2021 local elections – to be or not to be?

GUEST POST: Joshua Woolliscroft is an Account Manager at MPC. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

For amateur and professional psephologists alike, this year’s local elections – if they go ahead – look set to be more exciting than usual. Not only is this the first electoral clash between the Prime Minister and Sir Keir Starmer, it is also a double batch with the 2020 cancelled contests rolled into one.

The big question is has the Government’s handling of the pandemic had an impact on its overall popularity? And, perhaps more crucially, will the successful roll out of the vaccine and the signing of the Brexit trade deal give Boris Johnson a surprise bounce?

Looking back at 2016 and 2017 – when these elections last took place – you see two very different pictures. 2016 was the swan song of David Cameron’s premiership, his last tilt at the polls ahead of the EU referendum. The election saw a swing against the Conservatives, leading to the loss of 50 councillors and one council. Conversely, in 2017, Theresa May took 11 councils; skewering UKIP on the right and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour on the left.

Although a notoriously inaccurate indication of local voting intention, the polls are stubbornly tied with the Government and HM Opposition jockeying for a one-point lead. CCHQ may be hoping for a repeat of 2016, where Labour squeaked a narrow lead with very little to show for it. While the launch of the Reform Party could chip away at vulnerable authorities, no one – except for Nigel Farage – is expecting a serious challenge from them right now.

Assuming the roll out of the vaccine remains on track throughout Winter and into Spring, the electorate may, just might, vote Conservative. Equally, delays or a perception of mismanagement could lead to a vengeful public seeing Labour as a slightly safer choice.

It is often said that the electorate is capable of anger, but rarely gratitude. A good day for the Prime Minister should be one the pundits barely notice, shaving a few councils and retaining most mayoralties. There has been a lot of talk about momentum in British politics. An average to fair result for the Tories in May (or later) could sap some much needed energy from Labour.

Hard as it is to believe, the first rays of a post Covid-19 morning could be on the horizon. If the Government wants to be re-elected in 2024, they need to seize the initiative of that new dawn. Avoiding a disaster this year should be the first step in the right direction.

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This piece was written for our website. 

A lockdown readathon

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications

Having badgered folks to read more books during the lockdowns, I decided to practice what I was preaching and make a note of everything I got through (all 36 of them – circa 11,000 pages). The only sequence to the below is the order in which I finished them. This list combines non-fiction and fiction titles as well as political and non-political genres.

For consistency, all links direct to publisher sites or Amazon. For availability, check with your independent bookseller before online retailers. Book information relates to the copies I own.

1. The MAGA Doctrine: The Only Ideas That Will Win the Future by Charlie Kirk

HarperCollins | 2020 | Hardback | 256 pages            

Love him or loathe him, Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the US; but, how did we end up here? Turning Point USA’s founder-president sets out the ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) stall – the movement that brought Trump to The White House – and how he intends to win a second term (clue: ‘Keep America Great’ is the new slogan).

Rating: 3 out of 5.

2. National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell & Matthew Goodwin

Penguin | 2018 | Paperback | 384 pages

Professor Goodwin brought up ‘national populism’ – the 21st century conundrum, including MAGA, that’s challenging mainstream politics – at the Conservatives in Communications Spring 2020 Reception. This text goes further – beyond lazy stereotypes of Brexit and Trump supporters – and looks at what is next: will Matteo Salvini become the next Prime Minister of Italy?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

3. Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

Atlantic | 2009 | Paperback | 256 pages

Set in 1980s Italy – in fact, the film was directed about an hour from Salvini’s hometown of Milan – this real page-turner centres on the blossoming relationship between an intellectually precocious and curious teenager, Elio, and a visiting scholar, Oliver. It chronicles their short, summer romance and the 20 years that follow, which is developed in the sequel ‘Find Me’.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

4. Find Me by André Aciman

Faber & Faber | 2019 | Hardback | 272 pages

Billed as the sequel to ‘Call Me by Your Name’, this novel focuses on three romances: that of Elio’s father and a younger woman, called Miranda; that of Elio and an older man, called Michel; and that of Elio and yes, Oliver. If you discovered the former, you should definitely read this; though a word of warning… manage your expectations!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

5. The Gatekeeper by Kate Fall

HarperCollins | 2020 | Hardback | 272 pages

The Baroness was at the heart of David Cameron’s administration for over a decade. As one of the former Prime Minister’s most trusted advisers (Deputy Chief of Staff), this is a must-read for any past, current and wannabe media or policy SpAd. It is full to the brim with snippets of information, including several new revelations.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

6. Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us by Donald Trump Jr.

