Northern Ireland needs real leadership, not soundbites

GUEST POST: Timothy McLean is a Parliamentary Researcher. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and the structures envisaged therein were premised on the understanding that cross community consent would be required for all important and controversial decisions. Throughout the Brexit process, the Conservative administration and the EU were at pains to point out their unwavering support for the agreement in all its parts.  

While an explosive cocktail of grievances is responsible for the recent violence on our streets, the UK government and the EU cannot absolve themselves of responsibility. Promises were made and broken. Warnings were delivered and dismissed as hollow. The lack of appreciation or, dare I say, disinterest in the genuine concerns of loyalism has led us to this dangerous juncture.  

It is hardly surprising that loyalism has reacted angrily when, by their actions, both sides have given credibility to the narrative that violence pays. If the mere threat of violence from dissident republicans is enough to achieve a political solution (i.e., no Irish land border) then loyalism will, rightly or wrongly, conclude that their actions are an acceptable means to an end. 

At the Conservative hustings in Northern Ireland, Boris Johnson was adamant that under no circumstances would he agree to a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. Fast forward to the present day and the streets are littered with signs which read ‘Ulster betrayed by Boris’. It cannot be understated just how palpable the sense of anger and betrayal is within the wider unionist and loyalist family. 

Unionism and loyalism feel strongly that the Protocol has usurped Northern Ireland from Great Britain and fundamentally undermined the constitutional settlement without consent. Who can feasibly argue that subjecting one part of your nation to the rulings of a foreign court doesn’t represent a constitutional change? 

Of course, violence must be condemned and is no solution to the problems which the Protocol has created. It is also fair to say that the crisis of confidence within loyalism is influenced by a range of factors, not least the failure of the PPS to charge any Sinn Fein politician with breaching Covid regulations at a mass republican funeral last June. 

However, it is not good enough for the government and the EU to say that loyalism must suck it up. Northern Ireland can only operate properly when there is consent from all sides. The Protocol does not command that support, undermines the Belfast Agreement and is at the root of the recent violence we have seen. The Conservative party has a duty to stand-up for Northern Ireland and the integrity of our country. Will they rise to the occasion? 

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This piece was written for our website.

Levelling-up needs a brand

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications

“The government’s communications needed a clearer strategy and more coherent messaging” – that’s according to a new report published by the Institute for Government (IFG), which identifies 10 key lessons for the government’s strategy exactly a year after the first nationwide lockdown.  

I would go a step further and argue that this lesson should not only be applied to its “response to shocks” like global pandemics, terror events or states of emergency, but should be applied to the communication of all policy going forward – starting with the levelling-up agenda.  

The Government’s flagship levelling-up agenda isn’t a straightforward “policy” as such, nor can it be determined by any one single metric or a single piece of legislation. Instead, levelling-up can be seen as a set of institutional, fiscal and social reforms that together forge an ambition to tackle the long-term challenges that have haunted “left-behind and underperforming parts of the UK” for many decades, such as inequalities in health, income and opportunity.  

In order to communicate this agenda and for this bold ambition to be realised, the government should consider creating a brand for levelling-up. As Demos suggests, in the same way that brands were created for David Lloyd George’s ‘Old Age Pension’ and Aneurin Bevan’s ‘National Health Service’, Boris Johnson’s levelling-up agenda needs its very own brand.  

The politics of branding isn’t new to this Prime Minister. During his time as Mayor of London, Mr Johnson’s use of “brand Boris” was palpable; from Boris bikes to Battersea Power Station, regardless of their relative successes, his legacy in the city lives on and his impact is as visible today as it was at the time, which is far more than can be said for his successor Sadiq Khan. 

Having a clear umbrella narrative, a “brand identity” so to speak, is extremely important in determining the perceived focus of any organisation – not least, as the IFG notes, the government. This umbrella narrative helps voters place what might otherwise seem like an unconnected and often quite fragmented set of announcements under one coherent ambition, in particular one that the majority of people can support.  

