The curse of the humiliating photo shot

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

There appears to be a modern curse which afflicts senior Labour politicians. They are caught on camera doing something so stupid that it remains etched forever in the minds of voters. It is the curse of the humiliating photo shot. 

Neil Kinnock famously stumbled and then fell on the beach. Ed Miliband found eating a bacon butty too much to handle. His elder brother David was filmed grinning inanely holding a banana! And of course, poor old Gordon Brown fell afoul of the formidable Gillian Duffy. 

So, when Sir Keir Starmer, one of the dullest men in modern politics, entered a pub in Bath he had no idea that he too was about to fall victim to the curse. How wrong he was. Thanks to his handlers turning brutish, Sir Keir’s pub visit was a disaster. He has finally made the headlines but for all the wrong reasons. The whole nation is chuckling. His MPs will be in despair. Nothing is going well for the former Director of Public Prosecutions. Perhaps wealthy Camden isn’t the best base from which to win back those northern constituencies … 
 
Tellingly, Starmer’s response to a media disaster of the highest order wasn’t to fess up and laugh at himself but rather to try and rewrite what happened. So stupid.  
 
For evermore, Sir Keir will have to endure jibes about his visit to The Raven in Bath. Politics is a cruel business! 

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This piece was written for our website. 

Conservatives must never be complacent about Starmer

Robert Halfon

GUEST POST: Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Is Keir Starmer doing that badly? I don’t want to rain on the parade of opinion poll Tory leads of anything from four to 13 per cent. Of course, it is far better to be in this position than trailing behind and our standing will be especially important in the run-up to local elections.

However, it is worth noting that Labour is still 24 points above its position after the 2019 General Election. It is also hard enough for any opposition party to get a look in, let alone in a national pandemic.

I remember well the Cameron opposition years, particularly when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair in 2007.

At the time, especially over the summer months, Labour rocketed ahead in public opinion. It looked like Labour’s fourth consecutive election victory was in the offing. Yet, by October of that year, thanks to an astonishing performance by George Osborne on slashing inheritance tax, David Cameron’s Conference speech, Brown’s poorly timed trip to see troops in Iraq and his botched scrapping of an early election, Conservatives level pegged and even leapfrogged Labour in the opinion polls.

I won’t ever forget going to the 2007 Conservative Party Conference as Harlow’s parliamentary candidate (by then, standing for a third time), thinking that it was all over – and I would not be elected to Westminster. A few days later, all had changed, and Brown put off the election until 2010. The rest is history. It was for me.

I was driving around one of Harlow’s many roundabouts when I first heard that Brown had cancelled the election. It was announced on the post-conference Saturday lunchtime news on Radio 4. I literally stopped my car, as I was utterly amazed. I thought to myself, “Well Rob, you might get elected after all”.

I mention these things – not to be, as the Prime Minister might say, a “gloomster” – but only to remind fellow Conservatives that politics changes, literally, overnight.

Yes, the Labour Leader is often “Captain Hindsight” and he doesn’t always see the wood from the trees because of his love for forensics. But, it is not easy for opposition leaders to cut through. To his credit, Starmer is reforming the Labour Party by stealth, slowly weeding out the far-left and trying to rid his party of antisemitism.

Of course, the crucial test will come in policy, and whether the Labour Party will be counter-intuitive on public spending. Of that, there is little sign. It appears that there is no lobby group or vested interest they will not try and court in order to score the political equivalent of a quick clickbait “high” in the media and the internet. At some point, Her Majesty’s Opposition will have to take tough decisions if they want to be respected by the public and be a party of Government.

Nevertheless, Conservatives must never be complacent. The public mood can change pretty quickly. Labour party grassroots and council strength remains high. They have a long time to reform themselves and undo the damage of the Corbyn years.

Explaining public spending decisions

It is not always easy to set out the tough decisions on public spending to constituents, especially when they regard emotive issues seen to address social injustice. But, once we have worked out what our political spending priorities are, this is something all Conservatives are going to have to do.

Due to the pandemic, Government finances and our general economic situation are pretty bleak. The Government is spending more than £400 billion just to keep people and businesses afloat. Our country faces a debt bill of over £2 trillion pounds. Laid out in cash, this is enough money to fill Wembley Stadium. The interest on the debt currently sits at £49 billion pounds a year (money which could otherwise be spent on public services or cutting the cost of living – like taxes – for small business and lower earners).

The hard truth of it is that every decision the Government takes on spending increases, whether it is wages or other spending (e.g. on welfare or public services), means that either we will either have to raise taxes – quite possibly income tax – or borrow more. If we keep borrowing, we will simply have more debt and interest to pay. Borrowing will also mean that we will not have any funds available if there is a further economic shock (as we saw in 2008), or even another pandemic.

The Government does not take these decisions to be unpopular and it may sometimes get things wrong. But choices are being made under the difficult economic and financial circumstances our country currently finds itself in.

The other issue is that millions of workers have lost their jobs or their incomes. The Government has to make certain that spending decisions do not increase the burden for workers through higher taxes. Whichever way we look, there are no simple answers.

It is easy for the political opposition parties to campaign for more funding and win themselves short-term popularity because they do not share any of the responsibility for the difficult spending decisions that the Government has to make.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com.

Reaction to #Budget2021

“Even by the standards of Brown, Darling, Osborne and Hammond many of the details in this Budget had been leaked in advance, prompting the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways & Means to issue a joint statement reprimanding the Chancellor. In addition, you must have been hiding under a rock not to have seen the six minute Twitter video (of Netflix quality) plus all the Sunak-branded graphics. What followed was another first: a press conference on the Budget itself. Make no mistake, this was about selling Brand Rishi and shaping opinion before the papers had their say. Judging by the editorials – not the front pages – and the immediate polling, he did his job. This populist government is playing the long game.”

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Founder & Director at do Different.

This Conservative government isn’t leaving office for many years to come. Really pleased to see £19 million announced to tackle domestic abuse in England and Wales, with funding for a network of ‘Respite Rooms’ to support homeless women and a programme to prevent re-offending. It’s an issue that is close to my heart and affects so many. All too often it is hidden and not reported.”

Aisha Cuthbert, Head of Communications at One Housing

“Slick, well-managed Budget from the Chancellor. I’m excited by the prospect of a rapid recovery but let’s hope interest rates don’t rise in the meantime. Onwards and upwards!”

Katie Perrior, Chair of iNHouse Communications

“The impact of Covid has blown away the dogma of Tory fiscal policy. This is a Chancellor acting and redefining not only the fiscal landscape but the political landscape with his ‘right thing to do’ approach to the economy.”

Kulveer Ranger, Global Head of Strategy & Communications (Financial Services & Insurance) at Atos

“A skilful Budget making the best of the terrible hand the Covid crisis has dealt him. This was the first Instagram Budget.”

Lionel Zetter, Patron of Conservatives in Communications

“The Chancellor’s decision to write into the Budget lead-in times for changes in corporation tax was a canny political move as it gives business time to bake in the adjustments and it gives him the opportunity to defer those changes to much fanfare later down the line, if the economic situation allows.”

Naomi Harris, Director at WA Communications

“A perfect combination of politically astute, of-the-moment statements and fiscally flexible future policies. But scratch below the surface and the Chancellor has outlined a titanic shift in Conservative policy towards a higher tax, bigger borrowing, expanded state. This shift must now be reconciled with the Party and decades of conservative economic policy making thus far. Sunak’s second Budget is one he’ll answer for years to come.”

Poppy Trowbridge, Strategy and board advisory

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.