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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This piece was written for The Sunday Express.

Mental health in Lockdown Britain

GUEST POST: James Price is Senior Account Director at Hanover Communications. Connect on LinkedIn. Follow on Twitter

Many of the unpleasant by-products of this rotten year are easy to see: masks abound, streets are quieter and many, many pubs, restaurants and shops are shut. But another consequence of 2020, the one I fear the most, cannot be seen. Like the virus itself, it stays hidden away inside us – out of sight but never out of mind.

I am talking about the potentially devastating damage to our mental health if the people of Britain are locked away over the winter, unable to participate in the simple things that make life worth living; seeing friends, holding loved ones and generally feeling hopeful about a brighter tomorrow. 

It’s hard to consider, for example, the idiotic measures on ‘non-essential goods’ being rolled out in Wales, without concluding that those in charge are getting the balance disastrously wrong. Likewise, the suggestion of banning people from separate households from meeting outside feels so inhumane and so thoughtless, that it simply cannot have been devised by someone living alone in a small flat.

Yet putting aside, for a moment, the official response to the lockdown – suffice to say if we do not learn to talk to one another and share our struggles at this time, then the epidemic in depression and anxiety will have truly ruinous effects on society, on the economy, and on families. 

In recent years, our healthcare system and occasionally our institutions have made some important steps towards acknowledging that poor mental health can destroy individuals and families as much as any virus. And public figures, from Prince William to Lady Gaga, have been admirably brave in talking about their experiences. 

But we remain, as a nation, emotionally constipated in our ability to talk about the struggles that millions have faced, are facing, and will face before this pandemic is behind us. Of course, emoting endlessly about our feelings with no practical end in sight is counter-productive, and with our stiff upper lips and propensity to Keep Buggering On, we are hardly suited to being a nation of navel-gazers. But for the last 20 years, the number one killer in the UK for men and women aged 20-34 has been suicide. Suffering in silence is infinitely worse than oversharing.

Six years ago I tried to kill myself several times. I was completely beaten by depression, saw no joy, no future and no point in carrying on living. I nearly jumped in front of several tubes, prepared to jump off a tall building, contemplated overdosing on something horrible and (bizarrely, looking back now) would often cycle around London at night hoping to be hit by buses.

And while the fear that I may once again fall into the depths of such a personal Hell again has never really left me (and bubbles of despair occasionally waft up from the depths), I slowly got better and have been piecing my life back together ever since. There are still many amends to make, not to mention the unpayable debt to my beautiful mum who talked me down from the edge. But I am vastly luckier than the thousands of people who don’t get better and take their lives every year, not least because my employer understands and takes these issues seriously, and because I have an understanding group of friends and family.

Because of that, I have tried to speak candidly and calmly about the struggles I have had with the depression that almost killed me. As a former Government Special Adviser and Conservative Parliamentary candidate, my logic has been that if a big, ugly, hairy right-wing Brexiteer can talk openly about having been suicidal, it might make it easier for others to do the same. 

As a result, over the past few years, dozens, possibly hundreds of people have got in touch privately to share their worries and fears. It’s tough to hear, sometimes unbearably so, but it does seem that the simple act of talking out loud about our struggles helps. By acknowledging our feelings, we can begin to define them, measure them and crucially, to understand that they have their limits. And treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy, not to mention medication, can alleviate acute cases. 

Of course more funding from businesses and the Government to help those who particularly need to speak to professionals will help, too. But I fear that unless we collectively resolve to fight it, this winter could be shattering to the mental wellbeing of so many people who have already struggled through 2020. A national effort will be required to administer consolation to our fellow creatures in this dark hour. 

So I am asking for you to take a minute to reach out to someone you haven’t heard from in a while and remind them that you exist and care about them. And if you’re struggling through dark days as you read this, remember that it really will be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright; then it isn’t the end.

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This piece was written for The Telegraph.

Patience: a virtue the Tories are yet to find

GUEST POST: Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher. Connect on LinkedIn. Follow on Twitter

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

The bigger picture

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

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

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

Levelling-up agenda

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

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

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

Beyond the bubble

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

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

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

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This piece was written for this website.

