What happens next: The battle for Britain

GUEST POST: Katie Frank is a Consultant at Portland Communications. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

We have been living through a constitutional cold war, with a political stalemate between Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon over an independence referendum.

But as Bute House and Downing Street wait on tenterhooks for the results of the Scottish Parliament election, attention now turns to the key question of the election: will there be a mandate for a second independence referendum in Scotland?

The stakes could not be higher. For Boris Johnson, the battle for Britain as a Union of nations still hangs in the balance. For Nicola Sturgeon, this is an unmissable – perhaps her last – opportunity to be the First Minister to lead Scotland to a referendum, and independence.

Two Prime Ministers have refused to hold a referendum in the past seven years. First Theresa May and then Boris Johnson batted back any proposals for a second independence referendum.

But this election could change the political dynamic.

While an SNP majority government in Scotland, or a significant vote for pro-independence parties in this election, is not synonymous with support for a second referendum, it would make the case against holding a second referendum increasingly more difficult for the Unionists to make.

Since 2014, polling shows support for independence steady – even increasing in the last year. Something the Nationalists will seek to capitalise on is a majority in this election which will be seen as a mandate for a referendum. They view this moment as an unmissable – almost ‘now or never’ moment – to pursue independence.

For Unionists, they know they need to deny the Nationalists a majority. They also know they need to play for time – staving off a referendum until a rear-guard action can be mounted to counter the pro-independence surge in public opinion.

Boris Johnson must be both bold and cautious.

He must be cautious on a referendum – standing his ground without martyring the Nationalist cause and avoid prompting them to pursue the issue through the courts or a consultative ‘wildcat’ referendum that could cause significant political headaches. A difficult tightrope to walk.

He must be bold on reinvigorating the case for the Union and taking the fight to the SNP. The Nationalists may be setting this up as a question of democracy – who gets to decide Scotland’s future, Boris Johnson or the people of Scotland? – and that may be fruitful territory for boosting public support for a referendum, whatever your views on independence.

But as the election campaign has shown, the SNP still have huge questions to answer on the case for independence itself. This is the territory where Boris Johnson can win – and undermine support for a referendum.

That means a shift from the tactical safe ground that the Westminster leadership of the Conservatives have retreated to in recent times.

But the onus is not just on the Westminster leadership of the Conservatives.

The Scottish Conservatives also need to up their game significantly by finding a strong and charismatic leader in the Scottish Parliament who can inspire voters with a positive Unionist vision. At the moment, they are found wanting on that kind of leadership. With the new Ruth Davidson-approved candidates potentially winging their way to the Scottish Parliament shortly, it remains to be seen if a new talent can emerge and galvanise the Scottish Conservatives and Unionist cause.

It certainly looks likely that in the event of a SNP majority, and even a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, that the Scottish Government would seek to negotiate a Section 30 Order under the Scotland Act 1998 to hold another referendum at some point in the next Parliamentary term.

But irrespective of the size of a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, it does not change one simple fact: legally, it is crystal clear that it is the UK Government that can enable a referendum to happen.

There are, of course, alternatives to a mutually-agreed referendum. The Scottish Government, for example, may seek to legislate unilaterally for a consultative referendum. But they know that is a risky road to travel down – the messy example of Catalonia looms large in Nationalists’ minds and any legislation is likely to be challenged in the courts by the UK Government. It is far from certain that the Scottish Government would win such a challenge.

Therein lies the predicament for the Nationalists. For all that they may claim a mandate and have options on the table – there is only one route to a credible, internationally-recognised results on self-determination and that is a referendum agreed upon by the UK Government.

The UK Government knows the strength of their position. For all that this election may strengthen the Nationalists’ hand, it is Boris Johnson that still possesses the trump card. How he plays it could come to define his premiership.

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This piece was written for Portland’s newsletter Inside Holyrood 2021Subscribe here.

