Conservative Diary

Frontbench

8 Jul 2013 07:40:47

"What do they do all day?" Theresa May's struggle to make the Home Office fit for purpose

May Theresa Home Office
By Paul Goodman

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"Well done, Mrs May," says the Express this morning.  "Well done, Mrs May," echoes the Mail. (Or perhaps it's the other way round.) "The best Home Secretary in years, declares the SunThe Times (£) is more restrained: "Abu Qatada’s scrupulously legal expulsion shows the vitality of democratic values," it says.  The Guardian's Patrick Wintour reports that "calmness, sheer determination, thoroughness and prime ministerial were among the many plaudits being sent [May's] way". The editorial praise would have been mirrored by front page headlines had not the terror suspect been flown out of Britain in the early hours of Sunday morning, too late for that day's papers, and had Andy Murray not scooped Wimbledon yesterday.

None the less, the explusion of Qatada has been a political coup for the Home Secretary.  It follows falls in both gross and net immigration; a drop in the crime figures - despite the spending scaleback - and the (admittedly shaky) introduction of police commissioners.  All this has been managed from a department notorious for shredding the Secretaries of State who run it.  Charles Clarke resigned after the bungled release of foreign prisoners.  David Blunkett was forced out after a rumpus about his nanny's visa.  Jacqui Smith wished afterwards that she had had "training" for the post.  John Reid branded the department over which he presided "not fit for purpose".  How has Mrs May flourished, at least to date, where her predecessors failed?

Continue reading ""What do they do all day?" Theresa May's struggle to make the Home Office fit for purpose" »

7 Jul 2013 08:04:50

Theresa May, Strong Woman

May Theresa Home Office
By Paul Goodman

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Abu Qatada could have launched a last ditch legal appeal, rather than get on that plane from RAF Northholt.  Why didn't he?  Perhaps life in Belmarsh was proving unpleasant.  Perhaps he and his family were slowly ground down by all the negative publicity and its consequences.  Perhaps he simply thought he'd lose in court.  But whether so or not, he and his lawyers must certainly have been persuaded that he will now get a fair trial in Jordan.  And the factor that would have made the difference in this calculation would have been the new treaty between Britain and Jordan, drawn up after months of toil by James Brokenshire and Theresa May.

This is a huge moment for the Home Secretary.  She has already notched up Abu Hamza on her office wall.  Now she can add the name of Abu Qatada, one of Al Qaeda's most senior players.  The Government's critics will say that we shouldn't be in the ECHR at all and that, were we not, Qatada would have been forcibly deported many years ago.  They are undoubtedly right on the first point, and probably so, too, on the second, since our courts have twice upheld efforts to expel him.  But they are missing an important point.  The word on the street is that Britain's politicians are lost amidst a swamp of human rights laws - to the scorn of benefit-claiming terrorists.

Continue reading "Theresa May, Strong Woman" »

28 Jun 2013 10:53:24

Is the Defence Secretary really on manoeuvres?

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-06-28 at 09.58.42What is the best course to take in an interview if your name has been touted as a future Conservative leader - and you might not be averse to the prospect? Phillip Hammond provides a masterclass of how to navigate such choppy waters in his interview with Paul Waugh in this week's House magazine.

  • Deflate your prospects - but deny nothing. "Well I think they probably haven’t checked my birth certificate. I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for that kind of thing. Look, I’ll be nearly 60 by the time of the next election.”
  • Attack the LibDems: it never does any harm. “I think it’s people who want to cut spending on the deterrent and really don’t care about maintaining our deterrent capability. That’s not naivety, that’s recklessness with Britain’s national security.”
  • If asked about your state school education, remind readers that you're not a posh boy (and know the price of milk). "I could give you, if you wanted, a list of very expensive public schools that don’t provide a very good education."
  • If portrayed as a Guardian reader, threaten to sue. "The scruffy hair, the tie undone, I’ll accept all of that... But what I absolutely will not accept is the Guardian under my arm. Never in a million years. Actually, I went through a phase of being an FT reader at school.