Keeping a cool head in a crisis

GUEST POST: Mike Love is Patron of Conservatives in Communications. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

As I write I’m listening to news reports in the UK critical of the Government’s latest anti-Covid-19 measures for not being restrictive enough and for “not following the science.”

Until now, the loudest criticisms had been that they had acted in too draconian a way and had slavishly “followed the science.”

Anybody who has shared my experience of being a crisis manager will sympathise with the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” fate we have all known at one time or another and that those government crisis managers and their political masters must be experiencing today.

When I’ve been in “the war room” managing a crisis I’ve always tried to shut out those “we know better” voices.

That risks ignoring what might be good advice, but the greater risk is that you become dazzled like the rabbit in the headlights by bright but allusory and dangerous shiny objects which might seem momentarily attractive as “get out of jail cards” but almost certainly needed greater scrutiny than you have time to give.

My apologies for metaphor and allegory overload!

A good crisis manager is one who can in Kipling’s words “keep their head when all about them are losing theirs.” Figuratively, not literally hopefully.

Keeping your nerve is probably to key attribute required.

In a crisis situation things invariably change fast and furiously. Best laid plans fall apart and wargamed playbook scenarios are too often quickly become irrelevant. And if you have time to read the Crisis Manual then you aren’t really in a crisis.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a great believer in preparation and planning. And manuals!

The best professional advice I ever received was from my friend Harvey Thomas, famed former “advance man” to Billy Graham and Margaret Thatcher. I asked him for his top three tips and they were “prepare, prepare and prepare.”

The LEADS Test after which my blog is named was itself a methodology I developed not just to help corporate leaders to make tough policy decisions but also to be used as a war-gaming techniques to help plan, prepare and test those scenarios to develop a best practice playbook.

But these techniques and methodologies were designed for crisis training – to help business leaders and their communicators to prepare for the worst days that hopefully would never happen and to guide them in conducting business and communications in ways to help prevent them from happening at all. The training should help you to understand how to make the decisions, not to dictate what those decisions will be.

I’ve not managed a crisis where the scenarios ever neatly fitted our pre-planned playbooks. But every single one of them fitted the lesson from preparing them – to understand how to take responsibility.

In many organisations, particularly big ones, taking responsibility is something people try to avoid. Afterall there’s always a consultant or adviser to blame, and in the biggest organisations there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of people to help take the blame when it goes wrong, but strangely they rarely share the credit when it goes well.

The key learning for participants in those preparation and war-gaming exercises, the only one that really matters, is to learn how to behave in a crisis. Not so much what to do, as specifics vary enormously, but to understand how, when and why things should be done.

The best crisis management preparation and training is to learn how to be in the right frame of mind, to ignore siren voices, and to keep your nerve.

When decisions are made, they are your responsibility. Whether things go well or not, it’s important to remember the mantra famously espoused by one of my former bosses Margaret Thatcher: “advisers advise and ministers decide.”

No matter how many people are in the room, literally and figuratively, giving advice, and no matter how many “we know better” heads are outside it shouting in, the ability to take responsibility for your decision is ultimately why you are paid to be there.

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This piece was written for Mike’s blog.

Set Boris free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This piece was written for our website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This piece was written for The Times.

Britishness is normal. Unionists should say so

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This piece was written for The Times.

London – this is Basingstoke calling

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

What many people anticipated has happened. J.P. Morgan, an international bank with 16,000 employees based in the UK – spread across Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Bournemouth and Basingstoke – has made a call on how it will be organised in the post Covid-19 world. Working from home, at least part of the time, is going to be a “more or less permanent” feature of their model. The “rotational model” will see JPM bankers working “one week a month from home, or two days a week from home, or two weeks a month”, depending on the type of business.

I’m a former employee, so perhaps I tend to place too much value on what the bank says. However, I don’t think anyone can deny the firm is a leader with serious heavyweight thinkers at the very top. Who would you prefer to be in The White House – Donald J. Trump or Jamie Dimon?

