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.

Events, dear boy

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

The unpredictability of politics was perhaps best described by Harold Macmillan as the sudden appearance of “Events, dear boy, events”. Although nobody – including his biographer – has been able to trace back to when he said that!

As the first quarter of 2020 has shown, the UK government has had to respond to ‘events’ rather than push on with other priorities. First came the storms (Brendan, Ciara, Dennis and Jorge) that caused travel disruption, flooding and damage to infrastructure. Next were sustained attacks on the Home Secretary – from the Left, disgruntled civil servants and some in the media, including that ghastly cartoon in The Guardian. But nothing, nothing could quite trump Coronavirus and its dominance in the national conversation. At work, you will hear colleagues singing the national anthem or happy birthday (twice) or counting to 20 – while washing their hands. At home, some family members are ‘self-isolating’ having stock-piled enough paracetamol, pasta and toilet roll to last them a lifetime.

Pesky things, these events. So far, the prime minister and his team have weathered them all. What’s next, I hear you ask? Only one of the biggest events in the parliamentary calendar and the first for more than a year.

Several weeks ago, Rishi Sunak had no idea he would be replacing Sajid Javid as the country’s second BME Chancellor and delivering a Budget this Wednesday. Nor could he have envisaged ‘Black Monday’, which saw some of the biggest daily stock market drops since the 2008 global financial crisis and trading in US shares briefly suspended.

Thankfully, his closeness to Number 10 – he was Boris Johnson’s stand-in for one of the TV debates – as well as his time in financial services (Goldman Sachs and The Children’s Investment Fund Management) and more recently as Chief Secretary to the Treasury means he has both the support from the top and the experience to deliver the goods against economic uncertainty. The question is how radical can and does the Chancellor want to be in reshaping the UK’s economy?

My suspicion is he does but he can’t do everything this time; with the more dramatic measures postponed until either the Spending Review or Autumn Statement. Speaking on The Today Programme about the Budget, George Osborne said the government needs to “vaccinate the economy”. He is probably right.

Just look at what has been pre-briefed: 2020 will be the last year that women are taxed on sanitary products plus there is double funding for flood defences, employment tax breaks for veterans and £8 million for football pitches. All of these make sense to me and I’m certain will be welcomed by those affected, but they are hardly earth-shattering. I hope – and anticipate – there will be much more on the levelling-up agenda, as expectations of this government – from all quarters, but especially blue-collar workers – are very high; more so, as it’s been the longest gap between budgets since the 19th century.

It is customary for the Chairman of Ways & Means to chair the debate on the Chancellor’s Budget. I look forward to being in the chamber to see Dame Eleanor Laing – the first woman to hold that post – on this historic event, during Women’s History Month.

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (‘Events, dear boy, events’ – March 11, 2020).