives something back to the families who've worked hard and played by the rules, and that's why I'm so passionate about it. It allows people to make changes to their home without getting permission from the council, and to enjoy the independence which goes with that. The benefits of this extend far beyond four walls, giving people a sense of pride and ownership not just in their home, but in their street and neighbourhood, helping to build strong families and stable mixed communities.
Are men a political issue? Diane Abbott certainly thinks so. In a speech to the think tank Demos (where I work) she claimed yesterday that masculinity is 'in crisis' in modern Britain and that this has implications for politicians and policy makers. Now I'm not given to agreeing with Diane Abbott but, on this, I think she raises an important and interesting set of questions - even if, sometimes, it feels as though she's not so much concerned about men as appalled by them.
It is true that being a modern man is less than straightforward. Why, for instance, are men far more likely to kill themselves, and more likely to die of preventable and treatable cancers, than are their wives, sisters and mothers? Why are boys increasingly outperformed at school and in work by their female peers? Why are modern men so prone to stress, depression and mental health problems, and yet so much less likely than women to seek the help they might need?
Young men in Britain are exposed to a bewildering set of expectations and influences, some ancient and some modern. Sexual norms may be slowly but significantly changed by access to vast, niche and sometimes extreme pornography. The 'provider' role, for so long core to male self-image, has been undermined for many men by the feminisation of the workplace (both in personnel and in character). The 'Superdad' demands placed on the modern, feminist father - caring and chore-sharing but also hard working and earning - makes for a life that is bewildering, full and plagued by contradictions for many men. Having a Y chromosome is no longer the personal and professional advantage that it once, undoubtedly, was.
Much of this is to the good. Who, but the most vehemently reactionary amongst us, would want to kick women out of the workplace? Who, but the most hopelessly optimistic, believes that we will so rapidly and effectively replace our devastated manufacturing base that it will match the more feminised and booming service sector? Who, except for those of us prone to reckless authoritarianism, would argue that we can eliminate online porn and return young men to an age of supposed sexual innocence.
Nick Herbert is the MP for Arundel and a former Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice. Follow Nick on Twitter.
John Stuart Mill held "that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Take, then, the Quakers, who wish to conduct gay marriages. At present the law forbids them from doing so. What harm will it do to others, or to society, to allow Quakers to solemnise a marriage between two people who love each other and want to commit to a faithful, lifelong partnership?
The answer, say those who are concerned about same sex marriage, is that allowing gays to marry will change the meaning of the institution for all married couples. This is what the Defence Secretary claimed on Question Time last night. But how? How, precisely, would the the wedding of two people of the same sex in Weybridge change or devalue Philip Hammond's own marriage?
There are sincere concerns about the proposed change of the law which it was right to answer. The faith groups who opposed gay marriages wanted reassurance that they would not be forced to conduct them. That principle of religious freedom is a precious one. I would not have supported the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill if it had not provided unequivocal protection to churches, mosques and synagogues who disagree. Amendments which the House of Commons will consider on Monday and Tuesday next week to underline these safeguards, and protect freedom of conscience, are well intended and deserve careful consideration.
I'm afraid that other arguments have been less respectable. We've been told that gay marriages won't require consummation and adultery will be permitted. Actually, heterosexual marriages don't have to be consummated to be legal. The marriage of a couple who cannot have either sex or children is not invalid. And unreasonable behaviour is cited in most divorces, not adultery. Such a claim will apply to gay marriages, too. The implication that gays want marriages from which they can cheat, or that the relationship of gay partners is more akin to the affection between siblings than the bond between a married couple, is awful.
Last week, Lord Dear told the House of Lords that there was "overwhelming evidence of the depth of feeling in the general population against the Bill." One might have expected a former chief constable to have more regard for the evidence, which is that literally every poll has shown a majority for the reform, bar those conducted for the anti-gay marriage lobby. Not content with his calumny, he then proceeded to claim that the Bill would "create such opposition to homosexuals in general that the climate of tolerance and acceptance in this country ... could well be set back by decades." Has Lord Dear stopped to consider why gay people should want this Bill at all if such an outcome were likely? On his absurd logic, blacks would not have recovered from the abolition of slavery and women would regret being given the vote.
Some of the amendments tabled for next week have a superficial attraction, but bear closer scrutiny. One proposal is that heterosexual couples should be able to enter civil partnerships on grounds of equality with gays. I see the point, but I'm not convinced that there is any real demand for such a status, and anyway there won't be equality while so many doors remain closed to gay people: neither the Church of England nor the Catholic Church will allow gay marriages. Gay people like me entered into a civil partnership not because we chose or preferred that name, but because we were not permitted to get married.
I am worried that the effect of passing an apparently simple amendment which, in reality, has far-reaching consequences could be to disrupt the Bill. And while some are genuinely committed to the principle of extending civil partnerships, others who opposed the Bill, but have suddenly developed a new-found attachment to equality, may have less benign motives. I think it would be better to consider the future of civil partnerships for gay and heterosexual couples alike after a short period of seeing the new law in effect.