This news came out on the same day as a BBC report about 50 UK businesses. None – not even one – is planning a full-scale return to pre-pandemic office staffing levels. Simon Jack, BBC Business Editor, called city-centres an “ecosystem” like a coral reef. It’s a good analogy. And he called the situation a cardiac arrest rather than a process of evolution. It’s also being reported that London’s West End is still only operating at 13% of pre Covid-19 lockdown levels. The national level for other cities is 17%. This heart-breaking quote from The Times sums it up: Andrea Oriani wonders if the sandwich bar that he owns in Leadenhall Market will exist come next year. “The City has died,” he said. “We closed in March, thinking it would be a couple of weeks, and didn’t reopen until early July.” In the first week back he took £400. Compare that with a normal £10,000. Last Thursday he took £240 in a day.

I don’t know anyone who expects any sort of return to normality this year. A friend who lives in Kennington says the neighbourhood is busy with people working from home and, in the evening, pubs and restaurants are thriving. Moorgate, just five tube stops away, is empty. Inflexion-point is an over-used phrase, but this is surely where we’re at. Public transport and the catering/ hospitality segments that solely rely on office workers in the City and West End are in a death spiral. Tragically, I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done.

Are there any positives? Well, yes. Discussing the situation with friends who, like me, haven’t set foot in central London for six months we bemoaned the loss of many things. Office banter, gossip, meeting friends from overseas offices etc., we yearn for a sense of community. Working remotely may well be efficient, however, it can also be soulless at times.

I live in Church Crookham, Hampshire. It’s in the Hart district, which is regularly voted as the best place to live in the country. It didn’t earn its reputation because of its restaurant diversity. My neighbours seem to have an unquenchable appetite for either Italian or Indian food. America may run on Dunkin Donuts – around here it’s pizza and chicken tikka masala. The only standout is our excellent Nepalese restaurants – a legacy of the Gurkha Regiment formerly being based here. We don’t have any Japanese, Lebanese or even Mexican restaurants.

So, my passion for exploring new cuisines has in the past been partly sated by the London food-truck scene. At my old office near Liverpool Street station, we were quite spoilt for choice. Thursday night events at Spitalfields Market were enormous fun too. I’ve even watched open-air salsa dancing while eating spicy Argentinian Empanadas and drinking beer brewed in Rotherhithe. You can’t do that on a Zoom call…

I have a suggestion. Perhaps J.P. Morgan could organise a food-truck event in the car park at their office in Basingstoke? If we can’t or won’t go to London, then they must come to us. Family members tell me that Milton Keynes (where 30,000 people are estimated to be WFH instead of commuting) and mill houses in Sheffield would love some food diversity. Looking forward to it.

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This piece was written for our website.

Extinction Rebellion’s virtue-signalling hypocrisy undermines climate crisis cause

GUEST POST: Stephen Lynch is a PR and Public Affairs Consultant, and former Press Adviser to The Conservative Party. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Extinction Rebellion are now censoring the press in their pursuit of halting mass extinction. It’s also a peculiar time to stretch the precious resources of the emergency services, and deprive family newsagents of income during the prolonged menace of Covid-19. 

Former Labour ministers reckon that XR’s latest stunt comes out of the fascistic authoritarian regime playbook. Days after attacking the free press and its freedom to publish, the group’s latest email has the chutzpah to praise the “freedom to speak truth to power” as a hallmark of a “healthy democracy”.

Ironically, XR prevented readers of The Sun newspaper this weekend from hearing Sir David Attenborough’s thoughts about how to tackle the climate crisis. The mission of tackling the climate crisis needs those who can build alliances, not alienate them.

XR risks being irrevocably labelled as a left-wing, anarchist group of affluent activists more concerned with parading their morality on social media than effectively dealing with the complexity of the climate crisis. They face being officially classified as an organised crime organisation, with all the invasive surveillance that entails. Their blockades of printworks risk damaging the very cause the group is supposed to be supporting.

XR’s website says their struggle is not about left or right, yet they targeted every right-of-centre newspaper in their salvo against the “crooked billionaire press”. Their literature claims that XR avoids “blaming and shaming” any one individual, yet their recent emails attack Rupert Murdoch and “corrupt media moguls and dodgy politicians.”