Center Street | 2019 | Hardback | 304 pages

This isn’t elegant prose, but it’s a wide-ranging and colourful book – think Boris Johnson and Jeremy Clarkson on speed – that covers everything from his childhood to the present day and beyond. If you follow him on social media and you’re (i) right-leaning – you will love it, but if you’re (ii) anything else – I can’t really guarantee your reaction.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

7. Friends, Voters, Countrymen: Jottings on the Stump by Boris Johnson

HarperCollins | 2002 | Paperback | 288 pages

Like ‘The Gatekeeper’ – albeit early on in his career – this memoir, of his campaign to become the MP for Henley and endorsed by Jeremy Paxman, is essential reading for any Tory candidate. It is both educational and entertaining, and reflective of his personal style for The Telegraph and The Spectator, including phrases that are now synonymous with him.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

8. The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray

Bloomsbury | 2018 | Paperback | 384 pages

The Literary Review is spot on here: “Disagree passionately if you will, but you won’t regret reading it.” The author dares to tread where others have avoided like the plague – focusing on three traditionally sensitive topics – however, in my opinion, he does it all rather well; although, perhaps, it could have been written with half as many words.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

9. Seventy Two Virgins by Boris Johnson

HarperCollins | 2005 | Paperback | 336 pages

Now Shadow Arts Minister, this was his first novel to be published, thereby making him the third novelist – after Disraeli and Churchill – to become Prime Minister. POTUS is set to address both Houses of Parliament and there’s an Islamist terrorist plot to assassinate him. Roger Barlow, a hapless backbench MP (hapless like the book), aims to foil the attack to distract from a scandal.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

10. Matteo Salvini: Italy, Europe and the New Right by Alessandro Franzi & Alessandro Madron

goWare | 2019 | Paperback | 104 pages

This is a map that seeks to answer one simple question: who is Matteo Salvini, really? As both Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior (in 2018) the number of non-European illegal immigrants to land in Italy fell by 100,000, and – if current polls are to be believed and his digital and media strategy is anything to go by – he is on course to become their next prime minister.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

11. Have I Got Views for You by Boris Johnson

HarperCollins | 2008 | Paperback | 448 pages            

Published just after he was elected as Mayor of London (first term), this is an anthology of some of his best articles for The Daily Telegraph – such as observations on British society and foreign affairs (including China) – coupled with several new hits. As with both ‘Friends, Voters, Countrymen’ and ‘The Churchill Factor’, this is educational, entertaining and easy to read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

12. Positive Populism: Revolutionary Ideas to Rebuild Economic Security, Family, and Community in America by Steve Hilton

Penguin | 2018 | Hardback | 240 pages

Along with another Steve (Bannon) and Dominic Cummings, Hilton is one of the political mavericks of our age. Here – in a similar vein to his ‘Invitation to Join the Government of Britain’ (Conservative Party 2010 manifesto) – he begins with an ‘invitation for you to participate in the next revolution’ and puts forward interesting ideas on the economy, society and government.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

13. The Dream of Rome by Boris Johnson

HarperCollins | 2007 | Paperback | 304 pages

Now Shadow Education Minister, here, he discusses how the Roman Empire achieved political and cultural unity in Europe, and compares it to the failure of the European Union to do the same. Not usually one for historical books, this is both an authoritative and amusing study – with plenty of lessons for all of us – and I read it in a few sittings.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

14. The Wages of Spin by Bernard Ingham

John Murray | 2003 | Hardback | 272 pages

This week marks over three decades since Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Sir Bernard’s a journalist and former civil servant, who served as the Iron Lady’s Chief Press Secretary throughout her time in No10. We hear first-hand (and slowly) how spin-doctoring developed, from the man who is wrongly attributed with its invention.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

15. Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can Win the Battle on Campus and Why It Matters by Charlie Kirk

Post Hill Press | 2018 | Hardback | 160 pages

I’d read mixed reviews about this, but purchased a copy, since I enjoyed ‘The MAGA Doctrine’ and wanted to see whether Charlie’s experiences resonated with my own young conservative days. Bit pricey, considering how short the text is; however, there’s good intention and some decent content – if you ignore the partisan approach, marketing pitch and re-printings of his tweets!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

16. My Fellow Prisoners by Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Penguin | 2014 | Paperback | 96 pages

Described by The Economist as “the Kremlin’s leading critic-in-exile” (after eight years inside he now resides in London), this is a selection of brilliantly written essays about the author’s first hand accounts of prison life and the people he encountered. It is a clever and quick read, and more people should be made aware of it.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

17. Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos

Dangerous | 2017 | Hardback | 232 pages

Akin to ‘Campus Battlefield’, I’d heard mixed reviews and all of the drama around its release just made me want to read it more. The reality, in my opinion, is that the contents of the book, while certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, are far less controversial than its publication (even boring in parts) – conservatives will largely agree with his message while liberals will largely disagree.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

18. The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

Penguin | 2017 | Paperback | 160 pages

The celebrated artist and media personality Grayson Perry explores masculinity. In short, I think it is well written (and illustrated) – although it took me a while to get into it; however, I didn’t feel there was anything new and therefore, at best, it’s a conversation starter (perhaps that alone might be considered a success?)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

19. Michael Gove: A Man in a Hurry by Owen Bennett

Biteback | 2019 | Hardback | 432 pages

Ignoring the endless typos (I have never spotted so many typos in one book – did anyone proof it?), I really enjoyed reading this biography. The author successfully combines old and fresh information to tell us the story about one of the most recognisable and central characters in British politics today.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

20. Celsius 7/7 by Michael Gove

Weidenfeld & Nicolson | 2006 | Hardback | 160 pages

I only learned about this text having read Owen Bennett’s book on the man (see above), but glad I did. In writing ‘Celsius 7/7’, which describes how the West’s policy of appeasement has provoked yet more fundamentalist terror, Gove names both Dominic Cummings and Douglas Murray among those whose conversations and ideas helped shape his thinking.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