The capital should have its own diplomats in every UK embassy

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

British embassies around the world run the whole gamut. From No. 35, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré to Level 19 of the Shangri-La Offices in Ulaanbataar, they look different but all have the same purpose: to maintain and develop relations between the UK and the host country.

That can mean a multitude of different things in the post-Brexit era of “Global Britain”. Embassies and consulates are, of course, the call of last resort for UK nationals who have had some kind of crisis or mishap abroad, and the grand diplomacy of ambassadors and their counterpart governments can still be a game of careful words and calculated verbal parries. Increasingly, however, we think, and are encouraged to think, of embassies as shop-fronts for the UK, and their staff as salespeople.

They can also be umbrellas under which others can shelter. Defence attachés can talk to those in uniform; the British Defence Staff in the US has 750 men and women across the country. The Scottish Government has also seen the glimmer of opportunity, and has seven international offices across the world to make sure the skirl of the pipes is heard. Yet London, the capital and vastly dominant economic centre of the UK, accounting for more than a fifth of our national wealth, doesn’t receive the same kind of treatment.

It is easy to feel conflicted about London’s prominence. We like to trumpet its extraordinary economic pre-eminence—even a generous attitude towards New York will generally rank London second in the world—and we talk lovingly of its cultural and creative diversity, its vibrancy and the allure of its bright lights.

At the same time we grumble anxiously about the disparity between London and the South East on the one hand and the rest of the UK on the other, about the need for our economy to “level up” to achieve greater equality and solidarity, and we fear that the capital might be like the legendary upas tree, destroying all potential for growth around it.

There is certainly a debate to be had around the desirability of the UK’s urban unipolarity, but there is also truth in the old saw that we are where we are. London is our greatest economic centre, a global player and the UK’s chief glory on the world stage. How can we promote it better?

It may be a glib and bureaucratic proposal to suggest an embassy of any size should have a “First Secretary (London)” or similar on its staff. However, there should certainly be a designated point of contact for matters affecting the capital, whether in terms of movement of labour and services, inward investment, trade promotion or anything else. 

Nominated London diplomats would be able to create internal networks, so that each month, for example, there could be a conference call involving all of the ‘London’ officers in (say) sub-Saharan Africa. It may well be that an investment opportunity for a London-based company in Nairobi might also have some resonance in Kampala or Dar-es-Salaam.

The embassy structure must reach outwards too, naturally. The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, CBI London, London and Partners: there is no shortage of organisations dedicated to promoting the capital and its growth and prosperity, and the government should use its network of overseas missions to create a space in which these can operate. The state works best when it uses its powers to provide a platform and then steps back while the private sector does what it is trained to do.

Then there is the figure of the mayor himself. In a few days’ time we will likely have confirmation of Sadiq Khan’s second term at City Hall. Much of what the mayor does, especially in terms of international trade and investment, is to act as a cheerleader for the city, a role to which Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone were, in their own ways, well-suited.

If one campaigns in poetry but governs in prose, then one plans with bold strokes but executes with a thousand tiny lines. It would be easy to say that we should have a “London trade czar” to tour the capitals of the world, but in truth it is more effective and realistic to look at incremental change, creating sustainable networks and shifting one degree at a time, On one issue we must be very clear, however: if Global Britain is to work, if we are to make an economic recovery on an international scale, then London must be its beating heart. That pulse needs to be heard in every embassy and consulate around the world.

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This piece was written for City AM.

Time to get brutal … 

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

There have always been bitter rivalries within government. In Tudor times it was Thomas Cromwell versus Thomas More. In more modern times it was Alastair Campbell versus Charlie Whelan. And now it seems (unbelievably) to be Carrie Symonds versus Dominic Cummings. How did it come to this during a pandemic?

In these battles, it’s essential that there is a winner and loser. Thomas More lost his head. Charlie Whelan lost his job. Once defeated (sacked or dead) there’s no way back. The winner literally takes all. 
 