But is the Defence Secretary really "on manoeuvres"?  An important difference between Hammond and those others mentioned in the same breath as the leadership - Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Theresa May - is that there is no suggestion, no sign of a Hammond team: of an operation that works on his behalf.  (Up to a point, this is also true of the Education Secretary.)

His public demand for a further scaleback in welfare spending can be seen simply as a Minister defending his Department.  And his following in Gove's footsteps on how he'd vote in an In/Out EU referendum were one held today could be read as a man speaking his mind - as could his vocal criticism of Downing Street over same-sex marriage.

None the less, the accumulation of events is suggestive.  But what's good for the goose is good for the gander: having written earlier this morning that it's too early to take a firm view about Boris, it follows that it's too early to take a view on anyone else.  And Hammond has work to do: keeping our armed forces out of the Syrian swamp, for a start.

8 Jun 2013 19:43:31

Why is every Conservative Secretary of State who's a woman being tipped for the sack? (Bar one.)

By Paul Goodman
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This morning's Sun listed the following Ministers as being at risk in a reshuffle: Philip Hammond, Oliver Letwin, Justine Greening, Maria Miller, Andrew Robathan, Theresa Villiers and Helen Grant. The Times (£) also listed Greening in its report, and its worth noting that the reports of the two Murdoch papers overlapped significantly. (Both referred to a possible comeback by Liam Fox.)

Does anything in that list jump out at you?  Something does to me - namely, that if the Sun and Times are correct, every female Conservative Secretary of State except Theresa May could leave the Cabinet this summer.  And remember, David Cameron has already sacked two woman Tory Secretaries of State - Cheryl Gillan and Caroline Spelman.

It may be that the Murdoch papers have the wrong end of the stick - though, either way, they have plainly fired the starting-gun on the summer round of reshuffle speculation.  Or it may be again that they are correct in every particular, but that any woman Conservative who leaves the Cabinet will be replaced by another female Tory.

Continue reading "Why is every Conservative Secretary of State who's a woman being tipped for the sack? (Bar one.)" »

7 Jun 2013 06:33:54

Will Maria Miller's case for the arts win over George Osborne?

By Paul Goodman
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MILLER MARIA STANDINGIn Othello, Iago suggests to the Moor that ideas can have value, but that money has none: "Who steals my purse steals trash. 'Tis something, nothing:/'Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands."  The audience knows as it listens that the man is manipulating his master - that although Iago has just told Othello that good name is an "immediate jewel" of the soul, he earlier said to Cassio that "reputation is an idle and most false imposition".  But Shakespeare's words have a life beyond the motives of those who speak them, and Iago's rubbishing of money and praise of reputation is an unforgettable expression of the notion that there some things that money can't buy.

This is also the view, pretty much, of those who stalk the commanding heights of Britain's cultural life - its concert halls and theatres and cinemas and libraries and museums and opera houses.  Their belief that art is worth more than money sits comfortably alongside their conviction that it none the less needs a lot of it (courtesy of the taxpayer).  In principle, they have a point, and anyone who doubts it should see Nicholas Hynter's mesmerising production of Othello at the National Theatre - proof that state subsidy can sometimes produce brilliant results.  In practice, though, there are a thousand qualifications, ranging from the obvious rejoinder that most subsidised art isn't as outstanding as Hynter's to the inescapable fact that the arts must shoulder part of the burden of deficit reduction.  Rightly or wrongly, voters value hospital theatres above artistic ones.

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22 May 2013 06:57:24

Three ways for Cameron to get back on the front foot - and stay there

By Paul Goodman
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Cameron heart tshirt 2Here are three measures that, if implemented -

  • Will help to quell the charge that the Party is being led by a "Chumocracy" unrepresentative of its MPs and members.
  • Will stop David Cameron being ambushed by Conservative backbenchers on EU policy, as he was by John Baron's amendment to the Queen's Speech.
  • Will thus prevent these two problems from inter-acting with each other to suggest that the Party is divided.  (If a perception of division persists, victory in 2015 will certainly be impossible.)