21. First Confession: A Sort of Memoir by Chris Patten

Penguin | 2017 | Hardback | 320 pages

A man who’s been there at pivotal moments: Chairman of the Party (winning the 1992 election, but losing his own Bath seat), the last Governor of Hong Kong, Chairman of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland (pursuant to the Good Friday Agreement) and Chairman of the BBC Trust (when the Jimmy Savile scandal broke). Absolutely captivating.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

22. Party Games by Fiona Cuthbertson

Blossom Spring | 2020 | Paperback | 316 pages

Fiona’s first novel addresses love and corruption in the seat of power – from a female perspective. However, for those of either sex and who have worked in Parliament or on Whitehall will enjoy this – and perhaps associate with some of the content. I look forward to her second book, which is in the works.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

23. Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America by Donald J. Trump

Simon & Schuster | 2016 | Paperback | 208 pages

I didn’t read this in 2016, however I decided to now since he’s seeking re-election. In a similar vein to ‘The MAGA Doctrine’, you get a better feel what the 45th President of the US does and doesn’t believe, but this time you get to judge him on his record in office as well as in business. I wonder if Boris has read it too (see “get it done” p.123 and “shovel-ready projects” p.165)?

Rating: 3 out of 5.

24. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Penguin | 1994 | Paperback | 256 pages

A friend of mine bought this for my 18th birthday (I’m not sure what she was hinting at) and, though I’ve watched the 2019 film adaptation, I’ve never got round to reading this gift – until now, during lockdown. Another book I wish I’d read earlier as the writing is beautiful and I’ve a lot to learn.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

25. One Minute to Ten: Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. Three Men, One Ambition and the Price of Power by Dan Hodges

Penguin | 2016 | Paperback | 384 pages

I’m a fan of Dan Hodges, so it wasn’t a difficult choice to pick-up a copy of this book (in 2016). Then, I couldn’t get beyond the first chapter. Four years later, I still struggled with it but persevered and I’m glad that I did as it takes off – a smart and unique account of the 2015 general election campaign and the three party leaders.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

26. Why Can’t We All Just Get Along… Shout Less. Listen More. by Iain Dale

HarperCollins | 2020 | Hardback | 304 pages

Great read. I’m not just saying that because we both studied at “the very left-wing” University of East Anglia, worked/ interned for the staunch right-winger David Davis MP, nor was his chief of staff/ backed him until the leadership hustings in Cambridgeshire… This is “part-memoir, part-polemic about the state of public discourse in Britain and the world today”, and it’s spot on.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

27. Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman

Penguin | 2012 | Hardback | 384 pages

This is a tale about News Corporation and the corruption of Britain, according to the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and active member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. My reading this happens to coincide with the BBC airing a new three-part documentary series ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’. Both excellent.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

28. First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy by David Broder

Verso | 2020 | Hardback | 192 pages

Similar to Franzi and Madron’s book Matteo Salvini: Italy, Europe and the New Right (as above), this is a forensic, educational read – written by a left-wing author – especially for non-Italians who want to understand what has been happening in Italy these past three decades. It’s a shame it took until three quarters of the way through to get to the important bit!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

29. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

Picador | 2005 | Paperback | 512 pages

It’s a classic novel about class, politics and sexuality in Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Britain. Similar to One Minute to Ten, I struggled with the very early chapters and put it back on the shelf. I picked it up again this summer and made headway. I’m glad I did because it’s quite excellent and clearly deserving of its awards.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

30. The Spirit of London by Boris Johnson

HarperCollins | 2012 | Paperback | 448 pages

Like ‘The Dream of Rome’ this is an interesting and entertaining history of the British capital. This updated version of ‘Johnson’s Life of London’ – which focuses on some very famous figures and some rather obscure ones – includes material following the Jubilee and Olympic celebrations in 2012. I hope the Spirit of the United Kingdom shines through in his CPC20 speech.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

31. Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking by Ben Wright

Duckworth Overlook | 2017 | Paperback | 368 pages

One of the BBC’s political correspondents, Ben Wright, explores the history of alcohol in global politics, including a section titled ‘Party Time’. I confess that I was one of the “tight-suited delegates from Conservative Future” in the Midland Hotel he refers to (p.215). I found this witty and informative. Another one that all aspiring politicians should read and take note of.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

32. The Art of the Deal by Donald J. Trump with Tony Schwartz

Penguin | 2016 | Paperback | 384 pages

Rating: 3 out of 5.

33. Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power by Sasha Swire

Little, Brown | 2020 | Hardback | 544 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5.

34. Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire

Bodley Head | 2020 | Hardback | 384 pages

Rating: 4 out of 5.

35. The Political Animal: An Anatomy by Jeremy Paxman

Penguin | 2003 | Paperback | 352 pages

Rating: 4 out of 5.

36. The Unmaking of the President 2016: How FBI Director James Comey Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency by Lanny J. Davis

Scribner | 2018 | Hardback | 240 pages

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Populism isn’t dead — it’s alive and well

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, Co-Chair of the PRCA Corporate Group and Founder & Director at do Different. He is a former National Executive Officer of Conservative Future (Young Conservatives)

This week, President Trump ended former President Obama’s 12-year run as the ‘most admired man in America’ (according to the annual Gallup survey). The recognition — which I’m confident was joyfully received in Mar-a-Lago — is hardly a surprise, given that sitting US Presidents have been awarded the title by the pollster 60 out of 74 years. With that said, Trump also won the most votes of any sitting President in history in 2020 (74m to 66m for Obama back in 2012), as well as more counties than his opponent, so several statistics would support it.