Since Second Reading of the Bill in February, the parliaments of France and New Zealand have passed same sex marriage laws, bringing the total number of countries to 15. Only this week, Delaware and Minnesota became the latest US states to allow the freedom to marry: 12 states and the District of Columbia now do so. Across much of the western world, the tide of change on equal marriage is running astonishingly rapidly, because public attitudes to gay people are changing at the same rate. Younger people can't understand what all the fuss is about. This has not been an easy reform for many good and loyal Conservatives to accept, and I am sorry that it has caused disagreement in our Party, but just as civil partnerships were opposed at the time yet became widely accepted very quickly, so I believe will gay marriage. Losing touch with the new generation of our electorate would produce a different and far more dangerous kind of pain.
Issues of conscience often divide MPs, and this one has been no exception. Yet the majority for the Bill on a free vote at Second Reading in the Commons was substantial, a fact of which opponents of the Bill are aware and the Lords cannot easily or by convention ignore. Whatever the disagreement between Conservative MPs on this issue, most of us share a common ambition to move on and focus on the challenge of winning the next election. There are important issues of detail to discuss next week, and the Lords always has the valuable job of scrutinising legislation, but if as expected the Bill receives a Third Reading on Tuesday evening, it will be time to accept the democratic will. No-one will be forced to enter a gay marriage, and no church will be forced to conduct a gay marriage. No harm will be done, but in allowing loving couples to be admitted to one of our most important institutions, and sending a signal about the place of gay people in society today, we will have done much good.
Tim Loughton is the Member of Parliament for East Worthing and Shoreham, and was Parliamentary Under Secretary for Children and Families from 2010 until 2012. Follow Tim on Twitter.
David Burrowes set out the stall for those of us who have opposed the Same Sex Marriage Bill in his excellent piece for Conservative Home on Monday. It remains to be seen whether tentative steps by the Government to introduce limited safeguards against some of the many concerns that we raised in committee about those in public service with conscience objections finding themselves out of a job will actually hold water.
However, there is one amendment to the Report Stage of the Bill which I have tabled for next week around which opponents and supporters of the principle of same sex marriage can all rally. It addresses a real inequality that will be created if the Bill becomes law. A specially commissioned opinion poll coming out over the weekend indicates strong support for the change across the House and outside the House. That change is to extend civil partnerships to opposite sex couples.
If same sex marriage becomes law, then gay couples will have the choice either to go for the newly acquired right to marry or to join a new civil partnership or maintain an existing one. Conversely opposite sex couples will only have the option to marry, albeit in a wider range of religious or civil institutions. A Bill which is being pushed through (wrongly in my view) as an equality measure will therefore actually create a new and substantial inequality.
Cheryl Gillan is the Member of Parliament for Chesham and Amersham. Follow Cheryl on Twitter.
Today’s National Audit Office report into High Speed 2 will set off alarm bells all across Government and should bring about a major rethink of the Government’s transport policy.
The 50-page report was understatedly damning of the preparation for HS2, exposing fundamental flaws in the project and the project team. It confirmed that Government had failed to set out clear and cohesive strategic objectives and, more worryingly, highlighted the serious doubts over the ability and capacity of both the Department of Transport and its subsidiary company, HS2 Ltd, to successfully deliver the project.
The NAO judged the timetable to be overly ambitious and it has already resulted in mistakes being made by the Department on the benefit-cost calculations. The intention to introduce a Hybrid Bill in October 2013 seems now to be impossible and, therefore, it will likewise be impossible that this legislation will be passed before the next General Election. Over ambitious timetabling was also one of the contributory factors to the failure of the West Coast Mainline franchise and it would appear that the Department of Transport has failed to learn from its mistakes.
The Department comes under criticism for failure to engage adequately with stakeholders and it would even appear that it is failing to address criticisms from its own internal auditors. It is claimed that there are more than just a few problems with finding enough staff of the right calibre to give people the confidence that this project will be well implemented.
The service customers obtain from state-run post offices is often abysmal – a relic of how state services were run in the 1970s. Privatising the state post offices is highly desirable from a taxpayers’ point of view (£103 million subsidy for £61 million trading profit), but politically toxic. This is reflected in the Coalition Agreement: the Royal Mail Group Ltd (which provides universal postal service) will be privatised, but Post Office Ltd (which runs post offices) won’t. However, the political difficulty of privatising the post offices cannot be an excuse for the inept way in which they are run today.
I occasionally have to go to the post office to have packages weighed, etc. For this I’ve used post offices in London (Vauxhall Bridge Road, Charing Cross, and Victoria Street) and Kent (Sittingbourne). Almost every time there is a long queue. I attach a photo of the Vauxhall Bridge post office, taken on Tuesday at 2:55 p.m. A queue of about 25 people stretched out onto the street and persisted unabated throughout the time I was there (about 40 minutes). And no – it wasn’t Christmas.