No.10 is currently a battleground where relatively minor figures are engaged in non-mortal combat. It’s a battle involving text messages, notes of meetings, internal inquiries and leaks. And of course, who paid for the No.10 flat refurbishment!? Each side has their favoured journalists who seem perfectly happy to be used in a petty battle of influence and revenge. For the most part, normal folk couldn’t care less. 

If it’s true that someone at No.10 decided to brief against Dominic Cummings, they made a major mistake. A brilliant but potentially malevolent life force, he should have been left alone. His views on the failings of the machinery of government are correct. That is why he developed many enemies.

The problem, and it’s a major one, is that it diminishes the Prime Minister. That’s why it can’t be allowed to go on. There needs to be a triumphant winner and a loser, one who is out for the count and unable to return.

The danger for the PM is that it is hard to see Cummings being the loser. If there really is a dossier, No.10 has every reason to be scared. So do quite a few Cabinet Ministers whose failures and failings will be laid bare. We need to reach the shabby denouement of this sad little play as soon as possible. The theatre curtain can then be lowered, and we can go home.

And then what? The PM needs to appoint a real heavyweight to take over the running of No.10, sack the squabbling advisers, carry out a brutal reshuffle and start doing what he does best – Being Boris!

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This piece was written for our website.

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.

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.

It is time to get tough with the social media giants

Maria Miller

GUEST POST: Maria Miller is a former Culture Secretary and is MP for Basingstoke. Follow on Twitter

I want 2021 to be the year that we finally grasp the nettle of online abuse – to create a safer, more respectful online environment, that will lead to a kinder politics too. The need has never been greater. Abuse, bullying, and harassment on social media platforms is ruining lives, undermining our democracy, and splintering society.

As an MP, I have had to become accustomed to a regular bombardment of online verbal abuse, rape, and even death threats. In this I am far from alone. Female colleagues across the House are routinely targeted online with abusive, sexist, threatening comments. As Amnesty has shown, black female MPs are most likely to be subjected to unacceptable and even unlawful abuse.

And while women and people from an ethnic minority background are more likely than most to receive abuse online, they are not alone. Hate-filled trolls and disruptive spammers consider anyone with a social media presence to be fair game: one in four people have experienced some kind of abuse online and online bullying and harassment has been linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

While the personal impact of online abuse is intolerable, we must not underestimate the societal effect it is having. Research by the think-tank Compassion in Politics found that 27 per cent of people are put off posting on social media because of retributive abuse. We cannot have an open, honest, and pluralist political debate online in an atmosphere in which people are scared to speak up.

Which is why I am working cross-party with MPs and Peers to ensure that the upcoming Online Harms Bill is as effective as possible in tackling the scourge of online abuse.

First, the Bill must deal with the problem of anonymous social media accounts. Anonymous accounts generate the majority of the abuse and misinformation spread online and while people should have an option to act incognito on social media, the harm these accounts cause must be addressed.

I support a twin-track system: giving social media users the opportunity to create a “verified” account by supplying a piece of personal identification and the ability to filter out “unverified” accounts. This would give choice to verified users while continuing to offer protection to those, for example whistle blowers, who want to access social media anonymously.

The public back this idea. Polling by Opinium for Compassion in Politics reveals that 81 per cent of social media users would be willing to provide a piece of personal identification (passport, driving license or bank statement most probably) to gain a verified account. Three in four (72 per cent) believe that social media companies need to have a more interventionist role to wipe out the abuse on their platforms.

Of course, this approach would need to be coupled with enforcement, and I believe that can be achieved by introducing a duty of care on social media companies, along the lines suggested in the Government’s White Paper.

For too long, they have escaped liability for the harm they cause by citing legal loopholes, arguing they are platforms for content not producers or publishers. The legal environment that has facilitated social media companies’ growth is not fit for purpose – it must change to better reflect their previously unimaginable reach and influence. Any company that sells a good to a customer already has to abide by health and safety standards, and there is no reason to exempt social media companies. Any failure by those companies to undertake effective measures to limit the impact of toxic accounts should result in legal sanctions.