However, what good is that when the President lost the Electoral College? Judging by the circumstances that we now find ourselves in, the show is over for Trumpism. But is it really? Here, I share some facts and thoughts about what is next for populism, both across the pond and closer to home.

The reality is — that despite one of the lowest-energy national campaigns to date — Joe Biden somehow achieved 306 Electoral College votes to President Trump’s 232 and on January 20, 2021, will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States.

Despite all the lawsuits, re-counts and endless chatter on social media, no concrete evidence of fraud came to light to overturn the outcome. In addition, Biden will have a small majority in the House, with 222 Democrats to 210 Republican Congressmen and women. The picture is less clear in the upper chamber. Right now, the Republicans have 50 Senators to 48 Democrats — therefore, the result of the run-off Georgia elections next week carries tremendous weight on both sides of the divide.

If the GOP and indeed President Trump want to protect his legacy and be in with a chance of holding the Senate, as well as winning the 2022 mid-terms and 2024 Presidential race — and most Republican voters do not want the ‘America First’ policy to be put back in the bottle — they must look forward, and fast. Both components — the campaign and the party — should work together and sing from the same hymn sheet, e.g. on the $2,000 stimulus check, to help re-elect Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on Tuesday, January 5.

That means encouraging early voter turnout, as Donald Trump Jr. and others are doing, as well as sharing a platform, like the rally scheduled in Atlanta on the preceding day. It’s unclear whether this will be too late to have an impact. The same could be said of another, but broader, rally planned for Washington, DC, on the following day, January 6.

Whatever the outcome is, President Trump acts as a reminder that a significant portion of Americans do not share the liberal elite’s woke outlook and that populism is not dead.

In the wake of Brexit and a trade deal between the UK and EU, populism may even rise — although the process itself was frustrating, it won’t stop other European parties from campaigning for their countries to follow suit. Who knows — Flanders, Italy and others could do things differently in 2021 by electing populist governments that are committed to putting their countries and their people first. Who could blame them?

I hope President Trump’s pragmatic approach to US foreign policy — which, on balance, has proven far less warmongering and therefore less destructive than that of Clinton, Bush or indeed Obama — will continue under the new President. Unfortunately, though, I doubt it. The same pessimism goes for US-UK relations. Biden seems in no mood to prioritise a new trade deal with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

President-Elect Biden is almost certainly not going to wage war against the social justice warriors who voted for him, including those on the campus battlefield, where — as Charlie Kirk sums it up perfectly — “Free speech, intellectually rigorous debate, and the simple concepts of tolerance and fairness are routinely being corrupted and weaponised to promote radical leftist ideologies, enforce groupthink, and marginalise or eliminate any student, professor, and dean who gets in their way.”

At least in England, there is a growing number of MPs who are talking sense on censorship and conservatism, and there are activists who are ready to get involved.

I don’t believe we’ve seen the finale of Trumpism, or indeed populism itself. In fact, I believe they are likely to grow and will be projected by a generation of patriots, including Madison Cawthorn and Matt Gaetz. Watch this space, folks.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for Turning Point UK, a student movement for free markets, limited government, personal responsibility and duty to others. Its sister is Turning Point USA. It was republised by Politicalite (‘Trumpism and Populism Aren’t Dead — They’re Alive and Well’ — January 2, 2021).

Boris must find the bandwidth to take on Sturgeon

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons ClerkFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Being prime minister is not an easy job. Whether you adopt the approach of Thatcher’s four-hours-a-night, or Macmillan’s retreating to Trollope novels at moments of extreme stress, it is a position which occupies your every waking (and probably many a sleeping) moment; the situation is not helped by the fact that the vast majority of prime ministers live ‘above the shop’ in the apartment complex of 10-11 Downing Street. Time to think can be at a premium.

Boris Johnson is certainly not short of challenges to which he could devote his brain power.

Covid and Brexit are the two most obvious and pressing matters, but one could easily add the “levelling-up” agenda, HS2, the grievous state of the hospitality industry, repayment of the national debt, the examination system in schools, NHS shortages and law and order, and that would be the in-tray only half full.

Being leader of the opposition is a very different matter. The effective levers in your hands are virtually none, especially when you face a government with a healthy parliamentary majority early in the electoral cycle, and if you are not to be wholly reactive (“We think the government should have gone further…”) then thinking is one of the few things to which you can devote a lot of time.

Just before Christmas, Sir Keir Starmer made a “major” speech on devolution and the Union. 

This is the sort of parlour game into which opposition leaders are forced; those who occupy the territory willingly are political oddballs and often Liberal Democrats. The content of the speech promised a commission to examine the devolution of power, advised by former prime minister Gordon Brown.

While this is not a move which will capture the imagination on voters’ doorsteps, it is a sensible and grown-up response to the persistent popularity of the SNP in Scotland and the inexplicable perception that the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has handled the Covid crisis well.

A recent poll showed support for Scotland’s secession from the Union at 58%, which would be a comfortable plurality at a referendum. 

This is literally an existential threat to the UK: from a business point of view, secession would mean the United Kingdom losing the human capital of 5.5 million people, access to the oil and gas reserves of the North Sea, an enormous potential source of tidal and wind energy and the huge financial services sector in Edinburgh, apart from anything else. It is by no means unrealistic to imagine an independent Scotland by 2030: the government must address this.

