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.

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.

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.

The elephant in the countryside

GUEST POST: Edward Rowlandson is Political Relations Manager at the Countryside Alliance. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

There is a stark contrast in fortunes between the Conservative Party and The Labour Party when it comes to the rural electorate. The Conservatives hold 177 of the 199 rural seats in England and Wales, Labour hold 17. The complete dominance of the Conservative Party has in turn awarded the Party the keys to No.10 in 2015, 2017 and 2019. The Conservatives know how to win in rural seats, whereas Labour has a problem.

The Countryside Alliance’s recent report explores Labour’s relationship with the countryside. The report focuses on Labour’s electoral fortunes in rural England and Wales over the past three general elections. As first recognised by Maria Eagle, Labour MP for Garston and Halewood, after the 2015 election, Labour had (and still has) a rural problem. However, it has been widely ignored by most in The Labour Party.

Labour did not always ignore the rural electorate. When it won the 1997 and 2001 general elections it boasted over 100 rural MPs reaching into the Conservative rural heartlands. At that time, Labour chose to engage with rural voters. However, over time the countryside and Labour have grown further and further apart. Constituency boundaries may have changed, but that cannot hide the situation Labour now finds itself in.

After the 2019 general election much has been made of Labour losing its ‘red wall’, but not much analysis or thought has been given to the complete collapse of Labour’s rural vote – losing 15 seats and going backwards in every rural seat it held. Yet, despite Labour’s worst result in the countryside (and country) since 1935 Labour continued, under Jeremy Corbyn, to prioritise the activities taken in the countryside rather than on the priorities of the countryside. During the Agriculture Bill Committee stages Labour attempted to stop anyone who had used a dog to hunt (including rats) from receiving future agriculture subsidies. Even when drafting problems were highlighted with the junior Shadow Defra Minister, she pressed the amendment to a vote. If it were not for Conservative colleagues in the committee, every farmer would not be entitled to any agricultural subsidy. This was a party that clearly did not understand the countryside nor was it willing to listen to those rural colleagues to the impact that their proposed amendments would cause. Defra Secretary of State, George Eustice, is right when he said: “Nationally, the Conservative Party has always had a much stronger affinity and understanding with rural communities, whether that is agricultural communities, but many others besides who have been farmers themselves and so understand that particular area.” In this instance, Labour’s actions proved the Secretary of State completely right.

However, under Sir Keir Starmer, The Labour Party has been more open to engagement with rural voters, and Luke Pollard, Shadow Defra Minister, wants to make Labour “the party of the countryside” and has even acknowledged Labour’s rural problem: “I think what we need to understand is that the route back to power, the way of winning back many of those communities is to recognise that we need to be there.”

It remains to be seen whether Labour will be able to fulfil their ambitions, however their admission of its rural problem is one that the Conservatives should note. If Labour start to challenge in the countryside Conservatives will have to match that challenge. Ironically the Labour 2019 general election strategy of targeting only urban seats worked – it now holds most of them. Therefore, the sooner it closes the gap in the countryside the closer it gets to No.10. The task for the Conservative Party is to maintain its dominance – currently at 89%. To do that the Conservatives have to show the rural electorate why they were right to put their trust in them. Polling from ORB International found that issues most important to the rural electorate are housing, healthcare and transport. These issues are the ones that need to be addressed; and will ultimately secure the Conservative Party continued success both in the countryside and in the country.  

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This piece was written for our website.

Social housing must be part of building plans to help boost the economy

Aisha Vance-Cuthbert is Co-Director of Conservatives in Communications and Head of Communications at a large housing association

This morning, in Dudley, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will unveil his taskforce ‘Project Speed’ – chaired by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak – aimed at accelerating building and infrastructure projects to get the UK economy moving again as we slowly emerge from lockdown.

This move is welcomed by the construction industry, and those who are both directly and indirectly employed by the sector. However, what we need – in addition to schools, infrastructure and market sale / rent homes – are new social homes for the millions of people who are currently in expensive, temporary and often poor-quality accommodation.

The Government has already signalled that it understands and wants to solve the housing and homelessness crisis, which go hand-in-hand. For example, only last week, the Government announced an extra £105 million in funding to help keep rough sleepers off the streets.