Political theorists from Descartes to Daniel Kahneman have reiterated the importance of logical coherence when it pertains to voters’ general understanding of events and political announcements. The more coherent an individual perceives an action to be with their beliefs and their understanding of the world around them, the more likely they are to comprehend and ultimately support it. 

Creating a strong, consistent and clear brand for the levelling-up agenda may help the government’s chance of re-election in 2024. Just as consumers prefer to buy branded goods because they know what quality product they can expect or because they expect value for money and know they can save time choosing between other options – voters do the same.  

While there’s been some backlash since the summer, the Chancellor’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme is an obvious example of a well-branded policy that very quickly won support and widespread recognition among the public. A more equitable example for the levelling-up agenda is the NHS. What began as just a policy of free healthcare at the point of delivery is now a national institution recognised the world over because of its well-communicated values, principles and expectations. 

However it decides to do so – be it with a Rishi Sunak style signature or a unique identity and coherent narrative – the Government’s levelling-up agenda needs its very own brand.  

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This piece was written for our website. 

“I’ll never be neutral on the Union.” Prove it!

GUEST POST: Timothy McLean is a Parliamentary Researcher. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

“I’ll never be neutral on the Union” – the familiar battle cry we hear every time a new Northern Ireland Secretary takes up residence in Stormont House.  It’s time they showed some teeth…  

Boris Johnson is the first British Prime Minister since the Act of Union in 1801 to erect internal trade barriers within the United Kingdom. Which is kind of ironic, considering he is also the first Prime Minister to hold the title of Minister for the Union. In addition, the current office holder, Brandon Lewis – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – denies the existence of any border in the Irish Sea. If the Conservative party wants to be taken seriously on the Union, they must first acknowledge their mistakes and take action to correct them. 

The recent shenanigans that led to the disbandment of the Union unit within No.10 does not inspire confidence. While the political and media focus around the state of the Union tends to focus on Scotland, for obvious reasons, it is the situation which has been imposed on Northern Ireland that presents the biggest challenge to those who have been trusted with the care of our Union. 

Establishing committees to strategise and then implement policies across the Kingdom will not repair the damage to relationships which have been long standing between unionists in Northern Ireland and respective Conservative governments. The Northern Ireland Protocol is just the latest strain in that relationship. Yet the protocol is perhaps the most serious threat to the Union in my lifetime because it undermines the integrity of the internal market and gives succour to the separatists who would much rather align with Brussels than with London.  

Speaking at the DUP Party Conference in late 2018, Boris Johnson said this: 

“If you read the Withdrawal Agreement you can see that we are witnessing the birth of a new country called Ukni. This is how Brussels sees it. Ukni is no longer exclusively ruled by London or Stormont. Ukni is in large part to be ruled by Brussels.” 

Such a firm statement gave us Unionists hope that Northern Ireland’s equal position within the United Kingdom would be assured and protected. For the first time in many decades, Unionists held the balance of power at Westminster and felt like the new Prime Minister understood their concerns. Yet, after one meeting with the Irish Taoiseach, some argue Boris folded and choose political expediency over the well-being of the Union.  

So, how do we fix it? Rebuilding trust is an arduous process, but it is essential if we are to overcome both the external and internal threats to the Union which are gathering momentum. Unionists need to feel their Government in London is on their side and don’t just view them as a drain on resources or a concession that can be handed to Brussels for the benefit of England. 

The creation of a Council for the Union, made up of unionist politicians, civic and community leaders across the Kingdom would be a positive first step. Such a forum, meeting regularly in every nation and region of the UK, would allow Unionists to identify shared concerns and specific problems in each of the four nations. The Minister for the Union could chair the forum. The establishment of an Office for the Union would give it the necessary support structures to operate effectively. 

If the Conservative party is serious about the Union they will act now to remove the barriers which they have erected between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and begin a programme of outreach to rebuild relationships before it’s too late. The clock is ticking. 