What must worry unionists is that Boris Johnson, personally and institutionally, simply does not have the bandwidth to take the fight to the nationalists at the present time. It is often suggested that Johnson, for all his mixed heritage an ineffably English figure, is ill-suited to woo a truculent Scottish electorate.

But if not him, then who? The Labour Party lost its relevance in Scottish politics with its Westminster annihilation in 2015, and its Holyrood leader, Richard Leonard, is the sort of man who is forgettable to his own memory foam mattress. The Liberal Democrats are a harmless fringe. Faute de mieux, the battle for the Union must be an SNP/ Conservative fight.

But who is going to stand in the front line? The Scottish secretary, Alister Jack, is a landowner who looks like a refugee from a late-stage Macmillan cabinet; Baroness Davidson (as she will become) is a proven vote-winner but is only standing in at Holyrood until next May; the Scottish leader, Douglas Ross, is accident-prone and yet to find an authentic voice which resonates with the electorate north of the border.

The prime minister needs help. He needs some heavyweight unionist figures (who need not necessarily be Conservatives); he needs an ultra-smooth and highly responsive media team; and he needs some enormous brains to sit in darkened rooms and find the arguments against secession which will strike a chord with the voters.

The second and third categories should not be impossible to satisfy. The first, the cheerleaders, may prove more difficult. If anyone has any ideas, the address is 10 Downing Street, London SW1A.

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This piece was written for City AM.

Boris has won the Brexit war, now he has to win the peace

GUEST POST: Sir Robbie Gibb is Senior Advisor at Kekst CNC and former Director of Communications at No.10 Downing Street. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

A little over a year ago, Boris Johnson went into the general election promising the British public: “Back me and I will get Brexit done.” They did and he has. This momentous deal not only marks a new chapter in Britain’s history but will rightly stand as a historic triumph for a Prime Minister who has all too often been misunderstood and maligned.

We were told by critics it was impossible to get a deal of this magnitude done in this time frame, that the Government could not represent Britain’s best interests in Brussels while simultaneously battling Covid-19 at home, that there would not be enough time to negotiate new trade deals with other nations while fighting on these two major fronts.

We were even told that Britain would be putting its citizens at risk by not being a part of EU efforts to find a vaccine against the deadly virus.

Yet here we are.

We have a zero tariff deal that restores our sovereign rights in full. We will no longer have to align with EU rules nor will we be subject to the European Court of Justice.

Our Parliament will be free to set its own laws, we will no longer have to pay into the EU coffers and we can set our own immigration policy.

We have signed 61 trade deals with other countries and Britain leads the world in its vaccination programme – with 600,000 people already receiving their first jab by Christmas. Not bad for a Prime Minister who critics claim lacks an eye for detail and is indecisive.

He has led his nation through the unprecedented dual challenge of battling a pandemic while seeking to break free from the orbit of Brussels.

While Brexit prematurely ended David Cameron’s premiership and destroyed Theresa May’s, Mr Johnson has held his nerve and delivered, just as he said he would, for the country.

Sir Keir Starmer has instructed his Labour MPs to back the deal when it comes before Parliament next week and there are signs that all but the most diehard Brexiteers will support it too.

Mr Johnson has shown why the British people continue to keep their faith in him and why the polls have held up so well for the Government.

No one understood better than him why the public voted for Brexit and why it was vital not to sell the nation short to secure a deal.

But in his heart, the Prime Minister is a man who wants to unite not divide.

For of all the myths about him there is none greater than that which seeks to portray him as a leader who revels in controversy and division – the very opposite is the case. That is what his levelling-up agenda is all about – uniting our country by ensuring that no one feels left behind as we forge our own future outside the EU.

We should be under no illusions about the challenges ahead. Covid has decimated our economy, leaving hundreds of thousands out of work.

The vaccination programme may well free us from our current captivity but for millions this has felt like the darkest week of the longest year.

Two highly infectious super-strains have forced another lockdown in all but name for vast swathes of the country and we have all felt the pain of being kept apart from loved ones this Christmas. But there is, finally, hope that Britain may well be turning a corner in this battle.

Alongside the Pfizer vaccine a second, made by scientists at Oxford University, is expected to get the green light in the coming days.

And there are currently no signs that these mutated versions of the virus will be resistant to our vaccines.

Having achieved with Brexit what many thought was impossible, the Prime Minister now faces another set of seemingly impossible challenges – to free Britain from the grip of Covid, to rebuild our shattered economy and to bring prosperity to every region of the country.

He also needs to heal the divisions that opened up around Brexit and unite a country that has been at war with itself for too long.

Mr Johnson has four years before the next election to get Britain back on its feet and to unite the country. It would be an unwise man who would bet against him succeeding.

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This piece was written for The Telegraph.

It’s time for Boris to focus again on levelling-up Britain

GUEST POST: Peter Cardwell advised four Cabinet ministers in the May and Johnson administrations. He’s the author of ‘The Secret Life of Special Advisers.’ Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Boris Johnson has had a rough fortnight. In ugly scenes, the Prime Minister lost his most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, his long-standing communications aide Lee Cain and even, temporarily at least, his own personal freedom, as he was forced to self-isolate in his Downing Street flat after meeting an MP later diagnosed with Covid-19.