The trouble is, as noble as this sounds, most councils have depleted the cash because of the lack of available social housing. For the most part, the only available option is to place people in expensive nightly-paid accommodation, hotels or bed and breakfasts. And this is exactly why the Government must invest in high quality social homes – to help tackle rough sleeping, solve the housing crisis and save the taxpayer millions.

There’s also a ‘levelling up’ argument. After the general election, I wrote an article for The Times Red Box on why building more social housing would reward millions of voters along the Red Wall. The Conservatives ‘borrowed’ millions of votes from Labour, giving them a significant, working majority.

Specifically, I highlighted a YouGov poll of undecided voters carried out on behalf of the National Housing Federation. It found that 80% of ‘Labour Leavers’ worry about their housing costs. It also found that housing matters more to ‘Labour Leavers’ than crime. In fact, they signalled that housing is the fourth most important issue after Brexit, the NHS and immigration.

I welcome the Government’s ambition to re-boot the economy; creating local jobs and supporting our public services. But, I hope that it will also include building more affordable homes. Building homes – of all tenures – will help kick-start the economy while, at the same time, protecting our public finances.

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This piece was written for our website.

Red wall, blue sea

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications

In the end, it wasn’t even close. The polls had showed Labour closing the gap in the final few days of the campaign, but there was no surge. Soufflés really don’t rise twice, and the ‘magic grandpa’ had lost his sparkle.

The CCHQ team had always wanted this to be an election focused on Brexit, and they largely got their way. But it was not just about the principle of Brexit itself. Most people wanted Brexit out of the headlines and off of the front pages, but they also wanted the normal functioning of government to resume. 

But perhaps even more important was the issue of trust. If you promise not to raise tuition fees and then treble them, as the Liberal Democrats did in 2010, then you get hammered. If you stand on a manifesto to respect the result of the EU referendum, as both Labour and the Lib Dems did in 2017, and then you constantly seek to block Brexit, then you get hammered.

The fact that much of the discontent with the non-delivery of Brexit was concentrated in the neglected Labour heartlands of the Midlands and the North acted as a double whammy. People in those regions wanted Brexit delivered, but they had originally voted for Brexit because they felt neglected by Westminster, and ignored by the Labour Party. So like Trump supporters in the ’fly over’ states of the US they refused to change their minds, and they demanded to be heard.

There was also poor targeting on the part of Labour. Both the party machine and the parallel Momentum organisation concentrated their resources on Corbynista candidates, rather than on those who most needed support. This cost them unity, and it cost them votes, and it cost them seats. The fall-out from this will rumble on for months, if not years.

By contrast CCHQ did a great job. When it came to strategy Isaac Levido provided calm, whilst Dominic Cummings – as ever – provided inspiration. The cyber war was master-minded by two young kiwis, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin. Meantime the mainstream media was effectively marshalled by Lee Cain and Rob Oxley and a team of experienced press officers, many of whom had worked for Boris on and off over the years since his first mayoral bid.

But the main reason Labour lost and we won was because of the respective leaders. Boris came across as a dynamic leader with a strong focus and clear priorities – including, of course, getting Brexit done. Of course there were mis-steps, including pocketing a journalists phone and escaping in to a walk-in fridge. But generally Boris came across well, with his trademark good humour and with his bright young politically-engaged partner by his side. Parading Dilyn the rescue dog also worked well – an estimated 9.9 million households in the UK own a dog.

By contrast Jeremy Corbyn came across as old, tired, testy, petulant – and (more importantly) nasty. He may not be an anti-semite himself, but he certainly seems to enjoy the company of people who are. This cost him votes not just in the handful of seats with large Jewish populations, but also amongst the wider electorate, who hate discrimination and loathe bullies.

So, the fabled ‘red wall’ has crumbled, and it has been replaced by a ‘blue sea’. And let’s face it, seas are stronger and more durable than walls. Now the task – fully recognised by CCHQ and Number Ten – is to justify the faith placed in us by all those former Labour supporters who loaned us their votes in order to ‘get Brexit done’, and to keep Corbyn out of Number Ten.

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This piece was written for our website.