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This piece was written for our website.

Sir Keir – duller than dull

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

There is no more thankless job in British politics than being Leader of the Opposition. This is even more of a truism during a pandemic when the public mood dictates that politicians put to one side petty partisan point scoring and do what’s best in the national interest. The normal rules of the game are suspended. It is difficult to be different.

That said, the case of Sir Keir Starmer is a curious one. There is no doubting him as a caring and thoughtful politician. His legal career confirms his academic acumen. And yet something is missing. Charisma. He doesn’t have any!

Starmer is Leader of the Labour Party because he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn. An understandable reason perhaps but not sufficient, particularly when the Prime Minister is somebody called Boris Johnson. Starmer suffers from an affliction called anonymity.

Starmer’s weakness is cruelly exposed every Wednesday at PMQs. He methodically dissects the government’s track record and highlights numerous mistakes. He uses the PM’s previous statements and decisions against him. The trouble is it doesn’t work against a PM who brushes asides facts and figures and answers questions he was never asked! Boris has panache. Starmer has none.

There will be some who point to Clement Attlee. Churchill once jibed: “Mr Attlee is a modest man, with much to be modest about!” Attlee then went on to win the 1945 general election. The comparison doesn’t really work today because of the crazy world in which we live. There is no private time for senior politicians. They are exposed to the public glare twenty-four seven. Boris loves it. I’m not so sure Starmer does.

Starmer’s other major weakness is his lack of connectivity to the common man. Despite coming from very ordinary circumstances (unlike Boris!), Starmer doesn’t seem to understand what really matters to working class folk. His (mis)handling of the Brexit issue was one of the principal reasons for the Tories smashing Labour’s red wall of northern seats. His suggestion that the way to win them back is for Labour to be more patriotic was rightly dismissed. It might seem a sensible idea in a large house in wealthy Camden, but further north it came across as rather patronising. And it was …

Supporters of Starmer will point out that more time is needed for him to start a conversation with the British people. They don’t really know anything about him. Once the pandemic is sorted, he will travel the country meeting the people. Perhaps, but remember the tragic case of Jo Swinson. The more the public got to know her the less they liked her to the point she lost her seat at the general election.

So, to summarise. Starmer is a good, decent and thoughtful man. He is probably destined, however, to join that list of Labour Party leaders who never win a general election. Up against the life-force that is Boris Johnson, Starmer just comes across as very dull. Who would you rather spend time with? The answer is a no brainer. Such is the brutality of British politics.

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This piece was written for our website.

When blame’s not a game

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

As the Prime Minister held a sombre press conference last night to mark the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK, he might have thought back to when he stood at the Downing Street podium all the way back on 12 March last year – two weeks before the first lockdown – and delivered the stark warning that: “I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Few could have imagined at the time quite how many more families that warning would sadly become a reality for.

How the Prime Minister’s claim yesterday that ‘we did all we could’ is viewed will depend entirely on existing perceptions of the government and its performance. It will variously be interpreted as a plaintive insistence that the government has worked in good faith to tackle a once-in-a-century crisis, as an admission that the government’s best was simply not good enough, or as an attempt to counter blame by insisting that nothing more could have been done by any government.

Throughout the pandemic, blame has never been too far from the surface of the political debate. Responding to the death toll, Labour said yesterday that ‘monumental mistakes’ have been made and at Prime Minister’s Questions today Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pushed the Prime Minister on the UK’s death toll, asking repeatedly: ‘why?’.

The list of things the government has been accused of getting wrong is a familiar one: being too slow to lockdown, slow off the mark in ensuring the provision of PPE, confused on its messaging on masks, failing to protect social care, stuttering in its initial ramp up of testing, cumbersome in establishing a test, trace and isolate system, too quick to attempt to return the economy to normality over the summer, forced to U-turn over the ill-fated exam results algorithm, too slow to implement a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in the autumn, overpromising on the easing of restrictions over Christmas, too slow to enter the current lockdown, and insisting schools return for the new term before closing them. Critics of the government, business groups, trade unions and sector bodies will all have their own to add to that list.