And on Friday his key lieutenant, Home Secretary Priti Patel, reacted to a critical report by apologising for the unintended results of her behaviour, which some civil servants felt was bullying. Government can be tough, and high office requires tough elected politicians and equally tough people working with them as both their advisers and civil servants. As a government special adviser myself for three-and-a-half years, working alongside Dominic, Lee, Priti and occasionally Boris himself, I know that pressure well and the relentless focus needed to get things done by people at the top. There is always a tension between the political team, who are generally in the roles for very short periods of time, and the longer-serving civil servants.

I certainly made myself very clear to civil servants over the years, sometimes in very forthright terms, but I know that my intentions, like Priti Patel’s, were always to get the things done that the Conservative government was elected to do, not to make anyone feel uncomfortable or intimidated.

So I hope the psychodrama inside Downing Street and beyond is now over, not just for my friends who still work there, but, above all, for the country.

And while it’s unfortunate timing, Boris’s self-imposed solitude is actually a useful moment for him to think carefully about who to appoint to a new top team.

His new chief of staff has to be anonymous to the public but well-known and trusted by ordinary Conservative MPs, who have often felt neglected recently by a bullish Number 10. Someone like long-standing Conservative backroom operator David Canzini would be ideal.

The Prime Minister will be using this time to mull over many issues. But to his immense credit, instead of feeling flat in the flat, BoJo is getting his mojo back.

He is using this much-needed break to push forward important announcements, showing the Government’s commitment to a greener economy, a stronger defence system and outlining his desire to “level-up” the economy.

One problem, though, is that most people don’t have a clue exactly what “levelling-up” means.

A year ago, Boris was telling us all to “get Brexit done – unleash Britain’s potential”. The first bit is done, so now Boris needs to explain the second.

The reality is, levelling-up is a very simple, but radical, idea. Boris believes everyone in the country, and particularly in the North of England, should have exactly the same opportunities and government attention.

This means investing in neglected high streets, high-speed rail across the North and an ambitious local public transport fund aiming to make bus, train and tram travel as good as London’s.

Environmental reforms are a huge part of levelling-up too.

Many will have rolled their eyes at last week’s news that petrol-only and diesel-only cars are to be phased out over the next decade.

But buying that greener, more efficient new car you’re going to get anyway in the next decade will create jobs and pump money into an economy which desperately needs it, as well as saving the planet.

As many as 40,000 extra jobs could be created in places such as the West Midlands, the North-East and North Wales through the manufacture of new electric cars alone.

Making our homes, schools and hospitals greener and more energy- efficient over the next 10 years could create a further 50,000 jobs.

And not only will levelling-up create a fairer system for everyone, it’s also good politics. Boris knows many voters in the North only lent the Conservatives their vote in last year’s election, and may switch back to Labour in 2024, especially now Jeremy Corbyn is gone.

Boris has got to repay the trust of these floating voters by making their jobs more secure and the country safer – to do what governments are meant to do.

With a line now hopefully drawn under the Downing Street soap opera, Boris is getting back to what he does best – being the Boris we elected in 2019, the outward-looking leader who connects with people from all walks of life.

But more than that, Boris understands that the Government’s job is to make Britain be all it can be.

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This piece was written for The Sunday Express.

Patience: a virtue the Tories are yet to find

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher

The suggestion that 2021 should mark the end of the road for Boris Johnson’s premiership has been gaining oxygen in Tory circles. Some claim that the Prime Minister has lost his way, “run out of steam” and even been fundamentally changed by his near-death experience. While the pandemic has undoubtedly steered him along a different path to the one both he and the Party could ever have expected in December 2019, any attempt to change the Leader next year would be a short-sighted move. Such an act would not only be the most futile use of the Party’s political capital, but an embarrassment to Conservative voters – old and new – across the country. Tories must find patience.

The bigger picture

Firstly, we must look at the bigger picture. The nation is exhausted; exhausted by months of facing the endless threat of a deadly virus and all the subsequent safety restrictions, cancelled holidays, missed family gatherings and the normality of life.

As things stand, more than half a million young people in the UK are now unemployed. The economy is experiencing its deepest ever recession. Economic forecasts for 2021 look even gloomier, with the Bank of England expecting rates of unemployment to rise to 8.2 per cent and predicting it will take over two years for the country’s finances to get anywhere near their pre-Covid levels.

Clearly, there are bigger issues facing the country than inane discussions over party leadership. We should certainly expect the electorate to be unforgiving of any such party who squandered a second of its time in government, especially right now and on such a self-indulgent exercise as this.

Levelling-up agenda

Secondly, the Party must not forget why the Tories were returned to power in 2019 for a fourth successive time, with their largest majority since 1987. The PM’s promise of defeating Jeremy Corbyn, “getting Brexit done” and levelling-up the country was one that not only Conservative voters found compelling, but one that many never-before Tory voters believed in, and, indeed, placed their trust in.

These formerly “red-wall” seats across the north and Midlands were attracted to his ambitious levelling-up agenda, including his promise of delivering UK-wide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, improving transport connectivity across the country and delivering jobs, opportunities and better infrastructure in these regions too often left-behind.

Levelling-up the country is a long-term ambition for the country and the Party must give him the time to deliver on this. If successful, the Conservatives could cement this broader voter base for decades to come, locking the Labour Party out of government indefinitely. Alternatively, a change in party leadership now, without having delivered on these existing promises, would be — and I use this word reluctantly — a betrayal of the trust placed in them by voters at the 2019 election. The Party must let him finish what he has started.