Imagine trying to drive to Sheffield or Leeds without the M1. Or getting to Canary Wharf in east London on the Tube without the Jubilee line. Or navigating around London without the M25. It would not only be a nightmare - a country without these things would be stuck in the slow lane. We’d be poorer, more divided and far less able to compete with places like China that are charging ahead.
That’s why today no-one seriously suggests that it was a mistake to build the M25. At the time, though, it was a different story. The bean counters fretted and the press complained. Was new infrastructure really a good use of money, they asked? Did we need it at all? After all, in all the examples above, cost-benefit analysis suggested the economic return might be no better, and in some cases worse, than we predict for the new high speed two line we will build between our great cities.
The Government was right to press on and build them, just as it built the High Speed One line from the Channel Tunnel to London. It carried the crowds to the Olympic Games in East London and has now brought great companies like Google to invest in Britain, with a new European HQ just by the high speed station. We must think big, invest well and get on with the job of getting our country’s transport up to scratch. We need some renewed Victorian vigour and vision – the can-do spirit that built Britain.
James Duddridge is the Member of Parliament for Rochford and Southend East and previously worked in Africa prior to entering parliament in 2005. Follow James on Twitter.
For many, life in Africa is moving forward. Recent development indicators published by the World Bank show that in Sub-Saharan Africa GDP has risen every year since 2000, averaging 5.8% annual growth. Those are quite remarkable figures given the turbulent global economic environment of the last decade. The irony however is that probably the richest and most heavily resourced country of all within the region has benefited so few of its people and savaged so many. I am, of course, talking about Zimbabwe.
In 2008 there was a palpable expectation from the citizens of Zimbabwe that they were, finally, going to be able to vote for change in their country and alleviate themselves from three decades of a tyrannical regime. Unfortunately, Robert Mugabe and his party, ZANU PF, had other plans. Despite every indication that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, had won by a landslide, a run-off was set with Robert Mugabe after the vote count conveniently recorded Tsvangirai as falling just short of the 50% required to form a Government. Over the next two months Mugabe and his Zanu PF supporters unleashed a campaign of terror and violence across the country, unparralled in its brutality even by Mugabe’s standards. Many opposition supporters were killed, and others – including Tsvangirai himself – were so savagely beaten they were left unrecognisable.
In the end, Tsvangirai fell on his sword to prevent any further killings of his supporters and Mugabe was once again declared the victor and the power sharing Government of National Unity was formed. Five years later, the Government of National Unity has certainly improved the situation in Zimbabwe; there have been four years of steady economic growth following 10 years of economic contraction, inflation has been reduced from 231,000,000% to less than 4.5% and last month a new constitution – which includes limited presidential terms – was approved. Much of these achievements are down to the efforts of Tendai Biti, the Zimbabwean Finance Minister. With both parties now accepting that the Government of National Unity has run its course, the country once again stands at cross roads.
One longstanding MDC supporter recently said , "we really are on the edge here. We have an opportunity now to kick on from the last five years work and get Zimbabwe back on its feet and back to prosperity. If we can once again become a viable destination for foreign investment, and get business working again, then all Zimbabweans will benefit. If we see what we saw in 2008, or a ZANU victory then God help us. We’ll be forgotten, and end up like the DRC." And it's because of this very real concern that it is so important we, the British Government, and the wider international community, particularly SADC and South African President, Jacob Zuma, do everything we can to ensure the upcoming polls are bonafide and as the people want. This means international election observers are critical, as is ensuring all political parties will be held accountable for their actions, as Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d'Ivoire.
The recent passing of the new constitution in Zimbabwe is reassuring, but it is right for the MDC leadership to demand certain reforms are implemented prior to the country going to the polls, most notably amongst the security sector where worrying signs have already started to emerge that intimidation seen in 2008 is resurfacing.
Whilst there will be some who think Zimbabwe should no longer be a priority for the UK’s foreign policy, particularly with recent news of chemical weapons in being used in Syria, a nuclear North Korea and the threat of Islamic rebels spreading across North Africa, that is to miss a vital point. Where do you think countries like Iran and North Korea are turning to for uranium and other resource supplies? Where do you think the millions of dollars of diamonds revenues are going? We need to look at the longer term and problems around the corner.
The upcoming elections do not just offer the people of Zimbabwe hope, they offer the UK a chance to show it remains very much at the forefront of global foreign policy; with a democratically elected Government in power, Zimbabwe can be a major strategic ally to the west. Let’s remember, after all, that the average Zimbabwean is far more interested in a decent education, Manchester United and Nike trainers than they are with religious extremism or the development of nuclear arsenals. It is important we ensure there are free and fair elections so the people of Zimbabwe can decide.