How and when to apportion blame has been part of the politics of the pandemic from the start, with Labour leader Keir Starmer accusing the Prime Minister of wishing away problems rather than confronting them early enough and the Prime Minister portraying Starmer as ‘Captain Hindsight’, wanting to score political points rather than pulling together, backing the government’s efforts and waiting until the pandemic is over before learning lessons from it.

That attempt to defer blame until the end of the pandemic makes both political and practical sense for the government while overstretched ministers, officials and public health workers are flat out dealing with both the effects of the current wave of the pandemic and the mass-roll out of the vaccines that will get us out of it.

But the often talked about public inquiry that will come when the dust settles and normal life returns will not produce a standalone cathartic moment that neatly assigns blame and allows the country to move on with one shared view of what it has collectively been through.

Public inquiries take time. They are laborious and forensic, as the ongoing Grenfell Tower and the Infected Blood Inquires – both opened in 2017 – and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – launched even earlier – have all demonstrated. Often the time-consuming, legalistic and methodical nature of inquiries causes frustration and further pain to those who want answers. The future inquiry into how Covid-19 was handled will no doubt face similar challenges.

And in any case, public inquiries are very different from public opinion, which unlike political blame is far from black and white. It is subjective, reflecting existing political views, different personal experiences, and perceptions of individual leaders. But it can also recognise different narratives as being true at the same time, such as the UK being among the worst in the world for Covid-19 deaths and among the best in the world for not just distributing but discovering the vaccines that provide an escape from the last year.

How blame is formally apportioned during any inquiry, how politicians attempt to assign or avoid it, and how the public view both will be a central part of British politics for many years as the long legacy of the pandemic remains with us.

At the heart of maintaining public confidence that lessons are learned – whoever and whatever deserves blame – will be ensuring that at the centre of it all are those families – many more even than the Prime Minister warned last March – who did go on to lose loved ones before their time.

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This piece was written for the SEC Newsgate blog.

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 also to make a note of everything I got through (all 36 – 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 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: 2.5 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 No.10. 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 (usually) a fan of Dan Hodges’ writing, 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

Ghost written by Tony Schwartz, this is a part memoir, part business-advice book and part auto-hagiography – President Donald J. Trump has referred to it as one of his proudest accomplishments and his second-favourite book after the Bible (which he has clearly never read!) It gives readers insight into how he works and the motivations behind the current man sitting in the Oval Office.

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

I think The Times perfectly describes this one: A gossipy, amusing, opinionated account of what it’s like to be married to an MP [Sir Hugo Swire KCMG]… Good fun and eye-opening.”  I can’t remember enjoying a book so much for a long time – an absolute must-read; it is well written and wonderfully indiscreet about senior politicians – friends and foes alike – over the past decade.

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

For any political junkie, this is a fascinating account of the tragic-comedy that defined the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn MP and it should serve as a warning to all future political movements. Britain really deserves an effective Opposition to hold the Government to account; the question is whether Sir Keir Starmer MP can turn things around – my sense is partially, but not by enough.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

35. The Political Animal: An Anatomy by Jeremy Paxman

Penguin | 2003 | Paperback | 352 pages

What makes politicians tick? Like ‘Friends, Voters, Countrymen’ and ‘The Gatekeeper’ I’d consider this essential reading for all, not just Tory, candidates. I also learned about another fact for my Churchill vs Johnson comparison: When Sir Winston took over from Neville Chamberlain in 1940, he inherited an 81-seat majority – equal to that achieved by No.10’s current tenant in 2019.

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

The author argues that former FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress – sent just before the 2016 US Presidential election – was a significant determining factor in Donald J. Trump’s win. Hillary Clinton was decisively ahead of him in many polls and, more importantly, in the key battleground states – that can’t be disputed; however, there were many factors at play here.

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.

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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.