Alongside a duty of care, we need more effective laws to give individuals protection, particularly when it comes to posting of images online without consent. Deepfake, revenge pornography and up-skirting are hideous inventions of the online world. I want new laws to make it a crime to post or threaten to post an intimate image without consent, and for victims to be offered the same anonymity as others subjected to a sexual offence, so we stop needing the law to play continuous ‘catch up’ as new forms of online abuse emerge.

Finally, the Government should make good on its promise to invest an independent organisation with the power and resources to regulate social media companies in the UK. All the signs suggest that Ofcom will be asked to undertake that role and I can see no problem with that proposal as long as the company is given truly wide-ranging and independent powers, and personnel with the knowledge to tackle the social media giants.

In making these recommendations to Government, my intention is not to punish social media companies or to stifle online debate. Far from it. I want a more respectful, representative, and reasonable discourse online. So, let’s work together over the coming 12 months to make this Bill genuinely world-leading in the protection it will create for social media users, in the inclusivity it will foster, and respect it will engender.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com

“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.

Singapore-on-Thames: why is this a bad idea?

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a Freelance Thought Leadership Consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

Shortly after the 2016 EU referendum, I visited Singapore to meet-up with clients and colleagues in my role as Brexit policy manager for a large US-headquartered global financial services firm. I offered to deliver a briefing for the local team and was greeted with a response that was to become remarkably familiar as I visited other office locations in Indo-Pacific and the Americas. Incredulity is the best word to describe their viewpoint, which was driven by two factors: very slanted local media reporting and a lack of understanding about what the EU is (and wants to be).

I’m a typical Tory – meaning I’m a long-term Eurosceptic. We joined an economic community but were being increasingly drawn into a political superstate. I’m a free marketeer who wants global trade to flourish. A rising tide really does lift all boats! Where I’m less typical, I suppose, is that while I’m no fan of the Customs Union I am very much in favour of the Single Market.  

My experience of dealing with Brussels over many years of working on financial services regulation led me to believe the UK would be better off out the EU. When you see how the sausages are made you can’t help but think about becoming a vegetarian … Despite this, I was surprised by the result and very apprehensive about how the exit process would work. (It turned out to be worse than I thought, however that’s for another day.) 

Back to Singapore. Anticipating their puzzlement about why the UK had gone mad, I did some homework on the astonishing success of its economy. When Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 it was a very undeveloped country. Its population was estimated to be 50% illiterate, malaria was rife and its GDP per capita was only US$516. It has almost no natural resources – it must import water and sand from its near neighbours. So, going it alone was a very brave move indeed.  

However, by 2018 Singapore’s GDP per capita had reached US$87k – higher than the US. For comparison, Ghana – another former British colony – took its GDP per-head from US$974 in 1970 to a meagre US$2,200 in 2018. This is despite being richly endowed in natural resources: its colonial name was The Gold Coast! The decision by the UK to leave the EU was, by comparison, a more modest change. 

So, why do many people seem to think that using Singapore as a model is a bad idea? The concept appears to be that Singapore is a low-regulation country. This is a misconception. My experience, based on dealing with financial regulators, is that Singaporean regulators and policy-makers do not fit any sort of stereotype. They do not have any hesitation to do what is appropriate for their market and they have a very business-orientated approach.

A key part of any policy is that it should enable growth. Conversations with regulators very often revolve around what you are not allowed to do. In Singapore, it’s all about encouraging you to do more – and to do it in Singapore. This isn’t de-regulation. Singapore now has many advantages: low taxes, stable politics, a robust legal system and zero tolerance of corruption. And alongside these: a strong regulatory system is also a cornerstone; it attracts business. 

The phrase ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ appears to have been coined by the media with its origins in the fears and prejudices of politicians in the EU. The UK won’t become another Singapore, however that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from its success. I hope we do. 

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This piece was written for our website.