They are as follows:

  • The Prime Minister should create an Inner Cabinet - to build collective Party leadership and kill the Downing Street chumocracy charge As I've previously explained, the Cabinet is too big: 32 people are entitled to attend it.  And the Quad, at only two people, is too small (besides, two of its members are Liberal Democrats - giving the junior Coalition partner equal representation at the top, a cause of Tory resentment).  The Prime Minister needs a Conservative Inner Cabinet which meets weekly to shape policy and make decisions.  Attendance should be formal and collegiate, with the following membership: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Leader of the House, the Chief Whip and the Party Chairman.  Obviously, the right people are needed to fill those posts - but that's a matter for another day.  What matters is that membership of the Inner Cabinet should be strictly related to Ministerial and Party function, and that it should consist of senior politicians only.
  • The standing, morale and effectiveness of the Whips Office should be raised by it becoming a vehicle for promotion - not sacking.  The natural complement to an Inner Cabinet - and thus proper collective leadership - is a Whips Office with real authority.  That able MPs such as Dominic Raab, Ben Wallace and Rob Wilson turned posts in it down at the last resuffle, as was reportedly the case, is a sign that something is wrong.  Perhaps there was a connection with the fact that several Whips simply left the office at the same time: James Duddridge, Brooks Newmark, Shailesh Vara, Bill Wiggin.  There are always special circumstances, but the status of the Whips Office was not raised by so many of its members failing to move on to Ministerial posts.  Cameron will also need a new Chief Whip, since Sir George Young - loyal trooper that he is - only returned to the Cabinet to help the Prime Minister out.  Again, who his replacement should be is a matter for another day.  Enough for today to point out that improving the standing and effectiveness of the Whips Office must be a priority.
  • The Prime Minister can't cure his EU problem until he grips it.  As a wise old hand put it to me, Cameron mistook his EU referendum speech for a process.  He hoped by offering his Party an In-Out referendum to halt internal Party debate on Europe - at least for a while.  The gambit failed.  And it won't succeed while his stance on the repatriation of powers is unresolved.  The lesson of last week is that if the Prime Minister hopes that the Government's review of EU competences and the Party's own manifesto formation will quiet discussion of renegotiation policy within his Party until 2014, he is mistaken.  Two courses of action are open to him.  The first is to make it clear that he favours a minimal repatriation of power after 2015 - social and employment policy plus protection for the City, perhaps.  The second is to put Conservative policy-making on renegotiation in the hands of his Party - the 1922 Committee, the Conservative Policy Forum, and so on - and accept that what would emerge would be, most likely, "Common Market or Out".

Having been in the Commons for the best part of ten years, I appreciate that logic isn't everything in politics: sometimes, even often, there's a role for fudge.  But a lesson of so much that's happened to Cameron on EU policy - from the dropping of the Lisbon referendum commitment in opposition to the EU referendum revolt last week - is that by consistently seeking to put off making decisions on the EU issue, the Prime Minister has merely stored up trouble for himself later.

Continue reading "Three ways for Cameron to get back on the front foot - and stay there" »

19 May 2013 08:10:41

Lord Feldman should ring each Conservative Association Chairman to thank local activists for their work

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-19 at 08.05.37This weekend of the “mad, swivel-eyed loons” row will swiftly be followed by Commons debate on the same-sex marriage bill. Will Conservative MPs accept Lord Feldman's denial, view the incident as yet another instance of media irresponsbility, and look more sympathetically on the measure - on which David Cameron has staked part of his political reputation?  Or will the report only harden the opposition to it - since some will conclude, regardless of what they think of Lord Feldman's denial, that his words represent what Downing Street thinks anyway?