XR misleadingly pushes the illogical notion to their followers that the UK government is sanguine about, or otherwise deliberately accelerating climate change. 

Prior to Covid-19 and after leaving the EU, achieving net zero became one of the government’s two overarching priorities, along with “levelling up” the nations and regions. Last year, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law ending its contribution to global warming by 2050; the UK has decarbonised faster than any other G20 country; it is the world’s biggest producer of offshore wind energy; it has cut emissions by 42 per cent since 1990.

There is always more to do, and few in Whitehall or in industry are complacent about sustainability.

Next November, 30,000 delegates, including heads of state and climate experts, will gather in Glasgow to agree coordinated international action for tackling the climate crisis at COP26. 

It will be the first time that the UK has taken on the presidency of this UN conference, and our government will want to lead the gathering with a powerful pledge and a message to other countries that it is time to step up.

The international community also hopes we will lead with a strong commitment on our own emissions so we will have credibility in encouraging other countries to follow suit.

The Met Office’s State of the Climate report this summer illustrates that over the last decade, summers and winters have been around 12 per cent wetter. Four new high-temperature records were registered in 2019, including the highest UK temperature.

Despite the UK’s achievements, there is a compelling case for action, especially as global carbon emissions have more than doubled since 1971. The question is how best can we make a genuine difference on this planet?  

China is responsible for more than one-quarter of all global carbon emissions, and along with the United States, India, Russia and Japan, the biggest polluters account for over half of all emissions.

This seems like a good place to start if you are serious about creating change.

The delayed COP26 also gives XR the opportunity to potentially influence a new administration in Washington, and one that would be more committed to the Paris Agreement at that.

Joe Biden has pledged to integrate climate change fully into US policy on trade and foreign affairs. A stronger believer in alliances, if he is elected president, he could also opt to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the UK to form the world’s greatest trading bloc, where the environment is an integral aspect, not an optional add-on.

XR should form partnerships with NGOs in these highest-emitting countries and seek to influence in a more convincing, mature, and legal way.

The global spotlight on Glasgow will help focus delegates’ attention, laser-like, on the task at hand.  

XR’s first demand is for the media and politicians to “tell the truth” about the global ecological emergency. Dale Carnegie’s best-selling books on persuasion do not recommend starting a negotiation by publicly questioning the other side’s honesty and integrity.  

XR can engage more effectively and professionally with the proceedings – coffees, meeting agendas and informed discussion rather than handcuffs, tantrums and disruption motivated by self-appointed moral superiority. Lobbying is making the right argument, to the right person, at the right time. XR can make a strategic shift away from civil disobedience and towards civil engagement and debate in Glasgow, Scotland’s Dear Green Place, next year.

Protest can put critical issues on the agenda, but you need lawmakers and policies to make the change. We have the means to act. The UK is in prime position to coordinate, cajole and enable the substantial political will required. We can begin to finally turn the tide against decades of complacency, for which there may be an awfully high cost.

XR can be a help, not a hindrance in a long campaign that will ultimately be won with advanced diplomacy, persuasion and technology – not by casting aspersions on the intelligence of the people whose support you need, or on the motives of the people who will legislate the change.

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

This piece was written for The Independent.

Just what is now ‘normal’?

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

One of the best managers I’ve worked for used to allocate an hour per day for informal thinking and reflection – sometimes he did it alone while other times he chewed the fat with his colleagues in a completely unstructured way. During my professional career, I’ve seen and heard many people confuse activity with productivity. Further, a friend who works in a managerial capacity in the education sector told me that, at the onset of the lockdown, his boss immediately organised seven hours of Zoom calls for his team. That’s not seven hours in total – that’s seven hours every, single, day. He didn’t allow any time for pre-meeting preparation or post-meeting execution – let alone time to think and reflect. The boss, who is the CEO, clearly doesn’t trust his team to do the right thing. Unsurprisingly, his team doesn’t feel comfortable and they are exhausted from being in an artificial meeting environment almost all day, every day.

