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.

Time to double-down on digital infrastructure

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher

“In these exceptional times, the most precious commodity is confidence. Government has a golden opportunity with the National Infrastructure Strategy to set out an ambitious but deliverable plan for the nation’s economic infrastructure.”  

James Heath, National Infrastructure Commission CEO, commenting earlier this month is right. The coronavirus pandemic has not only presented the Government with a “golden opportunity” to deliver on its ambitious commitment to delivering gigabit-capable broadband across the country by 2025 and 5G by 2027, but it has brought the unprecedented need to deliver on it.  

By focusing on these core manifesto promises, the Government would do well to use the National Infrastructure Strategy later this autumn to double-down on its efforts to deliver the urgent digital infrastructure improvements needed across the UK. This renewed effort would play an instrumental role in supporting the economic recovery of the UK, and for the worst affected regions such as the North, Yorkshire and the Midlands.   

Covid-19 and the accelerated demand for “levelling-up”  

Even before the pandemic and the shift to working-from-home, improving digital connectivity in the North and the Midlands was crucial to the Government’s chances of “levelling-up” the country. 

There is a host of evidence – not least in the articles published by Digital Tories – which shows the direct benefits that would be felt by regions across the UK from the delivery of improved digital connectivity. Enhanced levels of productivity, greater economic activity and more employment opportunities are just three. 

Furthermore, enhanced digital connectivity delivers wider socio-economic benefits too, such as the opportunity for remote healthcare services, real-time data sharing and a greater scope for the use of artificial intelligence. However, for some parts of the country, simply getting decent broadband coverage was a challenge throughout the lockdown.  

Several ‘Blue Collar Conservative’ MPs have called on the Government to scrap its plans for HS2 (considering the pandemic) and have made the case that in order to truly deliver on the levelling-up agenda, delivering high speed broadband should take precedence.  

Figures from the New Economics Foundation show that 40 percent of HS2’s benefits would flow to workers commuting to London, with only 18-10 percent going to workers in the North and the Midlands. The Government should consider re-prioritising the money, energy and attention from projects like HS2 and spend it on speeding up the delivery of digital infrastructure.  

Supporting economic recovery 

Delivering on its ambitious targets for the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband would be a great way for the Government to support the UK’s economic recovery; delivering economic output, capital investment and greater job opportunities are some of the benefits that would be materialised across the whole country.   

A recent report published by the Centre for Policy Studies found that a faster rollout of 5G infrastructure “would help deliver a quicker and stronger economic recovery for the UK.” The report supports the argument that the delivery of 5G across the country would significantly help the UK’s economic recovery, by generating £34.1bn in economic output if the Government meets its ambitious target of doing so by 2027. This is more pronounced in the long-term, whereby the access to digital services and reliable connectivity – that has been essential to the country’s response to Covid-19 – will be integral to the resilience, economic security and productivity of our four regions.  

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs; the characteristics of large digital infrastructure projects – such as their long-term nature, their complexity and often their interdependence – means the rollout of 5G and of gigabit-capable broadband offer significant opportunities for job creation in the face of record unemployment. A report by WPI Economics estimates that the rollout of 5G will create over 600,000 jobs in the UK by 2030, with potentially even greater productivity benefits being materialised in the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom.  

The challenges facing the country are epic in scale; the Government’s interventions and policy measures to support the economy have been historic in nature. It is therefore reasonable to call for an unprecedented and unwavering focus on digital infrastructure delivery. While there is a myriad of technical, regulatory and political reasons behind the delays to the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband, the coronavirus pandemic should not, and cannot be one of them. 

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This piece was written for Digital Tories

Boris the builder

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications

Boris Johnson once described himself as ‘basically a Brexity Hezza’. What he meant by that was that he and former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine shared a penchant for ‘grands projets’.

The prime minister’s announcement that, despite ballooning costs, HS2 would go ahead underlined his fondness for giant infrastructure schemes. At the same time, he also gave the green light to Northern Powerhouse Rail and promised massive investment in the bus network and in cycle superhighways. As if these were not enough, there were also announcements about 5G roll-out, and plans for up to ten freeports.

Aside from his personal predilection for such projects, the stream of announcements around HS2 also reflected the hard-headed calculation by Tory strategists that the best way to signal to former Labour voters in the North and the Midlands that their Damascene conversion would not go unrewarded was to at least start to address the long-running imbalance between investment in London and the South East, and the rest of the country. In order to do so the government had to tear-up long-standing Treasury rules on return on investment.

Aside from the cynical political calculation of the announcements they were also designed to take advantage of the historically low rates of interest on offer to stable governments, such as the UK’s. An added bonus is the prospect of, over time, using infrastructure investment to help to address the issue of low productivity that has plagued the UK for many years.

Boris Johnson’s track record of delivering on giant infrastructure projects is patchy. He can certainly claim much of the credit for the effective delivery of the 2012 London Olympics, and Crossrail was on time and on budget under his watch when he was London Mayor. However, the Garden Bridge scheme across the Thames was a costly fiasco, and during his time as Mayor he had vehemently opposed Heathrow expansion. Instead he championed ‘Boris Island’, an airport in the Thames Estuary – a feasible but controversial project.

But these past, present and future ‘grands projets’ – including talk of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland – are like their progenitor; they are not just very big, they are very bold.

The prime minister is proposing and championing them partly because of political and economic necessity, but also with an eye to his legacy. Boris wants to go down in history not just as a winner, but as a builder.

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This piece was written for our website.