Beyond the bubble

Finally, the Westminster bubble has been and is guilty of overlooking the PM’s much broader appeal. The “bumbling buffoon” act that so many dismissed Johnson for at every opportunity over the last four years is precisely why he appeals to the great British public. He is quite different.

Some argue that recent polling shows support among the public for the PM is waning and therefore the Party should begin to look for his replacement. However, the Conservatives remain head to head with Labour in the polls, and any effort to change the party leadership in 2021 would only further hinder their ability to deliver on its promises, paving the way for an increasingly popular Sir Keir.

A change of party leadership in 2021 would be an extremely short-sighted move. There’s no question that Boris Johnson has not had the start to his premiership that he, nor anyone for that matter, would have expected nor wanted. However, if we should learn anything from the events of the last four years, it is that four years is a very long time in politics. The electorate has placed its trust once again in the Conservatives to deliver real change across the UK. The Conservative Party owes it to the country to be patient with the Prime Minister, forget any self-indulgent leadership contest and give him the time to deliver.

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This piece was written for this website.

Set Boris free

GUEST POST: Peter Bingle is Director at The Terrapin Group. Connect on LinkedIn

In these strange virtual times, this year’s online party conference has a special importance, not just for the Tory Party but also for the Prime Minister. His speech will help to define the rest of his tenure at Number 10.

I have supported Boris Johnson since his first campaign to become Mayor of London. In a world full of dullness and a body politic stuffed full with the second rate and dull, he was a real breath of fresh air. He discarded political correctness, but crucially exuded optimism and fun. 

I predicted that he would beat Ken on both occasions. It wasn’t hard to do so! Londoners loved this political maverick who made us all smile, chuckle and even laugh out loud. His record at City Hall was superb, thanks to his two great chiefs of staff – Sir Simon Milton and Sir Edward Lister. 

There was no greater supporter of Boris when he announced he was a candidate to succeed the hapless Theresa May. Here was a Tory who could inject zest and optimism into a political party which resembled a corpse. 

My only fear was some of the people advising him. I dismissed those worries, but time has shown that I was quite right to be concerned. 

In the December election, I predicted a majority of eighty and was delighted by the result. Boris could now literally change the political landscape for a generation. A politician who appealed to people from every walk of life. Once again, the Tory Party was a national political force. Our PM was a populist who understood what made normal voters tick. 

However, the problems started long before the pandemic. He chose a weak Cabinet and the Number 10 team, with a few exceptions, makes his predecessors’ team look competent. That is some achievement! The political ramifications are now all too clear. 

Firstly, Boris no longer exudes optimism and confidence. Folk are now starting to laugh at him rather than with him. His attempt to position himself as a modern day Churchill is just plain silly. 

Secondly, Boris no longer seems in control of events. He is a reactive PM who is now defined by an increasing number of U-turns. Boris doesn’t appear to have a grip on what is happening. 

Thirdly, Boris is being let down by a Number 10 team which doesn’t seem to understand the concepts of strategic communications and messaging. The Cabinet is also weak. 

Lastly, I no longer have any idea if the government has a policy agenda. The one exception concerns the increasing role of the state. There has never been such a ‘Big State’ government. This isn’t why people vote Tory …

For all of this, I still have faith in Boris. He needs to show us that he is not only in control but actually still wants to be PM. Then he can start the crucial task of rebuilding and re-energising his special rapport with the British people. 

The first stage is a ministerial cull of epic proportions. There is great talent on the back-benches, which needs to be tapped into. Not just youngsters but also former ministers and people who should have been made ministers in previous governments. 

The second stage is to have a very clear policy agenda which embraces and motivates traditional and new Tory voters. Economic competence must underpin all the government’s future actions but so too must a belief in the primacy of the individual rather than of the state. 

The final and arguably most important stage is to set Boris free. On form, this is a politician like no other. Never have people needed to be cheered up more than now. Boris is the political antidote to the gloom created by the pandemic. His advisers need to play to his strengths. 

The next six months will determine the success or otherwise of the government. We need both inspiration and optimism in equal measure. Boris remains the man to deliver both. Britain needs him. 

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This piece was written for our website.

Tories should fear Sir Keir – and figure how to beat him

GUEST POST: Peter Cardwell advised four Cabinet ministers in the May and Johnson administrations. He is the author of ‘The Secret Life of Special Advisers’, published on October 27. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

We’ve seen a lot of Keir Starmer this week: a Marr sit-down, a set-piece speech in lieu of a conference speech – in front of a handy physical red wall – and another strong performance at PMQs, understandably leading on test and trace. However, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Keir Starmer’s views. Would he back a future EU trade deal? Is he in favour of extending the transition period? Would he go for another Scottish independence referendum? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But, what I – as a Tory – do know is on a much more fundamental level he scares the living daylights out of me.   

His detoxification of the Labour brand is going just a bit too well. His new phrase “a new leadership” may be bland, however it is not meaningless. Because it is allowing Starmer, very effectively, to distance himself from the three greatest problems which dogged Corbyn: antisemitism, patriotism and security. 