It will take a while to paint an accurate picture – but, perhaps in a year’s time, we’ll be able to look back and say who had a good or a bad lockdown. The phrase “(s)he had a good war” is little heard nowadays, however, it was commonplace when I was growing up. The example I remember best is Denis Healey, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer and a potential prime minister during the tumultuous mid-seventies. At the beginning of the Second World War, he was a lowly gunner and five years later left the army as a major with an MBE. He was decorated for his bravery for being in charge of the Allied beach landing at Anzio, Italy. And he spoke fluent Italian due to a number of local girlfriends… By most interpretations, he had a good war!

I’ve been keeping a diary since the pandemic first emerged. The most often-cited issue is the NHS. Has it had a good war? My view is that it’s a nuanced answer. With 1.4 million staff and an annual budget of £130 billion it really can’t be looked at as a single cohesive entity. It consumes about 10% of our national GDP. No other entity, public or private sector, comes remotely close.

Some elements of the NHS are in the “could do better” category. NHS logistics failed in the early stages of the pandemic, the provision of PPE was chaotic and it certainly didn’t communicate effectively. At the 2019 General Election, Comrade Corbyn tried to scare us into thinking that the NHS would be sold to US firms. Thankfully, the public wasn’t fooled by this nonsense – but, it does raise the issue of whether it’s an unwelcome idea. Who would you prefer to run the NHS supply chain: NHS bureaucrats with limited international capability and no plan for a pandemic or global logistics wizards with state-of-the-art technology at Amazon? Don’t get me started about NHSX – did they really think they are better at developing apps than Apple or Google? The heroic efforts of our hospital doctors and nurses can’t be allowed to bury these issues.

We are closest to GP services. A recent claim by Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson – that GP surgeries may not re-open until March 2021 – prompted a flurry of responses from doctors who claim to be working just “normally”. NHS England medical director for primary care, Dr Nikki Kanani, said: “General practice is open and has been throughout the pandemic. Whilst consultations may have been offered remotely or virtually to keep patients and staff safe, our practices have been open and offering care.” This is not my experience.

I’m 58 and consider myself fairly digitally savvy. I’m completely OK with telephone and video consultations. For me, in most circumstances, they’re better than face-to-face meetings. I also have a number of close relatives in their eighties with chronic long-term conditions. Most of these people have trouble operating a TV remote control – let alone a WhatsApp video-call on a smartphone. Very few of them actually own or have access to a smartphone! Many have some level of hearing loss, which an aid doesn’t appear to compensate for on the telephone.

Not all old people are technophobes, however it is a prevalent issue. I know old folks who still think the phone is really only for emergencies. A story on the BBC PM show recently highlighted that some old people still prefer to make calls in the afternoon because it’s cheaper than in the morning. (Note for younger readers: this used to be true in the 1980’s). One elderly chap said he only switches on his mobile phone when he wants to make a call. 

GP surgeries closed their doors in mid-March and have only recently started a cautious re-opening programme. Before Covid-19 there were about 26 million GP appointments per month. If you’re elderly the only way you know how to communicate with a doctor is by meeting them in-person. When you meet a doctor, they will routinely assess your body language, your pallor and your general demeanour. How can they do this over the phone? Doctors are expert at listening to what you say and reading between the lines. Many of my elderly relatives will be more honest in the privacy of a doctor’s consultation room than in their own home. They are not accustomed to intimate, private conversations via telephone. The conversation is likely to be a lot more stilted and therefore less productive.

Speaking recently at a meeting of the Royal College of Physicians, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘From now on, all consultations should be tele-consultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to’. My local GP website says: “You cannot book a face to face GP appointment. Following telephone consultation you may be asked by the GP to attend.” Only 10% of consultations now physically take place. This is a radical change – and hasn’t been properly justified, as far as I can tell. Plus, how much consultation on the issue has been conducted?

Medical professionals need to be protected – but, at what cost? My local authority has an infection rate (in the week to August 21) of 2.1 per 100,000 people. That equated to two people … The physical closure of GP surgeries may have been sensible at the peak of the pandemic, however things have moved on, surely? The medical establishment is very good at pumping out statistics about the number of virtual consultations it’s done. But, have they measured the effectiveness and patient satisfaction recently? It would be good to know. Perhaps it’s time they both thought and reflected.

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

This piece was written for our website.