The answer will become clear over the next few days.  What is evident this morning, however, is that what Cabinet Ministers do and say about the bill will be watched very closely indeed.  The Sunday Telegraph confirms that Chris Grayling will support amendments that aim to protect people who work in the public sector and believe that marriage is between men and women - and that Owen Paterson and David Jones will oppose the bill at Third Reading.  The logical extension of Philip Hammond's pointed remarks on Question Time last week is that he should, too.

Continue reading "Lord Feldman should ring each Conservative Association Chairman to thank local activists for their work" »

17 May 2013 08:03:32

How Jeremy Hunt plans to improve the NHS (and boost his own standing)

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 07.59.52The Financial Times this morning reports the conduct of a Cabinet Minister who arrived at his Department in a position of strength. Philip Hammond is digging in over cuts to his budget.  Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reports the plans of another, who came to his Department in a position of weakness.  Jeremy Hunt is planning for prescriptions to be available online.  The latter Minister is more exposed to public wrath than the former. Rightly or wrongly, voters are more concerned about the NHS than defence, and the Conservatives have long been targetted on the health service by their opponents.  Remember Tony Blair claiming in 1997 that Britain had a fortnight to save the NHS?

Tim Montgomerie set out on this site last year how the Health Secretary aims "to be angrier than any voter at NHS failures".  But Hunt's plan to champion the interests of patients is only part of his larger strategy to improve the health service - and, in the process, leave the Department stronger than when he arrived. To understand it, it's essential to grasp that the NHS is experiencing the tightest financial squeeze in its history: its budget may be protected, but the rise is planned to be 0.1% a year until 2015.  Like other western countries, Britain is experiencing a rise in the number and proportion of older people, and is struggling to contain the health costs that follow.

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11 May 2013 17:13:25

Duncan Smith, Gove, Hague, Hammond and Grayling top the latest Cabinet league table

By Peter Hoskin
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Below is the Cabinet league table derived from our latest survey of Conservative party members. It’s rather traditional for IDS, Michael Gove and William Hague to be at the top – and for Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Ed Davey to be at the bottom – so I’ll highlight three other things that stand out to my eyes:

  • Theresa May has become markedly more popular since the survey we conducted at the end of last year. The intervening period, of course, featured her speech to the ConHome Victory 2015 conference, as well as some strong words on the ECHR and resistance to further spending cuts for her department. Another member of the “National Union of Ministers” – namely, Philip Hammond – has also performed well.
  • Grant Shapps scores a meagre +12. The Tory chairmanship is still an uneasy role.    
  • George Osborne has recovered some of the popularity he lost last year, perhaps as a result of a Budget that was considerably more stable than its predecessor. But he’s still outranked by Danny Alexander. Indeed, in the background figures, more Tory members (62.8%) are satisfied with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury than with the Chancellor (58.6).

Anyway, here’s the full table:

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Just under 2,000 people responded to the survey, of whom over 900 were Conservative Party members. The figures above are taken from the latter's views.

7 May 2013 16:41:46

Boris remains the activists' favourite to succeed Cameron as Party leader

By Paul Goodman
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Boris_Cameron8According to the latest ConservativeHome survey, the figures are:

  • Boris Johnson: 30%
  • Michael Gove: 17%
  • David Davis: 16%
  • William Hague: 16%
  • Theresa May: 12%
  • Philip Hammond: 6%
  • Adam Afriyie: 2%
  • George Osborne: 2%

The Davis support is hardcore.  When asked who should lead the Party into the next election, 14% of respondents name him. 15% plump for Boris.

But the overwhelming favourite to lead the Conservatives into the next election is...David Cameron, with over half the vote: 55% to be precise.

Apart from Davis and Boris, no other leading Tory gets out of single figures.  William Hague comes the closest, at just over 5%.

Just under 1850 people responded to the survey, of whom over 800 were Conservative Party members. The figures above are taken from the latter's views.