On antisemitism, Starmer came down very hard on Rebecca Long-Bailey in June, sacking the former Shadow Education Secretary after she retweeted an article containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Helpfully for Starmer, John McDonnell stood in solidarity with her. Starmer looked decisive, leaderly and even gained praise from the Board of Deputies. 

On patriotism, can you honestly imagine Corbyn reacting to the “Rule, Britannia!” row with a strong defence of the “pomp and pageantry” as “a staple of British summer”? Thought not. 

And on security – Corbyn’s weakest issue – at PMQs three weeks ago Starmer reacted with genuine fury when Boris Johnson suggested Starmer was soft on terrorism because he had backed Corbyn. Starmer’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions speaks for itself, and Labour strategists plan to remind the public often of their leader’s key role in prosecuting the terrorists who planned the Heathrow bomb plot, ‘Britain’s 9/11’. And it’s no accident that Starmer returned to this theme in his leader’s address on Monday. There could hardly be a less Corbyn phrase than expressing a desire for: “security for our nation, our families and all of our communities… We love this country as you do.” 

In fairness, we Conservatives have had it good for so long when it comes to Opposition leaders.  Ed Miliband was a man who couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich effectively, never mind run a country. Jeremy Corbyn was popular with people who didn’t come out to vote and scared away many sensible people who did into voting Conservative. Along with Dominic Cummings and bearded Antipodean svengali Isaac Levido, Corbyn was one of we Conservatives’ three greatest assets in December’s election. 

And despite his lack of charisma, his slightly plodding manner and a front bench a little too full of unknowns, Starmer continues to subtly, slowly put clear red water between himself and his predecessor. This brand detoxification is the hugely important first step. 

So much so that CCHQ attacks on Starmer have been linking him to Corbyn, just as Republicans attack Joe Biden by linking him to the more toxic Hillary Clinton. That’s just not strong enough a strategy, and the Conservative operation will need to work harder. Starmer has certainly got me worried. And that’s why we Conservatives need to start planning how to beat him in 2024 right now. 

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This piece was written for The Times.

Britishness is normal. Unionists should say so

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at Newington Communications and a former Conservative Special AdviserFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Westminster always wakes up late when it comes to the Union. The alarm is ringing on a constitutional nightmare if the SNP win a majority at next May’s elections to the Scottish parliament.

In 2014, it took a surprising 51-49 poll in favour of Yes just before the independence referendum to stop it sleepwalking into the break-up of the United Kingdom. Since then, Westminster has hit the snooze button time and time again.

In 2015, Scotland sent 56 separatist MPs to Westminster. Unionists sent three. In 2016, the two nations most comfortable in the Union – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU and the two most restive – Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted to remain.

Between 2017 and 2019, the UK government allowed itself to be propped up by the DUP, causing lasting distrust among nationalist and unaligned communities in Northern Ireland. And so in 2020 Britain left the EU with a deal that created a border in the Irish Sea, completing the full house by alienating unionists in Northern Ireland too.

But, with nine months to go before the election in Scotland, Westminster has finally wiped the sleep from its eyes. Just as well, because it will catapult the Union back to the fore of British politics.

The fightback starts with ministerial visits and lots of them. Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove have all been north of the border in recent weeks. The SNP insists that it welcomes the sight of more UK ministers in Scotland, arguing that it pushes wavering voters into the Yes column.

The government must call their bluff. The SNP’s greatest strategic achievement has been using devolution to cast Scotland as inherently separate to the rest of the UK, making independence not just a logical step but crucially a less daunting prospect for uncertain No voters.

While Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are pro-devolution, the SNP are not. Devolution has always been a stepping stone towards independence.

The Scottish government has projected itself as autonomous, developing its own foreign policy through ministerial visits to Brussels, cutting across reserved responsibilities and cultivating its own relationships with allies. For too long UK-wide institutions have played into that narrative: politicians, the civil service and the media.

If Westminster is serious about ensuring the United Kingdom is a coherent, relevant and tangible concept for Scottish voters it must grasp the scale of the challenge ahead of it and change the way it talks about the Union.

Ministers with remits spanning the UK have been too reluctant to project themselves equally across all four nations. The rest have outsourced issues with the “devolved nations” to the overstretched Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices. If ministers are to suddenly rediscover their interest in each nation, they need not just to normalise their visits but to normalise the way they talk about the UK. Clunky, transactional rhetoric about the value of the “precious Union” should be junked for matter-of-fact language that normalises Britishness, with the litmus test that if a minister would not say it in Dudley, they shouldn’t say it in Dundee.

The civil service in London has also been too timid about treading on toes, prioritising good working relationships with colleagues in Cardiff and Edinburgh above the central policy objective of preserving the Union, something our impartial civil service should never be indifferent about. Our cultural institutions have become balkanised, shunting Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish stories to the regional editions while leading UK-wide bulletins with English-only stories that mean little to voters in the rest of the UK.

Opportunities to counter the “otherness” of Westminster are missed by UK politicians, too. Of the dozens of new peers announced this year, only Ruth Davidson and Nigel Dodds were genuine unionist big hitters. No peerage for Carwyn Jones, who spent nearly ten years as first minister of Wales, or concern over Lord Darling’s retirement.

The United Kingdom has almost unrivalled cultural, political and diplomatic tools at its disposal to prevent the disintegration of its own state. It is time it woke-up to the value of those tools. Nationalists won’t be shy about using their own.

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This piece was written for The Times.